I still have the mixtape that transformed me, at 14, from a casual consumer of whatever music my friends liked into a zealous partisan of punk rock. It’s an odd little cassette: 60 minutes of music, cohesive enough to suggest that punk rock was a thing, but variegated enough to suggest that could be just about anything. There was, apparently, a whole ocean of music more or less like this stuff. All I had to do was dive in.
Punk rock is, perhaps, an unusually fractious genre: for decades, punks argued about what – and who – was or wasn’t punk. They drew lines, divided subgenres into sub-subgenres, and sometimes performed rituals of excommunication. (Green Day, probably the most popular punk group of all time, were banned from their local club, and denounced as enemies of the movement by Maximum Rocknroll, the definitive American punk fanzine.) For a while, punk rock was all I cared about, but in the years that followed I was pleased to discover that punk wasn’t quite as unusual as I first thought: every musical genre is in some sense a community of musicians and listeners, which means that every genre is also a tribe, defined by tribal rules of inclusion and exclusion.
And so when I set out to write a history of popular music, I decided to go genre by genre, hoping to explain how these communities endured, evolved and splintered. In Major Labels, I settled on seven “major” genres: rock’n’roll, R&B, country, punk, hip-hop, dance music and pop. Of course, each of these contains multitudes, and one of the pleasures of writing the book was the chance to read, or revisit, countless works of single-minded musical scholarship: books that dive deep into a genre, or a scene, or a sound. This is one of the paradoxes of musical fandom: the more you cherish the ability to listen to a wide range of styles, the more grateful you should be to the musicians stubborn enough to find something they loved and stick to it. And the more grateful you should be, too, to the writers who were imaginative and perceptive enough to notice that something was going on, and write about it.
1. Deep Down in the Ghetto by Roger D Abrahams
In 1964, a folklorist based in Philadelphia managed a neat trick: he published one of the most important books ever written about hip-hop, long before hip-hop actually existed. In this classic study, Abrahams records and analyses a trove of mid-century Black oral literature, setting down street-corner rhymes, tall tales and boasts – some of which are as violent, and as bawdy, as the rap records that shocked the world in the decades to come.
2. The Nashville Sound by Paul Hemphill
Hemphill was not exactly a Nashville insider, which explains part of the charm of this book, published in 1970: he captured the genius and the weirdness of a country-music industry that was just starting to think of itself as such. Like virtually everyone who came after him, he noted that the genre seemed split between “traditionalists” and “the new breed”. He noticed that the town was full of performers who were “modernising the simple music of their rural southern childhoods and blurring the distinction between country and pop music” – and of course it still is.
3. Like Punk Never Happened by Dave Rimmer
A very strange book: a sharp treatise on the aesthetics of pop, masquerading as a just-in-time biography of Boy George and Culture Club. In fact by the time this book was published, in 1985, Culture Club’s time at the top of the charts was pretty much over. Knowing this adds some wistfulness to Rimmer’s narrative. And it adds some context to his argument, which is that, in the aftermath of the punk explosion, a new “pop” sensibility emerged, rebelling against the punk-rock rebellion by steadfastly refusing to be rebellious. So what if it didn’t last? Who says great pop is supposed to last?
4. I’m With the Band by Pamela Des Barres
When this book was published, at the peak of the hair-metal craze, some readers might have mistaken it for a gossipy compendium of backstage tales. The book’s subtitle is Confessions of a Groupie, but the main draw is the way that Des Barres, sometimes drawing from old diary entries, charts her evolution from a curious consumer of rock ’n’ roll records to an important participant in the scene that helped create the myth of the rock star. Her writing is precise and perceptive, affectionate but unsentimental. In one memorable passage, she remembers listening to Led Zeppelin II while hanging out in Jimmy Page’s hotel room. “I had to comment on every solo,” she writes, “and even though I believed the drum solo in Moby Dick went on endlessly, I held my tongue and went on pressing his velvet trousers and sewing buttons on to his satin jacket.”
5. The Death of Rhythm and Blues by Nelson George
For much of the 1980s, George was a music editor at Billboard magazine, which gave him extraordinary insight not only into the genre of R&B but the industry that nurtured it. This classic study is both a history and a manifesto – and also, more than 30 years later, a time capsule. George writes tenderly about the Black business owners who supported R&B, and sceptically about the way that 80s R&B singers (including Michael Jackson and Prince) found pop success, sometimes seeming to leave the genre behind. Was that really progress?
6. Black Noise by Tricia Rose
This book, published in 1994, was one of the first academic investigations of hip-hop, although, like many of the books that came afterward, it was not entirely celebratory. Rose was devoted to hip-hop, but she was also devoted to the idea of hip-hop as a vehicle for resistance and emancipation, which means she can’t help but notice the ways in which it often failed to live up to these ideals. In describing (and sometimes decrying) the genre’s tendency to focus on “male predatory sexual behaviour”, and its existence within a network of white-owned, multinational businesses, she anticipated the way hip-hop would continue to delight and frustrate its biggest fans for decades to come.
7. Energy Flash by Simon Reynolds
An enthusiastic and often contagious history of dance music, with a focus on pleasure: Reynolds conjures up not only how house and techno (and their many offshoots) evolved, but what it really feels like to love them. This feeling has not always been entirely organic: Reynolds pays close attention to the relationship between dance music and drugs, explaining how often, when the high changes, the beat changes, too.
8. Lords of Chaos by Michael Moynihan and Didrik Soderlind
An intense, scary book about an intense, scary scene: black metal, which in the 1990s took heavy metal’s obsession with darkness and evil to its logical conclusion. Moynihan and Soderlind chronicle a world of murder, hatred and madness; even if you don’t have any interest in the bands (or in the 2018 Jonas Åkerlund film based on this book), you may come away with a new appreciation for what it means for music to be truly extreme.
9. Love Saves the Day by Tim Lawrence
How do you capture a party? Often, you don’t: the revellers go home, the DJ packs up, people move on. But in this careful work of excavation, Lawrence shows how, in 1970s New York, casual get-togethers spawned glamorous nightclubs, and eventually an entire musical subculture, reconstructing the prehistory of disco, and gesturing toward all the sounds and scenes that came afterward.
10. Girls to the Front by Sara Marcus
Riot grrrl was at least two things at once: a musical movement, which bloomed briefly in the 1990s, and a literary movement, sparked by fanzines, which jammed together punk rock and feminism, challenging and changing the identities of both of them. This book is an indispensable cultural history that emphasises both the strangeness and the sensibleness of riot grrrl, an unlikely movement that seems, in retrospect, inevitable.