Why the great rock'n'roll novel is so elusive

These days, novelists (especially fortysomething ones) take Mark E Smith and Morrissey as least as seriously as they do Julian Barnes. So how come the great rock'n'roll novel is as elusive as ever? D J Taylor has a theory...

Saturday 17 September 2011 13:15

Rather like football or comedy, the music business is one of those spangled redoubts of modern mass culture where the novel - that universal and democratic art-form - rarely strays. iPods descend in their millions upon the lip-synching teenage hordes, rock'n'roll and its genre variants are the young person's lingua franca from Vermont to Vladivostock, "cheap music" has lost none of the potency that Noel Coward ascribed to it 70 years ago, yet still the average novelist, offered the choice between a rock band on tour and the common room of a provincial higher education institute, eagerly lines up the view from the University of Cirencester.

There are good reasons for this mammoth dereliction. Pop's apparent homogeneity is hugely deceptive. Sub-genres blur into each other. (Thrashcore? Nu-metal? Alt.country?) There is an argot, a technical vocabulary, at the more exalted levels practically a whole poetics, liable to turn the most cursory engagement with the form into a high-grade research seminar. When Ian McEwan, for example, introduces a blues-strumming minor character into his most recent novel Saturday and turns all forensic over "the sudden chop of an augmented chord, a note held against the tide of harmony, a judiciously flattened fifth..." you can almost see the back-numbers of Blues Guitarist stacking up on the old boy's study table.

Worse, this is an art-form whose outlines are subject to lightning shifts and fractures. If a music journalist has trouble keeping up with its constant recalibrations, what chance the middle-aged scrivener who thought Pink Floyd were frightfully good at Live8? And yet - again like football and comedy - in terms of themes, situations and the range of treatments available, pop ought to offer a deeply alluring landscape, both actual and symbolic, for the writer to colonise. Never mind the desperate romanticism that has invested the form since the days of Elvis; there is also pop's function as a piece of societal litmus paper. Until at least the early 1980s, it is fair to say, "music", together with professional sport and organised crime, offered the only reliable means of escape from the back street and the factory floor. Then there is the human factor, made up of the aspirations, resentments and interactions of the four or five persons crammed into the rehearsal studio together with El Sharko their rapacious manager, and the iceberg of a ruthless, predatory and potentially corrupt corporate organism lurking all the while beyond the horizon. In theory, rock'n'roll novels ought to strew the fictional forest floor like fallen leaves. In practice only the occasional muted light glimmers up through the murk.

The origins of the pop novel go back almost as far as pop itself: snapshot responses to the Tin Pan Alley-fostered youth-culture explosion of the late 1950s such as Wolf Mankowitz's Espresso Bongo and A G Street's Johnny Cowslip. Naturally this was a field in which one or two music journalists - Nik Cohn and Tony Parsons spring to mind - imagined they could excel, but pride of place in this sparse assembly ought perhaps to go to the former International Times and New Musical Express staffer Mick Farren, whose The Tale of Willy's Rats is a horribly authentic piece of reportage from the back-seats of the late 1960s tour-bus. Farren, who had played for legendary late-1960s Ladbroke Grove anarchist combo the Social Deviants, also wrote one of the genre's abiding curiosities, The Texts of the Festival, in which the members of a karma-heavy post-apocalyptic hippy community can be found abasing themselves before totems engraved with the lyrics of Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones.

The mainstream novelist who dabbles in pop, on the other hand, tends to fall into one of three categories. Most conspicuously, there are the writers who simply like hanging out with musicians, occasionally to the point of outright collaboration. The Grateful Dead, then known as the Warlocks, acted as houseband to Ken Kesey's mid-1960s busload of psychotropic Merry Pranksters. Hawkwind took their name from a piece of Michael Moorcock SF entitled "Hawkwind Zoo" and provided sonic accompaniment to their mentor's poetry recitations. Salman Rushdie has appeared onstage with U2, whose presence underpins The Ground Beneath Her Feet. Among more recent get-togethers, Jonathan Coe has written lyrics for former Hatfield and the North frontman Richard Sinclair, while abstracting the title of his mid-1970s prog-rock album, Rotters' Club.

Then there are the writers who, obsessed with particular groups and songs, sprinkle their works with arcane cross-references intelligible only to the fan-base. The celebrated New Puritans anthology of five years back took its name from the Fall track, "All Hail the New Puritans". Ben Richards, a New Puritan himself, is fixated on late-1970s art punks Magazine, called one of his novels A Sweetheart Deal, in homage to Magazine's "Sweetheart Contract", and opened another with the hero, en route to Chile, listening to the band's Maybe It's Right to be Nervous Now compilation on his Walkman. Jason Cowley's Unknown Pleasures doffs its hat to Joy Division, while I will cheerfully admit to having written a short story entitled "After Bathing at Baxter's" in tribute to the 1967 album of the same name by Jefferson Airplane.

Finally there is a small handful of novelists who, undeterred by the procedural difficulties involved, the long years spent reading the music magazines serving as research, aim to write novels in which the music is not merely a garnish but integral to the human activity on display. The contemporary canon is not extensive, but it includes Iain Banks's Espedair Street, Pagan Kennedy's The Exes (two former couples in perpetual Indie-band transit), Elmore Leonard's Be Cool, Jonathan Coe's The Dwarves of Death (bloody revenge trailing back to an obscure 1976 punk single), Louise 's Goodnight Steve McQueen (Wener spent some years at the helm of Britpop contenders Sleeper) and Joel Lane's From Blue to Black (gut-wrenching out-takes from the early 1990s West Midlands indie scene).

