Christmas books 2018: music – sex and drugs and beans on toast
Backstage anecdotes ranged from mythic to mundane – while Lily Allen set the record straight, says Helen Brown
For 20% off all these titles from Telegraph Books call 0844 871 514 or see books.telegraph.co.uk/Christmas
August marked the 50th anniversary of Led Zeppelin’s first rehearsal, in a tiny room in London’s Chinatown. With the amps nearly falling on them, the musical chemistry felt, to the band’s Satanically inclined guitarist, “like a thunderbolt, a lightning flash – boosh!”, according to Chris Salewicz’s Jimmy Page (HarperCollins £20). In the afterglow of that first sonic communion, Page served his new bandmates beans on toast and (though already a wealthy man) diligently collected from each of them the few pence the food cost. Frontman Robert Plant looked on in approval. (The wailer from Wolverhampton had trained as an accountant.)
Although less forensic than Barney Hoskyns in 2012’s Trampled Under Foot: The Power & Excess of Led Zeppelin, Salewicz is an insightful guide to Page’s prodigious musicianship and offers fewer excuses than many biographers for his subject’s misuse of drugs, occult blarney and underage groupies – although these details are hard to square with Salewicz’s fawning conclusion that Page is now “the greatest national treasure of British popular music”.
Respecters of decency may also take issue with Mark Blake’s subtitular claim for Peter Grant as “Rock’s Greatest Manager” in Bring It On Home (Constable, £20). The former wrestler used threats and repeated violence to ensure Led Zeppelin got the big billing and bigger bucks that their cocaine-fuelled egos required. When Zeppelin played the Knebworth Festival in 1979, he hired photographer Neal Preston to capture the size of the crowd and successfully extracted more money from the organisers, who’d claimed a smaller headcount.
Many of Preston’s atmospheric photographs appear in the lush coffee table volume Led Zeppelin by Led Zeppelin (Reel Art Press £49.95) – although, post #MeToo, the lens is trained firmly on those heady stage shows, not the offstage bacchanalia.
Inevitably, the members of Led Zeppelin swagger or stagger across the pages of many of this year’s books. We find the young, fractious and insecure Eric Clapton being shown up as musically inferior to the cello bow-wielding Page in the early pages of Philip Norman’s solid and sad Slowhand: The Life and Music of Eric Clapton (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £25).
By the time Page wanders into a charity gig in 1983, he’s so wrecked that he’s playing the top neck of his famous double-necked guitar with one hand and the lower neck with the other, according to Kenney Jones’s affable Let the Good Times Roll (Blink £20). A founding member of Small Faces, the drummer went on to replace wild stickman Keith Moon in The Who after Moon’s death, at 32, in 1978. But The Who’s frontman, Roger Daltrey, felt Jones “watered down the energy” of the band. His frank, if not especially insightful, memoir Thanks a Lot Mr Kibblewhite (Henry Holt, £20) finds Daltrey settling scores with both the titular headmaster (who told him he’d never amount to anything) and guitarist Pete Townshend (who once described the band as “three geniuses and a frontman”). He also reveals that Townshend’s signature guitar-smashing began by accident when he got his instrument stuck in a pub ceiling: “The place went quiet. Some girls sniggered.”
As an antidote to all the drug-fuelled destruction, I recommend both Brett Anderson’s elegant Coal Black Mornings (Little, Brown, £16.99) – in which the Suede frontman looks back on his pre-fame days as “a snotty, sniffy, slightly maudlin sort of boy raised on salad cream and milky tea” – and the reissue of Ian Hunter’s 1974 Diary of a Rock ’n’ Roll Star (Omnibus £18.99). Knowingly Pooterish, it was written as Mott the Hoople toured the US. The glam frontman pines for his wife, delights in freshly squeezed orange juice and attempts to sneak into Graceland to meet Elvis.
