Could you say something about your relationship with music? You’re now an economic advisor. It might not be obvious to people who know you in that role why you are selecting books on rock and roll.
Well, I’ve been a musician since childhood but I did PPE at Oxford. When I was at Oxford, I started a little recording studio business— just an eight-track. Through that, I got to meet Trevor Horn and Jill Sinclair, and through them, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Yes, The Pet Shop Boys, and so on. Trevor was my absolute hero, he’s one of the greatest producers of all time. I already wanted to get into production, and seeing him at work only sharpened that desire. But the sensible world called; I got a job offer on Wall Street, which was un-turn-downable. So off I went to work for Salomon Brothers as a trader in New York.
However, when I was over there, my dad died, and I had to come back to look after my mother. I carried on working for Salomon in London for a while, but it was impossible to concentrate. So I thought, I know: I’ll start a production company based around a high-end recording studio.
“I see a very strong analogy between the philosophy of science and certain aspects of music”
I was a kid. I was 24 and I didn’t know what I was doing. The first few years were very bleak. It was, at best, a hand-to-mouth existence. Fortunately for me, it started to go well, and then really took off. I ended up owning a record label which in 1994 had the third highest turnover of any UK label. I then sold various IP assets to Virgin and Warners but carried on working in the business. I wrote or produced for Adam and the Ants, Hamish Stuart and Blair Cunningham from Paul McCartney’s band, Viv Stanshall, Squeeze… loads of others. I worked with Sir George Martin, and in a live capacity, I also got to work with Robert Plant, Tom Jones, Paul Weller and many others.
My production company also did a lot of film and TV music, and we gradually built up an amazing roster of composers including Barrington Pheloung (who wrote the Inspector Morse theme); Robert Lockhart (Distant Voices, Still Lives), Mark Russell (Cold Feet), Mark’s brother Simon (The 911 Faker), and Alex Heffes (Last King of Scotland and Mandela: Long Road to Freedom). I co-wrote with the guys or just produced and engineered their stuff. I personally wrote things like the main BBC 1 idents; the worldwide Premier League theme, the World Service; and the BBC Olympic Games theme. We also did a ton of high-end commercials, up to eleven a week, including five Levis commercials over the years. The song I wrote from one of these, ‘Inside’, got to number one in the British charts. I’d put a fake band around that and the subsequent album—which I had to write and record very quickly—turned out to be the highest-selling British album in the world that year.
And this is not just as a producer; you were fully involved as a composer and a musician as well.
On ‘Inside’? Yes, I wrote and played everything on the track. I didn’t do the lead vocals, that was a guy that came to us through an ad in Melody Maker, and of course, I hired a choir, the Ambrosian Choir, to sing the opening section.
It’s almost as if you’ve had two careers.
I guess so. I never stopped reading and thinking about economics and I’d kept in touch with friends in the City. I gave informal economic advice to people I knew; pretty informal meetings with friends at places such as Goldman or UBS. These began to solidify and gradually become more formal. There were a few job offers, and finally, I was offered the position of chief economist at the German Stock Exchange, Deutsche Börse, which was too much of a big deal to say no to. So off I went.
I had to let the music slide for a few years because Deutsche Börse was so full-on. I was in Frankfurt a lot. But then I left the German stock exchange and am currently in the process of resurrecting the label.
Are these two activities completely distinct? Or is there some kind of symmetry in what you are doing?
A superb philosopher’s question! I think there are many parallels and a great deal of symbiosis. For one thing, being in the deep end of the music business provides a magnifying glass on human behaviour—you see all sorts of strange behaviour—and that can be very translatable to economics. Secondly, I’ve always been very interested in the philosophy of science. I’d go so far as to say an economist without a solid grounding in the philosophy of science is at sea; liable to fall into all sorts of traps.
Anyway, I see a very strong analogy between the philosophy of science and certain aspects of music. For example: take a simple, say, four-note melody. Is it any good? Well, that depends on the chord sequence behind it. I see that as a precise analogue for the relationship between data and theory; theory without data is empty, and data without theory is meaningless.
