Sunday, February 18, 2007

In The Dock: Music biographies

(If you're wondering what this is all about, click here.)

This week's subject: Music biographies

The case for the prosecution (Phill)

Music biographies often promise so much but deliver so little.

Do you want to know how many GCSEs Alex from the Arctic Monkeys got? How about where Boy George’s nan used to live? Or what about the exact layouts of each of Joe Strummer’s squats that he lived in during 1975? All of these facts are available in biographies about these people.

There are two kinds of biographies: those written by the band or singer themselves and those written by others.

The term "autobiography" is of course a misnomer as almost all of them are written by a ghost writer. This makes sense as most musicians are illiterate and can barely string a sentence together. Also as they were often so out of their heads on drugs, booze or both, how on earth are they meant to remember what happened 10 years ago, let along 10 hours ago?!

Ghost writers are shadowy individuals who make a career out of pretending to be famous people through the medium of words. Failed journalists, failed writers, or just generally weirdos, the career of a ghost writer is a strange one.

What often happens is the ghost writer will gather their material from a series of telephone calls with the subject and then write the book in the style they imagine the author would write. So for example, if you are buying Sharon Osbourne’s best selling autobiography 'Extreme', what you are probably getting is a series of telephone conversations transcribed and then a load of stuff that the ghost writer imagined might have happened.

The one that makes me laugh is when the book cover says someone WITH someone. What kind of a partnership is that? It’s a bit like Wham!, George Michael WITH Andrew Ridgeley.

Then there is the other kind of music biography. Most of these are written by journalists. And as we all know, journalists are SCUM. How can you trust a word that a journalist writes?

In a best-case scenario such as the new Joe Strummer book, the journalist has been fan of a band since before they were famous, interviewing the band many times and getting to know them in a way many others don’t. However, this is a rarity.

What is more likely is that when a band springs to prominence, around six months later a selection of cash-in reveal-all biographies are released. Often these contain glossy pictures, lots of quotes taken from magazine interviews, people who knew the band when they were 13 and if we’re lucky, a one line quote from the drummer's nan. Usually they contain no input from the band whatsoever.

After watching the Brit Awards I would anticipate that in the next six months, we have the following delights to look forward to

'Awesome Orson' – The full story of the whiny, annoying, and slightly fat American band.

'Man Morrison' - How James Morrison went from being a non-descript van driver from Rugby to a non-descript bloke from Rugby with a number one album.

'Fratelli Bolognaise' – All the dirty secrets of the Scottish band who have made one mediocre album.

The first Arctic Monkeys biography was released when they were about 18. Hanson’s came out when they had an average age of 13. I propose a new rule. A biography is only allowed to be written after the subject is dead. True, it might make research a little more difficult, but as most biographers never actually speak to the subject of the book, perhaps it won’t matter too much.

Let’s summarise a few key points:

Music biographies are often self-indulgent.

Music biographies are often not true.

Music biographies are often boring - because musicians are often not very interesting

If you want to find out about a musician or singer, the best thing you can do is listen to as much of their recorded output as possible. That will give you the best insight into who they really are.

The case for the defence (Damo)

Imagine a parallel universe for one minute. A parallel internet hosting a parallel blog with a parallel version of In The Dock. Someone is prosecuting not music biographies, but music itself.

"But have you heard Limp Bizkit? Towers Of London? Technotronic? Toploader? There’s so much bad music out there! There would be no bad music if there was no music..."

Back to reality.

There are some dreadful music biographies out there. In fact, there are probably more bad ones than good ones. Cut-and-paste jobs that compile magazine articles, interviews with people almost unrelated to the bands (because close associates have got better things to do with their time than speak to crap biographers), factual error upon factual error... and many offer no insight at all into the subject or, worse still, use the cuttings to draw wildly inaccurate conclusions. Everyone’s got their own view on art critics, but at least they help us filter out the worst offenders in literature... If you buy one of these rush jobs, you have only yourself to blame.

Music biographies, at their best, tell fascinating stories about fascinating people. Not necessarily very nice people, but fascinating people nonetheless. Where to begin? A few examples...

1. 'The Dirt'. A book about the band Mötley Crüe. Like the best biographies, you don’t have to like the subject to enjoy the book. In fact, if you did like the subject, you won’t after you’ve read this. They are quite evidently the most unlikeable people in rock history... and this book’s in their own words. You could open the book at any page and there will be at least one memorable anecdote... an achievement by the standards of any genre.

