Nik Cohn’s top ten rock ‘n’ roll books

Nik Cohn is the author of numerous books on rock and pop and wrote the story that gave rise to Saturday Night Fever. His classic history of pop music Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom has been reissued by Pimlico with a new foreword by the author.

1. Hellfire by Nick Tosches

A perfect match of writer and subject. Tosches’s overwrought prose and boundless fascination with sin (the wages of) finds its ultimate exemplar in Jerry Lee Lewis. This isn’t so much “warts and all,” as “all warts, all the time.” A top-class wallow.

2. Elvis in the Twilight of Memory by June Juanico

June and Elvis were teenage sweethearts and spent an idyllic summer together in Biloxi, Mississippi – the last summer that Presley would enjoy as a (relatively) normal citizen. Juanico’s remembrance isn’t writerly, thank God, but thoughtful, evocative, and possessed of a genuine innocence.

3. Unbelievable: The Life, Death and Afterlife of the Notorious B.I.G. by Cheo Hodari Coker

A fan’s choice, pure and simple. I love Biggie Smalls, and this is chapter and verse on him, in all his oversized glory.

4. Take It Like A Man by Boy George

The title isn’t the only great thing here. George O’Dowd’s memoirs are witty, as one might expect, but also touching and, for the most part, unblinkingly honest (the one exception is the section in which he tries to fudge the implications of testifying against his drug dealer).

5. The Life and Times of Little Richard by Charles White

I speed-read this once while drunk and later thought I must have imagined it. But no – it really is the most jaw-droppingly outrageous of all rock memoirs.

6. Yes Yes Y’All: An Oral History Of Hip-Hop’s First Decade by Jim Fricke, Charlie Ahearn and Nelson George

A motherlode (or muthalode) of Old Skool nostalgia. Here come DJ Kool Herc and Grand Wizard Theodore, Afrika Bambaataa, Grandmaster Flash, Fab 5 Freddy, and the other great originators. The text is fine, and the visuals are superb.

7. Rotten: No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs by John Lydon

From Mick Jagger to Marilyn Manson, the one thing that all rock antichrists have had in common is that they’re panto dames at heart. Rotten is Exhibit A – bright, hilarious, bloody-minded, and wildly camp. Picture a punk Dame Edna.

8. X-Ray by Ray Davies

As a writer, Davies possesses the same off-centre charm that he brought to his classic songs with the Kinks. Many rock memoirs are more sensational, none more endearing.

9. Clubland, by Frank Owen

A wonderfully trashy whirl through the underbelly of New York club life in the 1990s, fuelled by all the bad stuff one could hope for, and more. Humans don’t half stink at times, mum.

10. The Autobiography of PJ Proby (unpublished)

A monumental, messianic sprawl of a book, over 800 pages of typescript, many of them fantastic. Publisher wanted; must be dauntless.


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