And there are also similarities in such things as ‘underdetermination’, or in the process of seeing things through paradigms… that’s second nature to people in music. The paradigm thing—if you’re working with, say, a musician who’s only worked in classical music, they’re probably going to get rock very wrong, and vice-versa. That’s because the genre you work in actually comes to determine the way you hear music; it determines the rules for what sounds good. This is precisely equivalent to the way a prior theory determines what data count as evidence. This kind of thing is second nature to a lot of people in music. Whereas if you’re not in music, it can be counter-intuitive. It takes a lot of intellectual heavy lifting to free yourself from misconceptions such as the idea that ‘evidence’ is an objective category, theory-free category, which of course it isn’t.
At a simpler level, there’s an obsession with form, an obsession with patterns.
Yes. I think patterns, and pattern recognition are very important. Although I think there’s a dangerous trap in economics: to fall for your own model. Models are nothing more than an attempt to describe reality; or better, an attempt to specify functional relationships which will generate accurate predictions. But models are necessarily incomplete and subject to error. Anyone taking them as being reality, rather than as an attempted depiction of reality, is cruising for a bruising! There’s an analogy with all this in music. The least successful writers who did stuff for us—and I mean least successful both creatively and commercially—were often people who’d had a formal musical training that they hadn’t really questioned. That may sound ridiculous, but it’s very common; instead of asking themselves, ‘does this sound good?’ they’d be guided solely by whether the notes technically go together. I think that’s a very close analogy for modelling in economics. If the model generates results that don’t seem to fit with your everyday experience, proceed with caution.
Let’s get to your five rock book choices. Your first is a book about Nico by James Young, Nico: the End. Could you start by saying briefly who Nico was?
Nico was a very successful German model. She was a feature in the Andy Warhol Factory scene, and then Warhol put her in the Velvet Underground. Which was a strange move, and perhaps not altogether successful. However, John Cale, who I think it’s safe to say was the musical brains of the Underground, made some absolutely magnificent albums with her. If you don’t know The Marble Index, I recommend it, it’s an absolute masterpiece. Nico was without musical training but I think she had an extraordinary musical gift; I reject that ‘all you have to do to be good is to practice for 10,000 hours’ idea, it couldn’t be more wrong.
You think that some people have it and some people don’t?
Just like, say, athletics. I mean, you have to work at it too. But if the musical gift isn’t there, it makes no difference how hard you work.
We used to be inundated with tapes from hopefuls. Sadly the overwhelming majority weren’t any good at all. I eventually came to the conclusion that the kindest thing to say was: ‘don’t sacrifice your life to this.’ It’s a harsh thing to say, but it can save people. I know people well into their fifties who are still chasing the musical dream, it’s tragic.
However, you have to be very careful, because you’re playing with people’s identities and as the all too familiar story of Dick Rowe warns us, we may be convinced that a band or a piece of music has no potential and be absolutely wrong. Dick Rowe, for anyone who doesn’t know, was the guy at Decca who in 1962 turned down The Beatles with the phrase that haunted him for the rest of his life: “Guitar groups are on their way out, Mr Epstein.”
Get the weekly Five Books newsletter
Yet it’s bizarrely common to come across people who think they’ve done something incredible, when they’ve just come up with a straightforward three-chord sequence. They genuinely think they’ve revolutionised music. A tragi-comic case was a guy who signed to our label. He went on to do quite high-profile stuff, so I’m not going to say who it was, but he came to me with his new song. This song had the melody from Duran Duran’s song ‘Ordinary Day’. He’d even chosen an almost identical title for ‘his’ song. The extraordinary thing was that he genuinely wasn’t aware. He’d somehow managed to fool himself. Very strange.
Let’s get back to Nico.
One of the guiding principles I set myself for these recommendations was that you don’t have to be a fan of the artist in order to find the book interesting. I say that now because Nico’s music isn’t to everyone’s taste. Anyway, the book was written by a guy called James Young; a member of Nico’s band. I was introduced to James at a party in the 1990s by my much-missed friend Robert Sandall. At the time I’d only vaguely heard of Nico really. But Robert told me it was an incredible book, so I got it and he was correct, it’s quite brilliant. It is, it has to be said, very dark. James manages to place the reader in the middle of the visceral squalor that surrounds heroin addiction. It’s not an easy read, but it’s brilliantly written and fascinating.
