Collage Best BooksIt’s that time of the year for best-of, end-of-year lists. This is the first books list for Louder Than War, and we’ve got our favourite 21 books from 2021. White Rabbit and Faber steal the show, but some great smaller presses are also represented here. If you haven’t yet read our favourites, now’s the time to check them out. And if you’re looking for xmas gifts, our list has everything you need!

David Bailey21. David Bailey — Look Again (Pan Macmillan)

The legendary photographer David Bailey’s autobiography, published in paperback in 2021. Our LTW books review editor Melanie Smith says: This was very interesting not only from the angle of a photographer, but to be able to visualise just how different the world was back when he was king of photographers. David Bailey has lived a life many would envy, he shot everyone who was anyone. He tells it warts and all, has no filter, comes across as selfish and sexist. He battled with his demons and was a raging lothario. Very sad to hear that he is suffering from vascular dementia. In an interview with Esquire, Bailey said, “….photography. It’s finished. There won’t be another David Bailey. But everyone’s a photographer now. It’s like folk art. Fantastic!”


Mark Lanegan20. Mark Lanegan — Leaving California (Heartworm Press)

Poems of mischievous heartache, songs of sorrow. In Leaving California, Mark Lanegan summons ghosts of his past and exorcises spectres of the present in a world gone mad . . . . If you’ve listened to any of Lanegan’s recent albums, you might know how his songs possess the listener with words sung by a haunted mind. Ghosts emerge, too, in varying designs across Leaving California . . . . With Leaving California, Lanegan tethers himself to musician poets long gone (you know, Lou Reed, Leonard Cohen) while forging a new printed path for poem and song.


Lenny Kaye19. Lenny Kaye — Lightning Striking: Ten Transformative Moments in Rock & Roll (White Rabbit)

Lenny Kaye takes readers into music histories that are at once global and personal. He reminds us that we can experience the transformative power of sonic moments even if we weren’t always there in person since we have books like this one to feast on. Like Kaye says at the start of the text, “[t]he odds of being struck by lightning are 300,000 to 1. I think that’s an underestimate. I’ve been struck by lightning many a time, many a place.”


Rob Young18. Rob Young — The Magic Box: Viewing Britain Through the Rectangular Window (Faber)

The Magic Box is intrinsically linked to and thus cannot be seen outside the context of Electric Eden. Both books tackle the subject of national identity from two different perspectives, that is folk and TV. While Electric Eden emphasises the origins and echoes of British traditional music in the collective mindset, The Magic Box reveals the ghosts of the past in the postwar newsreels and films . . . . Upon finishing Electric Eden, as Young says, it was clear that the book ends with a metaphorical ellipsis suggesting another volume. “It would definitely grow out of the Electric Eden book. It felt natural in that book talking more generally about the idea of folk and folklore to the perennial things like The Wickerman, you know, these things that seem to be dealing with an idea of British/English identity, with a kind of an eerie folkloric bunch of imagery”.


Bobby Gillespie17. Bobby Gillespie — Tenement Kid (White Rabbit)

It’s amazing to think it’s now thirty years since the release of Primal Scream’s landmark Screamadelica album in 1991. A similar time shift from that date would have taken you back to the black and white days of Bobby Rydell, Adam Faith, and ‘Crackerjack’. . . . It’s his detailed account of his pre Scream musical activity that makes for some of the best reading in the book. There are some great anecdotes and insights from his experiences with the nascent Jesus and Mary Chain, including a mind-scrambling mushroom trip in a derelict factory, where he discovers the essence of sound, the universal pulse beat, pounding the walls with a stick. The accounts of the early JAMC riot strewn, alcohol crazed gigs are great at capturing the impact the group had in giving the UK indie scene a much-needed kick up the backside, mixing punk attitude, full-on psychedelia and sheer anarchic noise. Bobby Gillespie’s minimal drums and Douglas Hart’s bass provided the bedrock for the Reid bros’ to do their crazy thing.


Tony Davidson16. Tony Davidson – How to Make it in the Music Business (Self-published)

It’s a story that has needed to be told. Tony Davidson is the link between those first Pistols gigs and what came later with Factory etc. As well as being autobiographical, the book is full of exclusive interviews with Manchester legends who rehearsed at TJ Davidsons, many of whom were making their first steps in the music world when encountering each other in the late ’70s . . . . It’s visually stunning too, with rare photo’s, scans of posters and ticket stubs, and features several illustrations from the renowned local playwright, actor and artist Brian Gorman. This book covers many bases and once you pick it up, will find it difficult to put it down.


