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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 Greatest Footballer You Never Saw: The Robin Friday Story, Paul McGuigan and Paolo Hewitt (Mainstream 1997)

Excellent premise, execrable execution. That’s how you could sum up this book. I thought it would be a proper biography, but it turned out to be a collection of newspaper clippings and extracts from interviews with the relatives, friends and acquaintances of Robin Friday, the legendarily skilful and anarchic footballer who dazzled fans of Reading and Cardiff City before dying of drink, drugs and debauchery at the age of 38.

And yes, that’s right: 38. If you’re not that age now, you soon will be. If you’re older, you won’t have lived half Friday’s life. Or so he would have told you. Like Kurt Cobain, he thought it was better to burn out than fade away. But if he’d used the fuel of his talent more carefully, could he have been one of the all-time greats? Possibly, but it’s much easier to look good when you’re surrounded by mediocre players. Friday looked good at Reading, then at Cardiff City, but neither Reading nor Cardiff was a big club with the best players.

Then again, the most skilful and successful players today would find it difficult to cope with the tackling and physical intimidation of Friday’s day. Hard-man defenders dished it out to Friday and he dished it right back. He never wore shin-pads and often came off the pitch bruised, battered and bleeding. Or concussed after an elbow in the head. But he could come back from a pub or night-club in the same way, because he enjoyed fighting and exercising his will to win. He liked life the way he liked his music: loud. He was a heavy-metal fan and brought the blood-and-thunder of his records to his football. That’s why he had a bad disciplinary record, as you can see sports-reporters lament again and again in the clippings. Presenting Friday’s life like that has its appeal. The book mixes pop-charts and snippets of world-news in with the reports about Friday and other cult-players, so you almost feel as though you’re back in the 1970s, following Reading’s push for promotion in the local paper or watching Cardiff try and fail to turn Friday into a star. But why couldn’t the book have had both clippings and a proper narrative?

Well, Paul McGuigan was a member of Oasis and had an image of lumpen stupidity to maintain. Write a proper book? Fook off. And he wouldn’t have wanted to put his name to a proper book that some other cunt had written. At least, that’s how I like to see it, being a dedicated Oasisophobe. But there is room to appreciate beauty and the transcendent even in the soul of a member of Oasis. Men like Paul McGuigan undoubtedly like Friday’s toughness and thuggish side, but it’s not the thugs and bullies of football who become the true legends. George Best was far too small and delicate to be a thug. It was his skill that made him a legend. His drinking and womanizing were only the icing on the cake.

Friday wasn’t at Best’s level, but he could have matched or surpassed other ’70s legends like Rodney Marsh, Frank Worthington and Stan Bowles, with their silky skills and their balls of steel. And ’70s nostalgia is now a large part of what has made Friday a cult-figure. Men were men and football was football in those days. Or football was thuggery enlivened with skill.

You get some impression of the 1970s from the unrelieved stream of clippings and personal anecdotes, but this book could have been so much better. Irvine Welsh gives it the kiss of death in his banal introduction: “Yeah, perhaps not a lot of us did get the chance to see Robin Friday play, but those that did are just that wee bit more enriched as a result. And that’s what it’s all about.” No, it’s about much more than that and you get glimpses here of a might-have-been-great from a vanished culture.

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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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Justice for All by Joel McIverJustice for All: The Truth about Metallica, Joel McIver (Omnibus Press, revised edition 2014)

Metallica matter now because they mattered then. They were never the heaviest or fastest metal band in the world, but for a time they were the best. That time began with their first album, Kill ’Em All in 1983, and ended after their first EP, Garage Days Re-Revisited in 1987. They’ve written good songs since, but they’re no longer the best metal band in the world.

That’s what I think, anyway. It’s also pretty much the verdict you’ll find in this book. Like Mick Wall in his Black Sabbath bio Symptom of the Universe, Joel McIver is an objective fan, not an obsessive sycophant. He calls it as he hears it. When he hears Masters of Puppets (1986), he concludes that Metallica “produced a monster: a record that would expand their fanbase, cement their place in metal and ensure their place in musical history” (ch. 12, “The Truth about Master of Puppets”, pg. 150). When he hears Load (1996), he concludes that it’s “a massive step down in songwriting and concept from any music, even the weakest, most cynically radio-friendly Black Album track that Metallica had done previously” (ch. 19, “1996-1997”, pg. 234).