2. 'Heavier Than Heaven'. Few artists illustrate the bad / good ratio of music biographies better than Kurt Cobain. But this one cuts the sensationalism, and doesn’t necessarily paint a picture you’ll like of him. In other words, far more honest than the many writers who chose to canonise him. It’s gut-wrenching in places - towards the start of the book he’s sleeping in his car... towards the end, a millionaire with a wife and a kid, he’s back there. What you see between those two points is a man completely incapable of instilling stability in his life for even a minute.

3. 'The Last Party'. Remember that you all supported (cough) Britpop last week? You should read this book. It should be school curriculum reading if the government’s serious about getting kids off drugs, until Pete Doherty’s autobiography comes out.

4. 'Everything'. Whilst it’s good if music biographies are even-handed, a love letter to the subject is no bad thing in the right hands. And this is still as honest a portrayal of Manic Street Preachers as you’ll see anywhere.

5. 'My Magpie Eyes Are Hungry For The Prize'. A good record label is more than just a company that puts out decent records, they usually have stories of their own. This one concerns Creation Records and is out of print, but you should really seek it out. 800 pages of it and not a word of that wasted. Unlike many of the subjects...

With only 750 words, I need to stop there to address another criticism of music biographies, namely: "How do you know they’re honest, unbiased, and telling the whole story?" Simple answer: you don’t. If they were always 100% honest, they’d probably be a lot less interesting. If they were always unbiased, the writer’s love of the subject might not shine through (essential if the book’s going to be worth reading). And if they told the whole story... well, I don’t really need to know how many takes were required to nail 'Like A Rolling Stone' in the studio. Decent books need decent editing – the best ones aren’t called page turners for nothing.

In conclusion, I have to apologise for once again trotting out the "good and bad in everything" argument, but unless you can safely say that a well-written book about music and musicians holds no interest to you, I hope I’ve got your vote.

PS. I’ve been careful to quote only a selection of those that I’ve already read, rather than relying on the opinions of others, but there are many more widely regarded as classics currently sitting on my "to read" list. 'Hammer Of The Gods', 'Wouldn’t It Be Nice', 'Cash', 'Morrissey And Marr: The Severed Alliance'...

* * * * *

Thanks to Phill and Damo. Now it's over to you. Guilty or innocent - YOU decide. The comments box is open and awaiting your comments - you've got until Sunday to make up your mind...

24 Comments:

Blogger SwissToni said...

I went into this one with a relatively open mind. I've read some excellent biographies and I've read some toss. It really could have gone either way.

I've moaned long and loud, here and elsewhere, about how the defence always seems to carry the day in these debates. I thought it was something to do with the fact that the readership here (myself included) are hand-wringing liberals who can't bring themselves to send down R'n'B because they quite liked "Crazy in Love" (not that this has scarred me, you understand...). My faith was partially restored by the conviction of Bob Dylan last week, mind you.

Here's the thing though.... I'm going to have to vote for the defence here. Partly this is because I have read and enjoyed many music biographies, and because on the whole I have managed to avoid all the toss that is undoubtedly out there. The other reason for voting with the defence this week is that I'm afraid that Phill's prosecution case doesn't really convince me of anything much at all. Sorry Phill.

Defence.

Incidentally, what genre are all those "1001 albums that you must listen to" and "This is Uncool" type books? Could you argue that they are music biographies? They do tend to have potted histories of bands and albums in them, don't they? I quite like (some) of them too.

So, in summary, you should all feel free to call me a hand-wringing liberal do-gooder, but I can't send down music biographies simply because I quite enjoyed "The Severed Alliance".

Sue me.

ST

6:06 pm  
Anonymous Pete said...

Defence.

While, I've only read a few music biographies (10 or so), the majority of them have been well-written, entertaining and well-researched. Admittedly I've been quite lucky and I've avoided the dross out there, probably because I've been picky and gone for bands/artists with plenty of history.

The above-mentioned "My Magpies Eyes..." and "The Severed Alliance" were cracking...with the former providing an immense amount of background on the UK indie scene and endless stories of Alan McGee losing it.

6:19 pm  
Blogger Pete Ashton said...

