Top 15 Books About Music

Hopping on board the KMA train for a station, or two I have obeyed the call to arms to draw up a Top 15.  I just couldn’t do a Top 15 LPs though, it hurt my head far too much (and I did try).  So, I have thrown down and drawn up an alternative Top 15, my Top 15 books about music*.  I’ve tried to vary it a bit too.

  1. Rat Pack Confidential: Shawn Levy.  A proper airport book this one and a wildly entertaining tale of fun times, booze, song, dames and all round callousness.  This book briefly made me want to swop my Sabbath T-shirt for a spivvy suit, my pint of bitter for a dry Martini and my sense of compassion for empty ring-a-ding-ding coolness.  This is an excellently written book, as light and frothy as it needs to be but pulling no punches and sparing no blushes either.

2.Chronicles (Volume One): Bob Dylan.  The man speaks, well, sort of writes a bit really.  As a man firmly in the ‘why didn’t he knock it on the head after Blood On The Tracks camp’ and someone a bit embarrassed by his idol, I was really pleasantly surprised by this warm, literate, stylish memoir; I probably shouldn’t have been.  What warmed me when I read it, was precisely how much gratitude Dylan has for all his early mentors and how humbly he portrays himself.  His doomed attempts at living as a normal family man in the eye of his celebrity are very touching too.  Whether further volumes will land, or not, it doesn’t matter this book gives us a real insight into quite an extraordinary chap.

Rock Books 01

3. American Hardcore, A Tribal History: Steven Blush.  Bought for a friend, peeked at and then never actually given to him – it was that good.  This does exactly what it says in the title with no freakin’ frills.  Whether you actually like the music or not** this is well worth a look.  One of the last proper ground-up youth movements, this was the energy, anger, anarchy and tribalism that all the original punk rockers could only scratch at.  All the usual ‘greatest hits’ are here – Black Flag, the DC scenesters, the Misfits all get to tell their tales, as do all manner of lesser-known lights.  Its good on what came after hardcore, where all that energy went.  Contains more violence than the average Jane Austen novel. True story.

4.Fargo Rock City: Chuck Klosterman.  A rural rock fiend writes it all down (subtitled ‘a heavy metal odyssey in North Dakota’), beautifully balancing his sincere love for all things very 80’s rawk whilst acknowledging the sheer ridiculousness of it all; exactly the sort of thing I wish I’d written.  Worth the price of the book alone for his dissection of the video for Guns ‘N’ Roses ‘November Rain’, I may have laughed so hard some wee came out.  Klosterman is a really excellent writer and the man who turned me on to the Donnas.

5. The Saga Of Hawkwind: Carol Clerk.  A completely indispensable field guide to almost my favourite band.  This is a proper tome of 550 pages, as befits a band who at the last count has had over 9574 people through its ranks^.  Clerk has researched it all absolutely meticulously and written it up really well too; it’s certainly not her fault that I lose interest, as did most of the band, in the mid-80’s.

6. A Journey Through America With the Rolling Stones: Robert Greenfield

7. The True Adventures Of The Rolling Stones: Stanley Booth

The inside tales of the 1969 and 1972 tours of the US, from a long ago time when journos and authors were just allowed to tag along with the band and chronicle what occurred – record companies employ whole departments full of people to prevent exactly this sort of thing happening these days.  Both books read as very fair accounts of it all, neither author is an uncritical observer, as the band both debauch and steamroller anyone who crosses their paths, what both authors make very clear is that normal people can’t live like the Stones do and those who fly too near their sun, end up with their wings melted.  Worth reading to remind yourself that they weren’t always superannuated tax exiles.

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8. The Dirt: Motley Crüe with Nick Strauss.  Now I am unlikely to ever know what it feels like to bone a trio of LA hookers straight after selling out the Forum whilst Jonesing for a fix of skag, but hey I don’t have to, Motley did it for me and very considerately wrote it all down.  Against all expectations I loved this book and not just for all the astonishing sex, drugs and more drugs stories, the band’s own whining self-pitying justifications and bravado are allowed to be undercut by various dissenting voices.  There’s a lot of fun to be had here, I only like three Motley Crüe tracks (if I’m beig generous) but I thought this was a great rock book; however it was never really about the music with this lot, otherwise John Corabi would still be fronting them.  The book finishes with a genuinely sad and touching scene as, the estranged Tommy and Nikki meet at their kids’ first day at school.

