Friday, 15 January 2010

Toby Litt - I Play the Drums in a Band Called Okay

The notion of a book about a fictional band is a tricky one. They rarely manage to capture the essence of what it's really like, and so it's often left to films (Spinal Tap; The Rutles) to take the plaudits. However such films are based on joke fictional bands (even if the examples given are ones that have actually gone on to tour and release albums) and even celluloid has difficulty when it comes to telling a convincing tale without resorting to all-out humour (see Times Square - a cracking soundtrack but hardly a film to remember).

As the title suggests (I Play the Drums in a Band Called Okay), Toby Litt's narrator, Clap, observes the world tours from the comfort of his drum stool. He doesn't get the lion's share of the girls (that's the singer), develop a drug and/or drink problem (that's the guitarist, and the groupies he does attract are archetypal 'drummer girls'), and neither does he settle for a quiet life with his soulmate, fishing and camping out (that's the bass player).

To the best of my knowledge Litt has never been in a band. His biography doesn't give away a great deal. It's maybe for this reason that he shies away from detailing how the fictional band of his creation, okay, make the leap from Canadian teenage garage wanabees to worldwide stadium rock headliners. Dealing with this is often where writers can struggle (Kevin Sampson's Powder covers virtually nothing but the ascent of The Grams, and is at least 50 pages too long as a result).

Litt instead allows his narrator to talk about how the band first came together, recant tales once successful and nothing inbetween. Recording sessions are barely mentioned and gigs and tours merely guide the book (partly made up of short stories previously published elsewhere) towards particular locations and scenarios. To an extent Clap being in a band is not that relevant as he often is left to deal with personal issues that could strike anyone, but at the same time it's central to everything as if he wasn't in such a lofty position he wouldn't, for example, find himself at the funeral of a fan who had killed himself while listening to okay.

I Play the Drums in a Band Called Okay is a decent read, and thanks to Litt's dodging of the classic mistake in this genre you don't need to have done time in a band to 'get it'. Clap has enough moral substance to make him a likeable character - if Litt had taken another obvious decision and focused on the singer then I would most likely have opted out within 20 pages.

Now reading: Lips and Robb Reiner - Anvil: The Story Of Anvil

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