In preparation for the UK summer (yeah right!) I have dug out some top pop culture reads...
Stick it Up Your Punter!: The Uncut Story of the "Sun" Newspaper by Peter Chippindale and Chris Horrie.
Hilarious account of UK tabloid newspaper The Sun's rise to notoriety during the 1980's. At the rotten core of it all is editor Kelvin Mackenzie who comes across like a modern Rasputin crossed with John Self (the amoral capitalist from Martin Amis' novel Money). Repulsive but you end up strangely rooting for him as he influences all the worst aspects of politics and pop culture, a poster boy for Thatcher's Britain, with a deranged swagger. The way he is privately canvased by the Conservative party as a tool to win elections is a salutary pointer towards the future world of spin developed under New Labour. Laugh out loud funny and written like a cautionary tale about greed, power and the gullibility of the great British public.
The Strangest Man: The Life of Paul Dirac by Graham Farmelo.
Interesting study of the bizarre Nobel Prize winner Paul Dirac. Dirac is regarded as the founder of quantum electrodynamics and this book treads a fine line between hardcore science and an intriguing character study of the possibly autistic Dirac. The strong contrast between his sensitive obsessive search for beauty within complex equations and his taciturn socially inept persona is extremely moving. The book also works as a concise history of the leading players of quantum physics such as Erwin Schrödinger and Werner Heisenberg. One for the geeks!
Stanley: The Impossible Life of Africa's Greatest Explorer by Tim Jeal.
A big thick book and admittedly a bit of a struggle but once you get past Stanley's boyhood it reads like a boys own adventure. The madness of Stanley; walking across Africa, picking fights with angry natives, suffering flesh eating foot rot, his party cannibalising babies and colluding with a despicable European tirant along the way in the rape of Africa...this is a real life version of Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad.
Nico, Songs They Never Play on the Radio by James Young.
Young's excellent account of his jaunt across Europe with Nico, while acting as her keyboardist, is both harrowing and hilarious. Features a cast of grotesques you just don't find in today's anodized music business, Young is both thrilled to be in the presence of a legend and desperate not to be dragged down into the drug fueled insanity of the tour. The best bit is Nico playing Deutschland über alles to a gig full of liberal students in Poland.
Warhol: The Biography by Victor Bockris.
Extremely readable biog of the enigmatic Mr Warhol. A nice mix of critique and dirt this is the most fully rounded portrait of both the artist and the man. Not afraid of the lurid details, Bockris stakes a claim for Warhol to be recognised as the Machiavellian architect of todays fame obsessed culture. Virtually everyone who is anybody from the 60s to the 80s makes a cameo appearance from Dylan, Bowie and Jagger to Capote, Jack Nicholson and Jean-Michel Basquiat. But it is the various desperate hangers-ons like Edie Sedgwick, used up and spat out by Warhol once he tires of them, who make the strongest impression.
Iggy Pop: Open Up And Bleed: The Biography by Paul Trynka.
Long before he was selling insurance with a possessed puppet by his side Mr Pop was the original bad boy of rock. Trynka is brilliant at describing the sheer visceral power of Iggy at his best (or worst). Pop comes across as both a naive innocent and an arch manipulator, particularly with his treatment of his band The Stooges, who will do anything to survive. In-between rolling around in broken glass, covering himself in peanut butter and bedding every groupie he can lay his hands on Pop invents Punk rock and rock show as performance art. The book flags a bit once Iggy becomes a rich rock icon in the early 90s but the first half charting straight A student James Osterburg's drug led transformation into Iggy is enthralling.
Final Cut: Dreams and Disaster in the Making of Heaven's Gate by Steven Bach.
All the madness and vanity of Hollywood in one handy volume. Steven Bach was senior vice-president for United Artists studios who bank rolled and were then destroyed by the legendary flop film Heaven's Gate. Rather than the expected Hollywood greed and idiocy the final impression is more of starstruck naivety on the part of the executives in the face of Oscar winning director Michael Cimino's excess perfectionism. Miles of film were shot looking for the magical take while an army of extras wondered about in exquisite costumes and sets as the production hemorrhaged money. The final product was a beautiful but soulless mess than tanked and took United Artists and everyones job's with it..The tragedy is that the freedom previously given to film makers by the studios which produced such epic cinema through out the 1970's was subsequently snatched back after the Heaven's Gate fiasco.
Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-drugs-and Rock 'n' Roll Generation Changed Hollywood by Peter Biskind.
...Or how the industry ended up with Heaven's Gate! A terrific page turning story of the revolution in 1970's cinema where the director became god and art was paramount, until they blew it in a hurricane of drugs and egomania. Gasp as Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese and William Friedkin churn out such classics as The Godfather, Taxi Driver and The Exorcist while pursuing a scorched earth approach to celebrity which puts todays bland handwringers to shame. Dennis Hopper who pretty much kick started the freaks are taking over Hollywood theme is the most incandescent lunatic on display, a gun brandishing self proclaimed acid Christ figure who has it all and throws it in the bin with terrifying speed. A good companion piece is the documentary about the making of Apocalypse Now, "Hearts of Darkness" which covers the nightmarish shoot in all it's torrid detail.
Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes from the American Indie Underground: Scenes from the American Indie Underground 1981-1991 by Michael Azerrad.
The history of the pioneers of American punk and hardcore who paved the way for the underground becoming corporate "Alternative" rock and the subsequent world domination of Nirvana. Pioneers is not too strong a word as bands like Black Flag almost single handedly build the audience, distribution and venues for hardcore music. Traipsing around in a beat up van and playing to tiny audiences with flame thrower intensity Black Flag's quest was built on by icons like Dinosaur Jr and Sonic Youth as well as more obscure but still brilliants bands like The Minutemen and Mission of Burma. Devoting a chapter to each of the leading bands this book is written in a pacey style which keeps you charging through it, totally absorbed.
Hotel California: Singer-songwriters and Cocaine Cowboys in the L.A. Canyons 1967-1976 by Barney Hoskyns.
This book is about everything the hardcore punk movement was fighting against. The Eagles, Fleetwood Mac, CSN, lost in a blizzard of coke and money, in a bizarre twist the self satisfied millionaires of California soft rock come across as more nihilistic and hate filled than Black Flag. Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young are the star performers with their demented coke histeria. David Crosby getting a blow job while being interviewed, Stephen Stills so out of his mind he tells people he served in Vietnam, the brilliant anecdotes go on and on. Even artists who survived the fall out of punk like Joni Mitchell and Neil Young come across as petty and money mad, their present credibility appearing more a product of artful spin than integrity. Orchestrating it all is the arch executive David Geffen like an evil puppet master.