9. Bad Vibes: Luke Haines.  Subtitled ‘Britpop and my part in its downfall’ this is a wonderful account of the Britpop years by the frontman of the, very underrated, Auteurs.  To pinch a line from another reviewer on the back cover, ‘As acerbic and hilarious as you’d expect from a man who thought it completely reasonable to call a pop single ‘Unsolved Child Murder”.  I love this, there’s no camaraderie, tons of bitching (mostly about Oasis) and more schadenfreude than I think I have ever seen in one place before; oh and the tale of when Metallica turned up at his house for a cup of tea – yes all of them.  Got negative if you want it.

10. Rip It Up & Start Again (Post-punk 1978-84): Simon Reynolds.  A dazzling survey of all the important stuff that was inspired by and filled in the void after punk rock had blown its own candle out.  All the awkward sods brigade are here (Wire, the Fall, This Heat) and apart from a few choice bands I knew next to nothing about a lot of this, which for an obsessive music nerd like me was great news.  I’ve made some interesting discoveries through this book, both good and bad, but I definitely learned more through reading this bad boy than from any music book in years.

11. Black Sabbath (Symptom of the Universe): Mick Wall.  I only finished this a month ago and I’m already contemplating rereading some chunks of it again.  Any book that begins ‘They were scum and they knew it’, is going to be damn good.  This is a wonderful rollicking tale of the underdog having its day, being neutered by excessive drug use and some appalling choices, triumphing again and then falling prey to being used as pawns in a father/daughter struggle of mythic proportions.  Mick wall has wonderful subject matter to play with here, hell he was there for chunks of it as their press officer and he tells the story excellently.  If you love Sabbath as I do and you read this, and I’d recommend you do, prepare to be pretty disillusioned about your heroes by the end of the book.

12. White Bicycles: Joe Boyd.  They say if you can remember the 60’s you weren’t really there, Joe Boyd does and he most certainly was there too.  He produced, amongst others, Pink Floyd, Nick Drake, Fairport Convention, Incredible String Band and many, many others.  As a first hand account of psychedelic, folky London this is an unbeatable book, from a man who rode that maelstrom and somehow managed to retain his intellect and sanity.  This is exactly the sort of book you’ll bore your friends/loved ones to tears about, by reading out choice anecdotes to them for weeks afterwards.

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13. Fuck You Heroes: Glen E Friedman.  A big fuck off book of photographs by the punk skateboarding kid turned hardcore and hip-hop photographer supreme.  I got my mum to get this for me for Christmas one year and she loved ordering it from her local bookshop^^.  Okay so you’ll recognize his LP cover work for the Beastie Boys, Public Enemy, Ice-T and Suicidal Tendencies but there’s plenty, plenty more in here.  This is a big beautiful hardcover hardcore indulgence, full of great posed and live shots; I just have to stash it where the kids won’t see the title.

14. Touch Me I’m Sick: Charles Peterson.  Another great coffee table book and a complete document of a time, place and scene.  Peterson’s photographs didn’t just document the grunge scene, they defined and dictated its’ whole aesthetic.  How many photographers can say that?  Clearly Peterson was a good friend and companion to so many of the bands here, you can just tell how relaxed and at ease they are with him as they goof around.  The live shots are what make this book great though, all that monochrome motion and fury perfectly preserved in aspic here.  if you ever meet anyone who asks you what all that grunge stuff was about, give ’em this rather than a copy of Nevermind.

15. The Beatles Illustrated Lyrics: ed. Alan Aldridge.  This book collects volumes 1 and 2 of the original illustrated lyrics that my parents had and I used to rummage through for days on end, as a kid;  that’s really not an exaggeration either.  As a result this is the book that means the most to me here, by far.  I came for the words to my favourite tunes and left with the pictures – to this day I tend to associate the songs with their particular pictures from this book.  As a bonus point, although it didn’t register with me at all when I first started looking through ’em, there are so many rude pictures and drawings here! Wahey!  These pictures of cigarettes stubbed out on fried eggs, the desultory comic strip of ‘She’s Leaving Home’ and the big boobs filmed from below against a skyscape, are forever burned into my mental architecture, possibly as much as their attendant songs.

