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The best books on Rock and Roll

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One Two Three Four: The Beatles in Time by Craig Brown

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One Two Three Four: The Beatles in Time
by Craig Brown

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We might console ourselves with the thought that rock stars are generally miserable, says the journalist and Beatles biographer Craig Brown. But the truth is that most of them seem to have a great time. Here he selects five of the best books on that rock and roll lifestyle.

Interview by Benedict King

One Two Three Four: The Beatles in Time by Craig Brown

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One Two Three Four: The Beatles in Time
by Craig Brown

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Before we get into your rock and roll books, did you ever dream of playing in a band? One thing that comes across from One Two Three Four: The Beatles in Time is that you are a huge fan. Did that ever inspire you to play in a band or write songs?

When I was at prep school, aged 10 or 11, I did play guitar in a group called ‘The Undertakers’ and I remember learning G and D7. I still know where to put my fingers for G and D7. The only song I can remember playing was ‘Rock Island Line’, which was a Lonnie Donegan song, for which you only need G and D7.

My family are all quite musical, but they point out to me ceaselessly that I can’t hit any kind of note. I can recognise tunes if they’re played on the piano. I don’t think I’m entirely tone-deaf. But if someone sings a note I generally can’t echo it. Weirdly, if I do manage to echo it, I do know I’ve hit it, but it’s a completely haphazard process. That’s why I’ve never been in a band. Obviously, I’d like to have been, but I don’t have much sense of rhythm, either, so I couldn’t even do drums or tambourine. I suppose I could be someone like Bez in the Happy Mondays, who just dances madly.

The fantasy was there.

Yes. I did have a theory once, which I think is largely true: that anyone under the age of—well, it would be any age now, as everyone under the age of 80 is post-rock and roll—who says that they wouldn’t have preferred to be a rock star is lying. Obviously, it is the ideal thing. How much fun would it be to be at Glastonbury with a hundred thousand people worshipping you and singing your songs out loud, knowing all the words and all that kind of thing? You don’t get that thrill as a journalist or as a writer.

I agree with that. Let’s move on to the books. Some of your books choices perhaps slightly check the idea of the rock and roll life as one of endless thrills and fun. The first one is by Nik Cohn, Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom: the Golden Age of Rock.

That’s a good one to start with. As far as I can remember it was the first rock book I ever read. I bought it in 1970 when I was thirteen. And I think it is the most influential of all rock books, in that he invented a style with which to write about rock music. I was very keen from the age of about 11 to about 17 on rock papers like the New Musical Express, Melody Maker, Sounds and Disc. I’d get all four every week. The best writers were really on New Musical Express and you could see the influence of Nik Cohn on them. It wasn’t English as it had been taught at school, but it managed to convey the excitement of rock.

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Nik Cohn was very keen on rock as excitement, rather than rock as a version of classical music, or whatever progressive rock then tried to turn it into. It was all about thrills, excitement, and the book still reads really well, I think. He’s also very prescient. I was just looking at it today, knowing we were going to talk, and there’s a bit on Phil Spector. He’s really good at describing the sound of Phil Spector’s records, but there’s a paragraph where he says, “Otherwise, though, he wasn’t so much in any Dada/beat/hippie tradition, as pop bowdlerisation of Oscar Wilde, meaning that he was sharp and bitchy, fastidious, vulnerable and a culture snob, that he had great style and that you always felt he was doomed. He even looked rather like Oscar Wilde. He had exactly that kind of ostentation.” I thought it was quite clever of him to realise in 1970 that Spector was doomed. He’s very good at describing the sound and also getting to the heart of what made people tick. He talks very interestingly about Pete Townsend’s anger.

Does he tell a chronological story?

No. He has different chapters on different people, P J Proby, who’s completely forgotten; Eddie Cochran and others. He’s got one on Dylan and one on the Stones. He has one on The Beatles. He doesn’t particularly like them, but he’s fascinated by the way that, in four years, they can go from these very self-confident people to collapse—the book came out in the year they broke up.

He says:

The thing that fascinates me most in all this is that it’s happened so fast, that it’s taken only five years for ultimate hard-headedness to change into ultimate inanity, and I’m puzzled. There are, of course, lots of easy explanations. Too much acid, too many ego trips, too much money and success and wastable time—and maybe the easiest answers are the right ones after all, but I’m not so sure. I sense that there’s something here that I don’t yet understand, that’s going to become clear only in retrospect.

