Don’t bore us, get to the chorus
Musicians tell tales tall and short
Published: June 19, 2013
This summer, the books in our beach bags will lean heavily toward 2013’s bumper crop of musicians’ (auto)biographies. Something about those stories of backstage excess, personal drama and creative history in the making, whether told firsthand or from a remove (authorized or otherwise) just hits the spot for the kind of non-required reading we like to do in a haze of sun and sticky popsicle hands. Here, Billy Manes tells us how frothy music reportage actually inspired a life of professional detail-digging; the rest of us review some of the year’s most essential music bios.
Godhead’s in the details
A youth spent obsessing over pop biographies was the basis for a life of information-digging
By Billy Manes
The notion that screaming it all from the rooftops basically amounts to revealing nothing seemed well-suited to the media-saturated pop reverberations of the 1980s. Buried under layers of angular makeup and tightly wrapped in the required uniform of synthetic fluorescence, the videogenic favorites of the day may have ridden their percolating ambitions into household-name status, but they were, in effect, mere advertisements for versions of themselves – substances reduced to styles, sometimes with the help of substances.
There was something to that A&R-manicured distance, though, an almost rhythmic allure that begged for teenage inquisition. For this suburban Floridian – about as far removed from high-street London as from Mother Russia – that magazine-cover magnetism would lead to an early obsession to trivial detail. I had an emotional attachment to Duran Duran, and it was effectively my duty to justify that via feverish reconnaissance.
The bible of the time, at least as far as the U.K. hit parade went, was Star Hits magazine (the cleaned-up American cousin to Great Britain’s Smash Hits), because in its florid, join-our-club lexicon there existed a sense of taking the piss out of the sterile publicity machine, if only for the sake of revealing the flaws of our pin-up princes (and princesses) in the face of adversity or adverse inquiry. Wham! touring China for the first time was far more hilarious and engaging as a series of personal reactions to travel mishaps than it was as the sort of camera-ready sociocultural tourism it was crafted to be, after all. Don’t bore us; get to the chorus.
As the ’80s crested, my own fascination didn’t decline with the magazine’s subscription base (both iterations soon closed shop). As an avid Pet Shop Boys fan, I was introduced to the longform pop memoir in a roundabout way through singer Neil Tennant (a former Smash Hits editor, of course) and keyboardist Chris Lowe. For their first two unlikely tours – they used to say they’d never tour – the duo enlisted fellow Smash Hits alum Chris Heath to document their bumbling treks through Asia (Pet Shop Boys: Literally) and America (Pet Shop Boys vs. America) in a manner that relied heavily upon candor and immediacy. Just reading the tales of willfully incorrect transcription by U.K. tabloid scribes and of Tennant being refused restaurant entry for wearing, gasp, shorts was intensely immersive. It seemed to round out my record collection with an intimacy otherwise lacking.