An iconic image for our times, and some Beatles.
An iconic image for our times, and some Beatles.

I’ve really enjoyed this and I’ll say a big thank you to Aaron for organising the whole 15 thang, umm, ‘give ‘er’ as I believe you folk in our former Northern colonies say.  I missed out too many books to even list here to make this list, I could run up another 15 for you easy, anyway come over, drink some coffee with me and I might lend them to you^*.

583 Down (still)

*I appreciate that this makes me look like an appalling attention seeker as I stand on the sidelines wildly disco dancing whilst everyone else line dances, but its my loss for not joining in.

**and I really fucking do!

^figures approximate at time of going to press.

^^the next year I asked her to get me The Nineties – What The Fuck Was All That About?: John Robb.  True story.

^*upon production of full ID, a non-refundable deposit of £300 and references from no fewer than 4 suitable pillars of the community.

90 thoughts on “Top 15 Books About Music

  1. About 60 pages into Fargo Rock City and had to put it down to come here and express gratitude. I bought it specifically after reading about it here and am loving it thoroughly. Thanks for the steer! His book could be my life … (ten years forward and substituting northern Utah for North Dakota).

      1. Brilliant, this is exactly why I do it. It’s my adolescence too, albeit with more rugby and less basketball. He is hilariously good at pricking some of the more pompous bits of our culture.

    1. Get in the van almost made the cut – put me off being in a band for life! This band could be your life – ruled out because I just borrowed a copy to read, great book though.

      Who is Learning How To Die about?

  2. I really enjoyed the take on the top 15 list. Of these, I’ve only read The Dirt, Rat Pack Confidential, and Fargo Rock City. Rip It Up and Start Again has always been on my to read list, but I just haven’t made it there yet. The Black Sabbath book looks great too.

    1. Thanks again, there are so many I missed off – Julian Cope’s ‘Head On’, Love Goes to Building on Fire, This Band Could Be Your Life …

      I really need to stop listing stuff!

  3. Great spin on a different top 15! There’s always one of yous in class that are mucking about! Hahaha…Mick Wall is great! I love those old Kerrangs as those writers were as fucked up as the bands they were interviewing! Wall,Reynolds,Suter,Ling and the other cronies all had flair for writing with humour and style as opposed to the stiff North American dork music writers in the 80s….great read Joe!

    1. I know, they just made Kerrang! sound like the coolest place to work ever. They were all such good writers too – responsible for a lot of my love for the METAL.

      1. When Whitenake toured with Def Leppard, he asked both David and Joe who would win in a fight: A white snake, or a deaf leopard? I can’t remember the answers but he said David was hilarious.

      2. He also asked Tom Araya what they do when they’re bored on a tour bus…if they stick pencils in their pubic hairs or other activities! Good thing Tom has a sense of humour.

  4. brilliant take on the top 15, combining my love of music, literature, and lists!
    Really enjoy Chuck Klosterman, I’ve read excerpts from Fargo, time to read the whole thing I reckon. I’m happy to write a reference letter for the commenters here!

      1. Dang. Then I need this.

        I tend to avoid books that, well, avoid certain eras of certain bands. If the whole shebang is covered, then I’m happy.

        That’s something I loved about the Crue book — everything about the Corabi years was in it, and to me that was the best part of the book! I loved when Corabi ended his chapter with “MAKE UP YOUR FUCKING MINDS!”

      2. There’s a running joke at my work now about AC/DC. Phil Rudd made that comment that he “just needs five minutes in a room with Angus”, and he’ll be back in the band. As if that would ever happen, now.

        The guys at work who are aware of this, we’ll walk past each other and say, “I just need five minutes…” and laugh. Because it’s utterly ridiculous to think Phil can be redeemed now.

      3. and come on, who amongst us hasn’t tried to pay to have someone killed when we’ve been baked off our tits? let him who is without sin cast the first stone etc etc.

  5. Very interesting list. I’m going to have to read that Sabbath book. For me however, the best book on music will always be “Rock and Roll Children” but then I’m extremely biased.

  6. I would havr also loved to have been working at the store that day.


    What was that book called again(as I press record)

    Sorry I my heating is off today, can you say that louder.


    Can you say it slowly, please?
    And louder.

    Can you spell it, and say it again. But please yell it this time.

    Ok. Got it. I’ll call you when it comes in.