So maybe the bus crash in Sweden that killed Cliff Burton, the bassist on their early albums, also ended Metallica as a musical force. Burton’s death in 1986 is certainly one of the big “What might have been?” moments in popular music. What would have happened to Metallica’s music if he’d survived? I think it would have stayed better for longer. Burton was an interesting, independent-minded man who might have saved James Hetfield and Lars Ulrich from themselves. With his guidance, Metallica might not have gone the radio-friendly route and ended up playing with the Los Angeles Symphony Orchestra.

But I don’t think Metallica would have bettered their early work. That would have been difficult. And success was undoubtedly a factor in their decline. So was getting older. Metallica mellowed and it showed in their music. Slayer prove that this isn’t inevitable and it’s good that Slayer are also part of this book. It’s valuable not just as a biography of Metallica but also as a history of heavy metal. Metallica were influenced by older bands, so McIver discusses Motörhead, Venom and Diamond Head. Metallica were part of a scene, so he discusses Exodus, Slayer and Testament. Metallica influenced younger bands, so he discusses Celtic Frost, Machine Head and many others.

He also discusses the genesis of thrash metal and of newer genres like death and black metal. Heavy metal is interesting in part because it so obviously evolves and mutates, not just musically but sartorially, tonsorially and typographically too. The possibilities of the electric guitar had by no means been exhausted in the 1960s and ’70s. In the ’80s the hunt for greater heaviness and speed was on. This is the drummer Gene Hoglan:

“I used to soundcheck the drums for Slayer on the Haunting the West Coast tour, and all they played at soundchecks were Dark Angel songs. I remember Slayer guitarist Jeff Hanneman saying to me (adopts worried tone), ‘Dude, Dark Angel, I saw ’em back in LA, they’re faster than us, they’re heavier than us, they’re better than us.’ And I was like, ‘Dude, you’re in Slayer! What are you worrying about Dark Angel for?’” (ch. 12, pg. 150)

The results of metal’s mutations can sometimes be laughable, but the cartoonishness of metal can be part of its appeal too. One of the good things about Metallica is that they have a sense of humour and irony. The liner-notes for Garage Days – which was “Not Very Produced by Metallica” – are both funny and literate. The music on the EP is full of jokes too, but McIver correctly notes that it “boasted one of the best overall sounds they would ever achieve” (ch. 15, “1986-1988”, pg. 183). The good sound and high spirits are absent on their next album, …And Justice for All (1988).

Metallica began to decline with Justice and I suppose I might have skipped the second half of the book. But McIver’s prose, though it isn’t polished, isn’t painful either and there are some interesting things to read about, like the law-suit against Napster and the long-lasting feud with Dave Mustaine. He might have left Metallica very early on, but he stayed true to one of their traditions: make your own decisions. Mustaine has gone his own way and so have Metallica. Good or bad, their choices have been their own. I think McIver does justice to all those choices and delivers what he promises: the truth about Metallica.

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YaC Attack

The Great Grisby by Mikita BrottmanThe Great Grisby: Two Thousand Years of Exceptional Dogs, Mikita Brottman (William Collins 2014)

Unlike her fellow Oxonian Miriam Stimbers, Mikita Brottman has never seemed a plausible figure to me. Is she for real? Or is she in fact an under-cover performance artist parodying a neurotic Guardian-reading psychoanalyst with a PhD in the humanities? Will she unmask herself one day in dramatic circumstances at a conference engaging issues around post-Foucauldian hermeneutics? I’ve always had my suspicions.

