This was a very good year for music books unless you were hoping Johnny Marr’s biography, Set the Boy Free, would replace Mozza’s Autobiography as the ultimate memoir by a former Smith. It compares unfavourably with Mozza’s book in every respect although it might just be better than List of the Lost.
Two books stood out: Stuart Cosgrove’s Young Soul Rebels and Michael (Mickey) Bradley’s Teenage Kicks: My Life as an Undertone.
Young Soul Rebels is an illuminating personal history of Northern Soul that spans the roots of the movement in the 1960s and its 1970s heyday through to the recent past of a resurgent scene that’s embraced YouTube, Spotify and Facebook and now that attracts aficionados of all ages from Blackpool to Barcelona, Todmorden to Tokyo.
This is a vividly told story and Cosgrove’s words crackle with passion as he describes the sometimes quirky world of northern soul all-dayers and all-nighters: the music, clothes, dancing, drugs and record collecting.
Here he is on locating a record and tape store with a stash of very rare secondhand soul singles, while on a visit to Washington DC: ‘What had begun as a grey and overcast day suddenly erupted into burning sunshine.’ As he further explains: ‘For northern soul collectors there is nothing more visceral than a ‘find’. A sudden surge more emotional than meeting an old friend, more powerful than an away goal, and more satisfying than sex itself.’
That day there were many finds.
Young Soul Rebels also acts as an alternative social history, taking in police raids on northern nights, the Yorkshire Ripper murders and the Miners’ Strike of the 1980s.
A must-read for soulies.
Michael Bradley’s Teenage Kicks, like The Undertones’ music is an absolute delight. Bradley is self-deprecating, genuinely modest and he possesses an admirably conversational writing style.
This eminently readable portrait of one of the most fondly remembered bands from the punk era captures brilliantly the camaraderie and raw enthusiasm of a bunch of young working class lads from a troubled part of the world, whose unique brand of pop-tinged punk was truly special.
I should admit that I’m only halfway through Lonely Boy but so far it is really is fascinating stuff but if, like John Lydon’s Anger Is An Energy it goes downhill the longer it goes on, then I would replace it on my list with Record Store of the Mind by Josh Rosenthal the guiding light behind San Francisco independent label Tompkins Square and crate digger extraordinaire.
Jonesy is searingly honest about his troubled early life and, unusually, I found this part of his memoir every bit as fascinating as his time as a Sex Pistol. I’m looking forward to devouring the second half ASAP.
Predictably, following his death in January, an avalanche of David Bowie related books have been published, the most high profile being Paul Morley’s The Age of Bowie.
If the old maxim ‘Nobody likes a smart-arse’ happens to be true then Paul Morley in all likelihood did not have to devote much time during December to scrawling festive messages to friends on Christmas cards.
Morley is at times pretentious as hell here. There’s also far too much for my liking on the Victoria and Albert Museum’s David Bowie Is exhibition (where Morley served as an artistic adviser) and there’s plenty that you might disagree with or even disregard completely, for example, here he discusses Bowie taking the lead role in Bertolt Brecht’s Baal, to be directed by Alan Clarke: ‘Clarke, at home with the traditional and the avant-garde, had directed British classics such as Kes and Cathy Come Home, and was a committed populiser of Brecht’s work.’
No Paul, Alan Clarke did not direct Kes. No Paul, Alan Clarke did not direct Cathy Come Home. Ken Loach did.
In the Spectator, Johnny Rogan judged that: ‘the book reads like the shambolic product of an almighty first-year cultural studies essay crisis’ while the Irish Times condemned it up as, ‘A labyrinth of confusion and verbosity.’
So why exactly is this book joining the others on my list?
Well, when it’s good, The Age of Bowie can rival just about any book penned about the great man. As a comparison, if this was a Bowie album it would maybe be Heathen. Inconsistent and sometimes self indulgent but with regular flashes of brilliance that makes it pretty much essential all the same.
Shock & Awe looks at ‘Glam Rock and its Legacy’ and that legacy according to Simon Reynolds is still reverberating – so there is far more on Lady Gaga than the kind of acts that often find themselves labelled Junkshop Glam nowadays – there’s even more on Nicki Minaj (3 entries in the index) than Iron Virgin (only 1) which I can’t quite get my head around.
Despite this gripe, Reynold’s rigorous homage to satin ‘n’ tat and cosmic hazy jive is immensely readable, the former Melody Maker journalist impressively evoking the visual dazzle, androgyny, excess, narcissism and giddy pop thrills that constantly accompanied the movement.
A blockbuster of a book – its spine is around the size as a good sized platform sole – Shock & Awe will hopefully help rehabilitate a genre of music that is still sometimes ridiculed and this child of the glam revolution enjoyed it thoroughly – and it’s always good to read something new about Alex Harvey even if he was never any kind of glam rocker.
Here are my five favourites:
Stuart Cosgrove: Young Soul Rebels – Birlinn (my review here)
Mickey Bradley: Teenage Kicks – Omnibus Press (my Louder Than War review here)
Steve Jones: Lonely Boy. Tales From a Sex Pistol – William Heinemann
Paul Morley: The Age of Bowie – Simon & Schuster
Simon Reynolds: Shock & Awe. Glam Rock and its Legacy – Faber & Faber