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Why messing with the formula could pay handsomely for latest raft of rock 'n' roll biographers

This is the year the rules of the traditional biography all changed, writes David Smyth

As Mike Love reportedly said to Brian Wilson when The Beach Boys began putting art before commerce: "Don't f*** with the formula." He wouldn't be happy perusing the music books of 2017.

The recipe of the rock biography - impoverished childhood, impoverished early life in a band, commercial triumph and finally becoming poverished, ruination by drink, drugs, women or all three, followed by belated level-headedness - has been thoroughly disrespected this year. Fractured timelines, mingled voices and even a graphic novel have all been published.

Iron Maiden singer Bruce Dickinson offers the most traditionally structured tale in What Does This Button Do? (HarperCollins, £20), working his way chronologically from bullied public school days as the son of parents who performed a dog act, to a cancer diagnosis in 2015. He's got much more to talk about than just heavy metal - in fact, fans of his music are likely to learn more about his passions for brewing, fencing and piloting jumbo jets.

Such an eccentric personality doesn't go light on the dad jokes, even telling promoters that the reasons for postponing a world tour were "too tumorous to mention", but with tales ranging from a prank with two tonnes of horse manure to a wartime gig in Sarajevo, he's consistently entertaining company.

The other megastar with a new book has been more daring with his presentation. Reveal (Blink, £20), journalist Chris Heath's second biography of Robbie Williams, most resembles the reality TV shows that Williams admits are almost all he watches. It's his day-to-day life over the past decade in forensic detail, whether he's trapped behind a door that won't open during a fluffed X Factor comeback performance or spending too many hours posting on web forums about aliens. Heath is more friend than a hack for hire and spends vast amounts of time in the singer's company. Williams also doesn't care who knows about his neuroses. However bad you may think he is, he thinks he's worse.

There's an ongoing theme, that he doesn't believe he deserves his success, which is exhausting but fascinating.

Singer-songwriter Loudon Wainwright III is almost as self-lacerating in Liner Notes (Omnibus, £20). Part of a family music business that also includes his late ex-wife Kate McGarrigle and their children, Rufus and Martha Wainwright, the twist here is that the book is just the latest instalment of a self-examination that has been going on since he first picked up a guitar.

More impressionistic insights come in Reinhard Kleist's Nick Cave: Mercy on Me (Self Made Hero, £14.99), in which the German graphic novelist, who has previously grappled with Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash in cartoon form, mixes Cave's biographical details with surreal encounters with a few characters from his songs.

The spidery Australian looks like a tortured superhero drawn in black and white, and the limitlessness of the form means he can be seen as an astronaut, an executioner and a storyteller physically drowning in his own words.

What we generally want in music books are flawed superbeings. There are plenty more in Lizzy Goodman's Meet Me in the Bathroom: Rebirth and Rock and Roll in New York City 2001-2011 (Faber, £20). It's an oral history of the last time rock music seemed central to the culture, with The Strokes emerging as the superstars of the tale. The band's honesty is impressive, because subjects don't always appreciate a literary mirror.

Anthony DeCurtis waited until Lou Reed had died to feel safe enough to publish Lou Reed: A Life (John Murray, £25).

Meanwhile, Jann Wenner, the founder of Rolling Stone magazine and subject of Joe Hagan's thorough Sticky Fingers (Canongate, £25) has disowned the book as "deeply flawed and tawdry". Thankfully, he only did so after granting Hagan full access to his memory banks, which means a meticulous portrait of one of music's most intriguing non-musicians with the gossipy bits left in.

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