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February 10, 2009

Book Notes - John Niven ("Kill Your Friends")

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published books.

Kill Your Friends is an exceptionally dark, hilariously satirical tale of the music industry's excesses and idiosyncrasies. John Niven's novel is set in the 1997 Britpop-obsessed Great Britain (and various music conferences around the world), the book has garnered many comparisons to Bret Easton Ellis's American Psycho.

The Guardian wrote of the book:

"American Psycho meets The X Factor in an orgy of mad, gleeful nastiness. A sustained spew of gothic nonsense, blackly lampooning the stupid, hypocritical world of the music industry, it'll probably make you go deaf, but you'll be having too much fun to care."

In his own words, here is John Niven's Book Notes essay for his novel, Kill Your Friends:

One of things in the book that seems to have struck a chord with a lot of people of a certain age has been the lists of bands that were very 'hot' at the time who have subsequently been viciously kicked into history's dustbin by Old Father Time. At one point, Stelfox reels off a list of about seventy bands who were signed by record companies that year: about three of whom went on to make what might be called real careers for themselves (ie: now, ten years on, that's how they make their living). When I was writing the novel, I spent a fair bit of time at the British Newspaper Archive in Hendon, just outside London, poring over copies of Billboard and Music Week (the Brit equivalent of Billboard) from 1997 and experiencing all kinds of Proustian rushes along the way: God, I remember them! Didn't so-and-so sign them? What happened to those f**kers? I experienced sudden and total recall on gigs I'd attended a decade before. Meetings and dinners I went to.

Somewhere in the attic, I still have boxes containing stacks of demo tapes and CDs from that period. They are strangely moving things to look at, bearing the names of bands like Ultrasound, Tampasm, The Hybirds, Arnold, Tiger, Symposium — bands that, for a brief, tiny window, were surely going to be bigger than The Beatles. Now, when I handle these neglected, dusty objects, I sometimes feel that I am handling nothing less than the atrophied, fossilised remains of someone's dreams.

Anyway, I've listed a few songs here from 1997: the year Kill Your Friends is set. Actually, there's one from 1998, but I'm sure you'll indulge me. These aren't meant to be definitively the greatest songs from that year (in fact, there's a couple I can't stand), but they all prompted a specific memory of some sort from that time.

1. Oasis – 'D'you Know What I Mean?' (Be Here Now)

The aural equivalent of pure, uncut cocaine. If you listen carefully, somewhere in between the claustrophobia, the paranoia, the squalling guitars and the whumping chopper blades, you can hear the actual sound of a generation falling apart.

Most bands make at least one cocaine album. In symbiosis with the drug itself, the cocaine album tends to be characterised by not knowing when to stop: guitars are layered upon guitars which are then overdubbed with some more guitars, finger cymbals, glockenspiel and kitchen sink solo until the whole thing descends into an unlistenable, nerve-shredding mess. Other notable cocaine albums include: Steeltown by Big Country and, to a degree, Give Em Enough Rope by The Clash. You hear the moment of immolation for the Britpop generation, the moment where fun became business, where habit become addiction, where possibility became dereliction and salvation became damnation.


2. Tori Amos – Professional Widow (Armand Van Helden Remix)

Doof doof – 'it's gotta be big...' You heard this record everywhere towards the end of '96, the beginning of '97. Two things I remember about Van Helden — I was working with a dance artist called CJ Bolland at the time and, after hearing this, we got Van Helden in to remix one of his singles. The fee, I recall, was absolutely astronomical. But it was a very good remix. The other thing is Heavenly Records booking him to DJ at a boat party up the River Thames. He turned up — every single person on that boat except for him was completely decimated on Ecstasy, cocaine, Ketamine, you name it — and sat quietly in the stern eating an enormous bucket of fried chicken. Later, I think, someone vomited into the bucket.


