Note to shelf: Books to bring on holiday

Looking for a holiday read? Eoghan O’Sullivan rounds up some of the best music-related books around at the moment.


Though record stores haven’t gone away we tend to get wistful for the way things used to be. Those of us who barely remember a world before iTunes are eager to hear more of how these institutions were key to our favourite band. Richard King worked in one of the most important record stores, Revolver in Bristol, key to the rise of trip-hop and the likes of Massive Attack.

Over 10 essays, he explores the eccentricities of the shop’s boss, only called Roger here, the boxes of records kept in the back for more discerning customers, and the excitement in the city when John Peel came to visit. While the shop workers’ experiences of listening to the German krautrock band Can are vividly recounted, it is King’s tale of walking around Bristol while listening to Massive Attack’s debut album Mezzanine that will leave you longing for your Walkman.

HOW MUSIC GOT FREE by Stephen Witt

Along with Apple’s rise to dominance on the back of the so simple, so elegant, so impossible to fill iPod, was the rise of music piracy. Witt talks to three of the key players in the scene: The German scientist who invented the mp3 and unwittingly laid the ground for the pirates; the factory line worker responsible for sneaking pre-release CDs out under his belt buckle and helping get them online; and the music executive who has seen the industry’s profits plummet from an all-time high.

It’s a thrilling ride through the era of the mp3, of how the music industry botched it.


Fifty years ago this summer, on July 25, 1965, Bob Dylan took to the stage of Newport Folk Festival and changed the musical landscape forever.

Watching that blistering performance of ‘Maggie’s Farm’ now, on YouTube, it’s still thrilling — imagine experiencing Dylan going electric for the first time; the polarising opinions, the lost fans, the new ones gained. Meticulously researched, Wald puts a very short set in a cultural, political and historical context. Spare a thought for poor Pete Seeger, though.

GIRL IN A BAND by Kim Gordon

The Slits guitarist Viv Albertine’s autobiography, Clothes, Music Boys, last year was the ultimate tell-all memoir, a graphic, sexual tale of finding oneself, and then trying all over again. Kim Gordon is not so graphic in her own memoir, though she delves deep into herself throughout. A founding member of Sonic Youth, she and guitarist Thurston Moore broke up after 27 years of marriage in 2011.

There is a seething sadness running through Girl in a Band and at times the reader (particularly the mourning Sonic Youth fan), wants to know more, but Gordon pulls back from the gory details that Albertine revels in. Kim Gordon, as the introduction declares, is the epitome of cool. Like Albertine, she’s trying to find herself again, all these years later.


Though I didn’t become an overnight fan of Everything but the Girl after reading Tracey Thorn’s first memoir, Bedsit Disco Queen, a couple years ago, I did become enamoured with her down-to-earth and hilarious authorial voice.

Naked at the Albert Hall is a companion book to Bedsit. Thorn says it’s not an investigation into the story of singing, but rather a “compendium of insights… alternative takes on aspects of singing”.

Interviews with the likes of xx singer Romy Madley-Croft are interesting while her intrigue and enjoyment of The X Factor is endearing.


With an index section running almost a full 20 pages, it’s safe to say that Philip Glass’s influence can be felt across the musical landscape of the last 30 years.

Immensely inspiring, Glass writes nuggets like: “As a composer, I think we develop techniques in a kind of desperation to find a way of making something new.”

In his memoir, Glass is charming, illuminating, funny, intelligent, and unpretentious. This is a book that will leave the reader brimming with ideas.


Born in London, but raised in Ireland, Gareth Murphy takes us on a trip through the history of the record industry.

Cowboys and Indies is at its most interesting in its first 80 pages as it takes us back to the middle of the 19th century to Bell, Edison, and the origins of the gramophone, and then onto how the radio and the record battled for dominance.

It continues forwards to cover the Beatles, reggae, MTV, and the record label boom and bust.

Anyone who read Bob Stanley’s Yeah Yeah Yeah: The Story of Modern Pop won’t find much more insight here, but Cowboys and Indies acts as a good primer for the history of the music business.

MY LIFE by Willie Nelson

It’s a long story, the subheading to Willie Nelson’s 400-page book reads, and it’s one that hits all the highs (ahem) and lows in a career that has spanned five decades and over 100 albums. “Well, songs come easy to me,” the 82-year-old Nelson says in the introduction, adding that this book is “more than a simple song or a short story… and I’ll need a lot more than three chords”.

Nelson has always been distinctive, in look and sound, and his voice really shines through in this autobiography, taking in trips to the White House, his love of weed (he’s launching his own brand this year, called Willie’s Reserve), his musical heroes, and so much more.


Of all the books on this list, perhaps this is the one that will resonate most with the person picking up a guitar for the first time, for that lost soul looking for a connection, looking to start a band. Stuart David, over about 200 pages, takes us back to the formative year of Belle & Sebastian, and to a chance meeting, in a course for unemployed musicians, with co-founder Stuart Murdoch.

Witty and gritty, it’s an affectionate tale that will leave you listening to Tigermilk and making big plans.


Along with being one of the best radio DJs in Ireland, Dan Hegarty has also put together a great collection of “Overlooked, Forgotten, and Uncrowned Classic Albums”. There are 110 of them here, some of which you’ll know, some you’ll love, and some that, thanks to the likes of Spotify, you now have no excuse for not listening to.

There are contributions from people like Aidan Gillen, Cillian Murphy and Imelda May, but it’s Hegarty’s own picks, and his obvious feelings for them, that mark him out as one of the most important champions of music in the country.


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