The Best Music Biographies to Read During Lockdown

5th May 2020

Our NoticeBORED series is here to keep you busy and your brain active with all things music-related throughout this lockdown period. So far, we’ve had some stellar recommendations from BIMM staff and students for the best music documentaries to watch and the best music podcasts to listen to. Now, we’re onto the best music biographies to delve into. 

Our students and staff have recommended everything from brutally honest and moving memoirs to hilarious accounts of life in the thick of rock n’ roll. The recommendations also range from autobiographies penned by larger than life musical legends to the people who worked behind the scenes to create your favourite albums. 

Beastie Boys Book by Michael Diamond and Adam Horovitz

Hear how a New York City band became global hip-hop superstars from the band themselves. Adam “AD-ROCK” Horovitz and Michael “Mike D” Diamond reveal their journey from teenage punks to budding rappers, their success, collaborations, fallouts, and their rebirth as musicians and social activists. 

This isn’t your average music memoir though. Alongside the band narrative, you’ll find pieces by guest contributors, rare photos, a map of Beastie Boy’s New York, mixtape playlists and many more surprises.

Hell is Round the Corner by Tricky

Tricky took the UK by storm in the early 1990s, creating a sound that helped define the soundtrack of the post-rave generation. His first solo album, ‘Maxinquaye’ went gold, sold a million copies worldwide, was the NME’s album of the year in 1995 and nominated for that year’s Mercury prize. Since then he has recorded a further twelve albums. Before his music career, however, he grew up in the ‘white ghetto’ of Bristol’s Knowle West – alongside family members that included convicted criminals and bare-knuckle boxers. Out of an environment of urban struggle and economic disadvantage – he forged a unique creativity, finding acclaim from the likes of David Bowie.

Tricky speaks candidly about how his mother’s suicide when he was just four years old has had a lifelong effect on him, both creatively and psychologically, and how the underground cultures of the 1980s and ’90s, like squatting, festivals, Jamaican sound systems and the emerging UK hip-hop scene gave him the space and inspiration to express himself artistically. Free to develop his taste naturally and experimentally, in part by working with like-minded peers such as Bristol’s Wild Bunch – from which later came Massive Attack – Tricky pioneered his extraordinary sound. When Island Records’ legendary figurehead Chris Blackwell signed him, his adventure as a household name began.

Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen

How could you not want to know about The Boss; where he came from and how he came to be one of the greatest-ever musicians? In 2009, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band performed at the Super Bowl’s halftime show and it was through wanting to write about the experience that Springsteen’s seven-year memoir project began. 

You’ll start off in New Jersey, follow him as a bar-band king in Asbury Park and feel the elation as the E Street Brand starts to rise. You’ll also have access to Springsteen’s personal struggles that inspired his best work and how there’s perhaps more to the infamous ‘Born to Run’ track than initially thought. 

This is a memoir for all the workers and dreamers out there; the lovers of music and life. It’s written with the same poetic lyricism you’d expect from the man who penned songs like ‘Born in the U.S.A’, ‘The River’ and ‘Thunder Road’ – and it’s a definite must-read for your lockdown list. 

Massive Attack: Out of the Comfort Zone by Melissa Cheman

This book is dedicated to the history of the band Massive Attack and to their relationship with their home town of Bristol, a city built on the wealth generated by the slave trade. As a port Bristol was also an arrival point for immigrants to the UK, most notably the Windrush generation from the Caribbean in the 1950s.

Author Melissa Chemam’s in-depth study of the influences that led to the formation of the Wild Bunch and then Massive Attack looks into Bristol’s past to explore how the city helped shape one of the most successful and innovative musical movements of the last 30 years. Based on interviews with Robert (3D) del Naja and others, the book examines the inner tensions between the founding members of Massive Attack – 3D, Daddy G and Mushroom – their influences, collaborations and politics and the way in which they opened the door for other Bristol musicians and artists including Banksy.

