Music History

The 15 Best Music Books of All Time

Put some sex, drugs, and rock 'n roll on your reading list today.

best music books

Illustration by Dan Redding. Ramones photos by Plismo

The tomes on our list of the best music books come in all shapes and sizes, including oral histories, memoirs, tour diaries and more. Reading about rock ‘n roll can be an enriching view into the artist’s mind – but let’s face it, the best reason to dig into rock history is that it’s fun. Only a robot with a heart of iron could turn down a good ol’ fashioned tale of sex, drugs and rock and roll. I’ve read ’em all – from the academic Elvis biography to the memoir of the guy from RATT (only one of those can be considered one of rock’s best music books). Here’s a comprehensive list of our candidates for best music books ever:

Best Music Books #15: Commando: The Autobiography of Johnny Ramone

Countless books have been written about seminal punk act The Ramones – and this inside account from guitarist Johnny Ramone is perhaps the most insightful. Johnny was known as the band’s hardheaded leader, and he starts his autobiography off by confessing that he “carried around fury and intensity during my career. I had an image, and that image was anger.” This look inside the mind of an original punk founder is riveting.

Best Music Books #14: Song of Spider-Man: The Inside Story of the Most Controversial Musical in Broadway History

by Glen Berger

Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark was the most calamitous production in the history of Broadway musicals, and author Glen Berger was there from start to finish. The production (which featured music by U2) was beset by relentless technical problems, severe injuries to cast members, relentless story revisions, and more. Berger was one of Turn Off the Dark‘s script writers, and his inside account of the maligned musical is a fascinating tale of showbiz turmoil.

Best Music Books #13: Ticket to Ride: Inside the Beatles 1964 Tour That Changed the World

by Larry Kane

When the Beatles arrived for their first U.S. tour in 1964, many Americans assumed they’d be nothing more than a fad. Journalist Larry Kane – a Beatles skeptic himself – was surprised when the Beatles’ management invited him along for the tour. It wasn’t long before the Beatles won the country over with their casual charm, disarming honesty, and indelible music. Larry Kane’s insider account of the tour provides a behind-the-scenes view into the Beatles lives as well as a fascinating account of a writer swept up in a cultural frenzy that’s winning the country’s heart – and his own.

Best Music Books #12: The Evolution of a Cro-Magnon

by John Joseph

Music takes a back seat for much of this harrowing autobiography from hardcore punk frontman John Joseph of Cro-Mags. The singer’s account of New York street life is surreal and terrifying. As a kid, Joseph scammed and fought his way through a living hell of abusive foster homes and violent juvenile detention centers. Later, he explores spirituality, vegetarianism and fitness after being inspired by the philosophy and ‘positive mental attitude’ of the Bad Brains and the Hare Krishna community. Likewise, Joseph’s ideals regarding diet, fitness and hard work will inspire you to go out and seize the day. The best part? This barrage of astounding tales is told in Joseph’s characteristic street vernacular – shit is bugged out, yo.

Related: Read Our List of the Best Music Podcasts of 2017

Best Music Books #11: Get in the Van: On the Road With Black Flag

by Henry Rollins

Rollins’ tour diaries from his Black Flag days reveal a legendary punk band that’s constantly fighting for survival. Rollins’ life was a daily battle, whether he was starving in the back of the van or getting showered in skinhead phlegm while ripping through the band’s nightly set list. The relentlessly dour frontman gets excessive with the self-martyrdom along the way, but the punk’s eye view of hardcore life on the road is riveting. Dramatic photos by Glen E. Friedman and others make for wonderful visual accompaniment.

Best Music Books #10. Lexicon Devil: The Fast Times and Short Life of Darby Crash and the Germs

by Brendan Mullen with Don Bolles and Adam Parfrey

Darby Crash’s reputation as L.A.’s answer to Sid Vicious was misleading: beneath the chaotic behavior was a complex persona and staggering levels of charisma. The legendary punk frontman was a troubled character who drew inspiration from nefarious leaders like Hitler, Manson and L. Ron Hubbard. The anarchic hippie school that Crash and Pat Smear attended is so strange, you have to read it to believe it.

Best Music Books #9: Just Kids

by Patti Smith

Patti Smith’s memoir serves as a nice companion piece to the number one book on our best music books list; both paint a portrait of New York in the embryonic days of American punk culture. Just Kids is a love letter to Smith’s friend and muse, photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. Smith paints a vivid portrait of two artists finding their voices in the greatest cultural forge on Earth.

Best Music Books #8: Louder Than Hell: The Definitive Oral History of Metal

by Jon Wiederhorn and Katherine Turman

Did you know that Dimebag Darrel was buried in a KISS casket with Eddie Van Halen’s ‘bumblebee’ guitar? Also, he had the Crown Royal whiskey logo painted on the floor of his pool.

