We can talk all we like about the importance of pop music as a culturally relevant form of art (and we do), but the fact remains that the politically charged hit, or at least the song that gets picked up and tacked on to some sort of political upheaval or social change, is a product of yesteryear. This is nowhere more evident than in Mark Kurlansky’s newest book, Ready for a Brand New Beat, which is sold as a book on how the 1965 Martha and the Vandellas hit “Dancing in the Street” became a rallying cry “for a changing America,” but is more a condensed history of the civil rights movement in the 1960s. Kurlansky’s use of the Motown hit as the center of his discussion of the change that came out of the decade is maybe a little too ambitious at times, but the author of bestsellers like Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World and Salt: A World History is a deft writer of pop history books, making Ready for a Brand New Beat just one of many great books for people who want to rock while flipping off The Man. Here are a few more.
Bound for Glory, Woody Guthrie
Even though Guthrie’s 1943 autobiography is partially fictionalized, it’s difficult to overlook the importance of American music’s version of Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, and the influence it probably had on a young Jewish boy from Minnesota named Robert Zimmerman.
I Put A Spell On You: The Autobiography Of Nina Simone, Nina Simone
While “Dancing in the Street” inadvertently became an anthem for the civil rights era, Nina Simone dove headfirst into it by writing and performing songs like “Mississippi Goddam” as a response to the murder of Medgar Evers, and sang, spoke, and marched in many civil rights protests. Reading her autobiography is an easy way to pay tribute to one of the great badasses of American music.
Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back 33 1/3, Christopher R. Weingarten
While there might not ever be another Beatles or Bob Dylan, it is truly impossible to imagine the music industry ever trying to push an album with lyrics like:
All the critics you can hang’em I’ll hold the rope But they hope to the pope And pray it ain’t dope The follower of Farrakhan Don’t tell me that you understand Until you hear the man
Public Enemy’s second album spent 49 weeks on the Billboard 200, and was lauded as the best album of 1988 by just about every critic in the land. Christopher R. Weingarten’s 33 1/3 book is the best tribute to the record that changed hip hop and American music forever.
Girls to the Front, Sara Marcus
Sara Marcus wrote the account of the movement that brought topics such as rape, domestic abuse, sexuality, patriarchy, and female empowerment up for open discussion in the punk scene, and reinvigorated youth feminism across America. Girls to the Front is the book that puts riot grrrl in its proper context as an incredibly important movement.
We Owe You Nothing, Punk Planet: The Collected Interviews, edited by Dan Sinker
While punk rock has its share of books dedicated to it, Punk Planet was the magazine that highlighted the movement’s political principles even in the face of punk becoming corporatized in the 1990s. This Akashic-published anthology, which features interviews with everybody from Jello Biafra, Kathleen Hanna, Noam Chomsky, and Ian MacKaye, won’t fill the void left by the great magazine, but it will help.
Fug You: An Informal History of the Peace Eye Bookstore, the Fuck You Press, the Fugs, and Counterculture in the Lower East Side, Ed Sanders
Forget all those other books about hippies and the Summer of Love, and pick up this account of Sanders and Co.’s countercultural exploits on the Lower East Side in the 1960s instead.