10 essential music books to add to your reading list on International Women's Day

Essential Books for International Women's Day
(Image credit: Various Publishers)

As much as we want to believe that rock music is a utopia free from society’s ills, there’s a dark history of misogyny in the industry, with generations of female artists ignored, belittled and harassed as they’ve come up through the scene. But in the wealth of music books that have been published in recent years, more and more of these women have been making their voices heard.

From female musicians telling their stories in their own words, to detailed explorations of the scenes that were built by women, here are 10 'must read' books worth celebrating on International Women’s Day.

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Just Kids – by Patti Smith

There are artists who write beautiful lyrics, but who come across as detached and distant when they put their stories onto paper. Then there’s Patti Smith, whose grocery list could probably move you to tears. Just Kids focuses primarily on her relationship with artist and photographer Robert Mapplethorpe and the very early days of her career as a musician, but it has all the rich lyricism we know and love. Just Kids is one of the seminal works of the genre for a good reason, and you’ll have a hard time putting it down.

It Takes Blood And Guts – by Skin with Lucy O’Brien

Skunk Anansie vocalist Skin stands out as one of the most iconic women in modern rock. And her story is awe-inspiring. From a traditional upbringing in her family home in Brixton to bringing a unique perspective to the '90s BritRock scene, to becoming Glastonbury’s first Black British headliner in one of the country’s hardest rock bands, It Takes Blood And Guts recounts a life of extraordinary anecdotes (hanging out with Pavarotti and Nelson Mandela, to name a few examples). Skunk Anansie’s rise to the top – despite the obstacles that the music sets out for an openly bisexual Black woman fronting a rock band – is an inspiration.

Clothes Clothes Clothes, Music, Music, Music, Boys, Boys, Boys – by Viv Albertine

If you only choose one book on this list, make it Viv Albertine’s autobiography. At first glance, the main draw of Clothes... Music... Boys... is her unflinching retelling of those hedonistic early days of punk and her experience in The Slits, but it’s what comes next that makes this autobiography so vital.

Albertine’s real story begins with her personal reinvention in the years of unbelievable hardship following The Slits’ breakup. The music industry is quick to put a ridiculously short sell-by date on women, valuing youth above all else; to see a punk icon like Viv Albertine rebuild herself and return to music in her fifties is revolutionary.

Face It: A Memoir – Debbie Harry

In Face It, Debbie Harry takes us through her legendary career, from those electrifying days in New York in the late 60s and 70s and the formation of Blondie to her journey through addiction, Blondie’s break-up and their eventual reformation. This memoir also sees her analyse her own stage persona, and how she owned her femininity and sex appeal in a scene that didn’t always welcome women onto the stage. Face It is something of a work of art, too, decorated with decades of fan art that she’s collected over the years.

Hunger Makes Me A Modern Girl: A Memoir – Carrie Brownstein

Carrie Brownstein, one-third of Sleater-Kinney, is a defining figure of the ‘90s riot grrrl movement. But what makes Hunger Makes Me A Modern Girl so refreshing is that first and foremost, Brownstein is a fan, and anyone who knows the healing power of rock and roll will see themselves in these pages. It takes us on a tour of the often-underappreciated Seattle alternative scene and Sleater-Kinney’s empowering role in carving out a space for women in rock. It also shows what happened in the aftermath of riot grrrl’s heyday when the band went their separate ways.

Fallopian Rhapsody: The Story of the Lunachicks – by the Lunachicks with Jeanne Fury

Fallopian Rhapsody is the story of one of the most outrageous – and criminally underrated – bands in rock: Lunachicks. Going above and beyond the riot grrrl label that was so often imposed on them, this was a band that rejected any box you tried to put them in. They had plenty of obstacles along the way (like the clubs who refused to host them because they “booked a female band last month”), but none of it got them down as they shocked audiences all over the world, spitting in the face of macho rock.

What are You Doing Here? – by Laina Dawes

In What Are You Doing Here?: A Black Woman's Life and Liberation in Heavy Metal, Laina Dawes tackles two dangerous myths: that Black people do not belong in the heavy metal scene, and that Black people who enjoy heavy metal are denying their heritage. Dawes combines interviews with Black artists and fans with her own personal experience of racism and identity in the heavy metal, punk and hardcore world. Looking at the history of Black rock stars alongside her own story, this book is an important look into the too often-ignored racism and misogyny rife in the alternative scene.

Fangirls: Scenes from a Modern Music Culture – by Hannah Ewens

For too long, ‘fangirl’ has been an insult, conjuring up images of the screaming teenage girl who is rarely considered a “real music fan”. Enter British music and culture writer Hannah Ewens who wants to explore this cultural phenomenon from Beatlemania to Directioners without judgement or condescension.

Fangirls covers a whole range of genres and artists, including some excellent chapters that explore female fans in the world of rock and their devotion to artists such as My Chemical Romance, The Beatles and Courtney Love. The fact is, most of these artists wouldn’t exist without their fangirls, and Hannah Ewens shows us just how much we owe them.

Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution – by Sara Marcus

The Riot Grrrl movement was an essential period for women in rock music, making space in a closed-off industry that we still reap the benefits of today. But it was also a short-lived movement that disappeared almost as quickly as it popped up. In Girls To The Front Sara Marcus explores the main players in the scene, but most importantly, takes an honest look at its shortcomings, and what made it burn out by the turn of the millennium.

Revenge of the She-Punks – by Vivien Goldman

Where other books focus on a particular period or alternative scene, punk professor Vivian Goldman takes a broader approach to women’s contribution to punk over the years and across the whole world in Revenge of the She-Punks. She focuses on the key players like X-Ray Spex's Poly Styrene and The Slits but gives equal time to underdogs across the globe, such as China’s first all-girl punk band Hang On The Box and fresh faces on the scene like Londoners Big Joanie. Each chapter comes with a playlist focusing on identity, money, love and protest.

Freelance writer, Louder

In addition to contributing to Louder, Vicky writes for The Line of Best Fit, Gigwise, New Noise Magazine and more.