Zero History by William Gibson (2010)

Zero History is a 400-page novel about has-been rock stars and pretentious advertising executives in search of a reclusive designer of ‘really cool’ jeans and jackets. It is mind-bogglingly shallow, pretentious and boring.

Zero History is the third novel in William Gibson’s so-called ‘Blue Ant trilogy’, itself the third of Gibson’s three trilogies of novels. It’s even more disappointing than Spook Country and rotates round the same kind of lame ideas: the central figure is ex-rock singer Hollis Henry who’s continually interacting with her super ‘cool’ former bandmates. She gets paired up with Milgrim, the reformed drug addict who we met in the previous novel, both being sent on a wild goose chase to track down the creator of the mysterious ‘Gabriel Hounds’ brand of jeans by the ‘genius’ advertising guru Hubertus Bigend.

We know Bigend is a genius because all the characters tell us so.

  • ‘His grasp of contradiction is brilliantly subversive.’ (p.269)
  • ‘He has a kind of dire gravity. You need to get further away.’ (p.337)
  • ‘He’s like some peculiar force of nature. Not a safe one to be around.’ (p.346)

Thus the text, despite its often zingy and effective prose style in details, overall consists of lots of lame references to the ‘cool’ rock world and the ‘cool’ world of fashion and stale clichés about advertising, all struggling to support a plot which goes beyond the disappointing denouements of the previous two novels into new realms of the genuinely asinine.

Half way through, Zero History gets bored of its own fatuous storyline and switches from being a ‘quest’ for the jeans designer to a hostage thriller. By the time the legendary jeans designer is, in fact, tracked down, in the final passages of the book, nobody cares because the novel has unexpectedly morphed into a Die Hard movie.

Advertising

The owner of the Blue Ant advertising agency, the preposterously named Hubertus Bigend, is treated as some kind of advertising / communications / sociology guru, despite the fact that, whenever we actually get to hear any of the Great Man’s thoughts, they amount to recycling tiresome ad-man bullshit. As he explains to ex-rock singer Hollis Henry, who he is giving another ‘mission’:

We aren’t just an advertising agency. I’m sure you know that. We do brand vision transmission, trend forecasting, vendor management, youth market recon, strategic planning in general.’ (p.21)

Hmm. Just like every other modern advertising agency, then. He goes on to tell Hollis that he is always looking for the next big thing, that he is in quest of ‘the edge’, always trying to catch the next big wave (p.24). Well, no shit Sherlock; what corporation, bank, company, fashion house, publishing company, art gallery or music label in our rabidly consumerist society isn’t trying to do exactly the same thing? That’s not a bold vision, it’s the default setting of the entire world we live in.

This is all dressed up on page 177 as Bigend’s quest for the mysterious ‘order flow’, the flow of all the world’s information about everything, something which Bigend (megalomaniacally) wants to possess. In the end he’s just a reincarnation of Dr No or Goldfinger or Ernst Stavro Blofeld, only not actually evil, barely even amoral. A neutered baddie. A tamed megalomaniac.

Rock band chic

As to rock band chic, it plays a central role in this novel, not because anyone makes any actual music, but because Gibson thinks it’s ‘cool’ to write about people who were in rock bands. He seems to be aiming the book at the kind of middle-aged dads who read Rolling Stone magazine or watch BBC4 documentaries about Classic Rock Albums. Ageing, would-be hipsters who still wear jeans and black leather jackets as they approach pension age. In their heads they’re still their speed-snorting, dope-smoking crazy selves from the 1970s and 80s but to everyone else they’re Derek the head of IT who really shouldn’t be wearing a Jimi Hendrix t-shirt at his age. Or Jeremy Clarkson.

Thus the lead character is a young woman (as in so many of Gibson’s novels), Hollis Henry, who was lead singer in the now defunct rock band The Curfew. She’s turning 30 (i.e. half Gibson’s age when this book was published) and is now trying to make her way as a freelance journalist.

In the previous novel, Spook Country, Hollis was commissioned to write a piece about ‘locative art’ (3D holograms of dead rock stars which are located at strategic places around Los Angeles and can only be seen if you use a set of video headgear) for a magazine which turned out to be a front for Hubertus Bigend’s endless curiosity, a way for him to employ pretty young women to investigate subjects which take his fancy (bit creepy, eh?).

‘I’m a curious person,’ said Bigend, ‘and can afford to satisfy my curiosity.’ (p.67)

(Bigend’s super-PA and fixer is Pamela Mainwaring who is, according to the narrator, ‘a very tasteful pornographer’s idea of “mature”‘, p.40. That’s a bit creepy. And see the throwaway reveal at the very end of the story, below.)

The novel opens with Hollis staying in a fabulously retro hotel in London, but the point of the ‘rock’ connection is that almost immediately she is interacting with her old bandmates, short balding English guitarist Reg Inchmale, who is in Soho producing a new album by another fictional band, The Bollards, and the Curfew’s feisty, not to say pain-in-the-ass, former drummer, Heidi Hyde, ‘her hair dyed goth black’ (p.49), who swears all the time (‘You said he was bugfuck,’ p.136).

Not only this but Hollis hooks up with members of other rock bands she knew when she was part of the rock scene and they have conversations about being in a rock band and the rigours of touring, staying in a new hotel every night, the drugs, the band tensions, oh man, it’s so tough being a rock star. We hear about an Icelandic duo Eydis and Frederika Brandsdottir who make up the band The Dottirs. About another band named The Stokers (p.156).

The rock world ambience is enhanced by a steady drip of casual references which seem to go out of their way to refer to really ancient rock acts and the long-ago world of the late 1960s or 70s. Thus Heidi Hyde describes the wallpaper at her fancy London boutique hotel as like a pair of ‘Hendrix’s pants’. Later Fiona the motorbike courier defines a piece of music by explaining that its maker listened to Jimi as a boy (pages 305, 349). Now Jimi Hendrix, flourished 1967 to 1970. This book was published in 2010, 40 years later. Then we have the fact that one of the first pieces of ‘locative art’ was a 3D hologram of Jim Morrison, lead singer with the Doors, died in 1971. 50 years ago. Phil Spector is referred to (p.307), career peak 1960s and early 70s. On page 321 Voytek quotes Bob Dylan, but not 1990s Bob Dylan, instead the 1967  song ‘I Pity The Poor Immigrant’.

It’s this kind of thing which makes me think Gibson is aiming his novels at what you might call the American mainstream rock tradition, at ageing ‘hipsters’ who carry on writing and reading magazines like Rolling Stone, and who think writing or reading articles about Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin and the Doors and the Who is still ‘cool’.

What I don’t understand is that critics queue up on the covers of this book to describe Gibson as the master novelist we need now, describing him as a ‘prophet’, as capturing ‘the futuristic nature of the present day’ (Cory Doctorow), as an ‘astounding architect of cool’ (The Spectator) and yet it is a plain fact that Gibson spends less time thinking about 9/11, Iraq or the Financial Crash, or anticipating the seismic changes which will be brought about by social media, than he does retailing crappy, second-hand ideas about advertising and making tiresome references to long-dead 1960s rock gods.

The Spectator thinks Gibson is the  ‘astounding architect of cool’. Think about that. The Spectator, the solidly right-wing mouthpiece of the Brexit-leading Conservative Party. The Spectator, whose editor was Boris Johnson from 1999 to 2005. Boris Johnson. Maybe the fact that Gibson is so gushingly praised by The Spectator crystallises all my misgivings about him and his later novels: William Gibson is Boris Johnson’s idea of ‘cool’, a 60-something white man in a black leather jacket making references to Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison.

Fashion

The fatuousness of Gibson’s attempts to make Hubertus Bigend some kind of communications guru, and the lameness of his dad rock references (Heidi Hyde wears an old Ramones t-shirt, p.59 – how cool!) are exacerbated by Gibson’s ongoing obsession with namechecking the brand names and designers of every conceivable product the characters come into contact with.

Thus we are told the precise brand of their cars and handbags and clothes, and my God, of their clothes, yes their clothes, every item of clothing that they wear, or look at, or think about.

We get itemised lists of their shoes and socks and jeans and shirts and t-shirts and jackets and shades. Roberto Cavalli, H&M, Ralph Lauren, Banana Republic, Chanel, Tommy Hilfiger, Jun Marukawa, Hackett – for all I care this might be a list of the administrative regions of Kazakhstan, but I appreciate that for tens of millions of people being able to distinguish Lauren from Lacoste is a matter of life or death, and these seem to be the people Gibson is catering to in this novel. Or satirising. Or both.

In the earlier novels this was merely an irritating symptom of the triumph of style over substance, but in Zero History the plot itself dives head-first into the empty-headed stupidity of the fashion world, as parodied in the movie Zoolander among many others. Once you enter this world of style and fashion, you check in your brain and never see it again.

Burning Books! So Hot Right Now - So Hot Right Now | Make a Meme

The plot

Hollis Henry

We first met Zero History‘s lead character, Hollis Henry, in the previous novel in the trilogy, Spook Country. She’s the former singer with rock band The Curfew who’s forging a new career as a journalist and writer. Her intellectual level can be measured by the fact that:

Hollis was a firm believer in the therapeutic power of the right haircut. (p.69)

In Spook Country Hollis had been researching ‘locative art’ for a magazine which turned out to be a thinly disguised front for advertising guru Hubertus Bigend. Well, she’s done a lot more work on ‘locative art’ since and has now turned it into a big coffee-table book, complete with images of what the art looks like. The book is titled Presences: Locative Art in America (p.97). The main example the book uses to explain locative art is a 3D hologram of soft porn female nudes done by Helmut Newton (1920 to 2004) which are now visible to anyone who can afford the headset required to see this ‘art’ at some French chateau.

Is this capturing ‘the futurist nature of the present day’? No, it isn’t. Referencing the soft porn, pervey nudes of a dead German photographer whose heyday was the 1980s does not feel like anybody’s future.

Hollis’s coffee table book is just being published when she is summoned to London to meet her sugar-daddy, er, I mean ‘Machiavellian advertising guru’ Hubertus Bigend, who has a new assignment for her.

The novel opens with Hollis having just flown in from New York and staying in a quaint London boutique hotel (‘Cabinet’) stuffed with dinky period pieces, not least a stuffed ferret and the steampunk elevator. She meets, has coffee and chats with Reg Inchmale, former guitarist with The Curfew who’s now producing another band, The Bollards, in a studio in Soho. Also putting in an appearance is Heidi Hyde, the tough, foul-mouthed drummer with The Curfew, who refers to her former boyfriend, at length and repeatedly, as ‘fuckstick’. So the band’s all here, trailing dated 1980s drug slang and rock clichés.

Milgrim

Bigend introduces Hollis to Milgrim, who’s just flown in from his clinic in Basel. Clinic? Yes. Like Hollis, Milgrim also first appeared in this novel’s predecessor, Spook Country. He is an educated young man with a college degree in Russian and was working as a translator when he slowly got hooked on prescription tranquilisers, eventually ending up an almost gibbering wreck, which is how he was found in the street by a shady, renegade intelligence operative named Brown, who ‘sort of’ abducted him, probably saving his life but keeping him under lock and key and feeding him pills in order to use Milgrim’s top translating skills in monitoring a family of what Brown takes to be Russian-backed spies. This is a key storyline in Spook Country.

Brown turned out to be completely wrong and Milgrim managed, at the end of Spook Country, to escape from his clutches. In the final pages he stumbles across Hollis’s handbag which she accidentally left in a deserted loft space and this, though the reader doesn’t know it at the time, is a crucial link, because it allows none other than Hubertus Bigend to phone Milgrim, using the phone he’d given Hollis and which was in her lost handbag. Being Bigend, he doesn’t get cross that someone’s stolen Hollis’s handbag and phone, but is intrigued by the sound of Milgrim, quizzes him, finds out about his background and…

Pays for him to be sent to a world-class detox clinic in Basel, Switzerland for eight months (chapter 4). There, Milgrim tells us, he had his entire body’s blood replaced with clean blood and underwent an extensive course of cognitive therapy. This complex background means that throughout this book Milgrim can conjure up either drug-addled streams of consciousness, odd and unexpected insights,  or sober advice his therapist gave him to manage unexpected situations. He is the peg for the kind of sentences Gibson excels at, which gesture to something just beyond perception, or slightly wrong, out of kilter and unnerving:

  • He struck her as being unused to inhabiting his own face, somehow. (p.44)
  • He felt as though something new and entirely too large was trying to fit within him. (p.92)
  • He seemed peeled, somehow, transparent, strangely free of underlying motive. (p.180)
  • Milgrim was having one of those experiences of feeling, as he’d explained to his therapist, that he was emulating a kind of social being that he fundamentally wasn’t. (p.174)

All these qualities make Milgrim the most interesting character in the book and, maybe, just about enough reason to read it. Not to buy it, though.

However, Milgrim isn’t totally free. His stay at the rehab clinic was managed by Oliver Sleight, on the face of it an employee of Bigend’s (p.85), but Sleight wants to keep tabs on Milgrim in a way which goes beyond Bigend’s needs. Sleight has given Milgrim a phone, a ‘Neo’, which only takes calls from him and which has GPS tracking so he can follow Milgrim’s movements at all times (p.124).

Why? ‘Fuck if I know’ as Heidi puts it in her charming way (p.202). As with most content in Gibson novels, this kind of thing is thrown in early on and then referred to at regular intervals almost entirely to keep you guessing.

Early on an apparently trivial incident occurs, which will become central to the plot. At one point Milgrim gets fed up of being trailed by Sleight all the time and gets into an elevator in a department store and, purely because the other people in it are speaking in Russian (which always wakens memories of his pre-drug existence), on an impulse Milgrim slips the Neo into the pram of one of the Russian women then watches the lift stop at the next floor, the doors open and the woman and pram exit and wander off who knows where. She seemed to have a couple of tough-looking minders in tow. Maybe she’s the wife or daughter of an oligarch, who cares. But it will turn out to matter, later.

Gabriel Hounds

So what’s Zero History actually about? Bigend has come across a brand of jacket and jeans named Gabriel Hounds (‘It’s a secretive jeans line’, p.72). They’re made by a secretive designer. Bigend wants to find out who. As Hollis explains:

‘Bigend’s hired me to look into Gabriel Hounds. He wants to know who designs it, how their antimarketing scheme works.’ (p163)

That, as far as I can tell, is it, at least to begin with. So Bigend introduces Hollis and Milgrim, tells them he wants to track down the designer of Gabriel Hounds jeans and jackets and pays for them to take the Eurostar to Paris, stay in a swanky hotel and visit a Vintage Clothes Fair (the Salon du Vintage) where, inevitably, they meet lots of other designers and models plus some of Hollis’s friends or contacts from the rock world. The level of humour is indicated by the character with the oh-so-funny name of Olduvai George, the ‘brilliant’ keyboardist with the Bollards. He is named Olduvai George because there’s a place  in Africa called Olduvai Gorge and Gorge sounds like George! Hence Olduvai George. Geddit!? They also meet ‘Clammy’ who dresses all in black, because dressing all in black is ‘cool’ (p.33 ).

In other words, the novel is marinaded in references to the international rock-fashion world. If you think that world is ‘cool’, you’ll love it; if, like me, you think it is all weirdly lame and dated, you won’t. Everyone wears black. Everyone is thin. Everyone is a design genius. Everyone has an ‘uncanny sense’ for the next best thing, everyone has a special feel for the Zeitgeist bah blah blah yaddah yaddah yaddah.

Anyway, Hollis talks to Clammy who knows Olduvai George who knows some clothes designer named Meredith Overton aka ‘Mere’ (p.115). (Everyone has nicknames because nicknames are ‘cool’ and indicate just how much you grasp ‘the futuristic nature of the present day’.)

They all go out for a simply wonderful dinner at a restaurant where they bump into Bram, reluctant singer with the Stokers (geddit!?) who is having a meal the other side of the restaurant with one of the Icelandic pop duo, the Dottirs. Half way through the meal they have a big row and Bram storms out, only to be trapped by the legions of paparazzi waiting outside. It is so tiresome being a rock star, darling.

Anyway, that’s by way of being a distraction. The real outcome of the dinner is that Mere thinks she knew someone in fashion school who knew someone else in Chicago, who might be the designer of the Gabriel Hounds!!

Foley

Milgrim spots they’re being followed. To be precise, he had noticed a guy popping up several times in South Carolina where he had been hanging out after leaving the Basel clinic. Then Milgrim thinks he sees the same guy a few times in London. Now he’s certain he’s seen the same guy following him at the vintage clothes fair in Paris. He’s wearing foliage-green ‘pants’ so Milgrim quickly nicknames him ‘Foliage’ and then ‘Foley’. (Everyone has nicknames because nicknames are ‘cool’ and also indicate just how much you grasp the blah blah.)

Milgrim is approached out of the blue in a cafe in London by a woman who flashes a badge and identifies herself as Winnie Tung Whitaker, Special Agent for the Defense Criminal Investigative Service (p.108). I suppose we’re meant to take this seriously but it all reminded me a bit of Secret Squirrel.

(Actually, to my delight and coincidence, Secret Squirrel is actually namechecked later on in the text, page 309. Gibson feeling the anxiety of influence from the classics of the thriller genre, there.)

So Hollis is introduced to Mere at the vintage clothes fair in Paris who spouts a lot of garbage about the secretive designers of Gabriel Hound jeans. This personage is revered because he or she shuns the usual industry calendar of releasing new lines with each new ‘season’. This is because:

‘It’s about atemporality. About opting out of the industrialisation of novelty. It’s about deeper code.’ (p.116)

If you think this twaddle is profound, this is the book for you.

Mere was a model before she became a designer, which allows her to reel off a description of the boring existence of a poverty-stricken model, rather as Hollis being an ex-rock singer allows Gibson to refer throughout to the sleazy-glamorous life of rock and roll stars. Mere escaped modelling to set up a business designing a new style of shoes, trying to sidestep fashion (there are some pages about the design and fabric of her shoes and she explains how so few people really got what she was trying to do with them (p.228); as if shoes are very puzzling and complex intellectual constructs). But Mere’s business flopped. Now all the stock is locked up in some warehouse in Tacoma, Seattle (p.164) and she’s back working in fashion retail.

