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Archive for the ‘Rock music’ Category

Highway to Hell: The Life and Times of AC/DC Legend Bon Scott, Clinton Walker (Pan Books 1996, 2006)

AC/DC were never experimental or avant-garde. No, they were authentic and unpretentious. They sounded like Australia: hard-drinking, hard-living, home-spun and humorous. Or so outsiders liked to think. But there was an intelligence and subtlety to them all the same. Even a sensitivity. At least, there was while Bon Scott wrote the lyrics and sang the songs. Then Scott died, Brian Johnson came in, and AC/DC lost the magic, becoming crude and witless heavy metal instead.

I used to regret Bon Scott’s early death. After reading this book, I’m not sure if I regret it any more. It seems as though his passing was inevitable. He wanted to die and he did. The only question was how he’d do it. Drink? Drugs? Dangerous driving? In the end, he did his ancestors proud and killed himself with drink, getting blind drunk one night in London and choking to death in his sleep (in his death-certificate, reproduced here, it says “Acute Alcohol Poisoning”). That was in 1980 and he was only thirty-three. But he’d packed a lot into those years. That might have been the problem. He’d seen and experienced everything, except truly big success as a musician. Big success was beckoning for AC/DC in 1980 and Scott must have known it, but the prospect didn’t attract him. And anyway, Clinton Walker suggests here that Scott wasn’t necessarily a fixture in AC/DC. He might have been on his way out at the time of his death. After all, he didn’t have the burning ambition or the fraternal bond of Angus and Malcolm Young, the two Scottish-Australian brothers who founded and kept an iron grip on AC/DC.

Instead, Bon Scott had charm, wit and intelligence. And those things had already taken him everywhere he wanted to go, it seems. This book is good at putting his career into context. It quotes extensively from his friends and fellow musicians (with the notable exceptions of Angus and Malcolm). Those people know his backstory and saw his early struggles. The vast majority of Bon Scott’s fans, on the other hand, will have first come across him in AC/DC. But he was a veteran of Australian heavy rock by the time he joined the Youngs’ battle for world-domination. He was the “old man” in the band (Angus literally called him that) and “he was always sort of separate from the rest”, as Richard Griffiths puts it here. Griffiths was AC/DC’s “booking agent” on their first British tour. He goes on:

[The drummer] Phil [Rudd], he was off on his own, he was actually pretty obnoxious. Angus and Malcolm, they were thick, obviously. And then [bassist] Mark [Evans], you knew he wasn’t going to last, he was too much of a nice guy. I mean, these were tough guys, they were pretty tough on each other. (ch. 11, “England”, pp. 199-200)

Mark Evans himself backs this up:

They [the Youngs] would dispute this, but I think they viewed Bon to be ultimately disposable. In hindsight, it seems to be preposterous, but at the time he was always in the firing line. And there was a lot of pressure, mainly from George [Young, Angus and Malcolm’s older brother and AC/DC’s producer], and record companies. I think within that camp, there’s been a certain rewriting of history, about how they felt about the guy – no, that’s wrong, how they felt about the guy professionally. Because there was no way you could spend more than 30 seconds in a room with Bon and not be completely and utterly charmed. The guy was captivating; he was gentlemanly, but he had the rough side to him, and he was funny. (Ibid., pg. 200)

Is it true that Scott was “separate” and “ultimately disposable” or are Griffiths and Evans working off grudges against the Youngs, who are not known for their charm and clubbability? Maybe. Both Angus and Malcolm “refused to interviewed for this book”, but I don’t think they come out of it badly. Walker doesn’t “tip the bucket”, as the Australian idiom goes. There isn’t anything to tip, because Angus and Malcolm aren’t monsters, just hard-working, hard-headed musicians who found a successful formula and stuck to it. Or they weren’t monsters, because Malcolm is dead now. But he wasn’t when Walker paid tribute to his band at the end of this book:

[…] like a vintage bluesman, AC/DC deserve the respect and success they enjoy. The energy and commitment AC/DC have is the least the punters should expect from any rock’n’roll band. But AC/DC have always been distinguished by their lack of pretension and their sense of humour, and these are the qualities they cling to. (“Epilogue”, pg. 310)

But did they cling to those qualities after Bon Scott died? Angus kept wearing his uniform and Malcolm kept wearing his T-shirts, but Brian Johnson was now writing and singing lyrics like these:

What do you do for money, honey?
How do you get your kicks?
What do you do for money, honey?
How do you get your licks? – “What Do You Know for Money, Honey?

Compare this by Scott:

It’s another lonely evenin’
In another lonely town.
But I ain’t too young to worry
And I ain’t too old to cry
When a woman gets me down.

