Rarely can an epigraph have summed up the novel to come better than the Hunter S. Thompson quote that appears before John Niven’s 2008 novel ‘Kill Your Friends’. It reads as follows: ‘The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free and good men die like dogs. There is also a negative side.’
Niven’s novel revels in the horrors and highs that Thompson alludes to. Set over the year of 1997, an important date to consider as the London based music industry is coming down from the high of Britpop’s success, we follow the life of Steven Stelfox, an A&R man in his late 20’s who is staggering his way through the music business on a mixture of chemical induced bravado, bullshit and sheer luck. ‘Kill Your Friends’ is deliberately out to create shock and awe as the excesses of Stelfox and his ‘friends’ are relayed with every gory detail. This is a world where the only rule is to be successful, and that tag allows you to do and take anything that you fancy. An alternative epigraph could have come from the pen of Ian Dury; ‘Sex, n’ drugs and rock n’ roll, are all my brain and body needs.’
Except Steven Stelfox has come to hate music; he hates it because he can’t work it out. Music has become a commodity to him, his way of making money and keeping his job. All questions of quality or artistic value are of little to no use to him. For Stelfox the good music is the stuff that sells. So Elton John’s re-released ‘Candle in the Wind’ becomes the record of the year. If bands don’t fit into the categories that Stelfox understands then they are treated with suspicion and derision. At one point, admittedly while high at Glastonbury, Stelfox realises that what he is listening to, and finding beautiful, is the following song by Radiohead:
As he recognises who the band are his first thought is ‘I don’t like Radiohead because I don’t know what they want’, while he simultaneously fixates on terms such as ‘marketing spend’, crossover’ and ‘120 grand unrecouped’. Listening to ‘Paranoid Android’ he has a minor epiphany, the only moment in the novel where he is at peace; ‘…for a moment there I lose myself.’ This doesn’t last long as in the next paragraph he sexually assaults someone in the dance-tent, then rides a ferris-wheel ‘snorting poppers and roaring with laughter as the cold black air swirls around and around us…’ To borrow the quote attributed to Elvis Presley at the start of the March chapter: ‘I don’t know anything about music. In my line you don’t have to.’
And this is the central theme to the novel. Yes, there are lots of scenes of sexual excess, violence, ridiculous levels of drug taking, racist and sexist sentiment and all round shocking behaviour. But that is something that anyone who reads a lot of modern fiction will be well used to. In fact I would suggest that the writer Niven most closely resembles in this respect is Irvine Welsh, particularly novels such as ‘Filth’ and ‘Glue’. What makes this novel such a joy is the loathing that Niven obviously has for Stelfox and those like him. The novel reads like the lancing of a boil, something that Niven needed to get out. You get the feeling that Niven does love music, but was infected with the cynicism that surrounded him during his time working in A&R.
It would be a mistake to equate Stelfox with Niven. More likely he is what Niven was terrified of becoming. Niven’s knowledge of the music scene is encyclopaedic. The section in the January chapter, where Stelfox lists about 50 bands who were signed in 1996, references real bands, singers and DJ’s who were backed to be successful. Elsewhere conversations are about people who, to a greater or lesser degree, have had success. This gives the novel an essential feeling of reality and authority.
Niven mixes these real bands with fictional musicians. These tend to be thinly veiled versions of real people in the music business, and you often get the feeling that Niven is not only attacking the industry, but is using this opportunity to settle some personal scores. Characters such as young female singer ‘Ellie Crush’, drum and base ‘genius’ Rage and all girl group ‘Songbirds’ are fairly easy to decipher.
The contempt in which Niven holds the music business, or at least the A&R part of it, is palpable. A&R (artist and repertoire) is handily described at the beginning of chapter one as ‘The branch of the music industry concerned with finding and nurturing new talent.’ Niven portrays them as a confederation of dunces. He constantly reiterates that no-one really knows what they’re doing, and that any success is 90% luck. To highlight this every month’s chapter is prefaced with quotes from industry figures that have proved to be spectacularly wrong.