Lots more labels

There are a lot more sentences in this 400-page novel but for quite a long time not a lot happens. The characters travel from London to Paris and back again, there are hyper-detailed descriptions of hotel foyers and receptionists and lifts and corridors and rooms and showers and beds, lots and lots of phone calls on nifty cell phones, a lot of messing about with AirMacs and passwords and dongles, a great deal of meetings in restaurants and cafes with a minute itemisation of what everybody ate (Milgrim has a salmon starter followed by pork tenderloin, chapter 32; the salmon is everso good. Bigend, counter-intuitively, or maybe inevitably, likes crude full English breakfasts, namely two fried eggs, black pudding, two slices of bacon, two slices of bread and a mug of tea. Of his favourite café he opines: ‘They get the black pudding right here.’ p.196.)

Maybe this is what the Spectator means by ‘the futuristic nature of the present day’ – advertising execs, writers and rock musicians jet-setting between fashionable capitals, staying in swank hotels and eating out on bottomless expense accounts. Or maybe they’re referring to the future for the cosmopolitan urban elite like themselves, anyway.

I read this and think – this self-congratulatory cosmopolitan elite, sooo concerned with acquiring just the right patina on their jackets, desperately seeking the mysterious jeans designer – this entitled elite deserved their comeuppance in the form of moron Trump and dumb-bell Brexit. In their ways, both those votes were crude gestures of protest against the arrogance of the international art and fashion and media and style elite with its ill-concealed contempt for the chavs and proles who populate the countries they flit between, and who they sell their shitty films and TV and clothes and art to and patronise and lecture and exploit.

It’s about gear queer

What else happens? Well, Bigend explains they’re seeking the Gabriel Hounds designer because the latest thing is Gear Queer. According to Bigend, army veterans returning from Iraq have sparked a fashion among young men for an army surplus look (explained in chapter 41).

This just seemed patronising rubbish to me. If there’s been any fashion of the past few years it’s been the rise of the hipster – metrosexual, casual styling associated with full but coiffured beards. According to Wikipedia:

The term ‘hipster’ in its present usage first appeared in the 1990s and became particularly prominent in the late 2000s and early 2010s

I.e. just as this book was being published.

It’s another indication of the way that, in fashion, in music, in sociology and in politics, Gibson strikes me as being plain wrong. Even in his specialist subject area of digital tech he completely failed to anticipate the revolutionary impact of smart phones and social media which began to take off just after this novel was published. And his books are utterly bereft of any real thinking about the important events of the day: 9/11, the threat of Islamic terrorism, or the impact of the great financial crash of 2008. Rather than being some kind of ‘prophet’ Gibson is in every way a highly misleading guide to his times.

OIiver Sleight defects to the enemy

Anyway, back to Bigend’s stupid name and ridiculous quest for ‘Gabriel Hounds’. Oliver Sleight was supervising Milgrim in South Carolina because that’s where a lot of the supply to the US military comes from and that’s where they found the pair of rogue Gabriel Hound jeans which confirmed ‘the Hound look’ as being possibly the next big thing which Bigend can a) sell to the military b) promote to young men round the world concerned with replicating the look and ‘semiotics’ of elite military forces. (At least in this utterly rubbish plot.)

As the story progresses Winnie Tung Whitaker meets Milgrim a couple of times (they’ve been staying in touch via a Twitter account she showed him how to set up). At their final meeting in a restaurant she explains who she’s after. It is one Michael Preston Gracie, 45 with a long career in the US military but then stepped sideways into private security work, and then military contracting, and then something to do with supplying uniforms to East Asian countries. Why is Winnie Ting Whitaker after this man? Because (exactly like ‘the old guy’ in Spook Country) it’s a gesture, nothing serious or significant is at stake: it’s just ‘a gesture in the face of the shitbird universe’ (p.225).

To be honest, everything this fiction Michael Gracie is doing sounds perfectly legal and enterprising. As this plot about a renegade military supplier emerged to become the focus of the novel, at every sentence I thought Gibson was utterly missing the real story here, which was the huge expansion in private contractors supplying military and security services in Afghanistan and Iraq – Blackwater, Dyncorp and so on – about the huge amounts of money which went from the American taxpayer straight into these organisations which, more often than not, had top US politicians on their payroll.

(Actually, the really big story which emerged from the US invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan was how astonishingly shit America turned out to be at understanding or managing the countries they’d conquered. How many American historians, commentators and novelists have I read casually castigating the mismanagement of the British Empire? So how did you do in Iraq, boys? Or Afghanistan? Abu Ghraib. Guantanamo. Waterboarding. Ritual humiliation of prisoners. Over $6.4 trillion spent on the ‘War on Terror’. It’s a proud record.)

To recap:

‘Gracie’s an arms dealer. Bigend was spying on some business of his, in South Carolina.’ (p.295)

Remember Oliver Sleight who had been minding Milgrim? In the middle of the book, Bigend reveals that Sleight – who was in fact Bigend’s IT chief – has gone rogue, has been recruited by ‘the other side’, meaning the people round Gracie.

Why? If you think about it rationally, it’s not at all clear why Gracie and the tail who Milgrim calls Foley would give a stuff about Bigend poking about in the same market. It’s a very big market, and Gracie has a huge head-start, being ex-US Army with all kinds of contacts. Why should they care?

The enemy attack

Still, this idea of people within Blue Ant itself going over to ‘the enemy’ is whipped up into the pretext for a kind of gang war which breaks out.

Milgrim, Hollis and Heidi are being driven back to their hotel after meeting Bigend (a meeting at which he shows them his latest toy, the next generation of drones, which can be controlled from your phone which were, I guess, a whole new idea in 2010) when the vehicle they’re in is nearly rammed and forced into an alleyway somewhere in the City.

Once rammed into this alley, another car comes hurtling towards it to ram it, and Milgrim sees Foley in the front seat gesticulating at him. But the point is that the vehicle they’re in is a ‘cartel-grade’ Jankel-armoured, four-doored, short-bedded Toyota Hilux truck (p.36), driven by a no-nonsense Jamaican security guy named Aldous, and he himself rams the oncoming car and pushes it backwards all the way to the end of the alley, before reversing a bit and then further ramming into its bonnet, crushing the engine.

Aldous Calls up Fiona, the helmeted biker babe we’ve met a couple of times throughout the story, who turns up pronto, grabs Hollis onto her pillion and roars off, while Heidi drags meek Milgrim on foot along to the nearest Tube (Bank) and so back West towards their hotel, while Aldous waits in the Jankel for the cops to arrive and give his side of the story.

Now, as the second of the cars had hurtled towards them down the alleyway, Milgrim had seen Foley bright and clear, and seen that he had a bandage over his face and that he was brandishing the phone, the Neo which Sleight had given him. This a) confirms that Foley, Milgrim’s ‘tail, was indeed working with Sleight, and b) implies that Foley went to track down the phone and had an unfortunate encounter with some Russian mafia bodyguards.

In other words the entire incident of the car ram seems to stem from Milgrim’s momentary act of rebellion against being tracked in the department store, when he slipped the Neo into the pram of some random strangers. Seems that Foley was despatched to track down the phone and encountered the Russian oligarch’s security people who beat him up.

After the ramming, Bigend convenes yet another meeting with Hollis and Milgrim and explains the current situation. Sleight, his lead IT guy, has ‘gone over’ to ‘the enemy’ (remember, this is all about contracts for military uniforms). Sleight was monitoring Milgrim so closely because he was relaying Milgrim and Hollis’s discoveries back to his new boss, the renegade military contractor, Michael Gracie. Now Bigend tells them that other senior personnel within Blue Ant are also defecting. To some extent Bigend always expected this: he employs people on the ‘edge’, renegades and free thinkers, and always enjoys watching them mature and rebel – but this time there’s a bit more of a rebellion going on than he’s used to.

Thus Bigend has been forced to retreat from his London headquarters (probably bugged by Sleight) to the back room of a Japanese tailor down the road. This explains why a number of these meetings involve passing through the shop front of ‘Tanky and Tojo’, the name of the Japanese tailor, into the surprisingly spacious back room.

(I wonder about Gibson and his fetish for Japan. In the 1980s and 1990s Japanese imagery, style, design and steel-and-glass cityscapes seemed to be the future. But my understanding is that around 2000 Japan entered into a prolonged period of stagflation and in any case was being overtaken by China as the new military and cultural power in the East, a rise which continues to this day. Yet Gibson seems to be sticking with his dated Japan obsession. True, some Chinese crop up in his novels, but not as many as Japanese. Two of the three novels in the Bridge trilogy take place almost entirely in Japan, in Tokyo. It seems to me another token, along with the dated rock music and the lack of grasp of key geopolitical events of the early 2000s, of the way Gibson’s worldview seems dusty and dated.)

Voytek and Chombo

Remember Voytek? He’s the Polish immigrant who keeps a computer repair store in Camden, north London, and pops up throughout Pattern Recognition, the first novel in the trilogy. And remember Bobby Chombo, the tech genius who actually makes locative artists’ projects for 3D holographic art become a reality in Spook Country. Well, now we learn that Bigend had brought a reluctant and paranoid Chombo back from Vancouver (setting of the previous novel) and parked him with a reluctant Voytek to look after, who resentfully pronounces his name ‘Shombo’.

But we’ve barely learned all this (Milgrim sees Chombo in the backroom when he visits Voytek’s computer repair shop to get Hollis’s AirMac checked out for bugs) before Bigend tells the team that The Enemy have forced their way into Voytek’s place and kidnapped Chombo. Bigend has received a simple ultimatum: The Enemy want to make ‘a prisoner exchange’, return Chombo in exchange for Milgrim, with the implication that they will do very bad things to Milgrim for his various ‘betrayals’.

None of this is really intrinsic to the idea of a commercial rivalry between Gracie and Bigend, which itself isn’t really implicit in the situation. Why shouldn’t two (or three or four) companies operate in the market selling clothes to the US military? Likewise, the bad guys wanting to get their hands on Milgrim isn’t intrinsic to the situation, it just seems to derive from Milgrim’s arbitrary decision to drop his phone in a stranger’s pram. That one moment is the basis for the entire second half of the plot, and it is a slender and silly basis.

The return of Garreth

Now you need to know about an added complication. The first two-thirds of the narrative have been peppered with Hollis’s memories of her affair with Garreth. Garreth was the supremely competent handyman and security operative key to the plot of the previous novel, Spook Country. He was the right-hand man of ‘the old man’ who was running the scam at the centre of that story. Garreth is handy with guns and weapons and cars and planes. He is your basic, omni-competent thriller hero, good-looking and chivalrous into the bargain.

Doing very dangerous things was his avocation. (p.153)

(It’s interesting to consider how, despite Gibson’s best woke efforts to centre his narratives around female protagonists, the fact that he is writing thrillers means that a tough, strong, competent handsome man keeps ending up taking centre stage in the stories. Tough-but-sensitive security guard Berry Rydell in the Bridge trilogy, and tough-but-sensitive secret operative Garreth in this trilogy. The scenery may be modern but the fundamental mindset is deeply traditional. This helps to explain Gibson’s nervously jokey references to James Bond in both this and the previous novel. Gibson’s acolytes proclaim him the prophet of the future but he is, in essence, simply writing flashy gadget thrillers and he is uneasily aware that this entire genre can’t escape the shadow of 007, simply because Ian Fleming brought the formula to such a peak of perfection. In fact the comical similarity to Bond is explicitly acknowledged right at the end of the novel: ‘Fiona said that Bigend, with the Hermès ekranoplan, had gone totally Bond villain’, p.399)

Anyway, in this novel we learn that after she met him towards the end of the previous novel, Hollis is so dazzlingly original and independent that she fell in love with the tall, dark, handsome, supremely confident, tough but sensitive security dude, Garreth. (So much for futurity; feels very 1960s to me.) But that their affair only flourished because it fell in a lull between Garreth’s missions, and that when he was assigned a new one by the mysterious old man, Garreth melted out of her life and that they then definitely split up.

Until… Hollis is delivered the shock news that Garreth has been involved in an accident!! Among his many other heroic action-man attributes was that Garreth was a free jumper, one of the group of people who illegally scale enormous buildings and jump off them wearing mini-parachutes. Well, Garreth illegally made it to the top of the world’s tallest building in Dubai, jumped off, but his chute got snagged in unexpected construction cranes and/or he landed on what should have been a deserted freeways but was instead run over by a super-rich Arab in a sports car.

Hollis is distraught, realises that she loved him after all (how very Mills & Boon), phones him, gets no reply, is given emotional support by her band-mate Heidi etc, all this going on while the situation with Milgrim and Gracie and the Opposition is getting more and more intense.

And then, the evening after the traumatic car attack on our heroes in the City, there’s a knock on Hollis’s hotel room door and it is none other than Garreth! Admittedly, he’s been badly knocked about and is in a wheelchair. The doctors had to reconstruct his hip and most of his right leg. He can just about limp using a walking stick but the wheelchair is easier. Cue a tearful reunion, ‘I never stopped loving you,’ ‘Oh why did you do it?’ ‘Is it serious?’ etc etc. They embrace, they kiss, he spends the night on her bed. They nickname his partly reconstructed right leg Frank.

However, characteristically for Gibson, there is no hint of any sexual activity whatsoever. His characters are strictly neuter, with no sexual attributes or thoughts.

(Same happens in chapter 60 when foxy Fiona, a strong, independent motorbike courier, is stuck in the lockup with Milgrim, completes the assembly of a bit of kit, strips off her overclothes and gets into the one sleeping bag, then invites Milgrim to join her. He takes his trousers and socks off. This will be a first, the reader thinks. But Milgrim slips into the sleeping bag beside her, lies perfectly straight and still and… soon hears her snoring, p.299.)

The puzzling absence of sex as an activity or a motive or even a footnote to the relationships is one of the big limitations of Gibson’s novels and something which prevents them being any kind of serious investigation of human nature. Instead they feel more like the adventures of chrome-plated, cartoon cutouts.

Garreth’s plan

Anyway, Garreth’s appearance is very convenient for the plot for, the next morning, when Bigend invites himself to breakfast with Hollis at her boutique hotel, and is explaining that he’s made the decision to hand Milgrim over to the bad guys, Garreth, who was hiding behind a screen and overheard everything (like a character in an Elizabethan play) steps (well trundles in his wheelchair) forward and backs Hollis up in saying this unacceptable. They cannot possibly consider handing over poor Milgrim to the bad guys. No, instead he, Garreth, will use his super secret agent powers to devise a cunning plan.

And so it is that in the final quarter of the novel Garreth calls in lots of favours, assembles kit from all over, and puts together his plan, while the extended team of Good Guys assemble, as in every heist movie ever made. The good guys are: Hollis and crippled scam supremo Garreth, timid Milgrim and the biker babe Fiona, Benny the bike mechanic who makes important adjustments to Fiona’s bike and keeps the lockup mentioned above, and tough Polish immigrant and computer repairman, Voytek.

I forgot to mention that Heidi, a tall no-nonsense woman, had joined a gym in Hackney, where she’d discovered a cohort of blokes who like boxing, including an Asian guy named Ajay, who she brings back to Hollis’s hotel, and who is thrilled to meet the legendary singer of The Curfew. Well, Garreth ropes this Ajay into his quickly whipped-up scam, and he comes accompanied by his cousin, Asian beauty Chandra.

It’s a kind of multi-ethnic Ocean’s Eleven, or like the elaborate set-up scenes in The Italian Job (1969).

The mystery designer is Cayce Pollard

Remember how the whole narrative got rolling with Bigend apparently interested in finding the designer of a particularly funky pair of jeans and denim jacket. Well, Mere reappears at this juncture (from a narrative structure point of view, to take pressure off the buildup to Garreth’s Masterplan) and reveals to Hollis that the mystery designer is in London, and takes Hollis to see her. In a secret denim shop in Soho.

And, with a terrible sense that Gibson’s world is contracting and contracting until it’s the size of a microchip, the mystery designer who we all spent the first half of the novel obsessing about, turns out to be… none other than Cayce Pollard, the magically gifted ‘coolhunter’ who is the lead protagonist of Pattern Recognition!

Cayce explains that a) she became a designer because old clothes she bought in vintage fairs were just so much better made than even designer modern clothes, and b) that she shunned all logos because, as we know from Pattern Recognition, although it was her job to search out new patterns in the flow of design and clothing, actual logos gave her panic attacks. So, no logos. (Writing that reminds me of Naomi Klein’s 1999 book No Logos with its wholesale attack on the insanity of the fashion and branding industry, and makes me think, once again a) how very much behind the curve Gibson is and b) how shallow and superficial his ‘satire’ is next to a solid polemical book like Klein’s.)

So Cayce the designer insisted on no logos, absolutely no logos right up to the moment when her husband suggested they use a logo and… she agreed. There. That’s how brainless this book and its characters are. Cayce tells Hollis that she occasionally doodled dogs with human heads while designing and her husband spotted these and told her about the ‘legend’ of Gabriel Hounds. And thus this mysterious anti-brand was born. A logo which isn’t a logo. A brand which isn’t a brand.

The two women proceed to have a heart-to-heart conversation about Bigend. Yes, why are their lives both dominated by a big overbearing corporate capitalist, the reader asks himself? Sisters are doing it for themselves, or not, as the case may be. Cayce explains to Hollis that she doesn’t have fashion launches, doesn’t conform to usual fashion rhythms. She has special ‘drops’. So successful is her anti-fashion stance that Hollis sees the editor of French Vogue entering Cayce’s building as she leaves. She is so hot this season!!

I was left speechless by the illogical, inconsistent shallowness of this storyline.

Meanwhile, the Chinese agent Winnie Tung Whitaker contacts Milgrim again. He goes see her at Smithfield. She’s still after Gracie. Hollis wonders out loud to Garreth whether Bigend has for the first time lost it. Inchmale tells her that his wife (very well connected in the world of London PR and comms, darling) says the buzz is that something big is on.

