April 17, 2014
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, George Pelecanos, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Myla Goldberg, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.
Christopher Brookmyre's novel Bred in the Bone impresses with its depiction of Glasgow as well as its well-drawn characters on both sides of the law.
Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:
"Peppered with choice Glaswegian slang and oozing with just the right combination of black humor and sobering commentary on the city’s dark underbelly, this entry should cement Brookmyre’s reputation as one of today’s top Scottish crime writers."
Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.
The advance posters for John Singleton's landmark 1991 debut Boyz n the Hood memorably featured the tag line: "It ain't no fairytale." This was a subtle barb aimed at the Steve Martin-penned comedy LA Story, released earlier the same year, which had offered viewers a pastel-shaded (and all-white) fantasy version of Los Angeles as a dream factory, pretending that neighbourhoods and communities such as Singleton's didn't exist. Singleton's exasperation was not the result of one movie, but rather with the fact that whenever Hollywood turned its attention to LA, it tended to trade in love letters rather than home truths, and always offered the same fairytale version to the world.
I have long harboured a similar frustration with regard to depictions of my native Glasgow, but my complaint is essentially the opposite. The Glasgow of film, TV and literature is always one of violence, poverty, deprivation, drugs and alcohol, and while the city's problems with all of the above are chronic and undeniable, there must be few cities subject to such a consistently one-sided portrayal. To my mind, this gangland theme-park Glasgow of mainstream popular culture is as idealised and unrealistic as Steve Martin's LA, and I have long made it a mission of my writing to show the world all of my city's many faces.
When I conceived of the novels that ultimately comprised the Jasmine Sharp trilogy, I was extremely wary of adding to the negative stereotype. Where the Bodies are Buried, When the Devil Drives and Bred in the Bone are about thirty years of secrets buried amidst the complex relationships between the police and the city's crime lords, where neither law nor morality is denoted by a clear border, but rather a mist-shrouded hinterland.
I was determined to reflect the fact that Glasgow is also a thriving, energetic and culturally vibrant city. To me, one of the most rewarding ways of doing this was to showcase the songs emerging from the city's enduringly fertile and ceaselessly surprising music scene. I wanted not merely to create a silent soundtrack to the books, but to depict the role this music has in my characters' lives, as well as to acknowledge the debt of inspiration I owed to these songs in conceiving of and writing this trilogy.
Some of these are songs I refer to specifically in my novels, others are songs I was listening to at the time, but the bottom line is that Jasmine Sharp, Catherine McLeod and Glen Fallan would not have been the same without them.
Frightened Rabbit – The Loneliness and the Scream
This is kind of where it all began with these novels. Late Summer 2009, my family dealing with the sudden death of my wife's father. Around about this time I fell in love with Frightened Rabbit's music, and was awe-struck by Scott Hutchison's candour and unflinching honesty in analysing his own life. It was much more than that, though: what truly grabbed me was his gift for making the personal universal. Here was music about vulnerability, self-doubt, melancholy and the precipice of despair, but ultimately celebrating our enduring hope and the unlikely places we find redemption. By way of acknowledgment, I chose to open Where the Bodies are Buried by naming its first chapter after this song, whose title particularly chimed with the mood and the events that begin the story.
The Twilight Sad – Cold Days from the Birdhouse
I named a chapter in Where the Bodies are Buried after a more appropriately titled Twilight Sad track (And She Would Darken the Memory), but it was the opening song from the album Fourteen Autumns and Fifteen Winters that really haunted my mind in the months before I sat down to write the book. It is sparse, admitting of no self-pity, and yet remains strangely comforting: a soundtrack for contemplating the hardest things we must face. As mentioned above, I was dealing with bereavement and channelled my feelings into the process by which Jasmine must cope with the loss of her mother, and no song better reminds me of that mood. Once you've heard it a couple of times, it will stay with you always.
Glasvegas – Go Square Go
Glasvegas' debut album was one of the most emotionally raw and draining collections of songs I had ever heard, so much so that I had to ration my exposure to it at first, as certain of the tracks were frequently causing me to fill up: not ideal if you're listening in the car and driving on the motorway. In common with both of the bands mentioned above, James Allan eschewed the mid-Atlantic register often preferred by Scottish vocalists, choosing instead to sing in his own Glasgow accent: something that adds to the immediacy and frankness of the songs. One of the most toxic sources of misery in the west of Scotland is its enduring cult of the hard man, a theme I sought to explore through the character of Glen Fallan: a former gangland hitman and enforcer searching for redemption. This song cuts open the issue at the root, exposing how a corrupt and yet seductive code equating masculinity with violence is irrevocably inculcated in childhood.
Biffy Clyro – A Whole Child Ago
Biffy Clyro are a hard act to pigeonhole: constantly evolving their sound, beguiling the listener with strange and shifting time signatures, and generally hitting the accelerator whenever they are approaching any kind of comfort zone. Simon Neil's lyrics tend to be just as perplexing, though even when their meaning remains elusive, their use of language can be arresting. I chose A Whole Child Ago as the name for a chapter describing Jasmine Sharp's recollection of the first time she lost her mother – just for a while, in a supermarket, as a little girl – and how that feeling returned permanently when her mother died.