Got another empty bottle
And another empty bed.
Ain’t too young to admit it
And I’m not too old to lie:
I’m just another empty head. – “Ride On

And this by Scott:

And I got patches on the patches
On my old blue jeans –
Well, they used to be blue,
When they used to be new,
When they used to be clean.

But I’ve got a Mumma who’s a hummer,
Just keeping me alive.
While I’m in the band doing drinking with the boys,
She’s working nine to five
(Knows her place that woman). – “(Ain’t No Fun) Waitin’ ’Round to Be a Millionaire

Bon Scott wasn’t a feminist, but he wasn’t a crude misogynist either. And where Johnson shouted or shrieked his lyrics, Scott used to act them and bring them to life. His phrasing and timing were excellent and he could enliven an ordinary line with irony or innuendo, ribaldry or resignation. Like Chuck Berry, he had the ability to turn songs into stories. Unlike Chuck Berry, he was more than the narrator of the story: he was the one who had lived it.

For all these reasons and more, Bon Scott is one of my two favourite singers in rock’n’roll. The other is Sean Harris, once of Diamond Head. But if Harris is always pleasant on the ear, he always sounds the same too. Scott doesn’t. And Scott had an intelligence that’s rare in rock’n’roll. If you want to know a lot more about him, from his birth in Forfar to his death in London and his time in Australia in-between, this is a good book to read. But reading it may stop you regretting his death, because it looks as though death was exactly what he was looking for.

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The Haçienda: How Not to Run a Club, Peter Hook (Simon & Schuster 2009)

Well, I was wrong. This book isn’t funnier than the first part of Peter Hook’s autobiography. Nor is it as funny. In fact, it was a big disappointment. Not that I’m an ideal reader for a book about a legendary nightclub. Drugs, crowds, bright lights and deafening music. Who could ask for more? Me. Or not me. I’d ask for a lot less. I don’t find this kind of thing amusing:

That [PA] set-up lasted until 1988, when we splashed out for a huge system from Wigwam Acoustics […] that made everyone’s nose tingle because of the huge bottom end, and deafened audiences for a whole week. Eventually we had to turn it down from 140db to 130db because doctors were phoning up to complain – too many patients with Haçienda hearing problems. (“1984”, pg. 84)

But I do find this kind of thing amusing:

A fine example [of our incompetence] was Teardrop Explodes [sic] in May 1982. They were massive at the time and Rob [Gretton, New Order’s manager] paid them £3000 to do a ‘secret’ gig (nudge-nudge, wink-wink, but you’re supposed to let the word out so everyone will come).

We kept it so secret only eight people turned up. (“1982”, pg. 45)

This was amusing too:

We continued to make mistakes. For example, the place would be repainted every week, which cost a fortune. But, rather than wash out the paint tray and rollers, the staff would throw them in a pile then go to B&Q and buy new ones. I found that pile after we went bankrupt and it was like fucking Everest, had two Sherpas and a base camp on it. (“1984”, pg. 82)

And it’s also amusing that both the Haçienda and its cat received catalogue-numbers, Fac 51 and Fac 191, from Factory Records, the home of Joy Division and New Order. But there’s not enough amusing stuff here. For me, the best bits may have been the set-lists for two of the many bands who performed at the Haçienda. This was the Cocteau Twins on Thursday 8th December, 1983:

‘When Mama Was Moth’, ‘The Tinderbox’, ‘Glass Candle Grenades’, ‘In Our Angelhood’, ‘From the Flagstones’, ‘My Love Paramour’, ‘Sugar Hiccup’, ‘Hitherto’, ‘Musette and Drums’ (pg. 71)

And this was Einstürzende Neubaten on Thursday 28th January, 1985:

‘Seele Brennt’, ‘Zeichnungen des Patienten O.T.’, ‘Meningitis’, ‘Armenia’, ‘Yü-Gung (Fütter Mein Ego)’, ‘Sehnsucht’, ‘Sand’, ‘Negativ Nein’, ‘Letztes Biest (Im Himmel)’, Hör mit Schmerzen’, ‘Tanz Debil’, ‘Die Genaue Zeit’, Abfackeln!’ (pg. 100)

Just from those song-titles you know that those were two bands who, in their very different ways, were doing something very strange and interesting. Or bloody interesting, in the case of Einstürzende Neubaten and their pneumatic drill: “The gig ended when the singer’s throat burst and he started screaming blood all over the mic. Our sound-guy Ozzie got onstage and knocked him out. ‘I’d warned him once,’ he said.” But Hook doesn’t write about the Cocteau Twins or talk much about gigs by anyone except Einstürzende Neubaten and The Jesus and Mary Chain. The Chainies blew through the Haçienda on their “17 Minutes of Feedback Tour” in 1985. Hook says: “I thought, ‘That sounds quite interesting’, so made sure I worked security that night.” (pg. 93)

