Day after day of rain - good "reading weather", I guess. Luckily there's been plenty of interesting books to keep me sane this last month. I can still recall being stopped in my tracks the first time I saw and heard the Smiths doing "Hand in Glove" on "The Tube" in 1983, at a time when I'd just about given up on hearing any good new guitar music - so I was looking forward to revisiting one of the best music books of recent times.
Johnny Rogan's “Morrissey & Marr – ‘Severed Alliance’: first came out twenty years back, and has been in print ever since - quite an achievement for any music book. Now there's a new edition, updated and meticulously researched as always by Johnny Rogan, and it's just as good a read as first time round. It’s seriously large too, around 600 pages, with plenty of photos, a full discography, and expanded notes on interviews and other sources. The intervening years certainly haven't brought many happy endings or reconciliations in the original Morrissey/Marr rift that broke up the Smiths, or in the disputes involving sidemen Andy O'Rourke and Mike Joyce. Morrissey has a core cult following that'll always pay his hotel bill, but there have been long dips in his post-'92 career. He hasn't lost the knack of raising controversy from time to time either, but there's a distinctly end-of-pier feel to his current career. Which is why it's so worth revisiting the early days of the Smiths, and Morrissey's incredible lyrics and vision. Combined with Johnny Marr's peerless musical skill, taste and knowledge, the group almost single-handedly rescued UK guitar-based music from the stifling hands of groups like Dire Straits, and gatecrashed the charts - then dominated by synthy froth and posturing ninnies in fancy dress with a series of stunning singles and albums that established them as a massive influence on indie music ever since.
Johnny Marr meanwhile has maintained his highly respected position as the discerning group's sideman of choice - playing with the The, Talking Heads, Modest Mouse, the Cribs, and more - but there's an inescapable feeling that somewhere along the way something‘s been lost. Over the course of the book, the two men come across like the archetypal “Can’t Live Together/ Can’t Live Apart” couple. I’d have liked more about their post-Smiths lives and work, but as the author says, that’s outside the remit of the book. Another time, maybe? When the book first came out, the group's demise was still recent, and there was the ever-enticing prospect of their getting back together at some stage (though these hopes were unlikely to survive reading the book). It’s to the Smiths’ credit two decades later that they've resisted any bait put their way where so many others have succumbed, only to diminish their stature and reputations (fill in as applicable: meanwhile, step forward the reformed Pistols, Pixies and Velvet Underground), or maybe the rifts are just too deep to be healed now.
There's also a new Johnny Rogan book on the Byrds which will be reviewed here as soon as I've read it. Don't hold your breath, though, it's over a thousand pages - and that's just Volume One!
James Fearnley - Here Comes Everybody; The Story of the Pogues: James Fearnley was accordion player in the Pogues from the beginning till the original line up's break-up in ‘96. Though it’s subtitled “Story of the Pogues”, the book works much more as a personal memoir than straight group history. He's as much a writer as musician, and it’s one of the best written books I've read in a while. Of course there's no shortage of stories with the Pogues. Coming on to the scene in the Eighties when people like Bananarama, ABC, Shalamar and Survivor ruled the charts; they found a ready audience desperate for music a bit more authentic or just plain sweaty. The Pogues provided that in spades - or maybe by the gallon.
They were contemporaries of the aforementioned Smiths, and despite the musical light years between them, there are similarities between two groups with charismatic but difficult singer/lyricists. James Fearnley recounts their extraordinary ascent from playing a marginal London pub, club and squat scene to global success, tours with U2 and Dylan, via songs like “Fairytale of New York”, and albums like “Rum, Sodomy and the Lash” and “If I Should Fall from Grace with God”. There's many a tale here of wild times on tour and in the studio, and he’s very perceptive at analysing the relationships and pecking order in and around the group, their management and record labels. Of course anything about the group must focus on Shane MacGowan at some stage - and for me, this is where there's a something missing at the heart of this book - though it's also an accurate reflection of the declining relationship between author and singer. The book ends with the statement "The gratitude I felt for him at that moment outweighed my feeling that, on his path of self-destruction, he had just betrayed us", but the dominant feeling is of resentment. There are plenty of stories of Shane's drinking and generally wrecked state having an increasingly serious effect on the group as he staggers thru gigs or recording sessions (or later fails to turn up at all), and Fearnley has a particular scorn for what he sees as the drastic decline in the quantity and quality of MacGowan's songwriting. But there's something that doesn't quite connect here - it’s a bit like the resentment of the other guys when Paul Weller broke up the Jam, for example: a lack of generosity towards the person who's the creative force behind the whole trip and without whom none of it would have happened. Take away Shane MacGowan's songs and persona, there'd have been no Pogues, end of...