Barry Adamnson15. Barry Adamson — Up Above the City, Down Beneath the Stars (Omnibus)

Up Above The City, Down Beneath The Stars seeks to hide nothing. It is a work of sheer transparency, oozing honesty throughout. Occasionally, brutally so. Here, Adamson has effectively discarded all of his apparatuses of disguise to reveal himself to us completely. However, he is incredibly subtle in doing so . . . . He tells this story in such a matter-of-fact, almost laconic, way that it feels much more like it’s being told by an observer rather than the subject himself; more biography than autobiography. Perhaps the title gives us a clue to that degree of detachment; as Adamson glides, far above the city (down beneath the stars), to report back from the front line. That might imply a lack of warmth or a degree of aloofness, yet this is an incredibly human story, one with love at its heart. Somehow, Adamson has managed to write as though he is unfastened from the story, whilst still delivering it in the most personal and touching way.


Will Sergeant14. Will Sergeant — Bunnyman: A Memoir (little brown)

One of the key lines in Will Sergeant’s memoir Bunnyman is the last one, where the seminal guitarist notes that his band’s remarkably effortless rise from arty, provincial post-punks with a malfunctioning drum machine to a major label band in less than a year could lead him, Les Pattinson, Ian McCulloch and the about-to-join drummer, Peter de Freitas to “turn into a gang of arrogant pricks” . . . . Through all of these passages the reader recognises that Sergeant, an unobtrusive character on the whole, is determined in setting the record straight, good and proper. It feels as if his memories have been checked and counterchecked, to ensure that his take on much talked-about incidents, such as him getting together with Ian McCulloch, are set out in as ego-free a manner as possible given the demands of time and memory.

LTW books review editor Melanie says: Another book I couldn’t put down. I really relate to his childhood, being similar in age and location. Eric’s club I knew well and the many characters he spoke about. Also I found a coincidence, that his dad was in the same army regiment as my dad during World War II.


Louder Than War’s 21 Best Music Books of 202113. Ged Duffy – Factory Fairy Tales (Empire Publications)

Ged Duffy might be considered to be the unluckiest man in Manchester music. He could have managed New Order. He could have been the bass player in The Cult. He could have seen his band, Stockholm Monsters, take the mantle of the Happy Mondays and become the breakout scally-band on the coolest record label in the world, but of course, none of this happened . . . . You may not have heard of Ged Duffy, but when the book opens with a series of quotes from Tony Wilson, Noel Gallagher and Tim Burgess followed by a foreword from Peter Hook and an introduction from Mani you’re left in no doubt that this is a story that deserves your attention. I’d go as far as saying if it wasn’t for Ged and his mates taking Mani and his crew under their wing some of the sounds from the later Madchester scene may have been very different. It’s not music but football that dominates the start of the story.


Louder Than War’s 21 Best Music Books of 202112. Jeremy Allen — Relax Baby Be Cool (Jawbone) Serge Gainsbourg

Jeremy Allen has written the most comprehensive narrative of Serge Gainsbourg imaginable. As engaging as it is detailed, it provides a fascinating insight into the life of this cultural icon . . . . March 1991. At home, on the Left Bank in Paris, a colossus of French culture suffered a fatal heart attack, sending an entire nation into mourning. Coincidentally, Louder Than War chief, John Robb, arrived in Paris on the day Serge Gainsbourg died. He soon discovered that Europe’s great city of light was enfolded by a shroud of sorrow. There were crowds gathered outside the singer’s apartment at Rue de Verneuil who would spontaneously burst into a mass acapella version of one of his greatest hits, La Javanaise. President Francois Mitterand marked the moment by stating “he was our Baudelaire, our Apollinaire”. The day Serge Gainsbourg died, France lost an icon. Here, in the UK, we shrugged our shoulders.


Louder Than War’s 21 Best Music Books of 202111. Steve Davis and Kavus Torabi — Medical Grade Music (White Rabbit)

The story of one of alternative music’s oddest of couples is chronicled in this wonderful double autobiography. It’s also a great primer on music that falls outside of the Great Punk Rock War narrative and reveals a golden musical seam among the greatcoats, gloom and grease of the early 1970s . . . . Theirs is one of the great unlikely bromances, and their enthusiasm for the music that they champion, as fans, curators and creators fizz off the page with the kind of dilated, white knuckle spirit of adventure that created it in the first place. This is a trip into a parallel musical universe and a great primer in the kind of ambitious music that the more conservative punk/pop/rock narratives tend to dismiss. More than this though, it’s a roadmap on how to follow your dreams (and trips) to their illogical conclusions and a paean to friendship, and a rollicking read.


