From Don DeLillo's Great Jones Street to Iain Banks's Espedair Street, the rock'n'roll novel is a tricky beast. Rock fables tend to favour one of two templates: the Icarus myth (the stuff of breathless 1970s rocksploitation paperbacks and biopics) or beautiful loser bar-room blues (Roddy Doyle's The Commitments and Thomas Cobb's Crazy Heart). Joseph O'Connor's eighth full-length novel, The Thrill of It All, braids both templates. Its protagonists seek to gain the world without losing their souls. Chastened by time, they end up calling a draw with the fates.
The book takes the form of a fictional autobiography, that of Robbie Goulding, a Luton-born second-generation Irish guitarist with Ships in the Night. They are the kind of mongrel arty rock band who could only have hit big in the 1980s, a cultural interzone where punk had fragmented and cheesecloth "rockist" stalwarts still rubbed shoulders with new romantics and pop theorists. It was also a time when pop stars had attitude and political teeth, when musicians aspired to something more than a career in the leisure industry, and when music had a function other than as an advertising jingle or ringtone loop.
Stylewise the new book signals O'Connor's return to the fizzy tone of his journalism and early novels, incorporating diary entries, interviews, reviews and memos. It is as if, having transformed himself into a heavyweight novelist by dint of the scholarly graft required to produce work on the scale of Star of the Sea or Redemption Falls (or the underrated chamber piece Ghost Light), he now fancies a bit of fun, swapping the high style of those period epics for a talky first-person narrative. It is pure pop fiction, as if the boys (and they are predominantly boys) from Q or Mojo took to channelling Nick Hornby or Tony Parsons.
Except The Thrill of It All is a darker tale than it first appears. This is apostolic fiction, Robbie's testimony for his teenage glimmer twin and songwriting pal Fran Mulvey, a Vietnamese refugee raised in Thatcher's Britain. You'll recognise Fran immediately: gifted, self-destructive, eloquent, androgynous, outrageous, a Velvet Goldmine urchin with Richey Manic's IQ, Morrissey's gob and Peter Perrett's poise:
He was beautiful even then, before he'd grown into his beauty, scrawny and kissable, like some teenagers are, a ragged organza scarf around his throat on a wintry morning, a Judy Garland bonnet on his head. In all my life I never encountered a thinner individual. You'd have seen more fat on a chip . . . On his long slim fingers were profusions of rings, scavengings from the junk shops of the town. He turned the pages of a book as though someone was watching, which most of the time someone was. There was an oldness about him. His eyes were cold lakes.
Together Fran and Robbie form the Ships, a band with no clear vision of what they want to do, too eclectic for their own good, but somehow they come good through dumb luck and perseverance. In these early chapters O’Connor nails the squalidness of the pop coalface: scuzzy rehearsal rooms, no-budget tours, cramped vans, sparsely attended gigs, indifferent audiences, and squabbles, allegiances and betrayals.
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.