Writing about music in prose is difficult to get right. Fictional bands are judged against the great Spinal Tap and most readers will be aware of all the clichés that accompany rock n’ roll and those who play it from the many biographies of bands (personal recommendations are ‘The Hammer of the Gods’ which details the excesses of Led Zeppelin and the hilarious Motley Crue biog ‘The Dirt’). The problem facing the writer is how to acknowledge these clichés without being predictable.
With his second novel ‘The Ossians’ Doug Johnstone avoids this problem by having a central character who is clever enough to know all the legends of excess, and embraces them anyway. He has also written a novel which is ostensibly about the band of the title, but is really a description of one man’s determination to self destruct.
There is commentary on nationalism, art, community and the music business, all through a haze of drink and drugs. As hinted at by the title, the novel attempts to walk a line between realism and fantasy, and it could only have been written by someone who has been in the sticky carpeted fleapits that The Ossians play, dealing with the characters who dwell there. This is a dark tale where atmosphere is vital and Johnstone sets the scenes in style.
The novel follows the band as they undertake a tour of Scotland which will end in the hallowed ground of King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut in Glasgow and the chance of a recording contract, but things soon fall apart in a tsunami of bevy, speed, fists and seagulls. Johnstone captures the insanity that can accompany life on the road and turns it up to eleven. This is a clearly a man with insider knowledge and as usual the action unfolds at breakneck speed. No-one moves a story along like Doug Johnstone.
On the page events are similarly driven by one man’s artistic vision. Connor Alexander doesn’t pretend to live the rock n’ roll life, he means it maan. He is the lead singer and guitarist with The Ossians, a band who also include his twin sister Kate, long suffering girlfriend Hannah and best friend and drummer Danny. When we meet they have discovered that they just may have a shot at some form of success, although not if Connor has anything to do with it. He buys into rock n’ roll mythology to the extent that he views the prospect of success as selling out.
When Connor makes a list of his favourite bands for a journalist he makes it clear that while there are plenty of good Scottish bands he admires, he doesn’t restrict his love of music to such a parochial way of categorising music. To respect that point of view here are two videos from bands on his list, one Scottish, one not. Here’s King Creosote followed by Sigur Ros and one of my favourite videos of all time:
King Creosote – You’ve No Clue Do You
Hoppipolla music video by Sigur Ros with lyrics
‘The Ossians’ is a riotous novel, but there is real heart in the writing. It’s a brave writer who makes the hero of his novel such an unapologetic arsehole who is hell bent on destroying his life and with little regard to how his actions affect those close to him. What saves Connor from being an unbearable character who the reader can’t engage with is the real affection that Johnstone obviously has for him. The fact that the writer cares makes the reader care even when Connor is at his self pitying worst. He dominates the novel just as he dominates the band, and it is a shame that the secondary characters cannot help but pale in comparison.
Johnstone is a writer who embraces extreme behaviour in his novels and the characters therein. It is tempting to view ‘The Ossians’ as autobiographical as Johnstone is also a musician, one who fronted the band Northern Alliance, and who has just released his debut solo EP ‘Keep It Afloat’. They do say write about what you know, and if that is the case here, then the man has the constitution of an ox. What is certain is that he is one of Scotland’s most thrilling authors. ‘The Ossians’ is not his best novel, the recently published ‘Smokeheads’ is a real step forward in terms of style and voice, but it contains one of the great protagonists of recent times and will give you a taste of what to expect from a Doug Johnstone novel. For anyone who has ever been involved in, or with, a band it is a must read.
The books that we deal with in ‘Indelible Ink’ can be bought from the Dear Scotland shop:
Next Month’s Novel: When he was first published no one knew what to make of Alexander Trocchi, and in many ways they still don’t. Drug user, beat poet, occasional pornographer and existentialist, he was out of step with the Scottish literary scene of the 1950s and he wouldn’t have had it any other way.
His 1957 novel ‘Young Adam’ would not be widely appreciated until the 1990s where it was regularly named as being an influence on many of the writers who have featured on these pages. It is a masterpiece of existential angst, and asks the reader to question their own moral code, and how strictly they adhere to it.
- Alexander Trocchi’s Young Adam.(Aug)
- Alan Spence Way To Go (Sept)
- A.L. Kennedy Paradise (Oct)
- Alice Thompson The Existential Detective (Nov)
- Agnes Owens Bad Attitudes (Dec)