You know the book is reaching its climax because everyone starts talking in italics because there is going to be some serious shit going down! Don’t let him fuck with you! I did not come to this country for motherfucker! How scary is that? Shit just got weirdLateral fucking move! Totally fucking next level! —

As if Americans can’t talk in a calm tone of voice. Or that the text itself is aware that the story is rather boring, doesn’t really make much sense, and so tries to get the characters to jazz it up by inserting lots of swearwords and random emphases.

Bigend had earlier on shown Hollis and and Heidi Milgrim some prototype drones you can operate from your iPhone. These become part of Garreth’s Cunning Plan to manage the prisoner exchange.

The prisoner exchange

Then it’s zero hour. Garreth texts everyone on the team that it’s time to rumble. Pack what you can carry, he tells Hollis, there may be running, we may not be able to come back to the hotel. It’s like a Bourne movie but without any of the actual tension or logic.

The exchange has been arranged for waste land near Wormwood Scrubs. It is, basically, a prisoner exchange as out of thousands of Cold War novels and movies, except with drones. The plan is pretty simple. Garreth has gotten the Asian martial arts guy, Ajay, to use makeup to look like Milgrim, and arranged for him to be accompanied to the drop place by an ex-Gurkha (it’s handy to know this kind of people if you’re in special ops).

The two Bad Guys approach with Chombo. When they’re close enough, Ajay simply leaps forward and decks Foley, grabs Chombo and runs off, while Charlie the Gurkha drops the other bad guy.

Over on the edge of things of the meeting ground both Fiona and Milgrim have been operating drones with cameras attached which Garreth can see from the control van packed with TV screens and phones, parked half a mile away. Also in the van are Hollis and Heidi who, we now learn, has bad claustrophobia.

From one of these drone cameras they spot Michael Gracie over to one side of the exchange zone, unpacking a Kalshnikov rifle with night sights. Uh-oh. Without prompting, Milgrim fires the taser on his drone which hits Gracie, who lies convulsed on the floor. Taser? Yes, it turns out Heidi packed a taser into her luggage when she drunkenly packed to come to Britain from the States weeks ago. Handy, eh. Gibson is just adding bits of plot to try and jazz up this rather lame prisoner exchange plot device.

So while Ajay and the Gurkha run away safely, the two bad guys – Foley and some guy with a mullet haircut – are slow to get off the floor, while Gracie has been badly shocked and staggers to his feet and away without the Kalashnikov.

Chombo tries to get away from Ajay but, as luck would have it, Heidi had exited the van a few minutes earlier due to her claustrophobia, saw him running off and, being the tall Amazonian type, had rugby tackled him and brought him back to Garreth’s van. Our boys pack up and drive away, mission accomplished.

Epilogue

Cut to some weeks later. Heidi and Ajay are touring Cornwall. They seem to be an item. Hollis is in a Paris hotel bedroom with Garreth, fixing up his leg. We learn that an obscure character named Pep, the Catalan car thief (p.306), the world’s best at getting into and out of locked cars (in thrillers everyone is ‘the world’s best’) had, while the baddies were walking Chombo towards the handover zone, broken into Gracie’s car and left some semtex and photos of mosques around the UK in it. Before the mission began, Garreth had called in some heavy-duty UK anti-terrorist police on a number given him by Winnie Tung Whitaker. These police found the bomb making equipment and Gracie is now in a world of trouble. (To be honest, I never really understood what he was doing which was so wrong. Selling uniforms to the US Army, does it deserve the treatment he got?)

Hollis tells Garreth that Bigend has paid her a lot of money. No surprise, says Garreth. It was Hollis who introduced Garreth to Bigend and Garreth made all Bigend’s problems go away. At which point… Garreth proposes marriage to Hollis!

And what of Bigend, conspicuous by his absence from the hostage exchange? We catch up with him on a flight to Iceland with the Dottir twins and on no ordinary plane but a sort of zeppelin balloon, or plane with little or no wing, designed by the Russians. Milgrim is aboard it with Fiona, the biker babe. There’s a cocktail party (the plane is that big) where Milgrim is informed that:

  • Blue Ant is over: anyone who was anyone in it is on the plane and they’re all relocating to Iceland
  • Bigend helped the Dottirs’ father in shady internet deals which have ended up with the pair, between them, owning most of Iceland (the vast effort everyone put into understanding the US military’s uniform contracts has completely vanished, like the MacGuffin it always was)
  • and, in nearly the final joke, we learn that winsome Fiona with whom Milgrim is now definitely an item, is none other than Bigend’s daughter by his uber-secretary, Pamela Mainwaring

This is one massive thing in Gibson’s favour, I think, that his novels include almost no violence. This is supposedly a thriller but nobody actually gets killed – unlike the scads of traditional American thrillers in which so many people get horribly butchered. Instead this novel ends with three couples happily paired off and a nice romantic wedding on the cards.

I found Zero History a long, hard, gruelling, pretentious and irritating slog, but ended it with a smile on my face. The best bit is the ending.

Zero history

To summarise, Zero History consists of 400 pages describing rock musicians, magazine journalists and fashion aristocracy jetting from New York to London to Paris, staying in fancy hotels, taking cabs to fancy restaurants, wittering on some stupid quest to track down the designer of some slightly quirky jeans, all paid for by an absurdly rich sugar-daddy, until right at the day it turns into a briefly gripping hommage to Cold War-era hostage exchange narratives, before ending with three happy relationships and a marriage, rather like a Shakespeare comedy.

The title is explained, sort of, on page 84. All it indicates is that Milgrim was such a social dropout during his addiction phase, during his ‘decade-long low-grade brown-out’, p.141, that he never had a regular job, paid taxes, social security etc, didn’t even have a credit card. And therefore, as far as ‘the grid’ is concerned, had ‘zero history’. So no deep meaning at all.

Despite being an astonishing architect of cool, Gibson’s favourite word (apart from black, and apart from his occasional deployment of media studies buzzwords like ‘semiotics’, pp.213, and ‘liminal’, pp.4, 94, 369) Gibson’s favourite word appears to be ‘peculiar’, which cropped up frequently enough for me to  count its appearances on pages 4, 6, 8, 111, 113, 135, 180, 268, 279, 318, 326, 335 and 346.

It’s an oddly cosy and very English word for such a self-conscious American hipster.


Credit

Zero History by William Gibson was published in the UK by Viking in 2010. All references are to the 2011 Penguin paperback edition. I bought it new off Amazon which was a bad mistake because, as with the previous 10 Amazon purchases, it arrived creased, scuffed, bent and smeared.

Other William Gibson reviews

Spook Country by William Gibson (2007)

When she wrote about things, her sense of them changed, and with it, her sense of herself.
(Spook Country page 174)

The Sprawl trilogy

Gibson’s first three novels made up the Sprawl trilogy (1984 to 1988), science fiction stories set 50 or so years in the future (Gibson is on record as saying he thinks Neuromancer is set in 2035) in a society dominated by huge urban conurbations (the entire East Coast of America has ceased to be made up of distinct cities and is one endless dome-covered megacity known as the ‘Sprawl’). This future society is drenched in digital tech where hackers can plug their brains directly into the vast matrix of digital data flows. The narratives of all three Sprawl novels unfold grippingly complex plots, told in adrenaline-fuelled, cyberpunk prose, leading up to the revelations that these vast rivers of data are reaching an omega point whereby the combined power of the worldwide web is arriving at a transformational moment when it will gain full self-consciousness (exactly as the Skynet defence system does in the contemporaneous Terminator franchise of movies).

The Bridge Trilogy

Gibson’s next three novels formed the Bridge trilogy (1993 to 1999), set a more modest 20 or so years in the future, around 2010 or so, after a cataclysmic earthquake has struck California causing the state to be split in two. They take their name from the Golden Gate bridge which was so badly damaged in the quake that it was abandoned as a means of transport and was quickly squatted by all manner of lowlifes, the poor and marginalised, who turned it into a futuristic favela made up of home-made building units, streets and shops suspended from the bridge’s steel coils, a vivid and striking recurring image.

Against this backdrop were set the intertwining stories of Gibson’s quirky characters: a tough security guard down on his luck, a sexy bicycle courier, a mentally challenged digital ninja who spots patterns in the endless flow of data around the internet, a rock star who marries an entirely digital cyber-woman, a deaf and dumb street kid, a silent Taoist assassin. The techie ends of the plots involved digital headsets and some internet technology but there was a lot less of it than in the Sprawl novels and, similarly, the prose was still zippy and tight, but less densely street cool than in the earlier trilogy.

The Blue Ant trilogy

Then came the Blue Ant Trilogy (2003 to 2010) of which this novel is the middle instalment. These complete Gibson’s ‘retreat from the future’ and are set in the contemporary world, each one set more or less the year before they were published, so roughly 2002, 2006 and 2009 respectively.

I thought Blue Ant was going to refer to something cryptic and obscure and cool and so was very disappointed to discover it’s just the name of the secretive (fictional) advertising agency run by super-clever, super-rich philosopher-businessman, Hubertus Bigend. When I first read that name it struck me that Gibson was taking the piss out of his legions of fans and devotees in the book world, taunting them to swallow such a preposterous moniker. At that point, my willing suspension of disbelief in Gibson’s fiction snapped and I realised several things:

Irritating features

1. A little like J.G. Ballard in his final phase, Gibson has ceased being a writer of inspiringly visionary science fiction and has become the author of slick, very well-made but ultimately pretty traditional thrillers, with a bit of pop culture window dressing to tickle the style magazines, i.e:

Women

The protagonists are mostly young women (Cayce Pollard in book 1 of this trilogy, Hollis Henry in books 2 and 3).

Paint it black

Everyone wears black, black t-shirts, black leather jackets, black shades, black underpants, black jeans, black socks, black shoes, because black is cool, daddy-o. Groovy, man. Dig your black shades, baby.

Ethnic characters

There’s a lot of ethnic minorities involved, gesturing at our modern multicultural, cosmopolitan societies although, noticeably a) nearly all of them are East Asian – I mean Japanese or Chinese – with very few, if any people, of colour, and b) none of the lead characters are not Caucasian. In this, as in so many other ways, despite the superficial gloss, pretty traditionalist.

Digital

There’s still quite a lot of hi-tech digital gadgetry but it’s got more and more meh. Also, instead of being a prophet, his books have started to be wrong and misleading when it comes to the digital world. He is writing quite limited ideas of virtual art but this was overtaken even as Gibson wrote his books by the far more revolutionary impact of smartphones and social media.

In both Spook Country and Zero History the lead character, Hollis Henry, is researching and writing about a small group of ‘cutting edge’ artists who are creating holographic art works which exist in public spaces, on street corners, but can only be seen by people wearing the right hi-tech headgear. It’s called ‘locative’ art. Well, that never caught on, compared to Facebook, twitter, Instagram, Tik Tok and so on. The central revolution of social media is how mass it is, how many people have taken up, with plenty of anti-social and negative effects. None of this is anticipated in Gibson’s books.

Instead he is a) working on a very outdated cultural model that new developments will come among a tiny cohort of avant-garde artists and b) much more telling is the fact that the ‘locative artist’ Hollis first meets and interviews, Alberto Corrales, has gone to this enormous time and effort in order to create 3D holographic images of…. Jim Morrison and River Phoenix, the latter an image of Phoenix’s body lying dead of a drugs overdose outside the ‘legendary’ Viper Rooms in Los Angeles. In other words, fantastically dated and retro. Creating 3D images of dead rock gods and movie stars struck me as the opposite of cutting edge.

Rock music

I find it almost unbelievable how tiresome, dated and crappy Gibson’s obsession with rock music and rock bands is: characters constantly reference Jimi Hendrix or Jim Morrison as if they released their latest discs last week instead of having been dead for half a century. But far more important in terms of making the books almost unreadable is the fact that the central character of the second two novels, Hollis Henry, was actually in a rock band – she is the ex-singer of a now-defunct fictional rock band called The Curfew.

We learn next to nothing about how the Curfew actually omposed their songs or recorded or performed them because Gibson isn’t actually interested in music at all. As someone who plays piano and guitar and has played bass in various bands, I know something about these processes and feel embarrassed for Gibson as he fills his books with would-be ‘cool’ insights about the world of rock music and the practicalities of music making, which feel as they’re copied from the pages of naff style magazines from the 1980s.

There is nothing, nothing, about the actual music. No description of the chord structures, the guitar or piano or bass sound, the tempos or dynamics of any of the songs, the challenge of performing highly produced music live, nothing. If you are actually interested in rock music (as I am) these books are a desert, a black hole of zero information on the subject.

Instead rock music is used by Gibson as a marker of hip, of cool. It allows the characters to make endless ‘cool’ references, to be hip to drugs, man, and bleat about the traumas of being endlessly ‘on the road’ and smashing up hotels and having immense fights and then ‘breaking up the band’, man.

This isn’t an incidental detail, it’s central to the other characters Hollis meets and interacts with. During the novel she taps up the other members of ‘the band’: guitarist Reg Inchmale, drummer Heidi Hyde, and makes countless wistful references to Jimmy Carlyle, the bassist who managed to kill himself from a heroin overdose, his death bringing the band to an end.

It’s bad enough having to meet the ‘wise’ and dependable Inchmale and the super-angry, over-emotional Heidi Hyde in Spook Country but when all three characters are relocated to London in Zero History we have the added indignity of meeting other members of the ‘rock elite’ from other crappy, made-up bands, who are all as insufferably ‘cool’ as each other and all know all about the local ‘scene’, man.

You’d learn more about the dynamics of an actual band and actual music-making from watching Spinal Tap. Or The Blues Brothers in which actual music is actually performed. No music is performed in any of these books. God forbid. It would upset the hang of the characters’ black designer jackets.

Disappointing lack of insight into the present

Concurrently, Gibson has ceased writing about the future. Step by step each trilogy has retreated from the future and now Gibson is just writing about… the present, just like ten thousand other novelists and columnists.

The first two novels in the Blue Ant trilogy heavily referenced the big events of their day, namely 9/11 (2001) and the war in Iraq (2003). This should be riveting to someone like me, a close follower of contemporary politics, but, very disappointingly, Gibson’s novels have almost nothing to say about international or domestic politics or contemporary society. Contemporary society is a consumer paradise and, behind the scenes, it’s a bit corrupt, seem to be his big discoveries.

By now there are no ideas at all in his novels, which are really showcases for a 50-something’s Dad ideas of ‘cool’ – rock bands and rock chicks wearing black t-shirts and black leather jackets and black shades, impressing each other with snazzy gadgets, flying round the world on Hubertus Bigend’s bottomless expense accounts, on wild goose chases which have a disappointing tendency to fizzle out at the end.

The trouble with writing a ‘neat, up-to-the-minute spy thriller’ (as the London newspaper Metro described Spook Country when it first came out) is that neat, up-to-the-minute spy thrillers quickly go out of date. Who wants yesterday’s papers?

For example, Gibson seems proud of the way some of the characters ‘Google’ something on the internet, as if that’s a super-early use of the verb. His lead character is shown hacking into other people’s wifi rooters, as if how to do that is a big discovery. Bigend gives his employees bolt-on scramblers to attach to their phones. A central element in the plot is people using iPods as containers for contraband information. 14 years later this all seems very, meh, very yawn.

In interviews Gibson said the novel is set in the spring of 2006, before the financial crash and, more importantly, before the advent of Facebook, twitter and the rest of the social media programs. It is, therefore, a novel which claims to be with-it and futuristic, but now reads like a relic from an antiquated, pre-social media world.

The plot

As usual with all Gibson’s novels, there are three distinct storylines each featuring small groups of characters, appearing in self-contained, alternating chapters. For over half the novel these separate storylines appear to have nothing in common, so part of the book’s entertainment value is wondering how they will eventually impinge and collide, and being on the qui vive for the clues the author drops as he slowly weaves them together.

1. Hollis Henry

Hollis Henry is a young freelance woman journalist who’s been engaged by a magazine named Node, a fictional European version of the real-world tech magazine Wired (p.39) (so you have to have a feel for what Wired is about to fully place her. It is worth noting that Gibson has been a regular contributor to Wired magazine and featured on its cover in its first year, 1994 so he knows whereof he writes, and his writing in general confirms me in my suspicion that I never need to read a magazine like Wired.)

Hollis’s job is to write a piece about a digital artist named Alberto Corrales who uses ‘locative’ technology to create cutting-edge digital artworks in Los Angeles (you put on a headset and see 3-D versions of the corpses of famous Hollywood characters in various downtown locations).

Hollis was a member of the ‘legendary’ fictional band, The Curfew, alongside band drummer Heidi Hyde, guitarist Reg Inchmale and bassist Jimmy Carlyle, which impresses the people she meets, including the ‘locative artist’ Corrales, as well as the owner of Node, advertising guru Hubertus Bigend.

2. Tito

Tito is aged 22 (p.11) and Alejandro (aged 30) are cousins, part of an extended family of immigrants to America.

‘They’re one of the smallest organised crime families operating in the United States. Maybe literally a family. Illegal facilitators, mainly smuggling. But a kind of boutique operation, very pricey. Mara Salvatrucha looks like UPS in comparison. They’re Cuban-Chinese and they’re probably all illegals.’ (p.230)

Tito lives in a crappy apartment in Manhattan. They are refugees from Havana, Cuba where, improbably, their grandfather seems to have been something to do with the KGB (p.72). Their aunt, Juana, is a devout believer in Afro-Cuban pagan gods of Santería, with numerous incense-laden shrines to them in her apartment.

It’s only a third of the way into the novel that we come to realise that both Tito and Alejandro are well-trained operatives in a Russian spy methodology. They have been raised in the way of the systema, the Russkie name for cutting-edge spycraft. It slowly emerges that they are following the orders of someone referred to simply as ‘the old man’ (we never learn his name but we do learn that ‘he looked a little like William Burroughs, minus the bohemian substrate’ (p.296), a characteristically dated, Beatnik reference.)