Alas, the gig was “excruciating”, because “17 Minutes of Feedback” was exactly what the audience got. Having listened to this, Hook removed the human shield that was protecting the Chainies from the people they’d deliberately provoked: “I was so wound up after they’d finished, I pulled the bouncers off and let the punters at them.” They were quickly sent on their way. But that was in the mid-’80s and soon the gigs at “the Haç” got fewer and fewer as the DJs took over. I think bands and their gigs are much more interesting than DJs and their sets. Joy Division and New Order were interesting, for example, but Hook doesn’t write about them much here either. He refers to New Order mostly as the source of the money poured into the bottomless pit of the Haçienda. As Tony Wilson of Factory Records put it: “About three years after opening the Haçienda we realized that everybody in Manchester was getting free drinks – except for the people who actually owned it.” (pg. 108)

But Hook, Wilson & Co. weren’t content with one bottomless pit: they opened another in the form of a bar called Dry. That too fell victim to the gangs who began to poison Manchester’s night-life in the 1990s. The Haçienda tried to fight fire with fire by hiring thugs to police thugs. That’s why they brought in the Manchester-Irish crime family called the Noonans:

Dominic Noonan, who worked with his brother [Damien] for the club, later told documentary-maker Donal MacIntyre that the Haçienda was a ‘tough door’; that gangs from Moss Side, Cheetham Hill and Salford would turn up, all wanting to get in for free, so ‘me and some of the lads who ran the door said enough was enough, let’s take the trouble to them – and we did.’

He and another doorman paid a visit to a pub, his mate with a shotgun, Dominic wielding a machete. ‘One of the gang lad’s dogs was about [dog-lovers and vegetarians might want to look away now] so I just chopped its head off, carried the head inside the pub and put it on the pool table. I more or less told them, “Stay away from the Haçienda or the next time it’ll be a human head,” and they never came back. (“1993”, pg. 260)

That warning for “dog-lovers and vegetarians” is funny, but it might have been added by Hook to something written by someone else. That story about Dominic Noonan and his machete is from one of the mini-histories in italics that punctuate the text (and that appear in Hook’s Joy Division book too). And why do I think Hook wasn’t responsible for the mini-histories? Well, they don’t always read like him and at the beginning of this book, a mini-history describes a controversy over a record-sleeve for Joy Division. It was designed by Peter Saville with a photograph of “the Appiani family tomb” on it. The record came out shortly after Ian Curtis’s death and Factory Records were accused of making a “tasteless reference to the suicide”. The mini-history says: “A bemused Saville pointed out that the design had been finalized prior to Curtis’s death.” (pg. 15) I don’t think Hook wrote that line. Guardianistas use ugly and pretentious words like “finalized” and “prior to”. As I noted previously, he isn’t a Guardianista (so “bemused” isn’t his kind of word either).

If he were a Guardianista, perhaps he would have avoided making some definitely tasteless references like this:

When drum’n’bass and hip hop became popular in 1995, we ended up being unable to hold so-called ‘black-music’ nights because there was so much trouble. Even the police encouraged us not to promote these shows and our bouncers eventually refused to work at them too – and don’t forget that our bouncers were lunatics themselves (in the nicest possible way). But even they said these nights couldn’t be policed. (pg. 238)

As Barry Miles did in one of his autobiographies, Peter Hook is just feeding a stereotype of violence and disorder in the black community. First of all, there is no more violence and disorder in the black community than in any other community. Second, okay, although there is a lot more violence and disorder in the black community, this is caused by hegemonic white racism and the legacy of slavery. And the very violent Noonan family weren’t black, which proves it. So there.

Anyway, this book disappointed me, but I’m not an ideal reader for a book about a legendary night-club. Lots of other people have been and will be. And it’s got a good index. Plus, I learned that the cedilla in Haçienda was (maybe) there to make the “çi” look like the “51” of its catalogue number. Good arty idea, that.

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Unknown Pleasures: Inside Joy Division, Peter Hook (Simon & Schuster 2012)

It’s not bad going to have been central to two of the biggest and most important bands in British musical history. This is the autobiography of a man who achieved exactly that: Peter Hook, who was bassist first in Joy Division and then in New Order. If I were a fan of either of those bands, I’d’ve liked the book even more. I’m not, but I can see their importance.

