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18 June 2015updated 19 Jun 2015 4:58pm

Slaves to the rhythm: what the non-frontmen have to say

Accounts of The Jam, the Grateful Dead, Alice Cooper and Belle and Sebastian come from the back.

By james Medd

That’s Entertainment: My Life in the Jam
Rick Buckler
Omnibus Press, 384pp, £14.95

Deal: My Three Decades of Drumming, Dreams and Drugs with the Grateful Dead
Bill Kreutzmann with Benjy Eisen
St Martin’s Press, 400pp, $27.99

Snakes! Guillotines! Electric Chairs! My Adventures in the Alice Cooper Group
Dennis Dunaway and Chris Hodenfield
Thomas Dunne Books, 304pp, $26.99

In the All-Night Café
Stuart David
Little, Brown, 208pp, £16.99

If you want to know what it’s like to be in a band, talk to the drummer. At the turn of the 1980s, the Jam’s Rick Buckler was prevented by a doorman from entering the Brighton Centre, where he was supposed to be playing a sold-out gig. You feel sure that this wouldn’t have happened to the band’s singer, Paul Weller, and if it had there would have been trouble. Buckler just shrugs and moves on, glad it didn’t “get out of hand”.

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For the band members at the back of the stage, just out of the limelight, fame can be tantalising and cruel. When, to Buckler’s eternal bafflement, the Jam split in 1982, he was left stranded. They were “only just starting to earn some real money” when it ended and as a grafter, perfectly happy with the band as a provincial covers act dressed in “white satin bomber jackets, white kipper ties and white crêpe shoes”, he hadn’t thought to look for songwriting credits. The Jam had four number-one singles and played five Wembley Arena farewell shows but Buckler’s next band didn’t make it: he finds himself being looked after by the manager of Schnorbitz the dog. Then a studio set-up fails and he ends up as drum roadie for the Three Degrees, a disco trio not exactly in the first flush of success themselves.

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It is the grimmest moment in the pretty grim That’s Entertainment, a solid but perfunctory autobiography that is full of scenes that, if not redolent of pubs and Wormwood Scrubs, smell of other drab and sour 1970s signifiers. You would probably have to be the right age to see the tragedy in Buckler’s tale but it certainly casts his decision in 2007 to tour as From the Jam in a new light. Performing the old songs with the bassist Bruce Foxton and a stand-in for Weller sounds pathetic – who would want to play in their own tribute act? – until you read his account. It was his band, too.

Buckler insists that the Jam were “a live band” – which is understandable coming from a drummer, as the moment that any band enters a recording studio is the moment that a hierarchy takes shape. In Deal, Bill Kreutzmann says the same thing, often, about the Grateful Dead, with whom he played for 30 years. Though he is his band’s second most famous drummer, he is a lot happier with his lot. The chief reason for this is that his band was huge in the US, not in the UK. As he writes, “We had so much money, it didn’t matter.”

That said, there does seem to be something in his character that, apart from making his book a remarkably good read, helped him survive life at the back of the stage. It’s partly his love of music – particularly improvised music, the band’s stock-in-trade and surely the best way to ensure that a drummer feels a part of the creative process rather than, in the chilling view of the Smiths’ rhythm section attributed to Morrissey, a part “in a lawnmower”.

It’s also his total suitability for band life (which the Grateful Dead helped invent), or what he calls “getting into trouble and whatnot”. There are vast, ludicrous, inconceivable amounts of drugs. Early on, the band is supported by the LSD pioneer Owsley Stanley, who feeds the members a strict diet of meat and acid. They record their first album too fast because they are all on Ritalin. Later, on a spiritual retreat, Kreutzmann is attacked in a tepee by crazed ravens that have pecked his stash of speed.

He’s a hippie but of the Easy Rider type, with a taste for fast cars, explosives and white-water rafting; happy to poach deer for food and use his fists. With this comes a sincerity that allows him to be charming even when he is calling his bandmates’ songs “clunky” or wishing that they hadn’t been his bandmates. He has integrity. Still, despite saying that he is “not interested in being a rodeo clown”, he, too, ends up playing in a version of his band without its leader, Jerry Garcia.

The bassist Dennis Dunaway would leap at the chance to play with Alice Cooper again, except to him it would be in Alice Cooper. The motive behind his memoir, Snakes! Guillotines! Electric Chairs!, is to remind the world that Alice Cooper was a band, not a person. When he is not ­writing “Alice Cooper was a group” he (or more likely his long-suffering co-writer) finds other ways to put it – “the original sense of collaboration”, or “the five of us”.

He is also keen to point out (even before the prologue) that although he may seem to have been just the bassist, he was the mastermind behind the group, whose panto rock he credits with the invention of glam, punk, hair metal and possibly the Doors. To his disbelief, not everyone sees the magic. At one point, the band invites the Pink Floyd, still led by Syd Barrett, to a show. “It looks like a lot of fun,” sniffs Roger Waters, rather excellently.

In many ways, Stuart David’s In the All-Night Café is the polar opposite of Dunaway’s book. David is also a bassist, of Belle and Sebastian, a fabulously fey Scottish indie collective that gained a following of quiet misfits, “all dressed like the one awkward kid in the class”, in the mid-1990s. His story is one of frustration but it is altogether more self-aware.

In classic fashion, he starts playing bass because, as in every band since the Beatles (even Alice Cooper), no one else would: “Everyone we tried seemed to be a frustrated lead guitarist.” He wants to be the songwriter and bandleader but gradually realises that, compared to his new friend Stuart Murdoch, he doesn’t have what it takes: the “singularity of vision”. Murdoch can write songs that David thinks are perfect and then discard them and he doesn’t seem to care if anyone likes his music.

Though it restricts itself to the same narrow palette of emotions as his former band, David’s writing is effective, capturing the experiences of an introverted, stranded man-child finally finding his place (though what he calls a “chaotic adventure” wouldn’t cut it for Bill Kreutzmann) and the vanished world of bands on the dole. Since leaving Belle and Sebastian in 2000, David has published three novels and he notes that Murdoch seemed to be quietly pushing him in that direction. There’s hurt in this – that Murdoch doesn’t, or won’t, take his music seriously – but despite himself, David is in awe of the singer, of his ability to “make it all seem quite magical”.

This is a common thread in all four books. Dennis Dunaway struggles to hide his admiration for Alice Cooper/Vincent Furnier, while Kreutzmann openly adores Jerry Garcia; Buckler, meanwhile, gives the impression of one cruelly dismissed, of a man discovering a gulf he didn’t realise existed. He all but ignores Bruce Foxton: of the few anecdotes about his rhythm section partner, two are about his trousers, which he has a habit of “tearing the arse out of” onstage. It breaks his heart, however, that Weller won’t join him onstage, see him when he calls round or even respond to his Christmas cards. When you’re at the front of the stage, you don’t look back.