My favourite examples include:
February: ‘By the second or third record we’ll sell five million. I’m serious. They’re going to be huge.’ Alan McGee talking about the debut 3 Colours Red album.
March: ‘I see her developing the way Madonna has. This is probably the dance album of the decade.’ Warner Brothers A&R man Steve Allen. He’s talking about Gina G.
April: ‘I can see D*Note at the Royal Albert Hall. The sky is really the limit for them.’ Andy Thompson, head of VC Recordings.
It’s easy to laugh with the benefit of hindsight, but these little quotes, and the confidence with which they are made, are the basis on which this novel is built.
This book isn’t really about music, it is incidental. It’s about selling. These people could be selling shampoo, laxatives or cola. The difference is that a bottle of cola won’t overdose in a hotel room as you’re about to release a statement announcing their next tour, won’t decide to sell the furniture from the studio to buy drugs, and won’t decide to record a 64.33 minute long, single track, drum and bass concept album called ‘Birth’. That’s the problem with music and musicians; you never quite know what’s going to happen next, which is one of those things that make music great. What frustrates Stelfox and his peers is that they are looking for certainties in an industry where nothing is ever certain. It’s like trying to bottle lightning.
That’s why Steven Stelfox’s wise words to aspiring musicians have the wring of truth about them. He says ‘You may as well spend you guitar-string money on lottery tickets – your chances will be much the same’ before going on to set out the argument why this is the case. But it should always be remembered that the advice comes from a cynical, sour, money and success obsessed character. He is measuring merit by record sales. If that’s the reason you go into music then the chances are you will be disappointed. But most people still pick up a guitar because they love music, an idea that means nothing in Stelfox’s world.
I recently read Luke Haines (lead singer with The Auteurs, Black Box Recorder and Baader Meinhoff) autobiography ‘Bad Vibes: Britpop and My Part in its Downfall’ which looks at the music industry at roughly the same time period as ‘Kill Your Friends’, but from an artist’s point of view. It is fascinating to compare them. Haines book is a master-class in sarcasm and loathing, both of himself and everyone else that he’s ever met, and he names all the names. If you enjoy ‘Kill Your Friends’ then I highly recommend reading ‘Bad Vibes’.
In fact both of these books should be given to any budding musicians you may know. It might not dissuade them, and of course that’s a good thing, but at least you’ll sleep better knowing that they are aware of just what’s out there. If there is a message to be taken from ‘Kill Your Friends’, particularly with reference to ‘Breakthrough Artist of the Year: Ellie Crush’, it is ‘Don’t put your daughter on the stage…’
(If you want to hear John Niven being spectacularly indiscreet about his time in the music business then you should download episode 45 of The Word’s weekly podcast, which you can do for free at I-tunes or you can listen below. The conversation about ‘bad-cocaine albums’ is particularly interesting. Scottish music fans may be surprised at one of the claims.)
John Niven talks about ‘Kill Your Friends’ on The Word Podcast
Further thoughts can be found at scotswhayhae
Next month’s novel: Janice Galloway’s The Trick is to Keep Breathing. This novel takes a specific event as the catalyst to explore mental health, attitudes towards it, and trying to live with it. As the title suggests, the novel is really about survival. There is humour, if of the black variety, and in the end it’s a paean to the human spirit.
This is one of the best Scottish novels of the last 30 years. I won’t pretend it’s an easy read, but then great novels rarely are. Janice Galloway beautifully conveys the inner thoughts of the narrator ‘Joy’, and makes the reader empathise, if not always sympathise.
Next 5 books:
1. Janice Galloway The Trick is to Keep Breathing (March)
2. Irvine Welsh Trainspotting (April)
3. Louise Welsh The Cutting Room (May)
4. Gordon Legge The Shoe (Jun)
5. Alan Bissett Boyracers (Jul)