The Undercover Soundtrack is a series where I host a writer who uses music as part of their creative life – perhaps to connect with a character, populate a mysterious place, or hold a moment still to explore its depths. This week my guest is returning for a second spin – Guy Mankowski @GMankow
Soundtrack by Aleka’s Attic, Nirvana, Babes In Toyland, Hole, Bratmobile, PJ Harvey, Placebo, Manic Street Preachers, Smashing Pumpkins, Oasis, Ocean Colour Scene, Pulp, Alice Deejay, Whigfield, Greenday, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Llama Farmers
The band that best sums up the mood of my fifth novel, Dead Rock Stars, is the late actor River Phoenix’s band, Aleka’s Attic (here’s their song Where I’d Gone). So much so that I named a character in tribute to him.
My novel is set over the course of a wild summer in which a teenage boy (Jeff) comes to terms with the mysterious death of his older sister, Emma, who was a rising star on the 90s Camden music scene. As his summer unspools and becomes wilder and wilder and he learns about first love it is his sister’s diary that guides him through his coming-of-age experiences. I think River Phoenix’s band perfectly captures the mood of the novel, with the warmth and experimentalism of 90s music in which earnest social messages were often filtered through well-meaning- and often very abstract – lyrics.
As well as River Phoenix, an artist who looms pretty large over the novel is Kurt Cobain. One of Emma’s pivotal pieces of advice to Jeff is to never trust people who don’t like Nirvana. When Emma meets the brooding, already-famous musician Adam it is in performing About A Girl to him that she asserts herself as a musician.
As a former singer and guitarist in various shortlived bands, I first learnt to play guitar using this song. The novel is a great deal about young, frustrated artists trying to find a way to express their voice and impress themselves upon the world and it reminded me of when, like Emma, I learnt to play Nirvana’s Unplugged In New York. It was a great album in terms of emotional range and you could really express yourself through playing those tracks but it also had that punk sensibility to it – it isn’t technically complex.
The novel is deeply steeped in the 90s, not purely for nostalgic reasons (though I recently found myself watching many Winona Ryder films and missing slightly simpler times). But more because it was an era in which there was a naïve sense of hopefulness. One thing that fascinates me about the 90s is all the rich music scenes that popped up, when in the UK music weeklies had a monopoly on who was deemed cool and successful. Emma is hugely influenced by the Kinderwhore scene, associated with acts like Babes in Toyland (here’s Bruise Violet), where ruined prom queens, tiaras and leopard print were all used in a twisted appropriation of the feminine and the innocent. It would be remiss of me not to mention the influence of Hole. Their song Doll Parts has lyrics that perfectly capture Emma’s tiredness about having to compete with men for attention.
The back cover of Hole’s Celebrity Skin has artwork of Ophelia drowning, which is a theme on the cover of my novel too, seeing that Emma was obsessed with Ophelia and tragic figures like Frances Farmer.
The Riot grrrl movement, in which the female body was used to display confrontational messages and the physicality of music prioritised, is also a big influence on Emma . (Here’s Bratmobile Cool Schmool.)
But her biggest influence in the novel is probably PJ Harvey, an artist living and creating on their own terms whilst possessing that alluring mix of force and glamour (PJ Harvey 50 Ft. Queenie).
I do miss being in era in which there was that sense of possibility and when an artist performing a song was an event, almost a window into their mysterious life. I remember when Placebo first performed Pure Morning on Top Of The Pops (watching that every Friday was an almost religious ritual for me). It was for me a lot like seeing David Bowie perform Starman was for the previous generation.
The characters in the novel hark back to a time when hearing a song for the first time, or seeing a glimpse of one of their videos on The Word or MTV was a pivotal moment.
Music – in the form of cassettes made for those you were intimate with, or CDs and inlay cards – was a lot more physical then. The gorgeous Smashing Pumpkins artwork is a good example (Daphne Descends).
Pre internet artists found it harder to get their voice out. I remember needing such a physical act of will to find a way to record your songs. I wanted to capture that sense of strain. That push to have your voice heard is, I think, essential to finding out who you are, as an artist.
Over the course of the summer portrayed in the novel, there are certain tracks that to me capture that era. The sheer optimism of Oasis’s Some Might Say captures the naivety and hope of that era, where every Friday after school I would tune in to TFI Friday, and be introduced to at least three new bands. On the Isle of Wight, where I lived, shows like that were a lifeline. Ocean Colour Scene’s theme tune (The Riverboat Song) would, to me, always signal the start of the weekend. I remember that just seeing a poster for a band would be like witnessing a portal to a whole new way of life. Pulp’s now famous poster for their album Different Class felt like a kind of a battle cry for all the outsiders (here’s Mishapes).
The novel also includes teenage discos, in which people have their first kisses. The courage required to ask someone to dance is the closest English equivalent to the prom. For me Alice Deejay’s Better off Alone or Whigfield’s Saturday Night best recall those times.
It’s also a novel set on the Isle of Wight during the summer, a time in which I recall a lot of parties and barbecues on beaches, where someone would eventually pull out a guitar and play either Greenday’s Good Riddance or Red Hot Chili Peppers Scar Tissue.
The latter is a song which captures for me the delicacy of your first hangover, perhaps as you wake up on the beach. This is a novel, for all its heartbreak, about summers and late night parties spent by the sea with music. And to capture that sense of teenage rebellion I’ll finish with The Llama Farmers and Get The Keys And Go.
And I look back to a lost era and ask- how did we get here, from the relative innocence of back then?
Guy Mankowski was raised on the Isle of Wight. He was the singer in Alba Nova, a band who were described by Gigwise as ‘mythical and evocative’. Dead Rockstars is his fifth novel and is published by Darkstroke on 14th September 2020, but can be pre-ordered from here now. Guy’s website is here, his Facebook page is here and you can tweet him on @Gmankow.