A HIP READ – Shine On, Marquee Moon by Zoe Howe
Review by Pete Donohue:
It isn’t easy ro write a debut novel set within the music industry without slipping into rock ‘n’ roll clichés. Zoe Howe overcomes this problem by confronting it with full-on irony right from the start, allowing the reader to move forward and get into the story without cringing too much. As an acclaimed author of several music biographies – including The Slits, Wilko Johnson, The Jesus And Mary Chain, and Florence + The Machine – Howe clearly knows her way around the scene.
The classic album by Television referenced in the title is a great hook. The genre of the novel’s featured band – New Romantic – not so much, at least for this reviewer. But then, as the plot develops with humourous insight, that detail soon becomes irrelevant. The vanities and verisimilitudes expressed could so easily be applied to a raft of successfully hyped touring bands of any genre operating over the last half-century or more.
Many of the characters here are easy to identify with, whether through their ridiculousness or resilience, but it shouldn’t take the reader long to decide which face is the A-side of the disc. Comedy names like Henson Bedges and Kurt Christmas all add to the fantasy bubble Howe creates within which rockers, druggies, lovers and liggers can all do their crazy thing. How far removed is fantasy from reality, however, remains decidedly up to the reader.
Essentially, Shine On, Marquee Moon is a love story played out within a satire of those ever-revolving aspects of the music business that resurface to haunt us from time to time, often in the form of an ill-advised ‘comeback’ album and tour. Presumptuous attempts at repetitions of past glories can often be doomed to failure, particularly when unchecked egos, animosities and drug habits have been re-mixed into the deal. This tragi-comic theme, acutely observed by Howe’s endearing protagonist and heroine Sylvie, dresser to the band Concierge, has been cleverly sewn into the fabric of the book.
All of us music and lyrics fans will recognise the excitement felt upon meeting someone with whom we share a favourite album – it suggests a commonality of experience and attitudes, and may even shout out ‘kindred spirit.’ Sometimes, however, this is not necessarily the case and – without giving too much of the plot away – the music can eventually prove more enduring than some of those who are also moved by it.
In this novel you will find many of the characterisations reasonably expected within such a setting – the bitchy sisterhood, the broken man, the deranged fan, the megalomaniac manager, the up-his-own-arse replacement frontman and many more. But don’t relax into their initial portrayal too easily; this is a tale of twists and turns, or (to hark back to the contrived mysteries of a previous era) a gatefold album of hidden surprises and subliminal messages scratched into the vinyl.
Seriously though, the music industry has changed almost beyond belief since the heyday of the New Romantics. In today’s digital download times many musicians make their money from relentless touring and merchandising – many first class songwriters barely scratch a decent living. Zoe Howe knows this – the days of writing one or two good songs to secure your pension are over – and this is one of the truisms that inform her fiction.
Shine On, Marquee Moon is a fun read. It may not be an intellectual masterpiece but anyone into music is likely to be familiar with some of the deeper issues that underlie the shenanigans expressed throughout the storyline. I’ve already read it twice so I have to declare it a truly HIP read.