When it comes to classic albums, there can surely be none more sophisticated and seductive than Roxy Music's Avalon. Released in 1982, it fused Bryan Ferry's world-weariness with a creamy ambiance that caused hearts to flutter and knees to tremble. It also delivered the kiss-off to 1970s Roxy Music, replacing their arty manic pop thrill with layered music that, if it were a smoking jacket, wouldn't have a thread out of place.
Roxy Music's Avalon by Simon A Morrison (33 1/3/Bloomsbury, £10) explores, often quite pretentiously, the background and cultural elements that went into its making. "He is a pleasant conversationalist of old-school reserve and manners," writes Morrison of a relaxed meal with Ferry in 2013, "willing to indulge the tabloids with a soft-spoken quotation or two, but enigmatic, preferring misinterpretation to soul-baring. That's fine with me: as a scholar, I'm less interested in the musician than the music."
Self-declaration as a scholar duly noted, there is much food for thought here, not least how Avalon started, as Morrison observes, “with a blank sheet” and ended up as an album throughout which “Ferry creates textures that manage to disregard all the rules in songwriting school . . .”
If they weren't rule-breakers, then Liverpudlian post-punk band Echo & the Bunnymen were certainly rule-twisters. Bunnyman: A Memoir, by Will Sergeant (Little, Brown, £18), spills the beans on the co-founding of one of the most memorable UK bands of the past 40 years. It is also an evocative memoir shot through with signature Scouse wit, from Sergeant's childhood days in the village of Melling ("the place where Liverpool's sprawl ends and the countryside begins") and his virtually numb relationship with his father ("a big inconvenience that got in the way of his boozing") to the lure of punk rock ("the appeal of being an insider in this outsider scene has me by the bollocks") and his early meetings with Ian McCulloch ("he is always late; I'm getting used to it now").
The book concludes in 1979 with a John Peel session and signing to a major label. Yes, you are correct – we are very much looking forward to the sequel.
When Indian Sun: The Life and Music of Ravi Shankar, by Oliver Craske (Faber & Faber, £12.99), came out in hardback last year, it caused a flutter of concern in the hearts of some: would an authorised biography tell us more about a revered and immensely influential musician who across three previously published autobiographies wasn't the least bit reluctant in divulging details of his personal life and artistic merit?
The answer is yes, as Craske – who worked with Shankar on his 1997 autobiography, Raga Mala – plays the part of admirer and reporter with balance and skill. He also has an understated intellectual knowledge of the multiple rituals of Indian classical music (including precision, pace, and spirituality) that are essential to know to understand why Shankar became such an esteemed figure.
Where there is the devotional, however, there is also the physical, and in a surprise development for an authorised work, a substantial part of the book features revelations about Shankar’s love life (in a wry definition of a serial monogamist, Craske succinctly describes the multitude of romantic encounters as “all passion, no commitment”). All-encompassing and engrossing, the blend of academic detail with shrewdly documented intimacies makes for an enlightening read.
It isn’t often that an album title can be used as a signpost for a bona fide, if temporary, music scene, but 2001’s Quiet Is the New Loud, the debut by Norwegian duo Kings of Convenience, works as exactly that. Post-Britpop, loud and sometimes sleazy guitars and Y2K anxiety were, for a while, pushed aside by a more subdued approach to music.
The official standard-bearers of what was called the New Acoustic Movement included Coldplay, David Gray, Dido, Travis, and Elbow, but When Quiet Was the New Loud: Celebrating the Acoustic Airwaves 1998-2003, by Tom Clayton (Route, £14.99), stakes a valid claim for a swathe of other music acts that enabled the transition from raucous to peaceful. This move didn't last long, of course (US bands such as The Strokes and White Stripes, and UK groups like Franz Ferdinand, The Libertines, and Arctic Monkeys rapidly swooped in and upped the volume), but Clayton's book capably considers the music's muting effect on disturbing times. Who knows – maybe it's time for a revival?
There is no need for a revival of the music of Nico, as the singer has never really gone away, such is the appeal of her artistry and mystique. For a short time, she was associated with The Velvet Underground (including on their classic album, The Velvet Underground & Nico) before releasing her solo albums, which defined the term "glacial". You Are Beautiful and You Are Alone: The Biography of Nico, by Jennifer Otter Bickerdike (Faber & Faber, £20), offers quite the most rounded view of the German-born singer and aims, according to the author, to refute "the familiar, salacious and utterly predictable realms of sex, drugs and rock'n'roll excess".
With fine-toothcomb research and via many interviews, Bickerdike pieces together a thorough overview of Nico's life, from childhood in Germany and teenage years in Ibiza to modelling/acting in Paris and then to New York/London in the 1960s and beyond. It is, as anyone familiar with Nico's life story knows, a fascinating tale of a conflicted maverick, muse, myth, and cultural maven, but Bickerdike filters through it all, sorting fact from fiction with due if perhaps overly positive regard.
Stephen Davis is an established music writer well used to sifting through archives with varying degrees of success and reaction (his 1985 unauthorised biography of Led Zeppelin, Hammer of the Gods, is regarded by the band as a "catalogue of error and distortion"). Throughout Please Please Tell Me Now: The Duran Duran Story (Hachette Books, £21), however, Davis dials down the drama with what appears to be semi-official access to the band (the interviews featured here date from 2004, which is when an authorised biography was mooted and then shelved).
The result is a superior patchwork job that peeks into all areas of the band’s life, from their days as Bowie-loving teenagers in Birmingham in 1978 to becoming a style-driven pop group who in 2018 launched their own perfume range. (Hungry Like the Wolf’s fragrance notes include “heather, atlas cedar, sandalwood and patchouli that capture the energy of the original music video.”)
Few if any UK music writers have captured the essence of British punk as well as Jon Savage in England's Dreaming: Sex Pistols and Punk Rock, first published 30 years ago and now smartly reissued in paperback along with 1966: The Year the Decade Exploded, and Teenage: The Creation of Youth, 1875-1945 (Faber & Faber, £12.99 each). Savage's account of the short-lived, tumultuous and regenerative music movement remains definitive.
The same word can be safely used for 1966 and Teenage. The former is inventive sociocultural history, the latter travels across decades to prove not only were there sulky, excitable teens long before Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley, but also how the age group in question coalesced into something quite revolutionary from 1945 onwards. Each hefty book is essential reading.