The Books Briefing: British Invasion

Sex, drugs, and rock and roll: Your weekly guide to the best in books

Mick Jagger and David Bowie
Mick Jagger and David Bowie (Getty Images)

England’s status in the history of rock and roll and punk music is almost mythical. So much of what we listen to now was influenced in some way by British bands and musicians such as the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, David Bowie, the Clash, and the Who, all of whom were themselves taking cues from the Black American founders of rock music, including Chuck Berry and Little Richard. Punk rock, also originally an American import, activated the English imagination in the 1970s. The Sex Pistols, whose last concert in England is showcased in Kevin Cummins’s Sex Pistols: The End is Near 25.12.77, were avatars of sociopathy, scowling their way through sets. Viv Albertine, the guitarist for the all-female rockers the Slits, channels the anger and volatility of the band’s music into her memoir To Throw Away Unopened. The Searing Light, the Sun and Everything Else, by Jon Savage, offers an oral history of Joy Division, the post-punk band whose unique members came together to create music that sounded like ideas.

The musical influences didn’t just follow a one-way current, though. American artists also changed the landscape of the United Kingdom’s rock-and-roll scene. Wild Thing, a new biography from Philip Norman, explores Jimi Hendrix’s years in London, noting both the dread and awe he induced in the city’s leading guitarists. And David Stubbs’s Future Sounds traces the history of electronic music, which owes its sound to the inventiveness of American and British artists, among those from yet more countries.

Every Friday in the Books Briefing, we thread together Atlantic stories on books that share similar ideas.

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What We’re Reading

The Sex Pistols performing

What happened when the Sex Pistols threw a Christmas party
“The current of the performance never seems to slacken. [Kevin] Cummins’s lens catches the band in no instants of shapelessness or non-Sex-Pistols-ness; their art possesses them at all times.”

📚 Sex Pistols: The End Is Near 25.12.77, by Kevin Cummins

Viv Albertine performing

Viv Albertine’s got something to say
To Throw Away Unopened is closer, in this sense, to actual punk-rock Viv; it feels hastier, less processed, more urgent, as if she was hurt or stung into writing it.”

📚 To Throw Away Unopened, by Viv Albertine
📚 Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys., by Viv Albertine

Joy Division

Deciphering the mystery of Joy Division
“With Joy Division, eventually, words peter out or fritter away into uselessness. Which doesn’t mean we shouldn’t keep trying, of course, but reading the dazzled witnesses in This Searing Light, and the undone experts, and the bandmates fumbling with the abrupt immensity of their singer’s absence, everything partial, broken, everything occluded in some respect, the oral-history method makes more and more sense.”

📚 This Searing Light, the Sun and Everything Else, by Jon Savage

Jimi Hendrix

How Jimi Hendrix’s London years changed music
Wild Thing is good on Hendrix’s meteoric impact on Swinging London (and then the world), the crater he left in consciousness.”

📚 Wild Thing: The Short, Spellbinding Life of Jimi Hendrix, by Philip Norman
📚 Shout!: The Beatles in Their Generation, by Philip Norman
📚 Crosstown Traffic: Jimi Hendrix and the Post-war Rock’n’Roll Revolution, by Charles Shaar Murray

The electronic band Kraftwerk performs in 2016.

The tragedy of electronic music
“The tragedy, as [David] Stubbs tells it, is that giddy anticipation of a paradigm shift ran up against the political regressions of the Reagan and Thatcher eras—and their accompanying oversaturated consumer culture. Even great breakthroughs got hijacked to dreary effect.”

📚 Future Sounds: The Story of Electronic Music From Stockhausen to Skrillex, by David Stubbs

About us: This week’s newsletter is written by Tori Latham. The book she just cracked open is Wow, No Thank You, by Samantha Irby.

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