Hail, Hail, Rock and Roll

Author: Tim Middleton (Buckinghamshire New University)

The Thrill Of It All

Joseph O’Connor. The Thrill of It All. London: Vintage, 2015, 401 pp.

The rock and roll novel is something of a by-way in literary history, with Roddy Doyle’s The Commitments (1987) likely to be the work that springs to mind when thinking about precursors to O’Connor’s eighth novel. Other notable works in this field include Don Delillo’s Great Jones Street (1973), whose Bucky Wonderluck has connections with O’Connor’s central character, Fran, in The Thrill of It All in that they are both disillusioned rock stars. In much the same vein, one might mention Daniel Wier, the narrator of Iain Bank’s Espediar Street (1987) who charts the rise and fall of imaginary ‘70s rock band “Frozen Gold.” None of these novels are works that are associated with the high point of the author’s career and it is perhaps not unreasonable to suggest that this novel by O’Connor may ultimately be seen as a curiosity rather than the capstone of his varied output, but one should be wary of writing it off as merely popular fiction.  In terms of O’Connor’s oeuvre, the novel has much in common with the energy and humor of his early works, with their bitter-sweet tales of youthful ambition, such as Cowboys and Indians (1991) or Desperadoes (1993). At the same time, his newest tome is very much the work of a mature craftsman, building on the adroit historical fiction of Star of the Sea (2002) or Redemption Falls (2007), in what is both an entertaining and slickly written novel.

The Thrill of It All tells the story of the rise and fall of The Ships—a band born in 1980’s suburban London who achieves global success only to be broken up by the egocentric behavior of its lead singer Fran Mulvey. The story is narrated by lead guitarist Robbie Goulding, a speaker who is not always clear about his aims and motives. His narrative, along with extracts from his diary, “interviews” with band mates, and notes from his daughter Molly, create a novel of multiple voices that fosters the development of a rich and emotionally complex story. Toby Litt, writing in The Guardian, argues:

…you might call this a “stolen head” novel—a novel voiced on behalf of a person…whom the reader knows wouldn't have the patience or self-discipline to write the structured, perfectly punctuated prose with which they are credited. The real writer has stolen the life experiences, the sensual perceptions, the vocabulary, of someone beneath or beyond  the day-to-day deskishness of writing. (1)

Indeed, the book is presented as a memoir: a near-past historical fiction that explores the rock and roll world in terms of its impact on families and friendships. Robbie is the son of a family that has come to England from Ireland following the traumatic death of his sister. His bandmates, Trez and Sean, are from a South London Irish family. As a child, the part-Vietnamese orphan refugee, Fran, was adopted by a straight-laced Irish couple. The novel plays itself out against its protagonists’ ambivalent relationship with the version of Irishness in which they each were raised.

O’Connor has suggested that his inspiration for the story came in part from his teenage enthusiasm for the Boomtown Rats:

But in a world where I had to grow up too fast, at least Bob Geldof and his band allowed me to be foolish and adolescent just once in a while. I'm grateful indeed, for that little, or that much. I'm very grateful for that. They got me through a youth that wasn’t much fun, and many years later they helped me write a novel about the power of all our soundtracks. (2)

While some reviewers have commented on the book’s positioning of Robbie and Fran as “glimmer twins” (124) as a pointer to read their friendship in terms of the Jagger/Richards relationship at the heart of the Rolling Stones, the novel seems to me to want to merge a whole epoch of creative partnerships into its depiction of the band at its core. The novel cites a review of an early gig by The Ships to give readers a sense of how the band might sound:

A pungent, viscous sludge of leftover Bowie with lumps of folkish gristle and pepperings of whiteboy reggae…, under a coagulating skin of faux Moddery. (133-4)

Later, Robbie describes the band’s music as follows:

The Kinks were a touchstone but so was Marc Almond. Our aim was to blend the shimmer of the high-octane torch song with romping, sixteen wheeler guitar. Trez gave us depth. Fran gave us drive. Sean gave us an ability to go noughty-to-ninety and back. (163)

In its depiction of the early days of the band, the novel treads the well-worn ground of any rock biography—managing disbelieving parents, dropping out of college, eking out meager funds, suffering grim gigs in grim clubs, etc. Because the narrative is a retrospective one, we see the past through Robbie’s experienced eyes, but this isn’t a point of view that is often exploited by O’Connor. Rather, O’Connor keeps the narrative focused on Robbie’s point of view in medias res. As Robbie puts it, “the novels get it wrong. The past is another country, but at least you were there” (69).

