Black women in pop, British heavy metal, and the story behind Chirpy Chirpy, Cheep Cheep
Rock and pop music has been obsessed with its own past almost from the start: by 1959, a New York record store called Times Square was doing a roaring trade in what it called “oldies”, selling mid-50s doo-wop singles to teenagers already convinced the golden age of rock’n’roll was over. That said, a kind of industrialised nostalgia took root in the early 90s, the era of the heritage rock magazine and the lavish retrospective CD box set. Thirty years on, there’s a nagging sense that all the great stories about pop’s history might have already been explored – an idea to which Danyel Smith’s Shine Bright: A Very Personal History of Black Women in Pop (Random House) is a necessary corrective. A smart blend of memoir and penetrating analysis, it frequently deals in righting wrongs or highlighting oversights. These are usually born out of a lethal cocktail of racism and sexism, not least in the story of the Sweet Inspirations. Best known as Elvis Presley’s backing singers, they are recast by Smith as pivotal figures in the development of US pop, the thread that links Van Morrison to Whitney Houston and Paul Simon to Aretha Franklin.
Will Hodgkinson’s In Perfect Harmony: Singalong Pop in 70s Britain (Nine Eight) also feels fresh. You can understand why no one previously bothered to tell the stories behind the novelty singles and grandma-friendly middle-of-the-road pop that clogged up the charts in the decade of punk and disco but, in doing so, Hodgkinson uncovers a genuinely fascinating lost world. You don’t have to possess an abiding passion for the oeuvre of the New Seekers or Brotherhood of Man to revel in its plethora of bizarre facts and anecdotes, many of which seem to speak loudly about the Britain of their era. Consider the lot of Scotland’s Middle of the Road, hoisted to vast fame in Italy thanks to the deathless hit Chirpy Chirpy, Cheep Cheep: temporarily relocated to Rome, enjoying a whirlwind of luxury hotels, fine dining and hanging out with Sophia Loren, one member quits and returns to Glasgow, not due to musical differences, but because he can’t stand Italian food. Or there’s the convicted murderer Gary Gilmore, who, en route to his 1977 execution by firing squad, demanded to hear George Baker Selection’s package-holiday favourite Paloma Blanca.
There’s something similarly revealing about Nick Duerden’s Exit Stage Left: The Curious Afterlife of Pop Stars (Headline), which rounds up the sagas of those artists whose moment of fame was fleeting: from the heroin-addled Peter Perrett of the Only Ones to Paul Cattermole, formerly of teen band S Club 7, who wound up on Loose Women, revealing that he now lived in such penury that he ate only instant noodles and that the TV show had to buy him a shirt so he had something to wear on air. Sometimes redemptive and moving – but frequently ghastly – it’s never less than gripping.
At the other extreme are the books that work by retelling well-worn stories in a fresh light: there have already been plenty of books about hip-hop and heavy metal, but Jonathan Abrams’s The Come Up (Swift) and former Guardian music editor Michael Hann’s Denim and Leather (Constable) are two oral histories that deserve to be considered definitive. Abrams’s beautifully edited book concentrates on hip-hop’s rise, perfectly capturing the excitement of its gathering momentum and regional spread, taking the time to dig deeper than the big names. Hann zeroes in on the clumsily named New Wave of British Heavy Metal that proliferated in the late 70s and early 80s, making stars of Iron Maiden and Def Leppard in the process. But it’s the bathos of the genre’s also-rans, with their disastrous homemade pyrotechnics and their careers stymied because the singer insists on appointing his mum as manager, that stay with you.
A lack of success has never been Bono’s problem, as evidenced by his autobiography Surrender: 40 Songs, One Story (Hutchinson Heinemann). In truth, it’s a little overlong and overwritten – this is a book, it should be noted, that contains a Joycean stream-of-consciousness description of the author’s birth. But his life, both as a vastly successful rock star and a charity campaigner, has been so varied that the sheer volume of extraordinary stories, with walk-on roles for everyone from Frank Sinatra to Steve Jobs to several US presidents, outweighs the irritation of its more purple moments.