3. Milgrim

Milgrim (no indication whether this is his first name or last name) is an unusually literate drug addict who is fluent in Russian, and in particular an Anglicised form of Russian which is referred to as Volapük by the shady secret operative, Brown, who has sort of kidnapped Milgrim and keeps him dosed up with the prescription tranquiliser he’s addicted to, Ativan. (Milgrim’s drug dealer when was at liberty was Dennis Birdwell, p.100)

Having no money of his own, and being utterly dependent on the daily doses of drugs which Brown allows him, Milgrim is forced to tag along while Brown plants listening devices on what he refers to as an IF (short for Illegal Facilitator, page 17). Early on we learn that the apartment Brown is going to the effort of bugging, and the figure he is spying on from a camouflaged van full of surveillance equipment, is none other than Tito the Cuban refugee. Why? That’s precisely the question the reader is meant to ask, and which draws us into the ensuing 350 pages of tangled plot.

The MacGuffin

The pointless goal

According to Wikipedia:

“In fiction, a MacGuffin is an object, device, or event that is necessary to the plot and the motivation of the characters, but insignificant, unimportant, or irrelevant in itself. The term was originated by Angus MacPhail for film, adopted by Alfred Hitchcock, and later extended to a similar device in other fiction.”

In most of Gibson’s novel there is some secret which brings together the 3 or 4 separate groups of characters, in an elaborate interweaving of storylines towards whose revelatory climax the narrative hurtles with ever-increasing speed.

The incessant travelling

Something which isn’t mentioned in the Wikipedia article is that the MacGuffin often requires an extraordinary amount of travelling to find it. This is as true of the Holy Grail in the original medieval Arthurian legends as it is of, say, the ark in Raiders of the Lost Ark or the endless driving and traipsing around Los Angeles required by Philip Marlowe, at the more humdrum end of the spectrum.

In hundreds of thousands of other narratives like these, the seekers after the MacGuffin must travel far and wide and undergo various perils in order to track it down.

And so it is that, in the second half of this novel, the three sets of characters make substantial journeys across America to arrive at the slightly unusual location for the denouement of the plot, Vancouver docks.

1. Tito and the old man are taken from New York by van to a private airfield, and flown in a plane which stops numerous times to refuel en route at remote rural locations across America, arriving on an island where they pick up a jeep concealed in brush, drive to the coast and are in turn collected by a boat which transports them by sea into Canada.

2. Hollis and Odile fly from Los Angeles to Vancouver, are greeted by a Blue Ant functionary who drives them to the astonishingly luxurious Blue Any apartment, complete with free cars and a hover bed.

3. Milgrim and Brown go by train from New York’s Penn station to a safe house in Philadelphia and then by swish Jetstream private jet to an island from where they are taken by boat across the border into Canada.

Trains and boats and planes. The extent of this gee-whiz travel and the fact that everything is paid for and pre-planned is one aspect of the novel’s fantasy escapism. How lovely to have someone lay on all this expensive travel without a moment’s hassle.

The mastermind paymaster

I still think naming the impresario who sets this and the previous novel in motion Hubertus Bigend is Gibson making a calculated snub to his readers. It is both a joke for those with the right sense of humour, but also a not-very-subtle way of saying, ‘If you suckers’ll buy this guy’s preposterous name, you’ll buy anything.’

The idea of this character is that Bigend is a fabulously rich, fabulously successful advertising guru, who is interested in off-the-wall activities which lead him into realms far outside advertising accounts, partly out of pure curiosity which he is rich enough to indulge, and partly because it helps maintain his ‘edge’ (Daddy-o) and sometimes inspires ideas for new campaigns. This motivation supposedly explains why Bigend is prepared to provide bottomless funding for the two sassy young women protagonists of Pattern Recognition and Spook Country…

(To justify the idea that the wild goose chases in these novels do have some kind of practical payoff, we learn on page 108 of this novel that the outcome of Cayce Pollard’s prolonged search for the video footage being released snippet by snippet in the previous book, Pattern Recognition, was that Bigend developed a thing called ‘Trope Slope… our virtual pitchman platform’ (p.108). I wonder if this is intended to sound as lame as it does. Maybe a similarly global quest featuring mysterious video footage was necessary to develop Tesco’s strapline, ‘Every little helps’.)

So there’s this elaborate justification woven around Bigend’s character and business practices but, at the end of the day, this is just the basic James Bond setup. Whatever fake passport and fake identity and flash gadgets and fast cars and plane tickets Bond requires to do his job, he is given. It’s exactly the same with the two women freelancers working for Bigend – they want it, they get it, and they fly off somewhere exotic.

In fact the novel contains a number of conscious echoes of James Bond and his world of glamour, gadgets and girls. Bigend’s enabler, the person Cayce or Hollis ring up to get plane tickets or a new car or laptop or whatever, is another supremely capable young woman, in this case named Pamela Mainwaring. She appears in all three novels in the trilogy as Bigend’s super-efficient fixer and she’s basically an updated version of Miss Moneypenney.

That Gibson realises at various points that he is, in effect, writing a Bond novel for the 2000s, Bond with a laptop, is acknowledged in several explicit Bond references, on pages 160, 166 and 344.

Personally, the idea of slightly puzzled agents in the field reporting back to an avuncular, all-seeing older man, who works from a series of secret locations equipped with vast screens, maps of the relevant cities and advanced tracking technology, reminded me of the Man from UNCLE TV series, and the mastermind paymaster figure of Alexander Waverly played by the lovely Leo G. Carroll. Despite all the shiny prose style and laptops, Gibson’s novels feel, deep down, that dated.

The payoff – spoiler alert!

In the end the entire plot turns out to be about Iraq and corrupt United States government money.

A hundred pages or so into the text we learn that Tito is being ‘run’ by an old unnamed man, who claims to have known Tito and Alejandro’s grandfather back in Havana. This, combined with lots of references to the KGB, and a couple of mentions of the surprising fact that Tito and Alejandro learned their ‘tradecraft’, their systema, from a Viet Cong-era Vietnamese operative, these are all, I think, deliberate red herrings dropped by Gibson to suggest that the plot is all some spooky global conspiracy involving the successor to the KGB, the scarey FSB. But no, in the end…

The old guy who is in charge of the entire scam which lies at the heart of the story, is just a retired US secret service guy who is pissed off at the grotesque amounts of US government money being wasted and siphoned off in Iraq (all explained in chapter 71).

(In fact, I later find out, ‘the old man’ is referenced in this novel’s sequel, Zero History, and one of his operatives there suggests that he is motivated ‘by some sort of seething Swiftian rage that he can only express through perverse, fiendishly complex exploits, resembling Surrealist gestes.’ Something like the Situationist ethic so beloved of media and literature students, and dating back, like so much in Gibson’s worldview, to the 1960s. [Zero History, chapter 51].)

Hacked off at the way billions of US dollars are being poured into the bottomless pit of Iraq and wondering what to do about it, ‘the old man’ and others like him have got wind of a particular shipping container containing $100 million in cash which had been sent off to Iraq by sea. However, something in the Iraq situation changed and the container got rerouted, then delayed and then cleverly ‘lost’ by the bad guys who wanted to steal it.

By ‘bad guys’ Gibson does not appear to mean Iraqis or Russians, but the kind of ‘rogue element’ within the US’s many security services and military operations who feature in movies like the Bourne series, bad guys based deep in the heart of Langley or the Pentagon or wherever. The plot then, once you get it straight, appears to be the very, very tired one of rotten apples inside the US Administration itself.

(It’s one of the many disappointing things about Gibson, once the facade of supercool hi-tech gadgetry is stripped away, that there is so much to say and think and write about how the sudden eruption [as it seemed to people who hadn’t been following it for years] of Islamic fundamentalism in 9/11, a decisive event which for years afterwards appeared to have tilted the entire world of geopolitics, security and culture on its side, but that Gibson has next to nothing to say about it. He has infinitely more to say about the minutiae of made-up rock bands and long-dead rock gods and fashion brands than about the fascinatingly shifting sands of international affairs. I find this deeply bathetic and disappointing.)

Anyway, the unnamed, retired, pissed-off ex-US secret service guy knows people who’ve hacked into the $100 million container’s tracking beeper, and so knows that it’s arrived in Vancouver, Canada. So he devises a scam and takes Tito in a plane across the States from New York to Vancouver, picking up a super-competent operative, an Englishman named Garreth (why not?) along the way.

After umpteen long-distance flights and boat trips this trio finally hole up in an arty loft conversion near the docks in Vancouver where they know from the tracker that the sky-blue container containing the swag has been unloaded, presumably to be shifted across the border into the States at some time.

They have hired this loft conversion because it gives an unimpeded view of the container across the way in the fenced-off dock area. That evening Garreth makes a big deal out of setting up one of those supercool sniper rifles with a tripod and telephoto lens which feature in every spy thriller of this type, up in this loft conversion, and fires nine bullets in a row along the bottom of the container.

Why? Because these are no ordinary bullets, they contain radioactive caesium stolen from a hospital or some similar cock and bull source. The idea is that the radioactivity will irradiate the entire container full of hundred dollar bills and make it impossible for the money smugglers to offload, launder or in any way use the stolen loot.

That’s it, that’s the scam, the MacGuffin and the climax to the novel. Why did the old man go to 360 pages worth of elaborate ruses to achieve this pretty simple goal? As he himself admits to Hollis, it’s a trivial amount in the grand scheme of things, but it makes him feel better. It doesn’t change anything in the real world, it just pisses of some super-criminals and makes the old man feel better.

See what I mean by Gibson’s novels having a tendency to hurtle in their supercharged prose towards a Grand Conclusion which is…er… a bit disappointing.

And Tito? He’s been brought along because if the container had a set of neat bulletholes in it officials would become suspicious. Tito’s role is to be smuggled into the waterfront container port on the same evening as the radioactive bullet shooting, with a coil of rope under his shirt and a hard hat to fit in with all the other stevedores, and to make his way among the milling dock workers till he’s just below the target container as Garreth shoots his 9 magic bullets… Then Tito’s job is to swarm up the side of the containers (the target one is the top one of a pile of three) and use a rope harness suspended from the top of the container to abseil carefully along the row of bulletholes and plug them each with a set of small, supermagnetic metal disks he’s been given for the job. Then slip back down, loosen the rope with a whiplash movement of the wrist, dump it and all other incriminating gear in a ‘dumpster’, scramble over the barbed wire and so to safety.

Actually into the arms of a rock band who happen to have been passing by (the docks are right in the city so there are roads running alongside the perimeter) and, when Tito says he can play keyboards, drive him off for a beer and a jam with the band. Seriously. You begin to wonder if Gibson’s obsession with rock bands might be a recognised mental disorder.

And Hollis Henry? Her assignment to interview the ‘locative’ artist (who creates holograms of dead celebs in Los Angeles streets) had led her to the hyper-secretive tech wizard, the man who actually enables and produces these holograms, one Bobby Chombo, ‘an expert in geospatial technologies’.

Hubertus Bigend, who has by now introduced himself to Hollis so she knows exactly who she’s working for and what he’s looking for (namely, intellectual thrills), explains to Bigend that it is Chombo he really wants to meet and/or work with. But only days after Corrales takes Hollis to Chombo’s pad to meet him for the first time, the paranoid genius disappears along with all his kit leaving an empty loftspace.

Where has he gone? Well, Vancouver, where he’s been summoned by the ‘old man’ supervising the scam. How does Hollis discover that’s where he’s gone? Well at the start of the story Hollis is staying with Odile:

‘A curator from Paris who specialises in locative art’ (p.251)

Gibson concocts a ridiculous coincidence whereby Odile turns out to know Chombo’s sister, Sarah Ferguson, who one day phones her to say she’s just seen her brother, Chombo, in their home town Vancouver (chapter 62), news which Odile passes onto Hollis. Pretty convenient coincidence!

When Hollis tells Hubertus that’s where this reclusive tech guru has gone, he immediately authorises whatever she needs, plane or train or automobile, to get her to Vancouver, so off she flies with Odile tagging along.

And a a day or two later, Hollis has only just tracked down Chombo’s new location to a building down a back alley in Vancouver when she is spotted and swept inside by calm omni-competent Garreth, and into the briefing meeting being given by the old man to Tito and Garreth. Because, as luck (or the conveniences of thriller fiction) would have it, Hollis has stumbled on their secret hideout only hours before they are scheduled to go on the big radioactive shoot.

Just about the one real divergence from action thriller clichés is that, rather than just ‘waste her’ as the bad guys would in any number of the shockingly brutal American thrillers we’re nowadays used to, these guys make Hollis feel right at home, order her takeaway pizza (while they have curry) and ask if she’d like to come along and witness the climax of the whole story.

Which, as an aspiring journalist, she willingly does, going along to the hired space opposite the docks, watching Garreth set up his super-duper gun, fire the radioactive bullets, dismantle the gun, and returning with him to the others. At which point they simply let her walk away once she’s given her word she won’t tell anyone. And she doesn’t. Aren’t people nice? What a lovely story!

And Brown and Milgrim? In the middle of the story they are involved in a complex red herring / distraction / bit of cooked-up plot surrounding iPods. The unnamed old man has known for some time that Brown, a disaffected member of some other branch of the vast and many-headed US security services, has been on their tail. So the old man has concocted a preposterously complicated red herring whereby Tito or others in his ‘family’ send iPods packed with geospatial information about the whereabouts of the $100 million container, carefully coded amid reams of harmless music so as to appear highly secret and terribly important, to a poste restante address in San Juan, before being forwarded on to another, secret location.

Brown and his people have been taken in by this elaborate ruse and are willing to go to any lengths to get hold of what are, in fact, completely worthless iPods. Not only that but Hubertus Bigend was also taken in by this elaborate and completely irrelevant red herring, and we the readers are also forced to put a lot of energy into piecing it together until we’re told, towards the end of the book, that it was all an elaborate waste of time. Completing a Sudoku puzzle would be more rewarding.

But Brown is told by his controller about the other team (old man, Tito and Garreth) making for Vancouver and so he drags drug-addicted Milgrim with him on a long complicated journey by train to a safe house in Philadelphia, then by plane on to somewhere else, ending up at an island on the US-Canada border, and then finally arriving in Vancouver itself.

Here, by another incredibly far-fetched coincidence which the narrative tries to gloss over, they are driving along in their rented SUV when they, by complete coincidence, accidentally see Tito walking along the road. He is in fact on his way, as the reader knows, towards the Vancouver docks because this is the evening when the radioactive shooting will take place.

In a flash, the easily-angered Brown floors the accelerator and tries to run Tito down, but the boy is agile and leaps out of the way, while Brown rams his rental car into a fire hydrant and injures himself. Brown is limping around on the sidewalk as they hear the sirens of approaching police cars but when he calls Milgrim (who was in the car with him) to heel, Milgrim, for the first time in the novel, simply says ‘No’. In the confusion of the crash he had simply reached over to Brown’s briefcase, for once unattended, and helped himself to a substantial supply of the tranquilisers he’s addicted to (brand name Rize), grabs the coat Brown had supplied him and an envelope full of hundred dollar bills they’ve been using as petty cash, and simply walks off in the opposite direction.

There’s a bit more: Milgrim stumbles into the empty loft space soon after Garreth had fired his shots from it, (watched by Hollis) and discovers Hollis’s handbag which she had carelessly left behind, steals her money and phone, dumps the rest. That’s the last we hear of this strange and attractive character, Milgrim…

Meanwhile Hollis has made it back to her hotel in one piece and her old bandmate Reg Inchmale turns up for coffee and conversation. In a sudden switch of focus, Hubertus loses all interest in the locative art and now makes Hollis and Inchmale a massive offer if they’ll re-record their greatest hit but with new lyrics, for a Chinese car commercial he’s doing…

But basically it’s a happy ending. No-one gets killed, hardly anyone really gets hurt, more or less everyone gets what they want. These My Little Pony happy endings are an unexpected feature of Gibson’s fiction.


Things which drive me nuts about William Gibson’s later novels

Young women protagonists

This and its predecessor, Pattern Recognition, both have young female lead protagonists. So, come to think of it, did some of the Bridge and Sprawl novels. Presumably this is intended to be very liberated and modern and manga, but I find Gibson’s impersonations of women significantly younger than him (half his age, in this book) a bit creepy.

In this novel the lead character is Hollis Henry, a freelance journalist who discovers that she (like the young freelance fashion expert, Cayce Pollard, in Pattern Recognition) is working for a company owned by advertising guru, Hubertus Bigend, himself a creepy, domineering character who takes Holly for a long car ride without explaining where they’re going, making her considerably anxious, exactly as he did to Cayce Pollard in the previous book.

It feels very close to an abduction, and although Gibson moves to neutralise him (Hollis describes him as ‘like a monstrously intelligent giant baby’) episodes like the creepy car drive made me envision Bigend as looking and behaving like Harvey Weinstein.

Dad rock

This lead woman character, Hollis Henry used to be the singer in a rock band (oh dear) named The Curfew, yawn, which had a female drummer (like the Velvet Underground, like Talking Heads). Gibson hasn’t grasped the obvious truth that all fictional rock bands sound stupid. This rock band background goes on to become a central theme of the book, as various people she meets are bowled over to be meeting the Hollis Henry, singer with the Curfew. But this is not impressive, I found it tiresome.

Leading off this central premise are other creaky old ‘rock’ references. One of Alberto Corrales’s virtual reality artworks is of Jim Morrison, which gives rise to a little flurry of learnèd analysis of the appeal of The Doors (1967 to 1971) and the band’s internal dynamics (Ray and Robbie, man, how they managed to keep the surly old drunk in line, man).

There’s many more laboured rock references: half a page of ponderous humour about rock stars having big noses in the Pete Townsend-Keith Moon tradition (p.56).

He mentions Kurt Cobain, not bad going considering Kurt killed himself in 1994 only 13 years before the novel was published, although that is getting on for 30 years ago from today’s perspective (p.63).

More typical is the reference to a Grateful Dead concert (p.323). And Gibson namechecks Anton Corbijn (p.85), superfamous rock photographer of the 1970s and 80s (and, his Wikipedia entry tells us, ‘creative director behind the visual output of Depeche Mode and U2’) who is also thanked in the Author’s Thanks at the back of the book and so is, presumably, a buddy of Gibson’s.