I can also see that Peter Hook was not one of the two “thick bastards” in Joy Division. That’s what he calls himself and Bernard Sumner, the guitarist who accompanied him into New Order. It’s not true. Hook doesn’t acknowledge a co-writer on this book and although it sometimes reads as though it’s transcribed from a session down the pub, it reads well too and is full of intelligent commentary on Joy Division’s music. Okay, the singer Ian Curtis might have been the most intelligent and creative member of Joy Division. He was certainly the best-looking, most charismatic and attention-grabbing, first because of his epilepsy and then because of his suicide.

But he was also the sort of person who would say “in terms of”. Peter Hook wasn’t and I hope he still isn’t.* He didn’t have the background for it or acquire the artistic pretensions when he was growing up. His background was rough: he was born Peter Woodhead in Salford in 1956. Then his parents divorced and he acquired a stepfather called William Hook, who took his new family off to Jamaica, where Hook Snr had found work as an engineer in a glass-works. Jamaica was quite a contrast with dour, drab, drizzly Manchester. As Peter Hook says: “You know how I said that life in Salford had been in black and white? Well in Jamaica it was definitely in colour.” (pg. 7)

That’s in chapter one, which is entitled: “For seventeen days that’s all we had, chicken and chips.” That’s a reference to what they ate on the boat over to Jamaica, because Hook’s mother, like many working-class Brits, was resolutely unadventurous in her gustatory habits: “She could hardly bear to eat anything that came from south of Salford.” (pg. 5) She passed that conservatism onto her son and he wouldn’t lose it until he was in his twenties and, inter alia, tried a curry being eaten by a member of Cabaret Voltaire (pg. 239). He’d probably have lost it sooner if he’d stayed in Jamaica. And who knows where he’d be today if he had?

But he didn’t. His mother got homesick and the family came back to the black-and-white of Salford. That was one of Hook’s early lessons in the what-might-have-beens of life. If he’d stayed in Jamaica, he might still have become a famous and successful musician. But he wouldn’t have been playing anything like the music of Joy Division. Maybe only Mancunians could have produced that and maybe only Mancunians born in the 1950s.

One thing is certain: they had to be intelligent Mancunians and Hook was intelligent enough to pass his Eleven Plus and win a place at Salford Grammar School. He gives the credit for that to his time in a more demanding Jamaican school and maybe that was part of it. But a school can demand and not get if the pupil isn’t bright enough. Hook was. So was Bernard Sumner, who was also born in 1956 in Salford and who also passed his Eleven Plus. That’s how he and Hook began their long but sometimes prickly friendship: “I met Barney in that first year at Salford Grammar. He still gets really annoyed when I call him Barney.” (pg. 10)

He is probably also annoyed by chapter headings like “Barney would always eat on his own or in the bath” and by the descriptions of his “infamous sleeping bag”. Hook is undoubtedly mythologizing, telling in-jokes and taking the piss at times, because a book like this has two audiences. Insiders and outsiders, or people who were there at the time and people who weren’t. Either way, they’ll interested to hear Hook’s side of the story. And he emphasizes that it is always his side of the story. Other people remember things differently. And they’re not necessarily wrong to do so: Hook says that Ian Curtis is remembered in very different ways because he was a “chameleon” could put on very different characters depending on who he was with. (pg. 235)

But that’s much later in the book. Before then, Hook had to live through his time as a lazy schoolboy who became a thieving Salford skinhead and scally, then his time as a local government clerk and chalet-worker. As for the working-class boys of Black Sabbath, music was his way out. And the Sex Pistols were the sign-post. Hook and Sumner were among the fifty or so who attended the now-legendary Sex Pistols gig at the Lesser Free Trade Hall in Manchester on 4th June 1976. Tickets were 50p, the support was Solstice, and the impact of the headliners was life-transforming. The Sex Pistols came, were seen, and conquered. Hook describes them like this:

What made them special, without a shadow of a doubt, was Johnny Rotten. The tunes were only part of the package – and probably the least important part of it, if I’m honest. Close your eyes and like I say you had a conventional pub-rock band with a soundman who either didn’t have a clue or was being very clever indeed. But who was going to close their eyes when he, Johnny Rotten, was standing there? (“Normal band, normal night, few people watching”, pg. 38)

Hook and Sumner were immediately inspired to form their own band. They had the usual trouble with finding and keeping a good drummer, then had the luck to pick up a singer who could rival Johnny Rotten for charisma and intelligence. But in a very different way: Ian Curtis was literary and “arty” in a way that John Lydon wasn’t. For example, he was a fan of William Burroughs and J.G. Ballard, as Joy Division’s song-titles and lyrics would show. But writers like that meant nothing to Hook and he says he didn’t pay proper attention to Curtis’s lyrics until after the suicide.

