What Do You Call That Noise? Rock music books round-up
Insights into Happy Mondays, Joy Division, Bowie, Johnny Duhan, XTC and Radiohead
XTC: What Do You Call That Noise? by Mark Fisher looks at how XTC didn’t really hit the mark until punk and post-punk allowed misfit music acts through. Photograph: Virginia Turbett/Redferns
Wrote for Luck: Selected Lyrics by Shaun Ryder
Back in the late 1080s and early 1990s, few people would have guessed that the lead singer of one of the UK’s most haphazard and hazy “Madchester” bands would one day have a book of his lyrics beautifully bound and presented for purchase to the public by one of England’s most prestigious publishing houses. And yet in Wrote for Luck: Selected Lyrics, by Shaun Ryder (Faber & Faber, £14.99), there is great fun, if not insight, to be had by reading through words that Ryder himself confesses are “oddball captions”. A reflexive lyricist who speaks to the underdog and the hungover, Ryder’s mixture of pop culture, catchphrases (“call the cops!”), drug experiences and oddball characters dovetail into a litany of alt.literature that is (almost) as fun reading as singing along to. What adds to the scanning are Ryder’s contextualised explanations, which are occasionally just as amusing. Wrote for Luck, by the way, is the third lyrics book that Faber has published in less than six months (previous publications have been One Hundred Lyrics and a Poem, by Neil Tennant, of Pet Shops Boys, and How to be Invisible, by Kate Bush), and looks to usher in a steady stream of similar volumes by UK song lyricists. Can we have Elvis Costello, Tracey Thorn and Prefab Sprout’s Paddy McAloon lined up next, please?
This Searing Light, the Sun and Everything Else by Jon Savage
Ryder’s Manchester is pasted throughout his songs like a word through a stick of rock, of course, but if Happy Mondays were the voice of the city in the late 1980s, then Joy Division held that position a dozen years previously. The band have been documented more than most but most diligently and intuitively by Jon Savage, a rightly acclaimed UK music writer/pop culture historian. This Searing Light, the Sun and Everything Else: Joy Division, the Oral History (Faber & Faber, £20) is as definitive a telling of the band’s story as you’re likely to get. Savage, dressed splendidly in Studs Terkel-like post-punk threads, gathers all of the foremost participants in the Joy Division story – band members, record producers, family, friends, lovers, musicians, writers, photographers, managers – and teases out of them every piece of the puzzle. It is, as Mancunian touchstone Tony Wilson says towards the close of the book, “a fabulous story: the story of the rebuilding of a city that begins with them . . . a cultural, academic, intellectual, aesthetic story, but at the heart of it it’s only here because they wrote great songs, and great songs never die.”
Ashes to Ashes by Chris O’Leary
Great songs never dying is the premise of Ashes to Ashes: The Songs of David Bowie, 1976-2016, by Chris O’Leary (Repeater Books, £20), a western Massachusetts-based writer perhaps best-known for creating the highly regarded David Bowie blog, Pushing Ahead of the Dame. Song-by-song books have used Ian McDonald’s 1994 Beatles book, Revolution in the Head, as a blueprint to dig much deeper than the usual biographies, and here O’Leary does just that, forensically so, and not just with songs that appeared on Bowie’s albums. The follow-up to 2015’s Rebel Rebel: The Songs of David Bowie, 1964-1976, Ashes to Ashes begins with Sister Midnight (from Iggy Pop’s 1976 album The Idiot) and ends with songs from Blackstar. In-between is meticulous detail (and some very objective views on the quality of Bowie’s material) on not only the albums even casual observers are aware of (Low, Let’s Dance, The Next Day) but also music from albums and elsewhere that only Bowie aficionados would possibly know of (further Iggy Pop albums such as 1986’s Blah-Blah-Blah, television work such as Baal and The Buddha of Suburbia, the “lost” album Toy). This is catnip for Bowie fans, and remarkably well-executed – all you need and want to know about the last three decades of Bowie’s output is here.
