D J Taylor’s novel take on golden years of pop
- Credit: Archant
Norfolk writer D J Taylor explores the rise and fall of a mega-selling rock band for his new novel, Rock and Roll is Life. He spoke to Trevor Heaton about a book that has proved a real labour of love.
It took all of 45 seconds for a young David Taylor to realise that maybe, just maybe, he wasn't cut out to be the voice of his generation.
Up on stage for the sixth form revue at Norwich School – 'It was the same day the Sex Pistols played Top of the Pops' – the Frick Pistols (name after one of the masters, a Mr Fricker) were busily speeding their way through a punk version of Wild Thing.
Lead singer David had just launched into his world-changing manifesto when he caught the disapproving eye of the headmaster glaring at him from the back of the hall. Suddenly, all that revolutionary zeal evaporated like summer mist on a hot day in Cromer.
And that was that it as far as David's fledgling musical career and that of his band ('the son of the Lord Mayor was on drums') was concerned.
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But now, 41 years on, the multi-award-winning biographer and writer gets to stake his claim in the rock'n'roll pantheon, not through his music but his words.
His latest novel, Rock and Roll is Life, tells the all-too-believable story of one-time rock giants the Helium Kids, 'always six months behind the Beatles and the Stones', through the eyes of their long-suffering press agent Nick Du Pont.
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It's an account of what happens when a fresh-faced and modestly-talented beat group finds itself swept up in the pop culture of the Sixties and Seventies - and so well observed you have to keep pinching yourself that the band do not exist outside David's imagination.
Mind you, there really was a Helium Kidz (with a z) in the early Seventies. It was the earliest incarnation of what became XTC – remember Making Plans for Nigel? – and seeking permission from band stalwart Andy Partridge was one of many similar conversations David had to have during the writing of his book. 'It was very closely read by the libel lawyers!' David laughs, for when you are weaving in real-life people into tales of rock 'excess all areas' you have to tread a little carefully.
He points to 'Flashman' creator George MacDonald Fraser for another mash-up of real and imaginary characters. 'He puts a very unreal person in a very real world,' he says.
David is not the first to go into imaginary band territory. The likes of The Rutles and Spinal Tap immediately come to mind, but where they were very much rooted in the world of parody, David prefers to keep his characters firmly on the ground. When they're not flying off in some pharmaceutically-induced journey, that is. So it's a novel, but reads – and utterly convincingly so – like a rock memoir.
It's also another departure for a writer who has never been afraid to explore new avenues. David, who is married to the best-selling novelist Rachel Hore, has had a career which has embraced biographies (his Orwell: A Life won the 2003 Whitbread prize) to journalism and literary criticism, but also to fiction, from the Victorian noir of Kept and Derby Day to the Thirties 'alternative history' of 2013's The Windsor Faction, his last novel.
And now here's Rock and Roll is Life – and it has been the easiest of them all to write. 'It was the most wonderful fun – it took me a year,' David said.
'I have always wanted to write about pop; I have always found it fascinating. And I think that good novels should always have a strong non-fiction background, and this is the kind of subject that appeals to people who aren't necessarily attracted to literary fiction.
'Popular music is a good way of reflecting how life was changing in the 1960s and 1970s,' he added.
Which explains why he has been hitting a rather different publicity circuit than his usual route of book festivals and book signings, with appearances lined up on radio station 6 Music, rock clubs, and even a Spotify playlist.
That playlist doesn't have any of the Kids' hits on it (how could it?) but so convincing is the world that David weaves through these pages – complete with reviews, album covers and snatches of lyrics – that you could be excused for wondering whether there really was a late-1967 hit song called Agamemnon's Mighty Sword, for example.
The story is told through the eyes of Norwich lad Du Pont, who grows up on a city estate, the fruit of a brief wartime liaison. 'He's basically a GI baby from the Norwich streets who succeeds by his cleverness,' David explains.
Winning a scholarship to Oxford – where David himself studied – Nick takes advantage of a cultural programme that takes him to the Deep South to cover the 1964 US presidential election.
There his life intersects (the first of several such intersections) with the politically-ambitious but dysfunctional Duchesne family. The author's description of the dusty roads and no-horse Hicksville towns of the South are, you feel, spot-on. All the more remarkable because David has never set foot there… but, then again, that's what good novelists do, isn't it?
Nick is abandoned in New York in January 1965, where he gets himself a job for a beat combo called Helium Kids, who are desperate to hang on the coat-tails of the British Invasion. Nick eventually works with them through thick and thin, from through the heady days of the psychedelic era, to the bloated era of the rock giants, the overblown years of prog, and the rattling-the-edifice days of 1977's punk explosion.
And weaving in and out of the plot is Nick's feckless, Micawber-like father, always on the cusp on the big, life-changing deal but somehow always just having moved on, leaving a trail of 'not known at this address' inquiries behind him.
The author explores what makes Garth, Dale Ian, Keith, Gary and 'poor, seahorse-faced' Florian break through to the big time, when they could so easily have sunk without trace.
It's a trail of right-place, right-time lucky breaks which result, in Nick du Pont's words 'the converting of these five – let us be honest – not terribly talented or good-looking or even averagely personable young people into a collective entity greater than the sum of its individual parts'. They had, of course, plenty of real-life equivalents, such as (insert name of some of the culprits here).
And of course there are disasters – some of them fatal and near-fatal – on the way. The fate of one of the characters [slight plot spoiler ahead] recalls that of the unfortunate Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones.
Another clever touch is interweaving rock journalism from the likes of David Hepworth and Charles Shaar Murray – or, rather, what they might have written, had the Kids been real. Again, the author has had to gain their permission to do this.
The magical year of 1967 is a key moment in the book. 'Everything's changing, every couple of months,' David said. 'It must have been so exciting to be around then.'
The novel explores the band's successes and failures, the betrayals and the shady deals, the mistakes and the bad decisions, such as not playing Woodstock. ('Led Zeppelin also didn't play, and the Helium Kids would have been like them.')
As well as his spot-on observations of the music scene, David also dissects the many chancers and hangers-on of the era. 'People were a lot posher than they pretended to be,' he said. And the band's fearsome manager Don Shard has more than a whiff of Led Zep's Peter Grant and Small Faces' Don Arden about him. His 'obituary' at the end of the book even includes a tribute from Ronnie Kray ('You didn't want to mess with old Donny.')
The book has a superb sense of time and place, without ever resorting to the lazy touchstones of 'Carnaby Street and Flower Power'. It all combines, as narrator Nick says, 'to produce the one true sensation that I brought away from the sixties – the feeling that, for better or worse, you were living in a piece of performance art.'
Although David has eschewed the playing-for-laughs approach of the Spinal Tap, that's not to say there isn't plenty of humour, especially if you know your pop references ('I have slipped in lots of Steely Dan links').
There's a hilarious section where Nick tries to push no-hope acts such as Wolverhampton bad boys the Fiery Orbs – he gets a £300 bonus when the NME runs a headline MUST WE FLING THIS FILTH AT OUR POP KIDS? – and 'a second Lulu', the Dundee chanteuse Moyra McKechnie.
And later on it's hard not to have a soft spot for Helium Kids' drummer Keith, who gets his kicks – apart from drugs, that is – by making Airfix kits.
Local readers will welcome the Norfolk setting which book-ends the novel. Was David tempted to locate Nick, as so many other writers would have done, in some London suburb instead? 'No – Norwich is where the heart of the novel is,' he said. 'I always end up thinking about here – Norfolk, and especially Norwich, has a great fascination for me.'
As for his own musical tastes, 'my favourite band in the history of the world is Magazine, with the Jam a close second. And of the Helium Kids' era, oh – Beatles, Small Faces, early Soft Machine…'
He can trace his own musical epiphany to seeing Slade on Top of the Pops in 1971. 'I thought: 'This is good!'.'
His father John, who later became a much-loved broadcaster on Radio Norfolk, was not so sure. 'I can still remember my father complaining about The Beatles,' David recalled. 'As far as he was concerned Elvis had 'ruined everything'.'
That said, John Taylor was open-minded enough to include Beatles' music in the family's record collection. 'He didn't like the music, but knew how culturally important they had become.'
David recalls that pre-internet age when the music press and late-night radio was practically the only way you could find out about new music. 'You would buy an album and you would read every sentence. But these days the kids are interested in the song, not the band.'
David's next project is a book for an American publisher following the story of George Orwell's 1984 over the 70 years since its publication. But he has also left room for a sequel to Rock and Roll is Life one day ('It would be quite fun to take it forward seven or eight years,' he says.)
And I have a feeling that the Helium Kids could end up having an unexpected life of their own. Stranger things have happened – after all, this is pop, yeah yeah…
Rock and Roll is Life: The True Story of the Helium Kids by One Who Was There, by D J Taylor, is published by Constable, £18.99. David and Rachel will be talking about their latest books at Aylsham Town Hall on June 20 (6.30pm for 7pm). Tickets from the Book Hive in Norwich (01603 219268 or firstname.lastname@example.org).