For the music obsessives among us, the pieces of literature that stick longest in our minds are overwhelming those which take music itself as a subject. Austen’s Emma? Meh. Tolstoy’s War and Peace? Rather not. Jayson Greene’s 2018 Pitchfork review of Yves Tumor’s critically acclaimed third album Safe in the Hands of Love? Abso-bloody-lutely.
And when better for us to get our fix of musical nerdiness and obscure album facts than the summer vac? While everyone else is jetting off to Majorca or out for a game of tennis, you could be sat in your gloomy bedroom reading about the story behind your favourite band’s split-up (“Feel like pure shit just want Sonic Youth back x”)! With this in mind, I’ve picked out a few of the most insightful, poignant, and downright nerdy music books and publications that I’ve been fortunate enough to read in summers past and present, in the (admittedly faint) hope that there are people out there who care for this stuff as much as I do:
The brand of music book which has typically achieved the most commercial success is the (auto)biography. For me, however, this genre is all too often soulless and dusty, with publishers and writers paying little attention to what fans actually care about and reworking great musical stories to fit the same profitable tropes over and over again. Nevertheless, in the last few years I have really enjoyed reading Tracey Thorn’s Bedsit Disco Queen (2013) and Robert Forster’s Grant & I (2016).
In the former, ex-Everything but the Girl frontwoman Thorn details her suburban adolescence and concurrent political awakening, an excellent tableau of the late 70s and early 80s which puts EBTG’s eventual pop stardom in context; more often than not, the author herself seems bemused by her own success, making for an equally comic and affecting read. The latter is the history of Australian indie rock band The Go-Betweens, a group founded on the friendship between Forster and his co-frontman and songwriter Grant McLennan. Following McLennan’s tragic death in 2006, aged just 48, Forster began writing the story of the pair’s relationship, their struggles with the rock-and-roll lifestyle (clue: drugs and alcohol play a prominent part in the book), and the band’s agonising knack of narrowly missing out on mainstream success. As I read Grant & I last summer, my love for The Go-Betweens blossomed, and they quickly became one of my favourite bands on account of this biography – perhaps the biggest compliment you can give to a music book.
One collection of books which in my experience is more or less guaranteed to initiate a love affair between its reader and a particular band or record is the 33 1/3 series, in which each title is dedicated to a different writer’s favourite album. Two personal standouts from the many 33 1/3 books I’ve read in recent years are Ezra Furman’s ode to Lou Reed’s Transformer (one legendary queer artist writing about another) and the edition dedicated to Dinosaur Jr.’s You’re Living All Over Me, written by St Catz alumnus Nick Attfield – who said Oxford students weren’t cool? My sister is currently reading Jovana Babovic’s Sleater-Kinney title, which she described as “pretty bad-ass” (if that doesn’t sell it to you then nothing will).
But if I had to prescribe a single music-related publication that everyone should buy this summer, it would without a doubt be UK-based hip-hop magazine BRICK. The latest 250-odd-page issue (one of two released each year) features artist interviews with the likes of IAMDDB, Thundercat, and Ezra Collective’s Femi Koleoso alongside works from a team of BAME writers/artists and, perhaps most pertinently, a guide to police abolition. What’s more, 100% of profits from this issue of BRICK (available here for just £12) are being donated to Black Lives Matter initiatives. Donating to an essential cause and bagging yourself one of the most innovative and exciting music magazines available right now seems like a no-brainer.
So, a sizeable selection of specialist reading for all you music lovers to dig into, if you wish. But, as dismissive of classic fiction as I was at the start of this article (soz for that, bookheads), I’d like to end by pointing out that music also has its place in the writing of the literary greats:
One section of my current read, Proust’s Du Coté de Chez Swann (still tempted by a response to Lucas Jones’ recent ‘Classic Letdowns’ article, I can’t lie), revolves almost entirely around a song. Un Amour de Swann (or Swann in Love), which functions as a self-contained novella-length love story, chronicles the relationship between the enigmatic aristocrat Charles Swann and the courtesan Odette de Crécy. Swann’s tumultuous love for Odette becomes synonymous with his admiration of a single phrase from a sonata by the fictional composer Vinteuil; the music acts as a beautiful metaphor for Swann’s alternating adoration and anguish, human desires and pleasures reflected in the swell of the song. This, of course, is the true joy of music, and of literature:
“The little phrase was associated still, in Swann’s mind, with his love for Odette…as soon as it struck his ear, [it] had the power to liberate in him the room that was needed to contain it; the proportions of Swann’s soul were altered; a margin was left for a form of enjoyment which corresponded no more than his love for Odette to any external object, and yet was not, like his enjoyment of that love, purely individual, but assumed for him an objective reality superior to that of other concrete things.” (Translation by C. K. Scott Moncrieff)
Music Reading List Summer 2020:
- Tracey Thorn – Bedsit Disco Queen (2013)
- Robert Forster – Grant & I (2016)
- Ezra Furman – Lou Reed’s Transformer (2018)
- Nick Attfield – Dinosaur Jr.’s You’re Living All Over Me (2011)
- Jovana Babovic – Sleater-Kinney’s Dig Me Out (2016)
- BRICK Magazine (2015-)
- Marcel Proust – Un Amour de Swann / Swann in Love (1913)