Presumably this is all meant to press the buttons of ageing rock fans (U2! Depeche Mode! Jim Morrison! The Grateful Dead!) Gibson was pushing 60 when this book was published and it shows: all these Rolling Stone-type references feel incredibly dated and old.

It’s a tremendous irony that Gibson is marketed as a prophet of the future and yet so many of his cultural references are to a dusty old era of rock music from forty and fifty years ago.

Black

Gibson is obsessed with the colour black, everything is coloured black, black leather jackets, black jeans, black socks, black pants, black shades, black Range Rover, black Jeep Grand Cherokee Laredo, black leather pork pie hat, black-painted plastic spyhole covers, black conference table, black thigh-length leather coat, black wool watch cap, black knit skull caps, black, button-studded leather, a black Passat, black trash bags, heavy duty black masking tape, high-topped black shoes, loose black cotton shirt, black shirt and tie, black Oxford shoes, black vinyl hanger bag, black three-button jacket, black leather wallet, black nylon carryall, Bigend’s magnetic bed is a perfect black square supported by braided cables of black metal, a black Zodiac boat, made of black inflated tubes, a hard black floor and a black outboard motor, black plastic Pelican case, black-framed sunglasses, black filter-mask, a large black pickup, a black t-shirt under a black jacket, black tripod, black climbing rope, black respirator, black badge case, spring-loaded black flap, black tanks, black bungees, black lens cap, black SUVs, bulky black-clad special forces officers, black doors, black houses, black streets (blacktop), black sky, and some heavy-duty, enormous black dudes in New York (chapter 41), because big black guys in this kind of white man fan fiction are, well, just cool cf Live and Let Die, the films of Quentin Tarantino, and every blaxploitation movie ever made.

A few other colours occasionally make an appearance but the relentless foregrounding of black everything gives the text a laughably old rock journalist chic, black shades, man, black leather, man, just like the Velvet Underground, man, characters wear black coats, black leather jackets, black t-shirts, drive black cars up to the jet black facade of fashionable bars (the Viper Rooms where River Phoenix died). Sooo achingly cool if you’re a child of the 60s and 70s but otherwise… so lame.

Brand namechecking

Almost as big as Gibson’s Dad rock and his infatuation with all things black, is Gibson’s obsessive brand namedropping.

Gibson is described as a pioneer, and he certainly was in his first half dozen novels, set as they are in gripping sci fi futures. But by the time of Hubertus Bigend he had settled into producing pretty mainstream Yank thrillers with a twist or two of digitech gimmicks, and one of the most tedious aspects of your modern American thriller is their obsession with brands, their compulsive need to know exactly what brand of car, gun, phone, jacket, handbag, jet, or phone etc which every character is toting, driving, flying, wearing or dialling. Thus in just the first 30 pages or so we have references to:

a Philip Starck elevator, Bluetooth, Adidas trainers, a classic VW beetle, iPod, Red Wing boots, counterfeit Prada, the Ikea couch, the Casio keyboard, Paul Stuart overcoat, Ziploc bag, Yohji Yamamoto, Tower Records, Virgin records, Chesterfield cigarettes,  Hamburger Hamlet, Schwabs, Aeron chairs, Lacoste golf shirt, Nyquil, Marlboro cigarettes, winkle-picker Keds shoes, faux Oakley keds, Adidas GSC9s, Starbucks, Cuisinart

The names of umpteen cars are reeled off: Passat, Econoline, Grand Cherokee Laredo Jeep, Ford Taurus, Phaeton, Ford. The planes include a vintage 1985 Cessna Golden Eagle described in some detail (p.221). There’s even careful brand naming of the Zodiac motorboat which Brown hires to take him and Milgrim up to Vancouver.

One way of viewing this obsessive naming of branded products is as an extension of the basic thriller idea of competence. The classic thriller hero, from Philip Marlowe to Jack Reacher, is not only physically strong and resourceful but knows everything – he is an expert at guns, cars and the ways of the underworld, can explain what’s going on to all the sidekicks and dames he picks up along the journey, is savvy and streetwise in ways you and I, dear suburban reader, can only gawp at in admiration.

The modern thriller’s obsession with brand names is, from one perspective, just an extension of that expertise, of that whip-smart super-awareness, into the over-saturated world of American consumer capitalism. The modern thriller narrator can name and identify any brand of anything. It is part of his omnicompetence.

That said, an equal and opposite way of interpreting it might be as satire on the super-saturation of American life with brands and endless adverts; a satire on the way that 21st century American culture is nothing but products, and American citizens are increasingly secondary to the master brands they purchase. A world in which human beings are the disposable appendages of the brands which now own their lives: Facebook, Google, Amazon, Instagram et al.

At some point early in the history of The Thriller this brand obsession may have been an innovative device for positioning both narrator and characters and the action itself, for quickly describing and placing them in the evermore complex mid-twentieth century society. But in Gibson’s hands the obsessive iteration of brand names becomes really irritating. It’s like being stuck inside a ten-hour-long ad break, like being locked up for a week in an American shopping mall lined with huge glass windows full of lifeless models demonstrating an endless array of glossy, vacuous products. Gibson knows this. At one point he refers to:

another concourse of heavily trademarked commerce (p.367)

But nowadays this brand obsession doesn’t convey anything at all except the complete lack of depth in American life, which has slowly and steadily become almost entirely about surfaces. Even in politics, anything resembling ‘ideas’ is being squeezed out of public life, until all that matters is appearances. Are you black or white? Are you a man or a woman? These seem to be almost the only two issues left in American political or cultural life. It represents the triumph of surfaces and the death of depth. ‘If you’re white you can’t understand…’, ‘if you’re a man you can’t understand…’ Until eventually there is nothing left beneath the surface of the American mind except people squabbling about their ‘identities’. Until it’s just Kim Kardashian in culture and Black Lives Matter in politics. All ideas are annihilated in a world of appearances.

And thus it is that, although he lost the 2020 Presidential election, the certifiable dunce Donald Trump actually increased his vote. Mind-boggling evidence that America has become a nation of dunces, but dunces who know their brands to a T, who can spot the difference between a Prada and a Ted Baker and a Gucci handbag, or an Alfa Romeo Stelvio, a Jaguar I-PACE or a Toyota Highlander Hybrid, at a hundred paces.

For me the obsession of American thrillers with ‘brands’ and products long ago lost any rationale in terms of either authorial ‘competence’ or biting satire, and simply became one more extension of the empty world of style magazines and TV makeover shows. It represents an apotheosis of empty-headed consumerism, the kind of mindless consumption which is eating up the planet and turning Yanks into the tens of millions of depthless cretins who voted for Donald Trump. Twice. Gibson is aware of it, the drowning consumerism of American society. There’s a little dialogue between Brown and Milgrim:

‘People say Americans are materialistic, do you know why?’ ‘Why?’ asked Milgrim… ‘Because they have better stuff,’ Brown replied. (p.256)

So you can see why Gibson’s brand obsession is a big problem for me. In interviews he claims to be ‘analysing’ or ‘critiquing’ contemporary society but, for me, his books are just another embodiment of flashy, empty American shallowdom. Completely in thrall to designer labels, ageing rock references and flashy digital gimmicks, Gibson’s novels are part of the problem, not the solution.

The odd good thing about Gibson’s later novels

Gibson’s command of language

Gibson still has a wonderful way with words, although he has got noticeably less zingy as the years have gone by. Still, there are plenty of places where he makes the English language turn on a sixpence, expressing neat insights with tremendous style.

  • Odile shrugged, in that complexly French way that seemed to require a slightly different skeletal structure. (p.222)
  • Nature, for Milgrim, had always had a way of being too big for comfort. (p.263)

Although he is not above what you might call fairly obvious druggy jokes in the manner of Tom Wolfe:

The sky had a Turner-on-crack intensity… (p.154)

And, above all, his consistent thing is using language to suggest edges, spaces of the mind, perceptions on the periphery, weird angles just on the edge of consciousness or perception. These crop up regularly and are very pleasurable. Thus when our heroes arrive at the huge warehouse loft where they’re going to set up the sniper rifle, Hollis notices:

It generated white noise, this place, she guessed, on some confusingly vast scale. Iron ambients, perceived in the bone. (p.329)

Interesting word, ‘ambients’. Gibson takes a lot of trouble to make his prose special, to find the phrases to express the peripheral insights he is trying to capture and he does capture this, these fleeting perceptions, with dazzling fluency, and this effort and prose achievement should be celebrated. At the end of the adventure Hollis returns to Bigend’s enormous apartment in Vancouver with its huge windows overlooking the bay:

She went upstairs. Dawn was well under way, lots of it… (p.350)

He can throw this kind of thing around with apparent ease, every page has generous doses of stylish phrasing. But, imho, the zingy style doesn’t make up for the disappointingly lame content.

Medieval mysticism

Milgrim is a drug addict and steals things but he is also a university graduate who once had a respectable career as a Russia translator before he became addicted to prescription drugs. He is, in other words, a perfect invention for a book like this, a man who combines lowlife street drug knowledge with extravagant flights of scholarly fancy.

Milgrim’s adbductor, Brown, gives him an overcoat to wear which has been stolen from somewhere and in it Milgrim unexpectedly finds a dog-eared copy of a serious history book about Christian heresies and millenarian sects of the Middle Ages. This is an unlikely subject to find in a techno-thriller. But this pretext gives Gibson no end of scope to have Milgrim get thoroughly stoned and have all manner of psychedelic fantasies or make long fantastical associations about weird and wonderful religious leaders and colourful practices. Sometimes Milgrim dreams of specific named medieval millenarians, or has waking visions of Hieronymus Bosch-style scenes. It lends the novel a pleasing patina of literacy and depth.

Kidnap psychology

In fact, arguably the best thing about the novel is the description of the peculiar bond between Brown, the renegade security operative, and Milgrim the drug-wrecked Russian translator he not so much abducts as rescues and then keeps like a stray dog. Brown feeds and doses Milgrim with his pills and orders him to carry out (pretty innocuous) tasks, like translating the occasional text they’ve intercepted being sent to or from Tito, or accompanying him to change the battery in the listening device he has (very amateurishly) hidden in Tito’s New York apartment.

All that stuff, the spook stuff, is a bit crap compared to either the Master of Spy Glamour (James Bond) or of Shabby Espionage (John le Carré). What is good and is almost worth reading the novel for in its own right, is the peculiar, undefined and shifting nature of the strange master and servant or kidnapper and abductee psychology which runs through the Brown-Milgrim storyline. This is unusual, unexpected, strange and worth the read.

The Orishas

Another notable strand or flavour in the book is the fact that Tito and Alejandro’s ‘aunt’, who brought them to New York from Havana when they were babies, Aunt Juana, worships a set of occult Cuban gods. They are referred to as the Orishas, who are deities in the Santería religion (named deities include Ochun, Babalaye, He Who Opens The Way, p.70, Orunmila, Elleggua, p.94).

There’s more detail on page 163. Oshosi gives Tito power in chapter 42. Oshosi saves Tito from Brown’s car ramming in chapter 75. Ochun helps him dangle from the harness beside the contained and seal the bullet openings in chapter 77.

Looking it up online we learn that the gods of the Santería religion are ultimately derived from the beliefs of the black slaves who were brought over from Africa to Cuba and, forbidden to practice their own beliefs, were forced to superimpose them onto the permitted icons and figures of Christianity. Thus in this belief system, shrines may contain images of Jesus or the Virgin Mary but these are ‘fronts’ for the older pagan gods.

What makes this more than local ‘colour’ is that at key moment in the book – namely when Tito is sent into Vancouver docks to patch up the bullet holes in the container – the text suggests that the Orishas literally take over his body and mind, giving him reflexes which keep him out of danger and a sense of purpose which guarantees the job will be done.

This is weird and powerful, although it actually has precedents in Gibson’s work. Something very similar happened with the voodoo spirits which appear in the second and third Sprawl novels, as somehow voodoo embodiments of the personas of pure data flow within the web. In both that and this novel, the irruption of voodoo gods into the mind of the protagonists doesn’t really make any sense but is nonetheless very compelling, as a weird, uncanny experience for all concerned.

No sex, no violence

Given the rather harsh things I’ve said about Gibson’s addiction to brands and the way the narrator’s omnicompetence with brands and travel arrangements and scrambled phone lines and surveillance technology and safe houses makes him sound exactly like every other contemporary thriller writer… one big thing certainly does distinguish Gibson’s thrillers from the competition, and it’s not the use of cutting-edge ‘locative’ or ‘geospatial’ technology. It’s the almost complete absence of sex and violent death in his books.

Actually, really high-end thrillers as a genre generally underplay sex. Characters may have sex, but it is rarely described, in fact most thrillers draw a Victorian veil over the act itself. Does Jack Reacher have much sex, I can’t remember. This, I guess, is because sex or, shall we say, making love, is generally quite a slow sensuous affair which can leave both participants feeling mellow and blissed out. Well, that is precisely the opposite of the jittery, hard-edged tone most modern thrillers strive to achieve. It would be like having a big ad break in the middle of an action movie. It would last just long enough to undermine the edgy atmosphere, the sense of constant threat, and the fast-moving action. Hence – surprising absence of sex.

What makes it more notable in Gibson’s novels is his penchant for female protagonists which sort of, at moments, might lead you to expect a flash of boob or some such sexual reference. But no nothing like that, nothing tasteless or porny ever, ever happens in a Gibson novel. He never refers to the sexuality of his women protagonists.

Instead, Chevette Washington in the Bridge trilogy, Cayce Pollard in Pattern Recognition and Hollis Henry in Spook Country function just like robots, like androids. They don’t seem to have any of the emotions I associate with women, or indeed people generally (love, compassion, empathy, fear, worry) nor any of the bodily functions experienced with female biology; they don’t seem to have periods, stomach cramps, any of the other physical conditions which women of my acquaintance experience.

At most they briefly pee or shower but this is referred to in, at most, a sentence before they dress quickly and efficiently and get on with the action. Gibson’s female protagonists are curiously sexless. It’s like reading the adventures of a shop window mannekin.

Ditto the violence. Nobody gets killed during the narrative of Pattern Recognition and nobody gets killed in this novel, either. It’s remarkable how, for a modern thriller writer, Gibson manages to keep the body count right down. He maintains a constant sense of threat and anticipation and yet… almost nobody actually gets hurt in a Gibson novel, nobody at all in this one.

It’s one more thing which gives them their distinctive flavour, along with the sexless women, the voodoo gods, the tangential psychology of many of the characters, the obsession with Dad Rock and flashy brands, and the consistently disappointing climaxes when the hurtling tension of 350 pages give way to a happy ending, in which no-one is hurt and more or less everyone gets what they wanted:

  • Tito and Garreth and ‘the old man’ successfully pull off their job
  • Milgrim walks free from bondage to Brown
  • Hollis gets enough detail to write her magazine story about ‘locative art’
  • and Hubertus, never really sure what he wanted except the thrill of the chase into unknown areas of the matrix, appears to be satisfied and swiftly moves on to ask Hollis and Inchmale to record a version of their only hit single which he can use on an ad for a Chinese car

So everyone is home in time for tea and an early night. In the end, it’s an oddly comforting book, in its politics-free, product-obsessed, shiny, sexless way.


Credit

Spook Country by William Gibson was published by Putnam’s in 2007. All references are to the 2011 Penguin paperback edition. I bought it new off Amazon but it wasn’t too badly damaged, only the back cover covered in marks and the last 15 or so pages bent and folded.

Other William Gibson reviews

Pink Floyd: Their Mortal Remains @ the Victoria and Albert Museum

This massive exhibition marks the 50th anniversary of Pink Floyd’s first album, The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn’, and debut single, Arnold Layne, way back in 1967. It follows last year’s big exhibition about the 60s (You Say You Want A Revolution) and 2013’s David Bowie exhibition, which broke attendance records. There’s gold in them thar 60s icons. ‘Dad Rock’, my daughter calls it.

Pink Floyd: a brief introduction

You can learn everything you need to know and more from their Wikipedia article or the band’s own website. Nice middle-class boys from Cambridge who met in London art schools in the mid-60s, they formed a four-piece band based round charismatic front man, guitarist and songwriter, Syd Barrett, released a couple of singles and their debut album – dominated by their trademark composition Interstellar Overdrive – and headlined ‘scene’-defining ‘underground’ gigs in the Summer of Love.

But Syd took too much LSD, becoming wildly unreliable, so in 1968 the band gently dropped him and replaced him with their friend and lead guitar supremo, David Gilmour. You can hear the change in the second album – A Saucerful of Secrets. Only one of the songs is by Syd and all the others lack his rackety inspiration. In its way it’s more experimental than their debut, with many more electronic soundscapes – witness the sustained weirdness of the title track, A Saucerful of Secrets. Conversely, other tracks sound much smoother and idyllic, and it’s notable how the lyrics fit smoothly into the songs instead of sticking out at unexpected angles, as they did in Syd’s songs. An example of this smoothness is See-Saw.

Between 1968 and 1973 the Floyd drifted, making a series of experimental albums and soundtracks to films. The film soundtracks are More (1969), Zabriskie Point (1971) and Obscured by Clouds (1972), the last one of which they knocked off in an intense week, apparently.

Ummagumma (1969) was an experimental double album, with one disk carrying a live album and the other featuring four tracks, each written by one of the band, and rarely listened to now.

Atom Heart Mother (1970) was a collection of so-so tracks on one side, including Alan’s Psychedelic Breakfast, in which one of their roadies is taped mooching about in his kitchen fixing a fry-up. The other side is devoted to the title track, a 23-minute-long piece in which the group integrate their sound into an experimental orchestral work by composer Ron Geesin. I’ve a soft spot for Summer ’68, written by the group’s keyboardist, Rick Wright.

Meddle (1971) follows the same formula with a side-long piece – Echoes – accompanied on the other side by a very uneven collection of songs.

So in the six or seven years of their existence they had morphed from being the soundtrack to 1967, all paisley shirts, purple scarves and Afghan waistcoats – to being long-haired purveyors of 25-minute-long ‘art’ pieces to the stonedocracy of the 70s.

