1) Does the devil have the best tunes?
I reckon he has the ones you can dance to. If it makes your hips move, the devil had a hand there, at least in production. Plus I think the devil could make a decent go of EMO. Thwarted time and again, the devil is a king of self-pity, which would probably clean up with those teens who weren’t into anything danceable. So he’s got his bases covered pretty well. But then there’s gospel.
2) The gist of Stairway to Hell is that someone stole “souls from sparkling, famous people in the ’70s and put them in the dull, obscure ones” of your main characters. You’re basing this on the legend of David Bowie keeping urine in jars and Jimmy Page’s interest in the dark arts: “Jimmy Page and David Bowie going at it with spells and incantations and the like.” When did you first hear of this, are you a fan of Bowie or Led Zeppelin?
I’m a lifelong Bowie fan. My dad had his albums when I was a kid and I guess the tunes stuck. But he did change, no matter what anyone says. Post-Scary Monsters Bowie is post-Bowie, to me. Isn’t it telling that his first sell-out album was Let’s Dance, which sounds like an invitation from the devil, as defined above? Earlier Bowie was all about searching, thinking, playfulness, pratting around and pushing boundaries. I find it interesting that Bowie no longer understands where an album like Station to Station came from, and is a bit scared by it.
Even though Plant and Bonham were seen as local boys (in Worcestershire), Led Zeppelin totally passed me by as I grew up. They were enormous in the 70s, but their fame was mostly in the US, I think, and they were off the radar of a charts-oriented kid growing up in England. Saying that, they did the TOTP theme, so I guess it sank in somehow. I have grown to love their stuff a lot more gradually, and now I can see the kind of alchemy that was going on there. Hearing a song like ‘Dazed and Confused’ back at the time it was recorded, and being of a mind receptive to it, that must have been pretty compelling. But the devil is in there, oh yes!
I knew those guys were into Crowley and the occult, but first heard of the specific urine thing in Nicholas Pegg’s The Complete David Bowie, which I read in 2001 or so and have dipped into over the years because for some reason reading about Bowie’s life (pre Let’s Dance) inspires me to write. I thought the urine thing was preposterous, yet logical. If you suspect someone of wanting to get at you through magic, you protect your bodily residues. But I never really understood how flushing that urine down the toilet wasn’t a better idea. And if he kept his number ones in the fridge, what about number twos?
3) Is X Factor, as one of your characters say, a “vital component of the music industry…modern culture was already degraded, and the X Factor has simply wrapped itself around that”? Or is it, as another says, “the cancer that eats at the heart of popular music”? Has pop eaten itself?
That’s a hard one. Can I say both? Writing a book, you get to put both sides of any argument across and let the characters come to the truth. I’ve always been a shades-of-grey person and I always wished I could have black-and-white convictions, but I think you need the greys in writing. So I’ll pass and just say of the X Factor that it is encouraging a lot of people who really should not be encouraged, and entertaining a lot of people who are just looking for some fun on the telly. My kids (aged 10 and 7) love it, which says it all. I can’t watch it myself without feeling the onset of existential crisis after ten minutes or so. Except the audition stages. I will watch that. But that’s my love of delusional characters coming through.
4) Rik Suntan says, he’s “putting on the Ritz at a time when most of your chart acts can’t even put on a DHSS hostel.” Is Stairway to Hell a call for the return to the days when “songs were songs and singers were stars”? If so, who could possibly be the new Ziggy Stardust?
It’s more an elegy for those days. Rik wants to be a star in the way Cliff Richard was. He eschews the X Factor and believes he will succeed via the traditional route, starting off in clubs and the like. Yet he is one of those delusional X Factor contestants at the audition stage. His whole life is channelled towards becoming a star, yet the measures he has put in place to achieve that goal are just not going to do it. He has global ambitions but a small town outlook. Then this opportunity comes along, this ridiculous idea that he has the soul of a prime David Bowie inside him and it might be possible to reverse the magic and return his consciousness to the mid-70s, circa Ziggy Stardust. It is preposterous that a successful pop career can be achieved like that, by waving a magic wand. Oh, what are we talking about here? Black magic or the X Factor?
5) As well as your Royston Blake trilogy, you’ve written a short film. But, reading the lyrics to Rik Suntan’s ‘Toothbrushes’ (“Red like a rose / A toothbrush I chose / Which I superimposed / Up his nose”) I was thinking, have you ever considered a career in music?
As a student I used to try to compose these maudlin folkish tunes, accompanied with my guitar. They were shit, and I knew it. I was just trying to impress girls, I think, which is as good a reason to write music as any. But I couldn’t seem to latch onto what songwriting was all about. As a writer of fiction, I’m naturally interested in technical aspects like point of view, tense, linearity etc. You start applying that to songs and you’ll just dig yourself into a hole, which is what I did. Hence, perhaps, Rik’s lyric to the song ‘Moles’ in Stairway to Hell…
I am like a mole
Digging in my hole
It’s very sad in here
I would cry in my beer
If I was in a pub
But there is the rub
Cos I am just a mole
And I’m stuck in this hole
First posted: Monday, November 16th, 2009.