Louder Than War’s 21 Best Music Books of 202110. Pete Shelley and Louie Shelley — Ever Fallen in Love: The Lost Buzzcocks Tapes (Octopus Books)

With Ever Fallen in Love, Louie Shelley crafts a lasting tribute to Pete Shelley and to the analogue materials that gave rise to the sounds of Buzzcocks and to music interviews taped across the miles . . . . For all intents and purposes, this book is the memoir that Pete Shelley never had a chance to write. When Louie and Pete began recording the interviews that make up the bulk of Ever Fallen in Love, nobody knew his life would come to such an unexpected and untimely end. Yet in these interviews — developed through Louie’s astute and thoughtful questions — Pete does get the chance to tell his story, from his early years of listening to the Beatles through Buzzcocks singles and albums to twenty-first century gigs. “We’ve had our ups and downs,” Pete tells Louie at the end, but “people still seem to like us, and that’s what matters at the end of the day.”


Louder Than War’s 21 Best Music Books of 20219. Mark Mordue — Boy On Fire: The Young Nick Cave (allen & unwin)

Rising to the top of the best-seller charts is this beautifully written biographical book by Mark Mordue, a portrait of the artist as a young man ‘the Dark Lord’ (as one of his friends dubbed him) and based around his time growing up in Wangaratta, through to the music scene in Melbourne, Australia. Mordue explores Cave’s friendships, lovers, poetry, music, books and films which inspired him to be the person he is today. Our book review editor Melanie Smith, who reviewed this book for the site originally, adds: I don’t review many books, just the ones I know I will find something worth writing about, and this was one of them. It was an intriguing look at the young Nick Cave through the eyes of his friends and family. Fully authorised by Nick Cave, which can only mean he trusted Mark to find the real Nick behind those haunting lyrics.


Louder Than War’s 21 Best Music Books of 20218. Baxter Dury — Chaise Longue (little brown)

The story is set against a mostly West London background of Hammersmith, Notting Hill, Richmond Park and Chiswick, and evoking an atmosphere of long-established Bohemian/outsider art/politics on both sides of the family. In many ways, the key to the narrative lies in Ian Dury’s nightmare upbringing in the days of “spastic” put downs, with disability seen as something to be hidden away. Not too surprisingly this led to a seething undercurrent of loathing for representatives of the society that rejected him and also provided zero insight into how to be a parent himself . . . . As he says at the beginning, Baxter Dury had no interest in just writing a book about his adventures with his famous dad, and in exploring his life and changing perceptions as he grows up there’s a recognition of things like love and loyalty that anyone can respond to.


Louder Than War’s 21 Best Music Books of 20217. Jennifer Otter Bickerdike — You Are Beautiful and You Are Alone: The Biography of Nico (Faber)

You Are Beautiful You Are Alone tells us the full in-depth story of how Christa Päffgen became Nico. We go back to her childhood in Nazi-ruled Germany where we find out how as a child Nico was able to see the trains rolling past taking Jews to the death camps, how her father was murdered in the war, how her families wealth could not protect them from the devastation of World War II. We find out that Nico was raped by an American GI and that her mum suffered from mental illness. The way Bickerdike writes about these formative years is perfect. Bickerdike never shies away from the details which force us as readers to start to understand how Nico ended up living the life she did. Nico learned early on how to use her beauty to move on with her life leading to her modelling, acting, and eventually coming into the orbit of Andy Warhol’s Factory crowd.


Louder Than War’s 21 Best Music Books of 20216. Don Letts and Mal Peachy — There and Black Again (Omnibus)

Cinematically told, cultural icon Don Letts gives a charismatic, honest and gripping account of his personal and professional journey in fashion, music and film . . . . Don Letts’ work as a music videographer and film maker is the prevailing expression of his creativity and methodology. Not only has he clocked up over 300 music videos internationally but also made many films. Titles include Dancehall Queen and Grammy-winning The Clash: Westway To The World. An early account in the narrative of introducing Bob Marley and entourage to Polaroids, is perhaps a hint of what’s ahead. There are references throughout to the punk DIY ethic; this is central to his experimental Super 8 documentation at the Roxy which became The Punk Rock Movie. Moreover, from the outset he proves to have a personal magnetism, doubtless integral to his success. Many significant players on the scene happily feel the gaze of his camera.