  7. Nice list. In the last year or so I have started collecting books as well(I think I need to rent a storage locker between books, music, and stereo stuff), and the books I am picking up the most are music related. I probably have over 100 music related books, but the biggest issue is finding time to read them. I am reading a Jimmy Buffet book now, and I think next will be either Stompin’ Tom or Dave Bidini. I have none on your list, but now I need them. Can I borrow a few bucks to pay for the storage locker?

  8. Leave it to the Lego Man to shake things up! A cool list, many there I haven’t yet read. I’d like to borrow them all, please! haha.

    Speaking of, I’m in the middle of a book (which will see review at KMA) that will interest you greatly.

    GIVE ‘ER indeed! Although we’re no longer your colonies. Didn’t you get the memo? 😉

  9. Nice move, sir. Though other than Dylan I haven’t read any of these. One day I’ll get me a copy of the Charles Peterson book, though.

    Reckon my favourite music related books would include Innocent When You Dream (yon Tom Waits collected interviews), the Keef bio, Cash, A Man Called Cash, Man in Black and the recent Slash book. And maybe Walk This Way and Watch You Bleed. Just cause of the hijinx.

    1. Can’t beat some vicarious decadence, its way cheaper and easier on the hips than the real thing.

      I had to miss out so many too. Quite a few because I’d borrowed them and didn’t own them, others just for numbers reasons. I’ve got a really god one on Factory records too.

  10. Just what I needed! I am about to give up on a renewed try at Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow (probably 8th such failed effort) and desperately need something enjoyable to read right away to prevent me from giving up on reading forever (this damn book kills me, fills me with insecurity, disdain, hate; I should probably just let it go). The Mick Wall, Tribal History, Stones pair, and Klosterman will likely all find a place on my nightstand right away, with many others on this list as future candidates as well. Thanks, man!

    1. Oh man, Gravity’s Rainbow. I, myself, have made several unsuccessful attempts at penetrating its depths. I seem to lose grip around page 75 every time.

      And there’s my sister doing her whole Masters degree in post-modern American lit. and using that book for her thesis! She may be the only person I know who has read that book cover to cover (and more than once).

      1. Your sister must be an amazing genius — I’m in awe without even knowing her. Must say though that it is reassuring to hear from a fellow music lover who’s failed at Gravity’s Rainbow. Maybe we’re just simply not the target audience, eh?

      2. Well, I’m her brother, so I am categorically NOT allowed to ever call her a genius. But she’s a smart cookie who (apparently) has some sort of super power that allows her to read and understand Pynchon.

        If GR gets you down, I cannot recommend The Crying Of Lot 49 enough, though. I’ve read that one a few times and I laugh out loud every time. Brilliance.

      3. You’re not the first person to suggest TCoL49 to me as a GR alternative, but the tastes of the previous guy were suspect. Anyone who includes both Sex Pistols and Miles Davis on a Top 15 though is a person to be listened to. Sold!

      4. Haha well that was easy! 😉 Seriously, though, I don’t know if I’m a totally reliable source, but that book was really a slice of greatness (to me). I hope you find the same, otherwise my tastes will then be suspect as well!

      5. Really? I thought that was pretty weak. I dunno, I remember that page number being a high mark for me.

        I do have to say I find the idea of the bomb giving him boners hilarious.

    2. I’d add my heft behind The Crying of Lot 49 too – I never could get on with Pynchon in longer works, a certain amount of his incredibleness was just aimed at impressing us mere mortals I think. I did read Mason Dixon though.

      You’re really very welcome – get some real page turners in.

      1. I never tried Mason Dixon but did (unsuccessfully) try Vineland and Inherent Vice. I go looooong patches between reading his stuff. Good thing he’s not really prolific.

  11. You sneak! I know you’d do something different.

    I think I only OWN one of these books which is The Dirt. Also I have not read Mick Wall…but I can’t imagine it being better than Popoff’s book.

    1. Miles and Beneath The Underdog almost made an appearance, but … not enough space.

      I remember the Miles book was a real shock – I thought rockers had invented bad heroin habits.

  12. Well, books are a surprise! More so than a list of Top 15 Guitar Solos of All Time.
    Interesting list especially given that I haven’t read many (any?) books about music. I’d probably start with Rip It Up & Start Again.

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