Some music books are deadly dull. Lists of tour dates, the minutiae of recording sessions, esoterica that might weary even a devoted fan. And then there are those rare music biographies so good they have the power and pull of great literature. Hellfire, Nick Tosches’ sublime biography of Jerry Lee Lewis, is one such. It’s so full of Faulknerian majesty, it doesn’t much matter whether you know Jerry Lee’s music or not.
Ten Thousand Apologies will appeal to fans of Fat White Family and anyone with an appetite for hi-octane carnage. Featuring a “chaotic, intoxicated and unruly cast” centred on Lias and Nathan Saoudi and Saul Adamczewski, it takes us through various incarnations of the “drug band with a music problem”, the gang who soundtracked a “grubby Britain of vape shops, Fray Bentos dinners and blackened tinfoil”.
You want it, you got it: fights, squalor, GG Allin onstage activity. There’s illness, defecating into Tesco bags, rehab in Mexico, filthy south London squats plus Lias smearing himself in I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter before a show in Texas. Even a stay in the Catskills involves a sheet of acid and breaking into Yoko Ono’s bedroom.
Tragi-comic scenes of opulent, epic mess saturate the pages. But don’t imagine this book is just for fans and/or those into all-you-can-eat dissolution and excess. It’s so much more than that.
Adelle Stripe’s novel Black Teeth and a Brilliant Smile, inspired by the Bradford playwright Andrea Dunbar, was shortlisted for the Gordon Burn and the Portico prizes. She is a master at giving real-life novelistic momentum and shape without anything seeming forced or schematic, and she brings sharp perspicacity to every scene. Stripe’s narrative is intercut with funny, eloquent and self-deprecating first-person accounts from Lias Saoudi, who contributed a great essay to the anthology New Frontier: Reflections from the Irish Border.
We learn of the Cookstown experience. Yes! That’s where the Saoudi brothers spent their teenage years after their mother remarried. Lias, bullied and ostracised because of his Algerian father, notes how the schoolkids were “politicised to a comical degree, their schoolbooks adorned with anatomically proficient renderings of British Bulldogs”.
The schoolboy him makes a correlation between Algeria and Northern Ireland: there was even less to fight over in the Djurdjura mountains than in Co Tyrone, but in both locales there were men with guns and checkpoints. Both “hummed with destruction and paranoia”. When the family move to Dungannon, he takes up a part-time job that proves motivational: “There was no greater incentive for Lias than the threat of a future in Dungannon Meats.” Next stop: Slade School of Art.
Ten Thousand Apologies includes a handful of women, the most compelling being the brothers’ mother, Michelle, who met their father, Bashir, in a Huddersfield nightclub, where she often spent weekends dancing before clocking in for an early shift at a textile mill. From that first meeting under a mirrorball to her much later giving Mark E Smith of The Fall a piece of her mind backstage at a festival, Michelle is a spiky, stubborn and compelling presence, with brilliant shades of Dunbar.
But really, this book deals more with men and other men. Observing his relationship with his father, Saoudi says emotional vocabularies do not correspond and that as a result, certain conversations are like “attempting to weld Lego to Meccano”. Male friendship is described in terms of serial monogamy, one partner in crime being our very own Rob Doyle.
Central to things is the fractious, complicated relationship between Lias and Saul: “The defining relationship of my youth at least has been with Saul . . . There was a natural affinity between us like no other and an unspoken sense of that bond as something durable in the extreme; despite the respective shadiness of both of our characters.”
It is, however, in the beautiful section addressed to Dale Barclay, the Glaswegian frontman of the Amazing Snakeheads and occasional live guitarist for Fat White Family who died from cancer at 32, that there is the most unalloyed tenderness.
Fat White Family have had, Stripe writes, a career defined by “collapsing masculinity, pound-shop shamanism, provocation, wanton violence, radical empathy, narcissism, hog-like indulgence”.They are also, in a sanitised world, possibly a little out of kilter in their devotion to the irresponsible genre that is rock’n’roll.
Saoudi’s description of The Fall can also apply to his own band, and to this book: “a glorious indictment of the banality you swallow everywhere else”.