Complicated Shadows: The Life and Music of Elvis Costello
by Graeme Thomson
528pp, Canongate, £16.99
Morrissey: Scandal and Passion
by David Bret
320pp, Robson Books, £10.99
Kirsty MacColl: The One and Only
by Karen O'Brien
264pp, Andre Deutsch, £17.99
All three of these singers explored the social contours of the politically polarised 1980s and helped, in the process, to define their times. All were English originals: nonconformists who rejected the career paths that seemed assigned to them. All felt the world could be cruel and unjust, and responded with bruised reproaches and bitter wit.
Rock journalist Graeme Thomson establishes that, in a punk era populated by angry young men, Elvis Costello was perhaps the angriest of them all. Even Johnny Rotten couldn't match his sustained venom. The young Costello, says Thomson, was naturally chippy with an "intrinsic - and often unintentional - ability for creating tension and unease".
Unlike many of the metropolitan punks, he was a genuine outsider: he worked as a computer operator and lived in the suburbs, was married with a wife and child, and looked nothing like a rock star. But Costello wasn't just a snotty upstart. Here was a young man who dared sing about his own fallibility and sexual inadequacies - about being, in his words, a "complete loser".
Thomson's pop scholarship is strong: he has gone deep into the archives and immersed himself in the music, mapping it to events in Costello's life. But the blizzard of detail often obscures the larger picture - he's weak on the cultural climate that shaped the music. His thesis is that Costello could have been a superstar if he'd kept to the script, but he refused to put commerce before creativity, partly through perversity and partly through a wandering intellect that led him to experiment with genres as far apart as country and classical music. He wanted to get to a place, Thomson suggests, "where the boundaries disappeared".
While Thomson takes the musicological approach, Morrissey's biographer David Bret assumes the role of a gushing fanboy. Morrissey fans have a tendency to extreme devotion, and Bret shares their view that he is and always has been a genius. He accuses the music press of waging a "lynching campaign" against the singer and even compares Morrissey's lot to that of Richard III. Rock writers are hardly strangers to hyperbole, but Morrissey: Scandal and Passion outshrieks them all. Bret details Morrissey's boyfriends and bust-ups, but fails to synthesise the musical and the personal in a convincing way. Compared with Mark Simpson's recent biography, Saint Morrissey, this is thin gruel.
Karen O'Brien places Kirsty MacColl in the same "kitchen-sink pop realism" genre as Morrissey and Costello, and like them, MacColl was something of a maverick. O'Brien's book is a sensitive and sometimes poignant biography of a woman who suffered black moods and felt overshadowed by the reputations of her former husband, the rock producer Steve Lillywhite, and her father, the politically engaged folk singer Ewan MacColl.
One of the subtexts of the book is MacColl's attempts to escape those shadows; the other is her growing political consciousness. But this is also the story of a woman who never realised her full artistic potential. MacColl died in 2000, when she was run over by a powerboat while diving, in circumstances that are still unclear. Just before her death she had found love again, recorded her most musically adventurous album and played what she believed was her best ever gig. Thankfully, her biographer has the gentleness of touch to celebrate this brief but vibrant life without sentimentalising it.
· Matthew Collin is the author of Altered State and This is Serbia Calling (both published by Serpent's Tail).