One thing is for sure: the world of rock music is rarely boring – and if you're looking to explore some of the very best books about music ever written, then you've come to the right place.
From brilliant autobiographies and compendiums, through to warts'n'all exposes and stunningly detailed histories, there’s plenty of reading material out there for devoted music fans to delve into.
Below, you’ll find our pick of our favourite books ever written about music alongside a selection of the best reads of last year. So whether you're looking to buy a gift for a friend or hunting for something to keep you engaged during lockdown, we’re pretty sure you’ll find something in the list which fits the bill.
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1. The Dirt: Motley Crue with Neill Strauss
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The big one. The (really filthy) Godfather of rock books. The book was immortalised in the Netflix feature film, The Dirt and is so gob-smackingly scandalous, you’ll frequently question whether the events actually happened as you read through it.
Read in shock and awe as Nikki Sixx and co. rise from smalltime LA to the Sunset Strip and the biggest stages in the world – smoking, shagging and shooting up all things, both thinkable and unthinkable.
2. Waiting For The Sun - by Barney Hoskyns
From surfboards to singer-songwriters, from Svengalis to satanic cults, this multigenerational round-up of the LA Music scene reads like a well-written novel.
All the legendary characters are represented – Jim Morrison, Frank Zappa, Gram Parsons – but it’s often the lesser-known names such as Van Dyke Parks and Lou Adler who offer the most interesting insights. It's a story of excess, eccentricity and enduring musical splendour.
3. Hammer Of The Gods - by Stephen Davis
Another justifiably popular big fish that’s been by turns revered, criticised and reissued since it was first published in 1985. Journalist Stephen Davis travelled through America with Led Zeppelin for two weeks in 1975, as their US tour was kicking off.
For better or worse, his chief source for this unauthorised biography was Richard Cole, Zeppelin’s sometime tour manager/roadie. On the one hand, the band have publicly refuted its accuracy. On the other hand, its juicy, funny, shocking stories have been poured over greedily by thousands.
4. Please Kill Me by Legs McNeil & Gillian McCain
The debate over whether the UK or US can lay claim to have ‘invented’ punk rock has raged on for years. We’ll keep this simple: it was the US.
Please Kill Me brilliantly documents the genre’s messy birth and wildly creative early years by letting all the key players – Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, the Ramones, Johnny Thunders, Rob Tyner, Patti Smith, Richard Hell, Debbie Harry, etc – tell their stories in their own words. If punk means more to you than just a slogan on an artfully ripped T-shirt, you need this book.
5. The True Adventures Of The Rolling Stones by Stanley Booth
One of the most enlightening pictures of the rock revolution of the 60s that you’re ever likely to read, The True Adventures Of The Rolling Stones is also a no-holds-barred insider view of the rise of the Rolling Stones.
A huge part of its appeal lies in its writer. By the time Booth met Mick, Keef and co. he’d already drunk “Scotch with B.B. King for breakfast” and watched “Otis Redding teach Steve Cropper The Dock Of The Bay”. That same zeal is captured here, one hugely engaging triumph, pitfall and brush with the law after another.
6. Lonely Boy: Tales From A Sex Pistol by Steve Jones
The influence of The Sex Pistols on modern music – and punk especially – is quite simply undeniable. This first-hand account from the band’s guitarist Steve Jones manages to capture the significance of the group through his own eyes, but it also delves deep into his difficult childhood.
There's no doubt about it: Steve Jones is a one-off. He's hilarious, eccentric, painfully honest and 100% Lahndahn, which is all the more surprising, since he's lived in Los Angeles for decades.
7. The Beatles: All These Years Vol.1 by Mark Lewisohn
Quite possibly the most gargantuan undertaking in the history of music literature, Volume One of Mark Lewisohn's history of The Beatles is merely the first part of a trilogy, and ends before Beatlemania.
All These Years Vol. 1 is stunningly researched and is mind-bogglingly detailed, its 960 pages teach us so much about a band we think we already know everything about. And for the terminally curious, there's also an expanded version that tells the story over more than 1700 pages. Staggering.
8. Murder in the Front Row by Brian Lew & Harald Oimoen
San Francisco natives Brian Lew and Harald Oimoen were two metal-obsessed geeks who just happened to find themselves at the epicentre of a world-changing musical revolution when a little band from Los Angeles called Metallica moved to the Bay Area on February 12, 1983.
Largely a photo book, Murder In The Front Row brilliantly captures the camaraderie, raw enthusiasm and reckless, violent energy of the nascent thrash metal, from Metallica’s very first rehearsal with bassist Cliff Burton through to the release of Slayer’s peerless Reign In Blood album.
9. Our Band Could Be Your Life by Michael Azerrad
The bible for anyone interested in DIY punk rock culture, Our Band Could Be Your Life details the birth and development of the US underground rock scene in the 1980s, focussing upon biographies of 13 trail-blazing bands – Black Flag, Sonic Youth, Butthole Surfers, Mudhoney and Fugazi among them – who together mapped out a new terrain for rock music, pre-Nirvana.
