Slowhand by Philip Norman review – Eric Clapton and the years of excess


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The rock star secured fame by bringing US southern music to a new audience. Then the unrestrained hedonism began

Some time around 1965, when he was 20 years old and playing guitar with John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, Eric Clapton became the first British rock musician whose instrumental virtuosity inspired feelings of both admiration and lust. His blues-based riffs and solos impressed boys but their effect was particularly evident on his female listeners, which was odd because Clapton hardly seemed the obvious pop star type. He was handsome, but not spectacularly so. What imbued him with a special charisma was his seriousness. On a mission to expose the music of the US south to a new audience in as pure a form as possible, he captured the raw emotion of the sound he loved enough to transfix his young listeners.

A generation was discovering an alien language with which they instinctively felt ...

Siren Song by Seymour Stein review – memories of Talking Heads, Madonna and the Ramones


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‘America’s greatest living record man’, who also brought the Smiths to the US, recalls hard living and spotting the right song

On a New York City night in late summer, 1976, three former art students were playing at a club called Max’s Kansas City. Observing them from a ringside table were a couple who looked a little older than most of the club’s clientele, and a lot less cool. But there they sat, front and centre, staring at the stage with encouraging smiles, gazing in particular at the singer, a thin, twitchy figure who, in his polo shirt and conservative haircut, looked more like a CIA intern than your standard rock and roller. Although none of the band’s repertoire of original compositions had yet been recorded, the couple’s lips moved in unison as they sang along to the words of every song, the most striking of which started like this: ...

Five books about football: Richard Williams chooses his favourites


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From a history of the World Cup to the memories of an Italian great … the perfect companions to the 2018 tournament

More than any other sport, football combines the ugly and the beautiful, the venal and the transcendent. It transforms small-time chisellers into millionaires while enabling the children of shanty towns and remote villages to express their innate gifts on a global stage. In the last big match of the 2017-18 European season, both its faces were on display: one in a piece of skulduggery that removed Liverpool’s most dangerous player from the game, the other in the sublime overhead volley that tilted the Champions League final in Real Madrid’s favour. Those faces will no doubt be turned towards us again in the coming weeks, when the players of 32 nations gather in Russia to compete at the 21st World Cup finals.

The quadrennial update of Brian Glanville’s ...

Voices by Nick Coleman review – an enthusiastic history of the best pop singers


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This sharp history of pop music focuses on the lives and songs of the partially deaf journalist’s favourite singers, including Bob Dylan and Aretha Franklin

Nick Coleman loves voices, in particular those of the singers who rose above the babble of life in the second half of the 20th century to create the great outpouring of pop music that evolved, as he points out, from the unreflecting entertainment of the Beatles’ first album to the poetic soul searching of Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks in barely five years.

Those examples are the brackets chosen by Coleman, a journalist and critic, to define the sheer velocity of pop’s evolution in the 1960s. Its gathering sense of seriousness is illustrated, in his account of the voices he most loves, by a pair of records from a single source, Bob Dylan. The first, performed in a Greenwich Village folk club in 1962, is a ...

The best music books of 2017


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Richard Williams tunes in to Peggy Seeger’s folk revival, David Bowie’s meeting with Lou Reed, and the poetry of Bob Dylan

Peggy Seeger is the woman who inspired Ewan MacColl to write “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face”, a breakthrough hit for Roberta Flack in 1972 and subsequently a fixture in the repertoire of countless other singers. That, however, was just about least of the claims that could be made on behalf of the daughter of Charles Seeger, a musicologist, and Ruth Porter Crawford, a classical composer, and the half-sister – younger by 16 years – of Pete Seeger, who would become a founding father of the folk music revival.

Born in New York City in 1935, Peggy was pretty much a one-woman folk revival herself. A fine singer and an accomplished practitioner of the banjo, the guitar, the autoharp, the dulcimer and the concertina, she absorbed a ...

Testimony by Robbie Robertson review – Bob Dylan’s buddy and the Band


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Dylan’s one-time best friend and Martin Scorsese’s creative partner tells of music, drugs and self-destructionIn his early years, Bob Dylan always seemed to need a confidant, an accomplice, a sidekick. These semi-famous figures, silhouetted against the penumbra of his growing celebrity, included Victor Maymudes, his tour manager and protector during the rapid ascent to fame in the early 1960s, and Bob Neuwirth, a fellow graduate from the folk clubs, with whom he perfected the art of the slashing verbal putdown, as immortalised in DA Pennebaker’s documentary film of Dylan’s 1965 British tour, Don’t Look Back. But when the singer returned to Britain in 1966, his new best friend was someone capable of making a serious contribution to the development of his music. In Robbie Robertson, Dylan found the perfect buddy on every level – for a while, at least. As the guitarist with the rock’n’roll band that came ...

