Oh lord, here we go: another book picking over the cliché of creativity’s debt to madness. Clinton Heylin is a respected rock journalist and biographer of Bob Dylan but here he hangs his compendious musical knowledge on a thesis at best flimsy, at worst suspect.
Namely, that between 1971 and 1973, the “defining works” of several English musicians were inspired by, or the direct product of, mental illness.
Well, yes, I suppose so. A depressed Ray Davies created the Kinks’ Muswell Hillbillies and Quadrophenia gave the Who’s Pete Townshend a nervous breakdown. Singer Nick Drake overdosed after his third slim album Pink Moon. And the seriously disturbed Syd Barrett was an inspiration for his erstwhile band Pink Floyd’s magnum opus, Dark Side of the Moon, and for David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane personae. But there’s an awful lot of drugs, drink, egotism and sheer opportunism in the mix of these wildly differing stories, too.
Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters and Dave “David” Gilmour don’t seem to have suffered from anything worse than rampant self- belief. Bowie comes out of this tome badly, as a man who would use anything — even his own half-brother’s schizophrenia and eventual suicide — to cloak his work in myth and mystery. It should also be said that a lot of other artists were producing “defining” work — the Stones’ 1972 Exile on Main Street, for example — that is omitted because their dependence on altered mental states doesn’t quite fit Heylin’s framework.
He isn’t particularly interested in the causes of madness, anyway, just its effect on the creation of music and on colleagues, friends, family and fans. So the book, which is larded with well-researched quotation, works well enough as an archival trawl through recording sessions and spats, and vignettes like Ray Davies turning up in a state of psychic collapse at the Whittington Hospital, dressed as a clown and in full stage make-up, after a 1973 gig in which he quit the Kinks.
There is an underlying glibness to the tone — Fleetwood Mac’s schizophrenic founder Peter Green is described as “barking”, while “insanity did not so much run in [Bowie’s] mother’s family as positively gallop”. Some passages are overwritten and several are aimed at the most obsessive students of bootlegs and sleeve notes. The story ends, in a so-what way, with punk sweeping away the excesses of prog rock and concept albums, and the discrediting of the idea that madness could be a useful creative tool. And, ultimately, with Nick Drake’s Pink Moon being licensed by actress sister Gabrielle to a Volkswagen ad in 2000, after which the album’s sales jumped “from 6,000 to 74,000”.
• ALL THE MADMEN
BY Clinton Heylin