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Best Music Biographies: 10 Must-Read Rock’n’Roll Books
List & Guides

Best Music Biographies: 10 Must-Read Rock’n’Roll Books

Revealing and insightful, the best music biographies tell us everything we need to know about rock’n’roll’s most iconic artists.

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Superbly researched and insightfully written, the best music biographies offer portraits of their subjects which simply leap off the page. Must-read titles in their own right, these books are essential reads for every music fan.

Listen to our Rock Classics playlist here, and check out the best music biographies, below.

10: Everett True: ‘Hey Ho Let’s Go: The Story Of The Ramones’ (Omnibus, 2002)

As the band who kick-started punk on both sides of the Atlantic, New York City’s Ramones were deserving of a biography of substance – and they got one with this exhaustive tome written by ex-NME/Melody Maker journalist Everett True, the man who famously wheeled Kurt Cobain on stage at the start of Nirvana’s legendary Reading Festival performance in 1992.

True later wrote 2006’s Nirvana: The True Story, but that’s bettered by Hey Ho Let’s Go, a truly exhaustive trawl through the blistering live sets, brilliant albums, inter-band brawls and eventual breakup that finally ended Da Brudders’ 22-year career in 1996. True also deserves credit for capturing detailed testimonies from the band members themselves, plus knowledgeable insiders such as producers Ed Stasium and Daniel Rey and tour manager Monte Melnick. His prose is as fast, furious and skilful as Ramones’ music, ensuring that Hey Ho Let’s Go remains one of the best music biographies on offer.

9: Graeme Thomson: ‘Under The Ivy: The Life & Music Of Kate Bush’ (Omnibus, 2010)

Clearly a writer who relishes a challenge, Edinburgh-based author Graeme Thomson has also written acclaimed biographies of other maverick figures such as John Martyn, Elvis Costello and Thin Lizzy’s Phil Lynott. However, he arguably excelled himself with Under The Ivy, a 2010 study of Kate Bush which The Irish Times declared to be “the best music biography in perhaps the past decade”.

Updated and republished five years later, following Bush’s triumphant return to the live stage after a near-four-decade absence, Under The Ivy certainly leaves few stones unturned. Beginning with Bush’s formative years and tracing the development of her highly precocious talent through the making of such landmark albums as The Kick Inside, Lionheart and the game-changing Hounds Of Love, Under The Ivy paints a highly revealing portrait of a singular artist who has always prioritised her privacy.

8: Jerry Hopkins & Danny Sugerman: ‘No One Here Gets Out Alive: The Biography Of Jim Morrison’ (Plexus Books, 1980)

It’s hard to believe now, but The Doors’ popularity waned quite dramatically in the years immediately following Jim Morrison’s death in July 1971. Indeed, such was the lack of interest that Rolling Stone writer Jerry Hopkins’ initial draft of No One Here Gets Out Alive met with indifference from most publishing houses. However, after Danny Sugerman – initially a super-fan and band associate who went on to manage the post-Morrison Doors – added further content, the book was eventually published in 1980.

Its alleged historical inaccuracies have drawn fire from some quarters, yet No One Here Gets Alive played a crucial role in bringing The Doors’ music back into the spotlight. It was published in the wake of the release of the An American Prayer album, for which the three surviving Doors added new music to their frontman’s spoken-word poetry, and its arrival coincided with the release of the band’s multi-platinum-selling Greatest Hits, which surely helped the book top most of the best-seller lists at the time. No One Here Gets Alive had moved over five million copies by the mid-90s, and it has kept right on selling. Regardless of any blemishes, it’s still an essential title for anyone intrigued by the singular life and times of one of the best frontman in rock history.

7: Jeff Chang: ‘Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop: A History Of The Hip-Hop Generation’ (Picador, 2005)

A San Francisco Bay Area-based author and journalist, Jeff Chang contributed to publications such as The Village Voice, Spin and the San Francisco Bay Guardian before his book Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History Of The Hip-Hop Generation was published in 2005. Still rightly regarded as a magnum opus, this immaculately researched book does exactly what its title promises, presenting detailed portraits of the scene’s trailblazing figures such as DJ Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaataa, Ice Cube and Public Enemy’s Chuck D, in addition to a host of insiders including graffiti artists, gang members, DJs and activists. Still one of the best music biographies out there, Can’t Stop Won’t Stop won the Before Columbus Foundation’s American Book Award in 2005, and it arguably remains the final word on the pioneering early days of hip-hop.

6: Tony Fletcher: ‘A Light That Never Goes Out: The Enduring Saga Of The Smiths’ (Windmill, 2013)

The devil certainly will find books for The Smiths’ idle fans to read… Indeed, it would be remiss not to note that Simon Goddard’s excellent The Smiths: Songs That Saved Your Life is also essential reading. However, when it comes to capturing the very essence of indie-pop’s most influential foursome, then it’s surely Tony Fletcher’s A Light That Never Goes Out which best illuminates their remarkable story. Exhaustively researched and also taking the deepest of dives into all four members’ formative years, Fletcher’s book examines everything from the band’s earliest rehearsals through to the recording of their landmark studio albums and what each bandmate did in their post-Smiths lives. Engrossing and forensically detailed, A Light That Never Goes Out still shines like a beacon among the best music biographies.