That doesn’t mean he was a passenger on the S.S. Joy Division. His bass was central to their sound and his appearance was central to their gigs. I got the impression that he was very tall because he carried his bass very low. But he wasn’t. He says he was inspired to use a “long strap” by Paul Simonon of The Clash (pg. 111), but:

Sound-wise I was most influenced by Jean-Jacques Burnel of the Stranglers. I used to listen to his bass on “Peaches” and “Five Minutes” and think, That’s how I want to sound. When I went to see them at the Bingley Hall in Stafford I wrote down his equipment, a Vox 2×15 cab and Hi-Watt head, then went out and bought the lot, and it was magnificent, sounded wonderful. So, I got my sound from Jean-Jacques and my strap from Paul Simonon. I’m so pleased I never got into Level 42. (“We need to get rid of this Nazi artwork”, pg. 112)

I laughed at that last line, because I’m old enough to know about Level 42. But you won’t need to know about bands or anything else from that time and place to find this book very funny in places:

That was when we discovered that it was easier to give drink away than it was to get people to pay for it – an important lesson, that, and one we made great use of during the Haçienda years. (“Timeline Four: January-December 1979”, pg. 232)

Hook has a sly and sardonic wit. He and Barney enjoyed playing practical jokes on other band-members and on other bands (Barney “can’t take them, mind, as you’ll discover”). But he says that he wishes he’d spent less time doing that and more time paying attention to the problems Ian Curtis was having. Most readers won’t have heard of one of those problems before:

Having piles was a feature of being in Joy Division. Ian got them from sitting on the heater at T.J. Davidson’s [a cold rehearsal studio] and both Twinny [a roadie] and I got them from the van during the European tour in 1980. [JD’s manager] Terry Mason’s would regularly explode. But you know what? As far as I know, Bernard never had piles, just a sore arse. (“Timeline Two: June 1976-December 1977”, pg. 90)

Hook isn’t a hagiographer and Curtis wasn’t hagiographable. Like Kurt Cobain’s, his suicide starts to look more and more inevitable in hindsight. And there were big similarities between Cobain and Curtis: both were highly intelligent and autodidactic, both had tortured, introspective psychologies and serious chronic illnesses, both had troubled relationships with their wives and friends. They left “young and good-looking corpses” by different means, Curtis with a rope and Cobain with a shot-gun, but that reflects the nations they lived in. Not that their corpses were good-looking, of course. It was the photographs and films taken before then that were good-looking.

Image is an essential part of rock music. But Joy Division had much more of a hinterland than Nirvana, I’d say. They were more innovative and original in their music, more intelligent in their lyrics, more eclectic in their influences. The “thick bastard” Peter Hook can claim a lot of credit for the musical innovation and originality. So can his fellow thickie Bernard Sumner, whose obsession with the Second World War influenced the image and designs that helped the band to fame. Those designs included the picture of a “Hitler Youth banging a drum” on their Ideal for Living EP.

But it was Ian Curtis who took the name “Joy Division” from the supposed Holocaust-memoir House of Dolls (1955), where it was given to women working as prostitutes in a concentration camp. Joy Division would have been a good sardonic name if it had been invented from nothing. Alas for Hooky and Co, it wasn’t. The source of their name and the drumming Hitler-Youth inspired the first of the “Are you Nazis?” questions that would haunt the band for the rest of their career. That’s why Hook ends his autobiography with these words, describing how the remaining members of Joy Division decided to carry on after Ian Curtis’s suicide:

Then there was the business of finding a new name. We sat down one day to come up with one, thinking that we were going to learn our lesson this time, and that whatever name we came up with wouldn’t be anything even vaguely Nazi-sounding.

No way, we thought. No fucking way were we going to make that mistake again. (“Epilogue”, pg. 274)

They did make that mistake again, of course. Only it can’t really have been a mistake. They were being sardonic again. And stubborn. It was northern bloody-mindedness. But although Hook often refers to the north and being northern, he doesn’t have the northern inferiority-complex you can see in his fellow Mancunian’s Anthony Burgess’s Little Wilson and Big God (1986). As a self-proclaimed “thick bastard”, he doesn’t mind being inferior.

