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

The Herald Magazine - - Arts BOOKS -

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

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