5: Mick Wall: ‘Iron Maiden: Run To The Hills – The Authorised Biography’ (Sanctuary Publishing, 1998)

As a long-time contributor to publications such Kerrang! and Classic Rock, and with a background in PR, Mick Wall has long been accepted as one of the rock world’s finest chroniclers. Indeed, he had already authored successful, officially sanctioned tomes on the likes of Ozzy Osbourne (Diary Of A Madman), Marillion (Market Square Heroes) and Guns N’ Roses (The Most Dangerous Band In The World) before Iron Maiden gave him the nod to write their official biography.

Accordingly, Run To The Hills doesn’t disappoint. It’s an extremely well-researched and well-structured read, further buoyed by commentary aplenty from current band members and ex-members alike, with prime mover Steve Harris frequently making his presence felt. The chapters covering the band’s formative period of 1976 to 1979, before they signed their deal with EMI, are especially illuminating, but Wall rides Maiden’s rollercoaster career with skill and insight, with the book’s updated editions also getting stuck into the band’s post-2000 career.

4: David Ritz: ‘Divided Soul: The Life Of Marvin Gaye’ (Da Capo, 1985)

David Ritz came into Marvin Gaye’s orbit after the legendary soul man was impressed by the author’s defence of his much-misunderstood 1978 opus, Here, My Dear, in the pages of Rolling Stone. This mutual respect led to Ritz conducting a series of in-depth interviews with Gaye during the early 80s – conversations which eventually resulted in the publication of Divided Soul barely 12 months after the iconic singer was shot and killed by his own father, on 1 April 1984.

One of the strangest deaths in music history, Gaye’s demise left the music world reeling, but Divided Soul truly honoured the singer’s legacy. Ritz (who also inspired the title of Gaye’s comeback hit, Sexual Healing) was given intimate access to the minutiae of the star’s life, and he used it to create an absorbing portrait of a brilliant yet immensely troubled artist. Indeed, with further insight donated by the likes of Diana Ross, Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder and Motown boss Berry Gordy, Divided Soul amounts to a biography truly deserving of the adjective “definitive”.

3: Mary Gabriel: ‘Madonna: A Rebel Life’ (Little, Brown, 2023)

Mary Gabriel’s A Rebel Life is one of the most recent entries in this list of the best music biographies, but it’s a book that clearly covets longevity. Totalling over 800 pages in all, it’s a considerably weightier proposition than most, but then there’s only ever going to be one Madonna Louise Ciccone, and A Rebel Life tells her astonishing story with the gravitas it deserves.

As the author of a Pulitzer Prize-listed Karl Marx biography, and with years of experience at Reuters behind her, Gabriel has a serious CV, and she brings all her skills to bear on A Rebel Heart, tracing Madonna’s astonishing career arc from her Michigan roots to her irresistible rise to fame and subsequent decades-long domination of pop’s top table. Typical of the rave reviews that greeted its arrival, The Guardian declared that the book helps the reader to “understand Madonna the person as well as Madonna the concept”, and its slew of nominations (The Sunday Times’ Book Of The Year; The Telegraph’s Best Music Book Of The Year, to name but two) suggest it will continue to feature in lists of the best music biographies for years to come.

2: Paul Trynka: ‘Starman: David Bowie – The Definitive Biography’ (Sphere, 2012)

Even casual fans would imagine that an iconic, game-changing performer such as David Bowie would inspire a number of biographies – and they’d be right in that assumption. Indeed, other detailed and meticulously researched Bowie tomes, such as David Buckley’s Strange Fascination and Nicholas Pegg’s The Complete David Bowie, are valuable and well worth tracking down, as is Paul Morley’s The Age Of Bowie.

Arguably, though, all these titles are shaded by the one written by former Mojo editor Paul Trynka, whose Starman: David Bowie – The Definitive Biography certainly comes close to living up to its title. Admittedly, Trynka didn’t get detailed testimony from Bowie himself, but he nonetheless does an extremely thorough job in chronicling the chameleonic star’s every incarnation, from his pre-fame days as a teenage mod in south London through to the birth of his Ziggy Stardust alter ego, the wired paranoia of his Thin White Duke phase, and his still-influential “Berlin Trilogy”. The book’s updated edition takes the story all the way to the making and release of Bowie’s penultimate album, The Next Day.

1: Jimmy McDonough: ‘Shakey: Neil Young’s Biography’ (Cape, 2003)

As with David Bowie, the serious Neil Young fan has more than one option when it comes to biographies, and certainly Harvey Kubernik’s Neil Young: Heart Of Gold is also worthy of consideration here – not least as it was published more recently, taking in all the twists and turns in the singular Canadian-American’s career up to 2014’s acclaimed A Letter Home.

However, while Heart Of Gold encompasses a decade more than Jimmy McDonough’s Shakey, the latter title still feels like the most definitive Young book in circulation. Taking a forensic look at everything from its subject’s early days in Canada through his relocation to California and his mercurial career with Buffalo Springfield, plus the formation of the long-running Crazy Horse, his stadium-level success with Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and his return to mainstream glory during the 90s, McDonough’s book really does divine the very essence of its enigmatic subject. A worthy title to top this list of the best music biographies, Shakey is, to quote The Guardian’s review, “a rock-solid literary triumph”.

Now check out the best music autobiographies.

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