“It’s not easy being Iggy Pop in Airdrie.” So says a character in David Keenan’s 2017 novel This Is Memorial Device: An Hallucinated Oral History of the Post-Punk Music Scene in Airdrie, Coatbridge and Environs 1978-1986. And it wasn’t easy being Siouxsie Sioux in Dundalk, or Alan Vega in Kilkenny. It certainly wasn’t straightforward to be Johnny Thunders in Larne. It took belief, bravery and commitment. But such local heroes did exist and you might well remember them. In fact, you might well have been one of them. “That’s why people fell love with This Is Memorial Device,” ex-musician, record shop owner and music journalist Keenan says. “Because it trades on memories of every small town we grew up in.”
The novel, about a legendary post-punk group called Memorial Device, is a celebratory, affirmative story about making art in a small town. It’s a type of fabricated documentary fiction and it presents a series of first-person eyewitness accounts in a series of kaleidoscopic, subjective takes on a particular time and place. Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon said she wanted to live in the book as it raced along. Lisa McInerney found it “savage and tender and poignant and mad”. Rather than small-town life being restrictive and boring, the opposite is suggested. There’s energy, spirit and imagination.
This Is Memorial Device just felt real. Partly that was because of the narrative method, the documentary oral history style. But there were other contributing elements too. The cover, a blurred, grainy photo of four young boys in a woodland waste ground, seemed to have a real veracity. It wasn’t something lifted from a stock photo library. And then there were the supporting texts. Fans could get an “exact repro reprint” of the Airdrie fanzine Go Ahead and Drop the Bomb’s special Memorial Device memorial edition, featuring interviews with the band. It was, as you would want, xeroxed and gloriously amateur. Keenan produced a black-and-white photo essay for The Wire magazine, involving a series of scenes relating to the novel: images of flats, doors, woodland, graveyards, fields with pylons, secret paths. Text accompanying a photo of Benny’s chip shop explains that this was a regular hangout spot for headcases and troublemakers and underage drinkers looking to get into it: “Local punk Street Hassle, who is interviewed in chapter 21 of This Is Memorial Device, lived in the flat just above the fish & chips sign.”
In short, it was not difficult to be a believer. And of course most importantly, and as Keenan said, the book tapped in to others’ experiences of similar post-punk scenes, in Dundalk or Kilkenny or Larne. I thought about the apprentice electrician who lived near my gran and who got on the bus with his 16-pleat Bowie trousers, his eyeliner and wedge cut, and how, if he had been visiting a relative in Coatbridge, he could have joined one of the bands in the book.
Having people think a text is real is a special achievement, a testament to its degree of verisimilitude. Keenan has said that he wants his books to form a relationship with the reader, to be alive. In a sense, all writing co-opts the reader into creating meaning. We bring our own thoughts, feelings and experiences and deposit them into the story where we can. Yet This Is Memorial Device is an example of the world of a novel becoming something greater than the individual’s response to the text.
For a start, there are numerous Spotify playlists, featuring music suggested by the novel, some running for up to 10 hours. There’s a Memorial Device T-shirt, for a band that didn’t exist, or didn’t originally exist. There are pin badges. There are songs named Memorial Device after the band, such as one by Group Zero on the Belfast label Touch Sensitive. The website Louder Than War ran a detailed and extensive record review by Bobby Gant. Quite incredibly, it was about one of the rarest EPs in the world — the fabled Mushroom Giro Scene from, you’ve guessed it, Memorial Device. It mysteriously arrived in a package at his house. Gant wrote of a grey zone “where fiction and reality merge, make love and spawn something beautiful that operates across realms and means many different things to different people”. He noted that the Memorial Device community engaged with the piece in various different ways. One person queried what was happening; was Memorial Device not David Keenan’s fictional account of the period? Someone else wanted to know where to buy the EP, while others created stories about their favourite Memorial Device gig. And so, as Gant says, “the legend grows and another world is created”.
Another dimension is the Memorial Device Twitter account. Running since 2018, it now has over 30,000 followers. Operating independently from writer and publisher, it creates a differently textured world of memory and experience. It’s a testament to times past and therefore another type of memorial device. There is the MD guide to the top 40 smells of your youth. These include Vosene shampoo, Carmen heated rollers, the caps from a cap gun and, rightly in the number one spot, the dust on the first autumn light-up of an electric fire. Now that’s poetry. There’s the MD guide to the 40 ornaments of youth: Capodimonte porcelain figures, little glass animals, wooden gazelles. Yet it’s not simply a rosy, comforting trip down memory lane. Political commentary is just as likely. And then there are the MD alternative national treasures, where people whose sensibility in some way reflects that of Memorial Device are conferred with treasure status. Although they might be famous, such as Johan Cruyff or Russell T Davies, they are just as likely to be not. They could be a teacher, a carer, an electrician. Most of all, this iteration of Memorial Device is a brilliant, supportive community.
A further manifestation of Memorial Device is as a play presented by the Royal Lyceum Theatre at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, running from August 13th to 29th. The book has been adapted for stage by Graham Eatrough, who also adapted Alasdair Gray’s novel Lanark for the Royal Lyceum. It stars Paul Higgins (The Thick of It, Utopia, Line of Duty) as Ross Raymond, and encompasses live action, filmed and audio performance. The music is by the legendary Stephen Pastel from The Pastels and it takes place in Edinburgh’s Wee Red Bar, a venue where Memorial Device may or may not have played.
Since this first published book, Keenan has written For the Good Times, set in 1970s Ardoyne and winner of the Gordon Burn Prize, the otherworldly Xstabeth, and the complex, hallucinatory reading experience Monument Maker. His next novel, due to be published in late August, is The Industry of Magic and Light. A prequel to This Is Memorial Device, and set in Airdrie in the 1960s and early 1970s, it centres on a group of hippies running their own psychedelic light show. The first half of the book is an inventory of the contents of a caravan abandoned by one of the hippies and the second is in the form of a tarot card reading. It again brings to life — unsneeringly, joyfully — working class towns as transformational places full of possibility. Already a huge, detailed A2 poster is available, a David Keenan and Lindsay Hutton-produced rock family tree entitled A Necessarily Incomplete Attempt to Map the Extent of the Music Scene in Airdrie, Coatbridge and Environs 1957 — 1986. The Memorial Device world has again expanded, and the readers will extend it further still, in all sorts of unforeseen ways.
This Is Memorial Device is at the Royal Lyceum Theatre in Edinburgh from August 13-29