Sex 'n' drugs 'n' pounds 'n' pence

The Mammoth Book of Sex Drugs & Rock 'n' Roll - Sonic Boom - Black Vinyl White Powder
August 10, 2001

According to the editor of The Mammoth Book of Sex, Drugs & Rock 'n' Roll , no one is sure how the familiar phrase in his book title was coined - but most people know it as well as they know vodka, lime and soda. "Despite, or maybe because of, the sex and drugs," writes Jim Driver in his foreword, "rock 'n' roll has become one of the biggest businesses in the world... The most enticing aspect is that you don't need to be supremely talented to be supremely successful."

His book is an anthology of rock journalism, charting rock 'n' roll - which here encompasses rock, pop, country, jazz and R&B - from the early days of the drink and drug culture of the 1920s to the present day. There are six sections, each about a different aspect of the myth.

The first and most extensive, "Rock 'n' Roll Almanac", is a collection of essays and interviews written by predominantly male rock journalists for a mainly male audience - as in the kind of magazines in which most of these excerpts originally appeared, such as New Musical Express and Melody Maker . Some of the pieces are about specific artists, such as Mike Gee's "The death of Michael Hutchence", while others are about bands, for example Simon Garfield's "Hell on wheels: The Cramps", an account of a bus trip to Amsterdam in the company of a bunch of sweaty, cider-swilling hairies to see ageing rockabillies, The Cramps. Yet others concern developments in the music business, such as Pete Paphides's excellent "Charlie and the music factory", an examination of cocaine's link with the music-industry lifestyle of hectic travel, incessant partying, jet lag and boredom: contrary to popular belief, much of a rock star's life is spent hanging around between sound checks and gigs, or travelling for weeks on end in dingy tour buses, only to perform the same 15 songs over again.

The remaining 100 or so pages contain anecdotal vignettes by Driver about different artists, arranged in thematic chapters named after a lyric or title - which is a nice touch. So, "Can't Help Falling in Love" outlines the failed relationships between the likes of Ike and Tina Turner, David and Angela Bowie, Bill Wyman and Mandy Smith, Michael Jackson and Lisa Marie Presley. "Jailhouse Rock" is about artists who have brushed with the law, including heavy-metal singer Ozzy Osborne for urinating on the Alamo. "Don't Leave Me This Way" tackles artists such as Kurt Cobain, the lead singer of Nirvana, who committed suicide in 1994.

There are some superbly written pieces in the book, but it tries to cover too much ground for a single volume. The "Rock 'n' Roll Almanac" could easily stand alone as a book for fans of pop music journalism, and the last seven sections feel as though they have been hastily tacked on as a quick reference tool, and would have been worthy of a separate volume if the dry and somewhat cursory style had been expanded on. Finally, the book is let down by its looks. It is shoddily produced and riddled with typographical errors, which seriously detract from the readability of even the best of its journalism.

Simon Napier-Bell's Black Vinyl White Powder is also about drug culture and pop (though, in addition, it contemplates the immense influence of gay culture on pop music). Napier-Bell is a veteran of the music industry and this is his hilarious, insider history of the industry in Britian from the 1950s until now. While many of the writers in The Mammoth Book were still at home as angst-ridden teenagers, growing beards and listening to ground-breaking but tedious "trad" rock, Napier-Bell had already written the lyrics of one of the world's most famous songs: Dusty Springfield's "You Don't Have To Say You Love Me". And by the time those teenagers had grown into fully fledged rock critics taking their cues from legendary American rock journalist Lester Bangs - who treated his subject as though it was as serious as war or famine - Napier-Bell had managed some of the biggest pop bands in Britain (Wham!, Japan and The Yardbirds), and written a couple of scurrilous memoirs. He was laughing all the way to the bank.

One of very few to have survived four decades in the industry, Napier-Bell has enjoyed a colourful and exceptionally successful career - which is obvious from Black Vinyl White Powder . Honest but funny about life behind the scenes, the book cleverly weaves the story of its author's own transition from lowly roadie to big-shot manager into the story of the main events and movements in pop music - The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Punk Rock, Glam Rock, New Romantics, MTV, Live Aid, Acid House, The Spice Girls, boy bands - while documenting the advent of new drugs and describing their effect on the music and the temper of the times.

