Sunday, 9 March 2008

The 'Industry Scum' Genre

So I said I'd write about Kill Your Friends and true to my word, I will. I'll try not to go into it at length because it would spoil it for you, but I will say that there are two things, which instantly recommend it: it makes you want to find out what happens right to the end and it makes you laugh. There's not really much to argue with there is there?

As you probably already know, it's a book about an A&R man and it's set in the late nineties, just before the Internet took hold and, come to think of it, just before all the other things we deal with on a daily basis took hold: reality TV, ubiquitous mobile phones, Al-Qaeda and terrorism fear, eco-fear and Coldplay-style alterno-balladry.

The music business Niven describes is one I was very familiar with and he catches the time very well, apart from one major plot twist involving use of many different Internet cafes by the central character - I don't recall there being any Internet cafes around in 1997 and if there were, the A&R people I knew then wouldn't have known their arse from their email. I remember getting Internet lessons en-mass when I was at BMG, given by one of the facilities guys who happened to know a bit more than anybody else about the new technology. This bloke, a laid back, charming surfer dude is now is now one of the most powerful players at Universal, in charge of all their European online strategy. If Niven's character really had existed in '97, his prowess with a computer would have certainly furnished him with an alternative career once the A&R stopped paying.

But I'm nit-picking, the book rollocks along with a masterful pace. As I said in a previous blog, I'd never heard of Niven but a few people I know worked with him and one of them tells me his own character is not a million miles away from his character Steve Stelfox, a coke and booze-fueled sex addict who has no interest in music and gets away with murdering people. Clearly, Niven never murdered anyone but apparently the tales of coke-fueled visits to prostitutes and general misogyny are based largely on his own experiences.

Hmm. I'm not buying this; the character is a two-dimensional cypher. It's testament to the writing that you are bothered what happens next because not only does Stelfox have no redeeming features (there are times when I imagined Niven sitting, hunched over his keyboard, thinking, "Is he cunty enough here? Perhaps if I added a few more insults to the injury it would work better ...") but he also he has no backstory, no inner life, no third dimension. Comparisons with Patrick Bateman are obvious but the key difference is that despite there being no clear-cut backstory in American Psycho you get a very distinct picture of Bateman's pathology which you don't with Stelfox. And besides, Stelfox is no screw-up - he's frequently the only sensible-thinker in the story. Madman he is not. But you never know why Stelfox hates everyone and everything and needs to have sex with anything female and earn more than anyone. The only reason for this besides obvious dramatic reasons, is that this is what A&R men are supposed to be like; this is how they've always been depicted so why break with tradition? Everyone hates A&R men, just as they hate traffic wardens, tax inspectors and estate agents.

It was very enlightening to read all those responses to my piece in the Guardian last week - almost all of them were along the lines of "Die A&R men, die! You talentless, freeloading bunch of bastards!" The contentious headline 'A&Rs Are The Unsung Heroes Of The Music Industry' didn't help (the editor added this, the one I gave them, 'Guy Hands: The New Gerald Ratner?', clearly wasn't contentious enough). I think most people saw the headline and responded to that, they didn't actually read the piece. The point is that from the first fictional depiction of a talent scout (probably in 1959's Espresso Bongo - 'Johnny Jackson, a sleazy talent agent, discovers teenager Bert Rudge singing in a coffee house') to more recent things like Keith Allen's A&R man in that terrible girl band thing The Young Person's Guide To Becoming A Rock Star or Jimmy Nails equally rubbish Crocodile Shoes to the faux brutality of Simon Cowell on all his shows, A&R people (almost always male) are heartless, cash-chasing, bastards who lead privileged existences with little or no justification (I mean, when have they ever written a song or played an instrument?)

And actually when you think about it, shrift have always been shortest for those involved behind the scenes in the entertainment industry - not just music, but also newspapers (check out Burt Lancaster's genuinely malevolent gossip columnist JJ Hunsecker in The Sweet Smell of Success , surely the inspiration behind cartoon food critic Anton Ego in last year's Ratatouille) or movies (The Player) or ballet (The Red Shoes) or even other actors getting behind the scenes (A Star Is Born ). And incidentally I'm only mentioning quality stuff here, there are plenty more examples of evil entertainment industry types in long-forgotten TV series and films. (Here I must mention Jumping Bean Bag, a 1976 Play For Today, which my friend Russell salvaged from the BBC archives and eventually got shown with Bob Stanley's patronage at The Barbican)

So Niven's novel falls into the rich tradition of what we should call the 'Industry Scum' genre. As I said, there are laughs aplenty throughout, not least the slightly scary Goldie-like character Rage, who having failed to order a burger in a top Cannes seafood restaurant and asked for whatever they have, receives a plate of quivering squid: "Are you having a giraffe, cunt?" he asks the waiter. Also the descriptions of the on-a-sixpence loyalty turns that record company staff make towards A&R men depending on a good or bad Radio 1 reaction are spot on. Niven's depiction of the industry reaction to Princess Diana's death struck a chord with me too. Although he doesn't describe it as such, it was like a music business 9/11 - all-hands meetings about 'charity albums' taking place all over London and playlists getting changed overnight due to insensitive lyrics or offensive band names. He doesn't mention it in the book, but a band I A&R'd at the time had their big-break effectively nullified by Diana's death, when the re-release of You And Me Song was scuppered by their name. They were called, in case you're forgotten, The Wannadies.

Anyway, I've recommended the book enough now, not just here but to people I know who I think might like it. I can't help myself. But there is a part of me that still wants to read a book about the music business which doesn't depict the staff as bastards. Sure, they can be inept and comically talentless at times (we all have long lists of bands we saw and passed on that are now household names) but do they always have to be cynical, evil bastards? I want to read a book like David Nobbs' The Fall And Rise Of Reginald Perrin but rather than it being set in Sunshine Desserts, I want it set in a record company. I can picture the CJ-like managing director already getting bands into his office to belittle them on his farting chairs while the A&R man squirms. It'll probably never happen, largely due to my agent's more astute grasp of the market than me, but hey I can dream...

1 comment:

  1. Ever wonder what the bassist of Starsailor did to earn Niven's love sufficiently to name his leading man after him? Lets get the novellas published that turn the industry scum notion on its head, I am battling to get "It Shouldn't happen to a Talent Scout" published by Christmas. Maybe there is a film in there, "Carry on , Don't Lose your Bassist" Certainly going to be more chipper than Danny Boyle's adaptation of Niven's.