Forgive me if this sounds a bit pathetic, but it takes a lot for a book to hold my attention these days. Like everyone, I’m frantic from seven ‘til eleven, and even if I do manage to catch a few minutes of downtime, sitting in a chair to read instantly makes me feel like a home counties housewife with a Mills & Boon novel. Even my traditional “guilt free” times for reading – in bed, on public transport, on the loo – are constantly threatened by that constantly threatening scourge of modern concentration: the smartphone. In order to compete with the latest cat video, Daily Mash article or even a rubbishy Buzzfeed list – not to mention my scintillating Twitter feed – that book in question has to be seriously good.

In fact, to struggle through a tome of any magnitude, I need the same feeling when I look at the book as the one I get from spying the last beer in the fridge, or the last piece of chocolate or slice of cheescake… “ooh, come on, I could have just a littlemore of that, couldn’t I?” I usually leave books I’m reading in my hallway, and if I don’t get tempted for a moment as I pass, to steal a cheeky half-minute to read a couple of paragraphs when I’m really supposed to be doing something else, there’s probably no point in bothering. Conversely, if I look at a book, sigh, and say to myself, “uh, well… I suppose I’d better crack on with that, hadn’t I…” – sorry, but off to the charity shop that book goes.

So it’s with particular pleasure that I can tell you about three absolute slam-dunk top-hole bangers of books that I’ve been lucky enough to consecutively read over the last few months. Each of them had me stopping every few pages – not to check Facebook or see if anyone had replied to my latest Guardian comment – but to gaze at the cover and marvel at how marvellous the book was, which is something I’ve been doing with all great books since I was about six years old. All three of them are labours of love, and are, in their own way, works of art, lovingly crafted and imaginatively published. And only two of them are about music. And here they are:

1. Sick On You – Andrew Matheson

You’ve read a hundred “bands trying to make it” books, but none of them is like this one. Two reasons. One is that it focuses on a rarely visited corner of British music: pre-punk, and I’m not talking about pub rock, I’m referring to the immediately post-sixties crop of anti-prog, glam-sceptic, anger-ridden, attitude-laden, year-zero noiseniks. The British New York Dolls, then. The Hollywood Brats, the group in question for whom our spiky narrator was the lead vocalist, were the classic also-rans, navigating their way past a bewildering list of stars both current (Cliff Richard, Keith Moon) and eventual (Queen) with Forrest Gump-like prescience, but zero success of their own. But it’s the second element that really lifts the book above all the other failed-careerographies you might encounter, and it is, simply, Matheson’s hilarious turn of phrase. Any examples I present will probably look a bit pants out of context but here’s a few: so boring is a house party thrown by the aforementioned Queen, we’re told that “for the first couple of minutes we think we’ve got the wrong house and instead have stumbled into a retirement party for a particularly dull Ecclesiastical Studies professor.” Describing an angry mafia-connected manager, Matheson doesn’t write “he looks a bit cross” but “the scientific instrument has yet to be invented that could measure the lack of mirth in his arrangement of stretched lips and gritted teeth.” My kind of writer. The book is stuffed with hysterical anecdotes – like all good music books, almost none of them are about the music itself – and I could be here all day trying to single the best out, but the tale of Matheson and bandmate breaking into a neighbouring disused shop to stop a perpetually ringing telephone is among the funniest I’ve heard all decade.

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Sick On You. Crazy clothes, crazy book.

 

2. Good Night And Good Riddance – David Cavanagh

If I told you this book was an exhaustive description of 250 episodes of John Peel’s radio show spanning 35 years, you could be forgiven for thinking it sounded a bit speccy and earnest and solely of interest to hardcore Peel enthusiasts, but I can sure you it is nothing of the kind. Canavagh’s peculiar genius is that he’s woven Peel’s life events, the headline news stories of the day, the ups and downs of BBC Radio 1 and the music played on Peel’s show so deftly together that the whole thing reads like a riveting social drama. Will Peel eventually triumph over the fickle radio programmers? Will the various pop stars he’s helped make household names forget all about him? When will he be conquered by punk? Midway through the 90s when he’s asked to sit in for Jakki Brambles on her incredibly mainstream lunchtime slot, he’s lambasted by the listeners via fax (thank God Twitter didn’t exist) and snubbed by the regular daytime DJs (a particularly awkward encounter with Gary Davies). More so than any of the biographies about the man, we get to know Peel… really, really know him… his modesties, his wit, his weaknesses, his tastes, what it takes to (finally) make him angry. It’s nail-biting stuff, and a must for anyone wondering how we ended up with something as great as BBC Radio 6 Music, which often feels like one long John Peel show.

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Good Night and Good Riddance. How rude.

 

3. The Good Immigrant – edited by Nikesh Shukla

Awesome though the above two books are, they didn’t quite provide the rollercoaster of highs and lows I’ve felt while reading this quintessentially 2016 document. Nikesh Shukla has been rightly hammering the promo for this book so it’s possible you’ve heard about it already, but let me add my own loud applause to the project: a collection of 21 essays, stories, articles and reflections by 21 Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic writers, exploring themselves, their families, their experiences, and how they perceive the attitudes towards them in the UK, both in the earlier parts of their lives and right now. Again, there might be people reading this who think that sounds, y’know, a bit worthy and unexciting, but largely due to the sheer sky-high quality of the writing, it most certainly is not. It’s a compelling and fascinating ride, often highly amusing, often heartbreaking, causing me to do no small amount of self-examination about my own views and social reflexes. Although I am probably the epitome of what my Dad used to refer to as a “bog-standard Brit”, I consider myself to be as open-minded, equal-opportunties-conscious and culturally respectful as people get (I live in Hackney, for God’s sake), but even I encountered descriptions of several bits of thinking or behaviour within the book that made me think: “Shit! I do that.” Wei Ming Kam’s article about challenging stereotypes, for example, made me ashamed of my passive assumptions that “model minority” East Asians are all “quiet and hardworking”. It had never occurred to me that, although the “third largest ethnic grouping in the UK”, it could be An Event when an East Asian is seen on British television, as Vera Chok’s essay suggests. The book is heaving with great stories and episodes that make you leap up and down with with rage or laughter, often both: Riz Ahmed’s brilliant tale of his acting auditions influencing the hassle he receives at airports, and vice versa; Varaidzo’s savagely witty “A Guide To Being Black”; Coco Khan’s charming, sad account of seduction and of local, casual racism; Daniel York Loh’s hilarious recollections of watching the mysterious masked wrestler Kendo Nagasaki on telly as a kid; and Nikesh Shukla’s own story of language misuse and abuse. J. K. Rowling has called the book “important and timely” and as usual I agree with everything she says; especially in this hatred-laden year, I wish I could upload the book straight into each British human’s brain and then give everyone a day off to think about it. In the absence of this magical ability, I urge you to buy it. Today.

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The Good Immigrant. Way cool book, way cool cover.

 

Often contrary to what your head’s telling you, it feels good to participate in something that seems, at the time, to be a leap of faith. The music world is full of such uncertain nuggets. Remixes and production jobs you never know will be approved. Gigs in strange places with hilariously convoluted logistics. Collaborations with orchestras that might, right up until you walk into the concert hall, turn out to be some elaborate practical joke. And spending a couple of years writing and recording music for a short film from under which the financial carpet has been pulled two or three times, but which ends up being completed via that seventh wonder of the altruistic digital age: crowdfunding.

Yes, it’s true. The Five Wives And Lives Of Melvyn Pfferberg, the 17-minute comic epic to which I have added my Britpop-meets-Klezmer noises, has been filmed, post-produced and, finally, unleashed upon an unsuspecting global gaggle of film festival curators. Director, producer and general auteur nouvelle Damian Samuels must have done something right because LA Shorts Festival, that jewel in the Downtown LA cultural crown, has enveloped our movie into its enlightened bosom and will host Melvyn’s world premiere on Sept 6. At times like this, I like to muse upon precisely which bits of our creation a hopefully-packed theater of LA hipsters will enjoy the most.

