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Recommended Reading for Festival Season

Posted on 31st May 2019 by Mark Skinner
Isle of Wight, Download, Glastonbury, Latitude...The big beasts of the festival season are almost upon us and, whether you plan to head-bang in the moshpit or nod sagely along in the acoustic tent, why not get into the groove with our hit parade of essential music writing?

Dust off that old tour t-shirt and get the pop-up tent out of the loft, for festival season is fast approaching. 

The British countryside has already played host to some boutique curios so far this year, but 13 June sees things get serious as revellers descend upon both the Isle of Wight and Download Festivals. A fortnight later the Vale of Avalon swaps runes for tunes as Glastonbury kicks off, with headliners The Killers and festival favourites The Cure uniting the faithful in a haze of sing-along anthems and flashing camera phones. Other great leviathans of the festival scene, such as lit-leaning Latitude and the angst-ridden thrash of Reading and Leeds, mosh into view as the summer draws on.

With the venerable Glasto celebrating a half century of mud-soaked musical mayhem next year, Michael and Emily Eavis, the iconic father and daughter team behind the festival, have produced a sumptuous visual history encompassing recollections from legendary artists, and seminal images from rock’s greatest photographers. Published in October and available to pre-order now, this promises to be the definitive companion to a British summertime institution. 

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Personally compiled by Glastonbury Festival's own creators - Michael and Emily Eavis - Glastonbury 50 celebrates five momentous decades in the life of the world's most famous outdoor music and arts festival.
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To help you lose yourself in the music we have compiled a Top 20 of great rock and pop writing to educate, entertain and, occasionally, horrify. From the frontline of classic rock reportage to seminal memoirs from our most articulate artists, and from lofty cultural theory to a litany of the things Led Zeppelin got up to in American hotel rooms, why not turn on, tune in and read a chapter or two from this literary hit parade?      


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In some quarters this is regarded as the greatest book about popular music ever written. Mystery Train is Marcus at his most audacious; holding up the music of Elvis, Sly Stone, Randy Newman and The Band as a mirror to the American dream and frontier culture.
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The enfant terrible of 1970s rock journalism, NME journo Nick Kent lived a life as dissolute as most of the rock stars he wrote about. These scorching pieces capture a mythologised hedonistic milieu to a tee.
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A stunningly evocative love letter both to the hip clientele of late 60s New York and to Smith’s lifelong friend, the controversial artist Robert Mapplethorpe. Beautifully written, tender and atmospheric, Just Kids has become something of a modern classic.
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The late, great Ian MacDonald was one of the most erudite music writers this country has ever produced and Revolution in the Head is his magnum opus. Every Beatles song ever recorded is analysed in minute yet enthralling detail.
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So exhaustively researched and vividly written that you can practically taste the glue and spittle, Savage’s account of the rise and fall of the Sex Pistols doubles as the definitive history of UK Punk.
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A panoramic survey of the music scene of 1978-84 and featuring just about any artist that could possibly be termed post-punk, Reynolds’ classic text is the last word on angular guitar rock, futuristic synthpop and proto-indie.
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From Billie Holiday to Steve Earle, the history of the protest song is a singularly gripping one, bound up with social change and political insurgency. Lynskey’s examination deftly highlights different causes and the artists’ complex relationship with them, revealing as much naked opportunism as genuine outrage.
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Even if you remain impervious to the charms of gobby Mancunians in parkas and art school students with strained mockney accents, Harris’ accomplished interweaving of the careers of Britpop’s totemic figures is compelling pop star soap opera of the highest order.
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Cosgrove’s day job may be sports journalism but he is also a Soul music obsessive, and this meticulously researched account of a pivotal year for the Motor City combines expert music commentary on Berry Gordy’s Motown and the agit-rock of the MC5, with visceral social history of a city permanently on the edge of insurrection.
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Dylan’s first volume of memoirs does not disappoint the expectant millions. Recounting his early years as an emerging talent in New York, his creative process and his unique view of the popular culture of the time, Chronicles is written with a songwriter’s sense of rhythm and a poet’s eye for language.
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Even more gonzo, trippy and stylistically demented than you can imagine, the legendary Lester Bangs was the countercultural rock scribe that all the coolest bands wanted to impress. This selection of his incendiary writings drips with bastardised Beat poetry and scabrous denunciations of the fake and manufactured.
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Clothes, Music, Boys is that rare thing; a memoir packed with incident and anecdote that is also supremely well written. Tracing Albertine’s life from a North London childhood, through her gloriously iconoclastic career as punk rock goddess with The Slits, to her successful yet troubled post-music life, this is rock autobiography as it should be written.
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Always one of the more cerebral of rock stars, David Byrne has spent a professional lifetime analysing and interrogating the building blocks of musical form. How Music Works is an audacious and exhilarating dissection of how culture, context and technology combine to create aural splendour.
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The granddaddy of rock criticism, Nik Cohn penned this frenetic, freewheeling history of rock n roll in the late 1960s. It is fascinating to get such an informed and eloquent assessment of the burgeoning art form and its cultural impact from amidst the white heat of the countercultural moment.
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The debauched heavy rock biography to beat them all, Hammer of the Gods has become almost as legendary as the antics of Led Zeppelin themselves. No detail is too unsavoury, no anecdote too ludicrous; this is sex, drugs and rock and roll – and then some.
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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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When Rolling Stone staffer Sheffield’s wife Renee died suddenly, he trawled back through the mix tapes they used to make each other throughout the course of their tragically short relationship. At times almost unbearably poignant, Sheffield’s music memoir is, ultimately, an uplifting hymn to the redemptive power of song and the connections that music makes throughout life.
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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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A turbo-charged, expletive filled blast through the heyday of US punk rock, Please Kill Me is populated by icons of the scene and assorted hedonistic hangers-on. This is oral history as electrifying as a fuzz-toned guitar riff.
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Given hip hop’s musical dominance and cultural influence, it can be difficult to remember where this dynamic, revolutionary genre emerged from. Jeff Chang does a brilliantly thorough and entertaining job of documenting hip hop’s origins, pioneers and values in this definitive book on the subject.
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