A list of some of my favourite writing about music, books that inspire and make you think differently about music which provided both inspiration and research for my book Into The Never: Nine Inch Nails And The Creation Of The Downward Spiral.
When music writing really works it helps to underscore and deepen your appreciation of a record. Aside from detailing facts and information about music theory, different musical scenes, and the cultural or social history of bands or specific albums – these books encouraged a deeper appreciation of the songs themselves.
Scroll down to learn more about each individual book.
1. HEAVIER THAN HEAVEN: A biography of Kurt Cobain by Charles R. Cross
A formative reading experience for me. I was about 15 years old and I was just getting into Nirvana, through “Nevermind” but quickly discovering and preferring “In Utero”.
Being a child of the 90s the shadow of the band and Cobain’s suicide hung across the decade, both in musical terms and as cultural iconography. The more I listened to the music the more I became intrigued by the man.
Cross gives a very readable and in-depth account of Cobain as a person; he is not afraid to paint in him a negative light mentioning his inner flaws and his weaknesses, but for me this only serves to highlight the singer’s awareness of his own humanity.
The book is excellent in exploring how childhood trauma, such as the divorce of his parents and difficulty in fitting-in at high school, would make Cobain a troubled loner, and how his natural interest in self-expression through art would come to reflect the experiences of his generation – a new wave of bands to follow in his wake.
You can see some of the same struggles present in the music of Nine Inch Nails, particularly with The Downward Spiral where Reznor’s sense of self-loathing and alienation would chime with so many of Nirvana’s songs.
2. LIPSTICK TRACES: A Secret History of The 20th Century – Greil Marcus
A distinguished music author, Greil Marcus has written many excellent books on a range of music, but his Situationist dissection of the punk movement as a pure expression of cultural upheaval is the most influential and groundbreaking.
In the antagonism of The Sex Pistols Marcus sees a revolt against the ordinary, against the conformity it brings, and against censorship of this rebellion – and all for its own self-destructive drive.
The accidental project would encourage new ways of making music and change the definition of what a band could be – from a group of musicians to a revolutionary media performance.
Marcus is writing is inspiring because he blends academic text and theory, cut-up with images of advertising, classic photographs of the punk era, and media shots from concentration camps to create a mad inter-textual collage from which new meanings are revealed.
Seeing music in the ‘bigger picture’ of his methodology inspired me to look beyond the confines of Nine Inch Nails and a literal reading of the songs on The Downward Spiral to explore ideas of the crowd as pigs as consumers, of artistic censorship used to combat gun control, and the ways in which horror films can inspire songs that are themselves horrific.
3. RIP IT UP AND START AGAIN: Postpunk 1978-1984 by Simon Reynolds
The post-punk period might seem to cover only a handful of years but covers a huge range of fertile ground in the history of modern music. Simon Reynolds’ book leaps from the car crash inferno that was the brief but brilliant punk explosion/implosion and skims over many of the highly individual bands that made their mark in its wake.
The concise sections give you a real insight into major and minor post-punk outfits, mixing anecdote and his impressions of the records produced in that era before it was co-opted into the poppified blandness of new wave.
Not only is this book highly readable it points towards the rise of the alternative music scene that would come to dominate the early 1990s, a conscious reaction to the hegemony of chart-driven synth-pop smothered the second half of the 1980s.
With Pretty Hate Machine released in 1989 it carried the influences of the edgy end of synth music with Gary Numan, Kraftwerk, and Depeche Mode, alongside the more out there DADA-ist provocation of groups like Devo, Psychedelic Furs, and Throbbing Gristle.
This combination of influences and the will to experiment would be carried on through The Downward Spiral and The Fragile, and on to Nine Inch Nails’ current trilogy of EPs.
4. BOWIE IN BERLIN: A New Career In A New Town by Thomas Seabrook
This book is as much biographical as about the music – it is the best account of Bowie’s years in Berlin that I’ve found.
Well researched and thorough, Seabrook gives a lot detail and insight for the less casual reader who wants to know what Bowie got up into while living in Berlin and restarting his life after the big cocaine comedown of L.A.
The book was very useful in providing further detail about the recording of individual tracks for “Low” the album which along with Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” provided the major sonic and experimental influences for The Downward Spiral.
A great overview of what is arguably Bowie’s most interesting and musically adventurous period.
5. REVOLUTION IN THE HEAD: The Beatles’ Records And The Sixties by Ian MacDonald
It’s hard to express my admiration for this book without noting the skill and foresight of its late author. A very influential approach to writing about music, MacDonald covers the musical theory, biographical ups-and-downs and cultural context relating to every Beatles track, from their relatively humble beginnings to their very messy and acrimonious ending.
With a couple of pages given to more expansive and…revolutionary tracks such as I Am The Walrus, the infamously un-famous b-side, Rain (it should have been a single), and A Day In The Life, MacDonald covers big ideas on spiritualism, political dissent and the turning tide of the counter-culture that The Beatles spearheaded and would become synonymous with.
