As any vinyl junkie will tell you the Helium Kids were a British band from Surrey whose heyday was the late 60s and early 70s. Contemporaries of The Beatles and The Stones they enjoyed the odd hit single (and cult album), but were always one step behind the period’s true musical innovators
Then, a little surprisingly, in 1968 they struck gold with their hard and heavy collection Cabinet Of Curiosities – an era defining album that broke them globally and paved the way for five years of all manner of rock and roll excess.
Actually that’s not strictly true. For the Helium Kids actually only exist in the mind of author DJ Taylor, only now he has shared them as they are the subject of his fantastic new novel Rock And Roll Is Life.
I assume the author, who has published so many great works of both fiction and nonfiction over the years, will hate me for saying it, but if you love a bit of Spinal Tap you will really enjoy this. Taylor absolutely nails the trajectory of the bands of the era from R&B sessions in suburban pubs, right through to blowing the minds of thousands in stadiums across the USA. Along the way the Helium Kids fate mirrors many of the legends of the time. They lose a member to a bizarre swimming pool accident, almost perish during an ill-judged appearance at a dodgy free festival and inevitably split after the member’s passions shift from music through to the occult, Airfix models and dodgy solo albums
What is so great about Rock And Roll Is Life is that it is clear that author had a total blast writing it. In-jokes, which anyone who loves rock music will spot instantly, come thick and fast, while to generate an air of realism (and revel in a cool literary trick or two) there are reviews and interviews from the rock press in the style of the planet’s best known music journalists. Even Philip Larkin gets a ‘poem’ to round the book off.
It isn’t all rock and roll excess either. The narrator is the band’s PR guy and the story starts not in clubs of 60s London but on the campaign trail of Barry Goldwater the Republican’s rather controversial candidate for president in 1964. Elements of history, literature and the arts are cleverly weaved in and out of the story too.
Over the years DJ Taylor has written many great books – there are few recommendations at the end of this article. Rock and Roll is Life is up there with his best and might just be his most accessible to boot.
Here he talks about the genesis of the story, why writing rock (and indeed sports) novels is a tricky business and whether his day job as a critic influences the way he writes.
A decade or so ago you wrote an article on why writing novels about rock music is a very tricky thing to do? Do you still think that way? What was it that you made you think you could write one?
I do think writing fiction about rock music is very tricky. Various reasons: whole atmosphere surrounding it is so nebulous/provisional. Plus, like – say – football (another difficult subject for the writer) essentially a romantic activity which, when closely inspected, is hedged about by unromantic physical activity. What made me think I could write one was simply the amount of information I have accumulated about it in the past 40 years.
In the intervening time there have been some good novels which are based around music scenes – John Niven’s Kill Your Friends and Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, come to mind. Were they an influence at all? Any other rock novels that you recommend?
I haven’t read either of these, sadly. I’ve just had Joseph O’Connor’s The Thrill of it All recommended to me, which sounds a treat. Two rock novels I’d recommend are Doug Cowie’s Owen Noone and the Marauder (2005) and the late Joel Lane’s From Blue to Black (2000). The latter is an extraordinarily intense work about an imaginary West Midlands three-piece called Triangle.
Why did you chose the publicist as the narrator rather than a member of the band? Was he based on any real life people – thinking another D Taylor here (Derek Taylor, PR for The Beatles and The Byrds).
There is no obvious model for the publicist, Nick Du Pont, certainly not Derek Taylor, whose memoir I only came across recently. I chose him as a narrator because it seemed to me that a book like this needed to be done with a certain amount of detachment. Nick is simultaneously at the centre and on the margin. Also he is capable of reflecting on the action and noting wider contexts, which I’m not sure a permanently stoned lead guitarist would have been able to.
And was there a template for the Helium Kids? At times they seem to have a very similar career trajectory to The Yardbirds or Led Zeppelin? But there are parts that could be The Stones, The Who and others too?
