Christmas books: Pop - A couple of thousand Pink Floyd fans can be wrong

Cole Moreton reviews the year's best rock books (and Ian Gillan's)
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The Independent Culture
What's your favourite pop single of all time? Mine got to number 49 in the charts in 1984 then disappeared, just like the band who made it. "Breakfast" by The Associates might be the most preposterously operatic affair ever to appear on vinyl (apart from opera itself, of course) but my heart is won by the glorious, swooping vocal performance of Billy Mackenzie, a beret-wearing pop tart who knew he was a genius but had a hard time convincing the rest of the world.

The story of how this working-class aesthete from Dundee took a stab at stardom and missed, only to fall into depression and kill himself at the age of 39 is told in Tom Doyle's new biography The Glamour Chase (Bloomsbury pounds 12.99). It has a foreword by Bono, no less, in which the leading rock vocalist of his generation admits that Billy was a better singer. Too late, old son, too late.

My reason for revealing such bizarre taste is to point out that pop is about the transient, the ephemeral and the marvellously insubstantial. It is also, in short, about whatever takes your fancy (and your fancy is certain to be different from mine) so the only way to choose from the dozens of new books on music available this Christmas is to follow your heart. I was fascinated by Andrew Collins's biography of Billy Bragg, Still Suitable For Miners (Virgin pounds 12.99), for example, because the Bard of Barking was a hero to young socialists such as myself whose political sophistication extended to standing on picket lines discussing how much of a cow Mrs Thatcher was. You, on the other hand, might prefer to read the autobiography of Ian Gillan (Blake pounds 6.99), lead singer with the newly resurgent Deep Purple (although we won't be seen together in public if you do).

The idea of a pop canon is preposterous, but it is also the central conceit behind the Virgin All-Time Top 1000 Albums by Colin Larkin (Virgin pounds 16.99). After five years of research that involved compiling the votes of 200,000 musicians, writers and listeners in Britain and America, Larkin reveals that the greatest recording artists of all time are ... the Beatles. Big surprise there then. John, Paul, George and Ringo take four of the top five slots in this survey, the other going to Nirvana.

The voters were obviously all big fans of white guitar rock, because the first soul album to appear is Marvin Gaye's What's Going On? at number 32 - way below even the Stone Roses. Dance music, the dominant genre of our time, registers less than 0.7 per cent of the vote. The cover describes this as "the world's most authoritative guide to the perfect record collection", but if you know anyone sad enough to go out and buy the top 30, say, on the basis of what a couple of hundred thousand Pink Floyd fans think, the only humane thing to do is shoot them.

Alternatively you could broaden their minds with A Century of Pop (Hamlyn pounds 25). Despite its gaudy, childish jacket, Hugh Gregory's history of the musical melting pot is learned and comprehensive, running from light opera and music hall to bhangra and boy bands. If your friend or relative is an anorak, however, a better gift this Christmas would be The Great Rock Discography by Martin C Strong (Canongate pounds 25). This thick, black, self-important book is perfect for looking up the name of the song on the B-side of the picture disc of Twisted Sister's "The Kids Are Back". (It was called "Shoot 'Em Down" by the way, but surely anybody who wanted to look that up would know it already?)

The Seventies emerged from the Virgin poll as the "all-time favourite decade", so there should be a market for Rolling Stone: The Seventies (Simon & Schuster pounds 20). It contains the Frank Zappa quote that rock journalism is about people who can't write interviewing people who can't talk, for people who can't read. Fortunately, in its greatest period, Rolling Stone magazine knew that rock was only relevant when it was woven into the wider culture. Chrissie Hynde, founder of The Pretenders, opens the book by looking back to the day in 1970 when state troopers shot dead four of her fellow student protesters at Kent State University in Ohio, an event marked almost immediately by Neil Young's raging song "Ohio". An impressive list of contributors includes Deborah Harry of Blondie, Joan Baez, Hunter S Thompson and Tom Wolfe. Forget Boogie Nights and flare-wearing retro nonsense - from Nixon and the Jonestown massacre to the birth of hip-hop, this fabulous book tells (or reminds) you what the Seventies were really like, at least in America.

Over here at the time, a bunch of blues- riffing navvies with glitter gummed to their cheeks were pushing glam. Roxy Music rose from the pack because they understood the Warhol way, and the story of Bryan Ferry, Brian Eno and the other non-Brians nobody remembers is told in Paul Stump's book about the band, Unknown Pleasure (Quartet pounds 12), which bears the ominously pretentious subtitle "a cultural biography". This is a labour of love, released to cash in on the movie Velvet Goldmine. Zappa's dictum does not apply because none of the band would talk to Stump, but he makes up for it with the overblown style that is so easy to fall into when you're writing about art-school graduates you consider to be geniuses. The same condition afflicts Sean Egan in Star Sail (Omnibus pounds 9.99), his loving biography of last year's favourite rock band The Verve, who are surely destined to become the Camel of the Nineties.

Speaking of tragedies, Who Killed Kurt Cobain? by Ian Halperin and Max Wallace (Blake pounds 14.99), reveals the shocking truth that the Nirvana singer's middle name was Donald. Oh, they also conclude that he might have been murdered and that Courtney Love might know who did it (so that's saved you reading the thing).

Clang! No, it's not Courtney coming at me with an axe (she wouldn't, of course), just the sound of another name being dropped by the writer and broadcaster Paul Gambaccini in his hagiographic Close Encounters (Omnibus pounds 9.99). Each chapter describes a meeting between Gambo (as Linda McCartney called him) and a succession of legends from Marvin Gaye to Diana. It's all terribly camp - with chapter headings such as "Sting Makes Me Feel Fat" - and hideously fascinating.

If you really must buy someone a book by a DJ it should be Showbusiness: Diary of a Rock 'n' Roll Nobody by Mark Radcliffe (Sceptre pounds 10), an account of his struggles to become a star drummer. Gigs in Scout huts, endless squabbles and being ripped off by dodgy managers are the stuff of rock and roll for most of us who try it - and the deadpan, self-deprecating Radcliffe renders it all hilarious.

Finally, another Northern lad with his head screwed on right. Let me Entertain You: The Official Book (Virgin pounds 12.99) contains as many glossy pictures of Robbie Williams as the tomes that were once issued in the name of Take That, but there is a twist. Tucked away next to a shot of Robbie in the full groin-hugging spandex regalia of American glam-rockers Kiss is a quote with which he claims to have the same relationship to traditional pop as Eddie Izzard has to Jimmy Tarbuck: "It's the art of self-deprecation." His tunes may be anaemic, but once you notice the irony that drips from every page this is a bloody funny book whose inspiration (of course he didn't write it) understands what pop is all about. So he should be able to cope with becoming old, fat and hitless far better than poor Billy Mackenzie. Now go and put another record on.