A new howlingly funny novel casts a light on a dying industry.
In Kill Your Friends—a racism/misogyny/murder/drug abuse/homophobia-packed novel set in the A&R department of a British record company in the 1990s—there is so much coke snorted that just reading it will make your nostrils ache. Written by former A&R man John Niven, Kill Your Friends (recently published in the U.S.) has the horrible, slightly metallic tang of total authenticity.
Niven was right in the middle of the demented coke-bleached whirlwind that was London on the cusp of the whole Cool Britannia farrago (he signed Mogwai and tossed Coldplay’s demo in the garbage during a meeting). And so was I. Which is why I can confirm that Kill Your Friends’ portrayal of music-industry A&R men as irredeemably evil, complete bastards and total arseholes is probably the most accurate insider expose of any industry since Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential revealed America’s restaurant kitchens as being entirely crewed by drug-crazed, sex-addicted pirates.
For the uninitiated, A&R stands for “artists and repertoire.” In the good old days, A&R men (and they are nearly always men) would match a good songwriter up with a pretty boy or girl who could sing a bit and—bang—have a hit record. But then the Beatles ruined it all by writing their own songs.
Which means that the modern A&R man spends his entire career (when he’s not engaged in drunken fist fights or snorting coke off whores’ tits) wading through the tons—and I do mean tons—of utterly shit tapes and CDs sent in by millions upon millions of scabby, provincial no-talents all convinced that they are the next U2, Nickelback or Limp Bizkit.
The nightmarish, Sisyphusian drudgery of this task is superbly captured in a scene where the disgusting murdering racist pig of a hero, Steven Stelfox, describes his job. “A couple of words to all you hopefuls out there in unsigned bands,” he starts. “Fuck off. Seriously, your parents are right. You might as well spend your guitar-string money on lottery tickets.”
With the relish of a satanic accountant, our hero reveals the grim math (London-based record companies alone receive more than 12,000 unsolicited demos a week) that sees the vast majority of demos shoveled into garbage sacks, dumped in incinerators and burned.
And those bands that do get signed? Nearly all of them get royally screwed.
“You are finished. Game fucking over. You are 22 years old and six hundred thousand pounds in debt to us—a bunch of subhuman demons who were your best friend but would now gladly slit your throat and dance in your blood if we thought if we thought it would help us claw back a penny of your debt.”
His cynicism is absolute. “Madonna, Bono, the Spice Girls, Noel Gallagher, Kylie ... do you really think any of that lot are talented? Don’t make me fucking laugh. What they are is ambitious ... Fuck talent. Forget rock ’n’ roll, if he’d just turned the other way out of the schoolyard Bono could have been a very successful CEO of a huge armaments manufacturer.”
But Kill Your Friends is more than a must-read manual for every spotty kid with a guitar and an entirely unfounded belief in their own unique genius. It’s also a rollicking good sledgehammer satire of an industry crashing toward obsolescence with its foot firmly placed on the accelerator and totally out of its mind on drugs.
And it’s packed with great (if politically incorrect) lines.
A DJ “looks like he’s covered himself in glue and charged headlong through an outlet called Rich Black Bastard” and his music sounds like it’s “played on broken computers by mongoloids.”
Women in the music industry “will suck cock and take it up the arse. Their twenties will flash by in a holocaust of parties, hangovers, semen and bad champagne until ... they wake up to find themselves 35 years old with sagging tits, a cancerous shriveled womb, tired, fucked-out eyes, and a complexion battered by late nights, drugs and cocks.”
But it’s the quotes that head each chapter that are the most gut-wrenching. Real-life ’90s A&R men trumpet the awesomeness and undoubted longevity of bands that crashed and burned within weeks. Gina G’s A&R guy tells us, “I see her developing the way Madonna has.”
3 Colours Red, we are told, “are going to be huge.” Ditto Gene, Stroke, Echobelly, D*Note, Audioweb, Ultrasound and a metric shit-ton of other 100 percent dead next-big-things you’ve never heard off.
But my favorite bit of the whole book is where the hero explains his job.
“So here’s what I do. I listen to music—singers, bands, songwriters—and decide which ones stand a good chance of commercial success. I then arrange for them to be recorded in a sympathetic manner and we, the record company, sell them to you, the general public. Sound easy? Get fucked—you wouldn’t last ten minutes.”
To which I reply: No, you get fucked. I would make an awesome A&R man. This is because I am pop senile. Which means I have the same bone-honest and perfect pop taste as a 4-year-old child. This, in conjunction with my aged wisdom, makes me a sort of pop super god.
If the record companies ever discovered this and put me in charge of their A&R departments (which I would promptly purge of all straight males 16 to 85 and fill up with homosexuals, toddlers and teenage girls), no male guitar bands would be allowed anywhere near a recording studio and we would soon enter a truly magnificent pop golden age. Plus I wouldn’t murder anyone.
Gabriel García Márquez, 1927-2014