Those suspicions were only deepened by The Great Grisby. This book is so Guardianista I half expected it to come with a free beard-trimmer and packet of fair-trade organic tampons. There’s no foreword by Polly Toynbee or afterword by Jonathan Freedland, but believe me: there should have been. The hum of the hive-mind was particularly loud in passages like this:

When you think about it, the idea of gangsters emerging from the ghetto to steal “our” innocent pets is really absurd; what’s more, it bespeaks all kinds of race and class anxieties. These sensitive issues also saturate the discourse around pit bull “rescue” campaigns, in which dogs are taken from young black men in the city’s run-down neighborhoods, inoculated, bathed, “altered”, given friendly names, adopted by middle-class families, and taken to live in the suburbs. We do to the dogs what we want to do to the barbarians who breed them: make them submit. (ch. 2, “Bull’s-eye”, pg. 20)

You can picture Guardianistas and NYT-wits nodding their heads wisely at that passage, then tutting sadly for the thousandth time over white racism. When will it end? When will the rainbow society begin and the Black Community be released from Its millennial bondage? But, as a keyly (and corely) committed anti-racist, I call bullshit. Ms B is pretending concern for Yoot-a-Color (YaC) while actually erecting toxic barriers to their participation in her own sunny world of white privilege.

Why do I say this? Simple. Look at the passage again. Note the verb “bespeaks” and the phrase “saturate the discourse around”. Guardianistas don’t notice the irony of expressing concern about Da Ghetto while using pretentious academic jargon so white it glows in the dark. Ms B’s own language is expressing a clear attitude towards YaC: she, from her lofty perch of white privilege, understands what causes their misery and deplores the hegemonic racism that systematically oppresses them.

Meanwhile, her actions speak louder than her words: she continues to benefit from that white hegemony and the unearned privilege it bestows 24/7/52 on jargon-juicing Guardianistas such as herself. This book is in fact an unabashed celebration of both the hegemony and the privilege. It interrogates issues around a series of white dog-owners and their dogs, with a nigh-on-nauseating emphasis on Dead White European Males like Charles Dickens, Sigmund Freud and Schopenhauer.

Got that? Then brace yourself – here’s a particularly appalling bit from chapter 7:

Blitz – as he’s usually called – now travels extensively with Lemmy and the boys. As you’ll readily imagine, it can get LOUD even backstage at a Motörhead gig and after some failed experiments with adapted ear-plugs and ear-muffs, Lemmy commissioned a special “acoustically opaque” sleeping-box for Blitz, in which, having been fed some doggie-chocs soaked with a herbal calmative, he’ll comfortably snooze out the earsplitting riffs of “Ace of Spades” and “Bomber” until the gig is over and he’s re-united with his besotted – and beloved – owner. With typical gruff honesty, Lemmy has declared that he prefers his dog to 99.9% of human beings: “There’s no bullshit with the bugger and I’m sure he’d lay down his fucking life for me, just as I’d lay down mine for him.” (ch. 7, “Blitzkrieg”, pg. 60)

Jesus. Could you get any whiter than heavy metal, herbal calmatives and truffle-hounds called Blitzkrieg? The closest Ms B gets to a Person of Color is Frida Kahlo. Which isn’t close enough, in my opinion. Interspersed with discussion of these hideously white dog-owners are Ms B’s musings on her own dog (now deceased). It was a French bulldog called Grisby, whose name came – in achingly arch Guardianista fashion – from a French film. But it gets worse. Grisby was a white French bulldog – just look at the cover. And the white dog/god is on a pedestal, forsooth! Could Ms B’s Eurocentric white-supremacist agenda be any clearer?

No. But think what this book could have been about. Rather than portraying a pampered pooch and writing about her fellow white privilegees, Ms B could have adopted an autistic Somali orphan with a missing limb and alopecia, recorded the child’s inspirational upbringing, and launched a real challenge to white supremacy and white privilege. Just think what a book that would have made. Instead, she chose to reinforce the white hegemonic power-structure while making vacuous rhetorical gestures towards solidarity with the ghetto.

Bad Brotty!


