Kill Your Friends, by John Niven
The discordant sound of an industry that lacks heart and soul
Tuesday 12 February 2008
Should Guy Hands, the beleaguered owner of EMI, need some bedtime reading, I heartily suggest he gives this debut novel a try. If he's not sick of the industry he finds himself foundering at the top of when he picks it up, he will be by the time he puts it down. To call John Niven's Kill Your Friends a satire on the music industry is a wicked understatement. It is an all-out assault, a withering, scabrous and often repulsive attack on every part of the filthy machine: from the musicians who churn out rubbish and expect adulation to the corrupt labels and idiotic consumers who lap it up.
The novel runs from January to December 1997 – the year Britpop died. Its narrator is Steven Stelfox, a British A&R man who justifies the relentless hedonism of his lifestyle (the book is chock-full of drugs, booze, sex and swearing) with a few desperate gambles on new signings: a German techno "choon" called "Why Don't You Suck My Fucking Dick?", and a bunch of talentless Spice Girl-copies called Songbirds.
Stelfox is a creation of unparalleled awfulness, chronically sexist, racist, and everything else-ist. He is funny, too, but only in that toxic style of humour that laces every laugh with jags of self-recrimination. You laugh, though you know you shouldn't. Take the Songbirds' dance rehearsal Stelfox attends: "It was like watching CCTV footage of the tail end of a 12-hour hen night in Liverpool". Or drum'*'bass DJ Rage, laden down with bling: "He looks like he's covered himself in glue and charged headlong through an outlet called Rich Black Bastard." Did I laugh? I'm afraid I did.
For all that he is despicable, you can't help feeling that, when it comes to the music business, Stelfox is on the money. Most people, he rants, don't care about musicianship, or integrity. "Real people... buy four albums a year and they want to be able to hear all the words." Having worked for a decade in the industry, Niven clearly knows his stuff. There's a great running gag in the chapter heads giving little snippets of buzz from each month – all those forgotten bands: Echobelly, Ultrasound, Superstar.
Stelfox's ranting does eventually pall, as The Brits merge into Glastonbury, and Niven's attempt to up the ante by pushing him towards Patrick Bateman-esque monstrosity frankly doesn't work. As an eye-watering self-evisceration on the part of The Man, though, this takes some beating.
Heinemann, £12.99. Order for £11.69 (free p&p) on 0870 079 8897
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