He’s sort of anti-intellectual in his approach. He likes excitement. One of the odd things about The Beatles is that they hardly wrote a single song that you can dance to, which is peculiar. I think that would have turned him off them.

Nik Cohn is an intriguing figure. He became known for something which is very unlike him, which is that he wrote a piece of journalism, in I think the New Yorker, about disco in the 1970s, which was then bought and turned into the film Saturday Night Fever. Presumably that got him lots of money. But as a character, he’s so unlike Saturday Night Fever.

Didn’t he suggest in his book that rock and roll music was doomed by the early 1970s because it was becoming pretentious? He hated Led Zeppelin, didn’t he?

I’ve never seen the point of Led Zeppelin, either. He hated pretentiousness. I think writers like Tony Parsons, Julie Burchill or Charles Shaar Murray, the best music journalists, would have acknowledged his influence. They all wrote in this new non-Sunday-best kind of way.

Let’s move on to your next choice, the Guinness Book of Hit Singles.

Of all these books, this is the one I turn to the most. It’s in some ways a very nerdy book. What was number 11 in July 1969 – that kind of thing? I’ve got the 15th edition, published in 2001. It’s out of date, but no one really knows what’s in the top ten anymore. That’s not just a generational thing, I don’t think. It’s just sort of disappeared.

But the great thing about the charts in the period up until around the time this book was published was that you’d get Clive Dunn in the same chart as, I don’t know, Hawkwind, or something. That’s what I loved about pop—all these strange bedfellows. I mostly write humorous journalism and there’s always something funny to be found here.

“What was most popular wasn’t always what was most fashionable”

I’m just having a look now. So, for instance, Showaddywaddy were number 32 in the UK with their version of ‘Blue Moon’ on 29 November 1980. It’s just so pedantic. I quite often use very accurate chart details to make a joke.

It’s also interesting to see that, for example, at the height of hippiedom The Sound of Music sold more than Sgt. Pepper—that kind of thing. It reminds you that what was most popular wasn’t always what was most fashionable. That’s especially true around the punk era. Punk’s influence was very very minimal. Far more people would have been listening to Rolf Harris or something. The ultimate example of that is Engelbert Humperdinck keeping ‘Strawberry Fields’ off the top place with ‘The Last Waltz’.

This would be my desert island book. I’m looking at Hot Chocolate now, not a group that would particularly interest me, but it’s surprising that you find you know almost every word to some of their songs because you hear these things over and over again.

It’s a strange thing that the charts have died as a cultural phenomenon, isn’t it? I don’t think my children would be able to say the first thing about them or even really understand what they are or were.

How old are your children now?

18 and 19.

Yes, so 20 years ago children that age would have known every song in the top ten. There still is a top ten now.

But there isn’t a Top of the Pops anymore, or anything like that. People’s weeks used to be structured around listening to the top 40 coming out and watching Top of the Pops on Thursday evening.

Yes. It was a completely vital part of life. And Christmas Top of the Pops—all that kind of thing. Of course, now there is far more pop around. Everyone is listening to something, but it’s as if everyone has gone into their own sound booth.

In a sense they have, almost literally, because everyone listens on headphones and also no one has record collections anymore. So, it’s very difficult to know what anyone else is listening to.

And everything is instant, so you don’t have that thing of really looking forward to the next Beatles album because it just comes. You don’t save up for anything because it’s just all on Spotify. And, I suppose for that reason, you can get very bored of things very quickly. It makes me sound like an old buffer complaining, but there was something very nice about the anticipation of the charts. You really cared whether something was going to be number one, or at least it was exciting. I think groups really cared whether they were number one or number two.

But there’s something nice about this thick Guinness Book of Hit Singles. You feel you’ve got the world in your hands. And in some ways you have got your life in your hands, because it brings back all sorts of memories of different ages.

Let’s move on to John Lennon in my Life by Pete Shotton, written with Nicholas Schaffner.

Obviously, for One Two Three Four I read countless books about The Beatles. There’s a far higher percentage of good books about The Beatles than there are good books about the royal family or, particularly, Princess Margaret. Royal family books tend to be stodgy and sycophantic and not very well written, just slightly pompously written. Whereas a surprisingly high proportion of rock books are pretty well written. They tend to be overly serious, I suppose, especially new ones written by serious people, like Mark Lewisohn, who chronicles virtually every minute of each Beatle’s life. He does it really well. There is some kind of beauty to it. I can’t think of any contemporary biography of anyone in any field, which covers a life in such amazing, almost Proustian detail. Are you aware of Mark Lewisohn?

