Reader Review: Paul Monkhouse

Paul Monkhouse is a freelance music and theatre journalist who’s been writing for various publications for twenty five years.

Book Review – Words and Music by Michael Anthony

Subtitled ‘Excursions in the Art of Rock Fandom’, Michael Anthony’s book is a fascinating, intelligent and passionate look at what makes music so vital in the lives of so many people throughout the World. Mixing in-depth analysis with some very funny (and recognisable) autobiographical stories, alongside other more introspective narrative passages it is unlike any music book I’ve ever read.

The book opens with a reference to Seb Hunter’s Hell Bent for Leather: Confessions of a Heavy Metal Addict but I think Words and Music is far superior. Hunter approaches his subject with quite a deal of gentle (and not so gentle) mocking, seemingly embarrassed by his earlier predilection for certain bands whereas Anthony shows he is still as passionate about his first true musical loves. This isn’t to say that his tastes haven’t expanded from his teenage years because they certainly have, growing to embrace blues and folk amongst other genres. Part of my enjoyment of the book was borne from being just two years older than the author and sharing a lot of his musical preferences and therefore experiences. In the same way that Anthony does, I can cast my mind back to my earliest days of gig going and still recall the feelings, sights, smells and sounds that so defined my youth. As an adult with a music mad son I still get a huge rush discovering new bands, rediscovering old ones and love to ‘educate’ my ten year old in past and present favourites. Reading the book there is a tangible sense that the author shares that passion and that he always has and always will.

The themeing of the chapters provides focus on many different facets of how music interweaves through our lives and gives Anthony a chance to look at some pretty deep issues. Fulfilling the criteria set out in the introductory chapter and indeed the title of the book itself there is a lot of discussion on both the importance of the music AND the words. Scattered throughout the book many lyrics are quoted, revealing the equal importance of the prose to what they accompany. Throughout, the book is peppered with descriptions of not only the instrumental contributions to songs but also chunks of the equally important lyrics that accompany the music. Whilst certainly not claiming that Anthony eschews all forms of ‘pop’ music there is certainly the impression that he enjoys a more heartfelt and lyrical storytelling style, picking artists of real substance. It’s a passion that a lot of music lovers share and I stand up and count myself within that group. There isn’t a sense in his writing of musical snobbery or “I like ‘proper’ music” but just a very personal communication of how it can be a very individual art form. We are all different and respond to different songs or music in different ways. This point is perfectly illustrated by a quote about Magnum songwriter Tony Clarkin who says that he never explains his lyrics but leaves them to the interpretation of the listener. And so it should be.

As with any book on such a wide ranging subject, the themes and artists discussed can only scratch the surface, even of the writers own tastes and experiences. It would be impossible for anyone to distil over thirty years of being a music fan into three hundred and fifty pages but Anthony hits a lot of the most important ones for him. Not for him the frothy, lightweight anecdotal style of some music autobiographies that just seem to be full of ‘funny’ incidents (although there are many amusing tales in the book, some of which are painfully close to those experienced by myself). Instead the warmer passages are mixed with heavier, much more introspective sections that study his subjects in a much deeper way. Sometimes the text does get bogged down by Anthony’s interest in and quoting of various psychologists and philosophers but he obviously felt the need to put these in for specific context although the point could be made for paring these down a little. Again, as the author points out in his introductory chapter, what he has written is personal and therefore the reader can choose to take what they want from it.

At times there is a little too much emphasis on certain artists and those who don’t like The Doors, Bob Dylan or Marillion will either find themselves struggling through the chapters or will be intrigued and discovering afresh a new found interest in their music. Surely the latter is the author’s intent as all people who are truly passionate about a subject want to share it. Also there is a bewildering juxtaposition of an eight page travelogue detailing where Anthony and his wife went and what they consumed en route to a Marillion convention that bears no relevance to the rest of the text and should have been pruned. The book ends with an extended review of the 2010 High Voltage Festival that seems somewhat unnecessary  and is only really used as a device to tie up the final paragraph which attempts to sum up the broad range of rock music available and the devotion of those who truly love and follow it. The end seemed somewhat rushed but truly, what more can be said about a subject that has been so well covered in the previous three hundred and forty-nine pages?

These though are minor points and the overall impression is of a work that adds a great deal to the growing canon of rock literature and certainly has its own individual voice. Given our aforementioned shared experiences and love for music I’m sure that if I ever met Michael Anthony we’d get on exceptionally well and I can think of no higher compliment than that. Words and Music is a genuine ‘must read’ that entertains, informs and challenges in equal measure. Definitely a book for anyone who loves music or has even just been touched or moved by a lyric.

Paul Monkhouse

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