Reading about music
I’ve just started reading Peter Doggett’s There’s A Riot Goin’ On (2007) which is subtitled ‘revolutionaries, rock stars and the rise and fall of ’60s counter-culture’ which gives a good idea of its focus. So far it is a compelling account of the tensions within the 60s counter-culture, and a useful corrective for anyone who tends to have a more rose-tinted view of the period. Not for the first time, it seems that some of the best aspects of the idealistic 1960s survive in the music itself – flowers growing out of mud, transcending the messy human realities of their origin. (Oh what a big topic the 60s are …) Scott Mackenzie’s ‘San Francisco’ survives as a place in the human imagination which always transcended the reality of Haight Ashbury in 1966-67.
This set me thinking about some favourite books on music. Staying with popular music, I would certainly recommend Revolution In The Head – Ian MacDonald’s famous study of The Beatles – and his collection of essays The People’s Music (2003) which contains a number of memorable essays, including a landmark one on Nick Drake. At the time of his death (a suicide) MacDonald was working on a book on Bowie. I suspect his premature death robbed rock criticism of several more classic books. Charles Shaar Murray’s Crosstown Traffic: Jimi Hendrix and post-war pop (1989) is a fine, thoughtful study which raised the bar for rock criticism and has been reprinted several times. Both MacDonald and Murray bring a broader perspective to their subjects and write as if they mattered. Murray’s collection of essays Shots From The Hip which reprints many pieces from the New Musical Express is also hugely entertaining.
Mark Lewisohn’s The Complete Beatles Chronicles (1992) is an enormously detailed coffee-table book which follows the career of the Fab Four on the road, on TV, on the radio, in the studio. Martin Millar’s novel Suzy, Led Zeppelin and Me (2002) is a funny but accurate recreation of teenage rock fandom back in the early 1970s. If you want to know what it was like to be a young male obsessed with Led Zeppelin and anticipating them coming to your city, read this.
I’ll use another novel to link into a few classical music books. Chris Greenhalgh’s Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky (2002) is an entertaining and mostly well-written account of the affair between these two cultural figures of the early jazz age. It was made into an equally entertaining film, Coco & Igor. For endless hours of browsing try Third Ear’s massive Classical Music The Listener’s Companion guide edited by Alexander J Morin (2002), which reviews thousands of recordings by hundreds of composers, helping you choose between multiple recordings of a single work.
Julian Johnson’s Who Needs Classical Music: Cultural Choice and Musical Value (2002) is an important discussion of a deeply unfashionable topic: the idea that some music might be ‘better’ than other types. It’s an inspiring book, because it ascribes a much greater value to music than the current dominant notion that music is mere entertainment. Its great limitation is that Johnson is at his least intelligent when dealing with popular music, and he makes some crass comparisons. But the book is redeemed by much.
My next recommendation is the Cambridhe Music Handbook series. These are detailed but compact studies of important single musical works, exclusively classical (with the notable exception of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band). I have several, including those on Nielsen 5 and Sibelius 5, which are great. Some of the chapters are full of very technical analysis, but the more general chapters are usually worth the price for the general reader.
Finally, the book I jokingly think of as ‘the bible’ for a symphony obsessive: Robert Layton’s A Guide to the Symphony (pb 1995), a wonderful multi-suthor survey of the symphony. This book has led me to much superb music. I shall also mention Wilfrid Mellers’ Vaughan Williams and the Vision of Albion (1997) which is a profound and idiosyncratic response to the music of the great English composer, full of spirituality and connections from Vaughan Williams to a broader English culture. And you will certainly never think about keys in the same way after reading this.