The novel delineates The Ships’ life adventures with verve and much of O’Connor’s characteristic humor. His hero’s father Jimmy (surely a playful nod to Doyle’s Rabbitte paterfamilias) is one of several well-drawn minor characters that help add depth and human interest to the rock and roll antics of the central characters. O'Connor is also successful in his evocation of the ups and downs of student life—and Robbie’s attempts to be cool are frequently punctured by his father’s scathingly humorous put-downs consisting of “scoffed curses and aggressive rustlings of his Daily Express” (75):

If there was doctorates in bollocksology and scratching yourself in bed, the two of you’d be professors by now. Pair of loafing, idle thicks. You couldn’t find your arses in a dark room. (100)

O’Connor also extracts a great deal of humor from the music business figures who prey on the band as they rise to fame—the boastful owner of East Finchley’s Santa Monica Studios referring to Bono as “Paul, often the sign of a monster” (168); Danny Saint-John, the Top of the Pops producer with ”the blow dried suavity of a person who had been on many strategic breakout sessions” (204); or Stone Fever, the  producer they work with in New York whose obsessive approach makes the band produce music in an experience they describe as akin to a dog “trained to admire its own farts” (237). These figures are central to the way the novel knowingly lampoons the music business.

The Irish Times sniffingly opined that the novel “signals O’Connor’s return to the fizzy tone of his journalism and early novels,” lamenting what it saw as the lack of “scholarly graft“ and dismissing the novel as nothing more than “a bit of fun, … a talky first-person narrative. It is pure pop fiction” (3). I’d suggest that there is, in fact, a lot of diligent pop-culture scholarship behind the writing of this novel, with its careful detailing of ‘80s London and New York. Furthermore, it is hard to see this novel as quite the “pure fun.” The Irish Times suggests: O’Connor doesn’t over-egg the rags to riches story, and the band’s move to London from Luton, for example, is depicted as a wholly humdrum, even anticlimactic, experience:

Most days I hung out in East Finchley, trudging its estates, marvelling at the sheer variety of pebble dash and carriage lamps available to the English self-improver. Occasionally I’d go mad and look about the garden centre down the road. Hail, hail, rock and roll. (151)

The band’s first foray into a recording studio is similarly notable for “the heady aroma of piss, chips and sadness” (160). The early gigs are fraught financially and musically. And youthful naivety is lampooned—as when Robbie, having smoked what turns out to be an Oxo cube rather than “Moroccan Black,” laments, “I don’t know if you have ever smoked a product intended for the making of gravy. But I would advise you not to do so. Not only is there great and ineradicable shame, but your wee smells of casserole for a week” (174).

The band criss-crosses England, playing in “off puttingly named towns” (179). Despite these setbacks, however, what shines through the first phase of the novel is the aging Robbie’s nostalgia for being young: “Four kids in a scruffy car, facing into a rainstorm, punk on the radio and a hundred miles ahead. No drug comes close to that elation” (181). The ‘80s setting and the rock and roll context allow O’Connor to draw witty portraits or get in jibes at the expense of a variety of real life figures: Billy Bragg is summed up as “integrity in a polo shirt” (87); Sean’s aptness as a band member is caught in his answer to the question, “Where did he stand on Duran Duran? ‘Hard to say, really. On its throat?’” (117). There are also cameos for people from the music business, such as Philip Chevron of the Pogues and Radiators from Space (the latter of whom produces four songs for the band and helps it on its way to success) (197-8). Later, as the band becomes more successful, The Ships play with major acts like Brian Wilson, Tom Waits, and Sinead O’Connor, touring the world and “headlining at Glastonbury” (271). There is even a Christmas encounter with Patti Smith (272-5).

