Jarvis Cocker’s 10 Favorite Music Books

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As founder and frontman of Britpop powerhouse Pulp, Jarvis Cocker became an icon of alt-90s music. Following the band’s hiatus, Cocker’s led a successful solo career, and spent seven years hosting the much-loved BBC Radio 6 Music show Jarvis Cocker’s Sunday Service.

In a list of his top ten books on music for The Guardian, Cocker reflected on the futility of putting song into words:

“‘It’s impossible to write about music’ – I once began an interview with a music journalist with that statement. He probably thought that I was being wilfully confrontational, but I was really trying to sympathize with his position of trying to define something that can never be adequately defined due to its essential nature. It’s nothing to do with the skill of the writer – it’s just an enterprise that is always doomed to failure. Sorry. That said, there have been some pretty noble failures…”

Find Cocker’s favorite ‘failures’ below – and complement with the reading lists of David Bowie, David Byrne, Kurt Cobain, Lou Reed, and Nick Cave.


Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom: The Golden Age of Rock by Nik Cohn (also rec’d by David Bowie)
“The original title for this book was ‘Pop From the Beginning’ and that pretty much sums it up. Nik Cohn was only just out of his teens when he wrote it & it’s the best book to read if you want to get some idea of the original, primal energy of pop music. Loads of unfounded, biased assertions that almost always turn out to be right. He went on to provide the inspiration for ‘Saturday Night Fever’ (Hurrah!) & ‘Tommy’ (Boo!) but this is still his best book. Absolutely essential.” -JC

Tales from Moominvalley by Tove Jansson

“Specifically the story called ‘The Spring Tune’ – the best description I’ve read about the elusive nature of the tunes that we carry around in our heads and how we must be careful as to how and when we try to ‘harvest’ them. All songwriters need to read this story.” -JC
The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers (also rec’d by Gloria Steinem)
“I ripped this off royally for the song ‘Big Julie’ from my first solo album. The description of Mick Kelly hearing Beethoven’s 3rd symphony for the first time, whilst hiding beneath a neighbour’s window & eavesdropping on their radio, is still the only piece of writing I’ve found that comes close to describing the effect that a great piece of music has on the human organism. The rest of the book isn’t bad either…” -JC

Liverpool Explodes by Mark Cooper

“Before he became responsible for Later… and the bulk of the BBC’s music output, Mark Cooper wrote this affectionate & hilarious account of the early 1980s music scene in Liverpool & specifically the careers of The Teardrop Explodes and Echo and the Bunnymen. Unfortunately out of print at the mo…. You could console yourself by reading 45 by Bill Drummond which features some of the same characters. (And is also an immense book in its own right).” -JC
The Beatles Illustrated Lyrics edited by John Aldridge
“This is the first music book I was ever aware of – I spent hours of my childhood poring over the illustrations: some scared me, some turned me on, I was convinced that the photo that accompanies ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ was of me and my sister. I still get lost in it sometimes.” -JC

Sometimes a Great Notion by Ken Kesey

“There’s a section when Hank and Leland Stamper have an argument about jazz and Leland tells Hank that the reason he can’t handle John Coltrane is cos it’s too ‘black’ for him – then he goes and smokes a joint. It’s good to read Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test in tandem with this. Kesey is king.” -JC
The Favourite Game by Leonard Cohen
“We all know Leonard Cohen is The Don: perhaps the ONLY true musician/poet/novelist ever. This is his first novel and there is a great section where he describes driving through the Canadian night listening to Pat Boone singing ‘I Almost Lost My Mind’ which totally captures the essence of teenage years and their infatuation with all things Rock.” -JC
“This is the place where Outsider Art and Record Collecting meet: one day a DJ was ‘crate-digging’ – searching through piles of old vinyl in search of hidden treasures – when he discovered a cache of hand-made covers with cardboard ‘records’ inside. Mingering Mike had finally been discovered! Mingering Mike was the alter-ego of Mike Stevens and this book tells his story and reproduces the handmade artwork of the albums that comprised his imaginary career as a soul superstar.” -JC
Enjoy the Experience: Homemade Records 1958-1992 by Gregg Turkington & Will Louviere 
“Another outsider experience: a collection of sleeves from ‘private-press’ albums dating from the 50s through to the 90s. For a price, anyone could have their album pressed on vinyl and housed in a sleeve of their own design. The results are often hilarious – but, in conjunction with the download links to some of the music featured on the records – you will be introduced to a raw, unfiltered mode of expression often missing from commercial releases. Enjoy indeed.” -JC

Yeah, Yeah, Yeah by Bob Stanley

“If Nik Cohn’s book is ‘Pop from the Beginning’ then maybe Bob Stanley’s work should be retitled ‘Pop at the End’. He valiantly attempts to encompass all developments and movements in pop as captured during the age of the 7″ 45rpm single. With the death of the singles chart as a national pastime, Stanley seems to imply that some kind of golden age has come to an end. Reluctantly, I guess I kind of have to agree with him. You can prove me wrong if you like, though.” -JC

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