The best music books of 2016


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David Bowie entertains, the Beach Boys give good vibrations, but it’s a life of James Brown that has soul James Brown, the Godfather of Soul, died from heart failure 10 years ago this Christmas Day, aged 73, long past his prime and latterly notorious for problems with drugs, wives and the police. He was a contradictory figure who fined his musicians for unshined shoes and missed cues but insisted that his statue on Main Street in Augusta, Georgia, should not be on a plinth but have its feet on the ground. Born dirt poor in South Carolina and brought up by an aunt in a house that appears to have functioned as a brothel, Brown spent his early years hustling on the streets. Aged 20 he joined a vocal group called the Famous Flames and over the next three decades he became a pivotal figure in the development of pop ...

Every Song Ever: Twenty Ways to Listen to Music Now by Ben Ratliff review – embrace the pleasures of streaming


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A music lovers guide to the compensations of digital listening, from shuffle settings to SpotifyIt was in the days when a particular jazz radio station consistently failed to back-announce many of the tracks it played that I began to consider the possibility that I had spent my entire life listening to recorded music in the wrong way. That interesting record that had already started when I tuned in? It would forever remain a mystery. I couldn’t go out and buy it, or fit it neatly into the organogram of musical evolution that all serious fans carry around in their heads. So I learned to relinquish the lifelong urge to fit every piece of music into an ever-expanding taxonomy. Suddenly stripped of context, the music was just there to be appreciated for itself, in the moment, in the way we apprehend it before knowledge sets up filters to shape our responses. For a member of ...

The best music books of 2015


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Eye-openers from Grace Jones and Jon Savage, but for sheer, sharp entertainment, no one beats Tom Jones

There are bigger books and more concise books, and books edited by people capable of spotting mistakes like references to a rock’n’roll classic called “Linda Lou” (it was “Linda Lu”, as any fule kno). But there might not be another book in this year’s crop that portrays so sharply and entertainingly the life of a true star as Tom Jones’s autobiography.

Over the Top and Back (Michael Joseph), written with Giles Smith, is good value on the singer’s early experience of life among the teddy boys and petticoated girls of Pontypridd, his reluctance to go down the pit, and fatherhood at 17. It frolics through the 60s, when “It’s Not Unusual” positioned Jones somewhere between two ...

Sinatra: The Chairman by James Kaplan review – a 360-degree portrait


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Four marriages, countless affairs, links with the mob ... volume two of a landmark biography finds the singer’s later life at odds with his art

For a reminder of the best and worst of Frank Sinatra, look no further than the recording of a concert he gave at Carnegie Hall in the spring of 1974, shortly after emerging, at the age of 58, from a brief “retirement”. A medley of three ballads – “Last Night When We Were Young”, “Violets for Your Furs” and “Here’s That Rainy Day” – is prefaced by a clumsy, cheesy, self-regarding monologue drawing the sort of sycophantic laughter and applause to which he had long become accustomed. Then he gets down to the business of bringing a great seriousness to bear on the trilogy of peerless songs, each an established part of his repertoire, reaffirming all the qualities of technique and interpretation that had made him the greatest male interpreter of ...

Two Hours: The Quest to Run the Impossible Marathon by Ed Caesar – review


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What will it take for a runner to break the magical barrier? A superb new writer weighs up the genetic and cultural considerations

This year’s Tour de France has presented its vast audience with the unprecedented sight of a black African rider, Daniel Teklehaimanot, wearing the polka-dot jersey awarded to the best performer in the mountains. Amid the buzz of excitement, some have wondered whether the 26-year-old Eritrean’s achievement is the early warning of a full-scale takeover. Will Eritrea become to cycling, a sport long dominated by European riders, what Jamaica is to sprinting and Kenya to marathon running?

Kenya’s assumption of primacy in men’s long-distance running can be said to have begun in 1983, when Joseph Nzau won the Chicago marathon. Since then the big events – New York, London, Berlin, the Olympics – have been dominated by Paul Kipkoech, Samuel Wanjiru, Paul Tergat and others. Of ...

Speed Kings by Andy Bull review – the Gatsbyish heroes of Olympic bobsleigh


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A cast of hundreds including Hollywood stars, royalty, gangsters, hucksters and harlots are enlisted for a marvellous history of the men who won US bobsleigh gold in 1928 and 1932

By the time we meet Baron Walther von Mumm, whose bodily scars include those from bullets shot by his mistress in Paris and an enemy soldier during the Great War, and another from a botched suicide attempt, and who is living in near-penury following the confiscation of his family’s Champagne-producing vineyards by the victorious French, we are two-thirds of the way through Andy Bull’s account of the men who won the 1928 and 1932 Olympic bobsleigh titles for the US, and more or less convinced that we are being guided through the backstory to the famous party scene in The Great Gatsby.

Hollywood stars, politicians, royalty, gangsters and other denizens of the demi-monde – hedonists and hucksters, harlots and heroes – ...