BOOKS FOR CHRISTMAS / Rock Music: The crazy shrine of King Tut

FEW ROCK books can have been so eagerly awaited as Michael Azerrad's Come as You Are: The Story of Nirvana (Virgin pounds 12.99): you could feel the layers of myth building up around Kurt Cobain & Co's rags-to-rags ascent even while it was still happening. Rolling Stone journalist Azerrad makes excellent use of his access to all the drama's principal players. His book manages to be revealing without being sensationalist, even-handed without being cold, and a fascinating picture emerges of raw talent and opportunistic rejectionism in ear-splitting harmony. The account of Kurt and bass-player Chris's formative years in the redneck logging town of Aberdeen Washington is particularly inspiring. How the reader will feel about Cobain by the book's end, by which time he's delivered an object lesson on how not to handle fame, is another matter.

For anyone who finds this rather depressing, Gina Arnold's Route 666: The Road to Nirvana (Picador pounds 9.99) is a fan's antidote. Arnold colours in the background to Azerrad's saga, filling in the pre-history of the underground that became an overground with stories of some of the great American punk bands who never made it in the way Nirvana did. At times Arnold is breathtakingly nave - 'Nirvana's being on the radio means my own values are winning; I'm no longer in the opposition' - and her bigoted 'disco sucks' mentality is a bore, but this is still a cohesive and valuable version of a largely untold story.

No one could accuse the Pet Shop Boys of a 'disco sucks' mentality. Chris Heath's Pet Shop Boys vs America (Viking pounds 15.99) is an entertaining and unsparing memoir of the group's 1991 US concert tour, a bold but ultimately doomed attempt to convert the home of rock 'n' roll to their way of thinking. This is Heath's second book about the Pet Shop Boys, and he still can't resist the temptation to be bitchy about those not as firmly in tune with them as he is, but his fine ear for pop-star dialogue combines with Pennie Smith's classic rock-rebel photography to create as clear a picture as could be wished for of the seething mass of elegant contradictions that is the PSB on-the-road experience. There is not much here about what makes their music so great, but if you want to know which Pet Shop Boy obsesses about his socks being different lengths, this is the place to find out.

Glaswegian photo- journalist Harry Benson got to go on tour with the Beatles in 1964 because they deemed another photographer 'too ugly'. His book The Beatles: In the Beginning (Mainstream pounds 14.99) is a suitably handsome series of intimate black-and-white portraits. The band are captured composing 'I Feel Fine' in their hotel room, posing with busts of Napoleon and enjoying a half-staged pillow-fight - 'They all seemed to take pleasure in hitting Paul'. Benson is not as good a writer as he is a photographer, but the text is at least as illuminating as the pictures. The four young men whose obsequiousness to Ed Sullivan is only matched by their fury when Cassius Clay turns out to be smarter than them are already far more interesting and complex characters than the lovable mop-tops of pre-drug legend.

Chet Flippo's Graceland: The Living Legacy of Elvis Presley (Mitchell Beazley pounds 19.99) looks at first glance like remainder-shop fodder, but is actually a strange and beautiful book. Some of Flippo's analysis is contentious, to say the least - 'Graceland stands for a Southern way of life, a certain value that was missing in pop culture . . . It stands for the superstar who stayed home amidst his friends and neighbours, who, in short, didn't get above his raising' - but the pictures tell a more powerful story. The crazed opulence of this King Tut's shrine is even more scary and imposing here than it is on a visit.

Peter Gammond's Oxford Companion to Popular Music (OUP pounds 12.95) is more inclined to see Elvis as the end rather than the beginning of its remit. Exhaustive and impressive scholarship on a century and a half of instruments and librettists is off-set by a funny, Fifties-newsreel attitude to anything more modern. 'It is often interesting,' deadpans the Top of the Pops entry, 'to listen to the sound of a full orchestra emerging from a quartet of jiving musicians.' And how could anyone give space to Jethro Tull but none to Black Sabbath?

Robert Walser's Running With The Devil: Power, Gender & Madness in Heavy Metal Music (Wesleyan University Press pounds 12.95) approaches its subject with none of the condescension you would expect from an assistant professor of music. In fact this is the fullest, wisest and most delightfully high-flown analysis of the most deeply loved and widely hated of all popular musics ever published.

Last, and scandalously still available only in importing bookshops, is Greg Tate's Flyboy in the Buttermilk (Simon & Schuster pounds 8.99). It is a rare collection of journalism that makes a successful transition into book form, but this wide-ranging selection of essays from the Village Voice staff writer does just that. Tate begins with music - George Clinton, Public Enemy, Miles Davis - and branches out every which way. His style is aptly described in Henry Louis Gates's introduction as 'teenage mutant b-boy cadence': like Lester Bangs with a whole new set of hang-ups.

(Photograph omitted)

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