Category Archives: Book reviews

Interview with Plastic EP about my new book: ‘Suzi Quatro in the 1970s’

Following publication of my recent book on Suzi Quatro, I was delighted to be interviewed by the force of nature that is Plastic EP. He’s had a huge range of guests from big-name musical stars to dedicated music lovers like myself. We talked Suzi, The Sweet, my love of the 70s glam era and the two books I’ve had published for Sonicbond’s ‘Decades’ series (with a third on the way!)

You can catch the full interview with Plastic EP here:

Among the 800 guests he’s had on so far, Plastic EP has interviewed Suzi, herself, of course. You can catch one of his interviews with Suzi here, where he’s joined by co-host, Sabine Brignell.

Plastic EP and Sabine also interviewed Don Powell recently, which you can catch here:

Related posts:

New book: ‘Suzi Quatro In The 1970s’ by Darren Johnson coming in July 2022

Book news: ‘The Sweet in the 1970s’ by Darren Johnson – published 30th July 2021

Book review: ‘Top Of The Pops: The Punk & New Romantic Years 1976-1986’ by Peter Checksfield

Hot on the heels of Peter Checksfield’s previous Top Of The Pops book (which covered the show from its inception in 1964 through to 1975) comes this second volume taking us from 1976 through to 1986.

Again, it’s a similar format with a rundown of the acts on each episode and various titbits such as brief pen portraits of each artist, chart history and various reminiscences from some of those who performed on the show. It’s a slightly expanded format this time, including stills from each episode broadcast, resulting in a massive telephone directory -sized tome.

Unlike the first volume, where I was either yet to be born or a very young toddler for a good chunk of the episodes covered, this volume covers the entirety of my teenage years where Top Of The Pops went from something being on in the background to something I avidly watched each week.

I was ten in 1976 and vaguely starting to become aware of changes in the musical landscape. This book, however, is a timely reminder that for all of punk’s year zero rhetoric, change was gradual rather than something that happened overnight. Slade, Sweet, Mud and Gary Glitter were all still regulars at this point (even if their chart positions were somewhat lower than previously) sharing the Top Of The Pops weekly chart run-down with the likes of The Jam, The Stranglers and The Sex Pistols.

I was a bit too young to get caught up in punk and new romantic was never really my cup of tea either. But the early 1980s also saw a real renaissance for hard rock and heavy metal, which had been in the doldrums a bit in the second half of the 1970s. At the start of that new decade, bands like Motorhead, Judas Priest, Iron Maiden and Saxon became regulars on TOTP – not just making the album charts but making a serious mark on the singles charts, too. The period even saw a big commercial revival for Slade. Their appearance on 29th January 1981 as Checksfield notes, being their first TOTP performance in four years. It was a pivotal moment for me, instantly transforming them from being a group I remembered from my childhood that did that Christmas record to being my number one favourite band.

People will have their own particular highlights but this book, as well as being a useful and well-researched reference work, will trigger many affectionate memories, even though the less we dwell on some of the show’s past presenters the better.

Published 2022

Visit Peter Checksfield’s website here

Related reviews:

Book review: ‘Top Of The Pops: The Lost Years Rediscovered 1964-1975’ by Peter Checksfield

‘Look Wot They Dun! – The ultimate guide to UK glam rock on TV in the 70s’ by Peter Checksfield

Book review: ‘Denim & Leather: The Rise And Fall Of The New Wave Of British Heavy Metal’ by Michael Hann

My early teen years neatly coincided with the ascendancy of the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal (NWOBHM). I missed the first Monsters of Rock at Donington in 1980 but was there for the second. I went out to get the first issue of Kerrang! (which I still have) and bought (or taped) albums by many of the bands featured in this book. Unlike many other genres or musical movements that I’ve grown to love over the years, this one perfectly aligned with the period when I was seriously getting hooked on music for the first time.

Taking the form of a transcribed oral history, Denim & Leather features contributions from a plethora of figures, from artists to managers to promoters to writers to fans, who were around during the short life of this grassroots phenomenon which gave a much-needed shot in the arm to the world of hard rock at the tail end of the 1970s and the dawn of the 1980s.

