Have you ever been sat reading Hammer of the Gods by Stephen Davies or The Rest Is Noise by Alex Ross or Krautrocksampler by Julian Cope and thought, “man, they really need to set up an exclusive awards for books about music”? No, me neither, but that doesn’t make it any less great that somebody has. An annual music prize to honour the terrific writing out there for this specific genre was inaugurated last year by Richard Thomas, founder of the terrific literary festival – The Laugharne Weekend – that takes place annually in the home of legendary late Welsh poet Dylan Thomas.
“There’s basically a prize for everything else, the best crime book, the best science fiction book, and there wasn’t anything for music at all,” said Thomas, on the phone to me from Wales. “So I started talking to [writer] John Williams, and he said Penderyn Whisky might be up for sponsoring something like this.”
The first festival took place last year, with Mark Lewisohn’s The Beatles: All These Years: Volume One: Tune In winning the coveted £1,000 prize money and a bottle of whisky, but Thomas admits the awards have already become a lot bigger in this, its sophomore year.
Fifteen books have been nominated for the longlist, including Grace Jones’ I’ll Never Write My Memoirs, Chrissie Hynde’s Reckless and Elvis Costello’s Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink, and judges of this year’s prize include Mark Ellen, Annie Nightingale, Jude Rogers and radio presenter and writer Stuart Maconie. Maconie said of the awards: “In Britain, we can rightly boast of some of the finest writing in this field in the world; not just scholarly and learned, but witty, impassioned and insightful. The Penderyn Prize is a very welcome celebration of this.”
So like the Mercury’s for books then? Thomas doesn’t refute the idea, saying it’s far closer to the Mercury’s than it is to the Brits. As for the amount of words needing to be read by the judging panel, Nightingale says: “Frankly it’s no sweat reading about my most favourite topic, in great detail and at no-holds-barred lengths. The only headache I foresee is choosing between a gripping autobiography and a factual tome crammed with fascinating minutiae… But hey, nice problem to have!”
The competition is stiff. When I asked Thomas why Rob Chapman’s Psychedelia and Other Colours wasn’t nominated, he pointed out that it was probably muscled out by the strength of publishing house, Faber. “I think there has to be some balance, and that book was a little unfortunate in that there were four books on Faber and Faber already,” he says. “Plus he starts saying the Moody Blues were a great band and they weren’t.”
A fair point. There’s no sign of Morrissey’s List of the Lost in the longlist either, but you probably gathered that already. This year’s list has more than a whiff of glamour about it, with titles including some truly big names. Legends even. Here they are in no particular order.
I’ll Never Write My Memoirs – Grace Jones (Simon & Schuster)
Written with feted music journalist Paul Morley, Jones’ memoir is a dazzling and deep account of her phenomenal life, taking in her early life in Jamaica and New York, as well as her days working as a fashion model in Paris, and of course her fascinating musical career. Jones’ has always been ambitious, and the book reveals a frighteningly astute and philosophical character in Jones. I asked publisher Hannah Corbett what it was like to work with the singer and with Morley.
“I was very lucky in that I got to work with them both.” she says. “I spent an evening with Grace herself conducting interviews in her favourite local restaurant next door to her flat in Wandsworth, and afterwards we bought a bottle of red wine from the corner shop and went back to her flat to sign books and watch the tennis. She was wonderful; charming, wise and easy to work with, it was an amazing experience.”
So if Grace wins, will she pick up the prize herself?
“You never know..! But unlike some other awards, the winning book will not be determined by the availability of the author to collect the prize in person.”
“I don’t think Grace Jones will be there,” added Richard Thomas, “but there’s a possibility everyone else might.”
Good Night & Good Riddance: How 35 Years of John Peel Helped to Shape Modern Life – Dave Cavanagh (Faber)
If John Peel’s unfinished autobiography Margraves Through The Marshes left the reader feeling a little cheated by the grim reaper, then David Cavanagh’s mighty tome of over 600 words should help rectify that longing, though of course it won’t bring the much loved DJ back. Good Night and Good Riddance is “a social history, a diary of a nation’s changing culture, and an in-depth appraisal of one of our greatest broadcasters,” reads the blurb.
M Train – Patti Smith (Bloomsbury)
“It’s not so easy writing about nothing,” says Patti Smith with her opening line, commencing a book she calls “a roadmap to my life”. It fluidly weaves between dreams and reality, place and time, with strong imagery, such as her love of coffee, evoking, sights, smells, sounds… There’s a sense of freedom and hopefulness too, as well as warm memories of her late husband Frank and the writers Ryunosuke Akutagawa and Haruki Murakami. It’s an ambitious undertaking, and while it could have fallen down written by a less skillful writer, M Train is a deeply moving book by a unique and thoughtful scribe.
1966: The Year The Decade Exploded – Jon Savage (Faber)
England’s Dreaming author Jon Savage takes us further back into pop culture history for a bit of 1966 and all that. 66 “was a year of noise and tumult, of brightly coloured patterns clashing with black and white politics, of furious forward motion and an outraged, awakening reaction.” Savage is an endlessly fascinating writer, so expect no less than brilliance here.
