Writing about music...

The continued appeal of books about songs and artists

Thursday 7th March 2019

"Writing about music is like dancing about architecture" and "talking about music is like singing about economics". Two quotes that paraphrase their hard to trace originators. Whether it was David Byrne, Frank Zappa, Martin Mull or some bloke in a pub, there is an undeniable absurdity behind the abstract practice of using language to describe music. Despite this, the market and public appetite for books about music and musicians, including those penned by the musicians themselves seem to show no sign of slowing if the like of the Penderyn Prize is to be believed. So why do we like to read about music so much? And is writing about music such a bad idea?

Whether its the desire to get an insight into the creation of a favourite song, the possibility of an answer to a burning question posed by the ambiguity of an obscure album track, or just plain old voyeurism, artist autobiographies are all the rage. Lily Allen's 'My Thoughts Exactly' offers its readers all of the above, with her frank account of her rise to fame across the last decade and a half, including her experiences dealing with a career built against a background of Myspace, the public's transition to Twitter and all the invasion of self that brings with it.

Set The Boy Free by Johnny Marr gave its readers an insight into an equally distinctive period and the creativity it inspired, describing his upbringing amidst the developing formative subcultures of the late 1970s and early 1980s. Likewise, Brett Anderson's 'Coal Black Mornings' describes his childhood in detail - rather than the highs and lows of Suede's days on the covers of music magazines of the early '90s. That said, The Suede years are set to be covered in the sequel 'Afternoons with the Blinds Drawn' in 2019. 'Another Planet: A Teenager in Suburbia' by Tracey Thorn, another recent example of how musicians' memoirs can give us unique perspectives on the times and places that pushed them to make the songs, not just the songs themselves. 

Brett Anderson's contemporary, Tim Burgess also got the writing bug after his memoir, following it up with his 'Tim Book Two', which took a different direction, sharing his passion for records and record shops through stories of tracking down elusive vinyl selections, specified by fellow artists. In a similar vein, comedian, James Acaster's upcoming book 'Perfect Sound Whatever' promises to give an account of his self-appointed task to buy every album released in 2016 - or at least attempt to do so. 

Sometimes less is more. Just presenting the words that lyricists have already penned can provide the best book. Kate Bush's recent 'How To Be Invisible' employs a typically artistic touch with author, fan and collaborator, David Mitchell providing a creative introduction to the curatorially structured sections which collect her lyrics into the chapters which form the book. Aside from the introduction, the ordering is the only way in which the text has been adapted for the page.

Looking further into the world of lyricists turning author, Daniel Rachel wrote his first song when he was sixteen and was the lead-singer in Rachel's Basement before writing 'Isle Of Noises: Conversations with Great British Songwriters' described by Noel Gallagher as ‘without doubt the finest book I’ve ever read about songwriters and the songs they write'. Rachel also wrote 'Walls Come Tumbling Down: the music and politics of Rock Against Racism, 2 Tone and Red Wedge' which was in turn applauded by Billy Bragg as ‘…an amazing oral history of a time when pop culture fought against the forces of darkness.'

Billy Bragg's own book 'Roots, Radicals and Rockers: How Skiffle Changed the World' looks at early days of British working class youths forming bands to get their voice heard - still a familiar tale in today's day and age. Jon Savage described it as "The story of the first DIY revolution: a perfect mix of author and subject."

It seems that as long as the author and subject matter are a match, the apparent trickiness and abstract nature of describing song in the written word is not a problem. The curiosity of music lovers and bookworms alike looks set to last for a few more volumes yet.

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