Without these bands, and their stubbornly independent, take-no-shit-from-anyone bullishness, Nirvana would have been just another local bar band.
10. White Line Fever by Lemmy
First published in 2002 and re-printed several times since, Lemmy's autobiography takes some beating. From his childhood in Wales, through his discovery of sex, drugs and rock'n'roll (not quite in that order), and on to rock infamy, White Line Fever is never less than entertaining.
Lemmy was a well-read and sharp-witted character and his book is a hilarious and warm reminder of the man we lost. An essential read.
11. Choosing Death by Albert Mudrian
Subtitled The Improbable History of Death Metal and Grindcore, Decibel magazine Editor Mudrian’s text offers an incisive, in-depth analysis of the rise of the extreme metal underground, tracing a path from the back rooms of Birmingham pubs to the US arena circuit.
Input from the likes of Napalm Death, Cannibal Corpse, Entombed, Death, At The Gates and more lends authenticity, while much unintentional humour comes from the sheer joyful naivety of those involved. Lords Of Chaos is more sensationalist, but this is the smartest book yet written on underground metal.
12. Fried And Justified by Mick Houghton
Veteran PR Mick Houghton’s disarmingly honest and ego-free memoir of his time working with some of the more challenging and off-piste acts of the 80s and 90s – Echo & The Bunnymen, Julian Cope, KLF – thrills in its insight and pragmatism.
On the KLF’s notorious burning of £1 million, Houghton says: "I was never that shocked… in music-business terms £1m is nothing… The House Of Love blew £800,000 in less than a year."
13. I'll Sleep When I'm Dead: The Dirty Life And Times Of Warren Zevon by Crystal Zevon
In death as in life, Warren Zevon remains a cult figure. Fortunately his ex-wife Crystal ensured that his legacy hasn’t been totally forgotten. I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead is no fawning hagiography; this is a blackly comic oral history that depicts Zevon as equal parts genius and asshole.
Family, collaborators and superstar friends (Stephen King, Bruce Springsteen) praise and crucify a man who lived life with a mix of relish and spite. That a dying Zevon gave it his blessing says much about the man.
14. 1971: Never A Dull Moment by David Hepworth
Never one for group-think, Hepworth’s persuasive defence of his proposition that 1971 was rock’s greatest year casts a broad cultural net woven with acute and original thinking.
With monumental releases by Zeppelin, David Bowie, the Stones, Pink Floyd and more that year, it’s less the postulation that matters, rather his exhilarating analysis bolstered by impeccable research and flair. The appendix listing 100 albums from 1971 is an expert witness in itself.
15. Lexicon Devil: The Fast Times and Short Life of Darby Crash and The Germs by Brendan Mullen
The story of doomed punk rock anti-hero Darby Crash and his heroically inept band The Germs (who featured future Foo Fighter Pat Smear), Lexicon Devil is a brilliantly sketched portrait of idealism, energy, confusion and self-destruction in the LA punk scene of the late 1970s.
By turns hilarious, terrifying and heart-breakingly sad, it’s a vivid, visceral read, pulsing with the energy and colour of a lost Los Angeles. Remarkably, it features in not one, but two, Red Hot Chili Peppers videos (By The Way and Universally Speaking) as Anthony Kiedis’ book of choice.
16. Life by Keith Richards
How Keith Richards is still alive is one of science’s more unfathomable mysteries.
And it has to be said that even after you’ve read this thoroughly engaging autobiography (assisted by journalist James Fox) and placed it back on the bookshelf, you won’t be any the wiser. However, what you will have is an incisive view of the Rolling Stones' guitarist's world of riffs, rock, drugs, women, arrests and more, from his childhood in Kent through to life in the 21st century.
17. Espedair Street by Iain Banks
Late Scottish novelist Iain Banks’s fictional love letter to classic rock, Espedair Street is a thinly veiled retelling of the Fleetwood Mac myth, from the perspective of hulking bassist Daniel ‘Weird’ Weir, a character inspired by ex-Marillion singer Fish.
Romantic rivalries, tragic mid-air deaths, suicide attempts, triumphant comebacks… every rock’n’roll cliché is gleefully ramped up to fever pitch, and it’s all the better for it. It’s amazing that they haven’t made it into a movie.
18. Born To Run by Bruce Springsteen
“The writer has made one promise, to show the reader his mind,” Bruce Springsteen writes in his autobiography. And in his trademark plain-spoken but poetic way, he does just that.
Whether detailing his uneasy relationship with his father, the sexual perks of superstardom or his struggles with depression, Bruce is frank and funny. Ultimately, you sense that he’s writing not only to share his experiences but also to better understand them.
19. Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys by Viv Albertine
As guitarist with 70s punks The Slits – an all-female band in an overwhelmingly male-dominated scene – Viv Albertine has had a compelling perspective of rock’n’roll.
Since then, as this book thoughtfully documents, Albertine has moved into film, been through divorce, IVF, illness and also got back into making music – all which she discusses with evocative attention to detail.
