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Stranger Than Fiction: The Life And Times Of Split Enz

Stranger Than FictionOrder this bookStory: Original Split Enz bassist Mike Chunn, who played with the New Zealand supergroup in its formative art-rock-turned-theatrical-extravaganza phase (1972-77) charts the formation, the heady rise and eventual success of the group, with comments from all of his bandmates and his own insider perspective.

Review: Can there ever really be enough books about the musical career of the Finn Brothers? (For this reader: no. As it so happens, the first book ever reviewed in this section was a book on this very topic.) And strangely enough, the aforementioned book about Crowded House quoted this book heavily: primary source material if ever there was some. And source material doesn’t get much more primary than the memoir of one of the founding members of Split Enz. Continue reading

I Was a Teenage Sex Pistol / 12 Days on the Road / Rotten: No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs

Book titleOrder this bookStory: Three books tell the story of legendary punk band the Sex Pistols.

Review: My fascination with the Sex Pistols began with my brother giving me the documentary The Filth and the Fury for either my birthday or Christmas one year with the cryptic words “You don’t know you want this.” He followed that up with John Lydon’s autobiography, “Rotten: No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs”, but I just couldn’t get into it, not getting past the first few pages before I put it down. But about a year later, I acquired a different book on the Sex Pistols by their US tour manager, Noel Monk; “12 Days on the Road”, the story of the band’s raucous career-ending tour. With its much more visceral feel and crazy stories right off the bat, it was much easier to get into. So after finishing that, I went back to “Rotten” and then bought original bass player Glen Matlock’s autobiography “I Was a Teenage Sex Pistol”. Three very different perspectives on the story of the band lead to three very different books. Ultimately, they compliment each other, helping to give a more rounded view than any one book would have done alone. Continue reading

The Definitive Biography of P. D. Q. Bach

The Definitive Biography of P. D. Q. BachOrder this bookStory: Professor Peter Schickele charts the life and career of P. D. Q. Bach, the twenty-first of famed composer Johann Sebastian Bach’s twenty children. Professor Schickele covers the three main phases of P. D. Q.’s musical output: the Initial Plunge, the Soused period and, finally, Contrition. He also delves into the legacy of P. D. Q. Bach, those he has influenced (or at least prevented from making the same mistakes) and a history of the rediscovery of the works of this justly underappreciated artist.

Review: The guys of Spinal Tap ain’t got nothin’ on Peter Schickele. In the late 1960’s, Schickele began performing the “lost” works of little-known composer P. D. Q. Bach, described by Schickele as the “oddest of Johann Sebastian Bach’s twenty-odd children.” He even adopted a fictional version of himself, Professor Peter Schickele, to differentiate when he is working in the real world from when he is working in P. D. Q.’s. In the years since, he has built up an enormous life story for P. D. Q., which was first set down as a single biography in this book. Also similar to the later Spinal Tap, Schickele portrays P. D. Q. himself, although given the character’s position in history, only through portraits. Schickele is an accomplished musician and composer, having written many award-winning pieces and even several movie scores (including genre work, such as the film Silent Running). All of this is evident in the text of “The Definitive Biography”, a book that any fan of music, classical or otherwise, should read. Continue reading

Crowded House: Something So Strong

Crowded House: Something So StrongOrder this bookStory: One of the biggest – and yet most low-key – rock music success stories to emerge from the south Pacific, Crowded House formed from the ashes of New Zealand mondo bizarro supergroup Split Enz, reflecting songwriter Neil Finn’s desire to explore song arrangements more easily duplicated on stage. By the luck of the draw, Crowded House’s first album was boosted by “Don’t Dream It’s Over”, a single which climbed to #2 on the U.S. Billboard charts. But that immense success proved nearly impossible to duplicate later, with no further hits in America and a widespread cult following overseas. The book ends with the last known whereabouts of the musicians, managers, record company execs, friends and family members following the group’s 1996 farewell concert in Sydney, which went down in the history books as the biggest concert audience anywhere in the world that year. Not bad for a group that nobody recognizes by name anymore…

Review: I’ve always been fascinated by both Crowded House and Split Enz, so this book was a godsend for me, finally revealing something about the members of the group and the army of supporters and friends who helped them almost reach the top of the charts (however briefly). All of the group’s members are interviewed, as are all of the key players except for Craig Hooper (a “fifth Beatle” type who was ejected from the band just before their successful first album) and the enigmatic Youth (who produced the fourth and final non-compilation Crowded House album). Considering how many people play a part in generating this kind of success story, that’s not a bad bit of journalism. Continue reading

The Music of Star Trek

The Music of Star TrekOrder this bookStory: Through interviews with composers, editors and others, cue lists, and excerpts from sheet music, the author explores the evolution of Star Trek’s sound from the original series’ sometimes almost-over-the-top – yet indelible – library of frequently-reused cues, to the varied scores of the film series, to the sometimes humdrum music produced for Next Generation and its own spinoffs.

