Crime writer Mark Billingham’s latest novel, The Bones Beneath, includes a 40-song playlist intended to soundtrack a road trip that occurs in the book. I spoke to him about his love of country music, Elvis Costello and Morrissey and what makes the perfect pop song…
“Country music is perfect for crime fiction – the stories are so dark, but also beautiful and entertaining,” says Mark Billingham, sipping a pint of lager in his favourite North London pub, The Spread Eagle, in Camden.
I’ve lured one of the UK’s top crime writers here to talk about his brand new book, The Bones Beneath, which is the twelfth novel in the bestselling Tom Thorne series – but also to quiz him on his love of music.
And quiz him I will, because he’s no stranger to having his music knowledge tested. In the last few months he’s won TV’s Celebrity Mastermind – his specialist subject was Elvis Costello – and triumphed on the game show Pointless Celebrities. He scored a pointless answer thanks to his knowledge of 1970s Elton John album tracks. But more about that later…
Mark – like his fictional creation Tom Thorne – loves country music, both dark and cheesy, although, as he is quick to point out, he hates Garth Brooks. Their mutual taste in music has manifested itself in a 40-song playlist, which is included in the hardback version of The Bones Beneath – published by Little, Brown on May 22. The list also includes explanations as to why each particular song was chosen.
The Bones Beneath sees Thorne coming up against his old nemesis, serial killer Stuart Nicklin, and is partly set on a remote, windswept Welsh island that harbours some dark secrets. The first section of the book is a long road trip, which involves a six-hour drive, as Mark explains:
“At one point, early on, the character Holland says to Thorne, ‘what are we going to be listening to?’ They joke about it – Thorne says that he’s got a Hank Williams playlist that will last all the way there. However, ‘stuff ‘ happens and they never get to listen to anything. Thorne would’ve had the playlist ready – obviously – so I just put it in at the end of the book, as a bonus for people who buy the hardback. It gave me a chance to include some of my favourite music and to talk about it.
“There were certain artists that were always going to be on there – Hank Williams, George Jones, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, Emmylou Harris and Lucinda Williams – but I also wanted to put a few newer people on it, who maybe Thorne doesn’t listen to yet. So, I had to have some Richmond Fontaine and My Darling Clementine on there.
“The playlist is Thorne’s, it’s not mine, but a lot of those songs would also be in my list of my 40 favourite songs – He Stopped Loving Her Today by George Jones and Galveston by Glen Campbell – but I’d also have God Only Knows by The Beach Boys and any number of songs by Elvis Costello, The Smiths and The Beatles, who are bands I grew up with. I’m still inordinately fond of every piece of music that meant something to me from the age of 13. The stuff I listen to now tends to be country, but I’ll always have a place in my heart for Slade, Elton John, Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello and Morrissey.
“I went from glam rock – I was watching it on Top Of The Pops when I was 12 – to prog. I was probably the world’s biggest Genesis fan…and then I got into punk, although it wasn’t an overnight thing. It wasn’t like I threw away all my Yes albums when the first Clash album came out!
“I went to see Television, supported by Blondie, at the Birmingham Odeon. That was a massive moment for me. From then on, I was into the tail end of punk…by the time punk reached Birmingham [where I grew up], everyone was already into post-punk. When I heard the first Elvis Costello album, I left prog behind, but it wasn’t always easy. I once got beaten up in Birmingham by two blokes and their girlfriends for wearing skinny jeans…”
I’d like to ask you about My Darling Clementine – who are one of mine – and your – favourite contemporary country acts. You first got into them by reading an interview with them on my blog, didn’t you?
Mark Billingham: Yeah – you turned me on to them. They [husband and wife duo Michael Weston King and Lou Dalgleish] are the modern George Jones and Tammy Wynette. They’re a married couple and they’re both fantastic singers and brilliant songwriters. They have an incredible chemistry and they put on a fantastic show. They’re just a kick-ass band – one of the best country acts I’ve ever seen. I’ve put 100,000 Words by My Darling Clementine on the playlist – it was the first song of theirs that I heard. I’ve always been a big fan of country duets.
One of My Darling Clementine’s big influences is Elvis Costello. Wasn’t it Costello’s 1981 album Almost Blue – a record of country cover versions recorded in Nashville – that first got you into country music?
MB: Exactly – it completely opened my eyes. That album was massively important for me. I was vaguely aware of Johnny Cash and Hank Williams, but when I first heard Almost Blue, I became a true believer. I bought it because I was a Costello fan, but it completely turned me on to country music and I think I’m right in saying it did the same for Michael and Lou from My Darling Clementine.It’s the reason that the playlist in the book finishes with Why Don’t You Love Me (Like You Used To Do?) which is the first track on Almost Blue.
You’re also a big fan of The Smiths and Morrissey, aren’t you?