It covers the extreme trials of touring with Nico. There are lots of colourful characters, and then he covers the making of the album. Unfortunately, in my view, the album, Camera Obscura, isn’t all that great. It suffers from being made in 1985! Whereas the earlier albums were made with real instruments, this one relies on the then fashionable DX7 synth. At the time everyone thought… and I include myself in this… that it was the most amazing thing. But its sounds dated very quickly. Sound dates faster than humour.
But this book isn’t about Nico at her height. It’s about the decline, her final year.
Yes, it’s the period leading up to her death.
It was written after her death?
Is it a book she would have been pleased to see?
I don’t think anything pleased her very much. A junkie’s personality is gradually subsumed by their habit; eventually, they pretty much become a zombie; caring about nothing except for their next hit.
Nico had a pretty tough early life. Born just before the second world war, her father was in the German army but somehow fell from grace and, according to some accounts, was sent to a concentration camp where he was shot. Post-war Germany was a very difficult place to be. She was abused, and in her teens, raped by an American soldier. There’s a story that Nico had to give evidence at the soldier’s court martial, a court martial which led to his execution. However, as is so often the case in Nico’s life, it’s extremely difficult to separate fact from fiction.
Regardless, when you hear the early albums she did with Cale you realise she had real talent. As you say, the book is about decline, it’s about decadence, it’s about the tedium of being on tour. Being on tour, by the way, is extraordinarily tedious. If you want to know what being on tour is like, go and sit in an airport for three hours every day for three months: that’s what it’s like. I think that’s why it so often leads to drugs; people are very, very bored.
The book captures everything. I’d even say James very nearly manages to depict even the odours of the drug addiction.
Your next book choice is Walter Lure’s To Hell and Back.
I’m a big fan of this one. Walter was one of Johnny Thunders’ Heartbreakers. Do you know anything about that band? They emerged from the ashes of the legendary New York Dolls. For a brief period, Malcolm McLaren was the Dolls’ manager. It was the first band he’d ever managed, so he was very much learning on the job and, naturally enough, made some terrible mistakes. Anyway, the Dolls had a troubled history, during their first UK tour in 1972, their 21-year-old drummer, Billy Murcia, died at a party in Hammersmith. He is ‘Billy Dolls’ in Bowie’s song ‘Time’ by the way. Billy was replaced by Jerry Nolan, and it was Jerry that introduced the band to Heroin. Nolan and the band’s guitarist Johnny Thunders became inseparable friends and when the Dolls imploded in 1975, Nolan and Thunders teamed up with Richard Hell from the band Television, and our hero Walter to form an underground supergroup: The Heartbreakers. By the way, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers has nothing to do with this Heartbreakers.
“If you want to know what being on tour is like, go and sit in an airport for three hours every day for three months”
Walter played the guitar and sang. In the autumn of 1976, The Heartbreakers came over to the UK to take part in the infamous Anarchy tour—together with the Sex Pistols, The Damned, and The Clash.
In the book, Walter gives us a great account of arriving at Heathrow and being met by a desperate Malcolm McLaren a matter of hours after the Bill Grundy Today show, the notorious television interview with The Sex Pistols.
That was the show that generated all the publicity wasn’t it?
Precisely so. Grundy was an old-school broadcaster, and he really didn’t want this bunch of urchins on his show. The truth of it is that it really wasn’t the right show for the band to be on from any perspective. Getting the band on the show shouldn’t have worked at all…it was an example of McLaren’s naive cluelessness. Anyway, Grundy seemed to be very drunk and continually goaded the band. At one point, and very much under his breath, John Lydon (AKA Johnny Rotten) said in response to a question: ‘That’s their tough shit’. This would have gone completely unnoticed had not Grundy drawn attention to it—remember, this was live television— Looking at Rotten, Grundy asked “What did you say?” Rotten was clearly embarrassed and said ‘Nothing, a rude word.’ and tried to move on, but Grundy was having none of it and said: “What was the rude word?” to which Johnny, looking like a naughty schoolboy, was forced to say ‘shit’ directly into camera. Then Siouxsie Sioux started to flirt with Grundy, who flirted back. Now, the impossible to intimidate Steve Jones looked at Grundy and said “You dirty fucker.”