"The truth is," says Napier-Bell at the very beginning, "my fascination with the music business has always been for the trivia, the gossip, the outrage and the surface gloss - the actual music has just been a backdrop, however diverting." His preoccupation with trivia is what makes his book so compelling and informative. Napier-Bell knows that if you scratch the surface of pop music you will find more surface. Pop music is not about dates, statistics and facts. It is about fun and frivolity: beautiful people wearing sparkly clothing striking inane poses to a simple melody. If you think too hard about it, you miss the point. So Napier-Bell avoids the stuffiness of other music histories by sprinkling his account with insider anecdotes, quotes, witticisms and observations about chart fixing, drug taking, copyright wrangles, image making and other mores of the milieu.

When he was managing Wham! (one half of which would later establish himself as the solo artist George Michael) in the 1980s and trying to get them noticed in the United States, Napier-Bell came up with a simple but outrageous idea. Over dinner with the band members and co-manager Jazz Summers, he suggested: "Maybe you could be the first group ever to play in communist China. That would get you into every headline and TV news programme in the world." "Good! You're our managers. Go ahead and fix it!" replied Michael. And so it came to pass - one of the strangest PR tricks of the decade, masterminded by Napier-Bell, a man who viewed management as an exercise in seeing just how much you could get away with. In his case, an awful lot.

He is alarmed by the current state of pop, from which all elements of risk-taking and creativity are gradually being stripped away in favour of making a quick and safe buck. At the moment, the pop world offers a host of interchangable, all-singing, all-dancing boys and girls (Westlife, A1, Atomic Kitten, S-Club 7 etc). They are pretty, professional - and seriously lacking in personality. Most have been to stage school and are probably managed by people who love music for the ease with which it can prise money out of the purses of impressionable school children. Napier-Bell may not love the music as much as the surface gloss - if you take his flippancy seriously - but he is still pretty fond of pop music: a manager who takes an interest in the band not only while it is doing PR, but also when it is recording in the studio.

As the internet expanded during the 1990s, so did the possibilities for listening to pop music. The development of Liquid Audio and MP3 - methods by which music could be digitally filed - meant that a great deal of music could be accessed from anywhere with a telephone line by anyone with a computer, for free. In Sonic Boom , John Alderman takes up the story of the internet and the music industry, touched on by Napier-Bell. He attempts to unravel the confusing issue of internet copyright on music, and how it affects everyone from artists and executives to programmers and fans.

What is at issue is that in 1999, 19-year-old Shawn Fanning, from Brockton, Massachusetts, launched a program that made it possible for people to access MP3 files stored in the hard drives of other internet users. His site, Napster, caused major ructions within the music industry because it made swapping MP3 files much easier than before.

Legal controversy quickly erupted over copyright laws, which were framed long before anything like the internet. Some bands, including Metallica (heavy-metal rockers who formed a band because they enjoyed making tapes for one another at home) condemned Fanning as a bootlegger, while others argued that Napster was just another means of propagating music, like radio or television. The record companies kicked up a fuss after bands such as the militant New York rap pioneers Public Enemy embraced the new technology as a way of side-stepping the companies and offering their music direct to their audience.

Alderman's book is thoroughly researched and answers as far as possible questions such as: who owns music on the internet, how Napster affects the music industry, whether the internet changes our understanding of copyright and how the music industry will survive in the new economy. But while his credentials as someone with a deep understanding of the technical advances of the 1990s are not in dispute, his prose is flat and lifeless, especially beside Napier-Bell's. Described as "the gripping story of how technology is reinventing traditional commerce", Sonic Boom is about as gripping as a bad thriller you are reading for the second time. It requires a "Cast of Characters" to enable the reader to keep track, and it does not avoid the danger of getting bogged down in technological jargon and acronyms, though Alderman does his best here. However, the real problem is not that the book is difficult to understand, but rather that it is a dull account of a potentially fascinating subject.

What an interesting irony that the pop music industry has greeted the internet age with the same instinctive horror and fear of the unknown that the establishment expressed when rock 'n' roll was born. Despite its flirtation with rebellious images of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll, the industry is extremely conservative. Its main goal is to make money, not music, and it tries to eradicate anything that threatens its profits. But whatever the industry does, there will always be drugs involved with pop music. "Black vinyl may have gone, white powder seems here to stay", says Napier-Bell.

Ronita Dutta is a freelance journalist specialising in the music industry.

The Mammoth Book of Sex Drugs & Rock 'n' Roll

Editor - Jim Driver
ISBN - 1 84119 145 0
Publisher - Constable Robinson
Price - £7.99
Pages - 620

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