How to Write a Rockin' Rock Biography

Posted: Tuesday 6 September 2016

Music biographer and all-round rock chick Zoë Howe shares her tips for writing a rockin’ rockstar biography.

Writing a book about anyone can get intense. Basically these people have moved into your head and will remain tenants in there, demanding tea, using your hairbrush and hogging the bathroom, day and night for at least the duration of the project.

You are being entrusted with the handling of their life story - it’s quite the responsibility. After having done quite a few, here's my advice for writing a rock biography to be proud of (and surviving the process while you're at it.)

Consider all sides

One of the things that can cause one to reach for the Valium is the fact that there will be a number of perspectives to consider, multiple memories of the same events. Try to be balanced and fair to all of them. You weren’t there, and even if you were, you weren’t with all of them all of the time, so represent differing viewpoints with integrity.

There is no one true version of any story. (And don’t just go with the version that sounds the sauciest, or the version delivered by the band member you fancied when you were 14.)

I'll be there for you?

Don’t expect to become best mates. You might become best mates, but don’t just try to get an interview with this - or more - as your agenda.

(I’ve seen it happen, it’s creepy. You don’t want to be creepy, do you? Or rather, you don’t want people to know you’re creepy, do you? No.)

Also, if you bond too quickly with one member of the band over the others is that it can lend a bias to the work, because they’re breathing down your neck every five minutes and you’re all flattered by the attention so you take their side more. You’re doing a job. Be mates afterwards, if matey-ness is genuinely on the cards.

Research

Do your research.

Done your research? Great. Do some more research.

Man on the inside

Speak to the roadies. I cannot recommend this highly enough. They aren’t all ‘interviewed-out’, so you’re likely to glean stories no one else has ever heard. They were probably sober when everyone else was drunk. They have a different perspective. They tend to be very funny.

I refer you to one Freddie Barker, former Dr Feelgood roadie and all-round mensch. He gave me a brilliant interview for Lee Brilleaux: Rock ‘n’ Roll Gentleman. He was very modest and at first wasn’t sure he had anything to say, but his interview took me behind the Oz curtain and put me right in the moment.

Keep schtum

Listen. Every writer I know (myself included) cringes when they listen to interview tapes, mostly because they keep excitedly interrupting and joining in, presumably with a bid to let their interviewee know that they understand them. But just put a sock in it, will you?

And let them go off on tangents - once they’ve talked their way through the now calcified layers of well-trodden interview fodder, you get below the surface, and therein the magic lies.

Put the autograph book away

Are you a super-fan? Better put that aside. It’s important to have a deep appreciation of the people/person you are writing about – like I say, they’ll be living in your head for a couple of years, so you’d better like them – but if you’re too excited to be in their presence it might be hard to conduct an interview through all the drooling.

Get creative

Find unconventional ways to put the story, essence and personality of the artist, across. Tap into a key element and bring it out in relief. It’s more fun to write (and read) than ‘and then this happened, then this, and then that happened.’

There’s a lot of information out there now, thanks to our good pal The Internet, so you need to give readers a reason to buy the lovely book you’ve lost so much sleep over rather than just read a load of stuff online. You want them to treasure your book and keep it, rather than fling it straight into the charity pile once they’ve read it. It has to be more than just information.

Beware of the groupies

Also-ran klaxon! Lots of rather cheeky people on the outer periphery, many of whom the band members themselves might have forgotten or don’t actually like, will suddenly appear and try very hard to insert themselves into the story, because they think you probably don’t know any better.

Use your instincts. Be discerning. Some of those people WILL have great insights, some of them will be bottom feeders. I remember some years ago one person who basically lied about their involvement with an artist I was working with kindly offering to write the foreword. Er, it’s okay, thanks!

Fan Facts

On the other hand, I like talking to genuine fans about their memories of the shows, THEY are not the bottom feeders. They are a massively important part of the story. Without them there would be no audience, no point.

Genuine fans deserve respect and a voice, and they often have very funny memories of things that happened onstage which no one in the band would probably remember. You don’t want to miss out on those stories.

Mum's the word

If someone says ‘off the record’ keep it OFF the record. If someone says, ‘but this is between you and me,’ don’t be a hack and stitch them up, respect their wishes. You are being privileged with information that they obviously feel they can share with you, so don’t be an arsehole.

Put yourself in their position a bit. Some people forget ‘rock stars’ are human beings (well, mostly) and think everything they do and say is fair game. I repeat: don’t be an arsehole.

Find the balance

Get the balance right - put your stamp on the work, but don’t get in the way of it. And remember, it’s their story, but it’s your book.

 

Zoë Howe's books include Typical Girls? The Story Of The Slits (Omnibus), Stevie Nicks - Visions, Dreams & Rumours (Omnibus), Florence + The Machine - An Almighty Sound (Omnibus), Wilko Johnson - Looking Back At Me (Cadiz), Barbed Wire Kisses - The Jesus and Mary Chain Story (Polygon), 'How's Your Dad?' Living In The Shadow Of A Rock Star Parent (Omnibus) and Lee Brilleaux - Rock 'n' Roll Gentleman (Polygon).

When not writing or listening to records, she can often be found playing the drums, making weird collages or wandering about on the beach near her home in Essex.

Shine On, Marquee Moon, a rock ’n’ roll love story with a satirical twist, is her debut novel. It was short-listed for the Virginia Prize for Fiction 2016, and is published via Matador available here.