Reckless – Chrissie Hynde (Ebury)
The Pretenders singer caused controversy ahead of the release of this book, after an interview with the Guardian in which she made some ill advised comments about rape. That aside, Jude Rogers also writing for the Guardian, says “there’s provocative directness, and then there’s Chrissie Hynde,” adding that the memoir is “full of amazing anecdotes” if a little loose editing wise.
The Long Shadow of the Little Giant: the Life, Work and Legacy of Tubby Hayes – Simon Spillett (Equinox)
If the Penderyn Prize is the Mercury Prize of books, then perhaps this is the token jazz entry. Writing in London World News, Chris Parker says of the European multi-instrumentalist, Hayes, had to fight a battle of to prove his authenticity beneath the shadow of the thriving American jazz scene: “The Long Shadow of the Little Giant is at once a valuable re-creation of a vanished world in which jazz’s centre of gravity seemed immovably fixed in New York and Los Angeles, and a stirring and moving account of the career of a musician who arguably did more than any of his contemporaries to bring about a seismic shift that resulted in jazz becoming, in the best sense of the word, ‘world’ music”.
It’s One For The Money – Clinton Heylin (Constable)
“Clinton Heylin’s book is packed with examples,” writes James Walton in the Spectator, “of what strange things can happen when popular music and copyright law collide.” The book makes the case that copyright law has infringed upon creativity since laws were passed in 1976, meaning pop will never reach the dizzying heights of the mid-60’s again.
Life After Dark: A History of British Music Nightclubs & Music Venues – Dave Haslam (Simon & Schuster)
Dave Haslam’s book takes on the unenviable task of documenting the ever changing word of clubbing, especially in these strange times for nightclubs and venues, and he’s not stinted where time travel is concerned either. “Haslam’s new book… document[s] the seismic changes in our nightlife, from the music halls of the 1840s to the three-room mega-raves of the modern day,” says The Skinny.
Original Rockers – Richard King (Faber)
Richard King was recently seen on the BBC’s The Story Of Indie, and as author of the lauded indie bible How Soon Is Now?, he acted as consultant for the show. This time he turns his attentions to Bristol’s erstwhile independent record store Revolver, which Guardian reviewer Sukhdev Sandhu describes as “a bittersweet homage to a hallowed place.”
Naked at the Albert Hall: The Inside Story of Singing – Tracey Thorn (Virago)
This is the follow up to Everything But The Girl singer Tracey Thorn’s well received 2013 memoir Bedsit Queen, and her second book “contains a mix of personal observations, drawing not just on music but on novels, critical theory and interviews as well as her own experience,” according to the Telegraph’s Bernadette McNulty. “Her main objective is to demystify the reverence that has become attached to singing – and she is honest about her own difficulties with performing in front of an audience.” McNulty describes it as an “artful study from a reluctant pop star about what it means to sing.”
Hunger Makes Me A Modern Girl – Carrie Brownstein (Virago)
You may know Carrie Brownstein from Sleater-Kinney, or you may know her from the comedy TV series Portlandia, or you may know her from her scribblings here. John Williams, writing for the New York Times, says: “Ms. Brownstein is self-mythologising, but in a way that’s the opposite of most rock stars. In these pages, she is a skittish striver, more neurotic bundle than conquering guitar god.”
I Always Kept A Unicorn: A Biography of Sandy Denny – Mick Houghton (Faber)
For the uninitiated, Sandy Denny was the singer in 70’s folk merchants Fairport Convention. “As tragi-heroines go,” writes Fiona Sturges in the Independent, “the singer of Fairport Convention was an unlikely contender”. The paper calls this biography of a singer who inspired the likes of Laura Marling, Cat Power, and Joanna Newsom as a “revealing portrait of a close-knit and mutually supportive scene in which musicians lived together”.
Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink – Elvis Costello (Viking)
The other Elvis has always been gifted with words, so it makes sense his autobiography would be more than worth a read. There’s a lightness of touch, and a warm sardonic wit throughout reminiscent of Clive James in its best moments, although the deconstruction of songs can occasionally get wearing. He talks touchingly about growing up as a Beatles nut living in London and Liverpool as a child, and the huge influence his musician father had on him. There are also great stories about growing up a catholic, and a repudiation of charges of misogyny, but there’s a lack of the acerbity that so characterised his early career. Like all the best books, Costello throws an arm around you and takes you on a journey.
Electric Shock: From the Gramophone to the iPhone – 125 years of Pop Music – Peter Doggett (Bodley Head)
“It’s a brave writer who steps back to offer a wider narrative, let alone one that covers 125 years ‘from gramophone to iPhone’, as the subtitle of Electric Shock has it,” writes Neil Spencer in the Guardian, “but Peter Doggett is foolhardy enough for the task and carries it off with elan.”
Detroit 67: The Year That Changed Soul – Stuart Cosgrove (Stuart Cosgrove)
The final book is self-published, but that makes it no less a page turner. Stuart Cosgrove is a football commentator and has written one book on the subject, but he’s also a Northern Soul obsessive and ex-NME journalist with an exhaustive knowledge of the Motor city back in the tumultuous 1960’s. Writing in the Independent, David Pollock says of Detroit 67, “It is to be consumed rather than to be dipped into, a whole-hearted evocation of people and places filled with the confidence that it is telling a tale set at a fulcrum of American social and cultural history.”