Balaam & the Angel - Day and Night
In When the Devil Drives, the latest West End stage hit (and best-selling soundtrack album) for theatre impresario Hamish Queen is a musical based on Grange Hill, an Eighties TV show about an ordinary British school. Hamish reflects that the songs in his show evoke nostalgia precisely because he chooses largely forgotten numbers that weren't quite hits. His reasoning is that the classic Eighties standards don't specifically remind anyone of that decade, because we've been hearing them throughout every decade since. Among the tracks Hamish used was this goth-pop gem by one of my favourite bands of the era, Balaam & the Angel: probably best known in the US for I'll Show You Something Special, which was the song playing in the demonic late-night cab ride taken by Steve Martin and John Candy in Planes, Trains and Automobiles.
Twin Atlantic – Yes I Was Drunk
In making reference to an emerging new band in a book, you can be hostage to fortune in that they might soon disappear without trace, or evolve into something you really didn't anticipate. If you're lucky, though, they can go from strength to strength, and your character's relationship with their music can seem more authentic for that. In Where the Bodies are Buried, I referred to Jasmine as having seen Twin Atlantic play just before her mother became ill, which set things up nicely for two books later with Bred in the Bone, in which I describe Jasmine's first time seeing them since. It is a painful but ultimately cathartic and galvanising experience for her, and provided me with an excuse to re-live an exhilarating show at the Dunfermline Alhambra. In the book and in reality, Twin Atlantic opened their set with this song.
Admiral Fallow – Tree Bursts
There can be few bands boasting as lushly textured a sound as Admiral Fallow's orchestral folk arrangements, and consequently the emotional impact of their music can be both soaring and desolate. In Bred in the Bone, I wanted to convey a character's recurring torment and self-recrimination over the moment a relationship went wrong due to an innocent misstep between two emotionally vulnerable people. This poor guy can no longer listen to the album that was playing at the time because it brings him right back into that moment. I chose this song (and this album) for that moment because I loved it so much that it would be all the more painful to have to go without hearing it.
Chvrches – The Mother We Share
When it comes to music, TV, books, pretty much all of popular culture, I am usually so far behind the curve that I couldn't even see the curve with a telescope and Google maps. This was the one time I snuck in front. I heard this track in Autumn 2012, around the time I was writing Bred in the Bone, and found it utterly joyous: sweeping synth-pop reminiscent of the early Eighties, except good this time. It struck me as the kind of thing Jasmine would listen to (and singer Lauren Mayberry looked rather unnervingly like my mental picture of Jasmine) so I described her singing along to this song in her kitchen. I am laying down a claim for it to be the first reference to the band in a published work of fiction, and any cool points that may consequently accrue (believe me: I need them).
The Big Dish – Swimmer
This trilogy has its roots in the Eighties: deeds done and secrets not quite buried that continue to haunt their victims and perpetrators alike. The music of that time continues to resonate for these characters, bringing back memories of things lost and things they wish they could forget. At the heart of all this is Detective Superintendent Catherine McLeod, whose bittersweet recollections of the decade are key to the interlinking stories. In When the Devil Drives, one of her happier moments is getting to see the reformed Big Dish play for the first time since she was a teenager. This was the title track of their debut album, which still sounds pretty fresh to me almost three decades on.
Mogwai – Mogwai Fear Satan
Although I've only made specific mention of them twice, Mogwai are lurking somewhere within every novel I've written this century. The reason is that they have become an indispensable part of my creative process. When I'm trying to work out where a story is going, I go out running and listen to Mogwai on my mp3 player, and this gives me access to a place in my mind devoid of distraction. Their music is both meditative and inspirational, playing in the background of my thoughts as I construct narrative and dialogue. If I ever can't get past an obstacle in the plot after 10 kilometres' worth of Mogwai, I'll know I'm in trouble.
Frightened Rabbit – Backyard Skulls
Here's where it all comes full circle. Having acknowledged the contribution Frightened Rabbit made to Where the Bodies are Buried, in February 2013 Scott Hutchison gave me an advance copy of the new album, Pedestrian Verse, and thanked me for my novel having in turn inspired the second track: Backyard Skulls. This story of deadly secrets emerging from the past prompted him to imagine the sins and betrayals that lie concealed within everyday relationships, just waiting to arise at the worst possible juncture. There's a wee bit of me glows inside every time I listen to it.
Foreign ambassadors or honorary Glaswegians: In the interests of full disclosure, I need to throw in a couple of tracks by two artists who hail from quite some distance outside the city limits, but whose shadows hang over the trilogy.
The Twilight Singers – Bonnie Brae
I dedicated When the Devil Drives to Greg Dulli, whose music in first the Afghan Whigs and then the Twilight Singers has been intriguing, bewitching and inspiring me for twenty years. Few artists can speak to the dark side of human nature like Greg does, and fewer still can do it while remaining sympathetic and compassionate. In his songs, as in my novels, there are temptations, there are demons, even devils, but there are no monsters: only human beings. Bonnie Brae should have been number one in twenty-five countries. It is utter fucking genius.
Jimmy Eat World – Heart is Hard to Find
It's a good thing I have a wife and son to keep me anchored and responsible, or I'd end up following these guys around on tour so I could watch them night after night. In an act of both acknowledgment and self-indulgence, I refer to Jasmine Sharp as being a Jimmy Eat World fan, and I have name-checked their songs in several other novels before and since this trilogy. I'm rounding off my playlist with Heart is Hard to Find, as it was released the day after I finished the first draft of Where the Bodies are Buried, and I just kept playing it throughout the writing of my next four novels.
Christopher Brookmyre and Bred in the Bone links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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