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Kill Your Friends: good on music, sub-American Psycho story

John Niven‘s book, Kill Your Friends, is set in the music business at the height of Britpop. Niven knows what he’s talking about – he was an A&R man at the height of Britpop – and his protagonist’s rants about the music business, consumers and the general bovine stupidity of artists clearly come from experience. Pity the opening quote, Hunter S Thompson’s “cruel and shallow money trench” is a misquote (HST was talking about the TV business).

Kill your friendsHere’s the book blurb:

It’s not dog-eat-dog around here…it’s dog-gang-rapes-dog-then-tortures-him-for-five-days-before-burying-him-alive-and-taking-out-every-motherfucker-the-dog-has-ever-known. Meet Steven Stelfox. London 1997: New Labour is sweeping into power and Britpop is at its zenith. Twenty-seven-year-old A&R man Stelfox is slashing and burning his way through the music industry, a world where ‘no one knows anything’ and where careers are made and broken by chance and the fickle tastes of the general public – ‘Yeah, those animals’. Fuelled by greed and inhuman quantities of cocaine Stelfox, blithely criss-crosses the globe (‘New York, Cologne, Texas, Miami, Cannes: you shout at waiters and sign credit card slips and all that really changes is the quality of the porn’) searching for the next hit record amid a relentless orgy of self-gratification.

But as the hits dry up and the industry begins to change, Stelfox must take the notion of cutthroat business practices to murderous new levels in a desperate attempt to salvage his career.”Kill Your Friends” is a dark, satirical and hysterically funny evisceration of the record business, a place populated by frauds, charlatans and bluffers, where ambition is a higher currency than talent, and where it seems anything can be achieved – as long as you want it badly enough.

As a satire on the music industry, Kill Your Friends is pretty much peerless. (Real) A&R stupidity is mercilessly skewered, artists of all stripes get it in the neck and one particular rant, a Trainspotting-esque monologue about bands who want record deals, should be printed in 72-point type and nailed to the wall of every rehearsal room in the world. Some of the fictional artists are clearly drawn from real ones, like the self-indulgent drum’n’bass superstar and the band producing sub-Radiohead whiney nonsense, and many of the music business characters appear to be thinly disguised versions or composites of real-life characters.

As a novel, though, it isn’t great. Niven’s going for an American Psycho thing here, but American Psycho did it much better. You can’t help but think Niven should have written a memoir rather than a novel.