Johnny Rogan, leading music biographer, dies, aged 67
London Irish writer was famous for his attention to detail and clash with Morrissey
Johnny Rogan in Dublin in 2011. Photograph: Alan Betson
Johnny Rogan, the London Irish music writer best known for his biographies of the Byrds, Neil Young, the Smiths, Van Morrison and Ray Davies, has died at his London home. He was 67.
The author of more than 25 books on music, by far his most successful was Morrissey & Marr: The Severed Alliance, a book about the Smiths published in 1992 five years after the band’s break-up which prompted Morrissey to say: “I hope Johnny Rogan ends his days very soon in an M3 pile-up.”
Rogan, whose parents emigrated from Waterford to Pimlico in London in the 1940s, divided his time between Pimlico and his second home in Tramore, Co Waterford, and his interest in music and second-generation Irish identity fused in a series he wrote for The Irish Post in the 1990s, Dislocation & Celebration, which explored the influence of their Irish roots on John Lennon and Paul McCartney; Morrissey; Oasis’s Gallagher brothers; Johnny Lydon; Kate Bush; Kevin Rowland; and Shane MacGowan.
He revisited the subject in an essay for The Irish Times in 2016, Rebel yell: how the Irish dominated British rock music, which begins: “British pop music has been celebrated around the world for decades and rightly so. Rather less attention has been paid to an almost invisible strain of Irishness manifested in the work and characters of several of its leading proponents.”
Ironically, although he lived close to the Kings Road in Chelsea, his tenement home had no inside toilet or electricity so he first heard the music that would become his life’s passion while at home in Waterford with relatives basking in the glow of rural electrification.
“I think 1965 was maybe the greatest year in music that there’s been,” he told John Meagher in an Irish Independent interview in 2017. “Virtually every week, one great song after the next was released. They’re songs from the Beatles and Stones and Kinks that are revered today, and it was the year that Eight Miles High was released, too.”
His early life was marked as much by tragedy as poverty. His father died of a heart attack, his brother drowned, and his sister died of a brain haemorrhage. In his introduction to Requiem for the Timeless, he wrote of “what was left of my death-ravaged family”.
His writing career was bookended by a passion for The Byrds. While still at university in 1980 he published Timeless Flight: The Definitive Biography of The Byrds, which Record Collector named biography of the year, calling it: “One of the best biographies ever written...Expansive enough to rival War And Peace, Johnny Rogan’s definitive Byrds biography comes close to matching the emotional, if not geographical, range of Tolstoy’s epic novel.”
His last published book was Byrds: Requiem For The Timeless, Volume 2 in 2017, the afterlfe of six Byrds after the band split – Gene Clark, Michael Clarke, Kevin Kelley, Gram Parsons, Clarence White and Skip Battin. It was a follow-up to 2011’s Requiem for the Timeless, which Time Out said “may yet prove to be one of the key works of rock journalism – it’s certainly set to be the definitive book on the Byrds.”
His book Starmakers and Svengalis: The History of British Pop Management (1988) was adapted for a BBC radio series presented by Alan Freeman. He was also a rigorous and talented book reviewer, not least for The Irish Times.
Rogan was famous for his forensic attention to detail and dogged approach to researching his subject, often over many years. For some, such as David Sinclair reviewing his deeply unflattering Van Morrison biography No Surrender in the Guardian in 2005, you could have too much of a good thing: “[while] the all-encompassing rigour of the approach is impressive, the narrative in the early stages tends to be swamped by an almost neurotic attention to detail.”
Rogan was “the rottweiler of the music biography,” wrote Brian Boyd, who would “hunt down his quarry with, as one reviewer put it, the relentlessness of a marching army of termites. Pedantic and painstaking in his research methods, he consistently provides incisive and illuminating accounts of his subjects.
“This is a man who, when working on the Smiths biography (the superlative Severed Alliance), found out that there were 18 students in Morrissey's secondary school class - he interviewed all 18.”
For Rogan, Kevin Courtney observed in an Irish Times interview with the author in 2011, being someone’s biographer is a lifetime commitment, and he felt compelled to keep up to date with his subject long after the last chapter has been written.
Rogan attended the 1996 court case when Smiths drummer Mike Joyce sued Morrissey and Marr over unpaid recording and performance royalties. “I was the only person who went for the whole two weeks. The guy from the Manchester Evening News was there, but that was it. No fans, nothing. It was a very odd experience, because I knew most of the characters who were under oath, since I’d interviewed them.”
Ironically, Morrissey referenced Rogan’s book in court to help bolster his case, but it didn’t do him any good. Ruling in Joyce’s favour, the judge described Morrissey as “devious, truculent and unreliable”.
“Most biographers, when they’ve finished, they leave it behind and move on,” Rogan told him. “I keep boxes of material at home, and they keep getting filled up with stuff. I might wake up in the middle of the night and write an essay about, say, is Jarvis Cocker the new Morrissey?”
For Courtney, Rogan was “an individual blend of obsessive fan and relentless inquisitor, his writing conveying his respect for his subject, but never descending into hagiography”.
“There’s a lack of investigative journalism, it only seems to be done in the financial areas now,” Rogan said. “But nobody in the music press does it. You’re more likely to see it in Vanity Fair or the Economist. The music-press tradition that I grew up with, they would, on strange occasions, go off and do these incredibly investigative pieces, simply for the reason that they liked this singer, this act, this phenomenon, and wanted to know more about it. And some of my favourite pieces of writing have come from that.
“It’s no use making a thesis about a particular artist or group or whatever, based on press cuttings or your assumption of what they’re trying to do in the work. It’s looking at sources, getting back to the sources, and then applying your critical tools to them. When I write a book, I’m trying to bring all those different skills into it and get better at each of them.”
As well as music, he had a great love of literature and was very knowledgable about Irish writing. His first degree was in English language & literature at Newcastle University and his MA was on Spenser’s The Faerie Queene.
He is survived by his partner, Jackie Taylor, and nephews, Michael and David Quinlan.