All this made the headlines, not just the next day but for about two weeks. Overnight the Sex Pistols were transformed from an up and coming underground band into the most famous band in the country.
Now, here’s where Walter Lure’s account is interesting. Malcolm McLaren, who we’re going to get onto later, always made out that he’d set the whole thing up; that it had all gone to plan; the brilliant work of a great PR mastermind, i.e. him.
He was the kind of guy who wanted to take credit where it wasn’t due?
As we shall see. Walter tells us that when the Heartbreakers arrived at Heathrow, McLaren was a babbling wreck. He kept saying, ‘They’ve ruined everything, they’ve ruined their chances.’ It was only some time during the following day that Malcolm saw the negative publicity as an opportunity. What he was in fact was a great post-rationaliser!
Returning to the Heartbreakers, Johnny Thunders is worth knowing about. In the Punk pantheon, Thunders has a Lennon-like stature. He was the star of the scene. He must have had an incredible personal magnetism, but I don’t think that really comes across on film. People used to say he was a great guitar player… he really wasn’t, not by any stretch of the imagination. The Heartbreaker’s music was pretty shambolic and their one and only studio album, L.A.M.F. was poorly recorded but very influential nevertheless.
By the way, a couple of years later, the chaos which always surrounded Thunders turned the sessions for his solo album, So Alone, into such a drug-fuelled mess that Peter Perrett, at the time a man famously deep in the throes of heroin addiction, was considered to be the most together person present. However, on that album is a classic track, ‘You Can’t Put Your Arms Around a Memory.’ That’s an amazing song.
Five Books interviews are expensive to produce. If you're enjoying this interview, please support us by donating a small amount.
Walter and The Heartbreakers stayed in the UK for about two years. They kind of got stuck here. Johnny Thunders and Jerry Nolan both had terrible, long-standing smack habits. Shockingly, when Walter first joined the band his induction ritual was to be shot up by Jerry. He’d never taken heroin before, but now, he too became a junkie and the band moved into a squalid basement flat in Pimlico getting off their faces all day and playing gigs at night. They were in the position of being extraordinarily famous in the underground but making very little money.
For most of the band, the endgame was always inevitable: Johnny Thunders limped on through a heroin haze until April 1991, when he died in slightly mysterious circumstances in New Orleans. A few months later, Jerry too was dead. Walter, on the other hand, managed to get off the smack. So it’s a redemption story, the complete opposite of Nico. What happened next is quite extraordinary: Walter got a job on Wall Street and ended up running a corporate brokerage. A very articulate guy, very self-effacing. Unfortunately, he died last year. I never met Walter, I wish I had.
This book is really something because of that redemption story. It’s fantastic. It’s very well written and the way he managed to turn his life around makes it very uplifting.
It’s quite surprising. There isn’t usually redemption in these rock stories, sadly.
No. Heroin is a dangerous thing to touch. Sid Vicious was 21 when he died. Nancy was only 20. I think people forget they were just kids.
In that case, they did seem to be heading that way. It doesn’t look like they were looking to live to 70.
I think that’s probably true, but we’ll never know.
Let’s move onto the third rock music book you’ve chosen to highlight. Paul Gorman’s biography The Life and Times of Malcolm McLaren.
Malcolm was someone I knew. What I would say about Malcolm is that he was absolutely mesmerising company. Mesmerising. He was an extraordinary storyteller, who would draw you in. It was like being around the campfire with an elder telling stories: first-hand accounts of an extraordinary life.
His upbringing was disturbed and disturbing. He was an art student and somehow seems to have played a major role in the LSE riots in the late 1960s. He then moved into the fashion trade. He had a shop on the King’s Road, the name and identity of which changed multiple times: Let it Rock; Too Fast to Live, Too Young to Die; Sex (which is where the name Sex Pistols came from); Seditionaries; and then World’s End.
Malcolm’s founding idea for the Pistols was straightforward and simple: he wanted to do a sort of Bay City Rollers, but with cooler clothes. You remember the Bay City Rollers? Shang-a-Lang, Bye Bye Baby? The band wore a sort of uniform; shortened trousers, caps, lots of tartan … and their legions of fans dressed in the same gear, tartan clothing became very big business. That’s what impressed Malcolm most. The Rollers had great pop songs. I wonder if you’re aware that Dee Dee Ramone was a big fan of the Rollers? He based the “Hey-Ho, Let’s Go” thing in Blitzkrieg Bop on the Roller’s song Saturday Night… but Malcolm had no real interest in the music. For him, image was paramount, image led to sales. He wanted to create a cool version of The Rollers. The idea being that he and his partner, Vivienne Westwood would style the band in order to drive sales of the clothes they designed.
