Irish anarchy in the UK: music’s role in Joseph O’Connor’s The Thrill of it All
Anthony Roche of UCD traces the various musical traditions and acts, from Elvis to Phil Chevron via the Rolling Stones and Patti Smith, which drive and enliven the narrative
Philip Chevron of Radiators From Space live at the Roundhouse in London, 1977: the true musical hero of The Thrill of it All, to whom it is dedicated. Photograph: Denis O’Regan/Getty Images
Roxy Music in 1972: The novel derives its title from Roxy’s The Thrill of it All, a song which opened the group’s fourth album, 1974’s Country Life, became a cornerstone of their live act and is poised at the moment when early Roxy Music is about to become later. Photograph: Brian Cooke/Redferns
The last great revolution in English popular music, arguably, came with the arrival of punk music in the late 1970s, defined most of all by the barbaric yawp of Johnny Rotten (seen here in 1978) on the Sex Pistols’ first single, Anarchy in the UK. What is so extraordinary about punk music in retrospect is how many of its members were English-born members of diasporic Irish families. Photograph: Richard E Aaron/Redferns
Music has always bubbled under the surface of Joseph O’Connor’s novels, surfacing from time to time to clarify and deepen the emotion of a scene or character. But in The Thrill of it All, popular music powers the engine of the narrative throughout. The novel is cast in the form of a memoir, as Robbie/Robert Goulding remembers back from the present of 2012 to the days of his misspent youth in the 1980s. These memories recall his Irish family, the wonderfully irascible father Jimmy, the peacemaking mother and his brother Shay. But this is not just any kind of memoir. This is a rock memoir. In it the founding, development, breakup and one-off reunion of rock band the Ships is recalled, primarily through Robbie’s first-person narration but also through interviews with the other three band members.
For all that he has sought to distance himself from it through alcohol and living on his own, that group experience has been the pearl of great price in Robbie’s life. The book, studded as it is with references to groups, song titles and lyrics, from the 1950s on, is also a memoir of the popular music that has meant most to both Robbie Goulding and his creator.
In The Thrill of it All, 1950s rock ‘n’ roll is a shared legacy between the generations. During a late-night barney between Robbie and his father, Jimmy can still fire off a knowing reference to Elvis Presley’s Mephistophelean manager: ‘Who did I think I was? Colonel Tom fukken Parker?’ (p90) (Robbie has been trying to hire a drummer for the group and the Goulding home has been bombarded in his absence by phonecalls from prospective Ringos.) But as Robbie indicates later in the novel: ‘I will always be a loyal and loving subject of the King’(p198). When Robbie and his musical co-conspirator Fran Mulvey make their musical debut on the public streets, they do so by charging through a full-on version of Elvis’s Blue Suede Shoes.
It was in relation to the popular music of the 1960s that the generations sundered irrevocably. The length of the hair and the sound made by the Beatles proved unacceptable to our fathers’ generation and were usually treated with derision. Family feuds centred on the Thursday night ritual for younger members of BBC TV’s Top of the Pops. As the novel memorably puts it: ‘If you’re a music lover of my era, Top of the Pops was your childhood salvation.’ (p200) The Beatles and the Rolling Stones are important touchstones for the Ships. A late Beatles masterpiece, A Day in the Life, gives Part Two of the book its (sub)title and is invoked as the novel itself comes to a close. The key Stones reference is to the fraught, sibling-like relationship between Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. Fran Mulvey is introduced on the opening page by Robbie as “my forner glimmertwin”. The coinage surfaces several times before being defined as “a blood brother, an ally, a lifelong friend” and explicitly identified as being from ’“The Glimmer Twins”, collective nom de guerre of M’luds Jagger and Richards.’ (p124)
The bond between Robbie and Fran is at the heart of the novel: Fran is obviously the front-stage mike-grabber, mouthy and cross-dressing, while Robbie lays down the essential groove behind him; and the sundering of the two goes through the book like a faultline. For the Ships’ drummer, Seán Sherlock, the Stones’ drummer Charlie Watts ‘could drum’ (p114). But the god of rock drummers for Seán is Keith Moon, the powerhouse of that other great 1960s group, the Who.
All of these bands are English. The Thrill of it All is set, not in Ireland, but in England, in the London suburb of Luton, so the book’s music inclines towards the UK rather than the US. But the same would have been true for most musically-inclined Dublin southsiders: the popular music from England, the proximity of the raw energy and exhilarating sound of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and their successors, was a liberating force in the Ireland of the time.
