Best Books of 2017

A confession. I have made a big dent into Stuart Cosgrove’s Memphis 68: The Tragedy of Southern Soul but still have around sixty pages to go. Voted Shindig‘s music book of the year, this is a fascinating account of a year in America that was political dynamite and soundtracked by some of the finest soul music ever recorded. Much of it from the Memphis area.

Yes, I realise, you wouldn’t get a ‘best of the year’ article in the Times Literary Review that included books the reviewer hadn’t even finished  but having read Cosgrove’s two previous books on soul, I know I’m in safe hands and feel confident that I can already recommend this second part of his soul trilogy. Next up Harlem ’69.

From Memphis, Tennessee to the rather less romanticized environment of Airdrie, Lanarkshire and David Keenan’s This Is Memorial Device.

A multilayered fictional tale that the author subtitled ‘An Hallucinated Oral History of the Post-Punk Scene in Airdrie, Coatbridge and Environs 1978–1986’, the novel reads like a love letter to the town where the author got his teenage kicks.

This Is Memorial Device will surely chime with anybody that picked up a guitar, contributed to a fanzine or was maybe just a fan of their local music scene back in what narrator Ross Raymond calls ‘the glory years’.

Irvine Welsh, who dabbled in a couple of bands himself around this time, is also an admirer, praising it as ‘Brilliant stuff. It captures the terrific, obsessive, ludicrous pomposity of every music fan’s youth in an utterly definitive way.’

Back in May, Keenan hosted a Q&A with Cosey Fanni Tutti in Glasgow’s CCA to coincide with the launch of her book Art Sex Music – and her former group Throbbing Gristle incidentally get a namecheck in his novel.

Cosey’s book is far the most engaging new autobiography I’ve read this year and it’s safe to say it’s also the best book I’ve ever came across by an author equally comfortable in her career as a leading avant-garde provocateur, industrial music pioneer, stripper and porno mag model.

One minute she’s exhibiting with the COUM Transmissions art collective and being dubbed a ‘Wrecker of Civilisation’ by Tory MP Nicolas Fairbairn, the next she’s nipping off to do a photo shoot for Fiesta.

Early on, she’s warned by John Krivine to think seriously about embarking on a relationship with Genesis P. Orridge. ‘He said Gen was the most selfish person he’d met, had the biggest ego that he’d ever come across, and that I would always come second to that.’

Genesis P. Orridge comes out of this very badly. He lets Cosey go out and work in a crappy factory job, clean the house and cook while he swans around, continually craving the chance to be the centre of attention. His violent outbursts quickly become a feature of their relationship and he develops a habit of throwing cats across rooms and down flights of stairs.

Art Sex Music is compulsively readable from page one onwards and here’s Cosey talking about writing it:

Also worth a mention is Live Cinema and Its Techniques by Francis Ford Coppola. Sharp and insightful, Coppola presents us here with a thought-provoking mix of memoir, diary and speculation on a potential future of cinema.

My favourite film related book published in 2017, though, was Charles Taylor’s Opening Wednesday at a Theater or Drive-In Near You. A title that refers to the former American practice whereby new low-budget movies would be touted on TV and radio ads that ended with the release date information: ‘Opening Wednesday at a theater or drive-in near you!’

This, therefore, isn’t a run down of Coppola and his fellow Movie Brats’ critically acclaimed hits (nor for that matter another retelling of the grindhouse schlockers phenomenon) but instead what Taylor calls ‘The Shadow Cinema of the American ’70s’. B Movie gems that in many regards spoke just as deeply about the times in which they were made as the big New Hollywood hitters.

Think Foxy Brown rather than Five Easy Pieces or Two-Lane Blacktop rather than Taxi Driver.

‘Most of the movies in this book did what they set out to do,’ he explains in his introduction. ‘Make money fast. Some are good, solid pieces of moviemaking, and some are shrewdly put-together junk. Outsized claims for their greatness would only falsify their grungy, visceral appeal.’

Taylor can be provocative – comparing the respective star quality of Pam Grier and Meryl Streep, he comes out in favour of Grier – hell, yeah! – and he can be perceptive too – as when he complains that ‘The infantilization of American movies that began in 1977 with the unprecedented success of Star Wars has become total.’ Hell yeah again!

If the movies he discusses that I haven’t yet seen are anywhere near as entertaining as his book then I reckon I’m in for some great viewing once I track down Aloha, Bobby and Rose; Ulzana’s Raid and Hickey & Boggs.

Finally a mention for two small Scottish publishers.

Named the Saltire Society’s Emerging Publisher of the year for 2017 and voted #1 in The List’s Hot 100, Edinburgh based independent 404 Ink are certainly making a name for themselves with their magazine – which is also called 404 Ink, ink zines and paperbacks from a number of new authors including Chris McQueer’s Hings (Short Stories ‘N That).

With bizarre tales about men getting tattoos of Parkhead’s Forge Shopping Centre on their bahookies and a schemie father claiming to be Banksy, Hings might just be the funniest book of the year. Much as I usually hate the cliche of naming an author then adding ‘on drugs’, this did strike me at times like Des Dillon on acid.

Twenty odd miles down the road from Edinburgh lies the coastal town of Dunbar in East Lothian, which is the home to a new venture in micro-publishing, Ronnie Gurr’s Hanging Around Books.

Last month I picked up a copy of Teenage Instamatics: Edinburgh Punk Rock 1977 which features photos taken by Gurr around forty years ago for the punk fanzine Hanging Around. Johnny Thunders, John Lydon and The Stranglers are only some of the faces featured.

2017 saw Hanging Around also publish limited edition photozines on single subjects such as The Skids, The Sex Pistols and Stiff Little Fingers.

Hopefully they’ll be, um, hanging around for years to come and keeping up the good work.

For more information on Hanging Around Books click here and for more on 404 Ink here you go.