Scot­tish Mu­sic in 1983

This is Me­mo­rial De­vice, David Keenan, Faber and Faber, Fe­bru­ary 2017, pp.304, £14.99 (pa­per­back)

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News of the death, back in June, of Bog­dan Dochev, the Bul­gar­ian lines­man who failed to flag up Diego Maradona’s hand­ball in Ar­gentina’s win over Eng­land at the 1986 World Cup, prompted me to re­visit some stills of that in­fa­mous goal: the diminu­tive for­ward im­plau­si­bly out-jump­ing the English goal­keeper, Peter Shilton, to pro­pel the ball into the net with his fist. Aged only five at the time, I have no rec­ol­lec­tion of watch­ing that tour­na­ment, and in all like­li­hood I did not catch a sin­gle minute of it. I ex­pe­ri­enced Mex­ico ’86 as part of a her­itage, in its af­ter­life on the pages of soc­cer mag­a­zines pored over from 1988 to 1990, the for­ma­tive years of a life­long ob­ses­sion. Those shim­mery, low-res­o­lu­tion pho­to­graphs of sun­drenched Latin Amer­i­can sta­dia had an im­pres­sion­is­tic vi­tal­ity that would, over time, be­come in­ex­tri­ca­bly bound up in my mem­ory of early youth. When, twenty-five years later, the photo-shar­ing app In­sta­gram ap­peared, with its fil­ters en­abling users to doc­tor their pho­to­graphs in Ek­tachrome tones, it was my gen­er­a­tion that flocked to it in droves. The photo on the cover of David Keenan’s de­but novel is, I am re­li­ably in­formed, from the au­thor’s per­sonal col­lec­tion: four young lads hang­ing out, squint­ing against bright sun­shine, in blurry low-res. It is a qui­etly, un­der­stat­edly evoca­tive im­age. They say you should never judge a book by its cover. They are mis­taken.

This is Me­mo­rial De­vice is com­posed of a se­ries of fic­tive in­ter­views with the fic­tive per­son­al­i­ties com­pris­ing a fic­tive mu­sic scene in the Scot­tish town of Air­drie in 1983. The mu­sic is broadly cat­e­goris­able as post-punk – The Fall, Pere Ubu and Iggy Pop are fre­quently name-checked – along with a smidgen of emer­gent elec­tron­ica. The in­ter­views are loosely con­cerned with re­trac­ing the tra­jec­tory of a cult lo­cal band called Me­mo­rial De­vice, but pan out to a wider panorama of the lo­cal sub­cul­ture of Air­drie and

nearby Coat­bridge. The un­pre­pos­sess­ing back­drop is no ac­ci­dent: this novel is a fond cel­e­bra­tion of youth­ful es­prit and artis­tic en­ergy, which can flour­ish in the un­like­li­est of places. This, lest we for­get, is the cul­tur­ally im­pov­er­ished land­scape of 1980s Bri­tain, where Turk­ish De­light is con­sid­ered ‘so­phis­ti­cated – you know, like gar­lic or pasta’. You have to make your own fun here.

‘Be­hind closed doors at the back ends of es­tates, in crum­bling man­sions in Clark­ston and mod­ern flats on the main street, in soli­tary bed­sits and grim flats above chip shops there are hid­den some of the most ec­cen­tric char­ac­ters ever to es­cape from a novel.’

Keenan’s mi­lieu is in­deed pop­u­lated by odd­balls and de­viants of var­i­ous kinds. We are in­formed that Big Patty, the front­man of Me­mo­rial De­vice, is ru­moured to have taken to im­bib­ing his own urine dur­ing a short-lived flir­ta­tion with Satanism. In his younger days he is of­ten seen with a book stick­ing out of his back pocket, which is con­sid­ered a bold state­ment in it­self; an ac­quain­tance re­calls his hor­ror at see­ing him ‘walk­ing along the road and read­ing at the same time’. A pre­co­cious wannabe named David Kil­patrick makes a band en­tirely of man­nequins, who ‘play’ to a back­ing track in a shop win­dow; he re­ceives en­quir­ing let­ters from lo­cal artists, ro­bot­ics ex­perts and per­verts, all of whom take an in­ter­est in his work. As for Mad Mary Bell, she once drank a bot­tle of plant food for the hell it. Of­ten the idio­syn­cra­sies are of the care­fully cul­ti­vated va­ri­ety – young men and women ex­per­i­ment­ing, try­ing things on for size. It is in this spirit that we find Maya, in a white fur coat and white leather jacket, act­ing ‘moody as fuck’ and af­fect­ing ‘to­tal dis­dain for the world but still try­ing to im­press it’. In a sim­i­lar vein, a young man dis­cov­ers that his sis­ter’s boyfriend doesn’t wear un­der­wear and, when she tells him she finds it sexy, de­cides it’s a good look for him: ‘From that day on I threw all of my scants in the bin and just walked about with my bol­locks hang­ing care­free’.

