Johnny Rogan – Music biographer
Born February 14, 1953; died January 21, 2021
Johnny Rogan, who has died aged 67, was a prodigious and prolific biographer of rock and pop icons, who wrote a plethora of exhaustive tomes on subjects ranging from The Byrds to Van Morrison, Wham! and The Smiths. Rogan’s studies often ran to hundreds of pages, leaving no stone unturned in their forensic and sometimes unflattering portraits of his subjects. While the rabbit holes Rogan jumped down came from his unadulterated passion for music, his extensive portraits of the procession of mavericks that fascinated him were the polar opposite of PR driven cut and paste hagiographies.
Nowhere was this more evident than in Morrissey & Marr: The Severed Alliance (1992), Rogan’s unflinching account of the demise of The Smiths. This prompted a slighted Morrissey to declare his disdain for the book in typically melodramatic fashion. “Personally,” he spat, “I hope Johnny Rogan ends his days very soon in an M3 pile up.”
Despite the subsequent furore, Rogan retained his dogged approach, interviewing countless original sources in order to shed new light on his investigations. Such singularity arguably reflected a similar spirit to the classic rock auteurs he documented with gimlet-eyed scrutiny across more than twenty-five books. The only diversion from music came by way of a 1989 study of similarly mercurial football managers.
Rogan’s first book, Timeless Flight: The Definitive Biography of The Byrds (1980), a study of the American folk rock janglers, was written when he was still a student. Record Collector magazine named it their biography of the year, describing it as ‘expansive enough to rival War and Peace’. Despite the comparison, Rogan had barely started. He would revisit the band’s story several times over the next forty years, enlarging on it to an epic and obsessive degree. An expanded and revised edition of Timeless Flight appeared in 1990. The Byrds: Timeless Flight Revisited – The Sequel followed seven years later.
As if that wasn’t enough, Byrds: Requiem for the Timeless, Volume 1 was published in 2011. Volume 2 followed in 2017, charting the post Byrds ‘lives and tragic deaths’ of six former members, including Gene Clark and Gram Parsons. The two books combined were 2,400 pages long.
John Rogan was born in Pimlico, London, to Irish parents who had emigrated from County Waterford. He grew up in a dilapidated tenement with no running water or electricity, and only when he visited family in rural Ireland did he hear recorded music for the first time. It was the mid 1960s, and the Beatles and the Rolling Stones were riding high. When The Byrds released Eight Miles High, the song’s Ravi Shankar and John Coltrane inspired trip extended the parameters of rock, setting the controls for the already exploding psychedelic revolution with a soon-to-be counter cultural classic. The shock from whatever system Rogan first heard the song never wore off.
Rogan went to St Vincent’s Roman Catholic and Pimlico Schools, with his childhood marked by the untimely passing of much of what he described in the introduction of Requiem for the Timeless as ‘my death-ravaged family.’ His father died of a heart attack, his brother drowned, and his sister suffered a brain haemorrhage.
Rogan took his first degree in English Language and Literature at the University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne. This was followed with an MA at Arcadia University in Nova Scotia, Canada, that saw Rogan specialise in Edmund Spenser’s sixteenth century epic poem, The Faerie Queen. It was while Rogan was taking a postgraduate degree at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, that Timeless Flight was written.
This opened the floodgates to a life’s work that saw Rogan pen some of the key historical texts of rock music’s coming of age. The first edition of Timeless Flight was followed by Neil Young: The Definitive Story of His Musical Career, and Roxy Music: Style with Substance – Roxy’s First Ten Years, both published in 1982. Van Morrison: A Portrait of the Artist (1984) was the first of two books on the truculant Celtic soul troubadour. Van Morrison: No Surrender followed in 2006. Rogan had similarly revisited Young with Neil Young: Zero to Sixty: A Critical Biography (2000). The spirit of The Kinks: The Sound and The Fury (1984) was reprised with Ray Davies: A Complicated Life (2015).
If there was a sense that Rogan couldn’t let things go, he also joined the dots of rock’s rich tapestry. His 1988 book, Starmakers & Svengalis: The History of British Pop Management was adapted into a BBC series of the same name. Taking a cue from his own Anglo Irish roots, Rogan wrote Dislocation & Celebration, a series of essays published in the 1990s by the Irish Post on how the Irish immigrant experience influenced British pop. This saw him navigate his way from John Lennon and Paul McCartney to Oasis, taking in Sex Pistols vocalist John Lydon, Shane MacGowan of The Pogues, Morrissey, Dexys Midnight Runners frontman Kevin Rowland and Kate Bush en route. As ever, he returned to the subject for another essay in 2016.
Requiem for the Timeless Volume 2 may have turned out to be Rogan’s final book to be published in his lifetime, but given more than three years have passed since then, it’s unlikely to have been his last word on the subject.
He is survived by his partner, Jackie Taylor.
The Herald, March 10th 2021