Face It by Debbie Harry

Front-woman of Blondie, activist, actor and muse to many, Debbie Harry has been something of an enigma – until now. In her memoir, Harry mixes deep storytelling with never-before-seen photographs, art and illustrations. 

You’ll be hit with the grit and glory of New York in the 1970s, Harry’s heroin addiction and bankruptcy, Blondie’s highs and lows, her solo career and her tireless advocacy for LGBTQ rights and the environment. This a woman who’s forged her own path – and it certainly makes for an incredible read. 

Heavier than Heaven: The Biography of Kurt Cobain by Charles R. Cross

Join music journalist Charles R. Cross (a veteran of the Seattle music scene) as he relates the life and death of Kurt Cobain, one of rock n’ roll’s most prolific legends and one of the 20th century’s most troubled and creative music geniuses. 

Cross examines Cobain’s artistic brilliance that was revered by so many and his own pain that extinguished it. The biography looks at Cobain’s humble beginnings through to his fame and shocking suicide, piecing his life together through hundreds of interviews with Cobain’s friends, family and Nirvana band members. 

How Music Works by David Byrne

David Byrne is best known for being the founding member and principal songwriter of the iconic band Talking Heads. Over his career, he’s received a Grammy, Oscar and Golden Globe awards and has been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. However, this isn’t your straightforward music biography. In How Music Works, Byrne gives us insightful biographical details, but he also includes his unique perspective on music. He discusses how music is shaped by time, how recording technologies have transformed the listening experience and how the industry has evolved as a whole 

Byrne also lets us in on his work before Talking Heads and how his work has developed in the years since. It’s also a particularly interesting read if you’re into the business side of music and the production aspects of the industry. After all, if you’re going to read a book about how music and the industry work, who better to learn it from than someone who’s lived it? 

I am Ozzy by Ozzy Osbourne

“People ask me how come I’m still alive, and I don’t know what to say”, writes Ozzy in his autobiography. Here is though, ready to tell his story his way and for the first time.

Follow his journey from being John Micahel Osbourne in Birmingham to one of rock’s most lasting figures and a TV personality thanks to the hit MTV show, The Osbournes. We’re not going to lie, it’s not pretty in places (as Ozzy warns himself), but it’ll make you laugh, cry and maybe even be in awe at the life he’s led. 

Iron Man: My Journey Through Heaven and Hell with Black Sabbath by Tony Iommi

When one of the most influential musicians for the past four decades and lead guitarist and songwriter of Black Sabbath writes an autobiography, you’re going to want to pick it up, surely? Take a trip with Tony Iommi through his midlands roots, how he came to his unique playing style and his mega rockstar status – with some drug-fuelled nights of excess and wildness thrown in for good measure. 

Life by Keith Richards

Take a closer look at the extraordinary life of the man who personifies rock n’ roll – as told in his own words. Richards takes us right back to post-war Kent where he used to listen to Muddy Waters and Chuck Berry, learning the guitar and forming what would go on to become one of the greatest bands in rock n’ roll history with Mick Jagger and Brian Jones. 

Of course, in classic Richards style, there’s also plenty of drugs, love affairs, tax exile, addiction and isolation. This is arguably an essential story to add to your list – and one that’s sure as hell to keep you entertained. 

Love, Janis by Laura Joplin

Janis Joplin is known as the queen of class rock, but her untimely death means she’s a figure often shrouded in enigma. Until now. Laura Joplin, her younger sister, has created a revealing and intimate biography that allows us to see Janis as a young rebellious girl, an artist in the Beat hangouts of Venice and North Beach and a true talent in the psychedelic, acid-soaked environment of Haight-Asbury. 

Laura shows us the hardcore Janis who could drink Jim Morrison under the table and the more vulnerable Janis who tried to balance love and fame and overcome her demons. 

At the centre of Love, Janis is a beautiful series of letters penned by Janis herself that have never been previously published. In them, she herself shows us her wild ride from awkward small-town teenager to other-worldly rock-and-roll queen. 

