POP / Psycho thriller, qu'est-ce que c'est?: Derek Raymond writes grim crime fiction; Gallon Drunk play doomy rock music: they were made for each other. Robert Hanks on a meeting of minds, music and literature

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The Independent Online
Sitting in a pub in Whitechapel, James Johnston, lead singer of the band Gallon Drunk, tries to define his music in terms of what it is not. What it does not resemble, in his view, is: 'A lot of miserable indie shit that I absolutely loathe and despise. Witless bollocks . . . Ohhh, just horrible horrible horrible . . . It's just pathetic. Snivelling bollocks.'

You would say that he has a number of axes to grind, if that wasn't a particularly unfortunate turn of phrase in the present context. James and his colleague Terry Edwards are here to talk about the album Dora Suarez, on which they provide a musical background to a reading by the crime writer Derek Raymond from his bloody novel I Was Dora Suarez, a book in which an axe plays a prominent and deeply unpleasant role.

The album is something of a departure from Gallon Drunk's usual sound - a dark, bluesy, grinding noise characterised by dense textures, low, mumbling bass guitar and keyboards, and liberal applications of whammy bar to the electric guitar, the whole thing oddly underpinned by maracas. On Dora Suarez, guitars have been thrown out of the window. There is some of the doominess, in keeping with Raymond's gruesome imaginings; but to accompany the more frantically horrifying moments they have devised an alternative, quieter vocabulary - a melancholy bar-room piano playing a nave, plaintive melody, random banjo plinks, even a bit of Chopin.

Although it is unlikely to sell in commercially significant numbers, the album has proved surprisingly popular since it was released last November - in mainland Europe especially, where his Factory novels, featuring a nameless, vengeful detective sergeant working in the department of Unexplained Deaths, have made Raymond a cult figure. There is anecdotal evidence that the Norwegian imagination has been particularly gripped.

And now, it's going live: a performance on stage at the National Film Theatre, accompanied by a special showing of a video made to promote the record, with Gallon Drunk at full strength performing a few numbers as well. As Terry Edward says, the project gathered moss as it rolled; on further consideration he withdraws the metaphor, but you know what he means.

The stone was set rolling by Jeff Cox of the London-based independent label Clawfist. Having admired the book, he had the idea of setting some of it to music, and felt the material would suit James and Terry. This is, perhaps, not precisely a compliment to them. Dora Suarez is a prostitute dying of Aids whose insides have been chewed up by a rodent, and who is axed to death by a psychopath on the very evening she intended to kill herself; he then masturbates over her corpse.

Raymond says that when the idea of setting this to music was first put to him, he didn't take it seriously - apart from anything else, he knows nothing of the popular music scene, being 63 and having spent much of the last 25 years living abroad, mainly in France. When he met the boys, though, he felt they clicked. For his part, James Johnston had already read and enjoyed Raymond's early novel The Crust on Its Uppers: 'It's just so scathing, it sounds so incredibly bitter - I just found it an incredibly entertaining book.'

Meeting Raymond - or rather, meeting Robin Cook (Raymond is a pen name forced on him by his English publisher because the real one had already been borrowed by a number of other people) - you can see how this might work. He hangs out in the Coach and Horses in Soho, Jeffrey Bernard's watering-hole, where he's been drinking for the last 40 years on and off; enthusiasm for a quiet drink is one of the things, he feels, that he has in common with the musicians.

You can't help comparing, too, James Johnston's negative attitude to modern music with Cook's breezy dismissal of conventional crime fiction - when you point out that the plot of I Was Dora Suarez is profoundly incoherent, he makes farting noises through pursed lips and sticks two fingers up at the world in general to show what he thinks of plot. 'It's the mentality that matters to me, it's the people that matter to me.'

He says that he writes what he calls 'black novels' because, 'I was really born to be a comic writer, but I could never find anything to laugh at.' In the Coach and Horses, and on a taped interview shown in conjunction with the video at the NFT, he talks self-dramatisingly in terms of a compulsion to explore the darker side of human nature - he's said that writing Dora Suarez involved immersing himself in evil for 18 months. The justification is that this darkness is integral to the self: 'It's the mainspring of human behaviour you've got here. And what you're talking about with a killer is when the mainspring breaks.'

On the outside at least, Cook is a cheery old soul, at odds with his material. He explains this by saying: 'If I didn't come on the way I'm coming on right this minute, I would have shot myself or gone mad long ago.' Later, an acquaintance of Cook's assures me that this is almost certainly true.

ALL IN ALL, then, we look set for a fairly miserable evening at the National Film Theatre. Surprisingly, though, the auditorium is packed out, and there are people queueing for returns at the box office. It's an eclectic crowd - literary types, crime fiction fans, Gallon Drunk groupies, and a fair sprinkling of people - like my neighbour - who have come on the off-chance because, 'It seemed like a weird idea that might be kind of interesting.'

The programme starts with the video, which turns out to be nothing special, although Cook earlier said that it would be brilliantly chilling. (What he actually said was, 'Hairy, man' - he picked up a lot of his slang in the Sixties.) Grainy images, riffing between black-and-white and gaudy colour, of a soiled bed, a broken and bloodied woman's body; a killer with a ring through his nipple (these people have seen Silence of the Lambs too) practising some martial art. Fading in and out is a wasted-looking Robin Cook, in the beret that's apparently glued to his head, wrapped a cloud of Gauloise smoke and croaking ominously. It all looks a little amateurish; and if the images are horrible, that has more to do with poor taste than what it says about the human condition.

Things go downhill even further with the videoed interview with Cook, a rambling, slightly self-indulgent piece that antagonises some of the audience and sets others giggling; so that when Cook comes on to the platform to take questions, he encounters a restless, mildly hostile mob.

The main event, though, is Cook reading to a backing from Terry, on trumpet, and James, on keyboards; and this is very effective. It's the passage where the psychopath shoots somebody in the face with a dumdum bullet. Cook has a matter-of- fact tone that complements the flat detail of his writing. James provides an organ drone, while Terry adds muted, fluttering squeals - longer, slurping notes when the bullet explodes and bits of brain are described spattering walls and furniture.

And finally, Gallon Drunk come on to do their doomy thing, looking slightly uncomfortable, but sounding satisfyingly harsh and loud. And then it's all over. My neighbour, who had thought it would be interesting, says, 'I'm not sure I'd do it again.' Well, quite. But once was OK; you'd be all right doing it once.

'I Was Dora Suarez' is published by Warner Books, pounds 4.99. 'Dora Suarez' is on Clawfist-Gorse (Hunka LP6).

(Photograph omitted)

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