Dark Side of the Moon and after

Then in 1973 they released Dark Side of the Moon and everything changed, big time.

As usual, at a bit of a loss for inspiration, they had the idea to write songs about the Big Issues of Life – like Death, Money, Madness – and link them using the panoply of tricks they’d picked up on their various experimental forays.

The album begins and ends with a (very slow) heart beat, on which are superimposed the sound effects of cash tills (used on the track Money) and snippets of interviews they conducted with roadies and anyone they could find around the Abbey Road studios, which leads into s suite of beautifully and imaginatively linked ultra-melodic tunes. The result is still astonishing, a smash hit ‘concept album’, combining ‘experimental’ features with Weighty Issues which make stone sixth formers feel intense, all on a bed of sumptuously slow and simple songs. It stayed in the charts for decades and still defines an epoch.

Listen to the opener, Speak to Me/Breathe. Isn’t it carefully crafted, with its multilayers beginning with the calming heartbeat (apparently, anyone with a heartbeat this slow, would be dead), then jingly jangly guitar, soporific bass and, beneath it all, the plodding drums continually on the verge of falling asleep at the wheel. Turn the lights out and pass me that joint, man.

1975’s Wish You Were Here is another combination of songs about Important Issues embedded between great swathes of multi-layered keyboards, swishing and swashing over your aural organs. They’re titled Shine on You Crazy Diamond parts one to 9 and remind me of a sand storm in the desert (probably influenced by the image on the back of the album cover of a mannequin in the desert.

Unhappy music

Something was happening to the boys, which became even clearer on 1977’s Animals – they were getting bitter and twisted. Dark Side of the Moon is full of sixth-form angst about poor people and war (unpleasant, apparently) but if you don’t listen to the words (as I’ve discovered over the years, plenty of rock and pop fans don’t) it is sweet and gorgeous to listen to.

Wish You Were Here had the ultimate symptom of rock star ennui, a song about how awful it is being a rock star – Welcome To the Machine – but still has swathes of beautiful music, not least the simple but affecting title track, Wish You Were Here (everybody at school taught themselves how to play guitar by copying this).

But by Animals three things were clear.

  1. Almost all the writing was now being done by Roger Waters.
  2. He was really pissed off. On Animals he has divided the human race into three types, dogs, sheep and pigs and written a ‘track’ about each. Pigs is a virulent attack on the Christian campaigner, Mary Whitehouse. It was Waters who had had the idea of songs about Big Issues for Dark Side and who wrote the jaded songs about the rock biz on Wish You Were Here, but both albums still contained significant contributions from the rest of the band, not least in the linking sections between the songs. Animals feels like pure Waters, in concept and execution, and it’s miserable.
  3. The paraphernalia, the concepts, the marketing and staging of each album had got more and more elaborate.

And it’s this third element which is the basis for this exhibition – the paraphernalia of performance.

Right from the start the Floyd were interested in using lightshows to amplify the trippy experience of their underground gigs. Apparently they pioneered the use of large lighting rigs and special visual effects. As early as 1969 the cover of Ummagumma featured a photo of the kit their roadies had to unload, set up and then dismantle before and after gigs.

By the mid-1970s stadium rock had become well-established, with other groups like Led Zeppelin or Wings crating round huge amounts of equipment, lights, mixing desks and special amplifiers, but the Floyd were always seen as technical pioneers, for example in the use of quadraphonic sound.

But with Dark Side, music, concept, images, design and presentation was brought together. Previous Floyd album covers (MeddleAtom Heart) had been jokily ‘conceptual’. But the art work on Dark Side, specifically the idea of the beam of white light going into a triangular prism, designed by Hipgnosis and George Hardie, formed the basis for the stage show and merchandising.

The art work for Wish You Were Here was also of a new order, something distinctive and unseen before. The original album cover was covered in black plastic which you had to tear off to reveal the image of two men shaking hands in a Hollywood studio vacant lot, one of them bursting into flames – presumably a reflection of Water’s bitter disillusion with the record business.

It was Animals which took this to a new level when the central image used for the photo shoot, a huge pink inflatable pig suspended by a cable from Battersea Power Station, broke loose and caused enough havoc among planes landing at Heathrow Airport to become an item on the news. This pig, along with sheep, dogs and other characters from the songs now made their appearance at the Floyd’s enormous sell-out stadium tours.

The Wall

Waters’ bitterness reached unparalleled heights in 1979’s The Wall, a concept double album (always a bad sign) featuring the adventures of ‘Pink’, an idealised version of Waters’ own life, a baby in the Blitz whose dad is killed in the War, growing up in austerity England, bullied at school and pushed around by an uncaring society.

Just as Genesis’s concept double album The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway (1974) represented the end of their most creative period, The Wall is a dire, apocalyptic vision of Waters’ unhappiness and alienation. The album spawned the wretched single Another Brick in the Wall, which, God forgive us, made it to number one in the charts. ‘We don’t need no education’, yes, easy to say when you’re a multi-millionaire from Cambridge.

In 1982 they made a full-length feature film out of the album, featuring young punk singer Bob Geldof as the wretched ‘Pink’, thus immediately and forever losing any credibility he ever had.

It was with The Wall that the band’s use of props and imagery in their live shows went off the scale. The band commissioned well-known English satirical cartoonist Gerald Scarfe to devise illustrations for the album’s artwork, for its promotion and marketing, for short videos accompanying tracks, and illustrate the characters which infest the storyline. Hence the screaming head, the cartoon schoolteacher, and the menacing hammers which feature albums went off the scale.

The stage show featured enormous blow-up versions of these figures at the relevant parts of the narrative. Early on an inflatable fighter plane screamed along a wire from the back of the auditorium to crash on stage. At the end of the show an enormous wall is built between the audience and the band, which is eventually blown up and knocked down.

What pretentious twaddle. A friend has all the Pink Floyd albums, has been to gigs launching each of the albums, and his wife hates them. ‘They’re just so depressing,’ she moaned. It’s really that simple. If you listen to their albums in order you find yourself being sucked, step by step, into this nightmarish, paranoid, solipsistic soundworld.

Yet the irony is that as the music grew grimmer and grimmer, the scale and ambition of the artwork and the stage shows escalated to gargantuan proportions.

By this stage the band themselves were falling out, Roger Waters’ attitude (which some called megalomania) alienating the others. Symptomatically, Waters wrote all the songs, lyrics and music for the next album, 1983’s The Final Cut. Keyboardist Rick Wright had been sacked from the band. Singer and guitarist David Gilmour performed but had no songs ready. So was it a Pink Floyd album at all, or – as many have commented – essentially a Roger Waters solo album. In fact, it was solo album time for all. Gilmour made a solo album, About Face. Waters, for his part, made and toured a solo album, The Pros and Cons of Hitch Hiking.

The band then spent 1984 and 1985 briefing lawyers and issuing writs against each other as to who owned the name ‘Pink Floyd’ and trying to untangle contractual obligations, royalty payments and so on. By 1986 Waters had legally left the band, though retaining rights to perform The Wall (which he has gone on to do extensively, around the world, in sell-out shows).

Now the band consisted of singer-guitarist Gilmour, drummer Mason and keyboardist Wright. The trio released A Momentary Lapse of Reason in 1987. By this stage most normal people had long ceased caring. In 1994 the trio released The Division Bell and the tour to promote it was the last Pink Floyd tour.

Since then, for the last 23 years, Gilmour and Waters – respectively the singer-guitarist, and the conceptualiser-songwriter-lyricist – have been fending off rumours of a reunion. They were offered a reputed £150 million to tour the USA, but turned it down. The general idea is that Gilmour can’t bear to be in the same room as Waters. In an interview with Mojo magazine, Mason said Waters leaving left the others feeling like members of the Soviet Politburo after Stalin died. Wow.

In 2005 the band members were persuaded to reform to play the Live 8 Charity concert, performing Speak to Me/Breathe and Money from Dark Side, Wish You Were Here from the album of the same name, and Comfortably Numb from The Wall. In 2008 the gentle, often overlooked keyboardist Rick Wright passed away. So no complete reunion is now possible.


The Pink Floyd Exhibition: Their Mortal Remains

And it is this long colourful journey, from rackety underground psychedelic pioneers, through uneven experimentalism, to producing one of the great rock albums of all time which catapulted them into a series of overblown stage sets and middle-aged rock star angst, which this huge, imposing exhibition chronicles in impressive detail.

It is mainly a collection of hundreds of artefacts, from the venue posters and newspaper photos of the early days through to rooms full of enormous props from the final albums, interspersed with TV screens showing clips of the band performing at various stages of their career, and interviews with the growing group of collaborators, producers, designers, illustrators, cartoonists and so on who worked with them – including illustrator Gerald Scarfe, architect Mark Fisher, engineer Jonathan Park, animator
Ian Emes and lighting artist Marc Brickman.

You’re given headphones at the start so you can listen to the hour-long mix of tracks and interviewees’ words. It is a little like walking through a BBC Four documentary on Rock Greats.

Installation view: left, a case about A Saucerful of Secrets; a TV monitor showing Syd Barrett; centre the clever-clever artwork for Ummagumma

Installation view: from left to right – a case about A Saucerful of Secrets; a TV monitor showing Syd Barrett; centre the clever-clever artwork for Ummagumma

Having staggered to the end, I turned round and walked through the show backwards, following the story of a group of squabbling middle-aged men who worked with a wide range of similarly-aged male figures in art, design and illustration to produce vast, overblown slabs of narcoleptic music, but who pared away the amount of equipment, the unnecessary props and the middle of the road rock sound to produce some interesting and experimental work in their mid-period, before shedding all the unnecessary clutter to write lovely songs about lazing around in English fields, and then put all their differences aside to come to late fruition as the hyperactive, guitar-driven soundtrack of a small group of underground hipsters in swinging London.

If only.

Props and shops

It is an exhibition of things, some of staggering size. Big props include:

  • a massive representation of ‘The Wall’ stage with the giant inflatable schoolteacher looming over
  • a house-sized recreation of Battersea Power complete with towering chimneys
  • a room devoted to a pitch-black space containing a holographic image of The Dark Side Of The Moon’s famous prism
  • the inflatable TV and refrigerator used on the 1977 In The Flesh tour
  • band face masks from ‘The Wall Live’, 1979
  • the 6-metre-high metallic heads created for the cover of 1994’s The Division Bell
  • a flower petal mirrorball stage prop, 1973 – 5
  • the ‘lightbulb suit’ pictured on the sleeve of 1988’s Delicate Sound of Thunder live album
Props from The Wall

Props from The Wall

More discrete pop trivia includes:

  • The punishment book and cane from the Cambridge And County High School for Boys, original guitarist and vocalist Syd Barrett and bass guitarist, vocalist and songwriter Roger Waters were pupils in the late 1950s.
  • Waters’ and Mason’s technical drawings and sketches from the Regent Street Polytechnic where they both studied architecture.
  • Nick Mason’s annotated gig diary from the early years, playing London’s underground music club UFO and touring Britain’s circuit of Top Rank ballrooms and college halls.
  • Roger Waters’ handwritten lyrics for the songs Wish You Were Here and Have A Cigar.

Famously, the band worked with the Hipgnosis design partnership of Aubrey ‘Po’ Powell and the late Storm Thorgerson. There are sketches and early drafts of what became the iconic covers of Dark Side and Wish You Were Here.

Since the band are also a little tiny bit about music, there are also some of their actual instruments, including several of David Gilmour’s guitars, including his famous Black Stratocaster, alongside Richard Wright’s early-‘70s era Mini Moog synthesiser.

Not one but two rooms are completely filled with amplifiers, speakers and shelves full of all the effects pedals and mixing desks in between. It feels like walking into the basement of a guitar shop. Oooh treasure! Visitors are encouraged to twiddle and play with in order to mix your own customised version of Money. There’s a lot here for sound technicians and hi-fi nerds. The final room is ‘the Performance Zone’, where visitors

“enter an immersive audiovisual space which includes the recreation of the last performance of all four members of the band at Live 8 with Comfortably Numb. The track was specially mixed using Sennheiser’s ground-breaking AMBEO 3D audio technology.”

Interviews with technicians who’ve worked with the Floyd over the years bring out the fact that they pioneered a lot of technology which went on to become standard – the trajectory from shaky psychedelic floorshows to flawless stadium theatre, was mirrored by pioneering of musical sounds to be extracted from synthesisers, innovations in recording techniques, new ways of designing and lighting live performances and a minute attention to the quality of the live sound.

Display case of guitars and technical equipment

Display case of guitars and technical equipment

There’s less sex and drugs in it, but there is a fascinating history of the technology of rock music to be written and the Floyd would play a central role as catalysts and visionaries.

Iconic Entertainment Studios

Interestingly, the exhibition is only part-curated by the V&A (to be precise by by Victoria Broackes, Senior Curator, whose previous exhibitions include David Bowie and You Say You Want a Revolution?). The exhibition is presented in partnership with Michael Cohl’s Iconic Entertainment Studios, led by Pink Floyd’s creative director Aubrey ‘Po’ Powell (of the design partnership Hipgnosis) and Paula Webb Stainton, who worked closely with members of Pink Floyd including Nick Mason (Consultant For
Pink Floyd). Also contributing are “designers Stufish, the leading entertainment architects and the band’s long-serving stage designers, and interpretive exhibition designers Real Studios”.

In other words, the show is a natural extension of its previous product design, marketing and display. This aspect of it, the way it can be staged without any of the musicians due to their extensive music recordings and interview material, suggests the possibility that bands from this era (and maybe later, but these 1960s bands are the classic ones) will potentially have an endless afterlife, even after all the band members are long dead which is, well… eerie. What was once so full of life and warmth and energy becomes… mummified.

Early and late

An exciting three minutes from 1967 – I love Syd’s rackety, scratchy guitar sound:

A very boring ten minutes from 1994, featuring David Gilmour’s trademark, flawlessly soaring sound, sending centrist Dads everywhere into ecstacies of air guitar.

Pink Floyd in photos

Pink Floyd 1967 – left to right keyboardist Rick Wright, drummer Nick Mason, bassist Roger Waters and visionary acid casualty Syd Barrett.

Pink Floyd 1973 – l to r: Rick Wright, David Gilmour, Nick Mason, Roger Waters. Far out, man. This is how everyone wanted to look in 1973.

Pink Floyd 1985 – l to r: Wright, Gilmour, Mason. Snappy 80s threads.

Pink Floyd 1994 – Dad Rock epitomised by Mason, Gilmour and Wright.

Pink Floyd 2005 at Live 8 – still crazy after all these years: Gilmour, Waters, Mason, Wright.


Related links

Other V&A blog posts

Bill Bruford: The Autobiography: Yes, King Crimson, Earthworks and More (2009)

24 January 2012

‘If the British Prime Minister’s Cabinet could co-operate on the same level as the great Miles Davis quintets, we’d be experiencing a different form of government altogether.’ (page 142)

This is an absolutely brilliant book. It is a rare example of an autobiography by a musician who’s got something interesting to say – about making music, about his own feelings and ambitions in music, about the bands he’s played with, about the enormous changes he’s seen over the past 40 years in the music ‘business’ and wider society – and who says it with intelligence and dry humour. The only comparisons I can think of are Mile Davis’s and Bob Dylan’s autobiographies, but Bill’s has intelligent and thoughtful points to make about a much wider range of subjects. And he’s English (hooray!)

If you’re interested in the music of the 70s, if you’re interested in progressive rock music, if you’re interested in jazz, if you want to know how albums are actually pieced together, how bands behave on the road, how the recording studio works, what managers are like, the cost to a person’s private life of being a working musician doing gruelling foreign tours, if you want tips on how to survive in the music business, or if you’re just interested in the social, political, cultural and economic history of the last 40 years, then buy this wonderful book!

Bill Bruford: The Autobiography: Yes, King Crimson, Earthworks and More

Review

Bill Bruford, son of a vet from Sevenoaks in Kent, was a teenage prodigy of a drummer, as soon as he could taking the train up to London to see American jazz drummers performing at Ronny Scott’s and other Soho jazz clubs in the mid-60s and learning from everyone. By 1968 a series of chance encounters led him to land the gig as drummer in the new progressive band, Yes, his extraordinary technique propelling the band through their first five albums: Yes, Time and A Word, The Yes Album (1971), Fragile (1971) and their masterpiece, Close To the Edge (1973).

Yes in concert 1971. L-R: Tony Kaye keyboards, Chris Howe on guitar and Bill Bruford on drums

Yes in concert 1971. L-R: Tony Kaye keyboards, Chris Howe on guitar and Bill Bruford on drums

At which point, just as Yes were about to tour the album round the US and go supernova, Bill left the band to join their rival in progressive rock, the far darker and more experimental King Crimson. Led by guitar maestro Robert Fripp, the Crim had had chronic difficulty keeping a stable line-up since their debut album, In the Court of the Crimson King back in 1969. Bruford’s arrival heralded the third incarnation of the band, much heavier and more guitar-driven and without the pseudo-medieval lyrics and elaborate song structures of Peter Sinfield. This darker sound came to the fore on the albums Larks’ Tongues in Aspic (1973), Starless And Bible Black (1974), Red (1974) and the umpteen bootlegs and live albums from the time.

Bill Bruford drumming with King Crimson in New York, 1973

Bill Bruford drumming with King Crimson in New York, 1973

At which point Fripp surprised the band by dissolving it, and Bruford embarked on the next 35 years forming his own rock combos, sometimes with former Yes-men, sometimes with a reformed Crim (which Fripp undissolved in 1980), but increasingly moving into the area of jazz which had been his earliest love, forming the groups UK and Earthworks, as well as recording with numerous jazz greats in the US and UK, and a constant schedule of touring across Europe, America and Asia. In 2009, after a long and varied career, Bill announced his retirement and, later the same year, published this, his autobiography.

Format Bill has had the brilliant idea of structuring the book around chapters answering the questions he is most frequently asked at cocktail parties, some of which drive him to distraction: So how did you get started? Why did you leave Yes? What’s it like working with Robert Fripp? But what do you do in the daytime? and 15 others. The chapters themselves consist of stories, anecdotes, thoughts and reflections skipping around in time and place but all relating to the central question.

