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Book reviews - Murder Ballads, Piracy, Rare Bowie and Rip-offs

David Bowie - Rare Records Price Guide Volume One (Singles 1964-2016)


by Tamsin Darke

Createspace ISBN 978-1523856268

Goldmine’s latest price guide gives David Bowie a couple of pages. Record Collector’s smaller format surrenders a couple more. Tamsin Darke’s prosaically titled undertaking gives him eighty-eight, and that’s only for singles (7-inch, 10-inch, 12-inch, cassette and CD). A second volume for the albums is apparently imminent.

It’s a timely undertaking, of course, with Bowie’s death in January sending prices for even common items soaring, at least briefly. Darke’s introduction does mention this, but she doesn’t dwell on it - smartly, she believes prices are already returning to equitable levels; and, in any case, her guide is more concerned with the price that records are likely to sell for, as opposed to the sums that hopeful sellers are asking.

The book features complete US and UK discographies - remarkable undertakings in themselves - laid out strictly by year of release, and liberally sprinkled with black-and-white photos. Reissues, repackagings, repressings and label varieties are all included, and surprises include the high values attached to sundry 3” CDs, and the minimal sums attending Bowie’s late-eighties/early-nineties output. Across the board, however, it’s a fascinating and illuminating book and, whether you’re a veteran Bowie collector, or a newcomer to the catalog, it is highly recommended.

Sounds Like Teen Spirit: Stolen Melodies, Ripped-off Riffs and the Secret History of Rock and Roll, 2016 Edition


by Tim English

Timenglish Books ISBN 978-692593578

There are few less dignified sights in song than a writer launching his lawyers at a more successful contemporary, on the grounds that “you stole a bit of my ditty.”

Not because theft should be overlooked, but because (a) it’s highly unlikely that the offended-against piece is so unimpeachably original that there’s not someone out there who feels the same way about it; and (b) if the allegedly stolen bit is that good, then how come the rest of the song is such abject rubbish?

Tim English has apparently devoted a career to hunting down such soundalikes, both the ones that march all the way to court, and those that simply rumble round the undergrowth, amusing us with their resemblance. As such, this book is a little scattershot. More a book of lists (and occasionally unsubstantiated accusation) than a workable reference tool, it’s great bathroom reading, especially if you have Youtube hooked up in there, so you can hunt down the similarities that English highlights. There are hundreds upon hundreds to choose from, and while you’re not going to agree with every one, with the whole Spirit v Led Zeppelin controversy underway at the moment, it’s certainly a timely tome. English divulges the details beginning page 205.

Unprepared to Die: America’s Greatest Murder Ballads and the True Crime Stories that Inspired Them


by Paul Slade

Soundcheck Books ISBN 978-0992948078

A marvelous undertaking, a magnificent topic, and as much a piece of social history as it is a book about music, Unprepared to Die does exactly what it says on the tin. Eight legends - namely, “Stagger Lee,” “Frankie and Johnny,” “Knoxville Girl,” “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” “Tom Dooley,” “Pretty Polly,” “Poor Ellen Smith” and “Murder of the Lawson Family” - are investigated, both through period news reporting and the development of the songs themselves.

The result is a delightfully well-informed meander through time and space, a string of aptly-chosen interviewees discussing their own takes on the songs, and their interpretation of the events, at the same time as Slade delves deep into the musicological archive to trace each song through a myriad other convolutions. Every chapter ends with a list of ten recommended versions of the ballad in question. But there’s often hundreds more.

How Music Got Free: The End of an Industry, the Turn of the Century an d the Patient Zero of Piracy


by Stephen Witt

Viking Books ISBN 978-0525426615

The story of music’s transition from physical commodity to virtual nothingness has been told many times before. So has the sad saga of the music industry’s patent failure to cope with the technologies that caused it.

Witt, however, takes a fascinating, and very readable approach to what could be a hoary tale, focussing his attentions on a very select band of men, and the utterly unforeseeable relationship that bound them together. There’s the inventor of the mp3; there’s the head of Universal Records; and there’s the guy who worked at one of the latter’s pressing plants, who leaked new releases - as mp3s, of course - to the internet weeks before their street date.

The story unfolds in part as drama, in part as detective tale, and of course, in part, as a delightfully serendipitous saga of how greed, stupidity and short-sightedness brought down one of the most greedy, stupid and short-sighted Goliaths of them all. But it also makes you wonder how things could have turned out any differently.

Every industry has its day before technology renders it obsolete, and besides, it’s not music that was killed by mp3s, or even musicians’ ability to make money from their music. It’s the middlemen that took the biggest hit - the record companies, the trade executives, the vast apparatus that deemed itself the sole legitimate route by which a song could travel from creator to consumer, and which was shocked to discover there was an alternative. Witt writes of how that alternative took shape, and despite both a dry title and a drab cover, emerges with one of the year’s most entertaining music books.