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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 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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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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Basteland coverBasteland: The Making of a Masterpiece, ed. Dr David M. Mitchell (Savoy Books 2015)

In rock music, there’s loud, there’s loud… and there’s My Bloody Valentine. In literature, there’s transgressive, there’s transgressive… and there’s Savoy Books.

But even by the standards of these Mancunian mavericks, one book stands out for terminal teraticity: David Britton’s Basted in the Broth of Billions (2008). This septic slab of cerebral psychosis is infamous among the counter-cultural cognoscenti for three things above all others: its extremity, its complexity and its incomprehensibility. No two reviewers have ever agreed what’s going on, what Britton is trying to say and even (in certain passages) what language the book is written in.

Seven years on, that hermeneutic fluidity is incisively interrogated in Basteland: The Making of a Masterpiece. It’s a detailed study of Basted overseen by Dr David M. Mitchell, the Post-Polymath Professor of Pantology at Port Talbot University. Convening a toxic team of psychotropic Savoyonauts, Mitchell first baited them to a frenzy, then unleashed them on their subject. He edited the resultant essays and monographs before penning an incendiary introduction of his own.

The interpretations he oversees are, as you’d expect, as varied as the contributors. In the closely reasoned analysis “Strength through Savoy”, transgressive textualist Will Self describes Basted as:

[A] rhizomatically rancid assault on the most helioseismically hallowed corner-stones of the modernist canon, jump-starting the cataclysmically creaking Colossus of On the R(h)o(a)d(es) with an extremophilically eldritch injection of synapse-stewing swamp-soup scooped from the atrabiliously atrociousest anus of the most mephitic myrmidon of Mephistopheles, whilst tipping its panache-packed Panama slyly – and wryly – to that rawest and wrenchingest of gut-grenades in Burroughs’ underground oeuvre: 1955’s never-surpassed Bulgaria on a Budget. (“Strength through Savoy: Notes towards a Vernichtungsliteratur of the Apocalypse”, pg. 46)

Sample pages #1

Sample pages #1


Elsewhere, veteran Savoyologist Polly Toynbee applies the techniques of the Kabbalah to unearth what she alleges to be a pastiche of Enid Blyton’s Five Go to Billycock Hill (1957) in chapters six, eight and nine of Basted, while committed counter-culturalist David Kerekes of Headpress Journal unfolds an intriguing theory about a core motif of Basted:

For countless readers, one of the edgiest and unsettlingest aspects of the book’s full-throttle aesthetic onslaught has to be the way in which, following each stomach-churningly detailed episode of brain-splattering, bowel-strewing slaughter, Lord Horror is inevitably described or depicted as opening and eating a packet of salt’n’vinegar crisps. He then often blows into the empty bag and bursts it. But why? In this essay I hope to explore this question and come up with some (tentative) conclusions as to the symbolism that is at work. (“Our Bite Macht Frei: The Symbolism of Salt-and-Vinegar Crisps in Britton’s Burroughsian Bildungsroman Basted in the Broth of Billions”, pg. 368)

Sample pages #2

Sample pages #2


Kerekes concludes that the crisp-eating episodes are, inter alia, allegories of the Stations of the Cross. He makes an excellent case, but who knows? Basted in the Broth of Billions defies both description and definition. Basteland: The Making of a Masterpiece will defy something else: your eyes. It’s the first book published by Savoy in what (to the exoteric observer) will appear to be entirely black type on entirely black paper. I’m not going to say how you can read the text, but I’ll give one hint: what Savoy do to English literature, this book does to the electro-magnetic spectrum…


Previously pre-posted on Papyrocentric Performativity:

Bulg’ Boy BoogieLiterary Outlaw: The Life and Times of William S. Burroughs, Ted Morgan (1991)

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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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Nailed to History by Martin PowersNailed to History: The Story of Manic Street Preachers, Martin Power (Omnibus Press 2010)

The best Manics biography I’ve seen is Simon Price’s Everything: A Book about Manic Street Preachers, which first appeared in 1999. This is less good and less well-written, but one thing hasn’t changed: the importance of the lost Manic, Richey Edwards. He’s prominent on the front cover, is shown all by himself on the back cover, and is described like this in the final chapter:

As the Manics will be the first to admit, at the heart of their story – past, present, future, was, is, will be – stands Richey Edwards. Now 15 years gone, the complexity of his character and fiercely intelligent lyricism continue to beguile, a fact strongly evidenced by The Holy Bible’s ever-growing reputation and the critical plaudits recently foisted upon Journal for Plague Lovers. (ch. 24, “Nailed to History”, pg. 304)

But he’s now been gone longer than he was present and the Manic Street Preachers might have been just as successful without him. After all, he didn’t write any of their music and he performed the guitar rather than playing it. He gave the band something special with his words – a song-title like “Small Black Flowers That Grow In The Sky” is strange and beautiful in a unique way – but the Manics were always about much more than self-mutilation and suicide-attempts:

