July 14, 2011
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Mark Billingham's novel Bloodline features one of crime fiction's most fully realized and complex characters, Detective Inspector Tom Thorne. This mystery takes many unexpected twists and turns on its way to solving a serial murder.
Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:
"Billingham continues to captivate with equal parts suspense, deduction, and heart."
I think there are two categories of song that are important if I'm talking about how music has affected this book: the songs that feature in the book itself and the stuff I'm listening to while I'm writing. My central character, Tom Thorne is a huge fan of country music, as am I, though his taste veers a little more towards the traditional than mine. He will listen to many of the artists that I listen to – Johnny Cash, Hank Williams, Willie Nelson and now and again I may introduce him to someone a little newer if the time is right – Lucinda Williams, Steve Earle, Laura Cantrell. To me, country music provides the perfect soundtrack to crime fiction. These songs are mostly melodic and entertaining in a conventional sense, while actually telling very black and bleak stories. They wrap up the darkness in a nice bright suit to make it more palatable. At its best, I think this is what a lot of crime fiction does. Thorne and I are also fairly similar – I wonder why that is? – when it comes to the music we hate. So, you won't find any Sting or Phil Collins; no Coldplay unless it happens to be playing in some terrible bar, which will provide the perfect opportunity for Thorne to rant about how cold, soulless and dreadful it is.
Then of course, there is the music I'm listening to over the period that the book is coming together. I should point out that I'm not actually listening as I work, as I would get far too distracted by the music and consequently get nothing done. But I'm nearly always listening to music at the end of a day and in those periods when I'm not at the computer, but when the novel is taking shape in my head. The music I listen to at these times is responsible for much of a book's atmosphere, I think; for the taste that the book leaves in the reader's mouth.
Anyway, whether these songs are in the book itself or were just responsible for firing a few synapses in the author's head, here they are: country, rock and new wave; songs that tell stories and make me cry; twisted love songs and tracks that do nothing but make me feel good, which is reason enough I think for them to be there.
So, a Bloodline playlist…
"He Stopped Loving Her Today" by George Jones
The song that re-launched the career of the man described by Frank Sinatra as having the greatest voice in popular music. Written by Bobby Braddock and Curly Putman, Jones was convinced that it was far too miserable to be a hit, but it has often been described as the greatest country song of all time. Producer Billy Sherill uses every trick in the book, but despite (or perhaps because of) the syrupy strings, angelic backing vocals and cheesy voiceover, it makes me cry pretty much every time I hear it and you can't argue with that. It's also a great story, with a twist in the tail that any crime-writer would be proud of.
"London Calling" by The Clash
I bought this as a single (one of the first 12" singles I can remember buying) but I've picked the song specifically as the opening track of what is undoubtedly the band's finest album. Those thrashed minor chords and Paul Simonon's ominous bass-line immediately bring back the incredible excitement I felt the first time I played it after rushing back from the record shop in December 1979. It sounds every bit as exciting thirty years on.
"I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" by Hank Williams
It's incredible to think that a man responsible for so much great music was dead at 29. There were so many songs I could have chosen. "Your Cheating Heart" is a classic. "I'll Never Get Out Of This World Alive" pretty much sums up the spirit of noir fiction. But when I took up the guitar a year or so ago, this was the first song I wanted to play. ‘Hear that lonesome whipperwill…'. Hear the pain in Williams's voice. Heartbreaking stuff.
"Ode To Billie Joe" by Bobbie Gentry
Like I said, crime and country music have always seemed perfect companions and this song perfectly illustrates why: another black tale hidden within a gorgeous melody. Gentry's gothic narrative remains mysterious, as nobody is quite sure why Billie Joe jumped off the Tallahatchee Bridge, or what it was that he was seen throwing off it into the river? The song draws you into its tangled, dusty web while the tragedy unfolds around a humble dinner table. Secrets and lies. Death and black-eyed peas. And one of the very few songs to have inspired a movie.
"Wichita Lineman" by Glen Campbell
This Jimmy Webb classic is quite simply one of the greatest love songs ever written and though it has been covered by dozens of artists – from Ray Charles to the Rolling Stones – the 1968 Glen Campbell version remains definitive.
"This Charming Man" by The Smiths
I've heard Paul McCartney talk about the first time he heard "Heartbreak Hotel"; how everything changed. This is as close as I get to a moment like that one. I can remember exactly where I was and what I was doing (in my student flat, climbing into the bath) when I first heard that incredible guitar sound and the doleful voice of Morrissey for the first time. It was like nothing I'd ever heard before and knocked me completely sideways. The Smiths, and Morrissey remain among my favourite artists and I was delighted when Morrissey gave his permission for me to use some lines from one of his songs as the epigram to my fourth novel, The Burning Girl.
"Complicated Shadows" by Elvis Costello
I've been an enormous fan of Costello since I first heard him in 1978 and have lost count of the number of times I've seen him live since then. I once had the joy of appearing onstage with him and gibbered like a schoolgirl. He is quite simply the finest singer-songwriter of his generation and I could have picked one of a hundred great songs. This is an intensely dark and atmospheric song he wrote for Johnny Cash, who is another hero of mine, and of course my fictional hero's favourite singer.
