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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Alexis Petridis

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

SonicBoom web
Illustration by La Boca Illustration: La Boca

By her own admission, Miki Berenyi was not a woman itching to write a memoir. Even if she had been, she says, why would anyone have been interested? Her band, Lush, were “never that big”. They enjoyed cult alt-rock success in the early 90s, scored three Top 30 singles in the Britpop era, and broke up in 1996. They briefly reformed in 2015, but broke up again after less than a year, keen “to return to our families and homes”. When a publisher approached her with the idea of an autobiography, she says, “I literally laughed in his fucking face – I was like: ‘Why would I want to do that? That sounds ridiculous.’”

But then Berenyi lost her job as a subeditor when the magazine she worked for folded. “Lockdown was looming, and I thought, ‘Oh shit, actually this isn’t a great time to be looking for a job’, so I kind of … It was a bit more pragmatic than a burning ambition.”

Pragmatic or not, Berenyi’s book, Fingers Crossed: How Music Saved Me from Success, turned out to be a warmly reviewed success on publication last year, detailing not just Lush’s journey through the 90s indie scene and horrible end – their split was precipitated by the suicide of their drummer, Chris Acland – but Berenyi’s extraordinary and frequently harrowing early life: her Japanese mother left her in the care of her Hungarian father, a hard-partying womaniser who bought her vodka aged eight and, at one juncture, had Berenyi selling shower fittings on the streets of Prague for ready cash. It’s a fiercely honest, unsparing and very funny book, but, with the greatest of respect, the fact that a publisher approached the former frontwoman of Lush in the first place tells you a lot about the current appetite for rock and pop memoirs.

The last decade has seen a torrent of them. The bestselling heavy hitters from big names – Keith Richards, Bruce Springsteen, Bono, Elton John (full disclosure: I was the ghostwriter of the last book) – are merely the tip of the iceberg. Recently we’ve seen autobiographies from a host of more cultish musicians, from DJ Carl Cox to Talking Heads’ Chris Frantz and Cosey Fanni Tutti of industrial 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. Every genre seems to have been covered, 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 book was a bit more pragmatic than a burning ambition’ … Miki Berenyi of Lush. Photograph: Gie Knaeps/Getty Images

There’s a subgenre of memoirs not by musicians, but music industry figures, among them fabled PR Barbara Charone, Island Records founder Chris Blackwell and Tony King, whose brilliant The Tastemaker details a life lived 20ft away from some of the biggest stars in the world, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Elton John among them. There are memoirs by music journalists, including former Q editor Ted Kessler and sometime Guardian writer Jude Rogers. There are memoirs that have appeared regardless of the fact their author died just as they were getting started – that Prince died after writing only 20 pages of his autobiography was apparently no obstacle to The Beautiful Ones’ publication, a ghostwriter simply completing the remaining 260 – and there are memoirs by figures so obscure their very existence boggles the mind. It’s meant as no reflection on the quality of Will Carruthers’ Playing the Bass With Three Left Hands or Gordon King’s When Does the Mind-Bending Start? to suggest that, at any other point in history, a memoir by the former bass player 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 major publishing houses.

Indeed, there was a time when memoirs by rock and pop musicians were a very rare occurrence indeed. You might have thought that the first wave of 1950s rock’n’rollers were encouraged to put pen to paper in the early 70s, the era of American Graffiti and the 1972 London Rock and Roll Show at Wembley Arena. But the only one who did was serial memoirist Cliff Richard, who published The Way I See It in 1968, one of five autobiographies he’s written over the years (should your thirst for the Peter Pan of Pop’s writing remain unsatiated, there’s another memoir, A Head Full of Music, due in October). The only lasting rock memoir of the decade was Ian Hunter’s fabled Diary of a Rock’n’Roll Star, a book that seems to tell you as much about the parochialism of early 70s Britain as the career of Hunter’s band Mott the Hoople, filled as it is with wide-eyed explanations of how some airline seats recline and how Americans make orange juice by squeezing actual oranges, rather 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 during the 80s, but they seemed to come with another purpose or agenda attached, as if simply telling a musician’s story wouldn’t be enough to interest the public: either score-settling in the case of Mary Wilson’s Dreamgirl: My Life As a Supreme – 292 pages to make anyone profoundly grateful they weren’t in a band with Diana Ross – or tracing a redemptive arc of druggy degradation followed by recovery that chimed in the decade of the war on drugs and Just Say No, the territory of John Phillips’s Papa John and David Crosby’s Long Time Gone.

