Rock fable that strikes chord as pure pop fiction: The Thrill of It All
Review: Joseph O’Connor has swapped his high style for a talky approach in this homage to rock’n’roll
The Thrill Of It All
Throughout, the Ships are the architects of their own setbacks: they botch crucial opportunities and lose their way in downtown New York sleaze before a five-star New York Times review provides a long-overdue catalyst (a wistful nod to the times when print press could break a band). But even as they are about to go global their spirits are corroded by the kind of on-the-road institutionalisation – travel, hotel, soundcheck, gig, booze, drugs – that ruins musicians. These are all standard tropes of the rock biog, but such cliches are true: the workmanlike guitarist will always butt heads with the charismatic pain-in-the-arse lead singer, and the troubled Byronic bohemian seems fated to transform himself into a litigious capitalist. And, in the end, bands always seem to row over the oldest one in the book: publishing money.
O’Connor clearly relishes incorporating pop scholarship into the dramatic arc, riffing on bloke-rock preoccupations – the beauty of an elegant arrangement, the economy and taste that are the true marks of great musicianship. The narrative voice replicates the rambling, score-settling tone of the musician’s memoir, suggesting a cross between James Fearnley’s Here Comes Everybody and Nick Kent’s Apathy for the Devil.
As a result The Thrill of It All probably won’t be remembered as one of O’Connor’s major works. The prose sometimes lacks the muscle and grandeur of his later books, and he can overegg the comic scenes. It is a fallible but likeable novel, a very analogue book – maybe the fictional equivalent of Bruce Springsteen or Neil Young doing a covers album in a garage. It is, more than anything, a valentine to that endangered species the rock’n’roll band, and a homage to the magic produced by humans playing music in a room:
I sat at the piano and played old, sweet chords and closed my eyes for a while. I found myself on Denmark Street near London’s Soho, a stretch long haunted by songwriters. Past a drinking den, a piano showroom, the 12 Bar Club, then a window full of saxophones – it always raises the heart – into an alley so narrow I could touch both walls simultaneously, before descending a rickety staircase, past a photographer’s premises, into a basement that reeks of pachouli and mothballs. Through the curtain is a second-hand musical instruments shop called Heavyweight Sounds. That’s where the chords chose to bring me.
The book shows its true soul in the last act. By 2012 Fran has become a Prince-like recluse and professional philanthropist. The other three Ships plot a reunion show. Here the story reveals itself as a tribute to the enduring comradeship of musicians. All families are dysfunctional, the book seems to say, and musicians are more dysfunctional than most, but they still forge fellowships that last a lifetime, and mean something.
Peter Murphy’s novels include John the Revelator.