tue 12/12/2017

Frozen Gold: Iain (M) Banks, 1954-2013 | reviews, news & interviews

Frozen Gold: Iain (M) Banks, 1954-2013

Frozen Gold: Iain (M) Banks, 1954-2013

The author of The Wasp Factory was less well known as a composer of prog rock

'Wrong sort of fame': Iain Banks chose the literary life over the rock celebrity

Iain Banks, who has died at the age of 59 only two months after revealing that he was suffering from terminal cancer, was a leading purveyor of contemporary fiction. Iain M Banks was eminent in the field of science fiction. Iain "Spanks The Plank" Banks, however, was less well known as the composer of about 60 rock songs from the palaeolithic period, 1972-75.

An explanation. Banks's Espedair Street is one of the better British novels about pop music. It chronicles the rise, not to mention the fall, of Frozen Gold, a Glaswegian student pub band who go global when budding writer Daniel "Weird" Weir lobbies them to record his songs. When Espedair Street was adapted for Radio 4 in 1998, Banks sent in a minidisc containing 10 songs he wrote at college, long before he had the idea for the book, or indeed any book. This neatly obviated the need for someone else to compose music for the radio to accompany the lyrics copiously quoted in the novel.

Far from ever joining a group, Banks never once performed his songs (or anyone else's)

All the songs were at least 10 years older than the book. "The novel was thought of in about '85," Banks told me. "Once I came up with the idea for a novel about a successful rock band, I was thinking of setting it right there and then. But I thought if I go back to the 1970s I've got the raw material."

Fascinatingly, the songs were not at all bad. Banks's key listening included "the usual suspects at that time - the Stones, Family, Led Zeppelin, Jethro Tull, Hendrix, Cream". Frozen Gold are thus chunky on the guitars, moderately mystical in the words, with a surprisingly pleasant R 'n' B undertow. It could have been so much worse. Banks was keen to distance his influences from megaliths like Genesis and Pink Floyd more closely associated with the precise timespan when he was making his own contribution to the footnote of rock history. "That was what punk ended up being disgusted at and voting against - the five-record concept album, the rock behemoth bestriding the stage in all of the glittery finery. But there was an awful lot of good music as well. It's slightly unfair to tar it all with the same brush."

Banks conceived the novel more or less in the spirit of one of his science fictions. "What I was trying to do was not initially to write a rock novel as such, but a fantasy novel set in reality, at a time when people who are young enough to still have outrageous fantasies get their hands on enough money to fulfil them." The fantasies are largely played out in the behaviour of the lead singer "Crazy" Davey Balfour, the one who pilots planes when drunk and wolfs down the lion's share of the drugs. Banks's fantasies as an undergraduate studying English at Stirling University seemed not to have gone in that direction. "Oh God no, never wanted that," he said. "Wrong sort of fame. If it had to be, I might have been forced into the role of Weird, the boring bass player. But I'd far rather just be the songwriter and not be on stage at all."

In the novel Weird is dragooned into the band in the teeth of his own misgivings. Onstage he concealed himself behind mirror shades and shaggy hair and generally plays up to his nickname. Far from ever joining a group, Banks never once performed his songs (or anyone else's). He wasn't even in attendance when they were played live for the first time at a gig in Glasgow by the band who performed Frozen Gold's songs in the series.

"I was never really that bothered. If you are going to do anything about it, you've got to really go for it. I just didn't. I had a vague idea that if I chanced upon a band that I liked the look of and were happy to have me as a songwriter then that would be a way I could see it happening. I went very slightly down that street with a friend of mine but we never really took it very far. Writing was my first love and the music took second place. You can write a novel entirely by yourself. There's an editor and a publisher between you and the public but not the entire paraphernalia of the rock industry. I could have been a singer- songwriter, I suppose. But I can't sing."

Despite never enacting the dream, Banks appeared to have done everything else but, providing himself with an encyclopaedic resource when he came to write Espedair Street. "It was an entire world that I was able to go back to." As well as composing the songs, he committed them to C90s - "whistled and plonked out on a guitar into a tape recorder" - which he has updated over the years "so they don't fall apart". He partitioned the songs into groups of 10 and imagined them as albums which he then named and designed "pretty gross" covers for. The band's first album is called Liquid Ice, and the sleeve depicts "blue-tinged ice in a tank and a gigantic teardrop-shaped blob of gold smashing into it, caught in freeze-frame". (Compare and contrast the album covers of Yes.) In this parallel world Banks even came up with some band names he later found other groups had opted to use in actuality - Berlin, Sky, Linx. The one historical inaccuracy in his invention was is that Frozen Gold are co-fronted by a female singer. No contemporary templates springs to mind, unless you count Suzi Quatro.

I asked Banks if it was possible the mastertapes sitting in his attic in Fife may have some value as a collector's item. He demurred. "They're not something you'd want to spend good money on." Although words were his metier, he valued the lyrics less highly than their musical setting. "The tunes are the most important part. I never thought the lyrics were very good. They`re not condensed enough. I have the kind of problem you'd expect from a novelist writing lyrics, in that they don't grab you quickly enough, they're not poetic enough."

But take the lyrics to the song "Espedair Street", named after a street in Paisley which Weird happens to saunter down the day after he decides not to commit suicide. "It's the wrong side of the wrong side of the tracks/The dead end just off Lonely Street/It's where you go, after Desperation Row/Espedair Street." Dodgier songs have gone platinum.

What I was trying to do was not initially to write a rock novel as such, but a fantasy novel set in reality

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