The first phase of the novel ends when Trez “became the only person in history to run away from the circus to join school” (206) and takes up a scholarship to read for an M.A. at New York University. The rest of the band follows her to the U.S., and this shift of location allows O’Connor to write about New York in the ‘80s and to cover another well-worn staple of rock biography: the British band attempting to break into the American music charts:

We ventured north as far as the Chicagoan suburbs, back down to Baton Rouge, to many points in between. And we’d learned how to win over a smallish American audience, perhaps the most demanding task in rock and roll. (225)

With the support of an American manager, the band works with a hip hop producer to record new material. This isn’t successful, however, as they instead produce music described as jarring, “as though Emmylou Harris has announced her intention of joining Def Leppard” (237). O’Connor similarly seeks to raise laughs in the scene where the band falls out with its effete producer (238-43) and Trez beats him up: “You mightn’t think that being punched in the head by a cellist would hurt very much, but believe me they can get pretty muscular” (243). However, this scene seems over-written and is one of several sections in the novel where the desire to make a joke seems to get the better of the desire to tell a story.

Finally, the band tours, writes, and produces its own, well-received album. The bandmates move on to play in bigger venues and start to get caught up in the clichés of rock and roll excess, drifting apart as friends (258 -61):

It’s a strange thing to be in a group that’s only remaining together because of its success. But that was the hand we’d been dealt. I guess it’s like a couple deciding to stick it out for the sake of the children. But the children aren’t earning people a lot of money, of course. That isn’t the point of children. (263)

As the band becomes more and more successful, fatal strains begin to show, with Fran receiving psychiatric help for drug addiction and Robbie drifting into alcoholism, at times failing to get on stage and play (266). These events culminate with a falling out between Robbie and Fran during a drunken argument where it is revealed—in a rather unlikely twist—that Fran is writing commercial pop songs for other bands (288). The next day Fran announces that The Ships is over, canceling its upcoming tour (288-9).

Part Two of the novel begins 25 years later in 2012, with Robbie living on a houseboat in London while Fran is a reclusive and remote global star. After the breakup of the band, it is revealed that Robbie has slipped further into alcoholism, leading to his marital breakup. It is his friendship with Trez that helps him pull through, and the novel concludes with the consequences of her challenge to him to play one more gig, after years of his eschewing music. We also see first-hand evidence of Fran’s megalomania in the list of rules that govern his later travels (352-55) and in his smiling but hard-nosed lawyer who seeks to ban Robbie from playing at Trez’s gig (358-64). O’Connor attempts to build up some tension as to whether Robbie will play, but it is fairly predictable that he does, and that the long estrangement with Fran will also be resolved by the novel’s emotionally nuanced close.

It is a literary truism that all endings are faked, and in this overwhelmingly feel-good novel, it is no criticism that things work out okay in the end. The novel is, on the surface, a lightweight tale of the ups and downs of rock and roll fame, but its ambition rests on doing something much more complex. The depiction of the surface glitz of pop stardom is not where this novel makes its contribution; rather, it is in its attention to human friendship, with all its difficulties, deceptions, generosities, and unexpected kindnesses. O’Connor tells a story about the human side of popular culture—and if that sounds pompous, it is a measure of his success that, despite the clichés, he works to give us a genuinely moving denouement. O’Connor’s unswerving commitment to that Conradian dictum that a novelist should entertain whilst giving his readers that glimpse of truth for which they forget to ask (4), is what for me makes this novel a highly successful work. The organization of the novel—the craft that O’Connor brings to bear in his careful charting of the developing friendship of Fran and Robbie, from its initiation through its highs, lows, serious collapse and final restoration—ensures that only the hardest-hearted of readers will make it through the book’s last pages without wiping tears of happiness from their eyes.


[1] Toby Litt, “The Thrill of It All by Joseph O’Connor review – a faux rock’n’roll memoir,” review of The Thrill of It All, by Joseph O’Connor, The Guardian, May 23, 2014, accessed January 12, 2015.

[2] Joseph O’Connor, “Joseph O'Connor, The Thrill Of It All: The Music That Inspired Me,” Banana Republic, May 14, 2014, accessed Januray 12 2015.

[3] Peter Murphy, “Rock fable that strikes chord as pure pop fiction: The Thrill of It All,” review of The Thrill of It All, by Joseph O’Connor, The Irish Times, May 17, 2014, accessed January 12, 2015.

[4] Joseph Conrad, “Preface,” The Nigger of the "Narcissus" (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984), xxxix – xliv, xliii.