Wednesday 24 April 2019

'I realised nobody had used Jacko's later life in fiction'


An icon in crisis: Niven's new novel revisits the world of the repugnant, murderous record label
An icon in crisis: Niven's new novel revisits the world of the repugnant, murderous record label
John Meagher

John Meagher

John Niven should come with a Parental Advisory label permanently attached to his forehead, such is his Gallagher-esque enthusiasm for swearing and for speaking his mind in the most forthright way possible. For those of us who weary of interviewees saying very little and saying it as inoffensively as possible, the Scottish record company man turned author and screenwriter is bracingly, compellingly different.

Niven's second book, Kill Your Friends, got him noticed on publication in 2008. A fictional account of the tail-end of Britpop, it introduced the world to the repugnant, murderous Steven Stelfox - an A&R man who will stop at nothing to get ahead of the pack. A movie version, starring Nicholas Hoult as Stelfox, came out in 2015.

Now, Niven has followed it up with Kill 'Em All, which revisits Stelfox 20 years on from Britpop. He's made a fortune thanks to his creation of a Simon Cowell-like reality TV show and now, as a stupendously well-paid music 'consultant', he has to manage the reputation of an odious global star, Lucius Du Pre, who is having to contend with allegations that he is a paedophile. It's a deliciously unpleasant book and Niven says he relished writing the character of Du Pre, which, incredibly, makes Stelfox seem almost sympathetic by comparison.

The character is clearly based on Michael Jackson. At the time of Jackson's death, Niven wrote a lengthy UK newspaper article lamenting the fact the media seemed to have taken ­collective amnesia when it came to the allegations about the pop star's fondness for underage boys.

"It puzzled me at the time," he says of people ignoring his alleged abuse of minors, "and it puzzles me still. You have to make the conscious decision to uncouple the art and the artist… but with Jackson, it was spectacular that nobody went there. I've spent a lot of time reading police reports on the [US website] Smoking Gun and it's very hard not to come away from that and feel that the kids were telling the truth. At the very least there was inappropriate heavy petting going on."

There's far more than heavy petting going on in Kill 'Em Now, and readers of a sensitive disposition might want to give the book a wide berth. "As a writer, I want to entertain and delight the reader," he says. "It's a blackly comic novel."

Its humour is the darkest shade of black and, like its predecessor, comparisons to Bret Easton Ellis's satirical masterpiece, American Psycho, are inevitable.

"I quite like the idea of having a character you could use every decade or so to examine the times you find yourself in - a lot of writers have done that historically, John Updike [and his Rabbit series] being the most obvious one.

"I always know what Stelfox would do or say in any given situation but I didn't have a plot for a while."

It was prior to a meeting with US network HBO to pitch a series to follow up the Kill Your Friends movie that Niven stumbled upon the idea of moving Stelfox from London to LA and having him manage an icon in crisis.

"Just before meeting them, I was like, 'What the fuck am I going to say in here?' And then I started thinking what would the TV show look like and I thought of The Thick of It and I thought what are the defining characteristics of The Thick of It? Well, they're always dealing with a crisis, there's always panic management. That got me thinking what kind of crisis could Stelfox be managing? And it struck me then that no one had really used Michael Jackson's later life for fiction - so what if Stelfox has to deal with Michael Jackson's character?"

Like its predecessor, the Kill 'Em All is stuffed with detail about the modus operandi of the record industry. Niven insists that the troubles experienced by record companies have been greatly exaggerated.

"The music industry right now is experiencing the biggest gold rush since the 1990s," he says. "There is so much money getting made again now. The Facebooks and Googles of this world are all paying now, but that money is going to take another decade to be fairly distributed to artists. And the same thing happened when vinyl was first created, and also when the CD came out.

"Every time there's a technological revolution, the industry initially takes a hit but then it gets wise to it and it starts making a killing again and that's what's happening now. The Drakes and the Gagas and Kanyes of this world are making plenty of money, but the smaller names are losing out - for now."

It was all so different in the 1990s when Niven's roles in the music industry went from PR to marketing to A&R. The latter - which saw him charged with finding future talent - was the greatest fun, although he insists he was terrible at it. He cheerfully admits to turning down both Muse and Coldplay, dismissing the latter's early demos as "sub-Radiohead rubbish", but he did land some prize fish.

It was Niven who first signed Scottish compatriots Mogwai, a post-rock outfit in a world obsessed with Blur and Oasis, and he is particularly proud of bagging the Pernice Brothers for the UK market - their 2001 album, The World Won't End, is a forgotten masterpiece.

He saw huge potential in an embryonic White Stripes but his boss at the time wasn't convinced so they went elsewhere and he sheepishly admits to having worked at the record company, London, who signed the barely formed Britpop band, Menswear, for half a million pounds. It's a signing that's now seen to capture the 'Loadsamoney' swirling around record companies in the 1990s.

"Working in A&R back then was a crazy old time," he says. "Now, with the advent of YouTube and self-promotion that the internet allows, by the time a major label looks at signing somebody, they've already got a pretty good idea - the heavy lifting has been done. Before, the record company often had to take the band from nothing.

"Now, you've people like Ed Sheeran performing in people's living rooms or Lily Allen making a name for herself in the Myspace years. Labels have it really good at the moment - because they expect the artist to have done the initial stuff themselves."

He despairs for what he describes as "this post-X Factor era" and he has particular contempt for Simon Cowell. "He succeeded in turning back the cultural clock, not just to a pre-punk time but to a pre-Beatles time - to a sort of end-of-fucking-the-pier talent contests time. It removes a chunk of innocence.

"Is the reality TV show thing over? I think it's faded but I'm probably the wrong person to ask - I'm not a teenage girl or a gay man. I think people say you should engage in the times you live in, but if that means Love Island… well, not for me thank you very much."

Kill 'Em All by John Niven, published by William Heinemann, is out on Thursday

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