Malcolm’s shop was a social hub…it’s where he first met the New York Dolls. Lots of people were hanging out there. Steve Jones, Paul Cook were always going there. Steve, of course, was trying to steal things, a self-confessed kleptomaniac. Glen Matlock was given a job as a Saturday boy at the shop. The three Johns: Lydon, Beverley (Sid Vicious), and Wardle (Jah Wobble) were a fixture. Chrissie Hynde was always there too. My buddy Marco Pirroni was a regular. It became an extraordinary meeting point for people and of course, it was from this crowd that Malcolm put the band together.
“Malcolm McLaren had no real interest in the music. For him, image was paramount, image led to sales”
So, Malcolm’s idea was to get a band together that would act as a vehicle to sell his clothes. But by one of those strange quirks of fate, the band turned out to be fantastic. You know, I don’t think Malcolm was ever able to understand that. I think he went to his grave thinking they couldn’t really play, but Steve was, and is, a great guitar player, Johnny is a superb lyricist and one of the best frontmen in the history of rock. Glen was a really good songwriter. Glen later left to be replaced by Sid Vicious—who looked great but couldn’t play at all. I think it’s fair to say that the Pistols’ days as a proper band ended when Glen left and Sid joined. At that point, they became a cartoon band.
Paul Gorman’s biography is magnificent: Malcolm was many-sided; mercurial. He was an extraordinarily charismatic person, and despite his many flaws, there was something very special about him. Some people have said that Gorman takes McLaren at his own word too much. Maybe, maybe not, but it’s one of the best biographies I’ve ever read. It’s unputdownable.
Do you get a feeling from Malcolm from it?
I’m not sure you do. I’m not sure you could. With most people, I think we could give a reasonable description of them which would be more or less accurate. With Malcolm, I could only say this is the Malcolm that I came across. Adam Ant always said that Malcolm was a genius, a fountain that sprayed out brilliant ideas. But he had no clue about implementation. He needed someone to enact the ideas for him.
Would you say he was chameleon-like? Or that he had many different facets, regardless of who was in front?
I think he actually became a different person depending upon circumstance. I’d run into Malcolm a few times down the years, but in the late 1990s he came to see us in our studio in Primrose Hill, he wanted to sign to our production company. He and I spent about three hours together, chatting away. So far as I was concerned, he was my new best friend. However, a few days later, I was walking down Erskine Road in Primrose Hill and saw Malcolm coming the other with a friend of mine, the promoter Rob Hallett. I said, “Hello Malcolm.” Rob said, “Oh, do you two know each other?”
Without even looking at me, Malcolm said, “No.” I never knew whether he’d genuinely forgotten me or whether it was because I’d decided not to sign him to my publishing company.
You know what? I’m making myself sound cleverer than I really am. In truth, I would have signed him. I was completely mesmerised by Malcolm, but Tessa—my wife, the managing director of the publishing company and, by the way, a far more sensible person than me—said we’d be crazy to sign him, he was trouble. And she was right. He fell out with everyone he worked with, and he was forever in litigation.
Now, you asked me whether Malcolm was the kind of guy who took credit for other people’s work. I think it’s difficult to avoid that conclusion. Hugh Hudson directed a classic British Airways commercial for which McLaren created a soundtrack, or at least was credited with creating the soundtrack. Remember that big one in about 1989? Really big news. They used a version of the Flower Duet from the Delibes opera Lakmé, but with a backbeat. It was a great success. However, there’s no way in the world that Malcolm could have come up with that arrangement, he simply didn’t have the ability.
Get the weekly Five Books newsletter
After the success of the commercial, Malcolm decided he’d invented a brilliant new musical genre: Opera House. He made or at least was in some way involved in a pretty terrible record of that name. With the awful ‘we love opera house’ chant at the beginning. I’m sure the idea for that chant genuinely was Malcolm’s. Clueless. But the fact is that sometimes cluelessness works because let’s face it, only a clueless person would come up with the idea of creating a cool Bay City Rollers.
