Interview: Iain Banks: Alice Cooper, Pink Floyd, the Stones... Iain Banks? The monster of rock that never was

Jasper Rees
Sunday 23 October 2011 04:37

After BBC2's hit adaptation of `The Crow Road', another Iain Banks novel, `Espedair Street', is being dramatised by Radio 4. As Banks tells Jasper Rees, the saga of a Seventies rock group - complete with original songs - was once nearer truth than fiction.

Iain Banks is a leading purveyor of contemporary fiction. Iain M Banks is eminent in the field of science fiction. Iain "Spanks the Plank" Banks, however, is less well known as the composer of about 60 rock songs from the Palaeolithic period, 1972-75.

An explanation. Banks's Espedair Street is one of the better British novels about pop music. It chronicles the rise, not to mention the fall, of Frozen Gold, a Glaswegian student pub band who go global when budding writer Daniel "Weird" Weir lobbies them to record his songs. The book has been adapted as a drama which begins tonight on Radio 4, and is presented by Paul Gambaccini in the style of a Radio 1 rockumentary. This wasn't Banks's idea, as he generally steers clear of adaptations of his work.

"I think you have to let people get on with it," he says. So he didn't have much to do with the excellent television version of The Crow Road, nor the touring stage adaptation of The Wasp Factory. But before Espedair Street began its journey from page to airwave, Banks sent in a minidisc containing 10 songs he wrote at college long before he had the idea for the book, or indeed any book. This neatly obviated the need for someone else to compose music for the radio to accompany the lyrics copiously quoted in the novel.

All the songs are at least 10 years older than the book. "The novel was thought of in about '85," says Banks. "Once I came up with the idea for a novel about a successful rock band, I was thinking of setting it right there and then. But I thought if I go back to the 1970s I've got the raw material."

Fascinatingly, the songs are not at all bad. Banks's key listening included "the usual suspects at that time, the Stones, Family, Led Zeppelin, Jethro Tull, Hendrix, Cream". Frozen Gold are thus chunky on the guitars, moderately mystical in the words, with a surprisingly pleasant R&B undertow. It could have been so much worse. Banks is keen to distance his influences from megaliths like Genesis and Pink Floyd more closely associated with the precise timespan when he was making his own contribution to the footnote of rock history. "That was what punk ended up being disgusted at and voting against, the five-record concept album, the rock behemoth bestriding the stage in all of the glittery finery. But there was an awful lot of good music as well. It's slightly unfair to tar it all with the same brush."

Banks conceived the novel more or less in the spirit of one of his science fictions. "What I was trying to do was not initially to write a rock novel as such, but a fantasy novel set in reality, at a time when people who are young enough to still have outrageous fantasies get their hands on enough money to fulfil them." The fantasies are largely played out in the behaviour of the lead singer "Crazy" Davey Balfour, the one who pilots planes when drunk and wolfs down the lion's share of the drugs. Banks's fantasies as an undergraduate studying English at Stirling University seem not to have gone in that direction. "Oh God no, never wanted that," he says. "Wrong sort of fame. If it had to be, I might have been forced into the role of Weird, the boring bass player. But I'd far rather just be the songwriter and not be on stage."

Weird, played on the radio with his usual blend of world-weariness and naivety by John Gordon Sinclair, is dragooned into the band in the teeth of his own misgivings. Onstage he conceals himself behind mirror shades and shaggy hair and generally plays up to his nickname. Far from ever joining a group, Banks never once performed his songs (or anyone else's). He wasn't even there when they were played live for the first time at a gig in Glasgow by the band who perform Frozen Gold's songs in the series.

"I was never really that bothered. If you are going to do anything about it, you've got to really go for it. I just didn't. I had a vague idea that if I chanced upon a band that I liked the look of and were happy to have me as a songwriter then that would be a way I could see it happening. I went very slightly down that street with a friend of mine but we never really took it very far. Writing was my first love and the music took second place. You can write a novel entirely by yourself. There's an editor and a publisher between you and the public but not the entire paraphernalia of the rock industry. I could have been a singer-songwriter, I suppose. But I can't sing."

Despite never enacting the dream, Banks appears to have done everything but, providing himself with an encyclopaedic resource when he came to write Espedair Street. "It was an entire world that I was able to go back to." As well as composing the songs, he committed them to C90s - "whistled and plonked out on a guitar into a tape recorder" - which he has updated over the years "so they don't fall apart". He partitioned the songs into groups of 10 and imagined them as albums which he then named and designed "pretty gross" covers for. The band's first album is called Liquid Ice, and the sleeve depicts "blue tinged ice in a tank and a gigantic teardrop- shaped blob of gold smashing into it, caught in freeze-frame". (Compare and contrast the the album covers of Yes.) In this parallel world Banks even came up with some band names he later found other groups had opted to use - Berlin, Sky, Linx. The one historical inaccuracy in his invention is that Frozen Gold are co-fronted by a female singer. No contemporary template springs to mind, unless you count Suzi Quatro.

Banks has a fan base of a kind on the sci-fi circuit, so it's possible the mastertapes sitting in his attic in Fife may have some value as a collector's item. He demurs. "They're not something you'd want to spend good money on." Although words are his metier, he values the lyrics less highly than their musical setting. "The tunes are the most important part. I never thought the lyrics were very good. They're not condensed enough. I have the kind of problem you'd expect from a novelist writing lyrics, in that they don't grab you quickly enough, they're not poetic enough."

But take the lyrics to the song "Espedair Street", named after a street in Paisley down which Weird happens to saunter the day after he decides not to commit suicide. "It's the wrong side of the wrong side of the tracks/The dead end just off Lonely Street/It's where you go, after Desperation How/Espedair Street." Dodgier songs have gone platinum. If Jimmy Nail can have a pop career based on a fictional character, there's no practical reason why, a quarter of a century after Banks wrote their songs, Frozen Gold cannot have a recording career. Weirder things have happened.

`Espedair Street', Radio 4, 11pm tonight

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments