Wednesday 27 January 2010

John Niven - Kill Your Friends

"It’s not dog-eat-dog around's dog-gang-rapes-dog-then-tortures-him-for-five-days-before-burying-him-alive-and-taking-out-every-motherfucker-the-dog-has-ever-known."

And so the cover blurb of John Niven's Kill Your Friends describes the music industry circa 1997. Now I hate to use this word for the second time this month, however - 1997 was when 'Britpop' was at its commercial peak and it's up against this backdrop we find Steven Stelfox, an A&R man at an unspecified record label who will go to any lengths to get ahead - the book's body count is perhaps more impressive than Stelfox's chart positions.

One of the least likable lead characters you will ever come across, Stelfox is a man not driven by a passion for music but class 'A's, 'Rockschools' (JD and coke), prostitutes and pornography. In fact it's fair to say that he has no real affinity to music at all (which anyone who has ever been in a band will probably think is the norm for an A&R man), viewing it as a means to obtain all the above. Put a sure-fire hit in front of him next to a guaranteed turkey and he's likely to pick the latter (but ensuring he can make it look like someone else's fault when the record fails).

Niven had worked in the music industry for 12 years, which does worryingly suggest that much of this book might be drawn from personal experience. On publication Kill Your Friends was continually compared to American Psycho. A fair comparison, but these reviewers were perhaps missing the clues that Niven comes across as a fan of Bret Easton Ellis as a whole; the frequent roll-call of celebrities (albeit mainly z-list, long-forgotten indie musicians) similarly recalls Glamorama.

A great book that can potentially be read in a couple of sittings, Kill Your Friends might put off anyone seriously considering a career in the music business (particularly any young women eyeing up that secretarial position as a way in before becoming a scout).

Currently reading: Jay McInerney - The Last Bachelor

Tuesday 26 January 2010

Andy McCoy - Sheriff McCoy: Outlaw Legend of Hanoi Rocks

Only just seen a copy of Sheriff McCoy: Outlaw Legend of Hanoi Rocks in my local Waterstones. I had no idea this was even being published! Officially it's not out until Feb 4th according to Amazon but copies are out there.

"The last great rock 'n' roll memoir, Andy McCoy's autobiography covers the legendary guitarist's life and exploits from childhood through to the rekindling of his massively influential band, Hanoi Rocks, in the 2000s. McCoy helped introduced punk to Finland from an early age - and from their base in a Stockholm subway station Hanoi Rocks embarked on a wild death-defying jet-setting thrill ride. Includes dozens of rare, candid photos and a new preface written by McCoy in 2009 after the final breakup of Hanoi Rocks."

Given some of the well-known tales surrounding McCoy (including those that surfaced during his various guest appearances in The Dirt this should be one seriously good read!

Currently reading: John Niven - Kill Your Friends.

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

Tuesday 12 January 2010

Jimi Hendrix - Valleys of Neptune

Dare I admit this? Okay, here goes - Jimi Hendrix has never really interested me. Can't deny the guy's importance but I've never felt the urge to listen to his music.

The announcement that some unreleased material is being released in March (the 12-track Valleys Of Neptune) therefore left me largely un-moved. After all, unreleased material is usually unreleased for a good reason, and if I'm not a fan of Hendrix's existing back catalogue then I'm unlikely to won over by this.

However, this set me thinking - has there ever been a case where unreleased material has been issued posthumously and made the grade? Live albums excluded. I've yet to think of one, but will report back if I do. In the meantime let me know of any examples!

Thursday 7 January 2010

Luke Haines - Bad Vibes: Britpop and My Part in Its Downfall

Off topic? Possibly, although from a autobiographical view I did indulge in a certain amount of 'britpopness' myself. Back in 1994 and with the Soho glam clubs ringing a death knell at closing time rather than the traditional shout for last orders, I like many others were easily distracted by the gradual rise in guitar bands that were plugging in a mile up the road in Camden.

I didn't take to Suede despite the press being unable to write about them without referencing David Bowie. I never heard that supposed influence on their music myself; it was only when the barely-finished 'Dog Man Star' came out, reminiscent in its darker places of the final - original - Big Star album, that I paid them any attention. Other bands though were of more interest as they took me back to a forgotten appreciation of the likes of the Kinks and the Small Faces; Blur being the obvious example (hardly a new band at the time having already released two albums, the first of which I could just recall from my first stint in record shops and dismissed as bandwagonesque* baggy), but also applicable to the innocent pop of Supergrass.

I think I was the last of my immediate peers to cut my hair short(er), ditch the backcombing and seek out vintage 70s clothing in favour of the unnecessarily skin-tight black jeans. Having 'eat some food' shouted at me by one of London's many homeless in reference to my absurdly skinny legs might have contributed too. Sure, these decisions did lead to a certain amount of daft accusations of 'selling out' from non-friends who clung on to the rock & roll dream (most of whom would then turn up in the Dublin Castle or the Good Mixer within two years). There's nothing like taking a narrow-minded view when it comes to good music.

