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All The Rage

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Allison & Busby, London, 2001
price: 9.99; 260 pages

The blurb on the back:

Two boys. Two girls. And a dream of pop stardom...
It's 1981, and the nation is going Eurovision-crazy. A young band, Things Fall Apart, are the British hopefuls with their catchy hit, 'Let's Be Famous'. Despite an energetic performance involving spangly silver jumpsuits, Europe is unimpressed. Null points to the UK.
But the band don't let go of their dream, and they persevere to become one of the most famous boy-girl pop acts of the eighties. And during their glory days they sample the cultural highlights of the decade: gunk-tanks, puff-ball skirts, shoulder pads, slightly sinister furry hand-puppets... Living and working together 24-7, it's little wonder that love soon blossoms in the band, and little wonder that the cracks eventually begin to show.
From their innocent early days to their ugly last fight in the Blue Peter Garden, this is the story of a pop group - warts and all. From love and loss to bangles and boob-tubes,
All the Rage is required reading for anyone who still remembers the decade that taste forgot.

opening lines:
I've got a horror of people who organize get-togethers. I'm suspicious of the whole idea of them.
They never work out.

In which we follow the fortunes of a band named Things Fall Apart, who (despite the sleeve notes) don't get null points in the 1981 Eurovision, but actually come fourth in the Song Contest at some point in the Seventies, and who go on to score a string of British hits. They comprise Brenda, who wants to become a daytime TV host, Clive, the muso one who hopes you like their new direction, Tony, the gay talentless one, and Debbie Now, the lyricist and soul of the group. And then there's their manager, Roy, 'the fattest, loudest, filthiest mouthed tranny who ever came out of Blackpool.'

The story is told in alternating chapters of flashback and contemporary narrative, the latter revolving around a 27-year-old shop-worker who reinvents his life via a chance encounter in a karaoke restaurant with Debbie, even though the one he always really fancied was Tony. And it's all very good fun, with a relatively convincing depiction of the tensions inherent in a manufactured band outliving their time. Well written, amusing, entertaining and with a strong line in fairly hot gay sex, this is recommended for a three-hour train journey (well, it worked for me).

Where it falls down - and this is a fairly standard complaint with pop novels - is the detail. Once again, it's worth pointing out that pop music is all about detail. There ain't nothing else. The canvas is so small that to get anything even slightly wrong feels like putting an extra syllable in a haiku. So I have an unreasonably large problem when a Greatest Hits album issued by the band in the mid-1980s is described as coming out on the K-Tel label; it wouldn't have done, it would have been on the label to which they were signed. Even worse is the assertion that in the Guinness Book of Hit Singles there 'was a sizable list of the hits Things Fall Apart had had in the late seventies and early eighties ... And there was her writing credit on each and every one.' (p.75) We'll pass over the misnaming of the Guinness Book of British Hit Singles (maybe it's a familiar abbreviation), but I can't forgive the claim that the volume provides songwriting details. It doesn't. It never has. If you don't know the format of the most basic train-spotter's guide to British hits, what are you doing writing about a British chart band?

According to the biog in the front of this book, Dr Magrs is a lecturer in English literature and Creative Writing (interesting capitalization) at the University of East Anglia, where presumably they don't teach the boring stuff, like checking facts or research.* His position does mean, however, that he gets to thank Malcolm Bradbury in his Acknowledgements and that he gets good reviews in the mainstream press.

It all sounds worrying, but actually this isn't too pretentious at all, and it's nowhere near as sloppy and incompetent as those sleeve notes suggest. Good fun.

* He also misspells Jammie Dodgers, but I'll let biscuit-obsessives worry about that; I have enough to worry about with the pop trivia.


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