Louder Than War’s 21 Best Music Books of 20215. Tracey Thorn — My Rock ‘n’ Roll Friend (Canongate Books Ltd)

“The book has to appeal to more than just the three German student fans The Go-Betweens have,” says ex-Go Betweensdrummer, Lindy Morrison, to close friend and confidante, Tracey Thorn. My Rock’n’Roll Friend, Thorn’s biography/memoir of 69-year-old Lindy Morrison redefines the term ‘niche audience’. Thorn’s previous best-selling memoirs, including the excellent Bedsit Disco Queen, had the hook of her up-down-up success with Everything But The Girl, the band she co-fronted with her partner, Ben Watt . . . . At front and centre, though, Thorn’s book is about the intricacies, and the limitations, of female friendship.


Louder Than War’s 21 Best Music Books of 20214. Kevin Cummins — Joy Division: Juvenes (Cassell)

Lovers of Joy Division, revel in Juvenes! In this dazzling new edition of the book, Kevin Cummins brings his glorious photographs of the band to all the fans who missed out on the first edition back in 2007 . . . . Through Kevin’s photographs in Juvenes, Joy Division is both past and ever-present — timeless, truly. The pictures depict a bygone Manchester in which Ian Curtis is alive and Joy Division will play live still, yet the images also place the band presently in our hands . . . . Although we may not even realise it, Kevin’s photographs have everlastingly shaped our knowledge of the band. These black-and-white pictures are the images through which we each remember Joy Division, even if we have no experiential recollection ourselves.


Louder Than War’s 21 Best Music Books of 20213. John Cooper Clarke — I Wanna Be Yours (Picador, pb)

Nicky Crewe jumped at the chance to review this book, not least because she and John Cooper Clarke are contemporaries, brought up in Salford at a similar time. Here’s what she has to say: “Trickster, comedian, poet, singer, he’s the local hero, the Bard of Salford, who gave that city a new image and a very distinctive voice. From punk poet to TV quiz show pundit, from National Curriculum to national treasure, from Embassy Club to the London Palladium, his story proves truth is stranger than fiction, not least because of the role Sugar Puffs play in his eventual success. The recognition of a cast of characters that include my former house mates, colleagues and neighbours added to my enjoyment. Danger, drama and drugs are part of his story too. There was a time, pre-internet days, when I wasn’t sure he had made it. This is a great read from someone who has always had a way with words and has a fantastic tale to tell.”


Louder Than War’s 21 Best Music Books of 20212. Paul Morley — From Manchester with Love: The Life and Opinions of Tony Wilson (Faber)

In case it wasn’t yet clear to you, reader, this is no ordinary biography. If you’re anticipating a straightforward telling of Tony Wilson’s life, you’ll need to wait for another book. Coming in at almost 600 pages, it does report on some of the nodal points you might expect: his years at Cambridge, that much-mythologised Sex Pistols gig at the Lesser Free Trade Hall, the founding of Factory Records, and the opening and closing of the Haçienda. Yet those events are just a small part of a narrative in which Paul Morley champions Tony Wilson as a protagonist at the center of a distinctly modern fiction . . . . The metafictional qualities of Wilson’s life become the center of From Manchester with Love as Morley explains, “Tony Wilson would say, wearing the mask of Laurence Sterne, ‘What a large volume of adventures may be grasped within this little span of life by him who interests himself in everything.’” For after all, “Tony Wilson, who could never be separated from his work, was always playing himself.” The myth, the legend, the real-life cock and bull story.


Louder Than War’s 21 Best Music Books of 20211. Bob Stanley and Tessa Norton — Excavate! The Wonderful and Frightening World of The Fall (Faber)

When Norton and Stanley say this book is not a biography, they mean it! And that’s just the beginning. The contents of Excavate! are broad and varied, with a wealth of essays by writers in seemingly disparate yet deeply intertwined fields. It also contains an abundance of images, including reproduced ephemera like handbills and correspondence, fanzines, tickets and playbills, handwritten lyrics, and, of course, album graphics. It’s deeply philosophical, and as a whole the book sublimely raises more questions than it answers . . . . At its heart, the book suggests that no definition of The Fall will ever be fully complete regardless of the amount of excavation that occurs. It’s a book that requires a constant return—coming back to its fragments over and over again in acts of readerly repetition—to gain new knowledge with each bit-by-bit encounter. Excavate! feels like a Mark E. Smith version of the Arcades Project—never finished, and always producing new meaning.


Compiled by Audrey Golden from nominations by Melanie Smith, John Robb, Nicky Crewe, Iain Key, Bryony Hegarty, Gordon Rutherford, Wayne Carey, Paul Stevens, Irina Shtreis, Svenja Block, Tim Cooper, and Audrey Golden

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