I think the prosecution is really addressing celebrity biographies which are a plague on our society and need to be eradicated, so I'm inclined to vote for the defense on these grounds. That said, I can't remember reading a decent proper music biog. Maybe Wonderland Avenue about a kid who grew up around The Doors, but that was about him and the culture, not the music.

The worst example was a Nick Drake biog which revealed him to be the sort of person I don't really like and kinda spoiled him music for me.

In conclusion, music biogs aren't needed. The music does the job. If they happen to be good that's because they're about the other stuff, not the music. Dancing about architecture and all that.

Prosecution wins.

8:04 pm  
Blogger Dead Kenny said...

Of all the millions of music biographies/autobiographies that have been published, I've only ever been bothered to read one (Chronicles Vol 1 by last week's unjustly incarcerated Dylan) which kind of sums up their complete lack of appeal to me.

If there were more music books like Madonna's 'Sex'- ie. featuring pop stars in nekkid lesbotronic wrangles with supermodels I might change my mind, but until then...

GUILTY! SAVE THE RAINFORESTS FROM THIS INDULGENT, GREEDY TRIPE!

9:04 pm  
Blogger Damo said...

>Of all the millions of music biographies/autobiographies that have been published, I've only ever been bothered to read one

Erm.

Not actually going to offer views on anything anyone says though (I did it a little for the Radio 1 debate and immediately regretted it) - it's got to be a free vote. But I felt the need to pluck that quote out...

9:16 pm  
Blogger Simon said...

Easy defence. It might have been more even, but Damo decided to bring to the table The Last Party and My Magpie Eyes... (is it really out of print? It's endlessly fascinating, not least for the 300 pages before Oasis appear) and so that means the superb likes of England's Dreaming, Our Band Could Be Your Life, Rip It Up And Start Again and Lipstick Traces all count as evidence. Also, Head On/Repossessed.

9:53 pm  
Blogger SwissToni said...

Unjustly incarcerated? Are you trying to wind me up? The Art of Noise jury has spoken! Dylan's had that coming for a L-O-N-G time! Surely you could be had for contempt of court for making a remark like that?

Lest I go entirely off-topic, "The Last Party" is indeed a great read.

ST

10:48 pm  
Blogger Damo said...

>"The Last Party" is indeed a great read.

Sure was... although nobody was happier than me that John Harris got the "We would never hear from Silver Sun again" bit wrong.

And yep, "My Magpie Eyes" appears to be out of print. It says that on Amazon and the cheapest second hand copy being sold is £20...

1:30 am  
Blogger Phill said...

Man, it's tough being the prosecution... You read one biography and quite liked it - so they are all innocent! Just go into any branch of The Works to see the horrors in their music section!

There's plenty of people who liked one Dylan album, yet he's still rotting away in Strangeways as we speak - where's the justice!?!?

I interpreted it that books like The Last Party, My Magpie Eyes and Rip It Up and Start Again are not actually music biographies, but perhaps I'm wrong.

I think i'm on to a loser here...

11:40 am  
Blogger Damo said...

I listed five books rather than one - a reasonable cross-section with a 750 word limit. One book would definitely not have made a defence case. The Last Party and My Magpie Eyes (I didn't mention the other one) are biographies of a "genre" and record label respectively although you get crossover sometimes. If you've read 'The Last Party', you'll recognise quite a lot in the (excellent) Blur biography 3862 Days. If I could bring myself to read a decent Oasis biography, no doubt you'd recognise a lot from 'My Magpie Eyes...'

12:07 pm  
Blogger SwissToni said...

Oooh. Actually that's a really excellent point Phill.... Does "The Last Party" counts as a music biography when it details a whole (very wide) genre and doesn't deal with one artist?

I think both sides of the debate should define what they mean by "Music Biography" - it's clearly going to be crucial to the prosecution's case if he can rule out all music books that aren't specifically about an individual artist or band, and likewise, it looks like the defence needs to make sure they're included.

And, is an autobiography technically the same thing as a biography?

It's semantics perhaps, but it could change my vote.

Over to you chaps.

ST

1:18 pm  
Blogger Dead Kenny said...

Damo, think my point was valid in that the fact I hadn't been bothered to read more than one 'summed up their lack of appeal'. See Pete Ashton's point about dancing about architecture - the entire concept of this type of music book is anathema, therefore I feel more than justified in crying 'GUILTY!' without reading the innermost thoughts of Robbie Williams, for example.

