Book review: ‘Isle Of Noises’ by Daniel Rachel
This book sets out to do for British artists what ‘Songwriters On Songwriting’ did for their US counterparts – and succeeds
any a songwriter, and many a Songwriting reader, will have a copy of Paul Zollo’s book Songwriters On Songwriting on their shelves. But as classic, hefty and well-respected a tome as that is (it’s a standard textbook on many music courses), it’s overwhelmingly focused on US musicians. As author Daniel Rachel quite openly states in his introduction, Isle Of Noise is an attempt to redress that imbalance. It’s subtitled ‘Conversations With Great British Songwriters’, and it does what it says on the cover.
There are 23 artists featured in Isle Of Noises, arranged in roughly chronological order of when they first began to make waves. So we begin with Ray Davies and Robin Gibb, and end with Lily Allen and Laura Marling, with the 19 names in-between reading like a Who’s Who of British music. Jimmy Page, John Lydon, Sting, Difford & Tilbrook, Billy Bragg, Johnny Marr, Damon Albarn, Noel Gallagher… and the list goes on. It’s fair to say there’s a slight emphasis on the stars of the 80s, but certainly not enough that younger or older readers should feel put off. Perhaps this reflects the author’s own age and musical tastes… or perhaps it’s just that those musicians who are now in their 50s and approaching retirement were most inclined to take time out to look back on their careers!
In any case, the author’s clear admiration of the artists involved should be seen as a benefit, not a hindrance. Because the interviews, presently in simple question-and-answer format, are as in-depth as you could possibly hope for: Rachel isn’t afraid to ask an artist to explain a phrase from an obscure b-side or dissect a particular chord sequence if he wants to. And, pleasingly, the focus throughout is firmly on the songwriting. Not on the tales of glamour and excess or the pressures of fame – though these things are inevitably touched upon, as when Paul Weller says, “When I’ve got drunk and written, in the morning I can’t decipher my writing. I can make out the odd word that would be great if only I could read it!” – but on the songwriting process itself, on the themes, constants or contradictions to be found within each artist’s body of work, on their sources of inspiration, on their relationships with co-writers, and so on.
For such a stylishly-presented book – its 530 pages come bound in an embossed cover that tips a knowing nod to Peter Saville’s Blue Monday sleeve – it’s a shame the pictures are in black and white. Otherwise, Songwriting‘s only grumble about Daniel Rachel’s work here, is that he hasn’t done it for us! Isle Of Noises is an outstanding book that will appeal to all kinds of discerning music lovers – and to songwriters of all persuasions.
Verdict: An unmissable collection of writing-focused interviews with some the UK’s best songwriters of the past 50 years
Isle Of Noises is out now, published by Picador, priced £25 (hardback)/£19 (eBook). For more information, visit the dedicated website.