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Black Sabbath FAQBlack Sabbath FAQ
Martin Popoff
(Backbeat)

Not the only Black Sabbath book to be found on the shelves (or Amazon pages), indeed it’s not even the only Black Sabbath book by Martin Popoff (see also Doom Let Loose: an Illustrated History), this is more of a mopping up operation as the subtitle ‘All That's Left to Know on the First Name in Heavy Metal’ indicates. Part of Backbeat’s FAQ series which attempt to shed a little more light on the minutiae of the band in questions career, Popoff has clearly done his research here and there are numerous little nuggets to be unearthed by the long term Sabbath freak (although they may well take issue with some of his album ratings, is Sabotage really a better album than Paranoid?) alongside plenty of sales figures, chart positions, support acts etc. If there is a complaint it is that the book could have done with a good editor as interviews are presented complete with repetitions, trailed off thoughts and contradictions, which is just tiresome. So if you are after a definitive history then this isn’t the book for you, if however you think you already know pretty much everything there is to know about the Sab’s then check this out and find out if you’re right or not.
The Oracle

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A Very Irregular Head Syd Barrett: A Very Irregular Head
Rob Chapman (Faber & Faber)

TM’s creaking bookshelf of Pink Floyd and Syd Barrett-related literature attests to the exhaustive (and sometimes exhausting) attention applied to this rich strand of British rock history. Nicholas Schaffner’s Saucerful of Secrets remains the best overview of the entire Floyd story, but individual biographies of Barrett – the band’s original leader and creative force – have often felt under-powered and prone to conjecture. Right from the start, it is clear that Rob Chapman’s book is in another league altogether: determined to peel away the myth and focus on the creative life, Chapman contextualises Barrett in a thrillingly evocative portrait of late ‘60s psychedelic London. Of course, the familiar elements of the story – a dazzling period of creative brilliance followed by drug-aided fracture and 30-plus years of silence until Barrett’s death in 2006 – are present and correct, but Chapman excels in his ability to draw parallels, be it via typically astute quotations from Susan Sontag or comparing Barrett’s 1982 on-foot flight from London to his native Cambridge to the poet John Clare’s ‘journey out of Essex’ to Northamptonshire (a journey recently recreated by Iain Sinclair in the brilliant Edge of the Orison). Utterly compelling, A Very Irregular Head deserves to be the final word on the Barrett story.
David Davies

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Jack Bruce Composing HimselfJack Bruce Composing Himself: The Authorised Biography
Harry Shapiro (Jawbone)

It’s a cliché to say that bands today don’t know the meaning of the term ‘hard work’ in comparison to the hardened road warriors of yesteryear, but like most clichés it almost certainly contains a grain of truth. Jack Bruce, for one, barely seemed to pause for breath from his first paying musician’s job in the late 1950s big band scene of his native Glasgow until the close of the ‘70s on the evidence of this scrupulously-researched authorised biography. A gifted vocalist and multi-instrumentalist equally adept at bass, cello and keyboards, Bruce brought supercharged blues-rock to the world as one third and primary co-songwriter of Cream, before going on to record a series of exquisite solo albums, beginning with 1969’s still-astonishing Songs For A Tailor. Alas, this remarkably creative period is gradually undermined from 1972 onwards by a 15-year addiction to heroin, the corrosive effects of which are discussed with admirable frankness. Long cleaned-up and still very much active despite undergoing a liver transplant in 2005, Bruce retains a working player’s ethos and does not for one second dip into self-pity or pretention as he reflects on health problems, career high points and setbacks, and his legendarily fiery partnership with one Mr. G. Baker.
David Davies

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Trout Mask ReplicaTrout Mask Replica
Kevin Courier
(continuum)

Number 44 in the excellent 33 1/3 series of books by continuum, wherein writers wax lyrical about their favourite album, in this case the magnificently deranged Trout Mask Replica by Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band, truly one of the few albums one can say came from out of nowhere and, other than encouraging bug-eyed experi-mentalism in all manner of bands since, left little traceable mark on what followed. Courier expertly ties together all of the disparate threads that helped spawn this notoriously difficult album, from Howlin’ Wolf to Ornette Coleman via gospel, do-wop and some of the most demented lyrics ever committed to page (or not in some cases). It’s hard to imagine anyone but a Magic Band fan picking this up but even if you have yet to fathom the delights of Beefheart you will still find much to enjoy here, not least the discovery that the good Captian was in fact a despotic, less than benign dictator (and something of a musical dunce), who hi-jacked the Magic Band and bullied them into recreating his muse, and it’s testament to the band that they were in fact able to actually play this mad noise and to Courier for making sense of it all for us.
Ruby Palmer

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White BicyclesWhite Bicycles
Joe Boyd
(Serpent’s Tail)

From tour managing Muddy Waters and producing the nascent Pink Floyd in the 1960s, to championing folk and world music with his splendid Hannibal label in the ‘80s, Joe Boyd seems to have lived pretty much every part of the musical life possible without actually playing an instrument. At the root of his continued success is a genuine love for roots music fermented in youth, but as this wise if brief memoir makes clear, he’s also always been sufficiently savvy to avoid becoming locked into any one scene. Early experiences on the road are described evocatively, but the book comes in its own when Boyd recalls the late ‘60s creation of his own Witchseason stable of folk-rock artists. Working with the likes of Fairport Convention, the Incredible String Band and Nick Drake (recalled here with obvious affection) during this period did much to shape his ideal of music as a living, breathing, organic thing, and he’s highly astute on the record industry’s subsequent abandonment of analogue warmth in favour of digital multitracking’s supposed perfection. The closing section on the betrayal of ‘60s idealism by corporatisation is also highly impressive, and might be a good starting point for a separate book.
David Davies

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Billy Bragg Billy Bragg
The Progressive Patriot
(Bantam Press)

What does it mean to be English? What does it mean to be British? Is the cross of St. George a proud symbol of a great tradition, or the badge of a neo-Nazi? Massive questions one and all and not questions which can be easily essayed in just 300 odd pages, especially when accompanied by huge great swathes of autobiographical material and a lengthy dip into music history. In essence this is two books (at least) uneasily jostling for position, the early Bragg years tracing a line from the young Barking boys discovery of folk and introduction to punk via Simon and Garfunkel will please fans but probably leave those seeking deep political insight cold and visa versa. Bragg has certainly penned some pithy, smart and rabble rousing lefty lyrics in his life, and will doubtless pen more, but clever couplets do not a sodding great book make. Ultimately what he attempts to do here fails, but as Jack Nicholson’s Murphy says in One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest after failing to lift a ludicrously heavy sink unit ‘at least I tried’, and try Bragg certainly has, creating a flawed but entertaining and thought provoking read as a result.
Ruby Palmer

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