Caught by the River

The Music Book Reader Bulletin

Andy Childs | 31st January 2013


Andy Childs with a round-up of recently published music books:

No doubt about it, 2012 was an exceptional year for music books. When I first embarked on the Music Book Reader Bulletin I naively half suspected that I would struggle to find a decent book every month to review. But as it transpired I haven’t had a chance yet to read or write about all of the books that have enhanced this once-ailing genre. Future bulletins will focus on some of the excellent books that have not, in my opinion, yet received the attention they deserve but by way of trying to catch up a little, here’s a round-up of a few recent books that are definitely worth investigating.

How Music Works by David Byrne (Canongate)
Not unintentionally I suspect, the cover of David Byrne’s recent book How Music Works, with its padded front and back cover, stark white and black design and hefty feel resembles nothing so much as a bible. Which for anyone involved in making or listening to music (all of us?) it pretty much is. To my knowledge there’s never been a more wide-ranging, stimulating and readable book on how music is listened to and heard, what its place is and has been in our lives, and most importantly what its future could be. Not surprisingly its scope means that there are aspects of music that Byrne covers which beg for more detail and substance but in this case that is a strength rather than a weakness. He opens up interesting avenues of thought about how technology has impacted on music, and what the dominant influences are on shaping an artist’s music are for instance and then subtly encourages you to explore and evaluate these ideas yourself. Of course as an innovative and consummate artist himself there is a good deal in the book that is autobiographical and written from personal experience. But if you are expecting the low-down on the turmoil that broke up The Talking Heads you’ll be disappointed. Byrne comes across as an affable, modest personality, non-judgmental and non-confrontational for the most part. This is more manual than memoir, but perhaps more than anything though it’s an affirmation of just how important music is to our lives. Whether you are making it, listening to it, buying it, selling it, promoting it or in any way using it, and have ever stopped for a moment to ask yourself why and how, this book could answer a lot of your questions.

Fairport by Fairport by Nigel Schofield (Rocket 88)
As is often the case with oral histories a strict chronology is hard to maintain and a certain amount of repetition, not to mention contradiction and confusion, often creeps in. That’s certainly true, occasionally, in this book although for a band as long in the tooth, as vast in its influence and as numerous in its personnel as Fairport Convention it’s probably the only way to effectively give voice to the range of personalities and talents that constitute their story. Nigel Schofield has compiled an exhaustive history from personal reminiscences, first-hand interviews and previously published quotes and he has doggedly documented every stage of the band’s career. For most fans I would suspect the first 200 pages (up to around 1976) will be the most interesting and it’s certainly the period that Schofield attempts to place the band’s music and influence in a wider context; after that most of the narrative seems to revolve around the Cropredy phenomenon and the comings and goings of various personnel. All extremely thorough and detailed and that Fairport Convention merit such treatment is surely beyond dispute. The spell they exert on the wider world of folk music spans six decades and their continuous longevity, albeit in ever-changing configurations, is almost unmatched. At least three of their albums should be in any serious record collection and if perhaps their genuine period of innovation was all too brief and a long time ago, the quality of the music they continue to make is enormously enjoyable. Reading this book I was reminded, on a personal note, that I owe Fairport Convention a humble nod of gratitude as back in October 1969 they played a benefit for Zigzag magazine (in acknowledgment of the support they’d received from Pete Frame when they first started out) which allowed the mag to continue publishing and survive long enough for me to eventually become its editor. Sobering to think that on such tenuous circumstances one’s distant future is decided. And talking of Pete, I would heartily recommend when reading the first half of this book that you have a copy of his Family Tree (appropriately titled Resolving The Fairport Confusion) to hand as it will save you making labyrinthine notes in order to follow the plot. One criticism – my uncorrected proof copy doesn’t have an index which, for an academic study of this scope, is surely essential and hopefully included in the finished tome which also apparently includes a documentary DVD.


Stone Free by Andrew Loog Oldham (Escargot Books)
This is the third volume of Loog Oldham’s memoirs and it focuses on the impressive line-up of hustlers or “pimpressarios” with whom it has been (mostly) his good fortune to have had dealings with. As an infamous hustler himself he is well qualified to expound on the lives of these rogues (nearly all of them artist managers) and almost manages to elevate their frequently suspect behaviour into an art form. If you’ve read and enjoyed Stoned and 2Stoned you’ll recognize here the barbed wit and hilarious turn of phrase that made those books so noteworthy. Loog Oldham is a born raconteur and he writes like a dream. His fondness and respect for these characters (we’re talking Larry Parnes, Albert Grossman, Brian Epstein, Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp, Malcolm McLaren, Don Arden) is matched only by his disdain for the modern music business – “what the industry really needs is a Schindler’s List before everyone is marched to a kind of death”. Of course charlatans of all species still proliferate the music industry but as Loog Oldham so divertingly demonstrates they are all hustling on the shoulders of giants, so to speak.

Previous bulletins from Andy can be found here and the Music Book Reader lives here.
More music book news and reviews can be found on Andy’s blog here.