"The Beast In Me" by Johnny Cash
How do you pick one Johnny Cash track? His career was re-ignited with the series of albums he made with Rick Rubin between 1994 and 2002 and "The Beast In Me" is taken from the first of these, the outstanding "American Recordings". Rubin gave Cash the chance to do what he did best and he demonstrated his no-frills mastery of great material on this cover version of a song by Nick Lowe, who was then his son-in-law. It's without question a fantastic song, but Cash elevates it to something almost mythic. As with all of the true greats, you can hear the torment as he sings, and the terror. It's all there in that deep, dark voice, described by a character in one of my books as sounding like the "long, slow tumble towards hell."
"Barrel Chested" by Slobberbone
I was turned on to this Texas band a few years ago by my friend George Pelecanos and I've been grateful ever since. Somewhere between country, punk and metal, they are simply a kick-ass rock band and though I never got a chance to see them live, the title track from their second album gives you a taste of how fantastic that must have been.
"Gangsters" by The Special A.K.A
This was the Specials' first single – a re-working of Prince Buster's Ska classic "Al Capone". It was also the first release on the iconic 2-Tone label and introduced Coventry's finest to the pop charts, led by Jerry Dammers and fronted by Terry Hall whose laconic voice gave every Specials track that unique mix of raw energy and world-weariness. Lyrically, there is a nod to the infamous Bernie Rhodes and also to an incident on a French tour that had seen the band have all their equipment confiscated. But who cares about the lyrics? Just turn it up loud and dance (as I was lucky enough to do, along with half the audience, on stage with the band in 1979 in Cannon Hill Park, Birmingham.)
"Thunder Road" By Bruce Springsteen
This is the opening track of Springsteen's 1975 breakthrough album Born To Run and probably the song from that album that I listen to the most. It opens simply enough with just piano (as played by the peerless Roy Bittan) and harmonica and in almost five minutes builds in tempo, complexity and passion until it is finally played out with an epic explosion of intensity from the mighty Clarence Clemons. It's a simple enough story that Springsteen has told several times, of a young couple seeking to break away, but he's never told it better than he did here. Springsteen is often underrated as a lyricist and these are some of his most tender and profound: "There were ghosts in the eyes of all the boys you sent away/they haunt this dusty beach road in the skeleton frames of burned out Chevrolets/they scream your name at night in the street/your graduation gown lies in rags at their feet…"
"Does He Love You" by Rilo Kiley
I'm a sucker for a song that tells a great story and this is one of the very best. Artfully constructed and building to a shattering climax, it's a perfect short story in a little over five minutes. It's all there: friendship, deceit, betrayal. As with all the best stories, you would not want me to give anything away, but suffice it to say that when Jenny Lewis sings the final verse, you will feel the hairs on the back of your neck standing to attention.
"Sweet Old World" by Lucinda Williams
Williams is one of the best songwriters in the world and this a perfect early gem. Sung to someone who has taken their own life, the tragedy is there in every bourbon-soaked note as Williams reels off a heartbreaking list of all the things that the dead person has left behind. Nobody sings about loss or desire more movingly than Williams and though this song was beautifully covered by Emmylou Harris, the original has never been bettered.
"The Eton Rifles" by The Jam
Thirty years old now, but this remains for me, Paul Weller's finest four minutes. It was the band's first top ten hit and as searing an indictment of the class system as you could wish for. Listen to the Modfather spit out his brilliant lyrics, to the spiky guitar and Hammond organ, and try to forget the fact that eighteen years after its release, bassist Bruce Foxton's son (Iago!) entered Eton as a pupil…
"87 Dollars and a Guilty Conscience" by Richmond Fontaine
Willy Vlautin is a wonderful novelist, but as a songwriter he creates perfect vignettes of the lost and disenfranchised. These are tales of gamblers, hustlers and scam artists; of honest men and women running out of time or luck. The music is often understated and the songs are cut to the bone as all the best stories should be. Live, this band is amazing and on record they can break your heart while you're tapping your feet.
"Folsom Prison Blues" by Johnny Cash
The man in black is Tom Thorne's favourite and has become an artist I listen to more and more as time goes on. This is a track that sums up so much about him, everything sung in that dark, rumbling voice that can sing about love and murder and make you see that both can be equally terrible. And of course there is the wonderful line "I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die". Now that is someone who seriously needs a hobby…
Mark Billingham and Bloodline links:
Book World in My Head review
The Bookbag review
Chris High review
Curled Up with a Good Book review
Daily Mail review
Evening Standard review
Globe and Mail review
The House of Crime and Mystery review
Kirkus Reviews review
Lowly's Book Blog review
Murder by Type review
Publishers Weekly review
The Readers Roundtable Smoking Gun review
also at Largehearted Boy:
other Book Notes playlists (authors create music playlists for their book)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (weekly book reviews)
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
Try It Before You Buy It (mp3s and full album streams from the week's CD releases)
weekly music & DVD release lists