There were more still in the 1990s, a decade in which the heritage rock industry really got underway, and record labels began packaging artists’ back catalogues in expensive, desirable box sets: John Lydon’s Rotten: No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs; Paul McCartney’s Many Years from Now; Brian Wilson’s mind-boggling Wouldn’t It Be Nice, a bestseller it subsequently became apparent that the former Beach Boy hadn’t even read, let alone written. For the most part, however, the rock memoir remained a niche market, dominated by specialist publishers.

But the floodgates really seemed to open as the 00s turned into the 2010s. There are prosaic reasons why it happened. In 2012 Faber put publisher Lee Brackstone in charge of their music list, “a very conscious decision to create a dedicated space for music and music-adjacent publishing”, as Faber’s current director of popular music Dan Papps puts it, complete with “campaigns that applied lessons learned from record labels, a faster-moving industry – creating a big noise, a big moment, having that book in market as quickly as possible afterwards”.

Prince in 1985.
Prince in 1985.
Photograph: Michael Ochs Archives/ Getty Images

Faber started publishing music books at a startling rate – everything from scholarly investigations into the oeuvre of Prince to a memoir by the Pogues’ former accordionist James Fearnley – and scored a series of unexpected breakout successes. Former Slits guitarist Viv Albertine’s memoir Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys was shortlisted for the National Book Awards and listed as one of the 50 best memoirs of the last 50 years by the New York Times, while Cosey Fanni Tutti’s Art Sex Music seemed to reach a far wider audience than the wilfully challenging music she makes: it’s currently being made into a film by director Andrew Hulme. Presumably emboldened by Faber’s success, other publishers followed suit: Brackstone left to set up White Rabbit at Hachette; Bonnier launched its own music imprint Nine Eight, home to Berenyi’s memoir among others.

The existence of three music imprints at major publishers – in addition to the output of longstanding specialists such as Omnibus – only partly explains the sheer volume of music memoirs currently appearing. The other factor involves the musicians themselves and the passing of time. We’re now nearly 70 years away from the birth of rock’n’roll, 30 from the zenith of the 1990s, which means the surviving musicians from the first half-century of rock history are of an age where one naturally takes stock and regards one’s youth both with fondness and the kind of perspective that’s perhaps necessary to write something worthwhile, or at least something that isn’t going to cripple you with embarrassment in years to come.

“I would never have done it even 15 years ago,” Berenyi says, now 56. “Even if someone had asked me and offered me money, I wouldn’t have done it. I am a bit in with the mob that, when a 27-year-old releases an autobiography, thinks: ‘Really? You haven’t fucking lived yet.’ And I would argue that trying to write something when you’re in the maelstrom of it is impossible. There are things that are riling you in that moment that even a few years later you think: ‘Well, that’s asinine.’ You’d probably spend a whole chapter going on about it and make yourself look like a prat. There’s a temptation to do that, because you’re still upset and angry, or you’re totally impressed with yourself, and you have no idea that’s going to vanish very quickly.”

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

So the current volume of rock memoirs can be accounted for by the confluence of publishers looking for new titles and happy to take risks on books that, as Pete Selby of Nine Eight puts it, “are never going to be Sunday Times bestsellers, are at times recherche, but are interesting, the sort of book you want to have on the list”, and musicians both ready to tell their stories and eager to do so without the mediating presence of an interviewer. (As Berenyi points out, in a world before social media enabled artists to have direct contact with their fans, “everything you said as a band would be filtered through a 45-minute interview with a journalist who would invariably be looking for a quite sensational headline, which I totally understand”).

But this doesn’t explain the apparent public appetite for them. In fact, there’s a distinct sense among everyone I speak to that their success is linked to the decline of the traditional music press. It was hard not to see the closure of Q magazine in 2020 as the final rattle of a long, slow painful death that began with the shuttering of Melody Maker and Select in 2000, and encompassed NME ceasing publication of its physical edition in 2018, the euphemistic “pause” in publication of Mixmag’s print edition in 2020 and the decision to cut hard 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 struggling with declining sales figures; some specialist titles surviving on a small, highly targeted readership and a handful of bold attempts to reanimate the form that no one seems to think are going to work – but the sense that the era of the traditional music press is over is hard to avoid.