No.

He’s done various books about The Beatles, but the first volume of his new project came to over a thousand pages and that just takes the band up to 1962. It’s unbelievable. Every time they drive in a car you get the car number plate and that kind of thing. It’s absurd, but it’s also rather marvellous. Anyway, I could have gone for that kind of really dogged chronicling. But I’ve chosen this Pete Shotton book, which is comparatively unknown.

Pete Shotton was John Lennon’s best friend at Quarry Bank School and they did everything together. They formed a kind of Just William gang and were obviously naughty boys—not absurdly naughty, but they’d shoplift and things like that, played practical jokes and were naughty in class.

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In some ways John wasn’t a very friendly character, but when he became famous he stuck with Pete Shotton. He obviously needed Pete Shotton to keep his life at least slightly real. Eventually he brought Pete Shotton into the Apple organisation and Pete Shotton ended up running the boutique. It was all a disaster, of course. This book is ghost written, but it just has that tang of truth. You feel he’s telling you exactly what happened, through this Dr Watson perspective, with John as Sherlock Holmes. That’s not an ideal analogy, but he’s a normal guy watching this friend go slightly mad, especially with Yoko and with Apple and with drugs. Pete Shotton just about stays on the straight and narrow. John then buys him a shop, or gives him £25,000 to buy a shop. He buys a sort of grocery store-cum-newsagents near Bournemouth.

Pete Shotton tells John, although this is very nice, he doesn’t have to do this for him. But John says, “No, you would have done it for me,” which is probably quite right. But John also needs him socially, so he spends a lot of time just staying at John’s house. The book gives you a very accurate and affectionate portrait of John and the amount of drugs and things he was taking—or they both were. Then you get Yoko’s sudden emergence.

Did he write it after John Lennon was assassinated?

Yes, he did. 1983. In the last chapter George rings him to say that John is dead.

Did their friendship remain fairly uncomplicated, even after Lennon became famous?

Yes. Obviously, those friendships don’t exist as they did before because one half is one of the most famous men in the world and unbelievably rich and the other is just a normal Liverpool lad. It’s a bit like Lady Glenconner and Princess Margaret. A friendship with a lady-in-waiting is lopsided. So, in a way, Pete Shotton became the lady-in-waiting to John Lennon. But within those confines it seemed pretty uncomplicated. When John was fantasising about Brigitte Bardot and was then invited to see her, he took Pete along, which is an odd thing to do. If you thought you were going to get your leg over with Brigitte Bardot, you wouldn’t take your best friend with you. I think there’s something quite sweet about their friendship.

It all ended happily, although it’s not in the book. In the 1980s, presumably from the original investment he put into the grocery/newsagent, he started a chain of burger restaurants, which I vaguely remember, called Fatty Arbuckle’s, and he became a millionaire.

It’s a great twist in the story. Do you get a sense from the book that, but for the grace of God, he could have been a rock and roll star and Lennon would have been a newsagent?

No. The book deals with that. He didn’t have any great musical capabilities, although he was in Lennon’s original bank, The Quarrymen.

But he wasn’t like Pete Best in the sense that he thought he’d missed out on something?

No. And there were quite a lot of people who were in The Quarrymen. The other thing to say is that you shouldn’t be put off by it being ghost written. I think a lot of ghost written books are rather underrated because it’s just another version of oral history. And, if they’re well done, they’re better than if the person had written it for themselves. People often get very overawed by writing and so their real self doesn’t really come out. They try and do a version of themselves. Whereas, I think if you’re talking to a good ghost writer, then you can get the truth out.

Next up is Be My Baby: How I Survived Mascara, Miniskirts and Madness by Ronnie Spector, which was written with Vince Waldron. What story does it tell us about life in rock and roll?

Ronnie Spector is this very sexy, very young leader of The Ronettes, the others were her sister and her cousin. There might be a little bit of faux naivety in the book, but it is the most extraordinary story. I read it because someone tipped me off that she had some sort of romance, which didn’t go all the way, with John Lennon, very early on, when The Beatles were already big in the UK, but hadn’t cracked America. It was just before they were leaving for America. She went to a party and John tried to get off with her. She went some of the way, but not all the way. But, at the same time, her boyfriend was Phil Spector, who was also her producer and who wrote great songs like ‘Be My Baby’. They later got married.