Sometimes books of this nature, featuring an endless stream of quotes and half-remembered (and often contradictory) anecdotes but little in the way of context or analysis, can be a bit of an exhausting and not always particularly satisfying read. But Denim & Leather is cleverly done and author, Michael Hann, has skilfully organised it in a way that allows for clear narratives to emerge. The various chapters take us through key events chronologically but also give us an in-depth look at particular aspects of the scene. There’s chapters on the importance of things like The Friday Rock Show, Sounds and later Kerrang! mag as well as the first ever Monsters of Rock Festival but it also looks at some of the less rose-tinted aspects of the scene, like the all too frequent misogyny.

Wisely, the book doesn’t get too hung up on rigid definitions of what is and what isn’t NWOBHM and there is a chapter devoted to the influence the movement had on that trio of post-Purple bands, Rainbow, Whitesnake and Gillan, as well as lots of mentions of Judas Priest, whose members were all making music well before NWOBHM became a thing although they certainly benefited from it.

Given the importance the two bands had in influencing the later sub-genres of thrash metal and black metal respectively, there’s a whole chapter devoted to Diamond Head and another whole chapter devoted to Venom. I never really got the whole extreme metal thing, personally. But at the other end of the spectrum I never really bought into that overproduced very Americanised direction that Def Leppard soon headed in either. That also takes up a considerable chunk of the book and, in the end, is what pretty much did for NWOBHM.

For me, NWOBHM was at its very best when it melded the uncompromising heaviness of the first generation of heavy rock acts with the catchy choruses and three-minute tunes of the early 70s glam rock scene and the DIY ‘get-up-and-do-it’ spirit of the punk era. The bands that most closely adhered to that template were the ones I warmed to the most – and still do. My favourite quote in the book – from former Saxon bass man, Steve Dawson, thus perfectly sums up why I always had more love for Saxon than Iron Maiden:

“Without sounding elitist, I think the tunes we wrote were more catchy songs. Not just a riff with some fucking twat screaming. A lot of the so-called NWOBHM wrote riffs with singing, and not songs – melodic tunes that you could whistle. Iron Maiden were sort of in that bracket to me.“

Denim & Leather is a well-researched and highly readable look at a crucial but often overlooked period in rock and metal history, with many insightful, entertaining, thought-provoking and occasionally downright disturbing contributions from some of the key players in the NWOBHM scene at the time.

Published: February 2022 by Constable

Book review: ‘DeadStar’ by Nick Griffiths

Back in 2020 I reviewed Chasing Shadows – Adrian Jarvis’s book about his ultimately fruitless quest to locate original Deep Purple singer, Rod Evans, who vanished in 1980 following a deeply unwise scam involving misuse of his former band’s name and was never heard from again.

Nick Griffiths’ novel DeadStar takes a similar premise albeit the central character, Garth Tyson, never enjoyed anything like the brief taste of fame that Evans had with the first line-up of Deep Purple. Following a minor hit in the mid-80s with his fictional band Speed of Life Tyson disappears after a part utterly disastrous, part weirdly triumphant appearance at Glastonbury. However, outside of his immediate family and former bandmates, public speculation about Tyson’s whereabouts is precisely zero.

What really holds the reader’s imagination, however, is Griffiths’ attention to period detail in documenting the highs and lows of a wannabe rock star and his fellow travellers. From schoolboy misfits inspired by glam-era Bowie and then moving through boisterous teen punk, moody post-punk and chirpier synth-pop, it’s a journey that many bands have taken. Griffiths, himself a former music journalist who worked on the likes of Sounds and Select magazine in the late 80s and early 90s, captures the mood of the times and the shifting musical trends with accuracy, empathy and good humour.

Stuck inside during a period of Covid-induced self-isolation, when I was feeling well enough to read but not well enough to do much else, DeadStar proved both gripping and highly entertaining.

And does Griffiths’ fictional narrator succeed with Garth Tyson where Adrian Jarvis singularly failed with Rod Evans? Does he end up actually tracking him down? That would be telling but, as with the Jarvis book, the journey is definitely as important as the destination.