There wasn’t really a template for the Helium Kids, who are essentially fashion-followers, always six months behind the pace. Thus in 1964 they are trying to sound like the Beatles, in 1966 like the Small Faces, in 1967 like Pink Floyd and so on. Certainly by the early ’70s they are sub-Led Zep sturm und drang merchants. Their US adventures bear some relation to what the Stones were up to, and I confess to being influenced by Stanley Booth’s wonderful account of their 1969 tour which culminated at Altamont.
Did you have particular tracks and albums in your head when you created the Helium Kids songs and albums? Any examples?
Not really. I just tried to come up with things that sounded plausible. Although Cabinet of Curiosities, their 1968 game-changer, probably bears some relation to the first Led Zeppelin album.
Is there anything you are trying to say about our present time through the book? The age of Helium Kids and their ilk being long gone.
The final section takes place in Norwich in 2007 and finds Nick, now in his mid-sixties, trying to make sense of everything that has passed, so I suppose yes. There is a moment, too, where one of the band remarks that they were ‘proper’ pop stars. This is probably an echo of the moment in the Beatles Anthology where George Harrison watches some footage of the Fabs being mobbed by rampaging crowds and says that he wishes someone like U2 could see it as then they would know what it was like to be really famous.
I don’t think I have ever read a book where it was so obvious that the author was having such a great time writing it. You must have had a huge amount of fun with all the rewriting of history etc. Was this all planned out or spur of the meant as you wrote?
It was the easiest book to write that I have ever embarked on. There was a vague plan – a couple of pages of notes, perhaps – but most of it just seemed to happen.
I really love the fake reviews and interviews in the book, especially the Charles Shaar Murray profile, which was hilarious. Did you have to get permission from the writers? Have any of them given you any feedback about the quotes? Assuming you haven’t heard from Philip Larkin?
Yes I did think it a good idea to get permission, particularly from the former Melody Maker staffer and Uncut editor Allan Jones, who at one point strays into a room where somebody demands ‘Who’s that fat fuck?’ Happily everyone was very helpful. Charles Shaar Murray suggested a few more jokes, some of which made the final cut. I did tell Larkin’s literary executor about the spoof poem, but he gave me his sanction on the grounds that every line Larkin wrote has now been accounted for, so no one could possibly be misled.
I would argue that your novels have been more commercially minded in the topics they cover as you have got older? Is this organic or deliberate?
Oh really? I am always darkly conscious of how badly my novels sell. The only bona fide success was Kept (2006). When Derby Day (2011) was on the Booker longlist the Bookseller provided sales figures for how the 13 longlisted novels had done in the weeks before the shortlist was announced. And yes, Derby Day was 13th. I suppose the reason why I started writing historical stuff in the mid-2000s was with the vague hope of producing something that might increase sales, but I have a feeling that progress has been horribly relative.
Do you think that your career as a critic means that your approach your own novel writing in a different way to perhaps someone who only pens novels?
Never really thought about this, but I’m sure I do. It breeds a certain self-consciousness, and you’re always weighing up the merits of what you’ve written along the lines of ‘What would I think of this if someone else had done it?’
And any recommendations for good novels available now?
I very much liked Ross Raisin’s A Natural, which came out last year and circumvented most of the difficulties involved in writing a novel about football – see above – with enormous aplomb.
And more DJ Taylor…
The Windsor Faction – a fabulous alternative history novel which re-imagines a Britain in 1939 with Edward VIII still on the throne and a ‘King’s Party’ of fascist peace campaigners undermining the war effort. It is big on period detail and many of the stories mirror the lives of real people.
The Comedy Man – long out of print, though it is available as part of a package in the book Returning, the novel focus on the life of one half of a successful comedy double act who can never really escape the ramifications of his early life in Great Yarmouth, Norfolk.
Orwell: The Life – written to coincide with the century of the author’s birth Taylor uses new interviews and material to brilliantly capture Orwell the man and his many seemingly contradictory perspectives.
On The Corinthian Spirit: The Decline of Amateurism in Sport – charming little book full of fascinating stories from a long gone era in sport. Like all Taylor’s books, big on history and literature and features some surprising cameos.