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Monday 27 January 2020

'What's the point writing about boring people?' - rock biographer Johnny Rogan

Rock biographer Johnny Rogan is best known for his books on The Smiths and Ray Davies, writes John Meagher, but his hefty tomes on The Byrds prove he's the definitive authority on the 1960s icons

Charming man: Rogan attracted the ire of Morrissey following his biography on The Smiths, who hoped the author ended his days in a motorway pile-up. PHOTO: DOUGLAS O’CONNOR
Charming man: Rogan attracted the ire of Morrissey following his biography on The Smiths, who hoped the author ended his days in a motorway pile-up. PHOTO: DOUGLAS O’CONNOR

Think of London in the Swinging Sixties and it's hard not to be seduced by the idea of a glamorous, permissive society where beautiful people lived it large and some of the greatest popular music ever recorded was providing the soundtrack.

But while such a London did exist, it felt a long way from the world that 12-year-old Johnny Rogan knew. He may have lived close to some of the poshest addresses in the city, but his family home was a run-down tenement with no electricity.

That wasn't good for a music-loving 12-year-old and it was only when he returned to visit family in Co Waterford that he was able to listen to music to his heart's content. Electricity was in plentiful supply in supposedly backward Ireland in 1965.

That year was a formative one for one who would go on to be acclaimed as one of the greatest rock biographers of his generation. He heard the music of The Byrds for the first time - and it changed his life. "I think 1965 was maybe the greatest year in music that there's been," he says. "Virtually every week, one great song after the next was released. They're songs from the Beatles and Stones and Kinks that are revered today, and it was the year that 'Eight Miles High' was released, too."

Rogan is considered one of the world's leading experts on The Byrds and it's easy to see why. He first published a biography of the band in 1980 while still at university and revised it several times over the years. Then, in 2011, he wrote a doorstopper on the band - Requiem for the Timeless - which was hailed by some as the most detailed rock biography ever written. Now he's followed it up with a second volume, which concerns itself with the subsequent "lives and tragic deaths" of six Byrds - Gene Clark, Michael Clarke, Kevin Kelley, Gram Parsons, Clarence White and Skip Battin.

"My fascination with The Byrds has never wavered," he says. "They released great music that still sounds really special today and individual members like Gene Clark went on to have fascinating careers in music." His writing on Clark's 1974 solo album, No Other, is so compelling that it made me immediately seek it out. The record was a critical and commercial failure on release, but Rogan is right - it's a brilliantly singular release and a gateway to Clark's wildly varied career.

Unlike many of the huge bands who came of age in the 1960s, The Byrds' story isn't as well-trodden. That's appealing for Rogan. "Is there much more that could be said about the Beatles?" he asks. But there's plenty to say about original Byrds founders David Crosby, Roger McGuinn, Chris Hillman and the sextet featured in Volume 2.

All up, the two Requiem books weigh in at over 2,400 pages - a number that includes exhaustive discographies and painstakingly detailed indexes. What modern reader takes the time to read such massive tomes? "Well, there's a market for it because of the way the first book sold," he says, not unreasonably. "And, in many ways, the new book is lean" - he catches my incredulous look - "because it's effectively six books in one - six biographies."

Rogan isn't like other rock biographers. Not for him the notion of churning out book after book or delivering volumes beefed up with pages of photographs. He's old-school in every possible way. He negotiated a remarkable deal with publishing giant Random House to only make his Byrds books available as physical editions - he's got no time for ebooks - and, in what must be a source of great frustration to those editors and publicists keen to get hold of him, he doesn't own a mobile phone. All enquiries go through his girlfriend, Jackie.

In a world in which so many of us fritter away our lives on our smartphones, there's something refreshing about Rogan's luddite approach. And, he insists, there would be no way he'd be able to write such detailed books - the deliciously muck-raking Ray Davies one (A Complicated Life) from two years ago was a comparatively slim 700 pages - if he was on Twitter.

Rogan has written many biographies - warts-and-all studies of Van Morrison and Neil Young among others - but he remains best known for his seminal Smiths book, Morrissey & Marr: The Severed Alliance. No other biography, including Morrissey's own memoir, has delved so deeply into the backgrounds and working relationships of the four founding members.

The book was published in 1992, five years after the band's demise, and Morrissey was furious. "I hope Johnny Rogan ends his days very soon in an M3 pile-up," he said at the time, gifting the author a quote that helped generate even more interest in the book. Today, Rogan admits that The Severed Alliance - by some distance his bestselling book - felt like a millstone for many years, but has reconciled himself with it now.

He published a thoroughly revised and updated version for its 20th anniversary. And, he says, its success allowed him to work on other labours of love, including those hefty Byrds books.

He has refused to undertake authorised biographies, despite several offers, and toyed with the idea of writing books on Suede, the Stone Roses and Britpop before either losing interest or getting pipped at the post. He points out that John Harris's The Last Party is, thus far, the best account of those mid-1990s Britpop years.

"The people I've written about weren't just significant musicians - some of them great musicians - but they were interesting people, too, and they've lived life. What's the point about writing about boring people?"

Byrds: Requiem for the Timeless Volume 2 is out now


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