The Voyage by Johnny Duhan
From one songwriter whose profile is worldwide to one whose is so below the radar that it is recognisable only to the avid fans. Irish songwriter Johnny Duhan has been dutifully writing material of no small depth for many years, releasing occasional albums, and then hearing little of them at any time of the day on national or local radio. The Voyage (Bell Creations, €20) is the second part of his autobiographical thoughts – the follow-up to 2001’s There is a Time – and elegantly continues detailing his life through a prism of family, friends, acquaintances and, pivotally, his spiritual faith. As experienced across his albums, Duhan writes personal vignettes from the heart and soul, sometimes torn between the dichotomies of, as he writes, “the road to pleasure and the spiritual road”, but always with a resolution of sorts. We meet a motley crew of people along the way – punks in London, poets at Electric Picnic, crime writers, musicians, Sinn Féin leaders, music-business types in Nashville – but underpinning everything is a nimble mixture of lament and reclamation. The book is a subtle piece of work, yet is – much like the author – wired with a steely determination and, perhaps, destined to be regarded only by the loyal fanbase.
What Do You Call That Noise? by Mark Fisher
You could say the same about What Do You Call That Noise: an XTC Discovery Book, by Mark Fisher (XTCLimelight, £17.99). One of the best cult UK bands of the past 40 years, XTC emerged from Swindon in 1972 yet didn’t really hit the mark until later in the decade when punk and post-punk allowed various sorts of misfit music acts through. XTC were one such act because they were difficult to define, aspiring to be wholly original and, by extension, non-conformist. They enjoyed some chart success, but their narrow commercial focus did them no favours, coupled with the burden of non-payment of royalties from healthy record sales. The band stopped releasing albums after 2000’s Wasp Star, and split up six years later. The cult following continues because the band’s albums contained many non-commercial but superb songs that lead singer Andy Partridge once described as hit singles in a weird parallel universe. Author Mark Fisher aims to explain what made the band so special – and so reticent to play the music industry game. To this end, he features all the original band members (including Dave Gregory, Barry Andrews, Colin Moulding, and Terry Chambers) as well as other musicians such as Chris Difford (Squeeze), Rick Buckler (The Jam), Tracey Bryn (Voice of the Beehive) and Peter Gabriel. The book is a lovely conceit, from its Enid Blyton-esque front cover to chapters that show linearity the door: 10 year olds are given XTC albums to review, musicians are asked for their favourite XTC songs, fans explain what the lyrics meant to them in times of conflict (the debut album, White Music, writes a former bullied student “was a suit of armour for the outside world”), and, in true cult fashion, an overview of XTC tribute bands. An oddity but a goodie, and jam-packed with fun.
A Radiohead Compendium edited by Barney Hoskyns
Gaiety doesn’t really come into it with Present Tense – a Radiohead Compendium, edited by Barney Hoskyns (Constable, £20). Yes, the band may have a justified reputation for not being The Monkees, but Radiohead have consistently produced some of the most boundary-stretching music of the past 30 years. In his introduction, Hoskyns (editorial director of online rock journalism library rocksbackpages.com, and no mean music writer himself) suggests that Radiohead elicit lingering doubts for their “emotional grandeur, their willingness to risk pretension and complexity in their playing”. Yet as this anthology of writings about the band ably demonstrates, their compositional intelligence and dystopian purview have produced startling and rapturous music. From a 1991 gig review in their native Oxford (“it shouldn’t be long before they’re attracting major label attention”) to an abstract mention about their most recent album, A Moon Shaped Pool, in 2016 (“idiosyncrasies not so far from a poet’s manner”), Present Tense is a treasure trove of astute analysis. There is prescient (“in 20 years’ time I’m betting OK Computer will be seen as the key record of 1997” – Nick Kent, Mojo) and abstruse (“the music has the feeling of a biomorphic machine in which the voice is alternately trapped and protected” – Mark Greif, n+1), as well as confessional (“I wanted to be frivolous. I wanted to forget. But Radiohead wouldn’t let me” – Peter Murphy, Hot Press). An essential purchase for Radiohead heads.