Music: 15 years of charlie

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The Independent Culture

The year's most meticulously researched and widely discussed music book was The Colonel (Aurum £19.99) in which Alanna Nash tells "The Extraordinary Story of Colonel Tom Parker and Elvis Presley". Parker wasn't actually a colonel: indeed he was discharged from the US army for being a psychopath. And until he was 20 he wasn't Tom Parker either. Born Andreas van Kujik, he was a carnival huckster who, Nash contends, fled his native Holland for the US because he had bludgeoned a woman to death. Equal parts Machiavelli and Svengali, and a con-artist through and through, he discovered the ultimate carnival attraction gyrating its pelvis at county fairs in 1955. Elvis signed a contract that gave Parker 50 per cent of his earnings and complete control of his career. With the exception of the suspected murder, these bare facts were all widely known by Elvisologists, but Nash has crafted her material - 90 per cent new, we are assured - into a gripping psychological drama full of astounding hubris and needless tragedy.

The day Elvis died, the Colonel flew to New York to negotiate a merchandising deal, pioneering the entertainment industry's posthumous marketing of artists. Since Tupac Shakur was murdered in 1996, he has released eight albums (twice as many as in the 25 years he was alive) and his position as a significant 20th-century musician looks ever more assured. His canonisation continues apace with Tupac: The Resurrection 1971-1996 ed Jacob Hoyle and Karolyn Ali (Simon & Schuster £20), a big, golden book in which an autobiographical narrative is pieced together from lots of little quotes and proclamations, and The Rose That Grew From Concrete (Pocket Books £12.99), a collection of poems that he wrote when he was 19 and a member of a writing circle. Both are handsomely produced, with lots of reproductions of his own handwriting and doodles. He'd probably be embarrassed by the baby photos on show, and should certainly cringe at most of the earnestly adolescent poetry. But in both books he evinces an acute political awareness, a talent for communicating powerfully and directly, and a sensitive side that wasn't always evident in his music.

Aaliyah by Tim Footman (Plexus £9.99) is sugary and a bit tacky - a more conventional illustrated biography. But then her story, from precocious stage-schooled talent to photogenic R&B and film star is a more conventional one, albeit sadly curtailed by her death in 2001. Out in paperback is another notable picture book, Kylie la la la (Hodder £12.99). It contains 200-odd pictures, some of them candid, most of them artfully, beautifully, startlingly posed. She writes in her introduction that there are some photographs which "pave the way for absurd commentary to turn the viewer's perspective of a genuine image into something far from its concept or actuality". Which makes one glad she left the rest of the writing to William Baker, her friend and stylist. Baker doesn't much bother with biographical detail or musical appreciation; instead, he exhaustively catalogues the various photographers, designers and stylists that Kylie has collaborated with. The result is a surprisingly witty and perceptive overview of her career, and - taking it as read that her image is of at least equal importance to her music - one of her best pieces of work.

Then there's Iggy Pop - Biopic (Canongate £12.99), a wordless portrait by Gavin Evans from a 1996 sitting, in which Iggy looks like a knowing parody of his former self: wrinkled and covered in plasters, but remarkably healthy looking and still getting his willy out.

The story of rock'n'roll usually begins in 1955 with Chuck Berry and Little Richard, but in Ike Turner - King of Rhythm (Do Not Press £9.99) John Collis has written a prequel, detailing all of the young band leader and talent scout's early sessions and releases, and pinpointing 1951, when he recorded Rocket 88, as an equally valid year zero in the history of rock music. That done, Collis tails off in the mid-1970s, summing up the ensuing 15 years with the single word "cocaine", and he can be worryingly glib about Turner's womanising and violence.

If you want some more stories of rock 'n' roll excess, then Christopher Sandford's biography Keith Richards: Satisfaction (Headline £17.99) is, it rather goes without saying, the place to look. There are black bits (Brian Jones, Altamont, heroin) but it's usually an entertaining and gossipy litany of drugs, booze, sex, fights and more drugs, from which Keith emerges with a surprising amount of dignity - urbane and quintessentially English. "A prince of darkness, but a prince nonetheless." Michael Francis also has lots of good gossip to tell, having spent 30 years on tour as a bodyguard and fixer for Paul McCartney, Led Zeppelin, Kiss, Cher and Bon Jovi. An amiable raconteur, in Star Man (Simon & Schuster £16.99) he splices stories about group sex and kidnapping Michael Jackson's friend Bubbles with homilies about his working-class roots as a London market trader.

Sting's memoir Broken Music (Simon & Schuster £18.99) begins with him having a religious experience, high on ayahuasca in the Brazilian jungle, visited by the ghosts of his parents whose funerals he didn't attend. In the course of his book he comes to terms with their deaths and works through some childhood traumas, leaving off at about the point when he formed The Police. I suppose you have to admire him for treading his own path in Broken Music, even if it is quite self-indulgent and worthy.

The three years for which Eric Goulden was signed to Stiff Records as Wreckless Eric, alongside such emergent talents as Ian Dury and Elvis Costello, are covered very briefly in his equally idiosyncratic autobiography A Dysfunctional Success (Do Not Press £9.99). The rest is all painfully funny observations about what it's like growing up in suburban south-east England in the 1960s and 1970s, with no future and your head full of dreams about becoming a pop star. And then some less funny, more painful observations about what happens if, because of punk, you do accidentally become a pop star, but don't make any money, have a nervous breakdown and become an alcoholic.

Fey, bookish and obsessed with Sandie Shaw, Steven Morrissey was also born patently unsuited to any role in life other than pop star. But luckily he grew up to be the most fêted and iconic English pop star of the 1980s, and now lives apparently quite happily in LA. In Saint Morrissey (SAF £16.99), Mark Simpson doesn't bother with all that boring research that most biographers have to do, knowing that it wouldn't get him any closer to his unusually private and enigmatic subject if he did. Instead he peruses Morrissey's lyrics and arch public pronouncements, and discovers that everything there is to know about the man has already been offered up to us. Simpson is funny, clever, honest, irreverent and egotistical: quite the match for Morrissey. More biographies should be written this way.

Devin McKinney takes a similar approach in Magic Circles: The Beatles in Dream and History (Harvard University Press £18.95), a freewheeling pseudo-academic treatise that pounces on the Fab Four's every utterance in the hope of understanding how they managed to invent the 1960s. Precariously poised between impressive erudition and astounding pretension, it's hugely contrary and just dares you to try to argue back. Definitely one of the best of recent Beatles books. Of the others, Phil Strongman and Alan Parker's John Lennon & the FBI Files (Sanctuary £11.99) is at least contentious. Recently released files prove that the American authorities were keeping an eye on the vociferously anti-establishment Lennon while he lived in New York. What they don't confirm is the authors' main contention, that Mark Chapman was the CIA's first successful "Manchurian Candidate", brainwashed and then programmed to assassinate Lennon.

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