3. Work Mi Body – Monkey Mafia (single)

Ah, the genius of Jon Carter. I managed Jon for a while, around '96/'97. As I was, at the time, arguably even more hedonistic than Jon – who was a very hedonistic guy - this was a marriage made in heaven and hell simultaneously. We drove each other on to insane heights of debauchery. There was a trip to Japan where I don't think either of us slept for the whole week. We fell in with these Australian girls who seemed to have unlimited access to very good drugs which they were more than happy to share with us. All grand – until Day Five, when one of them turned around and said, “Oh, by the way, guys, you owe us 400 million Yen.” Then a surreal morning wandering around Tokyo out of our minds trying to find a bank that would let us withdraw that kind of cash. I passed out in some marble-halled financial institution and came round to find a white-gloved bank teller handing me a house-brick of money. Good days.


4. Radiohead – Paranoid Android (OK Computer)

It's hard to recall now just how jaw-dropping this sounded on first hearing. The music industry is home to more vicious revisionism than Stalin's Russia. The received view today is that OK Computer is a flawless masterpiece, routinely voted best album of all time, while Oasis's Be Here Now, was instantly seen for the honking turd that it is. Not so. When tapes and CDs of the former began to circulate, early in '97, there were whispers that it would end Radiohead's career. The industry view was kind of – 'they made a classic with The Bends, if they'd just followed it up with more of the same they could have been the biggest band in the world, but no – they had to make this deranged prog rock atrocity. Game over.' Be Here Now was almost unilaterally hailed as a masterpiece.

Our good friend Old Father Time had different ideas...


5. Arnold – Hillside (LP)

One of those bands mentioned in the 'dustbin' category in Kill Your Friends. But this is a truly stunning record, something that just doesn't leave you. Track down a copy if you possibly can. The title track and the song “Windsor Park” are just transcendent. I came very close to signing their publishing when I was (briefly) doing publishing A&R and I spent a wonderful summer afternoon with Arnold's manager, the legendary Des Penny, (who also managed Flowered Up) lying on a sofa in a flat on a Camden council estate, smoking very strong cannabis resin and listening to the demos that eventually became Hillside.


6. Chemical Brothers – Block Rocking Beats (single)

I became friendly with Tom and Ed through the Heavenly Social – a legendary club night held in a tiny basement off Great Portland Street in the summer of 1994. I will forever remember walking into the Glasgow Hilton in the spring of 1997 and seeing the two of them across the lobby. They had just found out that their second LP had gone into the American charts at number 14 – an incredible achievement for a British band at the time. Or, indeed, any time. I think we hit the bar pretty hard.


7. Elton John – Candle in the Wind (single)

When the country lost its mind. There really is no other way to explain this: watching the Queen and the rest of the royal family looking on in what can only have been utter, total horror while a bewigged, homosexual madman sang this awful schmaltzy ballad - with the lyrics specially rewritten to fit the occasion – to a grieving nation must rank as one of the most surreal moments in Britain's history. Meanwhile, on TV, up and down the land, footage of 'ordinary' people wailing and weeping. 'Ordinary people, I f**kin' hate them,' as Bud says in Repo Man.

John Niven and Kill Your Friends links:

the publisher's page for the author
the publisher's page for the book
MySpace page for the book
GoodReads page for the book
Shelfari page for the book

3:AM Magazine review
A.V. Club review
The Age review
CD Times review
The Daily Record review
Genre Go Round Reviews review
Guardian review
The Independent review
Paperjam review
Paste review
Publishers Weekly review
Three Guys One Book review

Anthem interview with the author
PopWatch interview with the author
Times Online feature by the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

Previous Book Notes submissions (authors create playlists for their book)
Online "Best Books of 2008" Lists
Largehearted Boy Favorite Novels of 2008
Largehearted Boy Favorite Graphic Novels of 2008
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Why Obama (musicians and authors explain their support of the Democratic presidential candidate's campaign)
guest book reviews
musician/author interviews
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2009 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2008 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2007 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2006 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2005 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2004 Edition)


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