I tried to take on some of this approach in my own writing about Nine Inch Nails, going lighter on the technical aspects that make up the songs of The Downward Spiral, while digging deeper into how Reznor’s personal experiences at the time of the recording might run through the album like traces of his DNA. Several tracks from the White Album would weirdly run through The Downward Spiral, from Piggies, to Helter Skelter via Charles Manson (see my blog post on this).
This book showed me how with some of the most challenging and interesting records have a wider influence on culture outside of music that becomes inseparable from the songs, making it an artefact of its times.
6. TRIPTYCH: Three Studies of Manic Street Preachers by Larissa Wodtke, Rhian E. Jones, Daniel Lukes
A really interesting and I think unique take on writing a music book about one of the UK’s most enduring bands, Manic Street Preachers started out in 1990, from a small mining town in Wales their music is suffused with pop-cult influences, high-level literacy, and punk-rock energy. Their third album, The Holy Bible, is one of my favourite records and each of Triptych’s co-authors takes on a different aspect of the album.
Lukes gives an anecdotal breakdown of the album’s core cultural reference points, Jones offers her own experiences as young Manics fan growing up in Wales, and Wodtke explores the idea of historicity and archive in the Manics’ continued reference to the album. The Manics’ guitarist and lyricist, Richey Edwards, would subsequently go missing in 1995 after telling the band he wanted their follow-up album to be “Pantera meets Nine Inch Nails meets Screamadelica”.
A really important stepping stone for me, The Holy Bible bears many parallels to The Downward Spiral, with a stripped-back post-punk sound its coarse and aggressive energy reminds of NIN’s heaviest and most extreme moments of bleakness. Their shared expressions of nihilism have each become iconic touchstones for challenging and uncompromising music that seeks to shake humanity out from the chains of its existential complacency.
7. 33&1/3 Pretty Hate Machine by Daphne Carr
Daphne Carr’s 33&1/3-series book applis a somewhat controversial approach, divided between the history of early NIN, Pretty Hate Machine, and alternative music retailing in the 1990s.
Part-oral history and academic treatise – the fan accounts of what NIN means to them and how Pretty Hate Machine in particular helped them reflect upon challenging and negative experiences are both moving and insightful, Carr really drills down to explore the core relationship between Trent Reznor’s music and Nine Inch Nails fans.
The book gets quite lost talking about US retail chains and how they marketed to the emergent youth market; feeling like a cobbled-on bit of PhD research. Elsewhere Carr produces an excellent chapter on the Columbine school shootings, examining NIN’s relationship to the shooters and the media uproar that followed, raising bigger questions about gun control and artistic censorship.
A bold approach to the big questions to a band with one of the most iconic and influential debut albums.
8. ASHES TO ASHES: The Songs of David Bowie 1976-2016 by Chris O’Leary
Alongside O’Leary’s previous Bowie book, Rebel Rebel, which covers all of his music up until StationToStation, this is perhaps the definitive book on Bowie.
Drawn from his excellent blog Pushing Ahead Of The Dame O’Leary takes the MacDonald’s approach to The Beatles and applies it to a lifetime of songs. A doorstopper of a book that is never a drag, O’Leary poetic prose sings and takes you on a journey into the music itself, not just recounting the “making-of” details.
What I like so much about this book is O’Leary’s meticulous research, drawing on a wealth of Bowie interviews he sticks to the story of the music and less about cod-psychology or applying aesthetic theories to Bowie’s ouvre.
O’Leary’s references to Bowie’s relationship to NIN, and his friendship with Trent Reznor is explored in-depth around the era of 1995’s “1.Outside” album, there is so much great stuff to draw on from this book.
9. WRECKERS OF CIVILIZATION: The Story of COUM Transmissions and Throbbing Gristle by Simon Ford
Simon Ford’s relentlessly searching account explores the madness and the passion of a performance art collective that would go on to form a musical group that’s sole purpose was to reinvent music as they destroyed it.
Aside from actual industrial-genre bands that had a direct genetic influence for NIN, the legacy of TG on Trent’s Reznor music is felt more by attitude, in the pursuit of new sounds and experimentalism with non-musical noise that carries emotional resonance and atmospheric impact.
It’s great to read about a band who worked at the extreme edges of art that somehow set a precedent for many other groups, like NIN, to follow in their wake.
10. ASSIMILATE by S. Alexander Reed
A BONUS title, this book is a comprehensive and far-reaching book about many, many aspects of industrial music, from race and techno-fear, to the limits and new horizons of the genre.
A refreshing read as it looks far beyond Nine Inch Nails – which has become the popular image of industrial music – as illuminating as its range is broad!
INTO THE NEVER: Nine Inch Nails And The Creation Of The Downward Spiral
Read more about NIN and The Downward Spiral
My book “Into The Never: Nine Inch Nails and The Creation Of The Downward Spiral.