Rock and Roll is Life: The True Story of the Helium Kids by One Who Was There: A Novel, by D.J. Taylor, reviewed

16 June 2018

9:00 AM

16 June 2018

9:00 AM

The narrator-protagonist of D.J. Taylor’s new novel, a mild-mannered Oxford graduate named Nick Du Pont, has resisted the lure of a proper career to become a publicist for a flower-pop group called the Helium Kids.

The story begins in 1964, with Nick and the band in the United States. It’s the year of the Civil Rights Act, and the Helium Kids’ entire tour is set in venues along the Mason–Dixon Line, prompting Nick to reflect on the ‘terrible, pulled-both-ways wonder of 1960s America’. He returns to the UK to find that here, too, the old world is giving way to the new: ‘There are houses going up all over the west side of Norwich. The girls stop being called Kate and Margaret and Mary and start being called Samantha and Jennifer and Suzanne.’

Rock and Roll is Life features a love interest in the form of an American heiress; the untimely death of a drug-addled keyboardist; the band’s enigmatic frontman going AWOL in Tangier; and a touching subplot involving Nick’s’s errant father. When a girl band comprising a pair of conjoined twins releases an album entitled Baby You’re a Part of Me, one wonders if Taylor is having too much fun.

Such capers aside, the book’s defining feature is its narrator’s wry scepticism towards the legend of the 1960s and 1970s counterculture as an egalitarian watershed. Though the Helium Kids themselves are mostly working-class, everyone around them is conspicuously well-heeled, and we are reminded at every turn that this was very much a bourgeois revolution. The times may be a-changing, but the social order will remain stubbornly intact.

Nick condenses his experience of the 1960s down to ‘the feeling that, for better or worse, you were living in a piece of performance art’. This sense of artifice is explored via his metier, as he verses himself in the cynical tricks of the PR trade. Taylor’s skewering of the analogue-era hype machine is pointedly acerbic, but the parodic rock almanac entries, discographies and album reviews that punctuate the novel read like an affectionate homage to a sub-genre of music journalism that has lost much of its cultural cachet in the internet age. Taylor skilfully combines nostalgic reverence and ironic distance in this genial romp, puncturing the mythology of the era while never quite repudiating its charms.

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