“Spector was such a jealous husband that he wouldn’t let her drive by herself without this plastic mannequin next to her”

As I pointed out, when we were talking about Nik Cohn, Phil Spector was obviously a really odd man. In another Beatles book it says that he flew with them to America, but never sat down during the whole flight. He was pacing up and down. He was so nervous and highly strung.

There’s a bit in her book, after they get married, where she says: “In all the years I knew Phil, I didn’t think I was ever quite as amazed as when he reached into the trunk of my brand new car and pulled out a life-sized inflatable plastic mannequin… The thing looked exactly like Phil in every way, except that its knees were bent in the permanent sitting position.” He gave it to her because he was such a jealous husband that he wouldn’t let her go out driving in a car by herself without putting this fake Phil Spector next to her so that people would realise that she was taken.

The best things in this book are about living with this crazy man, who locks her in cupboards for days on end and things like that. I mean he was he was maniacally jealous.

He basically imprisoned her in their California mansion for the course of their marriage, as far as I can gather. It’s extraordinary.

Yes. And, in a way, it’s what people want in a rock biography. It’s complete madness. But she’s a survivor and Phil is rotting in prison somewhere.

He was convicted of murder in 2009.

There’s also a really good biography of Phil Spector by Mick Brown, which is a straightforward biography. He was always pulling guns on people. Before Ninety-Nine Glimpses of Princess Margaret, I wrote One on One, with lots of different meetings with people, and in one of those Leonard Cohen, who was an easy-going kind of character, had a gun pulled on him by Phil Spector in the recording studio.

What was Phil Spector’s problem? He was obviously a talented guy, who was behind a lot of huge hits in the 1960s. Did it all go wrong because of sex and drugs or was he just born that way?

It had early roots. His father had committed suicide. It was quite a mad household. He wrote a song, ‘To Know Him is to Love Him’—those were the words on his father’s gravestone. He took them and turned them into a kind of girly song. He wasn’t like the pop stars that he produced, in that he was a little, runty kind of character.

“He wasn’t like the pop stars that he produced, in that he was a little, runty kind of character”

One of the great things about this book is that she doesn’t hold back. So, there’s no sense of, ‘I’d better not go there.’ For example, there’s this passage: “Phil first started losing his hair around the time we met”—so that’s 1963—“after we’d do our foreplay he’d get up from the bed and make sure all the lights were out. That way I couldn’t watch him when he took his hair off. Then he’d stumble into the bathroom in the dark, so he could rub this acetone solvent all over his head. It was the smelliest stuff in the world, but I guess it was the only thing he could use to get the toupée glue off his scalp. When he came to back to bed the smell of that acetone could’ve killed a horse, but Phil tried to pretend it wasn’t there. Only it was impossible to hide, like rubbing alcohol or marijuana. It was a smell that wouldn’t go away.” She’s very po-faced, in a way. She goes on: “That old game of hiding the toupée was one thing I knew I’d have trouble with in our relationship.” The book’s both consciously and unconsciously funny. Everyone would enjoy it.

Brilliant. Your final rock and roll book is I’m With the Band: Confessions of a Groupie by Pamela Des Barres.

I was slightly worried that his was a bit too similar to the Ronnie Spector book. Pamela Des Barres became the most famous of all groupies in the late sixties, early seventies. Anyway, like Ronnie Spector’s book, it is a kind of celebration. I think that now, because of #MeToo and everything, this kind of book wouldn’t get a publisher—because it’s joyous. She’s very very happy being a groupie and she can obviously deal with herself. She’s not raped or anything. It’s all voluntary, from her point of view. And it is very funny.

A lot of it is based on her diaries. I suppose she might have doctored them, but that diary element gives it a feeling of veracity. I use her quite a bit in my Beatles book because, at school, where the book starts, she’s mad on The Beatles. So, those are just simple fan diary entries about her and her best friends at school. It’s all about who loves John, who loves Paul, who loves George. I liked all that innocent stuff. And, in a way, even once she becomes a groupie, there is still an innocence to it, in that it’s innocent fun. She’s not really after anything other than enjoying sex with rock stars. Groupies are always seen rather as this underclass of people, but she shows that, at least in her case, she seems to be in control.