Louder Than Hell is an essential read for anyone interested in heavy rock music. This book takes the reader through metal’s entire history, from Sabbath to thrash, death metal, hardcore, black metal, and even the maligned era of nu-metal. The oral history format gets the reader as close as possible to the action.

Best Music Books #7: Meet Me in the Bathroom: Rebirth and Rock and Roll in New York City 2001-2011

by Lizzy Goodman

Author Lizzy Goodman’s oral history of New York City rock of the 2000’s is brand new – and it’s an instant classic. The book follows the format of another oral history on this list (which sits in the number one spot), and earns a spot here with its fun and frank account of rock in the aughts.

Meet Me in the Bathroom follows the rise of bands like The Strokes, Interpol and Yeah Yeah Yeahs – all of whom were credited with bringing New York guitar rock back to the cultural forefront while leaving an era of nu-metal and boy bands in their wake. LCD Soundsystem, The Rapture, and the dance music scene are also covered, as are the rise of Vice and music blogs, New York rock clubs, and much more. If you lived in New York during this era, this book will conjure flashbacks galore (remember Brownies? Coney Island High?). And if you weren’t – it’ll bring you so close, you’ll practically smell the leather.

Best Music Books #6: Come As You Are: The Story of Nirvana

by Michael Azerrad

Here is the story of the band became the template for the last quarter century of rock and roll. Michael Azerrad takes the reader inside the band’s history, and ultimately, inside the fertile creative soil of Kurt Cobain’s brain. I love Nirvana and I’ve read every scrap of literature on the band; this book remains the most satisfying and thorough read. It’s a turbulent ride. For every new pinnacle of the band’s success, there’s a corresponding foray into darkness: drugs, depression, Kurt’s mysterious stomach ailment, and the Cobains’ countless feuds with the media all contribute to the band’s tumultuous narrative.

Best Music Books #5: Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley

by Peter Guralnick

Did you know that Elvis was a twin whose brother was delivered stillborn shortly before him? Furthermore, Elvis’ mother believed that “when one twin died, the one that lived got all the strength of both.”

Indeed, Elvis was such a powerful performer that he became one of the most important pop icons in history. This profoundly well-researched book chronicles his rise to megastardom, providing a sober look at the charismatic man behind the myth.

Best Music Books #4: It’s So Easy: and other lies

by Duff McKagan

The autobiography of Guns ‘n Roses bassist Duff McKagan transcends rock and roll. It’s the story of one man’s journey to the pinnacle of fame, down into a dark abyss of addiction, and back to life. This is the inside story of one of rock’s best and most excessive bands, and it’s told with Duff’s unflappable brand of wisdom and candor. Duff’s life after recovery (including forays into bicycling, martial arts, and finance study) is nothing short of inspiring.

If you’re looking for debauched rock tales, the book opens with the story of how The Simpsons‘ Duff beer came to be named after McKagan, who was such a severe drunk that he once ingested his own wine vomit in order to ‘save’ the alcohol.

Best Music Books #3: Hammer of the Gods: The Led Zeppelin Saga

by Stephen Davis

This is the gateway drug of rock and roll books: it spawned many imitators, and it started me down a voracious path of rock reading. Hammer of the Gods is a classic account of an iconic band with a reputation for debauchery. This salacious saga includes stories of John Bonham’s appetite for destruction, Jimmy Page’s affair with a 14 year-old, the band’s dark flirtation with the occult, and more. The ‘shark sex’ story is the band’s most notorious rumor – but my favorite tale occurred after Led Zeppelin had drunkenly thrown their televisions out of their hotel windows into the ocean below. When Grant casually paid for the t.v.’s at the front desk, a hotel clerk expressed jealousy about the incident. Grant peeled off a few more bills and told the clerk to go throw a television out the window for himself.

Best Music Books #2: The Dirt: Confessions of the World’s Most Notorious Rock Band

by Mötley Crüe and Neil Strauss

The silver medal on our best music books list goes to this pure, uncut dose of sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll. The antics of the Crüe are utterly outrageous and regularly boil over into full-on Spinal Tap levels of self-parody. For example, Tommy Lee recounts how he used to insert his manhood into a burrito after sex in order to conceal his cheating from girlfriends (isn’t it even more disturbing to walk around with a dick coated in refried beans?). Read this book for sheer, uncut entertainment value written in oral history style from the band members themselves.

Best Music Books #1: Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk

by Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain

This essential document of music history is so entertaining, it wins the top spot on our list of the best music books ever. Hear the story of the first wave of punk and proto-punk bands (Stooges, MC5, The Ramones, New York Dolls, and more), all told in first person from the musicians and other pillars of the scene. Witness the streets of apocalyptic 70s New York City from the perspective of Iggy Pop, Debbie Harry and Dee Dee Ramone. Priceless.

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