Tuesday, January 12, 2021

I Talk About Sleeper

When we got back from our officially sanctioned one hour exercise period, a two-person, one household walk in our local area, and I'd sorted the recycling and put the bins out (the excitement never starts around here) I made us both a coffee, sat down and finished the last few pages of Louise Wener's debut novel Goodnight Steve McQueen.

Louise Wener was the singer in my favorite Britpop band, Sleeper. Well, it was either them or Powder. Apart from knocking out tune after tune that sounded like you'd been humming them all your life, pretty much a baseline requirement for any band of the era, Sleeper were known for the narrative carry of their deft, articulate three minute slice-of-life songs. 

It's a long tradition in British pop from Pete Townshend's dexedrine sketches of mod life through Difford and Tilbrook's kitsch dramas, all the way to Alex Turner documenting the new millennium. Someone's out there doing it for the pandemic right now, I'm sure, only I'm too out of touch to tell you who that might be.


Louise Wener's the only one I can think of who traded her six-string for a laptop and turned herself into a successful novelist. It seems like a transferable skill but the jump from snappy lyric to sustained prose isn't one every pop star can pull off.

It took me a long time to get around to reading my first Louise Wener novel. I bought her sophomore effort, The Big Blind, ("A quirky, stylish, feelgood novel of high stakes, lost love and poker") years ago, mainly out of curiosity. It sat on my shelves, unread, until the first lockdown, when months of enforced idleness, much of it with the shops shut, pushed me into doing something I should have been doing all along, namely reading things I already own instead of just buying more and not reading those either.

The Big Blind was a lot better than I expected. It's a very good mainstream novel. Even with time on my hands, though, I probably wouldn't have taken it off the shelf if I hadn't already read her rock and roll memoir, "Different for Girls: A Girl's Own True-life Adventures in Pop", a solid read.

The older I get, the keener I am on these transit van tales. There's a burgeoning genre of self-lacerating accounts by literate musicians, many of whom write unsurprisingly well. It is, after all, one of the things they became famous for doing. It's all the other things they did, of course, before they became famous, while they were famous, after they stopped being famous, that make the books so compelling.


Especially now they're all writing books about the same period. They're all of an age. They've all had the same experiences. They were present at the same events. Triangulating between Louise Wener, Russell Senior, Brett Anderson and Luke Haines feels like picking your way across a fractured, fascinating mosaic. 

Senior is the wittiest, Haines the most scurrilous (and the scariest). Brett I've yet to get to. Louise, though, she might be the most forthright. She says things about herself that it's hard to believe she knows she's said, sometimes, and her girl-next-door demeanor almost persuades you it's your mistake.

In Goodnight Steve McQueen, the story of a late twenty-something guitarist and songwriter, whose biggest break to date was being in a band who could have been the Wonder Stuff, if the Wonder Stuff hadn't got there first, Louise follows the second rule of fiction: write what you know. Very much as in Mick Farren's seminal (and impossible to find) masterpiece The Tale of Willy's Rats, it isn't until you get to read the memoir that you realize just why it all seemed so true to life.


The Big Blind (aka The Perfect Play in its American edition, which I also bought, thinking it was a different book entirely), though, has nothing to do with music or the business. As far as I know, neither do the rest of her novels, The Half Life of Stars and Worldwide Adventures in Love, both of which I have on the desk in front of me as I type and both of which I plan on reading during this year's lockdown. 

And that will be that. Louise's final flirtation with fiction was in 2009. Her memoir appeared three years later. That's all she wrote.

Oh, except for a BBC radio drama series, Queens of Noise, about a fictional indie band called Velveteens, which she co-wrote with Roy Boulter, refugee from pre-Britpop baggies, The Farm

Until I checked her wikipedia entry for this post I'd never heard of Queens of Noise but now I really, really want to listen to it. And it turns out I can! Now if the BBC would just like to put their adaptation of Ian Banks' Espedaire Street online we'd all be happy.

In 2017 Sleeper reformed. It's what bands do, now. When I was a teenager groups had a shelf life. They lasted a few years, five if they were lucky, then they'd split up. The talented ones would join other bands or go solo and the rest would get jobs as car mechanics or buy pubs and become alcoholics, just like they would have if they'd never been in a band that made it in the first place.

These days a couple of hit singles means a career for life. It would be easier to make a list of the bands that haven't given it another go than the ones with the guts to stay gone. Pop acts are like mmorpgs; they keep on going even though it's hard to imagine there's anyone left who cares any more. Although this last year might have something to say about that...

And, honestly, it makes sense. Ambition like that doesn't just boil away and neither does affection. The bands want to keep on doing it, the fans want to keep on pretending they haven't grown old. Why not?


Of course, it helps if you have the talent to back it all up. Sleeper in 2019 sound as good as Sleeper in 1996. The new songs sound like the old songs only with a richer texture. And Louise clearly has one of those paintings in her Crouch End loft.

Still, good as she is at the day job, I hope she gets back to the laptop someday. My days of going to gigs ended around the same time Sleeper knocked it on the head the first time round. If I ever start again (and I was, ironically, thinking about it just before the pandemic hit) it'll be for something wholly new, not to revisit old glories, no matter how well-sustained.

Novels, though? I could always use a few more of those, especially now, when it's dark before five and too damp to go out, even when they let you. Maybe now we all have have time on our hands would be a moment.


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