Did everyone listen to every one of The Great Music Blog Martyr Bob Dylan's albums before carelessly casting their vote last week, eh? EH?

(Well, OK, even I gave 'Shot Of Love' a miss, to be honest).

8:01 pm  
Blogger SwissToni said...

kenny -- ha! touché

8:20 pm  
Blogger Ben said...

I'm going to go for the defence, for two main reasons.

(Like Kenny, I can't say I've read a great number of music biographies - but for me that's a reason to hold back from condemning them en masse, particularly as those I have encountered have been good reads.)

The first reason is that, as Pete A has suggested above, Phill's target seems to be more the spurious celebrity biography than anything else. Of course at that end of things they are nothing but a cash cow. But then biographies / autobiographies about Geri Halliwell, for example, have very little to do with music - they're essentially straight biographies of celebrities who just happen to be musicians rather than soap actors or TV chefs.

The second reason is that I agree with Damo's charitably wide-ranging definition of music biography. Jon Savage's 'England's Dreaming' counts, I think, though it is almost as much a biography of an era / movement as it is of a band, while one book that hasn't been mentioned, '24 Hour Party People', is an excellent biography of a label. (Thanks to all those who've written glowing comments about 'My Magpie Eyes...' - must read that.)

I've not read supposed "classics" of the genre like 'Hammer Of The Gods' or 'The Dirt', but Damo's right when he says music biographies can often be "gut-wrenching" even if the subject does not emerge as someone who is particularly likeable - 'Chronicles: Volume One' being a case in point (to tie last week's In The Dock with this).

Not guilty.

12:31 am  
Blogger K.W.Wan said...

Guilty.

I have no particular insight. I'm just weighing up the numbers and I've read more bad than good.

12:36 am  
Anonymous Nick The Snick said...

Not Guilty.

I bloody love books I do.

Most music biographys leave me pretty cold but anything that inspires the young and impressionable to stick their faces in a book must be a good thing. If the book is rubbish hopefully they will be inspired to pick up a better book.

And I'd rather read a crap book than listen to a crap album.

I am patronising grandad of the week.

9:02 am  
Blogger Dead Kenny said...

I'm not sure whether this is on-topic or off-topic exactly, but one things been nagging at me since the start of this debate (in between sorting out the Z-Man's parole papers, natch).

Namely, just how many GCSEs *has* Alex from Arctic Monkeys got? It's not something I'd considered before, but now Phill's raised the topic I really really need to know the answer, and hopefully without having to shell out £15 at Waterstone's!

9:02 pm  
Anonymous caskared said...

I'm abstaining this week. I haven't read any and don't really see that changing plus there're good points from both cases. I do enjoy a good film biopic tho!

9:57 am  
Blogger Phill said...

According to the Oxford English Dictionary - the definition of biography is:

"A written record of the life of an individual."

So make you own minds up...

As an aside. If I could just add, one of my favourite ever music biographies was written by Nicky Wire's girlfriend from when he was 18. It was about the Manics from the ages of 16-19 - It was so absolutely and obviously almost entirely made up. Entire conversations were recalled word for word - but the bit where James Dean Bradfield is taunted by drummer Sean in a pie shop is worth the purchase price alone. And the bit where Richey was watching a ladies darts match in a pub whilst quoting philosophy and almost getting his head kicked in. Priceless, but probably complete fiction!

I'll give a pint to whoever can tell me how many GCSE's he has got. I might stretch to a cocktail if you can give me the exact grades.

11:16 am  
Blogger Damo said...

>"A written record of the life of an individual."

... strictly "individual", or are "individuals" acceptable? Provided there's nothing wrong with the latter I don't see a problem - books about people and music. Innit.

Apologies if this seems like I'm wading into semantics too much. I'll stop now.

2:30 pm  
Blogger Ben said...

I'm with Simon on Michael Azerrad's 'Our Band Could Be Your Life', BTW - a really great read.

9:42 pm  
Anonymous Viagra said...

I think you said everything in the first line. They never deliver anything! this is more like a merchandising strategy to sell more and more. Puke!

8:01 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

hi

9:46 pm  
Anonymous Cheap Viagra said...

Thank you so much for posting this great article, I am so interested on what I read, good and useful content about the Music biographies of many famous musicians.

9:48 pm  

Post a Comment

<< Home