Clearly, none of this would have happened had there been sufficient readers to sustain it, but, equally, there remains a cohort of music fans – most of them, you suspect, old enough to remember an era when the music press mattered – still keen to read the kind of long-form music writing and analysis it provided. Indeed, there’s an argument that the glut of rock memoirs are providing more diversity in long-form music writing than theold-fashioned music press ever did. It was traditionally dominated by male journalists, writing for a predominantly male audience. There’s something telling about the fact that so many of the best-received memoirs are by women – to Albertine, Tutti and Berenyi, you can add former Sonic Youth bassist Kim Gordon’s Girl in a Band and Patti Smith’s Just Kids – perhaps because they retell history from a fresh perspective, one seldom heard in the heyday of NME.

Moreover, the music press is not the only outlet for analysis of rock and pop that’s in decline. In 2023, you almost never see music documentaries on British television. Their last bastion was BBC Four, but the days when it invariably filled its Friday night schedule with examinations of punk or funk or prog rock were brought to an end when the channel’s budget was slashed. Since then, only a handful of high-profile music documentaries have been commissioned for television, all by subscription services, Apple TV’s superb 1971 series and Todd Haynes’s Velvet Underground documentary among 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 Images

But if music memoirs fill a gap, they also represent a reaction. We live in an era where streaming has almost completely decontextualised rock and pop music: Spotify et al make music more immediately available – pretty much everything ever recorded is yours to hear at the click of a button – but the music is the only thing they make available. Cover artwork is reduced to a tiny square in the corner of your screen; sleevenotes, credits, or indeed any sense of historical, artistic or social context are notable by their absence.

You can mount an argument that this state of affairs is oddly freeing. Certainly, if you look at the bizarre selection of back catalogue songs that have attained ubiquity with a young audience via TikTok virality – John Denver’s Take Me Home, Country Roads, Edison Lighthouse’s Love Grows (Where My Rosemary Goes), Insane Clown Posse’s Boogie Woogie Wu, Matthew Wilder’s previously forgotten 80s novelty hit Break My Stride – it’s hard not to be struck by the sense that old-fashioned notions of cool, tribalism and what music matters and what doesn’t have gone completely out of the window.

Perhaps that’s a good thing. But for an audience who grew up with tribalism, with music as an integral part of their identity, where the music you liked could influence everything from the way you dressed to the people you chose as friends, the glut of memoirs acts as a kind of corrective. Part of their appeal is that they tend to be big on evoking specific scenes and moments in time – whether it’s the post-punk New York vividly depicted in Kim Gordon’s Girl in a Band, or the arty, politically fraught atmosphere of Germany’s late 60s/early 70s counterculture found in Irmin Schmidt’s All Gates Open. They remind readers of an age when pop music was the primary force in youth culture, when it seemed more central and, frankly, important than it does now.

Whether the current wave of rock memoirs is an ongoing blip, or a permanent state of affairs remains to be seen. There’s no getting around the fact that the titles published thus far appeal primarily to a middle-aged demographic, the same cohort that’s driving the revival in vinyl: people who grew up buying physical products and still want to do so.

Both Dan Papps and Pete Selby talk about the challenge of maintaining momentum by engaging younger readers, who came of age in the post-music press era when streaming became the primary means of accessing music. “Having such a rigid definition of your audience can be problematic,” Papps says. “We know that there’s currently a healthy market for this type of music book, but even across the increased amount of publishers working in this area now, there’s a limited amount of slots each year and I think in order to progress the music writing form, it’s really essential to create a welcoming and democratic space for new voices and ideas. That’s really exciting, but it takes systemic change throughout the whole publishing industry from the agent level upwards.”

This is one vision of the future. More immediately, the autumn brings memoirs from Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore, Pulp drummer Nick Banks, Pauline Murray of punk band Penetration and umpteen others yet to be announced. For now, the wave of autobiographies shows no signs of breaking.

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