Only Hook isn’t a Mancunian: he’s a Salfordian. The late great Tony Wilson introduced Joy Division’s first TV appearance like this: “They’re a Manchester band, with the exception of the guitarist, who comes from Salford – very important difference.” Hook reacted like this:

Fucking tosser – “the guitarist who comes from Salford”? Two of us came from Salford. I was really annoyed. I was proud of my roots, whereas Bernard always played them down. (“We need to get rid of this Nazi artwork”, pg. 110)

“Fucking tosser” is how many people reacted to Tony Wilson, but Wilson didn’t mind. Like Ian Curtis, he was the kind of person who would say “in terms of”; unlike Ian Curtis, the phrase suited him. He and his Factory label are central to the story of Joy Division and New Order, and he maybe doesn’t get the space he deserves here. He certainly wouldn’t think so and he was certainly an interesting character: flamboyant, narcissistic, publicity-hungry, and Svengali-esque. Or so he no doubt liked to think of himself. As Hook writes: “One of Tony’s favourite sayings was: ‘Always keep your bands poor. That way they make great music.’” (pg. 245)

Hook thinks he was right. Being poor and literally hungry has been responsible for a lot of great music. Joy Division are one example and if you’re a fan you should definitely read this book. It doesn’t have any hot groupie-action, but it has a lot more that you don’t usually find in a rock autobiography, like Hook’s encounter with some huge, home-invading Jamaican spiders and the time he was questioned by the police as a possible Yorkshire Ripper. That was because his van had been spotted regularly in the red-light districts of “Bradford, Huddersfield, Leeds, Moss Side…” (pg. 118) He explained to the police that he was playing clubs there in a band called Joy Division. The police “had never heard of them.” Hook comments: “Probably Level 42 fans.”

A few years later, though, the same policemen might well have been New Order fans. Hook writes about New Order in a later autobiography and I’d definitely like to read that after finishing this. I’d also like to read Hook’s The Haçienda: How Not to Run a Club (2010). If it’s funnier than this book, and it probably is, then it must be very funny.


*Oh noes — I’ve spotted an ito in the book: “…looking at it in terms of the whole Joy Division story” (part 4, “Love Will Tear Us Apart”, pg. 189). But it might not be by Hook.

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The Fallen: Life In and Out of Britain’s Most Insane Group, Dave Simpson (Canongate paperback 2009)

I enjoyed this book a lot when I first read it a few years ago. This time it was less fun. It didn’t seem as well-written and there was an occasional nasty edge that I didn’t remember from the first read. But I can still recommend it as an entertaining guide to a very strange band.

I’m not a fan of The Fall myself, though I think I can see why so many people are. And why they tend to be so devoted. Mark E. Smith, the “non-musician” who has led the band through decades of line-up changes, is himself a fan of both H.P. Lovecraft and Captain Beefheart. And it shows. Some of his song-titles could stand by themselves without any lyrics or music: “Rowche Rumble”, “How I Wrote Elastic Man”, “Mr Pharmacist”, “Why Are People Grudgeful?”.

The album titles are good too. Live at the Witch Trials was the first Fall album (it wasn’t live). Then there are Hex Enduction Hour, Code: Selfish, Imperial Wax Solvent, Sub-Lingual Tablet. A strange and interesting mind chose or came up with those. Dave Simpson encounters that mind at the beginning of the book, when he spends hours drinking in a Manchester pub with “Mad Mark”, as Mark E. Smith is known in his home-town of Prestwich. Why has Smith fired so many musicians? “It’s like football. Every so often you’ve got to change the centre-forward.”

But there’s more to it than that, as Simpson discovers in the rest of the book. He set out to track down all of The Fall’s many ex-members, from the most famous and long-lasting to the most fleeting and obscure. Even as he’s ticking names off his list, Smith is lengthening it. As the cover of this paperback says: “NOW with Added Ex-Members!” But everything Simpson writes about the Fallen is also telling you something about the Feller (in both senses of the word). Mark E. Smith is at the centre of everything, hiring, firing, drinking, prodding – something he likes to do to musicians on-stage.

It unsettles them, destroys routine and monotony, encourages the spontaneity that Smith thinks is essential to musical creativity and performance. And his unpredictability seems to work: although The Fall have often fallen fallow and released weak albums, they’ve always burst back to life with new members and new material. Or so Simpson says. He’s been a fan for a long time. So was his girlfriend when he started writing the book. They’d broken up before he finished it, which was appropriate.

Was it the Curse of Smith at work? Mad Mark certainly didn’t like being analysed or having light shed on his work and the many misfortunes that have dogged his group. Some of them seem to be have been deliberately engineered. Smith doesn’t want superstardom or great wealth. He wants to remain an Outsider. Lovecraft wrote about one of those and so did Camus. The Fall were named from Camus’s novel La Chute (1956) and perhaps Smith thought he’d die young just as Camus did.

