Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Songshifting - reviewed by Tim Jones


Songshifting, by Chris Bell (316 pp), available from Amazon.com in paperback and ebook format. Also available from Writer’s Plot Bookshop, RRP $25.

reviewed by Tim Jones

Songshifting is a dystopian fiction novel that is centrally about rock music. It’s as good about rock music as Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad - and in my eyes that’s high praise indeed. It’s extremely well-written. But I found the dystopian elements less convincing.

            Let’s talk about the really good stuff first. The central character is Rarity Dean, a music journalist, who works for a music magazine called The Grid which reminds me a lot of the 1970s/80s-era NME – in other words, an era when rock music journalism really mattered and those who wrote about it sometimes considered themselves to be bigger stars than the musicians themselves.

            The music she cares and writes about is (I think) what we would now classify as indie rock. Chris Bell does a great job of showing how much Rarity Dean cares about the music under her outer shell of journo cynicism, and he also does the even more difficult job of writing about music, musicians and the touring life interestingly, so that all those tedious end-of-day pranks and Oasis vs Blur-style inter-band rivalries come across as worth bothering about. Chris Bell really knows his stuff when it comes to music, and he is able to convey that very well.

            As a bonus, there are some neat in-jokes: what would be band managers in our world become band damagers in Songshifting, and two of them, Alan Grant and Peter McGee, are mashups of real-world UK music industry heavyweights.

I did notice that the novel’s indie rock scene is very much a boys’ club, and that the only female musician who’s important to the story is significant mainly as a source of rivalry between two of the main male musicians. Even in the laddish depths of the ‘80s, was the British indie scene really this male?

The wider context of the novel is that control over music, musicians and their audiences is a (indeed, the) central goal of a dictator called the Impresario and his multiply replicated goons. He (it?) doesn’t mind live music, provided it doesn’t threaten the state, but has strong view on recorded music and those who listen to and trade it – and the Impresario has the ability and willingness to enforce those strong views.

            I don’t have a problem believing that control over the arts in general, and music in particular, would be important to a dictator. Stalin’s malign meddling with the music, careers and lives of Russian composers is proof enough of that. And Chris Bell does a great job of communicating the growing fear, paranoia and dread that The Impresario’s actions cause.

            But apart from its effect on music, musicians and their audiences, we don’t see much of the Impresario’s dystopia beyond images of gloom and decay.  Because we don’t learn  - or at least, I didn’t discern – the who, what, why, when or how of the Impresario’s overall programme of dystopian rule, I never found his reign of terror especially convincing. The disjunction between the vagueness of the dystopia and the verisimilitude of the music scene gives the novel a lopsided feel.

            Overall? Songshifting has a lot going for it. It’s very well-written, full of arresting words and phrases and well-distinguished characters. And it manages the rare feat of writing well about music and musicians. But as the dystopian aspects didn’t work so well for me, Songshifting makes me wonder whether a recent-past historical novel based on Chris Bell’s own experiences as a musician, music journalist and music industry insider might make for an even better read.

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