Shake, rattle and write: why the music memoir is booming

By her personal admission, Miki Berenyi was not a lady itching to jot down a memoir. Even when she had been, she says, why would anybody have been ? Her band, Lush, had been “by no means that large”. They loved cult alt-rock success within the early 90s, scored three Prime 30 singles within the Britpop period, and broke up in 1996. They briefly reformed in 2015, however broke up once more after lower than a yr, eager “to return to our households and houses”. When a writer approached her with the thought of an autobiography, she says, “I actually laughed in his fucking face – I used to be like: ‘Why would I need to do this? That sounds ridiculous.’”

However then Berenyi misplaced her job as a subeditor when the journal she labored for folded. “Lockdown was looming, and I believed, ‘Oh shit, truly this isn’t a good time to be searching for a job’, so I type of … It was a bit extra pragmatic than a burning ambition.”

Pragmatic or not, Berenyi’s e-book, Fingers Crossed: How Music Saved Me from Success, turned out to be a warmly reviewed success on publication final yr, detailing not simply Lush’s journey by way of the 90s indie scene and horrible finish – their cut up was precipitated by the suicide of their drummer, Chris Acland – however Berenyi’s extraordinary and incessantly harrowing formative years: her Japanese mom left her within the care of her Hungarian father, a hard-partying womaniser who purchased her vodka aged eight and, at one juncture, had Berenyi promoting bathe fittings on the streets of Prague for prepared money. It’s a fiercely trustworthy, unsparing and really humorous e-book, however, with the best of respect, the truth that a writer approached the previous frontwoman of Lush within the first place tells you numerous concerning the present urge for food for rock and pop memoirs.

The final decade has seen a torrent of them. The bestselling heavy hitters from large names – Keith Richards, Bruce Springsteen, Bono, Elton John (full disclosure: I used to be the ghostwriter of the final e-book) – are merely the tip of the iceberg. Lately we’ve seen autobiographies from a number of extra cultish musicians, from DJ Carl Cox to Speaking Heads’ Chris Frantz and Cosey Fanni Tutti of commercial pioneers Throbbing Gristle. There have been books by pioneering figures – MC5’s Wayne Kramer, Can’s Irmin Schmidt and Kraftwerk’s Karl Bartos – alongside ones by latter-day stars: Jarvis Cocker, Graham Coxon of Blur, Jeff Tweedy of Wilco, Goldie. Each style appears to have been lined, from folk-rock (Richard Thompson’s Beeswing) to hip-hop (the Beastie Boys and Wu Tang Clan’s U-God).

Miki Berenyi of Lush.
‘Writing a e-book was a bit extra pragmatic than a burning ambition’ … Miki Berenyi of Lush. {Photograph}: Gie Knaeps/Getty Photographs

There’s a subgenre of memoirs not by musicians, however music trade figures, amongst them fabled PR Barbara Charone, Island Information founder Chris Blackwell and Tony King, whose sensible The Tastemaker particulars a life lived 20ft away from a number of the largest stars on this planet, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Elton John amongst them. There are memoirs by music journalists, together with former Q editor Ted Kessler and someday Guardian author Jude Rogers. There are memoirs which have appeared whatever the truth their creator died simply as they had been getting began – that Prince died after writing solely 20 pages of his autobiography was apparently no impediment to The Beautiful Ones’ publication, a ghostwriter merely finishing the remaining 260 – and there are memoirs by figures so obscure their very existence boggles the thoughts. It’s meant as no reflection on the standard of Will Carruthers’ Taking part in the Bass With Three Left Palms or Gordon King’s When Does the Thoughts-Bending Begin? to recommend that, at every other level in historical past, a memoir by the previous bass participant of 80s psychedelicists Spacemen 3 or the guitarist of minor early 90s indie band World of Twist would have been the province of self-publishing or tiny specialist imprints, not main publishing homes.

Certainly, there was a time when memoirs by rock and pop musicians had been a really uncommon incidence certainly. You might need thought that the primary wave of Nineteen Fifties rock’n’rollers had been inspired to place pen to paper within the early 70s, the period of American Graffiti and the 1972 London Rock and Roll Present at Wembley Area. However the one one who did was serial memoirist Cliff Richard, who printed The Manner I See It in 1968, one in all 5 autobiographies he’s written over time (ought to your thirst for the Peter Pan of Pop’s writing stay unsatiated, there’s one other memoir, A Head Stuffed with Music, due in October). The one lasting rock memoir of the last decade was Ian Hunter’s fabled Diary of a Rock’n’Roll Star, a e-book that appears to inform you as a lot concerning the parochialism of early 70s Britain because the profession of Hunter’s band Mott the Hoople, crammed as it’s with wide-eyed explanations of how some airline seats recline and the way People make orange juice by squeezing precise oranges, slightly than reaching for a carton.