A size­able bawdy streak runs through this nar­ra­tive. ‘I was a stock­ings man back then,’ re­calls one vet­eran of the Air­drie scene (he doesn’t tell us what changed), be­fore pro­ceed­ing to fondly rem­i­nisce about how he

used to fan­ta­sise about his girl­friend’s mother while mak­ing love to her. If oc­ca­sion­ally crass, the novel’s sex­ual con­tent is by and large af­fec­tion­ate in tone – a good-hu­moured cel­e­bra­tion of trans­gres­sive, taboo-break­ing sub­ver­sion rather than gra­tu­itous leer­i­ness. Re­call­ing his crush on the front­woman of a lo­cal elec­tronic band, John Bai­ley waxes rev­er­en­tial about her breast im­plants, hail­ing them as ‘a thumb in the eye of fate or God or who­ever dealt the cards in the first place’.

One in­ter­vie­wee, who goes by the pre­pos­ter­ous moniker Street Has­sle, is asked to sum up the Air­drie mu­sic scene in one word. He replies: ‘Point­less’. Here, as else­where in this book, the self-dep­re­ca­tion is mere de­flec­tion – the de­fault, pro­tec­tive dif­fi­dence of the earnest. He goes on to ar­tic­u­late, pow­er­fully and per­sua­sively, the at­trac­tion of punk and its de­riv­a­tive forms:

a lot of peo­ple that might have been do­ing some­thing else with their lives sud­denly re­alised they could get away with be­ing them­selves and still sur­vive or even thrive … punk was a way of ag­gran­dis­ing weird char­ac­ter traits and spe­cific tics and mak­ing lev­els of abil­ity in­ter­est­ing be­cause it got rid of any no­tion of a norm so ev­ery­thing be­came fas­ci­nat­ing and every fail­ure be­came a break­through …. th­ese back-room gigs and wha-out art-cen­tre shows and re­hearsal­room jams, which were like new routes to im­mor­tal­ity, man, like for a mo­ment everyone was be­at­i­fied or for­given…

The easy, anec­do­tal regis­ter of Keenan’s prose ren­ders it both re­al­is­tic and highly read­able. There are oc­ca­sional, play­ful for­ays into lo­cal di­alect (‘Do you even know what a plamf is? A plamf is some­body that sniffs dirty knick­ers.’) and bar-room bravado (‘I took off my gui­tar and fucked some­body right around the head with it.’). Every so of­ten we are treated to a de­light­fully on-point vis­ual de­scrip­tion. When a chap called Goosey is scalped – yes, scalped – dur­ing a brawl af­ter a gig, the nar­ra­tor re­mem­bers that ‘his head looked like a skinned beet­root’. A mo­ment of late-night ten­sion is ren­dered thus: ‘a split sec­ond where their moon faces were like a pair of empty brack­ets ( ) in a crime re­port or a Rus­sian novel’.

This Is Me­mo­rial De­vice may be read straight­for­wardly as a nos­tal­gic paean to the au­thor’s own youth. Its por­trait of raw, late-ado­les­cent zeal – of­ten mis­guided and mis­di­rected, but al­ways en­er­getic and earnest, a force of na­ture – tran­scends its so­cio-his­tor­i­cal con­text: ‘Back then,’ says one in­ter­vie­wee, ‘we were on the tip­ping point be­tween ter­ror and goad’. But its greater sig­nif­i­cance re­sides in its doc­u­ment­ing of a mode of cul­tural en­gage­ment that would be ren­dered nearly ob­so­lete within a cou­ple of decades. It is im­pos­si­ble for any­one over the age of 30 to read this highly en­ter­tain­ing novel with­out feel­ing a sense of dis­lo­ca­tion, and of re­gret – how­ever coun­ter­in­tu­itive, how­ever re­ac­tionary – for the pass­ing of an era in which cul­tural cap­i­tal was so pre­cious that you cher­ished every lit­tle bit you could get your hands on. Young mu­sic ob­ses­sives – my­self in­cluded – were once in the habit of com­pil­ing lists of our favourite al­bums, which we of­ten re­ferred to as our favourite al­bums ‘of all time’. The ca­sual hubris of that ‘of all time’ – equat­ing the forty-year stretch from Elvis un­til the 1990s, a mere blink of an eye in his­tor­i­cal terms, to all eter­nity – says so much about the solip­sis­tic, naive con­fi­dence of a gen­er­a­tion who took their sin­gu­lar­ity for granted, and ex­pe­ri­enced their her­itage as a long cul­tural mo­ment that would en­dure in per­pe­tu­ity.

It is, of course, point­less and fu­tile to dwell on the de­cline of gui­tar mu­sic per se; it will take its place in pos­ter­ity’s broad sweep of some­thing called pop­u­lar mu­sic. What mat­ters is the the to­tal trans­for­ma­tion of the ecol­ogy of cul­tural con­sump­tion, in par­tic­u­lar the de­cline of the ob­ject fetishism that drove our ear­li­est en­gage­ments with mu­sic and lit­er­a­ture alike. Never mind sniff­ing un­der­wear – one of Keenan’s char­ac­ters sniffs vinyl. This is what we are los­ing in a world of dig­i­tal su­per­abun­dance: the pe­cu­liar nu­mi­nos­ity in­vested in the phys­i­cal ob­ject by virtue of its con­no­ta­tional prop­er­ties, its prom­ise of ac­cess to some­thing tran­scen­dent; and the at­ten­dant sense of ur­gency, bor­der­ing on mania, that an­i­mates our search for mean­ing in a world of scarcity. But we have gained so much more in re­turn, and be­sides, our ir­re­press­ible im­pulses – cre­ative, crit­i­cal, so­cial and sex­ual – will find new out­lets, as they al­ways must.

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