Books: Fine young cannibals: Kevin Sampson
At last, a novelist has got the rock scene right. Ben Thompson asks Kevin Sampson about moving from stage to page
Saturday 03 July 1999
A group is impulsive, changeable and irritable. It is led almost exclusively by the unconscious... it cannot tolerate any delay between its desire and the fulfillment of what it desires." Sigmund Freud wrote these words in Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego (1921). Just how clearly his wisdom would be confirmed by the archetypal four- or five- piece Northern rock band of the late Eighties and early Nineties was still a long way from becoming apparent.
The psychological complexities of this profoundly flawed social unit have rarely been so rigorously anatomised as in Kevin Sampson's second novel, Powder (Jonathan Cape, pounds 10). It is not just a pacey and often hilarious catalogue of vanity, insecurities, bitchery, bonhomie and belligerence, but also captures something broader and more significant.
Archly or (to be more precise) Archers-ly tagged as "an everyday story of rock `n' roll folk", Powder goes beyond the dynamics of the group - a momentarily world-beating Scouse four-piece called the Grams - to a panoramic view of the human infrastructure which surrounds them. This would be worthy of Tom Wolfe, if Tom Wolfe were as good a novelist as he thinks he is.
Wolfe is one of a number of literary heavyweights who have recently got in the ring with pop music - and lost. The embarrassing rap affectations of A Man In Full took their place on a long list of aesthetic misdemeanours. There are the unworthy groupie cliches that bog down the vaulting prose of Salman Rushdie's The Ground Beneath Her Feet; and the uncharacteristic factual laxity of Bret Easton Ellis, referring to that notorious techno duo "The Aphex Twins" in Glamorama. But this charge sheet has many pages.
The spectacle of music journalists berating novelists for their slapdash rock references is no more edifying than its traditional counterpart --literary critics deriding the bookish pretensions of pop lyricists. Such woeful insider efforts from the journalists' side as Tony Parsons's Platinum Logic and Barney Hoskyns's Lonely Planet Boy have certainly done little to advance the credibility of the rock novel. The interesting question is whether there is some fundamental incompatability between musical and literary endeavour.
Why is it that, since the halcyon early days of Wolf Mankowitz's Expresso Bongo and Colin MacInnes's Absolute Beginners in the late Fifties, little of the best writing about pop has been fictional? Compelling literary pop fictions do exist, but as the exception rather than the rule.
Powder opts for the unashamedly cheap and cheerful approach, and its lowbrow leanings have certainly not done it any harm in the current publishing climate. Sipping a bottled beer at a new central London bar, Kevin Sampson - a tanned and genial Liverpudlian - admits to a personal pop-lit pantheon. This includes Jackie Collins's Rock Star, ("For all that it only represents one specific scene - Spandex-spangled Sunset Boulevard heavy metal bands - she does capture it brilliantly"), the rock-star entry in her notorious Confessions series, and a superior Seventies New English Library pot-boiler whose title he can't remember.
"This book," Sampson insists, "should never in any sense be mistaken for literature. It is self-consciously pulpy and disposable because, for me, those are the kind of books that get closest to the ephemeral nature of fame." Powder's soapy flow - what its author fondly terms its "frothy pop-art romp effect" - is a suitably reader-friendly vehicle for a portrait of the contemporary music industry that is almost uncanny in its accuracy.
Sampson plots the rise and fall of his fictional quartet from numerous viewpoints, striving to approach each with equal sympathy. As the Grams' idiosyncratic manager Michael "Wheezer" Finlay struggles to impose some form of discipline on their feckless guitarist James (real name Hector) Love, he attains poignant levels of frustration. "He had so much to gain, such a name to make for himself. But he was just a silly, chubby sybarite with no more foresight than a gambler with a sure thing scrawled on a ciggie packet."
Perhaps Powder's most refreshing feature is the way it eschews the traditional easy dichotomy between artistic innocence and corporate venality, of talented individuals held back by a predatory industry. "They hold themselves back!" says Sampson feelingly. He ought to know. While Powder might fairly be said to be based on a lifetime's research, it draws most heavily on the four years that Sampson spent as manager of Scouse pop demi-sensations, The Farm.
Despite a cover that resembles The Farm's most successful album, Spartacus, Powder is not a roman a clef. "A lot of the characters are composites of several different people," Sampson admits cheerfully, "and a lot of them are completely made up. There is the odd occasion too where you get real people talking to their fictionalised equivalent, just for my own self-indulgent amusement".
Probably the most striking thing about the book for music-business innocents will be the grim prevalence of cocaine - the powder of the title. Sampson, who "had a broken nose for most of his adolescent life and therefore had nothing to gain from cocaine because it could never actually get where it needed to be", insists that he was not exaggerating.
"It took me a while to understand how routine and casual cocaine use was in the industry, and the way it would affect you on a business level. If you could catch someone in an expansive mood because they'd just snorted some, things would go your way in terms of getting the video budget - but if they were feeling tight and mingy, on one of those repugnant cocaine lows, it was best not to even call them up". He smiles ruefully: "And as for this idea that it gives you clarity of thought - I've certainly never seen any evidence of that."
The only currency more prevalent in Powder than cocaine is sex. "It is quite dirty, isn't it?" says Sampson, who admits to being "slightly embarrassed" (as well he ought to be) by some of the tackiest sex scenes since The Bitch. "She bit her bottom lip and lifted her hips, gasping with the incline. Keva groaned. No, no, no. He lifted the sheets back. A coin-sized signal of moisture betrayed the mound of her knickers". I'm sorry, I can't go on.
It's with the all-important third constituent in the time-honoured trinity of sex, drugs and rock `n' roll that Powder comes good. From the lead singer's elaborate cosmetic regimen and terrible fear of ageing to the guitarist's willingness to lie about his musical influences, Sampson delineates the absurdities of the Grams' unconscious-led group life with unfailing affection and humour - and with a commendable lack of autobiographical score-settling.
Does Sampson think Powder succeeds in what it set out to do? "In terms of the truth of the moment - the spirit of being in a band," the author says proudly, "I think it's pretty much on the money." "All I had in mind when I started," he remembers, "was a vaguely melancholy Northern four- piece. I knew what their influences would have been and how they'd sound.
Then at Easter 1997, "Bittersweet Symphony" came out of the radio and it seemed to sum up everything about the feel and the mood and the attitude I was thinking of. So, without it being consciously planned, I suppose that I was writing about The Verve for a little while".
Could the reason why successful pop creations in fiction are so rare be that all the best stars are fictionalising themselves anyway? "I think that's right," Sampson grins, "as was never more clearly seen than in The Beatles cartoon, where the cartoon Ringo is more Ringo than Ringo is."
Kevin Sampson will read from `Powder' at The Social, Little Portland Street, London W1, on Wednesday 7 July. The real-life Liverpudlian group Shack will also be appearing.
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