This is a great format because it’s so flexible: it allows him to focus on luminous moments or funny anecdotes or challenging ideas rather than being tied to a chronological list of his activity since, as Bill emphasises, the working musician’s life often boils down to a pretty boring litany of rehearsals, recording and touring. It is a “best of…” Bill’s thoughts and reflections.

Drumming He leaves the details of drumming until well into the book. Personally, I could have done with understanding more how a drummer decides which of all the available rhythms in a piece of music to pick out, and why, and on which drums or percussion instruments? But there is still plenty about the business of drumming, the setting up and the testing, in the studio or before a performance, as well as lots about the business side – attending drumming conferences, fronting ads for specific manufacturers and so on:

‘When I first pick up the sticks, I feel stodgy and slow. I need to warm up. Simple, powerful strokes eventually get some blood circulating in wrists and fingers, and soon the strokes come more easily. Drummers usually practice the rudiments, a codified set of sticking patterns with colourful onomatopoeic names such as flamadiddle and ratamacue. There are traditionally some 26 of these, mostly derived from military drumming, and it’s like practicing the correct fingering for your piano scales.’ (page 294)

There’s a wonderful meditation on the physical, musical and philosophical differences between rock drumming and jazz drumming on page 172 which sheds light on the purpose and structure of the two different genres.

Bill with Mark Hodgson (acoustic bass) and Tim Garland (tenor saxophone). Photo: Fernando Aceves

Bill with Mark Hodgson (acoustic bass) and Tim Garland (tenor saxophone). Photo: Fernando Aceves

Prog rock Bill has numerous insights into the history and development of the genre music to which he contributed so hugely – after all he worked with the giants of the genre, Yes, King Crimson and, briefly, Genesis. Passages of pure insight like the following are scattered throughout the book:

‘Robert Fripp had stopped King Crimson, rather smartly I thought, in 1974, and we were able to leave the scene relatively unsoiled by the excesses that were fast entrapping the unwary… The history of progressive rock since about 1976 can be divided into two distinct periods. From 1976 to 1982, a watered-down, simpler version limped on as American stadium rock and British symphonic pop, but no new ground was being broken and the older bands started to lose commercial viability… The Yes, Genesis, King Crimson, and Pink Floyd groups of 1972 became the lighter, more consistent stadium rockers such as the Journey, Styx or Kansas of 1978…  By the time John Wetton’s Asia had sold millions of copies of its bland radio-friendly pop in the 80s, the post-hippie extension of the counterculture that was progressive rock, based on the idealistic impulses of the 60s, had finally runs its course. The dream, or illusion, of individual and global enlightenment was over. Progressive rock, like the period that gave rise to it, was essentially optimistic…Perhaps that lasting innocence, a refreshing anecdote to modern times, is where the attraction lies for the remarkably large group of listeners it has managed, over many turbulent years, to retain.’ (page 125)

As someone fascinated by the historical context of all types of art, these passages are, for me, pure gold.

Jazz Jazz was always Bruford’s first love and the book makes clear that, throughout the 70s, he felt like a jazz drummer masquerading as a rock drummer until he felt confident enough to set up his first jazz group in the 1980s. Having experienced both worlds he is uniquely well-placed to comment on the enormous disparity between the two musics:

‘If I threw a party for my greatest 20 musical friends, past and present, the room would divide down the middle with 10 on one side and ten on the other. The ten on my right would be millionaires with salaries so unaccountably large that more time would be spent in charitable dispersal of the stuff than its actual acquisition. The ten on my left would be among the finest jazz musicians in the world, with an average salary approximately equal to that of a supermarket checkout girl. And I would be standing in the middle.’ (page 199)

The music biz Bill describes himself and his band mates in Yes as being astonishingly naive about every aspect of the business when they started out. They were on a weekly wage of £25 well into their period of greatest success. He gives vivid vignettes of the band, memorably recalling Jon Anderson in the band’s communal flat in Fulham, yelling down the phone at promoters and agents, doing everything necessary to keep the band going. Bill’s anecdotes give a good sense of the various managers Yes and King Crimson went through, and an unnerving insight into the chanciness and dodgy dealing which accompanied so many of the ‘business’ arrangements.

Our hero - older and wiser

Our hero – older and wiser

But behind the anecdotes about this or that manager, about the constant squabbling over money (and everything else) which characterised Yes, about the hussling for gigs, the sordid contractual realities which lay behind the making of the albums the fans loved and the tours they sold out – it’s the confidence with which Bill sets his own story within the much broader context of the day which makes the book so rewarding. He explains key facts such as the music business’s turnover tripled each year in the early 70s. Money seemed to be pouring in in uncountable amounts for the successful groups which managed to make it big in America, the platinum albums, the sellout stadium tours, the private jets, the hotel suites which they felt free to trash. The bands, the managers, the promoters and the record companies thought the gravy train (which Pink Floyd sing about with such disgust on 1975’s Wish You Were Here) would never stop, but…

I remember seeing The Song Remains the Same, the epic film of Led Zeppelin live, at the Odeon Leicester Square in October 1976 and being blown away; but then I was an impressionable 14 year-old. Led Zeppelin hadn’t played in England for two years to avoid paying supertax and most of the other megagroups – Genesis, Yes, Supertramp, Pink Floyd – had become similarly rich and distanced from their ‘fans’. Earlier that year a couple of new bands had been touring England creating a grass-roots movement wherever they played. They were The Clash, The Damned and The Sex Pistols. Though they would lumber on into the 80s and increase their turnovers, the era when the prog rockers represented youthful idealism was over. Increasingly they just represented their own need to make money.

New technology Bill’s book sheds fascinating light on the way the music industry has changed and evolved not only during the period he’s been active, but throughout the entire 20th century. Again he places his own personal story in a much wider context:

‘It is an industry for which the  constant stream of technical innovations – phonogram, wireless, recording, vinyl, cassette, long-player, multi-track recording, CD – has been both the lifeblood and a constant source of disruption and disturbance that threaten the established ways of exploiting musical materials to yield a profit. If the music industry was all about banging out bits of black vinyl on an assembly line and delivering to a vast number of retail outlets, then its modern replacement, the music business, is about the never-ending war waged by record companies, composers, and publishers to establish and then protect copyrights on their material and collect royalties for its use.’ (page 181)

I’ve rarely read anything so thought-provoking about popular music, its place in all our lives, in our Western culture, and in the vast tentacular capitalist economies which control us. He sees the big picture:

‘It’s hard to escape the conclusion that there is already enough music in Western society, and Western society tends to point out to the musician through the market – sometimes quite brutally, because the stupid musician doesn’t get it – that it doesn’t really want any new music, that it’s stuffed with the music it’s got.’ (page 181)

Something I think about all the time. I chatted to a student at Pierrot Lunaire the other day, and she told me about a few gigs she’d been to recently, Lou Reed and Patti Smith. Good God, why them, Lou’s first album is nearly 50 years old! People at work are getting excited about a series of gigs we’re staging with Paul Weller, Jools Holland, Blondie and the Human League. The biggest selling music tours of last year were Madonna (first single 1982), Bruce Springsteen (first single 1975) and Roger Waters’ The Wall (1979). Where’s the new stuff?

When everything, all the written and recorded music of the past is immediately available at the flick of a few buttons, anywhere with wifi or 3G, what value does that music have? What meaning? It certainly has lost all ability to shock or subvert or change. I grew up on the Sex Pistols. Ollie Murs doesn’t worry me. And with recorded music so ubiquitous how can the new young performing musician compete? With so many avenues of exploration so thoroughly mined, where can the ambitious musician begin to say something new?

These and lots of other issues, ideas, questions and concerns are raised and discussed by someone who has really been there and done it, in this marvellous and marvellously thought-provoking book.

All quotes from ‘Bill Bruford: The Autobiography’. Used by permission of the author.

A Postscript from Robert Fripp

Robert Fripp has been lovingly remastering, repackaging and reissuing King Crimson’s LPs as well as issuing a host of live recording, and accompanying them with fascinating commentary, on the group and the times. In the notes to ‘The Great Deceiver‘ double live CD (a fascinating record of the group in 1973-74) he makes comments which supplement Bill’s and Paul Stump’s:

‘The record industry in the period 1968-1978 was a seemingly unstoppable growth industry. The early amateurism surrounding the rock business had professionalised by about 1974, although this increased throughout the Seventies and Eighties. Records became ‘products’ and ‘units’ which moved, audiences became consumers whose ‘behaviour patterns’ were charted by ‘demographics’. Something went terribly, terribly wrong in our sense of values. Pragmatics replaced Principle. Quantity demonstrated Quality.’

(Sleevenotes to ‘The Great Deceiver, volume 1’. Copyright Robert Fripp)

In 1978 when I was buying punk singles and albums I still thought music was some kind of rebellion, had something political to say, and could change things. By 1982 I realised the New Romantic movement was deifying the Triumph of Money and the comprehensive defeat of everything the 60s stood for. In the 1990s I got to be series editor of a TV arts programme, and was quietly appalled that the clever 20-somethings who produced the music items for it made their case for who should be on the show entirely in terms of units sold, gold, platinum records achieved or Mercury or MOBO awards. The entire sector had been comprehensively corporatised. The student I chatted to at Pierrot Lunaire said she’d been to see Radiohead at the O2 last year and was disgusted by the cost and the spectacle and the merchandising and the special lifts to the VIP boxes where bankers and property developers could enjoy this so-called ‘subversive’ music in luxury.

Not unlike Bill (though as a humble fan, not a premier league performer) I also abandoned rock music in the 80s for more musically interesting jazz – and then progressed on into 20th century classical music, much of which is still so uncommercial and difficult that it resists corporatisation, assimilation and denaturing to fit the infantilised tastes of the ipod age.

Close To The Edge: The Story of Yes by Chris Welch (1999)

22 January 2012

The story  of the progressive rock group Yes is they were struggling musos from mediocre r&b bands in the late 60s with a shared interest in Simon & Garfunkel-type harmonies and more advanced playing skills than were common in the pop or rock of that era; they stumbled upon a technique for piecing together short melodic fragments into long 10, 15 or even 20 minute pieces of fiendish musical dexterity; brought this to perfection on the albums ‘Fragile’ and ‘Close To The Edge’; took it too far in the overblown double album ‘Tales From Topographic Oceans’; by 1974 and ‘Relayer’, they’d gone from living in a shared flat to owning million pound homes and flying their wives, children and nannies first class on luxury holidays to Barbados, spending money like there was no tomorrow; so when Punk came along in 1976 and made them and their style of music look like dinosaurs, they turned out to be so in debt they couldn’t do the decent thing and dissolve the band, but struggled on into the 1980s, through complex personnel changes and rushed-out albums and immense stadium tours, to make the money needed to pay for the rock god lifestyle they could no longer afford.

Chris Welch’s book includes lengthy quotes from the numerous people who’ve been part of the band over the years and you read on in hope of illumination and insight, about the lyrics, the musical inspiration, the worldview of the band – but eventually realise the book and interviews are overwhelmed by the practicalities of organising another recording session, another tour, negotiating with more lawyers. Any of the hippy spirit I associate with the early 70s and those visionary album covers by Roger Dean is obliterated by the hard realities of the music business.

“They had been a very big band in America and lived their lives in an extreme way. They all had their own limos and in 1979 they were still very much buried in that 1970s rock-star-with-a-big-house image.”

Geoff Downes, Yes keyboard player (p.191)

“I was thrilled to be joining the music business in 1968 with Yes. It was all so exciting and for five years it was heaven. But after five years all progressive rock should have stopped… From 1974 onwards you were left with Yes and Genesis not doing very good versions of progressive rock.All the creative stuff had already been done.”

Bill Bruford, Yes drummer (p.130)

“Tormato [1978] I hated. I just hated it and in a way I had kind of written them off. What happened was the songs were no good any more. Whoever was writing the main themes had run out of steam. The songs were pretty crap and a bit stupid.”

Trevor Horn, Yes singer and producer (p.196)

“Why should I care about Yes anymore? Yes was a big section of my life. How can it come back…? Yes was from a certain time in history. Those first three LPs I did with them were the real golden days of Yes. That was the creative time for the band when everybody was pulling together.”

Steve Howe, Yes guitarist (p.211)

“Yes as ever is guided financially. Most of its musical movements now are motivated by sheer lack of money. In other words, because money needs to come in fast all the time, the shortest possible route to money is taken. It means the quickest delivery of the wrong album, the quickest booking of the wrong tour. Anything to help the renegotiating of a publishing contract to keep the money coming in. So the group is always poorly financed and poorly structured which gives it no artistic freedom.”

Bill Bruford, Yes drummer (p.227)

…which is why I was flabbergasted but then not surprised to discover that the bunch of hippies with their cool album covers which I remembered from my school days are still touring and recording albums. See all the details on the official Yes website.

Chris Welch is a veteran rock journalist, for many years with the legendary Melody Maker music paper. He met the band in their earliest London days and over the years he’s toured with them, interviewed them scores of times, as a band and as individuals pursuing their solo projects etc. He is, in other words, perfectly placed to write the story of one of the most famous and successful progressive rock bands of the 1970s. Except that being so close, and needing to maintain the friendship and trust of individuals who have had so many spectacular fallings-out, personal and professional rivalries and financial disputes, he is obliged to be tactful. Very tactful. There are hints, especially about the role of the players’ wives in the umpteen disputes and personality clashes which seem to have been much more a feature of the band than any kind of “love and peace” – but only hints. Someone more distant from the band might be able to tell the story rather more meatily.

Mr Welch is not an intellectual like Paul Stump whose book, ‘The Music’s All That Matters: A History of Progressive Rock’, is full of theories and ideas about progressive music and its connection with surrounding society, culture and politics. For Welch life is altogether simpler and this is a story about hard-working, prodigiously gifted musicians who persevered through all kinds of financial, managerial and relationship setbacks to create some of the greatest rock music of the century. It reads like an enthusiastic fanzine. Or like a very long version of the kind of profile piece Mr Welch has presumably written about them scores of times. It provides the raw data which you can then combine with Stump’s account of the social changes during the 70s to come to your own conclusions.

For me the story is straightforward: Listening to the albums in order you hear the emergence of the Yes sound in the first two albums, its peak in ‘Fragile’ and ‘Close To the Edge’, its overripening on ‘Topographic Oceans’. And then the sound changes. It contains less and less of the magic of the early songs as the albums became better produced, more studio-bound, more computerised and synthesised and dead behind the eyes – until the disco drums and jazz bass of ‘90125’ announce the complete end of the progressive dream, the arrival of big hair and shoulder pads and the band photos seem to portray the more musically adept but still embarrassing older brothers (or is it uncles?) of Duran Duran. And that was by 1982. The band has carried on for over thirty years since then! Should we be amazed or impressed or appalled – or all three?

Probably my favourite track is ‘Siberian Khatru’ from the ‘Close To The Edge’ album. If you buy into the basic rock sound – dynamic drumming, propulsive bass, screechy guitar solos etc – then there’s an amazing variety of musical ideas here. I stopped counting after identifying 12 distinct musical ideas/riffs/sounds. I think it’s the way one track can contain so much invention and variety, and that so many of the ideas give the kind of visceral pleasure rock is designed for, that I like. Take the ending where guitarist Chris Howe solos over the organ riff – but the first half of the solo goes against all expectations in being very low in the guitar’s range with repeated inelegant phrases flopping back and forth against the organ backdrop – when a cliche rock god like Jimmy Page would have made the solo soar to orgasmic heights. Within the rock idiom, the music feels experimental, unexpected, full of energy and ideas. All the qualities which, sadly, had disappeared from their music by the end of the 70s.

In 1991 the band were strongarmed by their record company into recording an album with a hodge-podge lineup of old members and new, ironically titled ‘Union’. Notorious keyboard wunderkind Rick Wakeman nicknamed the album Onion, because just thinking about it made him weep. If I were sentimental I’d agree in lamenting the utter evaporation of the social, musical and artistic utopianism of the early 70s. For the last 30 years money, and money alone, has ruled the world of music as so much else.

I’ve linked to their albums on YouTube so you can sample the everchanging sounds of Yes and decide for yourselves:

Yes (1969)
Time and a Word (1970)
The Yes Album (1971)
Fragile (1971)
Close to the Edge (1972)
Tales from Topographic Oceans (1973)
Relayer (1974)
Going for the One (1977)
Tormato (1978)
Drama (1980)
90125 (1983)
Big Generator (1987)
Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe (1989)
Union (1991)
Talk (1994)
Keys to Ascension (1996)
Keys to Ascension 2 (1997)
Open Your Eyes (1997)
The Ladder (1999)
Magnification (2001)
Fly from Here (2011)

The Music’s All That Matters: A History of Progressive Rock by Paul Stump (1997)

20 January 2013

Stump’s thesis is that Pr0gressive or Prog Rock – think Yes, Genesis, Pink Floyd, King Crimson, Emerson, Lake and Palmer – has been unjustly vilified and eclipsed from ‘histories’ of rock and pop and needs to be reinterpreted and restored. This book was written in 1996 and a lot has happened by way of rehabilitating old rock bands in the past 17 years. I see from a quick surf of Amazon that there are in fact plenty of books on the subject, and plenty of these bands’ LPs are being rereleased, or rerereleased in remastered format or in expensive box sets etc. In fact, quite a few of these bands are still recording albums and touring!

Whatever you think of it, Prog certainly has a place in the social and musical history of the UK. This book sets out to shed light on both and more. First, what characterises Prog? In fact what does Prog mean?