There are pictures of her with Robert Plant, Frank Zappa and others in what must be the late 1980s or the 1990s, even. So she seemed to have stayed friends with some of these rock stars for decades.

Yes. There’s a very funny bit towards the end, when she’s at a party in LA—this is in an updated edition after the first edition of the book came out—and she sees Paul McCartney. I think she may have had a fling with Ringo Starr, but, Paul McCartney was the first one she fantasised about as a school girl, before switching her interests to The Rolling Stones and getting off with Mick Jagger.

“Even once she becomes a groupie, there is still an innocence to it”

Anyway, she goes up to him at this party, introduces herself and says that she’s written this book. I think she has a copy of it on her. She says a look of slight terror comes over Paul’s face and he says, ‘Did we ever, er, you know…’ He can’t remember if he’s meant to have known her like that, or not. She reassures him that they never did. She’s quite funny and cute.

She did have an amazing list of affairs including, for instance, Woody Allen. Keith Moon was one of her long-term boyfriends. I think she says he was her fourth boyfriend and then she moved on to Jimmy Page.

Does it say anything particularly revealing or insightful about the lives of these rock stars?

Well, with Jimmy Page she talks about how he has whips packed in his luggage, but she doesn’t go in for that. You’d have thought the lawyers would have stopped some of it. Maybe they did stop some of it. But you get quite a lot of information.

Do you remember that very good film about a groupie with a sort-of Jimmy Page character in it, Almost Famous?

No, I haven’t seen it.

It’s a very good film. I recommend it. It’s about a young Rolling Stone magazine journalist. He’s hardly ever written for them, but he’s allowed to go on tour with the band. And then he rather falls in love with one of the groupies.

There’s lots of drugs and driving cars into swimming pools and that kind of thing, but you get a sense of enjoyment, that, for most part for those who survived—and even for the ones who didn’t survive—it was good fun.

They really were having a great time—driving your pink Rolls-Royce into your swimming pool is a good laugh…

Yes. And doing journalism of something, you can always say to yourself, “Well, perhaps it would have been absolutely ghastly. Lucky we weren’t rock stars.” But actually, I think her portrait shows it’s something we’ve missed out on.

She was also the nanny to Frank Zappa’s children, wasn’t she?

Weirdly, yes. And funnily enough, my daughter, who’s 30, is in a harmony group with a girl called Seraphina. And Seraphina gave me a bit of help transcribing stuff for my Beatles book. Seraphina lived in LA for some time as a child and she said, ‘Oh, my God, that’s my nanny,’ when she saw Pamela Des Barres’ picture. So, quite late on, presumably after she’d been a groupie, Pamela Des Barres was just being a nanny. Quite a glamorous person to have as your nanny!

Interview by Benedict King

July 3, 2020

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Craig Brown

Craig Brown is a British satirist and journalist, and the author of 18 books. He has been writing his parodic diary in Private Eye since 1989. He is the only person ever to have won three different British Press Awards – for best humorist, columnist and critic – in the same year. He has been a columnist for, among others, The Guardian, The Times, The Spectator and The Daily Telegraph. He currently writes for The Daily Mail and the The Mail on Sunday. His biography of The Beatles on the 50th anniversary of their break-up, One Two Three Four: The Beatles in Time, has been a Sunday Times bestseller. His previous book, Ma’am Darling: Ninety-Nine Glimpses of Princess Margaret was an international bestseller, and won several awards including the James Tait Black Memorial Award and the South Bank Sky Arts Literature Award.

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Craig Brown

Craig Brown is a British satirist and journalist, and the author of 18 books. He has been writing his parodic diary in Private Eye since 1989. He is the only person ever to have won three different British Press Awards – for best humorist, columnist and critic – in the same year. He has been a columnist for, among others, The Guardian, The Times, The Spectator and The Daily Telegraph. He currently writes for The Daily Mail and the The Mail on Sunday. His biography of The Beatles on the 50th anniversary of their break-up, One Two Three Four: The Beatles in Time, has been a Sunday Times bestseller. His previous book, Ma’am Darling: Ninety-Nine Glimpses of Princess Margaret was an international bestseller, and won several awards including the James Tait Black Memorial Award and the South Bank Sky Arts Literature Award.