Kill Your Friends

nivenAs someone who makes their living from anticipating, from shaping, the tastes of millions of tasteless morons, you have to tell yourself that the things you feel are universal, that the things you think and feel are thought and felt by millions of other people.

The music industry has been written about to fucking death. The satires are forgettable because they are written by outsiders, and moralistic outsiders at that. Their efforts have the tang of sour grapes and bitter faces pressed against the glass.

John Niven’s satire is the first one I’ve read that works. Why? The first reason is the author’s background – Niven worked in the music industry for ten years, and Kill Your Friends is therefore filled with realistic economic and practical detail about how records are actually produced and sold.

The second reason is Niven’s narrator. Steven Stelfox is a great contemporary villain, an exploitative, sociopathic, coked-up abuser of himself and others. A duplicitous synthesis of Bruce Robertson, Patrick Bateman and John Self, he’ll undermine, frame and even murder his business rivals, and cares even less for the world and humanity outside A + R London. Proving once again that you don’t have to like a character to like a book, Stelfox’s narration ensures that Kill Your Friends makes compulsive reading, a one-sitting sprint. It’s genuinely nerve-wracking watching Stelfox’s spiral into professional failure and his last-minute plots to pull himself back from the edge.

The final reason – and this is genius – is Niven’s decision to set his book in 1997. I don’t know if this was because Niven was in the industry at that time, or if he was really going for a period piece novel – but it’s a masterstroke. Because most of the big acts in the late nineties are forgotten now it allows the reader to take a step back and realise how silly it all is and how low the stakes really are. Menswear, Jimmy Ray and D-Ream look ridiculous now but music lovers of 2017 are going to be mortified by our embrace of mediocrities like Coldplay and the Arctic Monkeys.

The device also allows Niven to paint Stelfox as a bumbling amateur even within his debased profession: ‘Some cunt from our American label has been dribbling on for a fortnight about the impending devastation the Internet will wreak on the music industry. I can’t see it myself.’ Still, he’s not alone: in the news ticker under one chapter heading we learn that ‘Steve Allen, an A + R guy at Warner Brothers, says, ‘I see her developing the way Madonna has. This is probably the dance album of the decade.’ He is talking about Gina G.’

Niven wears his influences on his sleeve. There’s the Batemanesque checklist of celebrities, brands and company names: more amusing here because he’s describing Cool Brittania morons at the Brit Awards. There’s loads of half-arsed social comment from Stelfox’s perspective of rightwing misanthropy but most of it shouldn’t have got past an editor – along with the great stretches of paragraphs about Stelfox’s stimulants and addictions: the phraseology is so much like Amis it’s unreal. Also, a few of the jokes are along the lines of: ‘He’s a lazy, brain-dead, cocaine addict…’ ‘So he could get the job?’… ‘Definitely’. Bdm-tsshh. And who didn’t guess where that award statuette would end up?

Yet these are minor flaws in a good book with a muscular narrative. As a debut novel Kill Your Friends is a triumph. And god knows there are a few bands today that could benefit from Steven Stelfox’s unique management style.

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One Response to “Kill Your Friends”

  1. Negotiating with the dead « Max Dunbar Says:

    […] (if Paul Morley is writing on a story, you can more or less assume its irrelevance) but John ‘Kill Your Friends’ Niven has an excellent piece that cuts through all the bullshit that has been said and written […]

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