  • Progressive. It meant Progress. It meant that sometime around 1967 the pop song was unzipped: the model of the pop chart, the album of pop hits and the concert where the performer performed his or her pop hits, was blown wide apart. Young pop musicians in many countries began experimenting musically – incorporating elements of modern jazz or classical music; lyrically – exploring the use of modern poetry, avant garde textual experiments etc; sizewise – recording ever longer songs or recording ever longer improvisations and jams; product-wise – forming small, fugitive record labels, marketing and distributing records themselves; performance-wise – bypassing the old club circuit to perform to halls full of drunk students and warehouses full of stoned hippies.
  • Progressive The assumption was that all of this experimentation, on every level, was moving forward. New forms, new multimedia, new sounds, new instruments, new combinations, new ways of thinking about songs or tracks or jams or sounds – it was felt all this was leading forward, onwards and upwards towards some great new musical synthesis.
  • “Progressive rock was the soundtrack to the counter-cultural upheavals of the late 1960s, and the period’s gallant pipedream of thoroughgoing societal and cultural transformation.”
  • Progressive The jam and the solo were about extensive self-expression and the accompanying hippy movement was about finding yourself, dropping out of the rat race, returning to the country, finding deeper meaning and spirituality etc
  • Progressive So the musical experimentation went hand in hand with personal, psychological, social and political experimentation. The music was the soundtrack to a social and cultural movement. Arguably, the social movement reached a dead end around the time the music did – sometime in 1974/75 depending on where you were sitting.

Characteristics of Progressive Rock:

  • Traditional rock music instruments – drums, bass, guitar, singer, generally with an organ or early synthesiser thrown in; onto this base might be added any number of new instruments, sounds and colours…
  • but stripped of blues structures or inflections. Surprising given that they started out in blues bands, but there are no blues structures or licks in Genesis or Yes. It’s very white music.
  • Blues were replaced by jazz or classical influences – either the organised chaos of Free Jazz (The Soft Machine), or the adaptation of classical to Rock rhythms (Emerson, Lake and Palmer) or just the use of actual symphony orchestras (Moody Blues and then everyone else)
  • Long numbers, sometimes very long numbers, often spreading out to become ‘concept albums’ on a single theme or story. Classic concept albums include:
    • The Mothers of Invention’s Freak Out! (1966)
    • The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds (1966)
    • The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967)
    • The Who’s The Who Sell Out (1967)
    • The Moody Blues’ Days of Future Passed (1967)
    • Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s Tarkus (1971)
    • Jethro Tull’s Thick as a Brick (1972)
    • Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon (1973)
    • Yes’ Tales from Topographic Oceans (1973)
    • Genesis’ The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway (1974)
    • Wish You Were Here (1975)
    • Animals (1977)
    • The Wall (1979)
  • … and characterised, especially live, by long jams and long individual solos
  • Pretentious subject matter – think Yes’s incomprehensible hippy fantasies, Peter Gabriel’s art school stories, ELP’s shocking bombast, Dark Side of the Moon ‘tackling’ the themes of Life and Death
  • Drugs like marijuana and LSD were widely used and encouraged the creation and consumpton of a particular type of music – one that was long, repetitive, developing changes and variations over repetitive structures
  • Spiritual. The drugs also encouraged both the bands and their fans to believe that the creation and consumption of this long, freeform experimental music was akin to a religious experience. The hippy movement set great store by the idea of self-expression and personal liberation, to be achieved through sex, drugs and great rock music. Fans and musicians alike hankered ” after a rock-derived Sublime which forms the core of Progressive rock music.”
  • English. It’s very English. With quite a lot of well-educated public schoolboy English men, led by Genesis almost all from Charterhouse (one year boarding fee £32,000)
  • White – not a black face in sight. Stump quotes various performers saying it wasn’t overt racism, but many of these bands wanted to incorporate Western classical forms which had zero  black input or performers.
  • Male – after all consumers of Prog and Rock tended to be (often university-educated) young white men – while consumers of chart pop music tended to be more downmarket young women, apparently.
  • Snobbery. Prog’s overwhelmingly white, often college-educated, male fans tended to look down on all other forms of rock and pop as junk, as not ‘serious’, ‘demanding’, difficult’, as too commercial, as having ‘sold out’ to The Man etc. This trope of an exclusive cohort of male initiates can be found across virtually all societies in all times. I revisited the Tate Britain exhibition of the PreRaphaelites this morning, another gang of young English men determined to reject the mass-market art and the exploitative industrial society of their time in order to create an Art which was more ‘demanding’, more ‘true’ etc. And who, of course, ended up being the Grand Old Men which a younger generation was to rebel against…

Stump’s book starts with jazz and the longhair Bohemian scene of the early and mid 1960s. You had to really tuned in to have heard let alone understood the New Thing, the free jazz being played by everyone’s hero John Coltrane and – further out into abstract music – Ornette Coleman, Archie Shepp, Pharoah Sanders etc. These guys had taken jazz improvisation into wild new places, as a listen to Coltrane’s ‘Ascension’ makes clear.

John Coltrane There’s a recognisable band – drums, bass, trumpet, saxaphone – and a structure of sorts – ensemble playing and solos alternating. But everything after that – the ‘tune’, the ‘melody’, even the rhythm, seem undetermined, in flux, leading to a raucous listening experience unlike anything else that had probably ever happened. This track is 40 minutes long and has to be listened all the way through to get the full disorientating affect.

‘Ascension’ by John Coltrane on YouTube

Improvisation and soloing had been a part of country and blues for the whole century – but the New Thing took it to new heights of virtuosity and aural demandingness. What’s impressive at this distance is how close behind the most advanced rock acts were. Ascension was recorded in 1965 and released in 1966 by which time a young Pink Floyd and Jimi Hendrix and Grateful Dead were, in their different ways, ready to do similar things – long soloing improvisations frequently bordering on chaos.

King Crimson You can hear some lovely electric band chaos at the end of the title track of ‘In The Court of the Crimson King’. Stump dates the start of Prog to this album, released in October 1969. King Crimson – brainchild of guitar virtuoso Robert Fripp – shot to fame when they supported the Rolling Stones at their free concert in Hyde Park in July 1969, in front of 500,000 people.The contrast between the delicately orchestrated whimsy of most of the track and the superloud distorted guitar of the choruses, the pretentiousness of the lyrics and then the pure chaos noise at the end, is pure Prog.

‘In The Court of the Crimson King’ on YouTube

Crimson’s first four albums contain traditional songs of hippy tweeness, about knights and ladies etc which burst into episodes of heavy guitar rock. The latter three albums become more musically uncompromising, with freer improvisation, delivering a more intense aural experience. After ‘Red’ in 1974 Fripp dissolved the group, believing he’d reached the end of the road. Though they reformed three years later, and continued releasing albums through the 80s, 90s and 00s, they never recaptured the Zeitgeist, the sense of surfing the wave and shaping its direction, which they had in the early 70s. They were Prog Rock without the confident sense of exciting Progress which you can sense in the exuberance of the early albums. Prog without the Progress.

  • In the Court of the Crimson King (1969)
  • In the Wake of Poseidon (1970)
  • Lizard (1970)
  • Islands (1971)
  • Larks’ Tongues in Aspic (1973)
  • Starless and Bible Black (1974)
  • Red (1974)

KC maintained a formidable commitment to aural experiment and difficulty. But most of the other famous Prog bands came from pop or blues backgrounds and were saturated in conventional harmonics and songwriting traditions. Very few of them could begin in apparent chaos and carry on for 40 minutes as the Coltrane track does. Most gave some kind of nod to the structures and cliches of pop. The most hidebound, traditional and, uncoincidentally, by far the most successful, is…

Pink Floyd Although Pink Floyd’s ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ (1973) is probably the most famous ‘concept album’ of all time, Floyd themselves stand a little to the side of Prog. Most Proggers tried to be musically more adventurous and sophisticated than Floyd’s fairly basic tunes and harmonics. Most of us can play Floyd’s simple 3 or 4 chord structures on piano or guitar. What they pioneered was sophisticated use of studio technology at a time when the technology was changing at breakneck speed. The songs are passe and use childishly simple changes of dynamics (first soft – then loud – then soft again), but the way they are extended and segued using sound affects, and the band’s skills in the studio, meant they pioneered techniques and technology which created new possibilities for their epigones.

‘Us and Them’ by Pink Floyd on YouTube

  • The Piper at the Gates of Dawn (1967)
  • A Saucerful of Secrets (1968)
  • Soundtrack from the Film More (1969)
  • Ummagumma (studio and live, 1969)
  • Atom Heart Mother (1970)
  • Meddle (1971)
  • Obscured by Clouds (1972)
  • The Dark Side of the Moon (1973)
  • Wish You Were Here (1975)

Many of the longer tracks are improvisations around a simple modal pulse played by Roger Waters’ bass, generally an octave of E or D, for example the famous ‘Careful With That Axe, Eugene’ (1968). Child’s play compared to anything by Yes, Genesis or Crimson.

‘Careful With That Axe, Eugene’ performed live by Pink Floyd on YouTube

Emerson, Lake and Palmer Greg Lake played bass and sang on the first King Crimson album (1969) but then left a band he thought had no future to form a ‘supergroup’ with Keith Emerson, the manically extrovert organist from The Nice and Carl Palmer, the hyperactive drummer from Atomic Rooster. Emerson, Lake and Palmer (ELP) was born and quickly released a sequence of albums which became a byword for pompousness, pretentiousness and bombast. Long, long tracks with heavy thumping rhythms, dominated by Emerson’s demented Hammond organ and Moog synthesiser, lyrics about the end of the world, or heavyhanded adaptations of popular classics (Fanfare for the Common Man, Pictures at an Exhibition, Jerusalem). They became one of the most successful acts in the world, pioneered stadium rock and earned a fortune.

  • Emerson Lake & Palmer (1970)
  • Tarkus (1971)
  • Pictures at an Exhibition (1971)
  • Trilogy (1972)
  • Brain Salad Surgery (1973)

The track ‘Tarkus’ from their concept album of the same name illustrates what was so so wrong with this band.

‘Tarkus’ by Emerson, Lake and Palmer on YouTube

Genesis Maybe Genesis are better known than Floyd to the general public because of the crossover pop hits they had when fronted by Phil Collins in the 1980s and 90s. But purist fans hark back to the earliest years, 1969-74, when the band was fronted by Peter Gabriel who also wrote many of the songs:

  • From Genesis to Revelation (1969)
  • Trespass (1970)
  • Nursery Cryme (1971)
  • Foxtrot (1972)
  • Selling England by the Pound (1973)
  • The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway (1974)

Genesis’s music has almost no blues or soul or rock and roll techniques in it at all. Of course it has a rock layout – drums, bass, guitar, keyboards, singer – but the music is extraordinarily inventive without resorting to anything people thought of as blues cliches. Genesis are often thought of as a very English band. Stump seeks to explain: partly it’s the subject matter: Peter Gabriel’s songs, which dominate the early albums, convey a kind of essence of English 6th form/art college whimsy – songs about a magical music box, the giant hogweed as invader England, a song about a Rachman-type rackrent landlord (‘The Knife’), or the thrilling song based on Arthur C Clarke’s very English sci-fi classic ‘Childhood’s End’ (1973).

‘Watcher of the Skies’ by Genesis on YouTube

I knew that the band had met at the elite public school, Charterhouse. Stump adds the fact that Charterhouse has a famous musical department and choir. All the band were soaked in the English choir and hymnal tradition. This explains their musical style with its tendency for the guitar and keyboard to elaborate chords with arpeggios and fugue structures, giving a stately, classical air to even quite raucous passages.

Yes The personnel of these bands were often very fluid. (Floyd again stands out as an exception for the group’s stability; after Dave Gilmour joined in 1968 they stayed with the same 4 musicians up to their Live 8 reunion in 2005). King Crimson, on the other hand, changed personnel and sound with every record, something which hampered them developing a steady following. Yes had a fairly stable memberhood formed round the core of singer Jon Anderson and bassist Chris Squire (although their drummer, Bill Bruford, who had joined Yes in June 1968, left in the summer of 1972 to join King Crimson.)

Yes are as famous for their album covers by the artist Roger Dean as for their music, like this cover for the 1971 album ‘Fragile’.

Their early albums are striking for the long tracks very carefully arranged from numerous small fragments which are seamlessly joined, for the sound of Jon Anderson’s falsetto vocals and the driving bass of Chris Squire, for Chris Howe’s prodigious virtuosity on acoustic and electric guitar. and for the hippy incomprehensibility of the lyrics.

  • Yes (1969)
  • Time and a Word (1970)
  • The Yes Album (1971)
  • Fragile (1971)
  • Close to the Edge (1972)
  • Tales from Topographic Oceans (1973)
  • Relayer (1974)

‘Siberian Khatru’ by Yes on YouTube

The End of Prog There were three ends:

1. Punk 

The first punk singles were released in Summer 1976 and suddenly a younger generation of performers and punters realised you didn’t have to be a virtuoso like Robert Fripp or Rick Wakefield or Chris Howe to get on stage and perform a song which spoke to you and your hearers’ lives and emotions. Also songs didn’t have to be half an hour long with extended solos, and be all about the end of the world or knights and fairies or Starship Troopers. They could be short and punchy and about nicking cars, finding a job, about the boring, drunk, sometimes violent urban scene which most English people actually inhabit. Culturally, Punk Rock destroyed the imaginative worldview which underpinned Prog. It was like the Emperor’s new Clothes: once one person pointed out the emperor was naked, the whole artifice with its pomp, its pretentions and its sacred cows, came crashing down.

On the street, vast numbers of young people wanted other sorts of music, whether it was soul, disco, heavy metal, ska, two-tone, reggae, the  chilled-out Californian sounds of the Eagles or James Taylor – and then suddenly the completely new worldview of Punk burst onto the scene. Punk wasn’t just a music but an aesthetic. It made the gritty street scenes, the urban decay of developed countries, it made poverty, aggression, loutish thuggish je m’en foutisme, cool and stylish. The editor of punk fanzine Sniffin Glue famously threw any single which lasted more than 3 minutes out the window.

2. Death of progressive politics

Progressive politics collapsed. Whether it was hard politics of post 68 revolutionaries or the soft utopianism of the hippies, both were strangled by the economic collapse of the early 70s. After the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Arab countries quadrupled the price of oil plunging the developed world into a depression which lasted nearly a decade. Radical politics and hippy druggy alternative lifestyles dragged on, but without the confidence with which they’d begun back in the booming 1960s. In one sense Punk was just being honest about the crappy urban world of unemployment and street fighting which it saw out the window. The bands became multimillionaire tax exiles phoning in their solos from Switzerland and arguing about royalties. Whatever idealism they had at the start had vanished by the mid-70s.

3. Out of steam 

Stump’s book suggests that Prog was running out of steam before well Punk exploded.

Peter Gabriel left Genesis in June 1975, exhausted by writing most of the big ‘concept’ album ‘The Lamb lies Down on Broadway’, and a long American tour. Robert Fripp dissolved King Crimson in September 1974, exhausted and disillusioned by the ‘rock’ world. Pink Floyd‘s multimillion smash album ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ (1973) was followed by the less-popular ‘Wish You Were Here’ (1975) which is a sour meditation on the band’s embittered alienation from their fans and the exploitative music business. There’s a big gap between Yes‘s ‘Relayer’ (1974) and its successor, ‘Going for the One’ (1977), as if they’d run out of inspiration. In 1974 Emerson, Lake and Palmer, at one stage vying with Led Zeppelin as biggest grossing rock band in the world, released ‘Brain Salad Surgery’ (1973), toured it in 1974, then took a sabbatical. It turned into a 3 year break and when they returned with Works I in 1977 the world had moved on and they were never to recapture their success. The Incredible String Band, the influential experimental folk band which had issued hugely successful albums since their 1967 debut, broke up in 1974. In summer 1975 Gong, maybe the archetypal hippy band, lost founder member Daevid Allen and two other core members.

On the broader Rock scene, John Lennon, a Master presence who helped oversee the transition of pop from Royal Variety entertainment to experimental Rock, retired from music in October 1975 after the birth of his son, Sean, and after delivering diminishing returns with his solo career. And a real Giant of 20th century music, Miles Davis, also retired in the summer of 1975, exhausted from decades of substance abuse. If you listen to his musical progress in the early 70s it’s hard to avoid the conclusion he had painted himself into a corner with increasingly rackety electronic jazz. In his last concerts he stopped playing trumpet altogether and leant his elbows on an electric organ, glaring at the audience.

Bit of a sweeping conclusion, but it is suggestive that somehow the explosion of creativity which began sometime in the 1960s, around 1966/67 – which saw widespread experiments in musical form and structure, in instrumentation, in crossing over genres, the transformation of recording technology, the transformation of venues from sweaty clubs to vast American stadiums –  these enormous changes in the creation, marketing, selling, performance and consumption of the new genre of Rock Music, had taken place and been consolidated. The experimental phase was over. A new phase of stadium rock, an established genre with its own expectations, populated by transAtlantic rock gods, was well in place by about 1973. The open-ended experimental progressiveness these bands had pioneered had ground to a halt.

4. Or… did Prog die?

The thing that strikes me most about reading this book and revisiting these old bands is – they still exist! To my surprise, they either reformed later in the 70s or 80s or just continued writing and recording music. What else could they do? In the 80s, swept aside by Punk, new Wave, then the New Romantics not to mention hiphop and World Music, they must have seemed a forlorn hope and I imagine sales collapsed. But they persisted, and recorded and toured through the 90s and into the 00s. The invention of the CD must have been a boon for musicians who liked making album-long tracks of music – and better digital quality must have helped people understand the subtleties of composition and instrumentation which had been muffled on vinyl. But then the advent of the internet must have also been a lease of life – allowing as it did the establishment of worldwide communities of fans, the publication of concert footage or rare tracks – the creation, in other words, of a whole new online audience.

Now there are annual Prog awards, festivals, magazines, and newer young Prog bands, and from all sorts of disparate countries. Back in 1980, who on earth would have imagined that Yes, Genesis, King Crimson, the various bits of Pink Floyd, would still be recording and touring over 40 years after most of them were formed.

Big caveat

I’ve only discussed the most famous Prog bands, the ones I’m (over)familiar with. Stump’s book is extremely useful for listing and describing and analysing music by a host of other bands of the period, including:

  • The Moody Blues
  • The Strawbs
  • The Incredible String Band
  • The Nice
  • Soft Machine
  • Caravan
  • Gong
  • Gentle Giant
  • Henry Cow
  • Renaissance
  • Van de Graaf Generator
  • Tangerine Dream
%d bloggers like this: