Wednesday, April 22, 2009

John Niven's 'Kill Your Friends'

In his terrific barbed-wire of a book Kill Your Friends - about the serpentine pathways that must be negotiated by execs in the music industry - John Niven introduces us to his main character, an A&R exec called Steven Stelfox with these words.

"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 f***** - you wouldn't last ten minutes."

It is easily the most genial and cordial thing Steven says in the entire book.

In fact, Steven is an acidic mess of a man. Often sloshed and coked up, He acknowledges his lack of talent, but is so disparaging of the music business that he believes he is working well below his station of calling - which really should be Head of A&R at his (fictitous) label.

In one early scene, Steven is in a status update meeting with other execs at the label. A&R (Artists and Repertoire) primarily handles artist discovery and development. Rapidly Steven introduces us to his colleagues - he paints each one as a loser. He's particularly scathing on women, a behaviorial trait that often gives the book hilarious and shocking hues.

Later Niven writes a hilarious scene in which Steven is at Cannes and listening to a single produced by a German producer. It has wildly NC-17 lyrics, but the tune is ridiculously catchy. As Steven thinks his way through the pros and cons of buying the single - and subsequent marketing strategy - we get an insight into the making of a very (manufactured) hit.

Delving into Steven's mind is a technique Niven uses to great effect throughout the book. He's particularly adept at describing the blur that is Steven's life. And these descriptions are very immersive - they transport you right out of the book and into Steven's frenzied world.

Around the end of the first third, the book starts to drag just a little - primarily because Steven's cultivated dementedness begins to wear thin. But with near perfect timing, Niven has Steven indulge in an act that takes you by surprise and instantly gives the book a loose but propulsive plot.

Musical celebrities are interwoven into the fiction in this book. Each chapter describes the events of a month. Its prefaced with a summary of significant events that occured in music history - allowing the fiction to take root in the real world, and also giving us period markers.

May starts like this (links inserted by me).

"Spice Girls do massive Pepsi deal. Lots of interest in Ultrasound now. The Jamiroquai LP goes triple platinum. Audioweb's single 'Faker' charts at 70. Deconstruction signs this girl singer called Sylvia Powell...."

There are lot of details woven into Niven's story. We get great insights into how talent is scouted, coaxed, cajoled and "discovered". In a deeply amusing and interesting story arc, Steven develops a girl band with virtually no talent in the hope that they can ride post-Spice Girls Girl Power to a multiplatinum hit. One fascinating section has Steven talking about the amount of cash it takes to maintain his lifestyle.

There was one overriding concern I had while reading this book - that the central protagonists' personality would end up overpowering the story itself. Magically it doesn't happen - and 'Kill Your Friends' ends up being one hugely entertaining read of lasting impact.

Kill Your Friends: A Novel is available in the US from Harper Perrenial, a paperback imprint of Harper Collins that focusses on new and young writers.

16 comments:

Anonymous said...

good review. will put it on my next to read. Just wonder how people would react to the title if you are reading this on a commuter train!!

meena said...

hey Aspi I was looking for some reads and this is timely. I have become very picky of late (causing a lot of withdrawals in a compulsive reader) I have only so much time to read :(
I know you were always interested in the workings of the music industry, is that why you picked up this book? just curious

Anon I do most of my reading on the train as well so let's see :)

Aspi said...

Yes, absolutely. But I also have the following criteria for picking books (I'm hugely picky as well).

Fiction
I read the beginning - if it grabs me great otherwise I put it down. This technique applies only to discovery. If a book gets a great review, I'll read it regardless.

Non-fiction
I read two batches of three pages each at random. If I learn five new things from the two batches - I'll read the book. Otherwise I dump it.

musical said...

Will definitely check it out, sounds like a great subject. Thanks for the review!

Anon and Meena, i do most of my reading on Public transport as well :).

Aspi, ah, books and great reviews :). It depends on who wrote the review, and how the review was written, to entice me into buying a book. My attachment to a book too depends on how well it starts. But regardless of that, i usually get myself to finish a book anyway, hoping to find something better, more gripping.....Though, this works only for fiction. I am less forgiving/adventurous with non-fiction. I remember reading a psychology book: the subject was great, but the writing style stressed me out, totally! I couldn't get past the 10th page :(. I need to get to it again.

It might sound strange, but small print is a huge turn off for me!

Unrelated question: Have you read "Sea of poppies" yet? If yes, please share what you thought of it.

meena said...

Musical, I read the sea of poppies. It was a surprisingly pleasant read though not very impactful. Language is the only thing that struck me enough. Characters and plot were ok but not memorable. for a geeky reader of historical fiction very good period detail. It is the first of a trilogy - will read the others when they come out.

Aspi said...

I haven't read anything by an indian author in *ages*

The age of South Asian momentum in the US publishing industry has passed.

New trend: zombifying everything. I'm dying to read this book.

meena said...

how do you find this stuff!...*falls off chair laughing*

Anonymous said...

OMG this is the funniest thing, I just suggested this book to you on FB, without reading your comments, you should read it Aspi it is really hilarious, I think it will be right up your alley. Actually, I am looking forward dot hearing your comments about it would have to hold on to the chair, to prevent falling..

Aspi said...

ANon, I need to read that book anyway. But I'm not buying it - not enough shelf space. Need to look for it in the library.

Mind Rush said...

Drift saab, missing you!

Mind Rush said...

When are you doing the next blog post??

Hundgryfor Aspi's Pen said...

Sir Ji - Badi Der Bhai blog update Ko !

Anonymous said...

This is off topic. But since Judge Javed is such a Drift favorite, I thought you all would enjoy this picture. I think his expression is consistent with the gesture.

-- Texan

Anonymous said...

Musical, I highly recommend "Sea of Poppies". Yes, I am history buff (geek?). The story and plot are quite gripping and sufficiently grounded in real history. The only weakness was the way the story ended abruptly. Still a great read.

-- Texan

Aspi said...

Sorry about the lack of posts, but my net connection (not to mention the laptop) here in Vadodara is so dang slow that I can't do any useless work at all!

Texan, thanks for the link. I saw that on TV and fell off my chair laughing. I was going to look for a pic of the same. Finally, JJ gets to stick it to everyone - and not have to worry about the repercussions :)

Anonymous said...

I am sure Aspi, your fingers must be itching, hopefully we will have 'oceans of post' once you are back. Enjoy your time not writing and thank the internet for the change :o))