To say I love music would be an understatement. I’d bring up that Nietzsche quote but it’s been overused. I also love good fiction and the impossible quest to get my fill of both means storage is becoming an increasing problem. But the two very rarely mix well. There are precious few strong novels about music. It could well be because the reality would be considered too unbelievable as fiction (have you read Keith Richards’ Life?) and capturing the magic and power in making music without coming across heavy on the cliché can be tricky. For every Almost Famous and Great Jones Street there’s a Young Person’s Guide To Becoming A Rock Star.
However; The Rise & Fall of the Miraculous Vespas can now be added to that short list of great books about music.
Taking us back to Kilmarnock in the early 80’s, David F Ross presents the story of The Miraculous Vespas, a band formed and driven by their manager, Max Mojo, who – via some hard graft, a great song and couple of crucial run-ins with Boy George (though it’s still hard to believe there was a time when he wasn’t simply another ‘celebrity DJ’/talent-show judge with a highly questionable head tattoo) – manage to crack the top of the charts with their song It’s A Miracle (Thank You), taking us along for their ride to the almost-top.
However, this is more than a bitingly funny account of a young band’s quest for immortality – there’s also the gang-war that’s running alongside as local gangs work to pull a fast-one over a big Glasgow crime family and come away clean. As every bit as compelling as the fortunes of The Miraculous Vespas, the McLarty storyline is a gripping and, at times, brutally violent and thrilling slab of gangster rivalry that wouldn’t be out of place in an early Bob Hoskins film (here I’m talking The Long Good Friday rather than the one with the cartoon rabbit).
Told with the occasional retrospective interjection from a modern-day Max Mojo, The Rise & Fall of the Miraculous Vespas is an absolute belter of a book that’s populated by an amazing array of characters. There’s a couple of familiar faces from The Last Days of Disco including Fat Franny Duncan (of whom this installment paints a softer image and, surprisingly, has one of the novel’s most genuinely touching scenes) but you’re never given to think there’s too many characters as Ross balances the story expertly amongst the cast as their roles, the rise of the Vespas and the McLarty saga come together into a brilliantly thought out and well executed – not to mention bloody funny – conclusion.
Chief amongst these new characters is the aforementioned Max Mojo. A heady blend of hair dye, a passion for music, lithium compounds and a dermination to live the Malcolm McLaren quote, that sits on the books jacket, that Rock ‘n’ Roll is “… that question of trying to be immortal”. If only he could get control of the voice in his head. Mojo is one of the most original and brilliant characters I’ve seen in fiction for some time and has probably given me more laughs than many.
Much like his first book, The Last Days of Disco, David F Ross paints a fond picture of this time despite the obvious shafting the region (where didn’t?) was taking under Thatcher. Times are tough – especially for the crooks – yet there’s an optimism shot through this time and you can’t help but shake the feeling that – for some – that fabled ship may just be about to come in. Ross does a great job of painting a truly encompassing picture of the era – the impending Miner’s Strike, the end of the Falklands Conflict and racism all help set the scene – while his use of regional dialect places the reader firmly in place as well as making for some of the funniest insults and dialougue I’ve read.
If I had a quid for every time this book sent me to Spotify to play a track I’d have… well, I’d probably have about £20 but the fact is that with references to tracks by Orange Juice, The Clash, Big Star and, of course, Paul Weller, The Rise & Fall of the Miraculous Vespas has got one of the best soundtracks you’ll find in fiction .
Social commentary, gang war, relationship ups and downs, interband relationships, Spinal Tap moments, humour and heartbreak and the power of music; it’s all here. There’s a lot going on in this book and David F Ross, an author to watch, injects it all with an genuine passion for music, an unquestionable talent as both a writer and storyteller and, above all, a wicked sense of humour; The Rise and Fall of the Miraculous Vespas is uproariously funny. So many times I had to stop as I was laughing so hard I was turning into the annoying commuter in Mr Bean. Just the prologue, the creation of Max Mojo if you will, had me in stitches ( “…hands absolutely bastart achin’ fae they nails”). And as for the assumption that Hairy was Hairy Doug’s first name and the consequences for his partner…. well. If this book doesn’t make you laugh then, frankly, there’s something wrong with you.
David F Ross’ The Disco Days trilogy is due to be wrapped up with The Man Who Loved Islands. I for one can’t wait to get my hands on that.