The two great presences from the early 1970s, Roxy Music and David Bowie, not only contribute to the group’s music but to the sartorial gender-bending of its lead singer. Each of Fran’s stage appearances is more visually outrageous than the one before, as the sexually ambiguous singer decks himself out in full make up and second-hand store drag. Where the Stones dipped into drag, Bowie and early Roxy embraced it more fully during the era of glam rock. Before he will sign up Seán as drummer, Fran submits him to a searching musical interrogation, a key double-hinged question posed on page 117: ‘Early Roxy Music? Magnificent beyond words. Later Roxy Music? Hmm.’ The novel derives its title from Roxy’s The Thrill of it All, a song which opened the group’s fourth album, 1974’s Country Life, became a corner-stone of their live act and is poised at the moment when early Roxy Music is about to become later. It’s an overlooked masterpiece and a fine template for an aspirant rock band, with the same driving force and hypnotic intensity as David Bowie’s Heroes. A far cry from the crooner and sedate backing band Brian Ferry and Roxy became.
The music of the late 1970s and early 1980s is the most important for the novel’s cast of characters and their hybrid identities. All four band members have an Irish aspect to their identity. The twins, Trez and Seán Sherlock, are London-born and bred and have never been to Ireland; but their mother is from Sallynoggin in south Co Dublin. Robbie was born in Ireland but the family emigrated to Luton when he was a youngster. Nothing can match the hybrid exoticism of Fran Mulvey. A Vietnamese orphan, he was brought to England and raised in Yorkshire by Irish foster parents.
The last great revolution in English popular music, arguably, came with the arrival of punk music in the late 1970s, defined most of all by the barbaric yawp of Johnny Rotten on the Sex Pistols’ first single, Anarchy in the UK. What is so extraordinary about punk music in retrospect is how many of its members were English-born members of diasporic Irish families: Johnny Rotten/John Lydon; Elvis Costello/Declan McManus; Jah Wobble/John Joseph Wardle; not just Morrissey of the Smiths but guitarist Johnny Marr (Maher); and Boy George/George O’Dowd, as commited to gay sexuality and mix and match crossdressing as the novel’s singer. In an interview, Fran is quick (too quick?) to downplay the Irish-English connection but when he first encounters Robbie, the exchange is conducted through the secret code of the Irish language. What Fran seems to be rejecting is the old binary of the “Ireland-versus-Britain thing” (p169) in favour of the true global democracy of rock music.
Are there no Irish bands and musicians in The Thrill of it All? Au contraire. Rory Gallagher’s Stratocaster gets an early namecheck. A young Robbie Goulding has travelled to central London to see the magnificent Phil Lynnott in a Thin Lizzy concert. Geldof is there for his music, not his mouth. There are, of course, references to U2. But the true musical hero of The Thrill of it All is the late Philip Chevron, to whom it is dedicated. Philip was a central member of Dublin’s Radiators from Space, a band who surfaced at the same time as U2 but never enjoyed more than a cult following. When Robbie meets their cello-playing bandmate Trez in a college tutorial, his heart is forever intertwined with hers when he reads the tattoo on her arm: ‘”Million dollar hero in a five and ten cents store”, a line from a song by my favourite band of the era, the magnificent Radiators from Space’ (p63). Philip Chevron surfaces at several key points: to produce the Ships’ first single and to join them as a special guest in their 2012 reunion concert in Vicar Street, the year before the real-life Philip Chevron died.
On the surface, the musicians identified with are male, whether straight, gay or bi-. But the band comes to feature a female member in Trez, with whom Robbie enjoys a lifetime of unfulfilled romantic yearning worthy of WB Yeats and Maud Gonne. And there is always behind everything two great New York musical forces: the Velvet Underground, who had a female drummer and the singer Nico on whom Fran models himself, not to mention the Lou Reed who in the 1970s advocated taking a walk on the wild side. Above all there is Patti Smith, poet and musisician, female and androgyne, the iconic figure on the black and white Robert Mapplethorpe photo, and as much an inspirational muse to Robbie Goulding as Trez Sherlock. She is the heart of the novel, its truest inspiration.
The Thrill of it All rocks.
Anthony Roche is a professor in the School of English, Drama and Film at University College Dublin. His book on The Irish Dramatic Revival 1899-1939 was published earlier this year by Bloomsbury/Methuen
The series will culminate with a podcast of Joseph O’Connor in conversation with Martin Doyle, Anna Carey and Sorcha Hamilton, which will be pre-recorded in front of a live audience in association with the Irish Writers Centre, Parnell Square, on Wednesday, September 2nd, at 7.30pm. The recording will be followed by a Q&A and there wilbe live music. Admission €5, €3 concessions, to include a glass of wine. http://irishwriterscentre.ie/