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David Mitchell on Six Music Books That Inspired Utopia Avenue

Posted on 26th June 2020 by Mark Skinner

Steeped in the hedonism and idealism of the 1960s’ counterculture, Utopia Avenue documents the rise and fall of the eponymous psych rock band, from destiny in Soho to nemesis in Rome. Written with Mitchell’s trademark lyrical flair and eye for the extraordinary, Utopia Avenue adroitly captures a moment in time when the future seemed limitless and happiness was there for the taking. In this exclusive piece, David reveals the music books that gave him a window onto the Swinging London scene.    

Utopia Avenue is a novel about a band assembled in Soho at the start of 1967, the year of the Summer of Love and Sergeant Pepper. I’m not a musician, I’ve never been in a band, and I wasn’t born until 1969 – but a key part of the novelist’s job is to pretend plausibly to be who, what, where and when we are not. We go about this by research. This may be in the form of interviews or undertaking experiences similar to those we hope to recreate on the page; or via films and books. Luckily for me, the last decade has seen some excellent biographies, memoirs and books which I sifted for ideas for characters and scenes, and ‘iwaths’. (An iwath is a loose acronym of ‘I was there’: it denotes an experience, sensation or fact that only insiders know about. Three of them per scene should sharpen its sense of authenticity.) While even a mediocre memoir can yield iwaths, what follows are six of the best books about music and culture that fed into Utopia Avenue.

Electric Eden: Unearthing Britain’s Visionary Music by Rob Young

I’ll start with the broadest canvas first. This impressive book tracks the evolution of British folk music, beginning with the nineteenth century origins of the label; taking in early twentieth-century folksong collector Cecil Sharp; the role of music in trade unions and activism; the folk boom of the 1950s; and, most fully, the confluence of folk music and counter-culture in the late Sixties.  Chapters on electric folk ensembles Fairport Convention, Steeleye Span and Pentangle and the cultural milieu that enabled these inventive hybrids were especially helpful for my own nefarious purposes. Reading these chapters made me hungry to recreate the milieu in fiction. Young writes with the knowledge of a hardcore geek, the clarity of a journalist and the broad perspective of a cultural historian. The result is superb.

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Wide ranging and consistently unpredictable, Rob Young’s gazetteer of the places, movements and ideologies that go towards making an identifiably British popular music is nominally about folk rock. In reality, however, Electric Eden is as much about cultural identity and national myth as it is about Fairport Convention and Pentangle.
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First Time Ever by Peggy Seeger

Coming from American folk’s first family, and married to Ewan MaColl (British folk-singer, activist and writer of the evergreen The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face) Peggy Seeger’s memoir promises a singular panorama of the transatlantic folk scene and protest movements. Like Electric Eden, First Time Ever overdelivers on its considerable promise. Seeger writes with wit, a poet’s eye, wisdom and a striking absence of self-pity or recrimination. Her socialist husband’s notions of equality and division of labour did not extend to the domestic sphere, shall we say. Yet Seeger endured and often outwitted the dyed-in-the-wool sexism of her world. A trip behind the Iron Curtain is only one of several stand-out chapters. The author is illuminating on the nuts and bolts of her craft, from songwriting, through recording to performance. (Iwaths ahoy.) Also enjoyable are her American-eye view of the British foibles, hypocrisies and virtues.

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Intelligent, reflective and truly enlightening on a unique cultural moment, Peggy Seeger’s superb autobiography details the development of US folk music, a troubled marriage to a leading light of the British folk movement and the changing world of the radical 1960s. Eloquently written and disarmingly candid, First Time Ever is an outstanding music memoir.
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Life by Keith Richards

To my mind, this is the best sex, drugs and rock’n’roll memoir from a rock elder statesman. Its quality and pace never flag. It stays interesting even in the band’s post-imperial phase. The more salacious Stones myths are re-examined with a cool, factual, older head. Richards discusses grief and heroin addiction with candour and introspection. If his treatment of women in his younger years won’t win him any wokeness awards, at least the mature Richards doesn’t come over as piggish or self-exculpating. Mick Jagger is depicted warts’n’all – maybe more warts than all – and Charlie Watts is often the only grown-up in the room. Life contains the best, and the best-informed, portrait of Brian Jones I found anywhere. I wanted this elusive figure to flit in and out of Utopia Avenue, and it was Richard’s portrait (supplemented with clips on YouTube) from which I sketched my cameos.