Previously pre-posted on Papyrocentric Performativity:

Hill Kill KultMurderous Mersey: The Seriously Sinister Story of Stockport’s Slo-Mo Slayer, Dariusz Mecoghescu (Visceral Visions 2014)

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World Wide WingsThe Big Book of Flight, Rowland White (Bantam Press 2013)

Kite WriteThe Kite-Making Handbook, compiled by Rossella Guerra and Giuseppe Ferlenga (David & Charles 2004)

Gun GuideSmall Arms: 1914-45, Michael E. Haskew (Amber Books 2012)

The Basis of the BeastKillers: The Origins of Iron Maiden, 1975-1983, Neil Daniels (Soundcheck Books 2014)


Or Read a Review at Random: RaRaR

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Killers The Origins of Iron Maiden by Neil DanielsKillers: The Origins of Iron Maiden, 1975-1983, Neil Daniels (Soundcheck Books 2014)

Are Iron Maiden the nadir of naff? I would say so. That’s one of the things that interest me about them. Why has a band that seems so bad to me been popular all over the world for so long? I can admire their hard work and dedication, but their music is like cheap beer, harmful to both head and stomach. And I don’t even like dear beer. If a Harris was going to succeed in the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, it should have been Sean, the singer in Diamond Head, not Steve, the bassist in Iron Maiden. Both bands share in the ridiculous side of heavy metal, but the boys from Stourbridge have had good tunes to go with it. Iron Maiden haven’t.

But they have been the most influential and successful band of the NWOBMH. Not influential on Metallica, though, I used to think. Metallica said they wanted to combine the grandeur of Diamond Head with the simplicity of Motörhead. They succeeded. Their opinion of Iron Maiden was, I assumed, found in the outro on Garage Days Re-Revisited (1987), where they play “Run to the Hills” out of tune and out of time. But on page 62 of this book Lars Ulrich says that Metallica are Maiden fans and that he himself was inspired to start a band by them.

Metallica have far surpassed Iron Maiden in songs and sales, but there are still a lot of people who will be interested to read this story of the Londoners’ early days and their first four albums: Iron Maiden and Killers, with vocals by the maniacal Paul Di’Anno (born Paul Andrews in Chingford), and The Number of the Beast and Piece of Mind, with vocals by the affable Bruce Dickinson, recruited from Samson. I skimmed and skipped, but it was interesting to see how so much is uncertain and disputed about who did what where, when and why. A lot of things weren’t photographed in the 1970s and 1980s and the web was a long way off. You can understand big history better from small history: if facts and people melt into mist even in the late twentieth century, what were earlier times like?

But Iron Maiden are small history only by big standards. They’ve not been as important as Josef Stalin or Isaac Newton, but they’ve still been part of millions of lives for decades, with fans in every nation from Azerbaijan to Zimbabwe. And the fans are dedicated: Iron Maiden inspire loyalty like a football team. Steve Harris himself is a fan of West Ham United. I wish his band sounded the way his team play. Unfortunately, they’re school of schlock, not school of science.

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Book in BlackBlack Sabbath: Symptom of the Universe, Mick Wall (Orion Books 2013)

Critical Math – A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper, John Allen Paulos (Penguin 1996)

Rude BoysRuthless: The Global Rise of the Yardies, Geoff Small (Warner 1995)

K-9 KonundrumDog, Peter Sotos (TransVisceral Books 2014)

Ghosts in the CathedralThe Neutrino Hunters: The Chase for the Ghost Particle and the Secrets of the Universe, Ray Jayawardhana (Oneworld 2013) (posted @ Overlord of the Über-Feral)


Or Read a Review at Random: RaRaR

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Front cover of Black Sabbath: Symptom of the Universe by Mick WallBlack Sabbath: Symptom of the Universe, Mick Wall (Orion Books 2013)

The big three of British hard rock are Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple and Black Sabbath. The difference between the first two and the third is simple: Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple have influenced individual bands, whereas Black Sabbath have inspired entire genres. Rock history would probably look very different without them: various trends would have started later, slower or not at all. Or without three-quarters of Black Sabbath, anyway: in descending order of importance, the guitarist Tony Iommi, the bassist Geezer Butler and the drummer Bill Ward. The vocalist Ozzy Osbourne is more like a mascot, in my opinion. He isn’t a good singer and I’d like to re-run Black Sabbath’s early days with someone else from the Black Country on vox: Sean Harris of Diamond Head.

