The Sound of Violence
John Niven’s wicked debut novel Kill Your Friends savagely satirizes the music industry—and strikes the right nihilistic note for troubled times. By Taylor Antrim
Remember 1997? Not really? Clinton had yet to be impeached; the Dow passed 8000—going in the right direction; Bosnia was done; Blair got in; “Cool Britannia” ruled. Very sad about Diana in Paris, but all in all, a pretty vanilla year.
Unless you were a British A&R man, that is. Steven Stelfox, the music-biz scoundrel at the center of John Niven’s sensationally naughty debut novel Kill Your Friends (Harper Perennial, $14), is having quite a 1997. Profits are up; CDs are selling, and Stelfox’s job is to sign the next hot new act. Actually, he thinks his job is to squeeze Champagne, cocaine, and fruits de mer out of his expense account, and the next Oasis or Spice Girls can—well, let him tell it: “A couple of words for all you hopefuls out there in unsigned bands: Fuck. Off.”
Most of the bands and artists who appear in this naughty debut novel will send Anglophile music fans on a pleasantly geekish trip down memory lane.
Hilariously, for a music scout, Steven Stelfox hates music. Has no ear for it. Hears the new Radiohead single (‘97’s monumental "Paranoid Android") and thinks, “What the fuck were they thinking with this nonsense? They’re finished.” Everyone around him— colleagues, women, minorities, Americans, “the monosyllabic retards who work the supermarket tills,” but especially musicians and pop singers—merit his profane and highly energetic contempt. And yet, artists must be signed to recording contracts because the mindless British public must be fed hit records, and money must be made. Like literary nihilists before him— John Self and Patrick Bateman come to mind—Stelfox has a holy respect for cash and is murderously inclined toward anyone who stands in the way of acquiring it.
Niven’s novel, which has already received raves in Britain, creates a world that feels authentically depraved (the author worked A&R for London Records in the mid-'90s). Kill Your Friends is 300-plus pages of Stelfox snorting and boozing and screwing his way through one music industry shindig (MIDEM in Cannes, the Winter Music Conference in Miami, South by Southwest in Austin) after another. “ Larging it,” is the term of art, just one of the pieces of Brit-lad vernacular that animates these pages. (Stelfox muses on cocaine the way an Eskimo contemplates snow: “ Gak, chang, nose-up, bag, beak, charlie, krell, powder, chisel, bump, posh, bugle, sniff, skiwear…”) He buys the UK rights to a pornographic German dance track, signs a low-rent girl-group called The Songbirds, and just misses out on hot American indie act The Lazies. They go with his colleague Parker-Hall, and so naturally Parker-Hall must pay.
The Songbirds and Lazies are fictional—but most of the bands and artists who appear will send Anglophile music fans on a pleasantly geekish trip down memory lane. Remember Cast? All Saints? How about the cover art for Prodigy’s Music for a Jilted Generation? (Stelfox gives this an entertaining page-long critique.) Robbie Williams has a memorable walk-on, as do Paul Oakenfold, The Chemical Brothers, Damon Albarn, and (poor) Debbie Harry, who Stelfox assesses with typical venom: “[she’s] dressed head to foot in crimson—topped off with a bunch of red roses for a hat. She looks shocking, like an old hooker who’s fallen on hard times and gone crazy.”
Misogyny? Check. Racism, homophobia, anti-Semitism? Check, check, check. “Top lad, Stalin,” is a typical noonday Stelfox reflection. Niven has created an unredeemable monster of a narrator, but a very funny one, indeed. Funny, of course, is subjective, and delicate readers will likely not get past page 4.
Those with sturdy sensibilities will have one hell of a good time—provided they bring along strong stomachs. Niven has a rather nasty imagination and Stelfox’s sexual exploits (generally with prostitutes) are startlingly detailed. More extreme still are the gory lengths to which he will go to further his career. (I cried “uncle” exactly once, when a A&R competitor’s innocent Jack Russell gets it in the head. Dog lovers, skip page 117.)
Kill Your Friends, to put it lightly, is not a polite novel. Nor is it trashy junk (though at $14, it is agreeably cheap). Niven’s prose has style and rhythm; he’s no Martin Amis—who is?—but the aroma is there, and his story paces like a thriller. Better still, Kill Your Friends, despite its 1997 setting, feels bracingly, cathartically, of the moment. With so much stress and anxiety in the air, with the current cataclysm getting all of us acquainted with our inner demons, might a little dark amusement be in order? Feel-good fairy tales a la Slumdog Millionaire may be tonic for some, but perhaps it’s healthier to stop trying so hard to look on the bright side. Hands up if you’re in a slightly more vicious mood.
Taylor Antrim is the author of the novel, The Headmaster Ritual.