Lockdown has changed our lives beyond measure and has affected many industries in the worst possible way. It has not been an easy time for the music industry and as live performance seems as far away as ever. So far this year I have seen three concerts I had booked for cancelled – Erland Cooper, Lionel Richie and Deacon Blue (nostalgia!) but hopefully these will be rescheduled for next year.
With this in mind, I’ve have pulled together a list of ten great books that capture the sheer joy, power and unifying nature of the music industry. From bands to producers, record shops to composers, you’ll find something here to pass the time until live music makes its welcome comeback.
Espedair Street by Iain Banks
Iain Banks’ fourth novel tells the story of the Danny Weir, former bass guitarist of the fictional band Frozen Gold. On the brink of killing himself Weird (as he’s known) decides instead to write a memoir documenting his chaotic decade in the drug and booze-fuelled seventies music scene. From rags to riches, and ultimately to tragedy, Weir has found himself washed up at only 31. Now a recluse, hiding his true identity from those closest to him and drinking his life away, can Danny come to terms with all he had and all he has lost? Borrowing from the histories of many bands from the ‘70s Espedair Street is an engaging look at the toll a life in the limelight can exact.
Kill Your Friends by John Niven
Meet Stephen Stelfox, a British A&R music executive with a murderous bent. Stelfox is a man of unparalleled hideousness, chronically sexist and racist, he is fuelled by all the drink and drugs he can consume, He’s like a high octane cross between Simon Cowell and Patrick Bateman, spouting hilarious bile-filled lines that will make you cringe as much as make you laugh. His descent into murder and mayhem may not entirely come off, but as a scathing satire on the hypocritical profit-centric world of the music industry, this is spot on and lots of guilty fun.
White Tears by Hari Kunzru
Hari Kunzru’s biting satire of cultural appropriation is part ghost story, part noir thriller, as two white hipsters get more than they bargained for when they invent a fictional blues singer. New Yorkers Carter and Seth are obsessed with music. They chop up old music to make it new again, ripping off black culture to line white pockets. One day they stumble on an old blues song – an undiscovered gem just waiting to be found – and by passing it off as a rare recording by a fictional musician, they find themselves in a sinister, supernatural nightmare from which they might never escape. White Tears is hard to categorise, but it is a timely read, exploring black lives, white privilege and the music that runs through the country’s veins like blood.
The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love by Oscar Hijuelos
Pulitzer Prize-winning Cuban author Oscar Hijuelos’s novel The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love was published in 1989 and tells the story of Cesar Castillo, an aged musician who once had a small amount of fame when he and his brother Nestor appeared on an episode of I Love Lucy in the 1950s. The book chronicles Cesar’s last hours as he sits in a seedy hotel room, drinking and listening to recordings made by his band, the Mambo Kings. In telling Cesar and Nestor’s story, Hijuelos perfectly depicts the mambo music craze of the early fifties; and the way of life that disappeared for all Cubans after that country was over-thrown by an insurrection led by Fidel Castro in 1959. This vibrant, romantic book features cameos from real-life musicians including Desi Arnez and Tito Puento and captures the spirit and joy of playing, and hearing live music.
High Fidelity by Nick Hornby
In what is arguably Nick Hornby’s best novel, Rob Fleming is a London record store owner in his 30s whose girlfriend, Laura, has just left him. He might be relieved, but he’s not sure. At the record shop where he works, Rob and his employees spend their free moments curating “top-five” lists of anything that demonstrates their superior pop culture and musical knowledge. As Rob looks back over his top five failed relationships, he starts to wonder if Laura might have been the ‘one’ after all. I am not sure anyone has ever written better about music and fan culture and the sheer love of music that oozes from the book has turned it into an instant classic.
A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
Bennie is an ageing former punk rocker and record executive. Sasha is the passionate, troubled young woman he employs. Here Jennifer Egan brilliantly reveals their pasts, along with the inner lives of a host of other characters whose paths intersect with theirs. A Visit from the Goon Squad is neither a novel nor a collection of short stories, but something in between, a series of chapters featuring interlocking characters at different points in their lives, whose individual voices combine in harmony to create their own polyphonic exploration of human interconnectedness. Music pulses on every page, making A Visit from the Goon Squad an exhilarating read.
Alma Cogan by Gordon Burn
In Gorgon Burn’s audacious debut novel, he takes Britain’s biggest selling vocalist of the 1950s and turns her story into an exploration of celebrity and murder, mixing fictional characters with real-life stars such as John Lennon and Doris Day, Burn imagines a life for Alma Cogan if she had lived past her early death in 1966 an on into obscurity. Alongside Alma’s life is the search for the body of Keith Bennett, a victim of Ian Brady and Myra Hindley and Burn adeptly explores the dark underside of fame and the public’s voracious need to know everything about anyone in the public eye.
Daisy Jones and the Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid
Daisy Jones and the Six was a critical and commercial darling on its release last year. The tale of a Fleetwood Mac-esque rock band in 1970s LA it explores the stratospheric rise of a band whose sound defined an era and whose sudden, cataclysmic split left a trail of unanswered questions in its wake. Written from the narrative viewpoint of the different members of the band, their family and their entourage, it is a nostalgia-fuelled evocation of the seductive world of 70’s L.A. at its hedonistic peak. While some of the narrative strands work better than others, Jenkins writes incredibly well about the process of creating and performing music and deserves kudos for writing all the lyrics to the imaginary songs. Keep an eye out for the movie adaptation next year, starring none other than Elvis’ granddaughter Riley Keough.
This is Memorial Device by David Keenan
This Is Memorial Device, the debut novel by David Keenan, is a paean to the sense of hope and possibility that came to small towns in Scotland with the rise of punk rock in the late 1970s and early 80s.
It follows a dizzying cast of misfits, drop-outs, small town visionaries and would-be artists and musicians through a period of time where anything seemed possible, a moment where art and the demands it made were as serious as your life. At the heart of the book is the story of Memorial Device, a mythic post-punk group that could have gone all the way were it not for their bloody-minded wish to remain underground legends.
The Commitments by Roddy Doyle
The Commitments has taken on a life of its own as a blockbuster movie directed by the late Alan Parker, a best-selling album and a stage show. However, it began life in 1987 as a self-published book by a young Irish author, Roddy Doyle. Set in Northside Dublin, the book follows the efforts of music fanatic Jimmy Rabbitte and his two friends as they go about setting up a band by placing an ad in a local paper that reads, “Have You Got Soul? Then Dublin’s hardest working band is looking for you.” Never has a book so perfectly captured the joys and the pain of forming a band with your mates and experiencing the (brief) success you have always dreamed of!
Have you read any of these? What’s your favourite book about music?
This piece was first published on No More Workhorse in July of this year.
I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!