Just Kids by Patti Smith

In the late 60s, when politics and culture were reaching a crescendo and the worlds of art and music where colliding, two kids made a pact to always care for one another. Just Kids documents the extraordinary relationship between Patti Smith and the artist Robert Mapplethorpe, as told by Smith herself.

Their passion began through a chance encounter in 1967 and cemented itself in each other’s lives way before fame came a-knocking. In fact, it’s their relationship that would fuel their lifelong pursuit of art and take them to international success.

You’ll follow their romance and subsequent friendship through Brooklyn, Coney Island, Warhol’s Factory and the whole of New York City as they mix with Allen Ginsberg, Sam Shepherd, William Burroughs and more. This is a love letter to the city and a love story about two young artists who stood by each other’s sides.

Love & Death: The Murder of Kurt Cobain by Max Wallace and Ian Halperin

Still on the fence about the cause of Cobain’s death? Check out former Rolling Stone writers Ian Halperin and Max Wallace’s book, as they forensically detail all questions, facts and conspiracies surrounding his passing.

Me by Elton John

If you want honesty, humour and emotion wrapped in one, you can’t go wrong with this autobiography from one of the world’s greatest living singer/songwriters. 

Hear how the shy Reginald Dwight went from dreaming about being a star to performing in America in yellow dungarees and boots with wings – and unleashing Elton John onto the world. There’s plenty of stories about his professional partnership with Bernie Taupin and partying with the likes of Freddie Mercury, Geroge Michael and John Lennon. 

Elton is brutally honest about following his passion, making mistakes, getting clean, and falling in love. This is a story you won’t be forgetting in a hurry. 

Mo’ Meta Blues: The World According to Questlove by Ahmir Thompson

Questlove (aka Ahmir Thompson) is here to give you the inside track on his life and the music industry that’s surrounded it: the headliners, the almost-weres, the greats and the pivotal moments in black art and culture. 

Questlove is the drummer and joint frontman for the Grammy Award-winning band The Roots, as well as a music journalist. This autobiography takes you through his upbringing in 1970s North Philly, how he found music and what it was like to play with your heroes. But, the whole memoir questions its own form and quality as Ahmir self-examines himself, giving it an edge unlike anything else you’ve read before. 

Nico: Songs They Never Play on the Radio by James Young

Nico had been a world-famous fashion model, muse to some of the most influential men in the 20th century – Bob Dylan, Andy Warhol, Jim Morrison, Lou Reed, to name a few – and the queen of making art for art’s sake music. But by the time a young Mancunian pianist named James Young met her in the 1980s, she was a broke, washed-up heroin addict. This book is Young’s account of Nico’s last tours, from disastrous shows in Soviet bloc countries to having syringes stolen by fans. In turns hilarious, sad and haunting, this is a no hold barred account of myth, fame and creativity.

Porcelain: A Memoir by Moby

Love him or hate him, Moby is an amazing writer. This book beautifully captures his rise in electronic music so vividly that you can almost smell the stink of trash on the streets of New York.

Rodigan: My Life in Reggae by David Rodigan

David Rodigan is arguably one of the most respected broadcasters and DJs – and a reggae superstar here in the UK and in Jamacia. It’s only natural then that his memoir is included in our list. 

To many, he is known as the man who taught the world about reggae, but this wasn’t an obvious destiny for the Army sergeant’s son from the English countryside. Follow his journey from Kidlington to Kingston, his upbringing, tournament wins against the greatest sound systems in Jamaican dancehalls and becoming a headline performer at the biggest festivals around the world. 

Scar Tissue by Anthony Kiedis and Larry Sloman

Being the lead singer and songwriter for the Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Anthony Kiedis is no stranger to living life on the edge. Until this, we were only given clues to his life through the lyrics in his songs. However, in Scar Tissue, Kiedis shows he just as compelling a memoirist as he is a lyricist. 