Despite the varieties of setting and incident, many a pattern or protocol immediately declares itself. Zealous enthusiasms are, of course, everywhere to hand. As befits a novel concerned with post-adolescent angst, The Dwarves of Death comes saturated in Morrissey quotes. Joel Lane's descriptions (a boy with a fringe so floppy that it "could get him signed to Creation Records") are practically sociological in their minute accuracy. Classic emotional situations predominate: the charismatic frontman more or less sympathetically described by his retiring sidekick; the all-boys-together camaraderie split apart by the arrival of the love interest (From Blue to Black literally inverts this formula by making the guitarist and the bass player a gay item). Together with the snapped strings and the unspeakable tedium of a life lived out of Umbro bags on other people's floors (The Exes) come some valuable moral lessons. Success is not necessarily a bed of chrysanthemums. Real pleasure comes from playing to half-a-dozen slack-jawed cowboys in some old seedy mid-western dive while Jake the rheumy-eyed proprietor stares mistily from behind his pitcher of Bourbon. Simple prescriptions which rarely fail.

Happily enough, both of the current additions to the roster - the Radio Two DJ Mark Radcliffe's Northern Sky (Hodder & Stoughton £10.99) and Douglas Cowie's debut Owen Noone and the Marauder (Canongate £9.99) - adhere to this proud tradition. Each is defiantly hung up on a particular style: in Radcliffe's case, bygone English folk of the Sandy Denny/Fairport Convention era and the alluring figure of Nick Drake (there is a running gag about the chiming of a city clock which Drake aficionados will relish); in Cowie's, contemporary US alt-rock. Each, too, is anxious to anchor itself in some kind of realistic setting, by way of newspaper profiles and gig reviews. But while Northern Sky, in which an absconding university lecturer returns to his local folk club to get his life back on track, turns out to be a rather typical modern English bloke novel in the approved sub-Hornby style, Owen Noone and the Marauder performs the difficult trick of appearing to reinvent the rock novel while leaving it almost exactly the same.

Here we are, once again, down in the Iowa boondocks, observing quiet English major Brian hooking up with brisk, purposeful Owen in the customary two-bit dive. Owen, moneyed, mysteriously frank and frankly mysterious, has big plans. As for the music, the boys, swiftly christened "Owen Noone and the Marauder", having brooded long over a pilfered library copy of Alan Lomax's Penguin Book of American Folk Songs, emerge with a kind of souped-up electric folk. It, and they, go down a storm with local punters, and the biz enfolds them in its hot embrace, whereupon it is revealed that Noone Snr is a Republican senatorial hopeful with whom his son has, as they say, issues. Meanwhile the casualties stack up: Owen's whirlwind marriage; Brian's parents; the solicitous independent label with whom they originally signed; most cruelly of all the zest with which they began their careers.

All this - mostly as a result of the absorbed and genial tone - adds up to a great deal more than the sum of its parts. If Owen Noone and the Marauder has a drawback, it is the sheer effortlessness of the trajectory (the record label signs them almost before they start rehearsing, the CBGB's booker turns out to have heard their demo) and the somewhat implausible niceness of their various attendants. "Don't worry," says the label boss, "I'm not about to screw you guys over." "We liked Ed [the college student hired to direct the promo video]. He was genuine." Even the reporter from the San Francisco Examiner, come to check out Owen's revelations about his pa, looks to be "a nice enough guy... and seemed sincere." Faced with this succession of obliging reality-softeners and starry-eyed satellites (the exception being a venal bus driver who markets some supposedly compromising polaroids to the National Enquirer) the reader longs for a genuine maggot to crawl into sight and start grazing on all that innocently upturned flesh.

To do Cowie justice, the seamless-ascent-to-fame narrative is endemic to the genre: after all, the band in Goodnight Steve McQueen land a tour on the strength of a solitary mobile phone call. In any case his realism is a matter not of tour-bus cockroaches, actual or human, but a rueful acceptance of music's ultimate inability to effect change. Jack Noone scrapes into the Senate. A thousand concert-goers may have their existence transformed for an hour or so; they may even recapture the thread with a CD. Then they'd get older and have bills to pay and kids to chase, and eventually they'd find "Owen Noone and the Marauder" at the bottom of a stack of CDs and put it on and that little strand of memory would almost find its way back. And they'd smile and remember how fun it was when they were younger.

But then this is the eternal message of rock itself. You - the Sex Pistols, the Clash, or any of those other Golden Age idealists - fight the biz and, lo and behold, the biz wins. As for the wider literary implications, well, the novelists of the 1980s, who grew up in the 1960s, bought the albums and attended the gigs but they never really cared about the bands in the way that the novelists of the 1990s, who grew up in the 1970s, do. The twentysomething Martin Amis, watching the Stones at Earl's Court in 1976, simply thought the music too loud and himself too old. Three decades later, curiously enough, there are any number of fortysomething writers prepared to take the lyrics of Mark E Smith at least as seriously as the novels of Julian Barnes. Demographics alone insist that there will be plenty more Owen Noones. This particular Magazine junkie and Fall fanatic will be there at the stage door.

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