But Harris was too young for that: all four original members of Black Sabbath were born in 1948 and seemed destined for the same circumscribed lives as their parents and grandparents. Then rock’n’roll came along and gave them a chance to escape boring factory jobs or careers as petty criminals in Birmingham. But with money and fame came drugs, alcohol and the chance to misbehave in much more spectacular ways. Not that they made as much money as they should: they were promoted on their first American tour as “Louder Than Led Zeppelin” (ch. 3, “Bringers of War”, pg. 72), but they definitely weren’t as well-managed. Or as well-received: despite creating much more interesting and innovative music, Black Sabbath didn’t receive the respect or critical attention they deserved until long after Led Zeppelin.

Mick Wall was one of those who gave Led Zeppelin that attention, in When Giants Walked the Earth (2009). He’s also written biographies of Metallica, AC/DC, Guns’n’Roses and Iron Maiden, so he’s well able to give Sabbath the credit (or blame) for their central role in heavy metal. Unfortunately, he’s also fond of rock journalese, hyperbole and mixed metaphors. This book has a nice cover, so it’s a shame about some of the prose:

Twenty years later groups like Smashing Pumpkins, Soundgarden and, in particular, Nirvana, would excavate the same heaving-lung sound to delineate their own scorched-earth policy to a music scene even more elaborately formulaic than the heavy rock scene of the early Seventies – and be rewarded with critical garlands, heralding a new genre they called ‘grunge’. In 1971, however, Sabbath and their new, planet-heavy sound were simply dismissed as dimwitted, offensive and beyond redemption. (ch. 4, “Pope on a Rope”, pg. 81)

But that second sentence is okay and a good summary of how Black Sabbath were treated by the rock press. They were a bad joke for decades. Not that they helped themselves, at times: Ozzy says that he didn’t find Spinal Tap funny because it was too close to the real thing. And it was partly inspired by Black Sabbath, who also went on the road with a Stonehenge stage-set. A very big one, with a performing midget. However, Wall doesn’t manage to mine much of the comedy in the Sabbath story. There’s a lot there, both intentional and unintentional, but Tony Iommi’s ghosted autobiography Iron Man (2011) is both funnier and better-written than this book. Iron Man isn’t as detailed or as objective, though: Wall knows how important Black Sabbath are, but he praises them only when they deserve it. They’ve recorded some bad albums too and Wall describes in detail how and why they went astray in the 1980s.

Re-uniting to play Live Aid in 1985 was a one mistake, for example, but I like the commemoratory photo, which is included in the last of the three photo-sections here. It’s one of their unintentionally humorous moments: Ozzy is harking back to his “Homo in a Kimono” get-up on the cover of Sabotage; Geezer is wearing red trousers and pointy red shoes; Tony is in shades and black-leather-with-dangly-bits; and Bill is looking like a rock-goblin, complete with beer belly, bandana and dirty red baseball boots.

I like that in a rock star, but I wouldn’t like to have been anywhere near him on one of his drinking-bouts: I’d prefer not to have read the story of a plumber turning up to Bill’s Parisian hotel-suite in 1980 to clear drains “clogged with his vomit” (ch. 7, “Neon Nights”, pg. 165). And I wouldn’t want to be near Ozzy whether he’s drunk or sober, stoned or straight. He’s entertaining and endearing, but I assume that he’s best appreciated at a distance. He departs Black Sabbath part-way through the book, but Wall stays with him and tells the story of his solo career, including the tragic death of his guitarist Randy Rhoades in a plane-crash. Wall also describes the success of Ozzy’s reality TV show, The Osbournes, and his various returns to the Black Sabbath fold, in between Ronnie Dio, Ian Gillan and the other vocalists whom Tony has recruited down the decades.

They have their stories told too, as do the Sabbath manager Don Arden and his daughter Sharon. Black Sabbath have had a long history, have crossed paths with a lot of other musicians and have influenced even more, from Nirvana and Smashing Pumpkins, as Wall notes, to the Melvins and Sunn O))), as Wall doesn’t note. The respect they now enjoy is a fitting tribute to their talent and their originality. This book could have been much funnier and easier-to-read, but it’s a detailed guide to an important band by a journalist who has known them – and even worked for them – since the 1980s. And it’s got an index, which is good. But a discography would have been good too.

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