“Electronic,” said Wire, “are fat, bloated hideous bastards who deserve shooting. Johnny Marr trying to do windmills on a guitar when he’s one foot tall and weighs fifty stone. It’s as bad as Emerson, Lake & Palmer.” From Slowdive (“I hate them worse than Hitler”) and Northside (“They look useless”) to The Charlatans (“Their fans have moustaches”) and Bowie (“Boring old cunt”), the Manic Street Preachers wanted to carpet bomb the lot. (ch. 6, “Advancing into Battle”, pg. 66)

From Nicky Wire’s wind-ups (and love of vacuum-cleaners) to the band playing “louder than war” for Fidel Castro, from slagging Wales to supporting it, from performing in empty pubs to the Cardiff Arms Park Male Voice Choir singing “A Design for Life” outside a “£15 million public library”: this is the story of a band who haven’t always produced good music, but have always been interesting.

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Nick Drake Dreaming England by Nathan Trowse-WisemanNick Drake: Dreaming England, Nathan Wiseman-Trowse (Reverb/Reaktion Books 2013)

I picked this book up thinking that it was another biography of Nick Drake. Wrong: it’s a critical study of his music instead. I wasn’t pleased. It’s irritating when interesting topics are slathered in pretentious jargon: terms like “locus”, “hybridization”, “performance of class”, “articulations of authenticity” and “musico-topographical features” do not go well with Drake’s delicate and melancholic music. To use the same jargon: they don’t “resonate”. Or rather, they do: jarringly and crudely. Putting cultural theory to work on Nick Drake is like driving through a bluebell wood in a tank.

A rusty, badly maintained tank. Exhaust fuming, gears grinding, driver drunk, unshaven and unkempt. But this book could have been much worse and if Drake can survive having some of his songs covered by Elton John, he can probably survive cultural theory. The topics remain interesting despite the jargon: Englishness, pastoralism, nostalgia, modernity, the end of empire, the continuing appeal of a singer who died young and a failure. Or so he must have thought. But it was a good career move: Drake died young and became very famous. If he’d lived and got old, he might now be almost unknown. Lots of good musicians never get what they deserve, just as lots of bad musicians get what they don’t.

I’d prefer Nathan Wiseman-Trowse, a “Senior Lecturer in Popular Culture” at the University of Northampton, to have examined that side of Drake’s story in greater detail. His early death, probably by suicide, is central to his cult. And cult is an appropriate word: mythical figures like Adonis and Hyacinth prove the psychological power of handsome youths who go before their time. So do Jim Morrison and Kurt Cobain. But those two were thunderous musicians, playing rock and filling arenas. Drake’s music was quiet and introspective: acoustic, not amplified; English, not American; for the countryside, not the town. But he was influenced by American music and “Eastern mysticism” and he lived in a very big city while he tried to make his name. That’s where Wiseman-Trowse comes in, trying to unpick the paradoxes, classify the hybridities and problematicize the construction of Drake as quintessentially English.

As he might have put it somewhere. But he puts other things better, as in the chapter on “Melancholia and Loss”, where he discusses Peter Akroyd’s book Albion and its “exploration of English culture”:

For Akroyd, the melancholic strain is to be found in the earliest Anglo-Saxon poetry, focussing on transience, decay, desolation and dustsceawung, or the “contemplation of dust”. It manifests itself through the elegy, the lament and the dirge. Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur meditates on the passing of all things, while melancholic themes run throughout the work of John Donne, Thomas Browne and Samuel Johnson to the more contemporary poetry of Philip Larkin and Ted Hughes. (ch. 4, “Melancholia and Loss”, pg. 96)

Dustsceawung is a beautiful word and I’m glad to have discovered it here. But words, concepts and speculation are all you’ll get from a book like this: I didn’t need to spot an occasional “in terms of” to be sure that Wiseman-Trowse is a dedicated Guardianista. This means that he will regard biological explanations for English character and culture as unacceptable and appalling. Race doesn’t exist, after all. We’re all the same under the skin. Except that it does exist and we aren’t the same. Those old ideas about the English weather influencing the English mind are not ridiculous. The brain did not stop evolving when human beings left Africa and the new environments found by the migrants re-shaped their psychology and sharpened their intellect. Higher intelligence was useful in colder climates and so was neuroticism: people who didn’t worry about the approach of winter were less likely to survive it.

So Nick Drake will eventually be explained by biology and brain-science, not by cultural theory. Will that unweave the rainbow and empty the gnomèd mine? Perhaps it will, but it will also end the ugly jargon and the pseudo-profundity. And Drake himself is beyond caring. That’s part of his appeal and his appeal can’t be killed by cultural theory. Indeed, it’s an important fact about Drake that his music attracts cultural theorists, even as it evades their apparatus. I’d have preferred less jargon and no “in terms of” in this book, but you could see them as a contrast with the subtlety and beauty of its subject. Either way, Dreaming England contains some good photos and some interesting ideas about the music, the man and the myth. It isn’t a biography but there is a lot about Drake’s life here, with a detailed timeline and a discography. It has a good title and index too.

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