Music books: Real live rock ’n’ roll stories for Christmas
Chapter and verse on The Beatles, Rory Gallagher, Wilco, Roger Daltrey, Peter Grant, John Cooper Clarke and Northern Irish band And So I Watch You From Afar
Rory Gallagher performing at the Rainbow Theatre, London in 1972. Photograph: Debi Doss/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Everyone has an opinion about the music they either love, hate or are indifferent to, but very few put those opinions across with as much insight as David Hepworth. In Nothing is Real: Why The Beatles were Underrated and Other Sweeping Statements about Pop (Bantam Press, £14.99), the noted UK writer and broadcaster presents a collection of essays that asks serious questions such as why does pop need so many names, what use are DJs, and why must everything be so dark and edgy? Hepworth has a light but significant touch when it comes to writing about music – he knows how important it is, or can be, but he doesn’t run rings around himself or the reader in his attempts to explain why. He is also good at illustrating the ephemerality of pop music. In his former life as a presenter of The Old Grey Whistle Test, he recalls: “At one time I must have been the person who promised that the world would hear more of Kissing the Pink, Light of the World, Annabel Lamb, Cowboys International or Allez Allez. I feel like the best man who has presided at a series of weddings that all ended in divorce.”
There is nothing ephemeral about the justifiably lauded Irish guitarist Rory Gallagher. Although he was renowned for being the silent type, his music continues to be mentioned as a direct influence on numerous generations of guitarists. In Rory Gallagher – the Man Behind the Guitar, by Julian Vignoles (The Collins Press, €24.99), a case is made, a la the title, for the musician’s internal dynamics and how they motivated, inspired the music. The author, formerly a longstanding RTÉ producer, has undertaken an unenviable task of digging in what might be viewed as shallow ground (Gallagher was doggedly unforthcoming about his private life in interviews), but he still presents a meticulously researched biography that tells us much more about the man than previous works. The only downside is that Gallagher’s brother Donal (who was by Rory’s side up until his death in 1995), isn’t one of the interviewed contributors. There is, presumably, a strategic reason for the absence of such pivotal input, but it nonetheless casts a shadow across what is an otherwise first-rate book.
If Rory Gallagher was the personification of an enigma wrapped tightly in a puzzle, then American band Wilco could be the musical equivalent. The band’s linchpin is the singer, guitarist and songwriter Jeff Tweedy, and, while a chronicle of the man and the musician might seem niche, there’s no doubting the bright-eyed veracity of a singular story. Let’s Go (So We Can Get Back): a Memoir of Recording and Discording with Wilco, etc (Faber & Faber, £20) sees Tweedy discuss openly his life and times, from childhood in Belleville, Southern Illinois, as an eager 10-year-old exploring music (“punk rock was an exotic event happening somewhere else in the world”) to adulthood as a successful musician and flawed person (“there were never enough drugs to keep up with keeping me normal”). In between these periods of his life (and after, when he eventually came to terms with his personal problems), Tweedy details his time in alt-country band Uncle Tupelo and then Wilco, a group long since viewed as one of America’s most reliably stimulating alt-rock bands. Part therapeutic, part redemptive, the memoir is littered with enough intriguing clues to make you want to re-investigate the music.
“You’ll never make anything of your life, Daltrey.” So said Mr Kibblewhite, the headmaster of Acton County Grammar, as he expelled the future singer of The Who, one of the world’s most successful rock bands. Throughout Thanks A Lot Mr Kibblewhite: My Story, by Roger Daltrey (Blink Publishing, £20), there is a raucous sense of a life lived well and dutifully. All the characters in Daltrey’s life – from his parents and rock’n’roll colleagues to his friends and family – and his thoughts on them are delivered fully formed. The Who’s primary songwriter, Pete Townshend, is a genius as well as spiteful; bass player John Entwhistle is heartless; and drummer Keith Moon has mental health issues (“the pranks, the general devastation . . . there was usually someone at the other end of it having a pretty miserable time.”) Throughout, Daltrey ably channels his inner geezer status yet never comes across in any way self-serving. Rather, it’s a durable tale told very well by a reflective person.
On the other end of the age and experience scale to someone such as Roger Daltrey (but equally considered) is Derry musician Tony Wright, a former member of Northern Irish alternative rock band And So I Watch You From Afar. You might think that someone in their mid-30s may not have been around long enough to author more than a chapter or two of their life so far. Yet in Chapter & Verse (Chorus Verse), which is self-published (£12), Wright packs in the stories with a few stings in the telling. Lacing good times (playing music, travelling) with bad (getting seriously beaten up in Vienna, no longer being a member of ASIWYFA – “a bipolar existence with the highest of highs and the lowest, most subterranean of lows”), Wright’s book/travelogue is sectioned into four parts, each one gutsily relaying his experiences in Ireland, the UK and various parts of America. Underpinning it all are threads of mental health issues (which “never seemed far away, manifesting itself in the form of paranoid regret and crippling self-doubt”) that Wright deals with in an admirably coherent and responsible way.
Often, apocryphal tales are far more interesting than actual ones, yet in the case of Peter Grant (best known in music industry circles as the ebullient, some would say aggressively so, manager of Led Zeppelin) it is difficult to sort out the facts from the fabrications. Bring It On Home: Peter Grant, Led Zeppelin & Beyond – The Story of Rock’s Greatest Manager, by Mark Blake (Constable, £20) aims to do just that. Assuredly keeping Led Zeppelin as a sub-plot, Blake has unearthed genuine first-hand information about Grant via the assistance of his two children, Helen and Warren. In a warts-and-all rundown of the man’s life, we learn of his early music industry apprenticeship with hard-as-nails pop group manager Don Arden (father of Sharon Osbourne), conflicts with US promoters (“he delighted in screwing promoters out of their percentage”), violence towards security guards, and a supervisory approach that makes your average despot look like Postman Pat. It’s a fascinating, sometimes squeamish (if surprisingly considerate) story of a man who ripped up the music management rule book, made all the more potent by the fundamental misfortune of a life that was largely unhindered and confrontational.
Salford poet John Cooper Clarke knows his away around a rhyming couplet, but as an outsider who was given a cloak of acceptance during punk rock’s DIY years (1976-’79), he was always best regarded as someone you listened to in a small venue rather than read quietly to yourself. The Luckiest Guy Alive (Picador, £14.99) is Cooper Clarke’s second volume of poetry in almost 40 years (his debut collection, Ten Years in an Open Necked Shirt, was published in 1979) and rarely fails to raise a smile with its everyday tales of illness (“hail seizure, hello stroke . . . I can’t decide from what to croak” – Bed Blocker Blues) and life’s misfits (“you won’t find him on the rich list, he’s losing money hand over fist” – The Idiot’s Journal). Despite the humour and the insight, however, Clarke’s poetry too often comes across as feeble and gimmicky, his intent as a socially aware spoken word artist superseded by a much more forthright younger generation of wordsmiths. Back to the venues, Johnny.