by Jeff Noon
287 pages, Anchor Books
Review by Marc Nash
I was excited to get hold of this book via market place. Sadly Jeff Noon, one of the 90's circle of new British cyber punk writers, has none of his books currently in print and doesn't seem to be writing any new ones. Why was I excited? After twitter conversations I was alerted to this forgotten (?) writer, who did wondrous things with language.
This book is a paean to rock and roll. Or its very sound and rhythms transliterated into words. Syncopated sentences and paradiddles. Choruses, refrains, versification, all are mimetically insinuated by his style within this book. The narrative structure apes that of the remix, the cut-up and very probably the sample. Maybe this isn't a book about music at all, rather a musical score of a book. Have you ever read a music journalist trying to describe the sound of a guitar solo? You can't, well at least not without veering off into pretentiousness. Noon skillfully evokes the squeals and trebles and reverbs with his approach. The language is the sound of the instruments in the recording studio, being cranked up in the clubs.
The book pays homage to music from skiffle in the 50's through to punk seen as the executioner of all that has gone before. And into the vacuum creeps dance music, with its cut-ups and sampling of everything from music history. The references are very English, the street names are all taken from Manchester bands (Manchester being the UK rock and roll capital, whatever the Scouse sentimentalists from Beatletown tell you and no matter the puffed up indignation from the Capital). Everything is steeped in drugs, in the vibe, finding the groove and it’s these parts that work very well. The emotional swings are well painted, intimately linked to the flows and blocks of the music making.
"uh/ it's not love that's being given/ unless a syringe be love/ and pulsed flesh”
What lets the book down is that the history of the music scene parallels the family history of the disparate four members of the band. And such a family history is little more imaginative than the stuff of soap operas, which is a pity. These parts of the book don't live up to the strengths of the rest. I can believe a musician indulging in self-harm, but the family reasons behind it take away some of that power. In the end, the family quest stuff takes precedence over the music-making dynamics and the book fizzles out.
There is much to admire in the radicalism of Needle in the Groove, in its language and structure. It's curious such radicalism stops short in its characterisation. But I'll come back for more Noon and see if that's a repeated failing, or just a shortfall in this particular book.