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Perhaps the ultimate sex, drugs and rock n roll memoir, Life chronicles a fantastically dissolute existence as lynchpin of The Rolling Stones and sheds debauched light on the heyday of British rock. Recounted with wry humour and astonishing candour, Life is Keith Richards in glorious technicolor.
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I’ve Always Kept a Unicorn by Mick Houghton

The definitive biography of Sandy Denny. A singer-songwriter from the West London folk scene, Denny is key to Fairport Convention’s classic line-up, whose three albums – What We Did On Our Holidays, Autopsy and Liege and Lief – kickstart British folk-rock. Innate insecurity, poor business decisions and rampant misogyny helped to deny Denny commercial success, and contributed to her early death in 1978. Houghton eschews sentimentality and interviews many of his subject’s contemporaries. Both Utopia Avenue the band and Utopia Avenue the novel needed female energy and perspectives, and I’ve Always Kept a Unicorn was a rich source for keyboard player and singer Elf Holloway. Sorry if I sound like a vulture. Maybe I am. I tried to establish Elf’s autonomy by having Sandy Denny encourage her in the legendary Cousins Folk Club in Soho, and later in The Marquee, a couple of streets away.

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A flawlessly researched and penetrating account of the first lady of British folk, Houghton’s biography of Sandy Denny illuminates an enigmatic artist of astounding talent. Recounting Denny’s inner torments with clarity and insight, I’ve Always Kept a Unicorn is a reverent and assured work.
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David Bowie: A Life by Dylan Jones

There is no shortage of Bowie books but Jones’ is in a league of its own. It isn’t so much written by Jones as curated from hundreds of interviews he conducted with teachers, landladies, lovers, bandmates, journalists, musicians, rivals, friends, managers, wives – and a panoply of others. A Life is a kind of an art project in its own right: ultimate biography by aural collage. The book’s 600 pages trace the arc of Bowie’s life from birth to death, staying supremely readable and as multi-textured as its stream of contributors. Some reoccur at different points in time, like familiar characters in a novel. A Life is also a superb recreation of the same Swinging London scene that Utopia Avenue inhabit. Not only the glamorous locales we’ve seen in films, but also the grotty stairwells and damp anterooms of fame through which the not-yet-famous Bowie passed, somehow certain that it wasn’t all in vain.

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Standing head and shoulders above the slew of Bowie biographies that have been produced since his passing, Dylan Jones’s definitive account of pop’s great chameleon is a real labour of love. Curated from hundreds of interviews with the people who knew Bowie best, this is the closest mere mortals will ever get to understanding the Thin White Duke’s musical genius.
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White Bicycles by Joe Boyd

Utopia Avenue’s manager eluded me for a long time. Should I make him an exploitative snake who rips off the band? That way cliche lay, and it required a kind of complicit gullibility from my main characters. A more avuncular Brian Epstein model didn’t quite cut it by the late Sixties, either. Then I found White Bicycles. Young Bostonian Joe Boyd looked after Muddy Waters and other American acts on European tours in the early 60s. He was at the Newport Jazz Festival when Bob Dylan plugged in his electric guitar. He ran the UFO Club, the coolest hotspot in the Summer of Love. He oversaw the recording of See Emily Play, managed Fairport Convention, discovered (and funded) Nick Drake… I could go on, but I’ve busted my word-count already. This is a great memoir by a wry, myth-busting observer who loved the music and had to keep businesses afloat. Any writer or filmmaker who has designs on Sixties British popular culture should start here. If by chance you’re reading this, Mr Boyd, thank you very much.

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Zelig-like, Joe Boyd seems to have been there at almost every crucial juncture of the 1960s rock scene. From Pink Floyd to Nick Drake and from Muddy Waters to Coleman Hawkins, White Bicycles is authentic without being worthy, revealing without being gossipy and passionate without being hyperactive. A great rock memoir.
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