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Best music books: Writers with that musical ear and something to say

From Stuart Bailie on Belfast’s Terri Hooley — 75 Revolutions, to Martin Popoff’s The Who and Quadrophenia … and much more

Some birthdays need to be celebrated, and none more so, perhaps, than the 75th of Belfast’s Terri Hooley, the Good Vibrations record shop/label owner, the DJ, and the enduring symbol of where there’s a will, there’s a way. “Bullied at home and derided at school,” writes Belfast-based writer Stuart Bailie in Terri Hooley — 75 Revolutions (Dig With It, £18.99), the subject is a crucial cultural figure who “rejects the bigotry, bad faith, avarice and poor vision that damage our civic life …” Bailie’s intentions, however, lay not so much in going over the past (which, of course, he does with no small skill and handfuls of insight and kindness) but “to locate Terri in the now. After 75 rotations around the sun, how does it feel?” The storyline drifts from Bailie’s memories (as a punk rock teenager frequenting Belfast venues such as The Pound and the Harp Bar, he recalls Hooley “rousing the kids, prepping them with power chords and insolence”) to contemporary interviews with him (”I’ve always hated the music industry with a passion”). The upshot is a book that applauds the virtues and understands the flaws of a unique individual who, says Brian Young of the band Rudi, rejoiced in “the value of the DIY ethic and the power of self-reliance and initiative.”

Also celebrating a 75th anniversary is commercial vinyl, which is celebrated in swish coffee table style by In the Groove: The Vinyl Record & Turntable Revolution (Quarto, £28). Co-written by five well-regarded music writers (Matt Anniss, Gillian G. Gaar, Ken Micallef, Martin Popoff, and Richie Unterberger), and sectioned into five chapters, numerous bases are covered for, essentially, new or casual fans of vinyl. The premise is simple but effective: outline the history, manufacturing, aesthetics, culture (browsing, buying, collecting) in a writing style that won’t cause Greil Marcus to furrow his brow — and then make sure the text is enveloped by eye-catching design. It’s winning blend of information and images, with snappy inserts highlighting legendary record labels (Sun Records, Folkways, Tamla Motown, Blue Note, Stax, Factory), remarkable record stores (Los Angeles’ Amoeba Music, London’s Rough Trade, Tokyo’s Tower Records), iconic covers (Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew, Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures), and the psychology of A-Z filing.

Another celebration in print — this time the occasion of the 50th birthday of Quadrophenia, the 1973-themed album by The Who. While the album has been lauded as a notable example of “rock opera” (and regarded as The Who’s most cohesive record), little has been seen in print to document its significance. Cue The Who and Quadrophenia, by Martin Popoff (Quarto, £35). As birthday presentations go, it is an impressive artefact with high-end design principles enveloping detailed text (The Who’s role in Mod culture, recording sessions, song-by-song breakdowns, band member biographies, post-album activity, the 1979 film adaptation) and many vivid performance and off-stage photographs. There is also detail on matters that only a Who obsessive would want (tour dates, discography, charts/sales rankings, ephemera), but overall, this is a fine tribute to an enduring album and its makers.

As each year passes, there are Bob Dylan books coming out of the walls, but Bob Dylan: Mixing up the Medicine, by Mark Davidson and Parker Fishel (Callaway Arts, €95) is something different, you might say special. The reason is that it’s authorised by the Bob Dylan Center (located in Tulsa, Oklahoma, USA), which for Dylan fans, pupils, and scholars is akin to holding on to the Holy Grail. As the authors were handed the keys to the heretofore locked archives, previously unavailable (or unknown) material was accessed, but there is much more than draft lyrics, drawings, images, personal documents, recordings, et al. The meat of the book is the collection of 30 original essays by the likes of Peter Carey, Amanda Petrusich, Ed Ruscha, Greil Marcus, Michael Ondaatje, and Lucy Sante. For those who like to either flick through Dylan’s back pages or study them, this coffee table book is nigh on unbeatable.


Another notable coffee table book for the devoted fan is Curepedia — An A-Z of The Cure, by Simon Price (White Rabbit, £35). To say that Price has uncovered everything that a Cure obsessive might want to read about Robert Smith’s band is a vast understatement, but to the author’s credit he just doesn’t stick to the facts and figures. Alongside microscopic analysis of concerts, singles, albums, bootlegs, and industry issues (including Smith’s recent contretemps with Ticketmaster), he also offers a broader and informed overview of how the band’s music aided investigations into mental health and the less explored areas of male sensitivity (when The Cure’s Boys Don’t Cry was first released, in 1979, writes Price, the phrase toxic masculinity “was non-existent”). There are some interesting Irish snippets of information included, too: the first song the teenage Cure played was a cover of Thin Lizzy’s Jailbreak, and Paul Bell, the lead singer of ‘80s Irish band Zerra One, once recorded with The Cure’s Lol Tolhurst for a splinter group project.

Former Sonic Youth’s guitarist Thurston Moore begins Sonic Life — A Memoir (Faber, £20) with an epiphany: when he was five years of age, he heard Louie Louie, by The Kingsmen. The song was, he writes, “a seductive noise machine from on high” and the start of his obsession with music that more often than not was left of centre. From visiting New York’s downtown music scene in the late ‘70s to see bands (“our punk rock voyages”) to co-forming Sonic Youth in 1980, Moore and his bandmates aimed to redefine the parameters of what would be considered dissonant music. As if to prove his point, there is a blurry home photograph of Moore, eyes closed, listening blissfully to Lou Reed’s atonal/white noise 1975 album, Metal Machine Music (“on heavy rotation”). In what is a finely written and detailed book (albeit with minimal comment about his private life or the fallout of his 27-year marriage to Sonic Youth co-founder Kim Gordon), Moore’s path as an acutely attuned intellectual misfit continues.

As does Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, who in the introduction to World Within a Song (Faber, £14.99) reveals that “I don’t know what I’m doing, and I probably don’t have any business writing another book …” The subtitle (Music That Changed My Life and Life That Changed My Music) acts as a spoiler as Tweedy writes about not only 50 songs that were pivotal episodes in his creative development but also asks fundamental questions such as why people love music, and how certain songs act as lightning rods for ourselves and others. A mere three songs are from the 2000s (Rosalía’s Bizochito, Arthur Russell’s Close My Eyes, Billie Eilish’s I Love You), which testifies to the importance of music that seeps in during early years. In a neat surprise, Tweedy admits to not loving all of his selections. It pains him, he writes, to admit that Deep Purple’s Smoke on the Water “made the first dent in my musical mind” and was the “first thing I ever played on a guitar”. Making belief transferable is what a great song is all about, Tweedy claims, pointing to Eilish’s I Love You as truthful enough “for all of us to feel it. There is no greater feat a songwriter can achieve.”

Tony Clayton-Lea

Tony Clayton-Lea

Tony Clayton-Lea is a contributor to The Irish Times specialising in popular culture