Sunday, November 16, 2008

10 Quality Rock Reads

Today, I just finished reading the original Christgau's Record Guide, covering Robert Christgau's '70s reviews. In 1978, I started reading Creem Magazine, and that's where I discovered Christgau. When the Record Guide came out in 1982, a promotional copy was sent to my high school radio station, along with a publicist's number. I called the number and got an interview with Christgau.

About all I remember from the interview is that near the end, I heard some pounding on the outside door. It was a Saturday and the outer door was locked and my friend Dale needed me to open it. I wrapped up the interview quickly. I only remember one quote, when Christgau told me that punk rock saved his life. I understand that more now then I did then.

I should note that I read the book back then, but somewhere along the way, I loaned it out and lost it. I found it earlier this year at a record store in Wrigleyville. It became my bathroom reader for the past few months.

Finishing the book made me think it was list time. This isn't anything close to definitive. It's just 10 rock books that I really dig.

1. Songbook -- Nick Hornby: Like Hornby's best novels, the British writer manages to be breezy and insightful at the same time. Here, Hornby burrows into his favorite songs, explaining just what it is about them that makes them so special. In so doing, he avoids tying the tunes to specific memories. No, he looks at the musical and lyrical qualities. There are so many great observations about pop music in this book, the type that seem to elude many rock critics.

2. Lone Star Swing -- Duncan McLean: I like Western Swing music, but it's not a major passion of mine. But it was for McLean. After winning a tidy sum as a literary prize, McLean decided to use the money to travel to Texas, to go to a celebration of Bob Wills, the King of Western Swing. Before getting to his final destination, he drove across the backroads of Texas, talking to musicians who were there during the genre's heyday. The book is both a travelogue and a musical education. And when McLean finally gets to watch some of the surviving Texas Playboys (Bob Wills's band) perform, the way he describes the thrill of it...if you're a passionate music fan, you'll understand.

3. Rick Johnson Reader -- Rick Johnson: I missed the Dave Marsh-Lester Bangs era of Creem. I think the era that followed is too easily dismissed. The magazine continued with its piss take attitude. And no one exemplified it more than the Bard of Macomb, Rick Johnson. This book actually has more of the work he did for local presses in Illinois than Creem (which means we need a full Creem volume II!), and the reviews here show that Johnson was in the vein of Bangs, but much, much funnier. Moreover, reading a slew of his reviews, I admired how structured and thoughtful his writing was, even at its silliest. Moreover, he challenged mainstream critics, showing appreciation for hammer and tongs hard rock, when it was good, and soft pop. His agenda was making you laugh and turning you on to good music.

4. Are You Ready Steve? -- Steve Priest: This is not the best written book. But if you wondered it would be like having a few pints with the bass player for Sweet while he told tales of sex, drugs, sex, drugs, and some rock 'n' roll, this book does the trick. Priest was sly and impish on stage, and that persona comes across in the book. Sweet was my first favorite band with such an unusual transition from bubblegum stars to hard rockers, and Priest discusses that. However, the book is a bit more focused on the lifestyle, but that's fine. That's what I'd expect at the pub.

5. Trouser Press Record Guide -- Ira Robbins, et. al: There have been other record guides, but none have as much consistent writing and quality criticism. You don't need the books (there were a number of editions), as the entries are now available at

6. Bubblegum Music Is The Naked Truth -- Kim Cooper & David Smay, et. al: This collection of essays on bubblegum music gets off to a rocky start, weighed down by candy puns and multiple references to the use of double entendres in bubblegum. But get past that and you get a lot of nifty observations and histories of teenybop rock from the '60s to now. I bought a few records based on this book, which says something right there.

7. Lost In The Grooves -- Kim Cooper & David Smay, et. al: The Scram Magazine team's second anthology is even better. The premise is simple -- have a bunch of oddball writers and musicians write about their favorite obscure albums. Considering the number of contributors, the consistency of the writing is quite good. Moreover, the pure enthusiasm for music radiates from just about every page. And, even moreso than Bubblegum Music Is The Naked Truth, I discovered a lot of great music that I had never heard of.

8. What Was The First Rock 'n' Roll Record -- Jim Dawson And Steve Propes: The authors look at fifty different songs in a semi-serious attempt to crown a song as the first rock 'n' roll platter. I say semi-serious not because this is jokey, but because the authors acknowledge that you can't really make that determination. So this book really looks at key songs in the development of the music, showing the evolution of blues, jazz and country as they mutated and crossbred into rock 'n' roll. The research is good and the authors really capture the excitement of these sides.

9. TV-A-Go-Go -- Jake Austen: Austen is the man behind the 'zine Rocktober, which looks at rock music from obscure and unusual angles. But Austen isn't just some really smart fanboy; he's an academic who happens to love his subject. The book is a series of essays on the relationship between rock music and television. Austen really knows his stuff and this book made me rethink the relationship between the home audience and what's coming over the tube. And he also made me realize why American Idol is popular (which is not the same as making me watch it). This is a very smart book, but it's also really entertaining.

10. Christgau's Consumer Guide -- Robert Christgau: For all of his quirks, Christgau was an astute critic who was, amongst American rock writers, on the ground floor of recognizing all sorts of movements that other mainstream crits missed. Moreover, he had a defined aesthetic. And though his writing became pretty opaque, that wasn't true during the '70s, as the prose is vibrant.

Okay. Fire away.


XTCFan said...

Lost in Music by Giles Smith. A great account of his days with Martin Newell. Smith went on to do sportswriting but this is a great account of a popster at the fringes of the music biz.

Mike Bennett said...

Thanks for the tip! I'm a Newell fan, so I definitely want to check that one out!

Anonymous said...

I love "Lost In Music" as well. The chapter about Nick Kershaw (before he was Nik) is a great anecdote.

Anonymous said...

What?! No "Hellfire" by Nick Tosches?! Or even his "Unsung Heroes of Rock N Roll"...Hellfire is THE BEST biography ever written and what a subject...The Killer's all sermon and wild tales...get it...

The Bama Lamas

Brian said...

Holy cats ... there's a Rick Johnson reader????? I had no idea, and the thing's been our for going on two years. Finding this out is the best thing that's happened this year, hands down!