Music Books of the Year: John Martyn, Britpop, The New Romantics and More


It can feel like we’re living in the everlasting 1980s sometimes. “Turn on the TV and in “The Crown” there’s Maggie and Princess Di. Turn on the radio or walk in the store and you’re listening to Madonna or Prince or Kim Wilde (or perhaps WhamLast !’s Christmas at this time of year).

In bookstores, it’s the same. Step in (if you can) and you’ll find the book-covered music shelves of the decade that we can’t seem to give up. You will find books by Dave Ball of Soft Cell (Electronic Boy, Omnibus Press, £ 20) this year alone, a beautifully loose and frank memoir), Chris Frantz of Talking Heads (Remain in Love, White Rabbit, £ 20; potential alternative title ‘The Trouble with David Byrne’), Shirlie and Martin Kemp (Shirlie and Martin Kemp: It’s a Love Story, Mirror Books, £ 20; Spandau Ballet/Wham! Two-for-One) and even Ro Ro-for-One

Read more: Dave Ball on Soft Cell’s Life

Read more: David Byrne on Chris Frantz

But were the 1980s that special indeed? In his latest novel, Sweet Dreams (Faber, £20), Dylan Jones, editor-in-chief of GQ, spends more than 600 pages arguing that they really were.

“You may think that’s a bit of an exaggeration, given that Jones tells “the tale of the New Romantics,” as the subtitle says. But in fact, the book uses the Blitz Club’s denizens as a framework to construct a period’s cultural background, one that includes Bowie and Roxy Music, punk, the emergence of synthpop, postmodernism, politics, sexuality and fashion.

The hypothesis of Jones is that the bands that emerged in the early 1980s from the London scene formed the template for music (and pop culture) that influenced the remainder of the decade and beyond. Often it seems like the book takes its theories beyond what the facts might support, and there is definitely only the ghost of the idea that in the music history of the decade, the other cities in the United Kingdom-whether Glasgow, Liverpool, Manchester, or Sheffield-were just as important as London.

Still, interspersed with Jones’s own pleasantly idiosyncratic contextualizations, the book’s blend of first-hand accounts from many pop stars and their entourages (from Boy George and Adam Ant to magazine publishers, stylists and DJs), makes it an engrossing, page-turning pleasure. All in all, it makes a good case for pop music’s value. It deserves the role it occupies in the world for that.

In Jones’ novel, Bananarama appears from time to time, but in Really Saying Something (Hutchinson, £ 20), founding members Sara Dallin and Keren Woodward give their own take on their own story. As an account of a lifetime relationship, it fits best. Woodward speaks frankly about her depression, and both talk about the sexism they experienced in their early days (sparingly). But obviously, they have chosen to keep the bulk of their secrets to themselves. A frothy account of parties and friendships and high-fiving George Michael is the outcome.

In Sweet Dreams, Gary Numan also makes an appearance, but in the book he is more of an outsider character. In his own book (R)Evolution (Constable, £20), it’s an idea he appears to accept. He has Asperger’s syndrome, and this is his life’s bluntly frank story. In the late 1970s, Numan was a key figure in popularizing electronic music, but the years of ridicule that followed (thanks to hair transplants and his often ill-fated flight attempts) took a toll on his popularity and, it seems, his confidence.

As a consequence, much of this book is about the insecurities of one man and his battle with depression as much as it is about his music. He speaks frankly about his financial struggles in the 1980s and 1990s (the routine purchasing of airplanes and boats certainly did not help) and his wife Gemma’s IVF treatments in hopes of becoming pregnant (ultimately successful, thankfully). What makes this book so interesting to you is that he can find humour in his attempts to get pregnant, and also in the screaming panic of his 1981 round-the-world trip.

It was planes and boats for Numan. For New Order drummer Stephen Morris, it was tanks. They were tanks that he turned to when he gave up drugs, according to Fast Forward, Confessions of a Post-Punk Percussionist Volume II (Constable, £ 20). It became the most important thing about him easily, he says. “I went from being a boring nerd to a boring nerd with a tank.”

There’s Morris in


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