Books about Music
by Cathy Brown
Lockdown has changed our lives beyond measure and has seen many industries adapt and engage with this new normal. It has not been an easy time for the music industry and as live performance seems as far away as ever, we have pulled together a list of ten great books that capture the sheer joy, power and unifying nature of the music industry. From bands to producers, record shops to composers, you’ll find something here to pass the time until live music makes its welcome comeback.
Espedair Street by Iain Banks
Iain Banks’ fourth novel tells the story of the Danny Weir, former bass guitarist of the fictional band Frozen Gold. On the brink of killing himself Weird (as he’s known) decides instead to write a memoir documenting his chaotic decade in the drug and booze-fuelled seventies music scene. From rags to riches, and ultimately to tragedy, Weir has found himself washed up at only 31. Now a recluse, hiding his true identity from those closest to him and drinking his life away, can Danny come to terms with all he had and all he has lost? Borrowing from the histories of many bands from the ‘70s Espedair Street is an engaging look at the toll a life in the limelight can exact.
Kill Your Friends by John Niven
Meet Stephen Stelfox, a British A&R music executive with a murderous bent. Stelfox is a man of unparalleled hideousness, chronically sexist and racist, he is fuelled by all the drink and drugs he can consume, He’s like a high octane cross between Simon Cowell and Patrick Bateman, spouting hilarious bile-filled lines that will make you cringe as much as make you laugh. His descent into murder and mayhem may not entirely come off, but as a scathing satire on the hypocritical profit-centric world of the music industry, this is spot on and lots of guilty fun.
White Tears by Hari Kunzru
Hari Kunzru’s biting satire of cultural appropriation is part ghost story, part noir thriller, as two white hipsters get more than they bargained for when they invent a fictional blues singer. New Yorkers Carter and Seth are obsessed with music. They chop up old music to make it new again, ripping off black culture to line white pockets. One day they stumble on an old blues song – an undiscovered gem just waiting to be found – and by passing it off as a rare recording by a fictional musician, they find themselves in a sinister, supernatural nightmare from which they might never escape. White Tears is hard to categorise, but it is a timely read, exploring black lives, white privilege and the music that runs through the country’s veins like blood.
The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love by Oscar Hijuelos
Pulitzer Prize-winning Cuban author Oscar Hijuelos’s novel The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love was published in 1989 and tells the story of Cesar Castillo, an aged musician who once had a small amount of fame when he and his brother Nestor appeared on an episode of I Love Lucy in the 1950s. The book chronicles Cesar’s last hours as he sits in a seedy hotel room, drinking and listening to recordings made by his band, the Mambo Kings. In telling Cesar and Nestor’s story, Hijuelos perfectly depicts the mambo music craze of the early fifties; and the way of life that disappeared for all Cubans after that country was over-thrown by an insurrection led by Fidel Castro in 1959. This vibrant, romantic book features cameos from real-life musicians including Desi Arnez and Tito Puento and captures the spirit and joy of playing, and hearing live music.
High Fidelity by Nick Hornby
In what is arguably Nick Hornby’s best novel, Rob Fleming is a London record store owner in his 30s whose girlfriend, Laura, has just left him. He might be relieved, but he’s not sure. At the record shop where he works, Rob and his employees spend their free moments curating “top-five” lists of anything that demonstrates their superior pop culture and musical knowledge. As Rob looks back over his top five failed relationships, he starts to wonder if Laura might have been the ‘one’ after all. I am not sure anyone has ever written better about music and fan culture and the sheer love of music that oozes from the book has turned it into an instant classic.
The book was converted into a film in the year 2,000 and more recently into a series on Hulu starring Zoë Kravitz.
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