The nostalgia wave rippling through today’s culture may seem troublesome to some, but music has always been an art form that builds upon and pays homage to what has come before. Five new books chronicle some of the most earth-shaking, history-making artists who changed our cultural landscape. From the story behind the sweet and soulful sounds of Motown to Bruce Springsteen’s long-awaited memoir, each is worthy of a spot alongside any record collection.
THE LEGEND OF MOTOWN
On my first trip to Detroit this year, the only site on my list was the original Motown headquarters. There are many remarkable things to see in that venerable building, but for me, the most astonishing was the size of the garage recording studio where some of the biggest songs in the American musical canon were put to tape: It’s tiny! But that studio is a powerful testament to the magic of Berry Gordy’s larger-than-life empire, and Adam White’s Motown does an incredible job of examining just what happened in the building that housed America’s most influential record label. This beautifully packaged book holds a staggering amount of interviews with the label’s influencers and recording artists along with absolutely stunning photographs from all of the eras and iterations of Motown, from Tamla in 1959 to the opening of Motown: The Musical in 2013. Go behind the scenes with Motown artists like Smokey Robinson and The Miracles, Marvin Gaye, The Supremes, Stevie Wonder and The Jackson 5, starting with their discoveries, first records and those early days on tour. While this is an all-out celebration of African-American music, glitz, glamour and Motown’s cultural impact, White also highlights the abysmal state of the political landscape during the label’s rise in chapters like “We Don’t Serve Coloured People,” which makes the incredible success, resilience and power of the Motown sound shine that much brighter.
The Temptations perform their signature hit, "My Girl," in 1965. From L to R: Melvin Franklin, Eddie Kendricks, Otis Williams, Paul Williams and David Ruffin. Motown Records Archives. Courtesy of the EMI Archive Trust and Universal Music Group.
SATISFACTION SONG BY SONG
Philippe Margotin and Jean-Michel Guesdon sum up the reason why the Rolling Stones are still one of the biggest bands in the world in their introduction to The Rolling Stones All the Songs: “The music of the Stones comes across as authentic because it is the music of a never-ending party, of a categorical refusal to grow old.” Their ambitious tome delivers on the title’s claim, opening with a brief history of the band’s formation in London in 1962 and wading through their entire catalog in a whopping 704 pages. Of course, there’s no pressure to read from cover to cover—fans are sure to go straight for their favorite songs and hop around from there. With fun facts “For Stones Addicts,” standalone “Portraits” of important Stones collaborators like Ian Stewart (the oft-forgotten “Sixth Stone”), along with full details on the writing and recording process as well as the reception of each track, Margotin and Guesdon make what could be a bit of a slog into a rip-roaring journey through the discography of the kings of cool.
THE FREEWHEELIN' BARD
Is there any songwriter worthier of a sumptuous lyrics collection than the inimitable Bob Dylan? The Lyrics: 1961-2012 is an updated edition of the stunning 2014 volume with new edits supplied by Dylan himself on dozens of his classic songs. Running chronologically from his early Greenwich Village days to 2012’s “Tempest,” this collection is comprised of the lyrics from 31 Dylan albums. Full-page photos and a few facsimiles of his handwritten drafts—there were quite a few interesting changes to “Blowin’ in the Wind”—put his poetic mastery on full display.
With more than 100 million records sold, Dylan is not only one of our most artful songwriters, but one of the bestselling of all time. A great coffee-table book, this could easily provide hours of study, or you could just grab your favorite Dylan record, put the needle down and read along.
YOU WANT A REVOLUTION?
There have likely been more books written about the Beatles than any other figures in music history, and when the field is this crowded, it’s hard to find a read that stands out. But Steve Turner’s Beatles ’66: The Revolutionary Year is a wonderfully compelling look into the year that changed everything for the band. By 1966, the hysteria of Beatlemania and the strain of public life had taken quite a toll. After their joyless show at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park, George suggested, and the rest of the band readily agreed, that it was time to quit the touring life for good. From there, John, Paul, George and Ringo took control—pushing boundaries in the studio and grappling with more adult issues in their lyrics in order to “stretch the limits of pop.” Turner immerses readers in their lives: the art and media they were consuming, the drugs they were taking, the creative breakthrough they were seeking—all of which resulted in “Revolver,” which Turner argues is the most innovative and compelling album the Beatles ever recorded. A chronology of the year’s historical events and a selection of each member’s favorite songs from the period round out this entertaining study.
A TRAMP LIKE US
Readers, I’ll admit: I am late to the Bruce Springsteen fandom. Maybe it was the macho stage histrionics or his cheesy nickname (“The Boss”) that kept me away. But after my first three-hour Springsteen show, it made sense. His anticipated memoir, Born to Run, is similar to his live shows, inviting you along on an emotional marathon. Herein lies the Springsteen I’ve been hoping to find: raw and poignant with plenty of punk attitude. Some will undoubtedly be surprised by the amount of casually crass and sexed-up passages, but the cheeky Springsteen makes no apologies. Superfans will love the details of his musical beginnings, the fledgling days of the E Street Band and his recording process for each of his records, but he doesn’t leave out the less glamorous details of sleeping rough and scraping by for decades. In passages like his account of seeing Elvis for the first time—“THE BARRICADES HAVE BEEN STORMED!! A HERO HAS COME.”—hearing the Beatles on “The Ed Sullivan Show” and the life-altering birth of his first child, his writing mirrors his rock ’n’ roll preacher stage-speak. But his true gifts as a writer come through in the quieter passages that lay bare his struggles with deep depression, the scars of his Catholic upbringing and his tumultuous relationship with his mentally ill father.
With high praise for each movement and artist chronicled in the other four books featured here, it’s clear that The Boss may be one of biggest music geeks of us all. Born to Run may not be as lyrical as his friend Patti Smith’s Just Kids, but it’s a haunting and hopeful triumph.