We recently asked Richie Unterberger, author of recent illustrated histories of Bob Marley and Fleetwood Mac if he had any favorite music biographies, memoirs, or music books, or if he had read anything recently that he’d like to recommend. Here’s what Richie had to say.
“Greetings, AllMusicBooks readers!
Here are some of my favorite music books...”
Excellent, in-depth volume about the Brill Building sound, focusing on the songwriting teams of Gerry Goffin & Carole King, Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich, Barry Mann & Cynthia Weil, Burt Bacharach & Hal David, Jerry Leiber & Mike Stoller, Neil Sedaka & Howard Greenfield, and Doc Pomus & Mort Shuman.
Dear Boy: The Life of Keith Moon
by Tony Fletcher
Entertaining and lengthy biography of the Who's colorful drummer, whose clowning hid a minefield of personal problems.
Follow The Music: The Life and High Times of Elektra Records in the Great Years of American Pop Culture
by Jac Holzman and Gavan Daws
The autobiography/oral history of the founder and president of Elektra Records, whose label was important to every phase of the folk revival and folk-rock from 1950 through the early 1970s. In addition to many comments by Holzman, it draws on extensive material with many Elektra Records artists, producers, and employees. The 2000 paperback edition comes with a bound-in CD of 26 folk tracks done for Elektra (including some early folk-rock ones) in the 1950s and 1960s.
Girls Like Us
by Sheila Weller
Ambitiously constructed book interweaving the stories of Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon. It not only details their music and personal lives, but also how their rise was both affected by and influenced feminism and the self-perception of women during the 1960s and 1970s.
by Nick Hornby
The best fictional treatment of rock record collector geeks, and better than the film, though the movie was good too.
The Byrds: Timeless Flight: The Sequel
by Johnny Rogan
Huge biography of the most important folk-rock band, with in-depth research and clear, critical writing. This is the kind of treatment usually reserved for presidents and the like, the 1200 pages including 300 pages or so for the notes and appendices alone.
For a change, here’s a book on a rock writer, not a book about a rock star by a rock writer. Bangs was one of the most flamboyant rock critics, though not the most consistent, and his life was as wayward as some of the musicians he chronicled.
A large (nearly 600-page), extensively researched, and acutely perceptive examination of the relation between rock and revolutionary politics in the late 1960s and early 1970s, equally emphasizing the music and the social activism.
X-Ray: The Unauthorized Autobiography
by Ray Davies
Though the occasional flights into literary fantasy were not to everyone's taste, for the most part this is a fascinating actual autobiography by the Kinks' main singer and songwriter, focusing on the mid-to-late 1960s.
by John Goldrosen and John Beecher (about Buddy Holly)
One of the best rock biographies, with in-depth coverage of Holly’s life, music, and recordings, written with detail and critical insight.
Tune In: The Beatles: All These Years Vol. 1
by Mark Lewisohn
By far the most thorough biography of the Beatles, which is really saying something considering the voluminous competition. But note: this 900-page book is but the first of three volumes, covering only until the end of 1962. Though staggeringly detailed, it’s also extremely readable, with vast first-hand research and much context from their Liverpool life and the rise of rock’n’roll. An “extended special edition,” available in the UK only, runs 1700 (!) pages, with several hundred thousand more words. This too adds a lot of detail and many stories, though most readers will be satisfied with the standard 900-page edition, which covers the essentials well. Volume 2 is not expected until about 2020, and the third and final volume not until about seven years after that.
“Here are some I’ve read within the last three years that I’d recommend...”
Roots, Radicals and Rockers
by Billy Bragg
Subtitled “How Skiffle Changed the World,” this fine history of skiffle connects the dots linking skiffle to previous roots music movements (in the decade following World War II) in UK’s traditional jazz revival, and to the first generation of British rockers it helped inspire. Bragg also draws in the rise of the British teenager, the stirrings of a British folk revival, the emergence of television, and other non-strictly-skiffle subjects without either detouring from or overextending the reach of the book’s main subject.
Small Town Talk
by Barney Hoskyn
In rock lore, Woodstock (the small New York town, not the festival) is primarily known as the base for Bob Dylan and the Band in the late 1960s. Since that time, however, it’s also been a long-term or temporary (sometimes very temporary) base for artists like Van Morrison, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Happy Traum, Maria & Geoff Muldaur, Paul Butterfield, Todd Rundgren, and numerous others. This is a thorough and satisfying account of what drew musicians to the area and what they did (which wasn’t always purely musical) there, by an author who knows the scene well, having done the best Band biography. Hoskyns draws from a lot of his research for that book (Across the Great Divide: The Band and America), but also talked to many other people, and deserves some sort of award for having interviewed the notoriously non-author-friendly Van Morrison specifically about his time in the region.
Book-length examination of the Altamont festival, drawing from more than one hundred interviews. Among them were people who had seldom or never given their accounts of what happened at the turbulent concert, as well as some famous musicians who played there (though none of the Rolling Stones). What emerges is a tale of a good, or at least admirably utopian, idea that was altered and grew out of control, to the point that no one was really in charge of staging and supervising the event, and no one eager to be accountable for its negative consequences.
I’ve Always Kept a Unicorn: The Biography of Sandy Denny
by Mick Houghton
This will certainly stand as the definitive account of the great British folk-rock singer’s life, drawing on first-hand interviews with more than fifty of her surviving colleagues, family, and friends. Houghton was also granted access to the entire archive of Denny and Trevor Lucas, including previously unresearched documents and photos. The wealth of material is tied together with an even hand that both praises and criticizes her music when warranted. Also included is a lengthy “playlist” section that places her recordings in useful context with releases by other artists (usually folk-rockers) who moved in the same circles as Denny, or had some influence on her.
Ray Davies: A Complicated Life
by Johnny Rogan
Although this is titled like it’s a biography of the Kinks’ main singer and songwriter, Ray Davies, it’s more like a book about the Kinks themselves. And it’s a very long and thorough one, too, running about 750 pages, including loads of first-hand and off-the-beaten-track interview material with the Kinks and close associates. If you want to read more about the group, Jon Savage's much slimmer The Kinks: The Official Biography, from the mid-1980s, also has its good points.
Different Every Time: The Authorised Biography of Robert Wyatt
by Marcus O’Dair
Superb, comprehensive biography of Wyatt from his pre-Soft Machine days to the present, detailing his many group and solo projects with plenty of first-hand input from Wyatt himself. Just as crucially, the book achieves a fine balance between deeply researched information and astute, humorous-when-appropriate critical insight from the author. Unusually for a straight biography, it’s also crammed with many rare and interesting life-spanning photos. Few people seem to know about this book in the US as of this writing, as Wyatt — for all his achievements across a spectrum of pop, psychedelia, and progressive rock with too many esteemed collaborators to fit into anything less than a half-dozen paragraphs – remains a cult figure Stateside.
Hotter Than a Match Head: Life on the Run with the Lovin’ Spoonful
by Steve Boone with Tony Moss.
Boone was bassist in the Lovin’ Spoonful, and this is the only full-length book about the group to have appeared. Although he didn’t have nearly the public profile of chief singer-songwriter John Sebastian or even lead guitarist Zal Yanovsky, this is very good, covering virtually every Lovin’ Spoonful recording. There are also some surprising revelations about the tensions that drove the band apart after a couple years, including a whole chapter on the drug bust of Boone and Yanovsky in San Francisco in 1966.
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