Review: Just when it seems that every possible subject for a book on the Star Trek phenomenon has been mined by tomes both authorized and unauthorized, along comes a book on the subject of one of Trek’s most hotly-debated elements: the musical scores. Continue reading

R.E.M.: The Rolling Stone Files

R.E.M.: The Rolling Stone FilesOrder this bookStory: This compendium collects every item that appeared in Rolling Stone magazine concerning R.E.M. from 1981 to shortly after the release of Monster in 1995. Album reviews, cover stories, interview features, Random Note mentions and year-end Best Of lists are included, along with a new introduction by writer Anthony DeCurtis.

Review: I checked this book out of the New York Public Library shortly after reading of Bill Berry’s retirement; with the sense that an era was ending, I wanted to try and vicariously experience its beginning. There are a number of fine books on the band on the market, but all of those have the advantage of hindsight to lend perspective and structure to their narrative. The advantage of this book – which most of those other works cite as an enormously helpful reference – is that the story is being written as it happens; neither the band nor the writers know where things are going, so there’s an immediacy and occasional unintended irony as the band’s stature and career evolve. The album reviews and feature stories, by a variety of writers, all have an impressive level of depth, thoughtfulness and clarity – you can see why the band developed a rapport with the magazine, and how that pays off in the quality of the magazine’s coverage. Continue reading

It Crawled from the South: An R.E.M. Companion

It Crawled from the South: An R.E.M. CompanionOrder this bookStory: In a thematically organized set of lists and essays, the author provides historical information and analysis of R.E.M.’s career from its members early musical activities through the band’s 1995 world tour.

Review: Last updated in early 1996, “It Crawled from the South” suffers somewhat from unfortunate timing. It is by now several years out of date, and it just narrowly misses the natural close point of Bill Berry’s retirement. As a result, certain comments come off as dated, such as the author’s speculation that Peter Buck’s decision to move from Athens to Seattle in 1992 might ultimately sink the band. But the book is a storehouse of trivia and information about not only the band but those people and places that intersected with R.E.M.’s path over the years. One chapter discusses collaborators and contemporaries, another maps out the clubs and hangouts where the band played its first shows. There are comprehensive lists of the band’s songs, both released and unreleased, along with the occasional pointer to well-known bootleg collections. Many television and promotional appearances are listed, and Gray tracks the development of the band’s video aesthetic from the grainy low-fi oddities like “Radio Free Europe,” “Driver 8” and “Fall on Me” to the high production values of “Losing My Religion,” “Everybody Hurts,” and the glitzy rock star clips from Monster. Continue reading

R.E.M. Inside Out

R.E.M. Inside OutOrder this bookStory: Journalist Craig Rosen collects anecdotes and information about every song on R.E.M.’s albums from 1981 through 1996. Rosen draws on his own interviews with the band plus many of the articles and books on the band in print at the time to talk about production techniques, instrument lineups, lyrical inspiration and other tidbits. Heavily illustrated.

Review: There are a number of good books about R.E.M., so at first glance it might seem like this relatively short, photo-laden book is superfluous. But its subtitle suggests the niche that Rosen has managed to find and fill quite well. Every song gets at least a few lines of discussion, and many get considerably more. Some of the detail is probably best suited to the hardcore R.E.M. trivia fan who’s interested in things like the source of the siren wail on “Leave,” or why Buck plays drums on the 11th untitled song from Green. On the other hand, someone not fully immersed in the band’s lore might appreciate this quick history that focuses primarily on the band’s recording career (as opposed to live performances, work with other artists, personal biographical information, or political activism, to name a few topics covered in detail elsewhere). Continue reading

Remarks Remade: The Story of R.E.M.

Remarks RemadeOrder this bookStory: In a revised and expanded edition of this band-authorized biography, music writer Tony Fletcher recounts how Bill Berry, Peter Buck, Mike Mills and Michael Stipe made their way to Athens, Georgia in the late seventies and formed a band to play at a friend’s birthday party. Eventually adopting the name R.E.M., the band became leaders in the college/alternative rock movement of the 80s and broke through to enormous worldwide success in the 90s. Fletcher tracks their story through Berry’s departure in 1997 and Buck’s acquittal in a British air rage trial 22 years to the day after their first performance.

Review: Fletcher does a great job of collecting details of the band’s recording, touring and other activities and forming them into a coherent narrative that spans more than two decades. I personally enjoyed the earliest chapters the most, because Fletcher is so effective at bringing those days to life. He quotes Peter Buck as saying “I just figured that you’d meet the right people, then you’d get in a band, then you’d make the good music, and people would come and see it.” Buck makes it sound ludicrously easy, and yet that’s what R.E.M. made happen, thanks to talent, a lot of work, and a fair amount of being in the right place at the right time. I can only imagine what it was like to live that lightning-in-a-bottle experience, but simply reading about it in “Remarks Remade” is exciting in itself. Continue reading