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Will it be down-on-his-luck Melvyn weeping as he tramps through a park full of romantic couples taking a stroll? Will it be the unveiling of the “Cupidatron” – a futuristic helmet showing your future with anyone you shake hands with? Will it be the perfectly-timed performance by Smallville‘s Callum Blue as the dating night emcee? Will it be Melvyn’s grand entrance, watched by gaping speed-dating colleagues including a cameo from Basement Jaxx’s Felix Buxton? Will it be Melvyn’s slushy picnic in the pretty company of TV’s Brooke D’Orsay? Will it be the scene where Melvyn has a romp with a somewhat more enormously proportioned lover on a bed strewn with pizzas and tortilla chips? Will it be the bit where he’s manacled to an S&M wheel, or confined to crutches by a clumsy girlfriend? Verily, this is a short movie that packs in as many comic highlights as an entire season of Extras, but without the crap bits.

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I’m no expert at writing film music. That’s it; there’s no “but” following that statement. I haven’t a clue. All I knew was that I could write and arrange some crazy mashups and record it with my production partner-in-crime Max Gilkes, and then slap it on the film, hoping that my years appreciating the work of Marvin Hamlisch, Elmer Bernstein and Hans Zimmer had done a tiny bit of good. To be fair, it took a few attempts. Several times Max and I had to return to the old drawing board, reminding ourselves that we were making a film soundtrack and not a cool indie record. At last we got the formula right, the man Samuels gave us the green light, and our sound designer – longtime Monty Python collaborator and general legend André Jacquemin – added the tunes to the action. Phew – it worked. only one question remained… a question that has bugged John Barry and David Arnold on many an occasion… who the buggering heck are we gonna get to sing the theme song?

Damian Samuels and I sat down with a vat of coffee and, if memory serves, drew up a massive list of people. All my names were either highly credible (i.e. unknown) or meat’n’potatoes indie rock and therefore utterly inappropriate. Samuels’ suggestions were all as camp as Butlins and therefore thoroughly outlandish and unattainable. After a while we got out a marker pen and turned the list into a preposterously proportioned Venn diagram with – once we’d finished – only one name lurking in the crossover section, and that name was the Spice Girls’ Melanie C. “Leave it with me,” smiled Damian, and we parted, me thinking, “yeah… right,” and him thinking, well, Christ knows what, really, but some sort of celebrity magic must have happened because a couple of weeks later we were sitting in the control room of Basement Jaxx’s North London recording studio, with Mel C herself on the other side of the glass.

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Pop-star dissenters can shelve all their nonsense: Melanie was absolutely bloody wonderful. She showed up, watched the film, had a cup of tea and then nailed it. The song went from sounding like a Blur C-side to a power-pop classic within, well, two minutes 20 seconds. Damian, producer Max and myself went straight to the pub and dumbfoundedly reflected on the musical conjuring trick that had just occurred. It’s only a small part of the film, but as Damian put it, the whole thing has rocketed to another level as a result. What was I saying at the start of this blog about leaps of faith? It works both ways: when major players such as Melanie C, or Callum Blue, or Brooke D’Orsay, or André Jacquemin, or the Oscar-winning post-production houses Milk and The Mill, take a chance on a project such as ours, the momentum ratchets up a couple of amazing gears and the art that results acquires a fresh urgency and elevated quality: everyone wins.

We hope for many more festivals but if you’re going to be in Los Angeles on Sept 6, take a trip down to LA Live and have a look at our movie, I guarantee you’re gonna laugh your pants off…

The Fives Wives And Lives Of Melvyn Pfferberg will premiere at the LA Shorts Film Festival on Sept 6 at 9.55pm, at LA Live (Downtown).

 

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