Kill Your Friends, by John Niven
Sunday 16 March 2008
Most accounts of the late-1990s music scene (John Harris's The Last Party, Emma Forrest's Namedropper) have concentrated on the success, the familiar tale of how Blur and Oasis moved from the NME to News at Ten. But Kill Your Friends, John Niven's hysterical debut novel about a year in the life of A&R man Steven Stelfox, gets much comic mileage out of the false predictions, failed hypes and firework careers of the bands that don't make it to household name status. Each chapter begins with a music industry misstep (Alan McGee boasting that by the second or third album, 3 Colours Red will be selling five million), and throughout the book he has Stelfox out of step with public and critical taste (he's convinced, for example, that "Paranoid Android" will end Radiohead's career and that Be Here Now is Oasis's masterpiece.)
But to survive as an A&R man, you only have to be right one time out of 50, and Stelfox is determined to find the hit that will save his career and allow him to continue wallowing in coke and porn. Madonna, Bono, the Spice Girls, these are the people he wants to be dealing with. In one of the book's many disgusting images, Stelfox argues that for her 15 minutes of fame Geri Halliwell "would have risen at the crack of dawn every morning for a year and swum naked through a river of shark-infested semen – cutting the throats of children, OAPs and cancer patients and throwing them behind her as she went."
Stelfox hates indie music, but Oasis's success forces him to pay attention. He's also waiting for his drum and bass superstar Rage to finish recording an insane concept album and hopes that the success of the Spice Girls will allow him to cash in with his own rip-off act, the Songbirds. His job is threatened when one of the country's most respected producers is in the frame to become his boss. Stelfox's response is to take him out, feed him three Valium, two Es, a tab of acid, ketamine and temazepam and get him to strip naked and dance to rave music. He's convinced he's killed him and his problems are over, but the next day he shows up at work wanting to do the whole thing all over again.
Niven worked for the UK music industry for 10 years and his insider knowledge pays off. Despite the fact that stories about the collapse of the music industry always seem exaggerated, this is truly an account of a lost era, a brilliant depiction of the last decadent blow-out before haemorrhaging cash became too much for the shareholders to bear.
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