Added 30 July 2005. Updated 10 June 2009 with Nick Mason's (Pink Floyd) biography.

Lives of the Artists

A skim through some musical biographies and autobiographies


This section is one person's assessment of the biographies and books on various artists and groups. I am taking the basic position that the more widely known the subject, the more objective (or at least less flattering) the book is likely to be, since with fame comes a greater exposure and the restless modern desire to tear down idols and debunk myths. By contrast, those with only a niche following, particularly in a certain age group, are more likely to have adulatory and uncritical words written about them: as concerns the phenomenon of boy bands or girl groups, such books would appear to be written with a view to cashing in on the fan base before the group's star falls as quickly as it rises.

A good starting point is the Beatles, both for their influence and the lives of the four men that were the group. Hunter Davies is a talented writer, but unfortunately I found his The Beatles rather sycophantic. This may be explained by the fact that at the time of its conception the band had not yet entered its terminal nosedive and was still enjoying critical success. Oddly enough George Harrison in particular comes across as a rather caustic individual (at least as I remember the book) with scathing views on Cliff Richard and the latter's beliefs. A better book is Shout! by Philip Norman, which was written some years after the breakup and has the advantage of distance from events. Lennon is focused on, but not to the detriment of the others whose contributions (especially McCartney's) are also abundantly present. A subsequent edition of the book relates a surprise phone call the author had from Yoko Ono, who was quite pleased with what Norman had written.

The highly talented and equally notorious Led Zeppelin, who to some epitomised seventies excess, were no doubt obvious targets for an unauthorised biography. What we got was Hammer of the Gods by Steven Davies, a book in parts well researched and other places sensationalist and also written in a rather adolescent style. On the positive side, Davies seems to have talked to a lot of people, although not to the surviving members themselves, and it should be said that the testimony of Richard Cole has been cast into doubt in some quarters. Davies also seems to have done his research and ferreted out a lot of clippings and articles. On the negative side, the writer's reach sometimes appears to exceed his grasp: he brings in Bizet and Paganini for comparison in the opening pages, but then disgraces himself a few chapters later by likening the power of the band to "a nuclear-powered panzer division", or trying to draw parallels between their music and that of the military bands of North African armies in the pre-Napoleonic era. Page, Plant and Jones, and former manager Peter Grant (now deceased) were understandably apparently not pleased by the book, although it does not appear to be a hatchet job; rather, if it is true, then it captures the feel of a bygone era of free sex, big money and the feeling that if you had enough of it, then responsibility was for other people. A few years ago Davies released an updated edition that covers the post-Zeppelin careers of the three men after John Bonham's death, which I have not read yet.

Frank Zappa was a more scholarly yet in some ways more controversial artist than the above British bluesmen. Since he died in 1993, the most prevalent biography seems to be Electric Don Quixote by Neil Slaven. This is an interesting work in that while the author clearly respects Zappa, he also is honest about the shortcomings of some of his work, leaving aside for a moment the question of salaciousness and scatology, as well as the great man's occasional double standards as a person. The Zappa that comes across is indeed a musical genius but also an autocrat who in some ways has the same "I pay them to do this" mentality as the more right-wing Republicans he fought against. Ironically, he appears also to have been the complete family man with his wife and children despite the nature of much of his later lyrical matter, whereas some of the Moral Majority have in the past twenty years been embroiled in scandal. If Hammer of the Gods captures a whiff of the seventies, then Electric Don Quixote preserves the freewheeling if financially impoverished experimentation of the sixties as well as the hard-nosed dealings of the eighties.

It's always a risk letting artists write their own books, especially if their group is doing well at the time - then again, it can make for interesting reading much later when the group has entered the annals of history. Bev Bevan, best known as the drummer for the Electric Light Orchestra, made a decent fist of the history of the group when he produced The Electric Light Orchestra Story in the early 1980s, at a time when the band had been enjoying huge commercial success. For this reason the book is really two halves, of which the first, the writer's own life and the history of the Move (who preceded ELO) and the early ELO is by far the more interesting. The shorter, second half describes his fellow band members (three of whom, the string section, were all dropped shortly afterwards) and contains what really appear to be publicity shots and the author's personal snaps. Bevan finishes up by musing why they shouldn't be doing the group into the nineties, but the reality turned out rather differently: he left ELO in the mid-eighties after becoming restless under Jeff Lynne's direction, joined Black Sabbath for a short while and then ended up reforming ELO II, only to leave again. Bevan's narrative is alternately unsentimental (describing the sacking of certain troublesome individuals) and blokey ("the boys are back on the road"). At its best, however, it is at least honest: Bevan makes no secret of his Conservative views and describes the unhappy effects that fame and its loss afterwards had on some people, as well as being open about groupies, drugs and the quarrelsome mentality of some artists and celebrities. Whether or not this is boastfulness, candour or confession is up to the reader to decide.

Some people are clearly convinced of their place in history. Bruce Welch, rhythm guitarist with The Shadows, produced his own autobiography, Rock and Roll I Gave You the Best Years of My Life. While I liked him personally as I met him on the pages, I could not agree with Q Magazine's assessment that "Welch comes across as an incredibly humble man." To me, the writer seemed to be labouring under something of an inferiority complex from the fact that he played rhythm to Hank Marvin's lead, and to be anxious to be remembered by following generations of musicians. At one point, for example, he appears to be giving advice to Paul McCartney ("if you and the lads can look after the money...."). Welch did have a good deal of personal hardship to overcome, both in his early years and later when alcoholism and loneliness threatened his life, and one has to give him credit for overcoming these obstacles. An interesting aspect of the Shadows that comes over in the book is how much of a role religion played in the lives of its members, with the exception of Welch, who seems bemused by it at times. At one point they had Cliff Richard, the Christian, and Hank Marvin and Licorice Locking, both Jehovah's Witnesses, debating or arguing about the nature of the faith, and at a much later point Marvin's commitment to the band seems to waver because he doesn't want to miss Wednesday night bible studies with his JW assembly. Cliff Richard himself does not escape unscathed from the pages of the book, but Welch does put to rest the rumour that the singer was or is gay, instead throwing light on what may have started the former Harry Webb on the road to conversion.