20. Burning Down The Haus: Punk Rock, Revolution and the Fall of the Berlin Wall by Tim Mohr
This secret history of East German punk rock is not just about the music; it is a story of extraordinary bravery in the face of one of the most oppressive regimes in history.
Rollicking, cinematic, deeply researched, highly readable, and thrillingly topical, Burning Down The Haus brings to life the young men and women who successfully fought authoritarianism three chords at a time – and is a fiery testament to the irrepressible spirit of revolution.
21. No One Here Gets Out Alive by Jerry Hopkins & Danny Sugarman
Jim Morrison was being deified before his body was even cold, but No One Here Gets Out Alive elevated him to Immortal Godhead.
It helped that former Doors manager and Morrison confidante Danny Sugarman had a ringside seat for the iconic singer’s rise, fall and posthumous resurrection – as a portrait of a doomed talent this book is fantastic, but it’s as an exercise in myth-making where it truly excels.
22. Suzy, Led Zeppelin, and Me by Martin Millar
A novel, or maybe a memoir, about being young and in love – with a band as much as a girl – Suzy, Led Zeppelin, and Me follows the narrator as he makes a complete tit of himself over the eponymous girl, and obsesses over Led Zeppelin in the build-up to the band's gig at Green's Playhouse in Glasgow.
Full of period detail and timeless romance, it's a brilliantly rendered tale of obsession from one of the UK's best comic writers.
23. Beneath The Underdog by Charles Mingus
Charles Mingus might have been a jazzer, but his life was more rock'n'roll than most, and Beneath The Underdog is a helluva story: part memoir, part erotic fantasy, part stream of consciousness tirade.
Mingus writes of growing up in Poverty in Watts, and trying to succeed as a musician in a society that didn't want him to. It's not always an easy read, and Mingus isn't an entirely sympathetic character, but it's utterly unique: very few musicians have carried off a successful parallel career as a pimp.
24. Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung by Lester Bangs
You can’t really talk about the rise of rock journalism without mentioning Lester Bangs. Tragically, although perhaps unsurprisingly, he was not long for this world – he died at 33 of an accidental overdose.
Philip Seymour Hoffman played him in the film Almost Famous, and this posthumous collection by Greil Marcus (Bangs’s first editor at Rolling Stone, in 1969) reminds us of his enduring position as one of the most distinctive, thrillingly unpredictable voices in American writing.
25. Chronicles: Vol. 1 by Bob Dylan
Something of a revelation on its publication, with few expecting the enigmatic Bob Dylan to sidestep his usual obfuscation and ellipsis and cut straight to the quick.
While not wholly innocent of the former, Chronicles examines three points in Dylan's career (1961, 1970, and 1989) with piercing clarity and an insightful artistic remove. Full of taut one-liners, folksy idioms and no little humour, at its best the book is on a par with his greatest songs.
26. Revolution In the Head by Ian MacDonald
Just when it seemed like there was nothing left to say about The Beatles, ex-NME writer Ian MacDonald drilled down into the one aspect of their career that hadn’t been strip-mined: the songs.
Revolution In The Head set out to analyse every track the band recorded. It sidesteps dull trainspottery, thanks to MacDonald’s insight and cantankerous outbursts: he loved The Beatles but, by God, he wasn’t afraid to put the boot in when needed. Often imitated but never bettered – just like its subject.
27. Girl In A Band by Kim Gordon
When Sonic Youth went on hiatus/broke up in 2011, it soon became clear that Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon’s marriage had also fallen apart.
Gordon revealed her side of the story in this tell-all memoir that also contains a comprehensive history of the seminal New York band, but this is so much more than break-up literature. It's heartbreaking, smart, dignified and completely inspiring.
28. Confess by Rob Halford
Delivered with refreshing down to earth frankness, Halford takes us through his journey from a council-estate to some of the world’s biggest stages. And as Classic Rock’s review reported, “with chapter titles such as The Shirley Bassey Leather Years and Mine Eyes Have Seen The Glory Hole, this is not a book for anyone squeamish about heavy rock’s screamingly camp subtext.”
Simply put, it's a must read – not only for fans of Halford and Judas Priest, but for all music fans.
29. Fargo Rock City by Chuck Klosterman
A hilarious trawl through the byways of the 80s hair metal milieu, through the dispossessed rural hick-filter of Chuck Klosterman’s North Dakota childhood.
By turns sociologically astute, self-deprecatingly knowing and piercingly on-point musically, Klosterman argues that the bouffant bad boys of the day – Poison, Ratt, Warrant et al – merit equal cultural weighting as The Beatles and their peers. Nonsense, obviously, but you suspect he knows that.
30. Rhinos, Winos and Lunatics: The Legend of Man, a Rock'n'Roll Band by Deke Leonard
Aside from making progressive noises with Welsh rockers Man, Deke Leonard (who died in 2017) had a zingy, infectious way with words.
He wrote several books, all of which are worth checking out, but if you pick one it should be this one, which mixes standard rock’n’roll excess with all the weirder tales of the Man world. A riotous read, whether you’re a Man fan or not.