Kill Your Friends
John Niven
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Buy *Kill Your Friends* by John Niven online

Kill Your Friends
John Niven
352 pages
December 2008
rated 3 1/2 of 5 possible stars

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It is 1997. The Spice Girls and Jamiroquai are bestsellers, No Doubt has a number-one single, and so does Hanson. The Labour Party wins the election, and a chap named Tony Blair takes the reins of the United Kingdom.

Steven Stelfox, 27, is an A&R (artist and repertoire) man. His job is any music lover’s idea of heaven:

"I listen to music - singers, bands, songwriters - and decide which ones stand a good chance of commercial success. I then arrange for them to be recorded in a sympathetic manner and we, the record company, sell them to you, the general public."
But don’t be mistaken - this is a dog-eat-dog world. It is a world of excess; they don't call it sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll for nothing. And apparently, the music executives live it large, perhaps even more so than the stars themselves. They live it large in London, and even larger when they head to the south of France each January for a week of deal making and networking:
“The plane is rammed with industry. Had this flight gone down, London's cocaine, prostitution and private members' club industries would have been devastated.”
Stelfox is the very embodiment of this drug-fueled, sex-crazed world. He’s dug himself a huge financial hole, “running two mortgages, a bridging loan, an overdraft and six credit cards, as well as the usual monthly outgoings: large and regular tabs must be settled with west London's cocaine dealers. Drinks, fine dining and regular exotic holidays must be factored in. Monthly, it seems, I must write cheques to various London parking authorities for hundreds of pounds' worth of fines.” The only answer to this is a hit record: “Have a few of those and - bosh - no more problems.”

But in this fickle music world, where no one has a clue what they are doing and there is no explanation for why “husky-female-singer number 3 will sell more records than numbers 1, 2, and 4 through to 99,” Stelfox is no hardworking poster boy. He struggles to sign hot bands before other labels do (and often misses), and scores what he thinks might just be a hit single, but it never charts. Stelfox is flailing in a sea teeming with sharks, and he knows it – the position for A&R head is up, and he’s not on the list. Instead, his colleague Roger Waters, who Stelfox reckons is a music imbecile, gets the promotion. But Stelfox is reluctant to take his nose out of the cocaine and sober up to reality, and we are taken along on an American Psycho-style free-for-all bash-up.

This is Niven’s first novel but he certainly knows what he's talking about, having spent ten years in the music industry in the UK. In an interview, he explained that he wanted to write it from "the point of view of someone who was within the belly of the beast and who loved it there, someone who was completely unapologetic about his greed and ambition."

Kill Your Friends is not an easy book to get through and ought to come with a warning sticker: “Not for the faint of heart”. It is unapologetically vulgar and brash – it is almost impossible to quote passages that are not crowded with profanity. It can be rather excessive, as if Niven is trying to see just how far he can push it, but the result is that parts of it are quite painful to read. Yet despite its perverseness, it has its funny side, especially Stelfox’s cynical takes on the British music industry: "The record is absolutely, off-the-scale, demented, tacky, cheesy, single-entendre garbage. But, and never forget this, this is exactly what 99 per cent of the Great British Public enjoy."

Kill Your Friends is dark and cruel and rather dementedly entertaining and will make you see the music industry in a whole new light – just don’t read it while you’re eating.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Sharlene Tan, 2009

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