I know bugger all about music and yet this oral history of an invented post-punk band is one of the best things I’ve read this year.

opening remarks

After all that Costa Reading I was planning on picking up something light and frothy, something maybe with wizards or laser guns or whatever else has taken the fancy of genre fiction writers these days.  And then, for reason unexplained, I had a flashback to a couple of weeks ago when the Backlisted podcast did an episode on the work of Gordon Burns and before you know it I’m checking out this year’s nominees for the Gordon Burn prize and… well… here we are.. me reading David Keenan’s This Is Memorial Device.  I wonder if it has any exploding spaceships.

knee-jerk observations

I’ve only read a handful of pages and I’ve laughed out loud twice.  I couldn’t give a rat’s arse about the post-punk rock scene in Airdrie (a town in North Lanarkshire, Scotland) but Keenan’s grimy sense of humour coupled with larger than life characters make for some piss-funny moments.  Given the post-punk band in question – Memorial Device – didn’t last long as a group I can’t imagine how Keenan is going to stretch this oral history out to novel length, but I’m so entertained I’m not sure I care.


There’s a chapter from the perspective of a bloke named John Bailey describing his short but intense relationship with porn star Vanity.  It’s only tangentially connected to Memorial Device – Vanity once dated a band member – but it’s the most extraordinary meditation on fake tits, the joy of jizzing on them and falling in love with someone’s eyes.  It’s three thousand or so words written as one sentence and while I believe it’s a disservice to quote any part of it, here is the beginning:
I’m sure we’ve all thought this about John Norman’s Gor novels while blissed on out on psychedelics:
Big Patty, one of the band members of Memorial Device, might have the element of parody about him but he’s still my favourite character (so far) in a book where everyone is a bit insane:
It’s interesting how often science fiction is referred to in the novel.

Whether its name-dropping genre authors or members of the band (including friends and parents) remarking on their love of the fantastic or throwaway descriptions about people and events having a science fictional vibe.  Was there a close link or overlap between the post-punk music scene back then and the genre?  If I were to speculate they were both outsider art, attracting the sort of people who never felt comfortable in the mainstream.  Of course, now they’re both been commodified and marketed to buggery.  Well SF has anyway, I can’t speak for punk, post-punk or the indie scene other than to say that the aesthetic has become more acceptable to the majority over time.

Keenan isn’t afraid to go surreal.  One of the earlier pieces in the book has a band – not Memorial Device but looking to ride on their coattails – use mannequins to pose as the band members.  There’s a suggestion that one of these mannequins may have murdered someone.  And then we have this story about a group of mods who get into a fight with bikers which results in a member of the mods – young girl – being kidnapped and one of the bikers getting a screwdriver to the neck.  The mods receive a ransom note for the girl but because they can’t read coordinates they ask their old school teacher for help and he – Mr Scotia – is so taken in by their mission to save the girl he decides to help. This leads to the following description of Mr Scotia as he and the mods face the bikers:

I love the ‘wait, what?’ reaction of the first paragraph followed by the non-sequitur of the second paragraph:
This excerpt from a review of a Memorial Device album is gold.  It should have been plastered on the front cover of the book, not shoveled into an appendix:

The Gist Of It

Well, I fucking loved that.

An oral history of Memorial Device, a post-punk band, the greatest rock group never to leave the city limits of Airdrie.  Keenan has taken his clear passion for the music scene in his hometown during the 70s and 80s and transformed it into a surreal, grimy and often laugh out loud funny joy-ride.  The temptation for Keenan would have been to go all out satire, to make this the Spinal Tap of Scottish rock and the avant-garde.  The title of the book certainly hints in that direction.  But while the book is hilarious, while Keenan, at times, is taking the piss (the larger than life characters, the crazy anecdotes… still getting my head around those mannequins… the fact no-one can adequately explain the sort of music Memorial Device play) it never tips over to outright lunacy.  Whether its Patty with his top hat and his fascination in the occult or Lucas Black with his acquired brain injury which means he can’t remember what he did from day to day, or the drummer Richard who, chasing tail, heads off to fight the good fight for the Palestinian people, the band-members of Memorial Device and those who orbit their lives all feel real, authentic.

Because this is an oral history, or a gathering together of first-person accounts about the band and the scene at the time, Keenan gets to play around with structure and technique and this provides an ever-changing texture and tone that I found exciting and addictive.  I’m stoked that this book was recognised by the Gordon Burn Prize, but it should also have featured on the list of nominees for the Goldsmith and, as a debut absolutely deserved a nod for the Costa Prize.  I know, I know a book about a made-up post-punk band in 1980s Scotland is very niche but if a guy from Melbourne with the musical tastes of a confused seven-year-old can fall in love with this book then maybe it has greater universal appeal than first thought.