Punk didn’t really work in the way Malcolm had hoped. The culture which emerged was very much do-it-yourself. His designs were copied and he didn’t make the grand fortune he’d hoped. And then he made that ridiculous film, The Great Rock and Roll Swindle. But all this illustrates something very important about the music business. It’s what you do with what turns up that defines success or failure, and Malcolm was sometimes very good and dealing with what turned up!
So are you saying he just got lucky, or that he had the touch of genius?
I actually think it’s a touch of genius. With the Pistols, as we were discussing earlier, the Grundy show was the sine qua non of their success. That wasn’t planned. Malcolm used to make out it was a plan, but that simply wasn’t true. According to Malcolm’s original plan, it had gone badly wrong. For some reason, the press picked up on “the Filth and the Fury” and overnight they became the epitome of bad boy rock. Malcolm was clever enough to ride the storm.
If he was trying to recreate the Bay City Rollers, where did the anarchism come from? That was an art school thing, wasn’t it?
Completely. He had some vague understanding of Situationism, but as I say, the core of the idea was nothing more than getting his clothes on a successful band and then selling them by the shedload. That didn’t really work because the punks made their own stuff. And the anarchy talk… well I don’t think anyone really thought about it very deeply. It was just a cool thing to say, and it had a nice symbol that was easy to spray on walls.
Be all that as it may, Malcolm’s life is fascinating. He had an extraordinary restless energy: he never stopped trying. All success has an element of luck, and Malcolm’s approach was often, in fact usually, random, but he got a lot of things very right.
Your next rock music book recommendation is Keith Richards’ biography Life.
Right. This was recommended to me by my old mate, the top drummer Simon Lea. Simon has played with lots of big names, people like Dionne Warwick, Nicole Scherzinger, and… Ronnie Wood. I think it might have been playing with Ronnie that led him to Keith’s book. I’m not a particular Stones fan, but this is great stuff. It’s a big book, a great book. And once again, there are a lot of drugs. Fortunately, Keith managed to get off the smack in the end. It’s an extraordinary story. As was the case with The Beatles, the Stones came from very ordinary backgrounds, and suddenly they’re the coolest people around and everyone wants to know them. They’re suddenly hanging out with the cream of Bohemian aristocratic society and taking it all in their stride. And they managed not to lose themselves; to maintain who they are. I find that extraordinary and impressive.
I say that because, in my experience with the label, it was a very common thing to see someone go on Top of the Pops for the first time and come back thinking they were really important. Did I ever tell you about the guy who sulked with me for months because I wouldn’t ok a taxi from Elstree to Edinburgh? He thought he was way too important for public transport! Apparently, Brian Jones went down that kind of road too. Two TV shows and he became insufferable. But Keith is a person you want to spend time with. He’s not like any person I’ve ever met. There’s the junkie side to him, but there’s a fearlessness—like from another century, he’s like a sort of brigand. The world doesn’t seem able to touch him, he just glides down the sides. His life is extraordinary.
And he is really into the music. He came across a five-string guitar technique—tuning a bottom A, then GDGBD—all the Stones stuff is played that way. And he was very open. He said something really interesting about reggae music—that you can explain a lot of it by the fact that you’ve only got two types of American radio in Jamaica: country music and New Orleans. He said reggae is an exact fusion of country melodies with a New Orleans groove. The guy really knows what he’s doing.
It’s a bizarre story. There are a lot of casualties, a lot of people die. But he really is a pirate. How the hell is he alive? He once stayed up for nine days. Nine days. How? In another story, which I thought was hilarious, he was working in a studio in France. Famously he hardly ever sleeps. Eventually, after a few days, he fell asleep under the mixing desk, and woke up the next day—or probably the next day, he doesn’t know—to see from his vantage point under the mixing desk, lots of legs in the control room. These legs, it turned out, belonged to the Parisian police brass band who were making a charity record.