But was it good music? According to Luke Haines it most certainly wasn't, except that which he produced as The Auteurs. Who incidentally were not Britpop. Which Haines rightly points out is a horrendous word. In Bad Vibes Haines takes the marvellous approach of looking back on the 1990s without bringing hindsight into play. He simply writes about the period exactly as he felt at the time - which for the most part means being convinced of his own genius and disparaging towards every other band he came into contact with.

I recall little of the Auteurs in their day. Even when back working at record shops between 1994 and 1996 I don't remember any of their releases fighting for shelf space next to the seemingly endless dross churned out by Marion, Northern Uproar, Ocean Colour Scene et al. Turns out that Haines went out of his way not to release any meaningful product during precisely the period where The Auteurs might have achieved new heights of success. Given his non-use of hindsight in the book one can only speculate on whether this is something he now regrets.

Having started out alongside Suede, including losing the 1993 Mercury Music Prize to them by a single vote, and seing them almost implode (Bernard Butler quitting the band midway through the recording of 'Dog Man Star') it's possible that he's perfectly happy with his lot, particularly as he would then have watched Suede drag themselves along with a lookalike replacement and producing trash such as, well 'Trash'.

Case in point: it's summer 1996 and I'm in a nightclub in Mainz, Germany. It's one of those clubs that plays a bit of everything, and they have a regular 'britpop' slot. As well as the obvious candidates, this slot also includes Billy Bragg's 'A New England', and everyone dances throughout (even for Dagenham's finest). Then the DJ slaps on Suede's latest and by the end of the first verse I realise that people are fleeing the dancefloor like litter on the breeze. I of course follow, and just as 'Trash' completes its first chorus it's subjected to a swift fade and is replaced by some non-descript Europop.

About 10 years ago I did pick up How I Learned to Love the Bootboys in a charity shop, a 70s influenced album which I've given only a few spins (opener 'The Rubettes' is a fine non-glam glam number) that I gather doesn't truly show what The Auteurs were about (and was released after the book ends, referred to only as what was intended to be 'The Commercial One'). More recently I also stumbled upon the Steve Albini-produced After Murder Park. One murky album, it's the subject of a great anecdote in Bad Vibes concerning three-quarters of Metallica jostling for space on a two-seater sofa. I believe I've played it once.

My relative unfamiliarity with The Auteurs, though, did not retract one iota from this book. Haines writing is so good, and his stories so amusing, that I found myself at the last page in no time at all and wondering whether a second volume is planned. Right now I've got their much-lauded (and big in France) debut, New Wave, streaming on Spotify. It might not be hindsight, but I'm pleased to have finally discovered The Auteurs, and with Baader Meinhoff and Black Box Recorder waiting in the wings I've got a lot of catching up to do.

* Not to be confused with 'Bandwagonesque' by Teenage Fanclub

Now reading: I Play the Drums in a Band Called Okay by Toby Litt

Tuesday 5 January 2010

Kris Needs & Dick Porter - Trash: The Complete New York Dolls

I feel I'm getting a little pre-occupied here with the New York Dolls (and I haven't yet talked about their show I attended last month, or the fact that I finally got round to watching All Dolled Up - although I had seen a lot of that footage at the Bob Gruen hosted screening as part of 2004's Meltdown festival). But still, my reading Trash: The Complete New York Dolls was long overdue and now seemed a good a time as any.

It seems odd that one of the Amazon reviews tries to write off the book as a 'an attempt to cash in on the reunion last year', while directing potential customers to Nina Antonia's Too Much Too Soon (which admittedly Needs & Porter used as one of their reference documents). Kris Needs had seen the band at Biba and later built up a relationship with Johnny Thunders through his career as a journalist (and at one point, a fellow heroin user), so this seems a touch unfair. That said, the detail on the band post-1975 does follow Thunders' career far more than anyone else; whereas the troubled guitarist provides perhaps the most rcok & roll story he certainly was not the most commercially successful (step forward Mr Johannsen, albeit in the guise of Buster Poindexter).

On balance Trash is a superior and more substantial read than Too Much Too Soon, and the circumstantial background to the band's formation (such as the state of New York in the early 70s) gives their story a welcome setting. Aside from the pre-occupation with Thunders' post-Dolls career there is no significant bias towards any one member, or any suggestion that any one Doll was more responsible for the band's formation than any other - indeed that process comes across as a very organic one.

Currently reading: Bad Vibes: Britpop and My Part in Its Downfall by Luke Haines

Older posts:
I, Doll: Life & Death With The New York Dolls
New York Dolls - Royal Festival Hall 18/06/04
Nina Antonia - The New York Dolls: Too Much Too Soon
Johnny Thunders - So Alone
The New York Dolls - Cause I Sez So
Motorcycle Boy - Popsicle

Saturday 2 January 2010

There goes another year ...

... and a busy one at that! Due mainly to a particular arrival I only managed to make it out to two gigs (and nothing until August!) but there were some noteworthy releases in 2009, many of which I never got round to writing about (eg Iggy Pop's Preliminaires, and Hombre Lobo by the Eels). The likes of Spotify, Last FM and Deezer have all proved useful for digging around to hear bands both old and new, and to be pointed towards anything I might have missed. Time to do this though is still in relatively short supply but life is good - and here's to a great 2010.