Exploitation in the pop world is the issue addressed by Ira Robbins in this intriguing new novel, subtitled A Musical Novel of the 1970s. In 1974 Robbins was the co-founder of Trans-Oceanic Trouser Press, an independent music magazine published in New York that for the most part flew the flag for cool acts whose music was not necessarily tuned towards commercial acceptance.
An exception was The Who, whose Fillmore East concerts in 1968 and 1969 seem to have been Robbins’ Road-to-Damascus moment. They appeared on the front cover of the first edition and many subsequent issues, and he remains one of their most perceptive critics. The UK rock scene thus became Robbins’ primary interest and from The Who through Glam Rock to Punk, New Wave and beyond, Trouser Press stood out for its intelligent, in-depth coverage of much of the rock that emanated from here.
All of which means that his book is well informed with regard to the mechanics of the UK rock world. Although I have my doubts about the relevance of the title – it’s not about Marc Bolan at all – it rings true in its portrayal of the characters involved in a fictitious ladder-to-success tale that at the same time paints a predictably ugly picture of the scheming, ego-driven unscrupulousness that goes on behind the headlines in the pop press. The novel's secondary theme is the question of whether or not pop music, while not exactly worthless, is little more than an ephemeral distraction that too often relies on the naive sensibilities of a young audience desperate to find something to rebel against.
Without giving too much away, the tale centres on Laila, just out of school, who through an only just plausible set of circumstances is sought out by the manager of a indulgent pop star to help his declining career through suggesting ways in which he might appeal to a younger fan base. While her ideas are not met with wholesale acceptance by the unlikable star in question, his manager realises Laila has a talent for writing lyrics and might have a future on stage and on record. The star-making machinery moves into gear and Laila becomes moderately successful but deep down she’s unhappy, disillusioned and dissatisfied with her destiny. The realisation that all that glitters is not gold provides an unexpected conclusion.
A lot more happens, of course, including Laila’s fraught relationships with her father, a boyfriend or two, the manager’s glamorous assistant and the ego-driven star whose career she was commissioned to save. I liked her character a lot. She’s feisty, a punk in the making, with a mind of her own, unwilling to be intimidated by powerful male forces, and I was impressed that a writer of Robbins’ mature years could see into the mind of a teenage girl so intuitively.
The male characters are not quite so well drawn, perhaps because the pampered, arrogant rock star and his scheming manager, who thinks only of lining his own pocket, seem a bit clichéd to me. (I long to read a rock novel in which the star’s manager is a caring individual who does well by his client.) As you would expect, there’s a dash of sex’n’drugs, applied without judgement, and Keith Moon makes a hilarious cameo appearance, but one slight irritation was that the author rather overdoes the British slang which at times goes well into the danger zone, especially from a Scottish character whose speaking voice I often found difficult to decipher.
At over 150,000 words Marc Bolan Killed In Crash is quite lengthy but it’s still a page-turner. I finished it on screen in three days flat, an endorsement in itself. It is available in the UK on Kindle and print-on-demand through Amazon. Here is the link: https://amzn.to/2zJXIAV