So, Keith is asleep under the mixing desk with a syringe and heroin paraphernalia. I mean, what do you do? Well, he just wrapped it all up, crawled out and said ‘excuse me gents’ and walked through them and out of the door. There are a lot of laugh out loud incidents here. But there’s terrible tragedy too. He lost a child. It’s quite dark. It’s not redemptive in the way Walter’s story is, but he did at least get off the dope.
With all these books, there’s been an extraordinary character at the centre. Do you need to know the backstory to appreciate the music?
I think maybe you listen more sympathetically when you know what’s going on. But a good song is a good song and a crap song is a crap song, regardless of who wrote it. If John Lennon’s mother hadn’t been killed, would that change the quality of his music? It might have changed what he wrote, I suppose, but I don’t know. You might say something about the immediacy of a singer’s voice: it can communicate all kinds of things about their past.
If you think of someone like Amy Winehouse, you can hear she’s sincere, you don’t have to be told that. But if you have a few more details, it makes it easier to believe that she’s singing from the heart and not from the song sheet.
However, some people sound sincere even when they aren’t. In fact, that’s the mark of a great singer. The late philosopher Roger Scruton loved REM’s ‘Losing My Religion’. As you know, Michael Stipe has a superb voice that always sounds sincere. Everything he sings sounds important and meaningful. Roger really didn’t like pop music, but he loved ‘Losing My Religion’. He mentioned it to me when we were having lunch just over the road there at Quod. I asked: “Do you know what that song’s about Roger?”
I could guess he thought it was about a man who’d lost his passion; his meaning in life. But that isn’t what it’s about. Losing my religion is just Texas slang for ‘losing my temper’. The song is about having a fight at a party. Not anything important. That changes the conception. So, I don’t know. As I said, my guiding principle in selecting these books was that they had to be interesting, even if you don’t like the music.
The last book on rock music you’ve chosen to recommend is Kim Gordon’s Girl in a Band.
Kim was the bass player in Sonic Youth. Sonic Youth were a very innovative band that came out of the New York, ‘No Wave’ scene. In all honesty, Kim Gordon used to slightly annoy me, I always found her a bit humourless and pretentious. She was much older when I was on the scene, she was about 40 when touring with Nirvana. However, I think to her chagrin, she was always very elegant, and very beautiful. She’d try her best to punk herself up but in truth, she always looked like she worked for McKinsey.
Initially, I didn’t get Sonic Youth at all. That was my failing; I was too narrow-minded. Sonic Youth were very innovative, some of their stuff is fantastic. And the story behind all this, the story she tells in her book, is really interesting. The book has changed my opinion of Kim completely.
When she was growing up, she had an older brother who had incipient severe mental health problems. They weren’t understood at the time, but he was a paranoid schizophrenic. He gave her a hard time, a really hard time. She was always trying to prove herself to him. This is the root of why I thought she wanted to be cool at any cost, which I didn’t like. Genuinely cool people don’t care if they’re cool or not, or at least learn to give the impression that they don’t care. But with Kim, it was clear that image was very important. I suspect her art background was probably a factor…
Together with her boyfriend Thurston Moore, she formed Sonic Youth. I think even more than is usually the case, this band and her relationship with Thurston constituted her whole identity. Kim and Thurston had a child and then moved from New York out to the country, where they were treated a bit like they’d arrived from Mars. Kim, of course, knew everyone in the New York scene. Her take on The Heartbreakers was that they were just washed up junkies, that they were useless. Which is probably a lot more accurate than the ‘second coming’ stuff you get on the band.
“The late philosopher Roger Scruton loved REM’s ‘Losing My Religion’”
Anyway, the tragedy came when Kim discovered Thurston had been having an affair, an affair he wasn’t really prepared to end. They separated personally and split the band, and it broke her to pieces. Her entire identity was destroyed. It’s a searingly honest book. She can really write.
The book ends on a reasonably up note: Kim seems to have found herself again, and gone back to the art scene, and there is some happiness there. But the whole setup—from the relationship with the brother, through wanting to be cool, wanting to be less middle class, getting with this ultra-cool band—Kurt was a huge fan of Sonic Youth—and then the whole thing turned out to be unsupported; a house of cards.
It’s a tragic and brutally honest book, but brilliantly, brilliantly written.
Five Books aims to keep its book recommendations and interviews up to date. If you are the interviewee and would like to update your choice of books (or even just what you say about them) please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org