by Kevin Sampson
(Canongate Pub Ltd.) $10.50
Probably because the cover featured a quote from NME declaring Kevin Sampson's book Powder to be "the best novel ever written about being in a band... read it and weep," I let it lie around for days before thumbing through it. Then I read that Sampson had managed Liverpool band the Farm, and giggled for him and myself. Among my vast and often shaming collection of cassettes lies the Farm's 1991 release Spartacus, which entered the British charts at number one and spawned the single "Groovy Train," a one-hit wonder that I love to this day. A second single, "All Together Now," became the British Labor Party's campaign song, but two more albums (Love See No Colour on Sony and Hullabaloo on Sire) crashed immediately and the Farm disbanded in 1994.
So it would seem Sampson has been through hell and back and lived to tell about it. And surely he's done plenty of weeping, too. Powder is a funny read whether or not you've been in a band. Alex James of Blur calls it "a rip-snorting, rollicking ride from obscurity to rock 'n' roll debauchery and through the other side." He's right. The squabbling over projecting a certain image or agonizing for days about whether appearing on the cover of MOJO (after the release of one single!) might alienate the chances of fictional protagonist Keva McCluskey's band the Grams of getting noticed is funny no matter what level of experience you've had in the music industry.
The book focuses on Keva, who leaves his first band over creative differences and immediately hooks up with guitarist James Love to form the Grams. Much to his bilious chagrin, Keva's old bandmates replace him with a look-alike, rename themselves (horribly) Sensira, and quickly wind up on the cover of "NM fucking E." To add insult to injury, a journalist well known for breaking bands comes to a sound check to interview the Grams, but mistakes Sensira to be her subjects and it isn't until nearly the end of the interview that someone finally asks why she keeps posing questions pertaining to the Grams. From then on it's a one-sided competition between Keva and Sensira over who will be superstars first. He thinks he's found his luck, though, in Guy de Burret, a super-wealthy kid just out of rehab after getting hooked on drugs while working as wunderkind for a major label.
The ups and downs of the Grams' trajectory toward stardom are noted with spot-on, chuckle-worthy accuracy. On the day of the release of their first single, "Desert Rain," the band members proudly walk into an HMV record store expecting to see a big display, only to learn that the single isn't even in stock. The next day the Grams become the subject of a multi-page, gushing story in NME ("'Desert Rain,' a wrenching, drenchingly beautiful song, is the saddest thing you'll hear on the radio this summer. It seems to tell of McCluskey's abject failure to enjoy the things so many of us embrace. His song complains, bitterly, of the pointless, transient nature of 'good' things--love, sex, friendships. They are all perfectly glowing, shimmering, beautiful concepts to Keva, but ultimately they flatter to deceive. If not mirages, then they're the desert rain."). Keva becomes puffed with pride and momentarily forgets that the single is unavailable to the public.
Next they're off to Ibiza to record an album with a reclusive, semi-retired producer (Happy Mondays, anyone?) and spending most of their time taking E and snorting "gack," fucking tanned girls day and night, and shooting Super-8 videos of themselves in the desert. Single number two, "Beautiful," makes the Grams press darlings before misquotes send them into a tizzy. Television appearances bring huge crowds to the band's shows, as well as the well-known scouts from major labels. They play Glastonbury, and all Keva can crow about is the fact that the Grams garnered far more attention than Sensira, who also play the famous festival.
As the novel continues on with the Grams' tales of struggle and success, Sampson shows with keen fictional hindsight the bluster and bullshit he must've gone through when he managed the Farm. After all, the Farm had been together for eight years before their debut, Spartacus, was released and the major-label courtship began. Who but Sampson could pour better blood, sweat, and tears into a book like this?