Bestselling heavy hitter … Bono.
Bestselling heavy hitter … Bono. {Photograph}: David Levene/The Guardian

There was a scattering of rock and pop autobiographies throughout the 80s, however they appeared to return with one other function or agenda connected, as if merely telling a musician’s story wouldn’t be sufficient to curiosity the general public: both score-settling within the case of Mary Wilson’s Dreamgirl: My Life As a Supreme – 292 pages to make anybody profoundly grateful they weren’t in a band with Diana Ross – or tracing a redemptive arc of druggy degradation adopted by restoration that chimed within the decade of the warfare on medication and Simply Say No, the territory of John Phillips’s Papa John and David Crosby’s Lengthy Time Gone.

There have been extra nonetheless within the Nineteen Nineties, a decade through which the heritage rock trade actually received underway, and file labels started packaging artists’ again catalogues in costly, fascinating field units: John Lydon’s Rotten: No Irish, No Blacks, No Canine; Paul McCartney’s Many Years from Now; Brian Wilson’s mind-boggling Wouldn’t It Be Good, a bestseller it subsequently turned obvious that the previous Seaside Boy hadn’t even learn, not to mention written. For essentially the most half, nonetheless, the rock memoir remained a distinct segment market, dominated by specialist publishers.

However the floodgates actually appeared to open because the 00s changed into the 2010s. There are prosaic the explanation why it occurred. In 2012 Faber put writer Lee Brackstone in command of their music listing, “a really aware resolution to create a devoted house for music and music-adjacent publishing”, as Faber’s present director of in style music Dan Papps places it, full with “campaigns that utilized classes realized from file labels, a faster-moving trade – creating an enormous noise, an enormous second, having that e-book in market as rapidly as attainable afterwards”.

Prince in 1985.
Prince in 1985.

{Photograph}: Michael Ochs Archives/ Getty Photographs

Faber began publishing music books at a startling fee – the whole lot from scholarly investigations into the oeuvre of Prince to a memoir by the Pogues’ former accordionist James Fearnley – and scored a collection of surprising breakout successes. Former Slits guitarist Viv Albertine’s memoir Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys was shortlisted for the Nationwide Ebook Awards and listed as one of many 50 greatest memoirs of the final 50 years by the New York Occasions, whereas Cosey Fanni Tutti’s Artwork Intercourse Music appeared to succeed in a far wider viewers than the wilfully difficult music she makes: it’s at present being made into a movie by director Andrew Hulme. Presumably emboldened by Faber’s success, different publishers adopted go well with: Brackstone left to arrange White Rabbit at Hachette; Bonnier launched its personal music imprint 9 Eight, house to Berenyi’s memoir amongst others.

The existence of three music imprints at main publishers – along with the output of longstanding specialists resembling Omnibus – solely partly explains the sheer quantity of music memoirs at present showing. The opposite issue entails the musicians themselves and the passing of time. We’re now practically 70 years away from the delivery of rock’n’roll, 30 from the zenith of the Nineteen Nineties, which implies the surviving musicians from the primary half-century of rock historical past are of an age the place one naturally takes inventory and regards one’s youth each with fondness and the type of perspective that’s maybe mandatory to jot down one thing worthwhile, or at the very least one thing that isn’t going to cripple you with embarrassment in years to return.

“I might by no means have executed it even 15 years in the past,” Berenyi says, now 56. “Even when somebody had requested me and supplied me cash, I wouldn’t have executed it. I’m a bit in with the mob that, when a 27-year-old releases an autobiography, thinks: ‘Actually? You haven’t fucking lived but.’ And I might argue that attempting to jot down one thing whenever you’re within the maelstrom of it’s unimaginable. There are issues which might be riling you in that second that even a couple of years later you suppose: ‘Properly, that’s asinine.’ You’d in all probability spend a complete chapter happening about it and make your self appear like a prat. There’s a temptation to do this, since you’re nonetheless upset and offended, otherwise you’re completely impressed with your self, and you haven’t any concept that’s going to fade in a short time.”

Rewriting history … Kim Gordon, with (from left) Lee Ranaldo, Thurston Moore and Steve Shelley of Sonic Youth.
Rerecording historical past … Kim Gordon, with (from left) Lee Ranaldo, Thurston Moore and Steve Shelley of Sonic Youth. {Photograph}: Gie Knaeps/Getty Photographs

So the present quantity of rock memoirs could be accounted for by the confluence of publishers searching for new titles and glad to take dangers on books that, as Pete Selby of 9 Eight places it, “are by no means going to be Sunday Occasions bestsellers, are at instances recherche, however are fascinating, the kind of e-book you need to have on the listing”, and musicians each prepared to inform their tales and keen to take action with out the mediating presence of an interviewer. (As Berenyi factors out, in a world earlier than social media enabled artists to have direct contact with their followers, “the whole lot you mentioned as a band can be filtered by way of a 45-minute interview with a journalist who would invariably be searching for a fairly sensational headline, which I completely perceive”).