Back in 1965, John Lennon had sneered that an encounter with the King was “like meeting Engelbert Humperdinck,” according to Ray Connolly’s excellent Being John Lennon: A Restless Life (Weidenfeld & Nicolson £20). Paul Simon, on the other hand, was adamant: “I wanted to be Elvis,” he told his official biographer Robert Hilburn, who conducted 100 hours of interviews for his polite Paul Simon: The Life (Simon & Schuster £20). But just 5ft 2in tall and with thinning hair, this competitive, sensitive son of a college professor was never going to be a pin-up. His equally diminutive ex-wife, the late Carrie Fisher, said they looked like a pair of salt and pepper pots.
Although Art Garfunkel may have had the “better, bigger” voice, I’ve always preferred the smart, conversational sound of Simon. He has “an acorn cup of a voice” as Nick Coleman puts it, delightfully, in Voices: How a Great Singer Can Change Your Life (Jonathan Cape, £18.99). Fans of all genres can dip in for thoughts on nearly everyone in the rock canon, from Billie Holiday (“sounding sad, intoxicated and fagged out are not the same thing as ‘radical phraseology’ – buy the earlier stuff!”) to Amy Winehouse and back to Robert Plant, whose howl on Immigrant Song “drives the longship high on to the beach, lays waste to the hinterland and then executes a punitive blood-eagle on survivors.”
Led Zep also get props in The Beastie Boys Book (Faber, £32). The New Yorkers grew up on heavy rock and nerdy humour, which they spliced together over inventive hip hop beats. In this playful collage of a book, the band invite female fans such as Amy Poehler to address the misogyny of their early lyrics. Their original drummer Kate Schellenbach takes them to task for becoming “meatheads” but gives a thumbs-up to the line “disrespect to women has got to be through” on 1994’s Sure Shot.
For historic accounts of how rough things were for women in the industry, there’s Tina Turner: My Love Story (Century, £20), which keeps fans at arm’s length, and Robin Green’s far more exposed and sharply written account of being The Only Girl (Virago, £18.99) on the masthead of Rolling Stone in 1971. Despite writing “like crazy” and keeping up with all the drug and alcohol ingestion, Green was not invited to join the staff or offered a retainer. She was “a chick writer”, filed under “novelty” and booted out after having sex with one of her subjects, Robert F Kennedy Jnr.
Like Green, Lily Allen dissects the myths that a male-dominated music industry has allowed to accrue about celebrity, sex and drug abuse. My Thoughts Exactly (Blink, £20) is one of the most self-critical and self-aware pop star memoirs of the decade. In a genre dominated by denial, buck passing and self-justification, it’s a blessed relief to read a celebrity admit that she’s a gobby narcissist with an unregulated appetite for attention. Although Allen fails to acknowledge the professional advantages of having well-connected parents, you can’t deny the sadness of a childhood spent in the “care” of adults who were either absent or off their heads on booze and pills.
The trauma of her first child’s still birth, post-natal depression and confronting a stalker in her bedroom saw Allen shut down almost all her emotions. She used work as an excuse to run from her two daughters, and betrayed her husband with expensive escorts in lonely hotel rooms. Her song Family Man explored the cliché that this kind of behaviour is a male thing. “But maybe it’s not,” she writes. “Maybe it’s a responsibility thing and a money thing and a pressure thing. Maybe it’s not a gender thing at all but a loneliness thing, a madness thing… When I look back on what I did in those hotel rooms, I don’t think of my behaviour as sordid. I think of it as desperate.”
It makes you wonder. What if Led Zeppelin held themselves to account like this? What if Roger Daltrey’s wife hadn’t given him a free pass when he was on tour? When Adele’s ex announced he was owed royalties for inspiring the songs on her eight-times platinum-selling debut album, 19, the singer laughed him off with good grace, as Caroline Sullivan’s deft biography Adele (Carlton, £16.99) reminds us: “I’ll give him this credit – he made me an adult and he put me on the road that I’m travelling.” What if every rock star’s wives, girlfriends and underage groupies came forward and demanded a cut?