He didn’t. The Fall have always been one of England’s strangest groups; now they’re one of the longest-lasting too. And the only ever-present is Smith. If you’re a fan, you’ve probably already read this book. If you aren’t, you may become one by doing so. It’s sometimes very funny and, like a biography of AC/DC I’ve reviewed, has a lot of sociological interest in it. You can’t understand Smith without understanding north-west England and Manchester in particular. And like a biography of Iron Maiden I’ve also reviewed, it teaches you a lot about historiography, or the process of writing and researching history. The Fall were formed in a rich country in peaceful times. But no-one can be sure what exactly happened to who, why, when and how. Some stories come in many different versions. Some stories may reverse the truth. And according to Marc Riley: “There are a lot of skeletons in The Fall cupboard and stories that haven’t been told.”

If Mark E. Smith has his way, they never will be. But I can foresee this book being updated again. And perhaps even again.

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copendium-by-julian-copeCopendium: An Expedition into the Rock’n’Roll Underworld, Julian Cope (Faber and Faber 2012)

A big book with big ideas about BIIIIIG sounds. As Cope himself might put it. I’d always been vaguely interested in him – what I chanced to hear of his music seemed intelligent, quirky and original – but never bothered to investigate further. But I knew that he liked Krautrock and stone circles, so it was a surprise to pick this book off the shelf and discover that he also liked Pentagram. And Blue Öyster Cult. And Grand Funk Railroad. And Van Halen.

Plus a bunch of obscure stuff. Very obscure. There’s a Danskrocksampler at the end of the book, including Steppeneuvlene’s “Itsi-Bitsi” from 1967. But whether it’s famous or obscure, Cope brings the same enthusiasm and open mind:

The problem with someone like Kim Fowley is that the intellectuals know that, on a long-term, sensible career level, he doesn’t mean any of what he says. So they dismiss him because they’ve fallen for the idea that you gotta mean what you say in the first place for it to have any value. Baloney! The innate truth of rock’n’roll shamanism is such that it can still ooze out and inform the world, even from the works of those who claim to be engaged in nothing more than some kind of parody. (Review of Kim Fowley’s Outrageous, 1967, pg. 32)

The writing is always fun, occasionally fiery, as he explores music from many decades and many genres: rock, heavy metal, doom, drone, glam, psychedelia, and more. There are also a lot of autobiography and digression in it, as he draws parallels between the music and his own life and interests, like landscapes and (pre)history. But I think he uses more words than he needs to. He isn’t writing Guardianese, but he gestures towards it at times. And I think his enthusiasm for weed and magic mushrooms must have led some of his fans into bad places:

Although the double-vinyl artwork is huge, gatefold and magnificent, the CD version of Dopesmoker is the best option overall, because you can get utterly narnered once you’ve put it on and not have to get up for an hour and ten minutes. (Review of Sleep’s Dopesmoker, 2003, pg. 367)

Cope doesn’t spend a lot of his time utterly narnered. Like Vox Day, he’s one of those people who get a lot done and make life more interesting for everyone. Copendium is a good example. Big book, big ideas, BIIIIIG sounds.

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dog-eat-dog-by-michael-browningDog Eat Dog: A Story of Survival, Struggle and Triumph by the Man Who Put AC/DC on the World Stage, Michael Browning (Allen & Unwin 2014)

You know you’re a true fan if your mind flies instantly to AC/DC when you see the title Dog Eat Dog on the spine of a book. Well, actually, you don’t. Because mine did and I’m not. Not any more, anyway. AC/DC used to be one of my favourite bands. Then I realized how much they changed for the worse when Brian Johnson became the lead singer and began to write the lyrics. But Bon-Scott-era AC/DC remained one of my favourite bands.

I can’t say that any more, but I still found this book interesting and entertaining. If Michael Browning really wrote it – no co-author is given – he’s a natural writer, with a relaxed style and excellent ear for dialogue:

“Don’t fuck with me,” Deep Purple’s stage manager told him. “I’m from the Bronx.”

“Are you now?” asked George, unimpressed. “Well, I’m from Glasgow.”

Then he thumped him. (ch. 12, pg. 144)

That’s George Young, older brother of Angus and Malcolm, and part of the Easybeats, one of Australia’s biggest and most successful bands in the 1960s. That’s how Michael Browning knew him. Browning was at the heart of Australian popular music for decades, booking bands for clubs and watching fashions like the Sharpies come and go.

But he says he wanted to be the first to take an Australian band to big international success. He did it with AC/DC, whom he first met in the B.B. era – Before Bon. Then Bon came on board and the band began its long climb to the top of rock’n’roll. Like Angus and Malcolm, Scott was originally from Scotland. Unlike Angus, he drank and took drugs, which is why he died long ago and Angus is still there. Michael Browning was sacked not long after Bon Scott died, but he saw the Youngs and Scott close-up as AC/DC rose from the pub circuit in Australia to the big time.

