Half a century has passed since Bill Haley invited us to rock around the clock, but popular music - in all its guises - seems to have prompted surprisingly little quality writing. Star biographies and autobiographies proliferate, but few reveal anything of genuine interest - although perhaps Bob Dylan's long-awaited Chronicles, the first volume of which is now promised for this autumn, will set a new standard.
British rock journalism, which came of age in the 1970s with page after breathlessly bloated page in the now-defunct Melody Maker and New Musical Express (not yet NME), has thrown up a handful of strong writers, among them Mick Brown, Richard Williams, Michael Bracewell and Ian MacDonald. None stands comparison with such American cousins as Jann Wenner, John Rockwell, Peter Guralnick or (when he's not too abstruse) Greil Marcus.
If not quite in their pantheon, Barney Hoskyns comes close. He began his career on NME in 1980 and spent the later 1990s reporting the American scene for Mojo, the most successful attempt at a British version of Rolling Stone. Along the way, he has written for the New Statesman and Vogue, as well as The Independent and its Sunday sister.
The 28 pieces collected in Ragged Glories span two decades, although most are culled from his US period: surely a miraculous posting for someone to whom American music has been "the great fixation of my life". Readers who have encountered his earlier collections, From a Whisper to a Scream and Waiting for the Sun, will appreciate the breadth and depth of his musical knowledge, and will not be disappointed by this new anthology.
Hoskyns can get to the heart of Kurt Cobain or Eminem (about whom he feels there's more than a touch of emperor's new clothes) at the same time as he ruffles the pompadour thicket of Little Richard, who discovered God but not humility. Prince, however, leaves him "nonplussed"; Kim Fowley, the "tycoon of trash", somewhat queasy.
The Q&A format, employed on a few occasions here, is often a sign of lazy journalism, a cop-out approach that either allows the writer to avoid passing judgment or the subjects to condemn themselves out of their own mouths. While there's a sense of that in Hoskyns's encounter with Lou Reed (by whom he is frankly intimidated), the approach works well with Johnny Cash, Joni Mitchell and Randy Newman. Perhaps it's because they have been given little space to speak for themselves in recent years, and can all do so with more than the usual objectivity.
But the highlight of Ragged Glories is surely "The lonely blue dream of Roy Orbison": Hoskyns's appreciation, a decade after his death, of one of the truly great figures of popular music. Through conversations with those who worked with the Big O, and with his widow, Barbara, he "explains" both the man and his talent (as a child, he had "a voice that sounded grown-up before its time"). Hoskyns discusses several of the songs in such a way that the reader is propelled back to the CDs. Which is, of course, exactly what writing about music, any music, should do.