However this doesn’t clarify the obvious public urge for food for them. In reality, there’s a definite sense amongst everybody I communicate to that their success is linked to the decline of the normal music press. It was arduous to not see the closure of Q journal in 2020 as the ultimate rattle of a protracted, sluggish painful demise that started with the shuttering of Melody Maker and Choose in 2000, and encompassed NME ceasing publication of its bodily version in 2018, the euphemistic “pause” in publication of Mixmag’s print version in 2020 and the choice to chop arduous rock title Kerrang! from a weekly to a quarterly title. There’s a ghost of the music press left – a handful of heritage rock magazines battling declining gross sales figures; some specialist titles surviving on a small, extremely focused readership and a handful of daring makes an attempt to reanimate the shape that nobody appears to suppose are going to work – however the sense that the period of the normal music press is over is tough to keep away from.

Clearly, none of this could have occurred had there been adequate readers to maintain it, however, equally, there stays a cohort of music followers – most of them, you believe you studied, sufficiently old to recollect an period when the music press mattered – nonetheless eager to learn the type of long-form music writing and evaluation it supplied. Certainly, there’s an argument that the glut of rock memoirs are offering extra variety in long-form music writing than theold-fashioned music press ever did. It was historically dominated by male journalists, writing for a predominantly male viewers. There’s one thing telling about the truth that so lots of the best-received memoirs are by girls – to Albertine, Tutti and Berenyi, you may add former Sonic Youth bassist Kim Gordon’s Girl in a Band and Patti Smith’s Simply Youngsters – maybe as a result of they retell historical past from a recent perspective, one seldom heard within the heyday of NME.

Furthermore, the music press is just not the one outlet for evaluation of rock and pop that’s in decline. In 2023, you virtually by no means see music documentaries on British tv. Their final bastion was BBC 4, however the days when it invariably crammed its Friday night time schedule with examinations of punk or funk or prog rock had been dropped at an finish when the channel’s finances was slashed. Since then, solely a handful of high-profile music documentaries have been commissioned for tv, all by subscription providers, Apple TV’s excellent 1971 collection and Todd Haynes’s Velvet Underground documentary amongst them.

Cosey Fanni Tutti with Throbbing Gristle bandmate Genesis P-Orridge.
Cosey Fanni Tutti with Throbbing Gristle bandmate Genesis P-Orridge. {Photograph}: Ruby Ray/Getty Photographs

But when music memoirs fill a niche, additionally they signify a response. We reside in an period the place streaming has virtually utterly decontextualised rock and pop music: Spotify et al make music extra instantly obtainable – just about the whole lot ever recorded is yours to listen to on the click on of a button – however the music is the solely factor they make obtainable. Cowl art work is diminished to a tiny sq. within the nook of your display screen; sleevenotes, credit, or certainly any sense of historic, creative or social context are notable by their absence.

You’ll be able to mount an argument that this state of affairs is oddly releasing. Actually, should you have a look at the weird choice of again catalogue songs which have attained ubiquity with a younger viewers through TikTok virality – John Denver’s Take Me Residence, Nation Roads, Edison Lighthouse’s Love Grows (The place My Rosemary Goes), Insane Clown Posse’s Boogie Woogie Wu, Matthew Wilder’s beforehand forgotten 80s novelty hit Break My Stride – it’s arduous to not be struck by the sense that old style notions of cool, tribalism and what music issues and what doesn’t have gone utterly out of the window.

Maybe that’s a superb factor. However for an viewers who grew up with tribalism, with music as an integral a part of their identification, the place the music you favored might affect the whole lot from the best way you dressed to the individuals you selected as pals, the glut of memoirs acts as a type of corrective. A part of their attraction is that they are usually large on evoking particular scenes and moments in time – whether or not it’s the post-punk New York vividly depicted in Kim Gordon’s Lady in a Band, or the arty, politically fraught ambiance of Germany’s late 60s/early 70s counterculture present in Irmin Schmidt’s All Gates Open. They remind readers of an age when pop music was the first drive in youth tradition, when it appeared extra central and, frankly, necessary than it does now.

Whether or not the present wave of rock memoirs is an ongoing blip, or a everlasting state of affairs stays to be seen. There’s no getting round the truth that the titles printed up to now attraction primarily to a middle-aged demographic, the identical cohort that’s driving the revival in vinyl: individuals who grew up shopping for bodily merchandise and nonetheless need to accomplish that.

Each Dan Papps and Pete Selby speak concerning the problem of sustaining momentum by partaking youthful readers, who got here of age within the post-music press period when streaming turned the first technique of accessing music. “Having such a inflexible definition of your viewers could be problematic,” Papps says. “We all know that there’s at present a wholesome marketplace for such a music e-book, however even throughout the elevated quantity of publishers working on this space now, there’s a restricted quantity of slots annually and I believe so as to progress the music writing kind, it’s actually important to create a welcoming and democratic house for brand spanking new voices and concepts. That’s actually thrilling, but it surely takes systemic change all through the entire publishing trade from the agent degree upwards.”

That is one imaginative and prescient of the longer term. Extra instantly, the autumn brings memoirs from Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore, Pulp drummer Nick Banks, Pauline Murray of punk band Penetration and umpteen others but to be introduced. For now, the wave of autobiographies reveals no indicators of breaking.

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