The meanderings of his solo/Popes career suggest that maybe he underestimated the unique chemistry of his former group. He's clearly a hard man to write about (see former partner Victoria Clarke's book, "A Drink with Shane MacGowan", which also has a hard time squaring the circle of great songwriter and dysfunctional drunk/addict). After the early “honeymoon” chapters here, the picture of MacGowan is of an arrogant obnoxious oaf who's permanently off his face one way or another (see the "Black Zombie" recipe, don't try it if you've got anything to do the next day though!). This might be true, but it doesn't account for the amount of great songs he managed to write during that time. I don't want to detract from the overall qualities of the book - it's a great detailed account of a musicians' life, how touring & recording can become as mundane as any 9-5 job, and how a group can grow apart as success erodes their initial unity. There are also quite a few '“laugh out loud” moments, often involving Elvis Costello's waistline, Bono's entourage, or filming “Walker” in Spain with Joe Strummer. Nicely produced book too - wouldn't have minded a few more photos, but hey there's an index for once! Anyway, best leave the last words to Shane MacGowan, on being told by the others that he was out of the group, "You've all been very patient with me ... what took you so long?"
Mike Skinner - The Story of the Streets: Although styles like Garage, UK rap, Grime & other Bass music genres don't usually figure much in Mudkiss, I'd bet that a good few of you have at least one album by the Streets at home. "The Story of the Streets" is a really interesting account of Mike Skinner's life, career and thoughts on any number of diverse topics, like what's the best microphone, his favourite trainers, the difference between US and UK hip-hop production values, and of course, that encounter with a certain female pop star. In many ways the book reads like his lyrics, as he can shift easily between geezer-mode tales of his dead-end YTS job flipping burgers or going on the lash with mates, and long passages of introspective thoughts.
What really makes the book stand out is the clarity and honesty of the writing. Lots of music books are transcribed from hours of Dictaphone, combined with archive press cuttings, and the seams are usually all too visible. Here, Mike Skinner's writing retains a colloquial feel, but can handle complex and abstract ideas as well as recounting off-his-face festival shows. George Orwell used to say that prose should be as clear as a pane of glass, and that thought kept returning to me as I read this book. It doesn't follow the conventional biography formula, and where by their nature there's generally an element of 'It's All About Me' in any life story, here it’s more about a general examination of the creative process as illustrated both by the career of the Streets, and how UK rappers, producers and DJ’s learnt how to make their own scene rather than following the leaders from the US.
It'll be interesting to see what Mike Skinner does next. The book shows that he's not going to be held back by any categories or boundaries. Given the strength of the Streets' videos, it'd be no surprise to see him leaning more and more towards film like Plan B.
Stanley Booth - The True Adventures of the Rolling Stones: Meanwhile it’s been hard lately to turn on the radio or TV without someone trying to get excited about the 50th anniversary of the Stones. There's been a ton of books about them over the years, most of them badly written hack cuttings jobs. Last year's autobiography from Keith Richards was one of the few real important ones (will Mick Jagger ever do his, or is his memory as shot as he claims?). Stanley Booth's "True Adventures" has also been essential since it first came out. It's now out in new kindle/ebook format, with a new introduction by heavyweight US critic Greil Marcus. It's really worth a read to recall a time when the group meant more than showbiz longevity & the royal honours list, and you'd have been laughed out of sight if you'd said they'd still be going in 2012.
The book's a contemporary account of their '69 US tour, culminating with the disastrous Altamont free concert that ended the tour (as recorded in the great "Gimme Shelter" film). This is interwoven with the story of their early days, then focusing more closely on the decline, isolation and death of Brian Jones (with a very poignant visit by the author to Jones' parents in Cheltenham). It really catches the group at a series of turning points - 60's idealism and revolution gradually succumbing to the hard realities of the business and the temptations of stardom. Their next tour would be all private jets and larging it with celebrities - though it was also the time when they made some of their greatest music on albums like "Sticky Fingers" and "Exile on Main Street". There's never any shortage of intrigue with the group, and Stanley Booth was ideally placed, as mate and major drink/drug-buddy with the key players in the group to show how things turned out the way they did. He's able to give a real insider's view, without succumbing to hero worship. He sets up the post-Altamont conclusion really well - throughout the book there's a running theme of the various hangers on, desperately trying to get a bit of vicarious decadence or coolness by being able to say "Hey man I'm with the Stones", and at times he seems a bit star struck himself (wouldn't you be?) - but after the murderous fiasco of Altamont, he's scathing about the naivety and spoilt child arrogance of people like Jagger and Richards, and the shallowness of their entourage of hangers-on.
In some ways the book's a bit of a period piece, describing a lost world, when for a brief period people like the Stones did seem to be on the cutting edge of a generational war, or people really did believe that sitting round smoking dope and listening to music would change the world for the better. Listening to the live album ("Get Your Ya-Yas Out") from that tour, there's some great music but at times the cod-blooze and pretend American accents really grate. Some of the extended quotes that head each chapter are very dated too, from the era when over-excited rock critics tried to compare the Stones and rock festivals to Greek Dionysian cults, Nietzsche or whatever. It's to the author's credit that he hasn't gone in for a big, wise-after-the-event updating, although there's a few uses of the 'N-word' I could do without.
Come rain or sun, there's already some cool stuff lined up for next time: Teddie Dahlin's Sid Vicious book, a really good-looking account of Eric's Club mainman Roger Eagle, and who knows, I might even have finished the Byrds book by then!
Reviews by Den Browne