Interviews and overviews, biographies and bullshit.
Recent music books, June 2009

Bill Bruford. The Autobiography, Bill Bruford (352pp, 14.95, Jawbone)
The Cambridge Companion to Bob Dylan, ed. Kevin J.H. Dettmar
(185pp, 14.99, Cambridge)
Lowside of the Road. A life of Tom Waits, Barney Hoskyns (609pp, 20, Faber)
Unbound Sounds, ed paul D. Miller (416pp, unpriced, MIT)
It Still Moves, Amanda Petrusich (290pp, 14.99, Faber)
Fear of Music, David Stubbs (135pp, 9.99, Zero Books)
Totally Wired: Post-Punk Interviews and Overviews, Simon Reynolds
(452pp, 14.99, Faber)
The North Will Rise Again. Manchester Music City 1976-1996, John Robb
(394pp, 16.99, Aurum)
The England's Dreaming Tapes, Jon Savage (744pp, 20, Faber)

Bill Bruford is restrained, erudite and mildly amusing in his autobiography, but he holds back too much. Why doesn't he actually tell us what he thinks about his former bandmates? There's no need to pour abuse or scorn on them, but there are clearly musical and personal differences which are glossed over here in favour of niceties and tact. I mean, does Bruford really think Phil Collins makes 'serious, dramatic, gut-wrenching soul music'? (Stomach churning perhaps, but that's hardly the same.) Is he not man enough to admit a liking for the music of Yes, Genesis or King Crimson when he was with them? Apparently not, for Bruford teeters on being a muso, more worried about technical ability and being sensible than impassioned or exploratory. It's all a bit too nice for me...

Unlike Tom Waits, of course, who at the very least projects a persona of dishevelment and wild abandon. Lowside of the Road is one of those books where the author has struggled to get through the elaborate cloaking devices and smokescreens put up by their subject. In Waits' case this includes directives to his friends and colleagues instructing them to not speak to Barney Hoskyns, despite his good intentions. But Hoskyns has written a great book anyway, with just the right mix of conjecture and hearsay, biography and bullshit, musical criticism and authorial intervention to keep one reading. Hoskyns isn't afraid to question or critique, and cuts through the construct to explore why Waits' characters, if not perhaps Waits himself, has created the lowlife world he has. He also aptly charts Waits' move from actually living as a derelict, making his songs autobiographical in reverse, toward family man and method actor, with a wider and more successful if disconcerting and avant garde - musical palette.

David Stubbs wants to know 'Why people get Rothko but don't get Stockhausen', although of course the question could include other names, as
Fear of Music is more about the way contemporary visual art has somehow entered mass consciousness but contemporary experimental msuic hasn't. Personally, I think his assumption is wrong from the very start: queues and crowds at Tate Modern don't necessarily indicate a change in society, just a new tourist destination as the result of great architecture and clever marketing. Not only is the question itself wrong here, Stubbs doesn't actually construct an argument, he merely trawls through a series of the usual examples and assumptions (AMM, Cornelius Cardew, Stockhausen, Dada and free jazz, etc) before fizzling out with the rather wet  suggestion that '[o]ne of the great reasons avant garde music needs to exist is that it does not need to exist.' Well, thanks for that David. Surely it's more important to articulate the fact that avant garde music uses many of the same rules that all music does; to be reductionist it is 'sound in space'. If people got to grips with that then they can learn to listen, just as anyone who understands art has moved beyond the idea of pictures and depicting things.

If Fear of Music is pseudo-academic writing, that wouldn't get a very good mark on the courses I teach on, The Cambridge Companion to Bob Dylan is of course the real thing: an anthology of  informed, intelligent essays approaching their subject from a variety of angles. Part 1 of the book is called 'Perspectives' and considers Dylan as songwriter, performer, collaborator as well as locating him within 'the Anglo-American tradition', and looking through the lens of gender politics and religion. In part 2 'Landmark Albums' are considered, and if the list of albums chosen are no surprise, and are thin on the ground post Blood on the Tracks, they are refreshingly new and readable in their consideration. This is an important addition to the ongoing consideration of Dylan's work.

Paul D. Miller, also known as DJ Spooky that Subliminal Kid, has also edited an academic book for the prestigious MIT Press.
Sound Unbound is wide-ranging and enervating collection of articles exploring the notion of sampling and its implications on academia, music, writing and culture. When does sampling become plagiarism, or is that term now redundant? (My students know that it isn't.) How does technology change creativity, and vice versa? How has culture learnt from hip-hop and other sampling cultures/genres? What about silence? And, finally, 'Where did the music go?' Although not as clearly focussed as the Dylan book, these 36 pieces contain a number of challenging and well-thought out pieces. On the downside, the book also includes interviews with seemingly inarticulate people I've never heard of, and some rather pretentious and specialist pieces that sit uneasily within the overall scheme of things. But there is plenty of useful discussion and challenging ideas here considering how the listener and musician might choose to position themselves within a culture that constantly recycles, remixes, steals and appropriates from itself.

Both Jon Savage's and Simon Reynolds' new books are remixes of old ones. Here they have gone back to the interview tapes they used to write previous books, and packaged them as a kind of raw mix for consumption, with mixed results. Well, I say mixed results, but Totally Wired is, for me, a complete success. It ranges widely through both UK and USA pop, rock and (post-)punk culture, interviewing DJs, critics. musicians and others such as Anthony H. Wilson and Bill Drummond, and then also offers a second section of previously unpublished chapters/articles (although I think I'm right in saying they have been available on the web at various points in time).These include especially good pieces on Mutant Disco and Punk-Funk, and on 'Ono, Eno and Arto' (great title), as well as a witty and self-deprecating interview with himself.

Savage's book, however, which I expected to like more, is a big disappointment, and shows how hard Savage worked to create
England's Dreaming. Here, his punk subjects are with the exception perhaps of Howard Devoto, Linder, Derek Jarman and Wire inarticulate, awkward and nave. Perhaps it's the questions or perhaps that many of these are fleeting, fragmentary encounters, but without the conceptual framework of the original book, this is just turgid and unfocussed, which is very disappointing.

John Robb plays a different game in
The North Will Rise Again, weaving a collage of juxtaposed opinions and quotes from his interview subjects together on a number of topics. In the main, this works really well, giving a multi-faceted view of the likes of Joy Division and post-punk, and allowing a bigger picture to emerge, with many characters now allowed at least a walk-on part. As someone far more interested in the likes of The Passage and Spherical Objects than New Order, it's these asides and details that mostly held my attention.But by the time the book had considered The Smiths and descended into a consideration of the Stone Roses and Happy Mondays via rave culture, and with the threat of Oasis still to come I'd had enough. The North may well rise again, but it will have to shake off the deadening legacy of those four musical mishaps before it does.

Amanda Petruschi explores a different legacy in
It Still Moves, and takes us on a road trip to do so. In a rather unfocussed and obligatory manner she visits the likes of Sun studios to pay homage to the Carter Family, Elvis and Robert Johnson, before taking a drive into the fringes of and americana, with some thin and underwritten chapters involving Wilco, Steve Earle and Johnny Cash, and others. I really can't imagine who this book is for. Those interested will mostly know far more than Petruschi seems to, those who don't won't be persuaded by this rather earnest and underwritten offering.

   Rupert Loydell 2009