Published: 25th January 2022 by New Generation Publishing

http://nickgriffiths.co.uk/

Book review: ‘Top Of The Pops: The Lost Years Rediscovered 1964-1975’ by Peter Checksfield

A prolific author and archivist of music history and pop culture, the latest book from Peter Checksfield is a mammoth 650-page tome devoted to the Top of The Pop’s glory days – from its inception in 1964 through until 1975.

As a writer I’d already made use of Checksfield’s own meticulously-researched publication ‘Look Wot They Dun’ which chronicled the TV appearances of all the key figures from the UK’s glam rock scene in the early to mid- 1970s and it’s referenced in my own book ‘The Sweet in the 1970s’. Likewise, I’m pretty sure I’ll be making similar use of this latest volume.

It includes a complete episode guide stretching from the first ever show on New Year’s Day 1964 through to the Christmas Top Of The Pops edition that went out on 25th December 1975. Each entry includes a chronological run-down of the acts performing on that show, potted bios and relevant chart positions. This is no mean feat given that many of the episodes from this period no longer survive. Only five complete shows from the 1960s still exist and only two complete shows from 1972 at the height of the glam period survive – although many more clips (the handiwork of early home-taping, sneaky BBC technicians or overseas TV stations) mean the archive isn’t quite as empty as the official figures initially suggest.

While the book is a crucial reference work, what really brings it to life is a succession of anecdotes that Checksfield has garnered from various artists who appeared on the show. Ralph Ellis of the Swinging Blue Jeans recalls a scuffle with Keith Richards in the BBC canteen, surviving members of the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band recall their time on the show miming to ‘Urban Spaceman’ and Ray Dorset (Mungo Jerry) recalls arriving late for rehearsals when ‘In The Summertime’ hit the charts as he was still working at the Timex factory and had to ask his boss for time off.

There’s also plenty of little nuggets I learned for the first time. Who knew that for a few months in 1971 Top Of The Pops ran an ‘Album Spot’ where artists would perform three songs from a current album, for example? My own personal recollection from when I really remember looking up and avidly watching an episode of Top Of The Pops (rather than it just being on in the background as I coloured with crayons or whatever) was when that week’s presenter announced a brand-new single from Mud called ‘Tiger Feet’. What 7yo doesn’t love tigers?! On checking the episode guide I find that the episode in question went out on 3rd January 1974.

Thoroughly researched and with some fascinating personal insights together with a comprehensive index of each artist’s appearances on the show ‘Top Of The Pops: The Lost Years Rediscovered 1964-1975’ will appeal to any fan of the show and anyone with an interest in pop culture over that period.

Published: 2021

Related post

‘Look Wot They Dun! – The ultimate guide to UK glam rock on TV in the 70s’ by Peter Checksfield

Reviews roundup: ‘The Sweet in the 1970s’ – a huge thank you!

Since my book ‘The Sweet In the 1970s’ was published in the summer, not only have I been bowled over by sales (the first print-run sold out even prior to publication date) I’ve been hugely encouraged by the reviews, too.

Jason Ritchie at Get Ready To Rock was first to review:

“An excellent overview of The Sweet, appraising the band’s 70s output and tracking the band’s ups and downs during that decade. Well researched and referenced too, with the final part of the book giving a whistle stop tour of what the band did from 1980 to the present day.”

You can read the full Get Ready To Rock review here

Then over in the US, Dave Thompson gave the following review in Goldmine magazine:

“Certainly this is not the first Sweet biography to appear in recent years, but it’s sharp, it’s concise, and it doesn’t spend half its time moping around the not-happened-yet sixties and the oh-dear-are-they-still-going beyond. Well, not much. We skip the first ten pages, covering the “early years,” and the last ten detailing “what happened next.” Don’t care. But there’s close to a hundred pages between those bookends that are just non-stop blockbusting, hell raising, teenage rampaging little willying, with every album and single spotlighted for special examination, key quotes highlighted and individual song titles telling their own stories, too. Throughout, author Darrell Johnson (sic) captures the excitement of the great records; can usually find something nice to say about the less great ones, and doesn’t try to kid us that Cut Up Above the Rest was even remotely well-titled. It’s a book for fans, then, but one for the curious, too. Nicely done.”

