We recently asked Peter Mills, author of The Monkees, Head and the 60s if he had any favorite music books he might recommend to our readers. Here's what Peter had to say; have a look...
The Recording Angel: Music, Records And Culture From Aristotle To Zappa
by Evan Eisenberg (Picador 1988)
When I was a kid, most of the books I saw about pop music rarely rose above the level of picture books with approved text ; there seemed to be very little that captured both the pleasure and the cultural depth I found in three minutes of music spinning at 45rpm, or 40 minutes at 33 and a third. This book was the first one I found which seemed to discuss music at a different level — thinking about music collectors, the art of recording, how music survives both success and failure, and the cultural obsession with that charmed object, the obscure disc or tape — well before ebay and popsike of course! The spirit of this work is as stimulating as the writing, and the investigations and ideas feel wholly open-ended, never as conclusive as its somewhat pat subtitle suggests. As far as I’m concerned, in The Recording Angel Eisenberg quietly invented a new vocabulary for exploring the cultural gravity of music, be we consumers, scholars or even producers of music, and then gave the rest of us permission to follow suit. This book shifted the ground under my feet in terms of how you could write about music. It blew my mind, flipped my wig and got me writing.
Complicated Game: Inside The Songs Of XTC
by Andy Partridge and Todd Bernhardt (Jawbone 2016)
A very specific book with very specific appeal – 400-plus pages of Andy Partridge discussing 30 of his songs in Socratic dialogue with Todd Bernhardt. I have loved XTC since buying the ‘3D EP’ when I was a kid, first listening out for them when I read that they included a cover of the ‘Fireball XL5’ theme song in their live sets — and as we all grew older their music wound its way through the years as it became ever more sophisticated and developed into one of the great pop songwriting catalogues, one which perhaps remains undervalued, possibly even by Partridge and his comrade Colin Moulding themselves. Unlike an earlier XTC book Song Stories by Neville Farmer (1998) neither Moulding or Dave Gregory are interviewed here, yet while this book is indeed "All About Andy" he is generous to everyone involved in the group’s career, reflective of and acknowledging their contribution.
Complicated Game takes elements of the Revolution In the Head model but remakes it by going directly to the highly loquacious, occasionally prickly but always insightful and music-obsessed source. His great gift is noticing the hitherto unnoticed connections between things, and Partridge will often marvel at his own creations, not vainly but recognising that they have a life of their own. The discursive conversations illuminate the systems via which Partridge originates his songs — networks of metaphor and pun, adult experience and childhood memory, musical elements from Can to Hendrix, advertising jingles to nursery rhymes. It’s rare that a book gives us such a view of music by its composer one so willing to examine and discuss the work so openly and in such detail — indeed quite often the reverse is the case. So in that alone Complicated Game is special but if you like XTC, or indeed have a feeling for pop music at all, you’ll find much to enjoy in this book.
They Made A Monkee Out Of Me
by Davy Jones with Alan Green (Dome Press 1987)
There had to be some Monkee business in my list didn’t there? Up to the publication of my book The Monkees, Head and the 60s in October 2016, only Micky Dolenz and Davy Jones had published memoirs , although Michael Nesmith has published two Pynchonesque novels and his own account of the experience Infinite Tuesday is due in Spring 2017. Peter Tork has thus far kept his counsel. They Made A Monkee Out Of Me was the first of two books Jones published and is a delight from start to finish. No misty-eyed jog-trot through the old days here – the book is packed with livewire recollections of stellar times that seemed destined never to end and grim moments which would have prompted the less-professional to question the wisdom of going on to the next show. I especially like how he gives plenty of room to everything that happened before and after The Monkees experience: Davy’s life was full, exciting and always working, working, working.
It’s a visual bonanza, full of reproductions of private and business related documents and photographs, eye-opening insights into what it was like to be at the centre of the Monkee hurricane — the pleasures of it, the struggles, the rip-offs. In the last group, I’m thinking of the prosaic note from Screen Gems dated September 1967 informing their employee that that out of nearly $350,000 worth of merchandise sold, the individual Monkees would get a quarter of 5%, leaving Jones with a princely $4334.08 from sales of his own image. Or the letter detailing expenditure and takings on their 1968 tour of Australia and Japan: according to Screen Gems’ accountants the former outdid the latter "and so there will be no distribution due you on this Tour." Translation: The four Monkees themselves earned nothing from that tour of 20 sold out arena shows. NOTHING. All young bands, read and learn. Yet unlike, say, David Cassidy’s splenetic memoir Could It Be Forever? (2007) which covers much ground that is similar to this book, he never let the bastards grind him down, and for that, amongst much else, I tip my hat to Davy.
Stagolee Shot Billy by Cecil Brown (Harvard University Press 2003)
The history of 20th century popular song often seems to run on myth and rumour and to get to the root of the truth about some of its central and defining stories can defeat the best – think how even the estimable Peter Guralnick ran out of places to turn at the crossroads Searching For Robert Johnson (1998). Cecil Brown did some first-class detective work in preparing this book, which looks into the real life roots of the legendary ‘Staggerlee Blues’ and his labour yields some great reward. His research takes the book into murky waters and obscure locations shining a light as he goes. The result is a very readable and informative work which balances the scholarly impulse with the enthusiasm of the music lover in a way I admire and a blend I try to stir into my own work. The book shows how quickly real life can be reflected in song and how, once in that highly portable and reproducible form, it can change shape and become , if not more than it was, then at least assume a more culturally potent form, one which has the capacity to change and accrue meaning yet remain faithful to itself — a legend, or a mythology. Only popular song can work at this speed, I think, and Cecil Brown captures this magical property in researching the tale of how Lee Shelton’s reckless gangster-fantasy led to the senseless murder of Billy Lyons in a bar in St. Louis on December 27th 1895 became a song that assumed mythic proportions, travelling the globe and making unlikely bedfellows of Mississippi John Hurt, Lloyd Price, Neil Diamond and The Clash. It’s probably as close as a song can come to having a biography.
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