Some books cover groups associated with a certain musical genre or period of history, and of the latter, the Sixties are of course probably the most popular. Echoes of the Sixties by Marti Smiley Childs and Jeff March contains snapshots of selected groups and individuals (mostly North American) who came to prominence in that decade, or at least had a hit or two before breaking up or fading into obscurity. Unless you grew up in that era you might be forgiven for not knowing the Fireballs or the Beau Brummels, but on the other hand most people will have heard of the Moody Blues (of whom however only Mike Pindar is featured) or Iron Butterfly. The change in the musical tastes of the decade are reflected in the opening and closing chapters of the book, from the simple rock and roll styles of the Fireballs to the political theatrics of Country Joe and the Fish and the heavy rock style of Iron Butterfly. Some of the groups and artistes featured had fairly ephemeral careers: in fact most had broken up by the end of the Sixties. It is nevertheless interesting and instructive to see what the individuals concerned went on to. Quite a few became moderately successful business people or professionals in other walks of life, a few became professional songwriters, and a handful returned time and again to their first love of music as a way of life. Even those who did not often ended up doing nostalgia reunions with their old bandmates. A few fought hard battles with addiction, and a few also became Christians on the way, such as Sam Samudio of Sham Sam and the Pharoahs. Perhaps the most poignant story in this respect is Dan Trammell of the Fireballs, who felt God was calling him to leave the group as they were poised for success. Apart from the aforementioned artists, others included in this book are Gary "U.S" Bonds, The Tokens, The Angels, Peter & Gordon, The Lovin' Spoonful and Gary Puckett and the Union Gap.

Probably one of the culturally most influential musicians of the later twentieth century is Eric Clapton, who soared like a meteor in the sixties only to gradually fall earthwards thereafter plagued by drug addiction and then alcoholism, the latter actually the more serious over a longer period. In his simply-titled Autobiography Clapton talks about his life, from the discovery that Rose and Bob were in fact his grandparents and not his parents, to the ordinary trials of childhood and adolescence, his growing love for music and burgeoning career in the sixties, to the trials of fame, fortune and addiction before eventual freedom through Alcoholics Anonymous and his most recent marriage. This seems to be a fairly balanced book inasmuch as Clapton neither tries to hide the less savoury or risqué parts of his life (the drugs, the alcohol and the multiple relationships including at least two marriages) nor to indulge in voyeuristic displays of dirty linen. He is charitable towards his fellow musicians without sugarcoating their occasional foibles or dark sides, eg one Beatle driving off in his white limousine without the rest of his backup band, or the drug habit of a well-known drummer. At the end of the book I still wasn't sure what drove Clapton other than his love of the blues - like most AA members he appears to have placed his faith in God or a higher power, but doesn't seem to subscribe to the Christian faith he once appeared to - but then maybe Clapton himself feels no need of any higher motive other than music and family. Definitely worth reading, not only for Clapton himself but also for snapshots of the different eras he moves through.

Pink Floyd were no strangers to fame, fortune and then internecine strife and bruised egos, as well as the dark side of the psyche and the devastation wrought by drugs, the latter in the form of their first leader Syd Barrett whose career and personal happiness were destroyed by LSD. In 2004 the member of the band least embroiled in controversy, drummer Nick Mason, released a biography of the band of sorts, entitled Inside Out. To read this book is to gain an insight into the lives and mores of the middle-class English rockers of the wartime- and post-war baby boom, with grammar- and public school backgrounds and jazz influences melding into the intellectual experimentation and mildly left-wing views of the sixties. The sad decline of Barrett is covered with almost shocking candour, in particular the part where the rest of the group decide one night simply not to bother collecting him - a move that Mason frankly acknowledges now seems callous. A few chapters later comes the shocking appearance of the former psychedelic guru at the studios during the Wish You Were Here sessions, so overweight, shaven-headed and casually dressed that nobody recognises him (the photograph is included in the book). Thereafter we see the group slowly harden into an autocracy under Roger Waters, followed by the final falling out and parting of the ways, regrouping without the bass player and finally a reunion of sorts at Live Aid in 2005 (a postscript included in the second edition of the book). One constant throughout the book is Mason's laid back tone - the dizzying heights of artistic success are reached, marriages break up and members bicker and fall out, but throughout the drummer seems to treat everything fairly calmly, as if discussing the career in architecture that he might have gone into. One almost gets the sense that Pink Floyd didn't find life too difficult, even on the road. A critical reader might also find some irony in the lifestyle that Mason leads (rock star latterly owning several luxury sports cars and racing them) given his still somewhat leftish views, but good luck to him, he earned it. To his credit, Mason is never harsh or unpleasant about any of the characters in the book, and one senses regret rather than rancour that Roger Waters and the rest of the group parted company. Since the second edition closed with the group reunited at Live Aid, original members Syd Barrett and Rick Wright have both died, so one wonders if a further edition will be published.

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