Dave Thompson produced his own well-written Sweet biography a decade ago, of course, so I was particularly pleased to get his endorsement. I’ll even forgive him getting my name slightly wrong!

You can read the full Goldmine review here

Back on to the British magazine racks, Mick Gafney at Powerplay magazine also had some very nice things to say:

“What comes across in spades in this book is the author’s unwavering love and passion for the band, and whilst it might not be the weightiest of tomes, Johnson still manages to fill it with plenty of well-researched facts and insightful opinion.”

You can read the full review here:

And Steve Swift at Fireworks magazine also gave it the thumbs up:

 “Johnson clearly loves the band and the tone is warm and welcoming; Johnson does something simple but lovely…”

You can read the full review here:

Over on Amazon it’s been picking up some very encouraging customer reviews, too:

“The Sweet In The 1970s is an excellent and concise book about rock’s most underrated band who transformed from ‘bubblegum’ to ‘glam rock’ to ‘hard rock’ to something a little more progressive throughout the aforementioned decade. It also reminds the reader how Sweet managed to ‘snatch defeat from the jaws of victory’ on many occasions.”

“Fabulous book. It does what it says on the cover it tells the Sweet story in the 70s. That doesn’t mean that the 60s and 80s are totally ignored.”

“Whether you a big Sweet fan or not this is a really interesting story written and presented very well. I’ve learnt a lot!”

“Draws together from many sources it borders on the academic, yet reads easily. Clearly a fan, our author is not blind to the weaknesses of the band and is never modest on their behalf either. I learnt quite a bit and it’s a great reference book for the material recorded by the band.”

At one point it made it to number three on Amazon’s UK best sellers list for music history and criticism, as well number ten in its popular music books and number fourteen in its rock music books.

When I first began writing the book I never dreamed it would do so well and writing for Sonicbond Publishing had been an extremely positive experience.

You can read how I first came to write the book here

Better, still you can read the book!

‘The Sweet in the 1970s’ is available from the following outlets:

UK

You can order ‘The Sweet in the 1970s’ direct from the publishers via the Burning Shed on line shop here

It’s available from a number of other UK retailers including: WH SmithWaterstones, and Bookshop.org

You can order from Amazon UK here

US

You can order via Walmart and Amazon.com

Sweden

You can order via Adlibris 

Book review: ‘Bob Dylan in London: Troubadour Tales’ by Jackie Lees & KG Miles

While not an obsessive fan (I have a greatest hits CD and a copy of Highway 61 Revisited in my collection but that’s all I’m afraid) Bob Dylan’s presence has loomed large in the history of many of the bands, such as Fairport Convention and The Byrds, that  I am pretty obsessive about. Moreover, many of the music biographies I have read make frequent references to Dylan’s sundry visits to London in the early to mid-1960s – both in terms of the impact he had on London’s folk and nascent rock scenes and vice versa.

Given what a pivotal figure Dylan is then, the idea of having a proper contextual overview rather than relying on what I’ve pieced together through a series of fleeting appearances in other people’s biographies was therefore appealing.

‘Bob Dylan in London: Troubadour Tales’ begins with his first visit to London in the Winter of 1962. We start off in the King and Queen pub in Fitzrovia, where Dylan made his first live appearance in London, and take in iconic folk-scene venues such as the Pindar of Wakefield (now the Water Rats) in Kings Cross, home of Ewan MacColl’s Singers’ Club, and the Troubadour in Earls Court.

One might assume that the remaining chapters would take us on similarly meandering detours of the capital for each of Dylan’s subsequent visits. However, ‘Bob Dylan in London’ is as much guide-book as it is biography and the publication is generally arranged geographically rather than strictly chronologically and includes a 16-page colour sections with maps and illustrations.

Two long-time Dylan devotees, Jackie Lees and KG Miles, take us through several decades of Dylan in London, bringing to life the writer/performer’s presence in a series of locations through a mixture of contemporary concert reviews, anecdotes from fellow artists and recollections from audience members, with some of their own personal memories thrown in for good measure. At one point we even get to hear from a homeowner whose Crouch End property was on the market and Dylan’s early 80s visit as a prospective buyer is recalled.