He records what he saw here, from AC/DC’s early – and unwanted – popularity with schoolgirls to the flying beer-cans and “Suck more piss!” chants popular with rough Australian crowds, from brawls with Deep Purple’s stage-crew to the “Snot Cyclone” Angus generated after he’d downed too much milk. There are some good photos too, like Angus “showing the poms who’s boss” atop massive speakers in a London club or wearing a Zorro costume on Australian kids’ TV. And the book remains interesting when Browning writes about bands other than AC/DC. Ted Nugent is supposed to have killed a pigeon with his volume; Billy Thorpe and the Aztecs killed an expensive tank of tropical fish.

But the cover of this book speaks the truth: it’s AC/DC that most readers will be interested in. They won’t be disappointed, whether they’re true fans or not. And there’s a lot of sociological interest here too. Australia is an interesting place. So is Scotland. Both countries are part of the AC/DC story and Michael Browning describes how.

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The Greatest Albums You'll Never Hear ed. Bruno MacDonaldThe Greatest Albums You’ll Never Hear: Unreleased Records by the World’s Greatest Musicians, ed. Bruno MacDonald (Aurum Press 2014)

This book is a who, why, where and when of what-might-have-been: albums that never appeared or that came out much later in different forms. It’s fun to read:

Pretentious, confessed Pete Townshend of the concept that haunted him for three decades, “is just not a big enough word. … I could explain it to Roger [Daltrey] and John [Entwistle] and Keith [Moon] … and they’d say, ‘Oh, I get it, you put these suits on and you put a penny in the slot and you get wanked off.’ I’d go, ‘No, no, it’s much bigger than that.’ ‘Oh, I get it, you get wanked off and you get a Mars bar shoved up your bum…’” (The Who, Lifehouse, pg. 46)

The maverick [Neil Young]’s abrupt changes of mind bewildered not only fans and critics, but even his own band. “No one ever mentioned we were doing an album ever,” Crazy Horse guitarist Frank Sampedro told biographer Jimmy McDonough. “We just played and recorded. Every once in a while Neil would say – and I remember it shocking us – ‘Hey man, I sent in a record.’ I said, ‘Oh, yeah? What was on it?’” (Neil Young, Chrome Dreams, pg. 90)

“I have no problem with bootlegs,” the star told the New York Times, “although every time I say that, my lawyer says, ‘Oh yes you do.’” (Paul McCartney, Cold Cuts, pg. 113)

Rod Yates (RY) is a Sydney-based journalist who has written about music and film for the past twenty years. Now editor of Rolling Stone Australia, he has edited Australian editions of Kerrang! and Empire. … He has a weakness for hair metal, perhaps because he has no hair. Or taste. (“Contributors”, pg. 249)

The book is also fun to look at, because skilful designers like Heath Killen, Bill Smith, Damian Jaques and Isabel Eeles have created mock-ups of the lost albums. Some covers are cleverly dated or clichéd, but some could be timeless classics, fitting the artist so well that it’s hard to believe they’re not real. I particularly like the rainbow vees and veiny man on The Who’s Lighthouse (pg. 45); the so-simple-it’s-sophisticated fence-and-flat-landscape on Neil Young’s Homegrown (pg. 81); the time-lapse doll’s head on Jeff Buckley’s My Sweatheart the Drunk (pg. 165); the city-lights-through-rain-(s)wept-glass on Robert Smith’s not-yet-materialized solo album (pg. 202); and the sharp-text-over-blurred-photo on U2’s Songs of Ascent (pg. 232).

Which is not to say I like U2. I don’t. I don’t like Bruce Springsteen, Prince, Madonna, the Clash or rappers like 50 Cent and Dr Dre either. It didn’t matter: the might-have-beens are still interesting to read about and you can always dream a bit bigger. Okay, the Clash never released this album, but what if the Clash had never existed at all? What if N.W.A. had accentuated the niggative too successfully and never had a career either? This book also made me think about the opposite: not real bands vanishing, but unreal bands existing. Imagine a book about artists that never existed. They could be distorted versions of real ones: Deirdre Bowie, Turquoise Floyd, the Strolling Bones, Splashing Munchkins.

Or they could be entirely new: the Autumn Spiders, Klimmosh, Trevor Blacknett. Good musicians have often failed while bad ones have succeeded. And unlike science or mathematics, genius isn’t constrained by reality in the arts. The possibilities are far greater in art and what might have been dwarfs what actually has been. This book peeps through a keyhole at a few might-have-beens and allows you to dream about many more.

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