Scar Tissue documents Kiedis’ love affair with music, his rise to fame and his descent into drug addiction. This is a fast-paced memoir about life in the fast-lane, full of passion, addiction, recovery and redemption. 

Slash: The Autobiography by Slash

With help from Anthony Bozza (author and journalist for the likes of Rolling Stone Magazine), Slash’s autobiography covers his years with Guns N’ Roses (with the groupies, drugs and trashing hotel antics you’d expect), Axl Rose, his own decision to leave the band, achieving his sobriety, marriage and family. The book’s tagline reads ‘It seems excessive, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.” And wow, exessive is certainly a word for this must-read music biography.  

“I’ve always had to do things my way; I play guitar my way; I’ve taken myself to the edges of life my way; I’ve gotten clean my way; And I’m still here. Whether or not I deserve to be is another story.” – Slash

 Sound Man: A Life Recording Hits with The Rolling Stones, The Who, Led Zeppelin, The Eagles, Eric Clapton, The Faces… by Glyn Johns

What happens when you’re sixteen years old at the dawn of rock and roll? If you’re name’s Glyn Johns you become an engineer and produce iconic albums, such as Abbey Road with The Beatles, Who’s Next by The Who, and Led Zeppelin’s and the Eagle’s debuts. This is his story.

Plus, it’s a reliable account as Johns was most probably the only person on a given day in the studio who was entirely sober. And he was there for other iconic moments, such as Jimi Hendrix’s appearance at the Albert Hall in London, the Stones’ first European tour and the Beatles’ final performance on the roof of their Savile Row recording studio. It’s entertaining, observant and certain to delight any music fans. It certainly did us. 

So You Wanna Be a Rock & Roll Star: How I Machine-Gunned a Roomful of Record Executives and Other True Tales from a Drummer’s Life by Jacob Slichter

Jacob Slichter is the drummer for Semisonic, a band best known for their hit ‘Closing Time.’ Here, he documents the insanity that was the major label system in the late 1990s, moments away from the catastrophe of downloading, MP3s and streaming; a time when more was still more and everything was charged back to the artist. A must-read as both a history lesson and a warning.

The Heroin Diaries: A Year in the Life of a Shattered Rock Star by Nikki Sixx

When Nikki Sixx was in Mötley Crüe as they shot into the stratosphere there wasn’t any drug he wouldn’t touch. In this shockingly honest memoir that became a New York Times Bestseller, Nikki shares the diary entries from a drug-fueled year and shares his experience of transitioning from dark times and rock bottom to picking himself up and starting to live again. As a result, he’s created a surprisingly moving account of the year that made him reevaluate everything. 

White Line Fever: Lemmy, The Autobiography by Lemmy Kilmister

Say the name ‘Lemmy’ and there really is no one else to think of than the Motorhead frontman who became known as the heaviest drinking, oversexed speedfreak of the music business. 

This autobiography follows his rise from Wales through his early career, backstage touring with Jimi Hendrix and his creation of Motorhead. White Line Fever has also been updated post-Lemmy’s untimely death in 2016. Take a ride with one of rock’s most legendary frontmen. 

Year of the Monkey by Patti Smith

This is the second recommendation on our list by Patti Smith. Take a trip with her as she embarks on a year of solitary, wandering and exploring with her polaroid camera and boots. You’ll have access to her thoughts and musings as the year evolves and she deals with loss, ageing and a dramatic change in America’s political landscape.  

It’s worth bearing in mind that this isn’t your typical, chronological autobiography or memoir. It blends fact and fiction; poetry with illustrations. This is a book that provides a beautiful glimpse into Smith’s wisdom, the gift of hope and how the small things in life can make up a bigger picture. 

Have a burning recommendation for music films. tutorials or online radio stations? Keep an eye on our social channels for your favourites to be included in our upcoming NoticeBORED lockdown lists.