The most fascinating parts of the book, however, are the ones where Dylan was at his creative and commercial peak in the 1960s. Insightful anecdotes from this period abound, including Donovan and Joan Baez in Dylan’s Savoy hotel room helping him write out the cue cards for the iconic trailer for ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’, filmed in a nearby alleyway off The Strand called Savoy Steps.

The recollections do not always put Dylan in a favourable light. The treatment of Joan Baez on a 1965 tour leaves a particularly unpleasant taste. However, this short, concise book is highly readable, entertaining and informative. Anyone with an interest in London’s musical heritage and Dylan’s artistic legacy will find much to enjoy here.

Published: March 2021 by McNidder & Grace

https://mcnidderandgrace.com/bobdylaninlondon

‘The Sweet in the 1970s’ now also set for publication in the US on 24th September

I’m delighted to report sales of my book, which was published in the UK by Sonicbond on 30th July, have been brisk.

Amazon and other retailers will be dispatching to customers in the US from 24th September. When writing the book I did take care to ensure the book would be relevant to US readers – putting Billboard chart positions in as well as UK ones, for example, as well as explaining some peculiarly English turns of phrase like w*nk and Sweet FA…

My book also picked up a very nice review from Jason Ritchie at Get Ready To Rock recently:

“An excellent overview of The Sweet, appraising the band’s 70s output and tracking the band’s ups and downs during that decade. Well researched and referenced too, with the final part of the book giving a whistle stop tour of what the band did from 1980 to the present day.”

Full review here

Over on Amazon it’s been picking up some very encouraging customer reviews, too:

“The Sweet In The 1970s is an excellent and concise book about rock’s most underrated band who transformed from ‘bubblegum’ to ‘glam rock’ to ‘hard rock’ to something a little more progressive throughout the aforementioned decade. It also reminds the reader how Sweet managed to ‘snatch defeat from the jaws of victory’ on many occasions.”

“Fabulous book. It does what it says on the cover it tells the Sweet story in the 70s. That doesn’t mean that the 60s and 80s are totally ignored.”

“Whether you a big Sweet fan or not this is a really interesting story written and presented very well. I’ve learnt a lot!”

At one point it made it to number three on Amazon’s UK best sellers list for music history and criticism, as well number ten in its popular music books and number fourteen in its rock music books. All beyond my wildest dreams really. When I began writing and researching the book it very much became my lockdown project. Any success in terms of sales was going to be the icing on the cake rather than the main reason for doing it.

However, I’m really pleased it’s selling so well and it’s been a very positive experience working with Sonicbond Publishing who have an excellent range of other music books in their portfolio.

On with the next one!

‘The Sweet in the 1970s’ is available from:

UK

You can order ‘The Sweet in the 1970s’ direct from the publishers via the Burning Shed on line shop here

It’s available from a number of other UK retailers including: WH SmithWaterstones, and Bookshop.org

You can order from Amazon UK here

US

You can order via Walmart and Amazon.com

Sweden

You can order via Adlibris 

Book review: ‘Rock History: the Musician’s Perspective’ by Dr Rob Brosh

When an American academic, Dr Rob Brosh of the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, got in touch to see if I was interested in reviewing the textbook he had written for music students, my first thought was, “Why me?” I play music all day long but can’t hold a tune for the life of me. I read about music, write about music and think about music but have never had any pretensions to being a musician and barely know one end of an instrument to another. Music history always fascinates me, however, so I emailed Rob back and told him I’d be very interested in reading his book.

In the pre-internet days I used to devour rock encyclopaedias – books like The NME Book of Rock, The Virgin Encyclopaedia of Seventies Music and The All-Music Guide To Rock. Huge, lengthy tomes that I would constantly dipping in and out of to find out background information on bands and artists that I was newly discovering. There’s something about the old rock encyclopaedia format in Brosh’s book but rather than an A-to-Z directory this book takes us through the evolution of rock music genre by genre.

I found ‘Rock History: the Musician’s Perspective’ absolutely gripping and read it cover to cover. It does three main things.

