Monday, February 2, 2015


Music Lit 101 Reading List

Thomas Edison intended the phonograph for political speeches and commerce, not frivolous music. Darryl McDaniels (of Run-DMC) adores lightweight chanteuse Sarah McLachlan. Experimental noise is influenced by pop music even if just to rebel against it.

Different styles of music have more in common than scale and notes. From drumming on hollow logs in the forest to headbanger guitar riffs in the concert hall, there are shared social, political and economic links. This becomes apparent the more one listens. And reads. Despite Frank Zappa’s contention that “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture” this incomplete list is a good start. 

Doo-dah! Stephen Foster and the Rise of American Popular Culture 
by Ken Emerson

American pop starts here. In the mid 1800s, music sales meant the sale of sheet music at the time when most performances were in the home around the family piano.  

Woody Guthrie, A Life 
by Joe Klein

This bio is ultimately about more than its subject. In his lifetime, Guthrie knew more folk songs than most any man alive. He trusted in a rural America (fast becoming an industrial nation) and its common people who yearned for the songs of their grandparents. He was the spark that eventually ignited the Folk revival of the late 1950s.

Jazz: A History of America’s Music 
by Geoffrey Ward and Ken Burns

This one’s kind of a cheater because its the companion volume to Burns’ epic PBS documentary but remains a good introduction to America’s first mass media popular music.

Always Magic In the Air: The Bomp and Brilliance of the Brill Building Era by Ken Emerson

The unlikely saga of how a dozen Jewish kids from Brooklyn penned hundreds of top forty hits and dethroned reigning Tin Pan Alley songwriters like Irving Berlin.

Soulsville USA: The Story of Stax Records 
by Rob Bowman

We’re still waiting for a volume that seriously chronicles the soul-pop of Motown Records and isn’t just an overblown press release for Berry Gordy. In the meantime,  this is the grittier “cornbread” side of rhythm and blues in dense detail.

Ready, Steady, Go! The Smashing Rise and Giddy Fall of Swinging London by Shawn Levy

There’s more than enough works covering The Beatles and The Stones. Here’s an account of young and hip photographers, fashion models and self-appointed trend setters who set the stage for The British Invasion that raised America out of the post-Kennedy doldrums. 

Bubblegum Music Is The Naked Truth: 
The Dark History of Prepubescent Pop From the Banana Splits To Britney Spears 
edited by Kim Cooper and David Smay

Lovingly spotlights the marketing forces that invade our airwaves with catchy but questionable songs you can’t escape.

The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe

Despite a bit of artistic license by participants who refute some of Wolfe’s more colorful retellings, this book --although it isn’t about music in the least -- will help one understand how and why psychedelic music got that way.

The Last Party: Studio 54, Disco and the Culture of the Night 
by Anthony Haden-Guest

If you think Disco was inconsequential or has nothing to do with Techno, you’re wrong. Love it or hate it, Disco was more than an embarrassing blip but the ancestor of Euro-American dance culture.

Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk 
by Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain

Depraved oral history of the early New York scene from the people who made it happen. This book set the standard for other but lesser punk histories such as We Got the Neutron Bomb and American Hardcore.

Yes Yes Y’all: The Oral History of Hip-Hop's First Decade 
edited by Jim Fricke and Charlie Ahearn

Hip-Hop was once about more (much more) than gold chain and ho’s. The Bronx, graffiti, break dancing and DJs Kool Herc and Afrika Bambaatta receive their due. 

and wrapping it all up:

How the Beatles Destroyed Rock 'n' Roll: 
An Alternative History of American Popular Music 
by Elijah Wald 

An insightful work that brings together every decade of popular music, related in more ways than you’ve ever imagined. And yes, as much as I adore them, the Beatles did snuff Rock n’ Roll. It's but a short step from the experiments of Revolver  to the travesties of Yes and Emerson, Lake & Palmer.

originally appeared in slightly different form  weekly alibi


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