I live in a library. There are bookshelves in our front room, dining room, my wife’s study, my daughter’s old bedroom that is now my study and, most notably, the spare bedroom currently occupied by a lodger. Some of these bookshelves are overflowing, with books piled high on top of other books. I have no idea how many books there are in our house in total and, in any case, the number increases on a weekly basis. The last time I counted I had 65 books on The Who alone, and over 50 on The Beatles, but we have lots of art books and fiction too, everything from the Brontës, inherited from my mum, to F. Scott Fitzgerald and Graham Greene, to Ian McEwan and contemporaries; there’s also a shelf full of Sherlock Holmes, another of humour and another of cricket books, among them Beyond A Boundary by CLR James, a 1966 edition that belonged to my dad. 

It will come as no surprise, however, that well over half the books on my shelves deal with the subject of rock music, be they biographies, reference books, encyclopaedias, genre books or picture books. The reason for this, of course, is that for 33 years I was the managing editor of Omnibus Press, a publishing company that specialised in music books, so I didn’t have to buy them and, as was the way in this trade, music books published elsewhere came my way for free too. About 25 years ago, when a cull was necessitated by a house move, I sold about 500 music books through Helter Skelter, the shop on Denmark Street that specialised in rock books whose proprietor was a pal of mine. To some degree I regret this now, or at least regret letting go of some amongst that 500 that I miss and would like to re-read.

        Which brings me to one reason for this post – re-reading. This week I’m re-reading The Restless Generation, Pete’s Frame masterful account of what happened when rock’n’roll first reached the UK in the 1950s. This came about through a conversation I was having with Val Wilmer, the jazz writer and photographer, who to mark her appearance on Desert Island Discs was the guest of honour at last week’s Melody Maker luncheon for old staff members that I and four of my former colleagues organise about twice a year. Val was a regular freelancer on MM. Somehow or other The Restless Generation was mentioned during a conversation I was having with her and this prompted me to get it down off the shelf and give it a second, or maybe a third, read. It’s still as good as it was when I read it for the first time when it was published in 2007. 


        The desire to re-read a book is surely the best possible commendation. I’ve read No Surrender, Johnny Rogan’s biog of Van Morrison, at least twice, ditto Ian MacDonald’s Revolution In The Head, his outstanding analysis of The Beatles’ music, and from time to time I still pick it up to check on what he says about this or that Beatles song. Another book of which I never tire is The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll which contains essays on all the genre’s principal performers (up to around 1975) by America’s best music writers. A very big book (37x27cm, 382 pages) with superb pictures, someone at RS sent me a copy in early 1976, when it was first published, and I’ve held on to it ever since. 

        The first rock biog I ever read, in 1969, was Hunter Davies’ authorised biography of The Beatles but this was supplanted in 1981 by Philip Norman’s Shout!: The True Story Of The Beatles which I’ve also read more than once. This, in turn, has been supplanted to an extent by Mark Lewisohn’s Tune In, the first in his anticipated trilogy of definitive Beatles biographies. I say ‘to an ‘extent’ because the first of Marks books ends as 1962 becomes 1963, and I’ve read the extended two-volume edition of this a couple of times too, all 1,700 pages, a bit of a challenge but worth the effort. 

Amongst the earliest and most read books on my shelves are Nik Cohn’s confrontational Rock From The Beginning, Elvis by Jerry Hopkins, the first serious Presley biog, and Hellfire: The Jerry Lee Lewis Story by Nick Tosches, widely acclaimed as among the finest ever written about a rock’n’roller. Talking of Elvis, I’ve also read Peter Guralnick’s Last Train To Memphis and Careless Love, his two-volume thesis on the life of Elvis, a couple of times too. 

Of all those Who books, the one I consult the most is Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere: The Complete Chronicle of The Who 1958-1978 by Andy Neill & Matt Kent, 300 LP-sized pages of 100% accurate information, and when it comes to The Beatles you can’t beat Mark Lewisohn’s Complete Beatles Chronicle which is equally comprehensive and precise. I use both these books for reference whenever I post about the acts they cover, as I do with Dave Lewis and Mike Tremaglio’s Evenings With Led Zeppelin: The Complete Concert Chronicle (2021 edition) when I need to ensure my Zep facts are correct. For charts I consult the third edition of The Complete Book of the British Charts by Neil Warwick, Jon Kutner and Tony Brown, and for everything else I’m lucky to have copped the 10-volume Encyclopedia of Popular Music (4th Edition), which editor Colin Larkin kindly delivered to me at Omnibus and which I bundled into the boot of my car when I retired. 

        Talking of which, apart from the chart book, I’ve deliberately left out any of those Omnibus books of which I’m particularly proud, but back in 2016 I made up a list of 25 that can be found here: https://justbackdated.blogspot.com/2016/01/omnibus-press-personal-choice.html

And, of course, the books I mention here barely scratch the surface of the true extent of our library, rock or otherwise. I dont often visit houses where there are next to no books on shelves, aside from, maybe, a cookery book or two, but whenever I do I feel desperately sorry for the occupants, and even more so for their children. 


Colin Harper said...

We all need a shelf full of Sherlock Holmes! I probably have two, plus several more shelves of 'golden age' British crime fiction, several shelves of Tolkien-related books and, as you'd expect, lots of music books. Though I seem to have hit a bit of a tipping point with the latter: any time I've thought 'That looks interesting' of a music book (new or second-hand) in the past couple of years, I've thought 'No, I've no more room' - in my head or in my house. I'll make an exception for Mark Lewisohn's next one, of course, should it ever appear.

Chris Charlesworth said...

Thanks Colin. Believe it or not my MM colleague Michael Watts and I joined the London Sherlock Holmes Society during our early days on the paper and attended meetings in a government building on a street off Whitehall, close to the SH pub. We looked a bit different from all the other members who looked like lawyers, accountants or Home Office mandarins.