A riot of politics, sonics and sex, and secrets unlocked
Teddy Jamieson on the year’s best music and art books, from soul to grime, Surrealism to eye-hooks
THIS year’s music books have been a riot of politics, sonics and sex. Let’s start with the last. “Sex didn’t empower me for years,” Lily Allen writes in My Thoughts
Exactly (Blink Publishing, £20).
“Those older men I had sex with at the beginning had no interest in helping me explore or discover sex. They didn’t give a s*** about me or any of that.”
Allen’s memoir is quite frankly astonishing. It is so candid, so revealing – about her mental health, her family and, yes, her sex life – that there are several moments reading it when you think: “Lily, don’t tell us that. We don’t need to know.”
But, of course, we want to. And that’s why this is so compelling. As an account of the cost of fame, this cuts deep. Almost as revealing is Into the Valley (Wymer Publishing, £19.99), Richard Jobson’s memoir about his early years before, during and after his time in The Skids. It’s a rather plainly written book, to be honest, but Jobson is revealing and honest and hyperaware of his own failings. That is more than enough compensation.
Brett Anderson’s Coal Black Mornings (Little, Brown, £16.99) is a more considered, more consciously literary effort. At times it is a little overwritten, but that’s a minor flaw. For the most part it is a tough-minded and emotionally acute account of the Suede singer’s childhood and teenage years, about his relationship with his parents and the route map that pop music provided for him to march away from his suburban origins.
To tougher times. On July 31, 1975, returning from a gig in Banbridge in Northern Ireland, the five members of the Miami Showband were pulled out of their van and shot on the side of the road. Three of them – Fran O’Toole, Tony Geraghty and Brian McCoy – died at the roadside. In Northern Ireland during the Troubles musicians were as much targets as everyone else.
In Trouble Songs (Bloomfield Press, £14.99) Northern Irish writer and broadcaster Stuart Bailie gives us a deft, heartsore book about music in the north and about the north from the 1960s to the present day; from Astral Weeks to Snow Patrol, via Stiff Little Fingers, The Undertones and Christy Moore, taking in everyone from John Lennon to Bono and Bananarama. It is, inevitably, full of hard stories to tell, but Bailie’s account is impressively clear-eyed.
Whatever Liam Gallagher might say, “electronic music is the natural stuff of now”. The journey to this point – the point of Skrillex and Janelle Monae and Calvin Harris – is the one traced by former Melody Maker journalist David Stubbs in Mars by 1980 (Faber, £20). The best stories here are in the first section, where the likes of Gyorgy Ligeti and Karlheinz Stockhausen are finding their way to a new sound in the days before the technology really existed.
By the time Stubbs reaches Kraftwerk the book’s structure becomes a bit jumpy and jittery, itchily moving back and forth through time. Still, he covers the bases and gains bonus marks for admitting that in sixth form he was copying both Phil Oakey’s face fringe and Midge Ure’s pencil moustache.
Talking of Midge … Vic Galloway’s catalogue for the National Museum of Scotland’s summer exhibition Rip it Up (National Museums Scotland, £14.99) faces the same challenge as the museum faced. How do you encompass some six decades of Scottish pop? The DJ and author’s answer is to try to give everybody and everything a mention. The problem with that is that it means there’s no room to give anyone the attention they deserve.
That said, even in a breathless book there are moments that catch your breath. Like the reminder that Leslie Harvey, Alex’s brother, was electrocuted onstage at the Swansea Top Rank in 1972 while playing with Stone the Crows.
All these white boys and girls. They always get top billing, don’t they? The truth is, though, the best music writing this year is about black music.
Harlem 69: The Future of Soul (Polygon, £16.99) is the final volume in Stuart Cosgrove’s soul trilogy. It takes us to Harlem in 1969, a place of poverty, drug problems, violent death and great music. Cosgrove’s deep dive into the year’s events is an epic feat of archival research that has been expertly marshalled into a narrative that joins the dots between Donny Hathaway, Jimi Hendrix, the Black Panthers, police corruption and the Vietnam war.
Will Ashon’s Chamber Music: About the Wu Tang (in 36 Pieces) (Granta, £14.99) is a more consciously artful (or, depending on your tastes, self-consciously artsy) take on the creation of the hip hop collective’s debut studio album. But it’s all the other things it takes in – black religious fundamentalism, a history of minstrelsy, Hong Kong’s wuxia cinema and pornography and the Mafia on New York’s 42nd Street – that will keep you reading.
The best music book of the year, however, is also the most up-to-date.
Inner City Pressure (William Collins, £20) is a gripping, angry, utterly engaged history of grime music. Dan Hancox’s account of the rise of Dizzee Rascal, Wiley, Stormzy et al from their London council estates over the last 20 years is also a potent polemic against New Labour politics, gentrification, inner city policing, Grenfell and austerity. Nostalgia this is not. And all the better for it.
WOLFGANG Paalen has the dubious distinction of being the only surrealist to have been eaten by wild animals.” Now that, I would contend, is an opening line.
It comes from Desmond Morris’s brief chapter on the Austrian painter in his latest book Lives of the Surrealists (Thames & Hudson, £24.95), which turns out to be a very moreish thing.
Morris, best known for writing The Naked Ape, but himself a surrealist painter on the side, here does a Vasari on the artists who fell under that banner. And so here we have an A to Z of surrealism; from Eileen Agar to Dorothea Tanning, via Breton, Dali, Magritte and Picasso.
It’s a gossipy, salacious read. And at times pleasingly judgmental. Of Andre Breton, Morris acknowledges that he was the most important figure in the history of surrealism. “Having established that,” he continues, “it must be said that he was a pompous bore, a ruthless dictator, a confirmed sexist, an extreme homophobe and a