Don’t forget the lyrics
Three new novels chronicle lives transformed by rock’n’roll. By Teddy Jamieson
It’s a Sunday night in March at Glasgow’s Stereo and Scotland’s most likely rock stars the Ossians are in the building. Well, sort of. The four twenty-somethings (two boys, two girls) who make up the band aren’t actually onstage. That would be difficult given that they are, after all, a figment of Doug Johnstone’s imagination. But Johnstone himself is and, armed with just a guitar and a waspish line in repartee, the 37year-old journalist (sometimes of this parish), musician and novelist is doing his best to give us an idea as to what the Ossians might sound like if they did actually exist outside the pages of the new book that shares their name.
To accompany his second novel, Johnstone has written and recorded an album under the name of his fictional band and tonight he is performing some of the songs name-checked in his book. It does seem a little above and beyond. Did Roddy Doyle ever give us his rendition of Mustang Sally when The Commitments was published?
Tonight’s performance is very much a one-man show. Yet in the literary world Johnstone is far from alone. “New York, London, Arbroath, Munich,” as the song so very nearly goes, “everybody’s talking about pop music.” Or at least writing novels about it. If you so wished, you could go to your local bookshop tomorrow and buy not just The Ossians but also Toby Litt’s I Play the Drums in a Band Called Okay, about a Canadian foursome who are closer to the U2 level of success than the Ossians (more likely to be sharing dressing rooms with the BMX Bandits than Bono) and John Niven’s Kill Your Friends, which gives us the scarifying lowdown on the life of A&R men in the music industry (imagine American Psycho to a Britpop soundtrack). They’re all worth reading (Niven’s especially so), but their pleasures are – partly at least – quite obvious. The cover blurb on Johnstone’s book, “ Wa r n i n g contains Sex, D rugs and Rock’n’Roll” applies to all three. The pop novel is hardly a new form. Doyle’s book is 20 years old now and it was hardly the first in the field. But Niven, Litt and Johnstone all feel that they’ve a new tune to offer.
For Johnstone it’s his knowledge of the Scottish indie scene, one little explored in fiction. “It tends to be if you get books about music it’s about famous bands. It’s all about wanting to become famous and then becoming famous and then what happens when that turns out not to be what you expect, which is a fairly familiar rock’n’roll story. But there’s a flipside. I’m more interested in what happens when you don’t become famous.” In other words he’s interested in failure, not success (he’s also interested in Scottish nationalism and his distaste for Kyle of Lochalsh, but that’s for another day). Johnstone knows of what he speaks. He has played in more than his fair share of bands since his teenage years. He’s played King Tut’s and The Liquid Room, knows of the world he writes. He’s seen it at firsthand and seen through it too. Quite a few years ago, he says, he gave up on the idea of making it “because it struck me as the