Firstly, it gives us a detailed overview of the vast range of music genres that fall within the canon of rock music and how each developed from the development of rock and roll itself, through blues rock, psychedelia, hard rock, folk rock, punk rock and many, many more. What I thought came across brilliantly in the early part of the book is the dynamics of how successive waves of musicians in the US and the UK influenced one another, sending new musical trends back and forth across the Atlantic as rock music involved from its earliest foundations.

Secondly, it gives us a concise but fascinating overview of many of the key artists within each of those genres, for example detailing how bands came together, how they developed their own style and giving us some memorable highlights from their careers. The fact that it’s arranged by genre rather than artist obviously makes it a little trickier to look up individual artists than the old encyclopaedia format did, but the internet has largely rendered that format obsolete now I guess anyway. However, it more than makes up for that by being able to place the evolution of individual artists into the wider context of the evolution of key genres and styles. I was definitely picking up new insights in this way and learning new facts so it’s obviously going to be a great resource for students.

The third thing the book does is focus in on particular songs, providing insights into the structure of them and how certain sounds were achieved. This last element is where you get the musician’s perspective and while some of it went over my head as a non-musician most of it didn’t! I definitely learnt a lot and ended up playing many of the songs that were being discussed in detail and it all started making a lot of sense.

This decidedly non-musician’s review of a musician’s perspective on the history of rock music is therefore a very positive one. Highly recommended.

Published by DDG Publishing, 2018

Book review: ‘How To Think Like David Bowie’ by Jonathan Tindale

I’m generally more one for Viz Top Tips than anything approaching self-help literature but when I was offered the chance to review a book entitled  ‘How To Think Like David Bowie – Habits of mind for leading a more creative and successful life’ my curiosity was piqued.

By sheer coincidence the book arrived in the post about thirty minutes before I was due to head off on a trip to Essex with former Bowie guitarist, Kevin Armstrong, who had worked with Bowie on Absolute Beginners and Tin Machine and played with him at Live Aid. I hadn’t even had time to open the book before he arrived but I mentioned it to a bemused Kevin on the journey up to Colchester and asked for his thoughts. “I think there’s very few people who ever really knew what David Bowie was thinking,” was Kevin’s response, saying that Bowie was always welcoming and warm-hearted but rarely shared his inner thought processes, concentrating very much on the task in hand and getting the best out of everyone present.

In the book itself, Kevin Armstrong’s own sentiments are very much echoed by an earlier collaborator, Rick Wakeman, whose recollections of recording ‘Space Oddity’ back in 1969 are reproduced in the book:

“He was always incredibly prepared in the studio. He never wrote in the studio; everything was already done. He was always what he called ‘75% prepared’. You’d go in and he’d get the piece that far, and then the studio would take it that extra 25%.”

So does author, Jonathan Tindale, really attempt to get inside the head of Bowie and tell us how to think like him? In truth, although the book references Jung and Myers- Briggs and ‘The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology’, the title is somewhat tongue-in-cheek and it’s more philosophy than psychology. Bowie’s approaches to numerous projects throughout his five-decade career are analysed, dissected and cross-referenced and various life lessons drawn from them. Tindale, whose previous publications have included travel writing and parenting, draws on a wide range of Bowie-related sources to derive a number of key lessons from Bowie’s career.

Arranged across twelve chapters, themes include Bowie’s individuality, his work ethic, his approach to creative collaborations and his attitude to the business side of things. The book is not a long read but it’s well referenced and entertaining and avoids falling into the cult-like demagogic devotion that some of the more hagiographic pieces written after his death have fallen victim to. Moreover, it doesn’t shy away from looking at some of Bowie’s flaws and the odd creative troughs in his career as well as the many peaks. Quirky and thought-provoking How To Think Like David Bowie will be of interest to more than just the most hardened Bowie devotee.

Published: 18th June 2021 and available to order here

Related posts:

Before glam: the debut 60s singles of Bowie, Bolan, Slade, Mud and Sweet

The Sweet versus Bowie: the riff in Blockbuster and Jean Genie – origins a influences

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Holy Holy perform The Man Who Sold The World & Ziggy Stardust De La Warr Pavilion 2019