Don’t for­get the lyrics

Three new nov­els chron­i­cle lives trans­formed by rock’n’roll. By Teddy Jamieson

The Herald - Arts - - Books -

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

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