On the shelves of nearly every large charity shop in the UK you can find a battered 50p copy of the biography that in 1981 saw middle-aged teddy boys running into their local WH Smiths. Their mission--to buy as many copies of Albert Goldman's Elvis as possible in order to burn them.
Nearly thirty years later, it's possible to see a glimmer of value in Goldman's Elvis (the passages on early '50s gospel music are decent) and if it forced Peter Guralnick's magisterial '90s Preslography, Last Train To Memphis/Careless Love, into existence then you could argue that it actually did some good. Yet Goldman's prurient approach--painting a gaudy picture of a 20-stone blob obsessed with girls in white knickers, popsicles, cheeseburgers and Monty Python's Flying Circus--entirely overlooks the importance of Elvis's music (critic Greil Marcus famously dubbed the account "cultural genocide") and set a neurotically skewed example for subsequent biographers of major pop culture figures.
Goldman had clearly read too many Mickey Spillane novels, a problem that became even more noticeable in 1988 with his Beatle-bashing cause célèbre The Lives Of John Lennon. Quite aside from the American writer's rampant homophobia and sometimes strange grasp of the English landscape, not to mention his obsessive rendering of Lennon as a degenerate gay thug (peaking in uncorroborated allegations regarding Lennon's supposed affair with Brian Epstein and part in Stuart Sutcliffe's death), everyone sounds as though they are starring in one of those '50s British B-films that tries so desperately to appear hardboiled and "American."
Yet in a sense, Goldman was cleaving true to a long, if not exactly noble tradition. The first rock biogs were fansploitation pamphlets of meagre literary merit. An early-'60s profile of impresario Larry Parnes' latest teen sensation could be had for a mere 1/6d, containing 100 odd pages of prose written by a jobbing hack hamstrung by a clear hatred of teenagers and a 19-year-old subject whose only dramatic moment was breaking his guitar string at the Southampton Skiffle Contest in 1957.
Hunter Davies' official biography of The Beatles debuted in 1968, and is perhaps the earliest attempt to take rock'n'rollers seriously enough to justify a proper life-and-times, but it seems surprising that the flood of excellent rock and pop writing that starts in late-'60s periodicals does not immediately transfer to hardcovers. In the mid-'70s the king of the pop biographers was George Tremlett, who churned out short paperback lives of The Stones, Slade, Queen, Alvin Stardust and the Osmonds in a pulp style typical of his publishers Futura, home of WWII schlockster Leo Kessler and the Confessions... series of saucy shenanigans. Tremlett's works may be found in your local charity shop, providing more of an insight into the journalistic mores of the time than the actual subject.
The rock biography comes of age in the '80s, with Philip Norman's Olympian (if somewhat over-generous) Beatles overview, Shout!, emerging in 1981 as if to wrestle Goldman's Elvis for the soul of the genre. If anything, Norman's mid-'90s Buddy: The Biography of Buddy Holly is even better, placing the Lubbock lad in his era with objectivity and deft historical perspective. But for a biography that is almost wholly lacking in these attributes, you could do worse than to return to your nearest Oxfam in the hope of finding a battered '80s paperback of Full Moon by Keith Moon amanuensis Peter Dougal Butler, tweaked by credited co-authors Chris Trengove and Peter Lawrence to give that quintessential chirpy cheeky cockney style, albeit one that gives the reader a sense of being trapped in a bar by a vaguely psychotic Dick Van Dyke impersonator.
So far, the better rock biographies--Norman's Buddy Holly is the paradigm, though Rob Chapman's Syd Barrett tome, A Very Irregular Head, is a recent triumph--have been about the dead. With the laws of libel no longer applying, the truth (or, at least, a riot of wild-eyed mudslinging à la Goldman) will out. At the other extreme, the "Authorized" biography of a living legend is almost guaranteed to be tedious, and some of the best books about extant rockers--Jimmy McDonough's 2002 Neil Young biog, Shakey (which began as an "authorized" book, until disowned by its subject mid-project) and Johnny Rogan's legendary Morrissey & Marr: The Severed Alliance--have resulted in an artist's fatwah against the author.
In the end, what truly matters--be it Nick Tosches' wonderful Jerry Lee Lewis book, Hellfire, or Godspeed: The Kurt Cobain Graphic--what truly matters is that the book does not insult the intelligence of the reader, be they fan, foe or casual charity shop browser.