The best new music books to buy for Christmas 2021

best new music books buy 2021 christmas gift - The family of Billie Eilish
best new music books buy 2021 christmas gift - The family of Billie Eilish

If you are hopeful that Santa might bring you a copy of Paul McCartney’s The Lyrics: 1956 to the Present (Allen Lane, £75) for Christmas, then you’d better leave out a very large stocking. Running to 900 pages, these two heavyweight volumes tell the stories behind the songs. They may be familiar to most Beatles fans, yet it is charming to read them from McCartney’s perspective. The whole thing is beautifully presented, with hundreds of pictures, adding up to a book that genuinely feels like a gift from the great man himself.

The Beatles: Get Back (Callaway, £40) – a tie-in with the forthcoming six-hour series about the making (and filming) of their final album, Let It Be, in January 1969 – is another oddly revealing window into the private world of four of the most beloved and forensically examined characters in modern pop culture. Music journalist John Harris has edited conversations from more than 120 hours of sound recordings. There is a comic yet weirdly fascinating banality to their everyday chats, presented as if they were sacred tablets carved in stone:

Enter George.

Paul: Morning, George.

George: Morning, all.

Ringo: Morning, George.

George: Didn’t have any sleep last night.

John: Didn’t you? Why?

Paul: Just through lack of sleep?

George: Just through… it gets a bit late. You know, it just gets so late that it’s early.

Paul: Yeah.

There is (inevitably) a very different conversational flavour to Supersonic (Headline, £25). Essentially this is the background material compiled by journalist Simon Halfon for a 2016 documentary about the rise of Oasis, from playing to a handful of people (one of whom fatefully turned out to be Creation Records boss Alan McGee) at King Tut’s in Glasgow in 1993 to appearing before a quarter of a million at Knebworth in 1996. Thirty hours of band member interviews have been cooked into an entertaining first-hand account of pure rock ’n’ roll madness, with a candid style that would be difficult to quote without the liberal use of asterisks. Or as Liam Gallagher unapologetically puts it: “We meant every f---ing last f---ing breath of it (and) I’d do it all again in a f---ing heartbeat, the exact same way.”

There’s some strong language, too, in Sinéad O’Connor’s pugnacious and moving Rememberings (Sandycove, £20). The controversial Irish singer-songwriter’s stories of maternal and institutional abuse would be the stuff of misery memoir if they weren’t related with such eccentric charm and cheery fortitude. The title is deliberately equivocal, as O’Connor blames post-traumatic stress disorder for gaps in her scattershot ­narrative. But this tale of a damaged girl singing to save her life amid the pervasive sexism and macho power plays of the music industry offers a valuable corrective to O’Connor’s image as the mad woman in pop’s attic.

Sinéad O’Connor performs at Paradiso, Amsterdam, Netherlands, 16 March 1988 - Paul Bergen
Sinéad O’Connor performs at Paradiso, Amsterdam, Netherlands, 16 March 1988 - Paul Bergen

Another pioneering female artist tells stories of a dysfunctional childhood leading to drug-ravaged musical fame in Last Chance Texaco by Rickie Lee Jones (Grove, £20). A wayward tale, poetically related, with a shaky chronology, it remains wonderfully illuminating about her inner world. Jones casts some shade on famous men in her life, notably Lowell George, Dr John and Tom Waits, who “liked to don the vintage accoutrements of masculinity: sailor hats and pointed shoes. The more he tried to conceal his tenderness, the more he revealed a chafed and childlike nature. I adored him. He was my king. In bed he was the greatest performing lion in the world. I mean to say that Tom was never not performing.”

The high times come to an end in 1983, and so does the book. It strikes me as a welcome trend for musical autobiographies to focus on a slice of life, the rise of an artist so often proving more interesting than the subsequent struggle to sustain a career. Guitarist Will Sergeant takes this to extremes in Bunnyman (Constable, £20), which ends as Echo & the Bunnymen start, but it is an entertaining account of a Liverpool childhood and the forces that created one of the great 1980s bands.

Bassist and composer Barry Adamson offers a far stranger perspective on the post-punk era in Up Above the City, Down Below the Stars (Omnibus, £20). It begins with the future member of Magazine and Nick Cave’s Bad Seeds offering detailed memories of his time in the womb, then just gets progressively weirder, recounting a life dotted with physical illness, sexual abuse, erotic obsession, racist slurs, horrendous family tragedy and rampant heroin addiction leading to full-blown psychosis, ending just as his own career takes shape.

Another Bad Seed, violinist and composer Warren Ellis, narrows his narrative focus down to a piece of chewing gum that he plucked from Nina Simone’s piano after a show at the Southbank in 1999 and kept wrapped in a towel for 20 years. Nina Simone’s Gum (Faber, £20) examines devotion and transcendence in the year’s most eccentric and joyful musical memoir.

Nina Simone performs at the Harlem Cultural Festival in 1969 - Searchlight Pictures
Nina Simone performs at the Harlem Cultural Festival in 1969 - Searchlight Pictures

Bobby Gillespie’s Tenement Kid (White Rabbit, £20) takes us from his rough working-class childhood in Glasgow to the release of Primal Scream’s trailblazing acid rock album, Screamadelica, on Sept 3 1991. “For some people, that’s the day the nineties really began,” Gillespie immodestly concludes, in prose so purple it would surely have embarrassed the NME journalists he professes to despise: “It was a mantra of spiritual resistance, an electronic intifada, an analogue bubble bath for the mind and body...” The politics of his trade unionist father suffuse his world view, so that a band is never really a band but “a form of socialism in action” and childhood adventures on bomb site playgrounds are dotted with commentary on imperialism. If it all sounds overblown and ridiculous, well, that is part of the fun. An obsessive music fan who fulfilled his wildest rock star dreams, Gillespie has found an authentic voice to describe his often hair-raising experiences, and the result is a rock ’n’ roll epic.

A similar fandom infuses Stevie Van Zandt’s Unrequited Infatuations (Orion, £20), delivered in punchy sentences peppered with beatnik riffs (“it’s a vagrant winter and you can’t sell consciousness”) and the zippy Italian-American “bada bing” of Silvio Dante, the character he played in The Sopranos. A perennial sideman in his own story, there is a lot to be learnt from his name-dropping adventures as Bruce Springsteen’s consigliere. It is immensely good fun, even as Van Zandt hints at his own unreliability as a narrator. “Who knows?” he says, of Rolling Stone’s report of the exact moment he was recruited to the E Street Band. “We’re all making up half of this s--- anyway.”

Dave Grohl may be even better connected than Van Zandt. The Storyteller (Simon & Schuster, £29.99) is peppered with encounters with rock heroes from Iggy Pop to Paul McCartney. Presented as a series of vignettes, it follows the hyperactive Virginian high-school dropout from local punk obscurity to drumming with Nirvana to becoming the charismatic leader of Foo Fighters, arguably the last great stadium rock band. Grohl is an engaging raconteur, but his memoir suffers from his default Tiggerish enthusiasm, bouncing over the dark stuff (Kurt Cobain’s suicide) to celebrate superficial moments (his daughter’s bedtime story). In Grohl’s world, everyone is lovely, and all’s well that ends well.

The great folk rock guitarist and songwriter Richard Thompson is less complimentary about his fellow travellers in Beeswing (Faber, £20), which hones in on the years 1967 to 1975 and the struggle to find his voice with Fairport Convention. “The music world is full of a-------s,” he reports, “absolute, arrogant, self-serving d-------s who imagine it all revolves around them.” Which, to be fair, is almost a prerequisite for an entertaining music book.

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