Wednesday, 10 August 2011

John Niven - Kill Your Friends

"The nature of show business means that people within the business feel that if someone else fails, they move up a notch." - Tom Arnold.

"You can't spell 'star' without A and R." - Ronnie Vanucci
Kill Your Friends by John Niven is a book about greed, fuelled by conscious desire to stab your nearest rival in the back (or smash their head in with a baseball bat after feeding them insane quantities of coke and valium) in order to gain the ultimate prize - to be the one on top of the pile. It's a snapshot of the life of Steve Stelfox, an A&R man for an unnamed music company and his various day-to-day dealings, sufferings and insane hedonism. The book is laced with black humour, large amounts of profanity and drug taking. In fact, you'll be hard pressed to find a page that doesn't feature Stelfox or one of his odious comrades snorting something. 


Kill Your Friends is one of the funniest books I have read in a long, long time. Niven's writing is bitter, caustic and roars with a fiery hate - I couldn't help but find it anything but hilarious. The book is divided into 12 chapters, each with a short scathing blurb on the current musical climate. For instance, April’s reads: “R.Kelly is no. 1 for a fucking month….whispers start to circulate that the new Radiohead LP is off its tits – an unlistenable prog-rock nightmare.” These short pieces are laden with hype and pretension – label bosses blithering about certain bands being around “longer than 18 months”; certain acts being “retro and contemporary” (Jimmy Fucking Ray, I ask you) and my favourite from March being this: “I see her developing the way Madonna has. This is the dance album of the decade” (on Gina G).

Steve Stelfox, the anti-hero of the piece, is the focal point and his whole life and view of just about everything seems to be motivated entirely by hate. He's a racist, pessimistic, homophobic, misanthropic degenerate obsessed with image and rank. He's barely got time for anyone; which makes the title somewhat of a misdemeanor. Stelfox doesn't have any friends. He's surrounded by acquaintances he can't stand - people he loathes; people he wishes he could kick down the stairs and stamp on until their brains pop out.

Yet, he's never actually openly nasty or voices such attitudes. It's nearly all in his head; this outpouring of bile is restrained behind a wall sleazy A&R spiel and chang that only we can see and experience. It only truly breaks through during 2 key moments in the book where events begin to slip into what I would call a diet-version of American Psycho. These moments are when the book starts to take a long hard look at the dark side, embracing it with open arms – it also says a lot about Stelfox and how influential he is at corrupting people. Hey, he might be a bit “swing and a miss” on some acts he’s signing, but manipulating people? Hell, he wrote, published and sold the t-shirt on that.

Stelfox isn't crazy though - he's just bored. He doesn't care about music, he's all about money and his life is one uncontrollable wreck of staggering from one line of coke to another, whilst trying to find an act/song/group/artist that the tolers (everyone that isn't Stelfox and his associates) and boilers (see here) will lap up. I suppose fear is something that flows through this book - the fear of failure. Stelfox is terrified of failing, so are his entourage of grinners; Trellick, Dunn, Ross, Hastings, Darren and Waters. All of them are absolutely petrified, but they hide it well - it's masked by copious amounts of alcohol, sex and drugs. This is then manifested into hate – so in effect, Kill Your Friends is about the turning of one negative, crippling emotion into another, forming this never-ending cycle of hell and desperate survival.

Now, you might be under the impression that this is a depressing read - far from it. It's so unrelentingly scathing, gratuitously vulgar and dripping with black humour - you'll have trouble keeping a straight face. It's packed with some truly superb scenes and chapters such as in June when they go to Glastonbury and shit begins to hit Stelfox's fan; Rage's 64 minute single, the burning hatred for Parker-Hall, pages 23 to 28 being absolutely INCREDIBLE reading (or depending on your copy, the chapter that starts "a couple of words for all you hopefuls out there in unsigned bands: Fuck. Off".), as well as Stelfox's own deviousness and planning, which has a scary Eric Cartman meets Blackadder quality.

I struggled to put this down; Niven has a real talent for creating a series of characters with truly repulsive traits that I couldn't get enough of.


"Artists and records come and go...record companies are forever" - Anonymous lawyer.

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