MB: I can remember exactly where I was when I first heard This Charming Man. I had some speakers rigged up in the bathroom of my student flat and I connected them to a radio. I used to listen to John Peel in the bath. It was me that was in the bath, rather than John Peel. I can remember having one foot in the bath and one foot out of it when he played This Charming Man – I thought, ‘what the fuck is this?’ I went out the next morning and bought the first Smiths album. It absolutely changed everything – I adored The Smiths and I always will. I’m still a massive Morrissey fan, though I don’t think I’d want to meet him – I’ve heard a few stories about him…well, it’s all there in his book. The world needs Morrissey – I think he’s unique. He’s as good a lyricist now as he’s ever been. I saw The Smiths at a GLC gig [Jobs For A Change festival – County Hall, London, 1984] and can remember it vividly. They were incredible…
Have great lyricists like Costello and Morrissey influenced you as a writer?
MB: I’ve actually written a short story about Costello and Morrissey, and maybe one day I’ll find a home for it. It’s about them meeting at Heathrow airport on the day that Thatcher dies. They’re trying to get out of the country because they’re being hounded by the press for quotes because they wrote Tramp The Dirt Down [Costello] and Margaret On The Guillotine [Morrissey]. They’re just sitting there in the airport lounge. Actually, I don’t refer to them by name, I just call them The Hat and The Quiff – and they’re having a slightly awkward conversation about anger and notoriety, with Morrissey complaining about the tea…
What is it about crime writers and music? Some of your contemporaries, like Ian Rankin, who writes the Rebus novels, and Peter Robinson, who created Inspector Banks, also fill their books with music references. Music is very important to the central characters in those books, as well as to the authors themselves…
MB: I think it’s a particularly male thing. There was a radio show called Music To Die For a few years back, which was about crime writers and music. Ian Rankin presented it and it featured the likes of me, John Harvey and American writers like George Pelecanos and Michael Connelly. It was really hard to find female crime writers who used music quite so much [as men do] in their books. There’s that kind of slightly tragic, sad, male thing going on. When male crime writers get together, they give each other compilation CDs! We don’t talk about books – we talk about music, almost exclusively. We can sit and talk for hours.
It’s a lot of fun hanging out with crime writers – it’s like being a member of a really cool gang. Somebody once described crime writers as being the smokers of the literary community – ever so slightly on the outside. They’re naughty, but they’re clearly enjoying themselves.
So many crime writers are basically frustrated musicians and the love of music that’s there in their books is not just a gimmick. Ian Rankin does genuinely adore Mogwai and The Rolling Stones and Peter Robinson loves the music he writes about. I’m equally passionate about country music. It’s great, because it means I can get characters to take the piss out of Thorne [for his country music taste]. I get the piss taken out of me too, but I’m not ashamed to say that I also really love the cheesy country stuff, too. He Stopped Loving Her Today by George Jones is consistently voted the best country song of all time and I’m not arguing. It’s got everything – a cheesy choir, a voiceover – Billy Sherrill [producer and arranger] basically threw the kitchen sink at it. It’s a fantastic story, with a brilliant twist. It breaks your heart…
Have you been on Desert Island Discs?
MB: No, but I’ve been on several shows like it, and strangely, one of the songs I always pick is I Did What I Did For Maria by Tony Christie. It’s about someone who is about to be executed for killing the man who raped and murdered his wife. A nice, cheery pop song. It was actually the first single I ever bought – I must have been 12 or something like that. Maybe I liked it because of his voice or the horns, but the truth is it’s a really dark story. It’s weird that it was the first song that I wanted to go out and buy with my own money.
Maybe that’s what started off your interest in crime stories and dark tales….
MB: I’ve always loved story songs, like Ode To Billie Joe by Bobby Gentry. That’s another fantastic story hidden behind a gorgeous melody. I listen to music for pleasure – not necessarily to hear interesting chord progressions. Does the song do something to me?
He Stopped Loving Her Today makes me cry. Honey by Bobby Goldsboro –which is one of the cheesiest songs of all time – makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. I can’t explain it.
Books and films and plays have moved me, but nothing can affect me like the perfect three-minute pop song – like God Only Knows by The Beach Boys. They have the power that some literature or films simply don’t have. Whether it’s Wichita Lineman, I Want You or There Is A Light That Never Goes Out – they’re all twisted love songs and they’re all on my list [of favourite pop songs]. If you can write the perfect pop song… It’s like writing a wonderful short story. I think that a great short story is better than a good novel. If I had the choice of writing an opera that people would still be performing in 100 years’ time, or the greatest pop song ever written, I’d go for the pop song every time.
Would you like to write song lyrics?
MB: Oh god, yes. I’d love to. That’s the dream – Costello phones me up and says, ‘I’ve got this tune, but I can’t write any lyrics for it’. Like that’s ever going to happen…
You’re a big Nick Lowe fan, aren’t you?
MB: Nick Lowe is awesome – he’s a master class in elegance – a quite brilliant songwriter. Lyrics like, ‘That untouched takeaway, I brought back the other day, has quite a lot to say’ – from his song Lately I’ve Let Things Slide. It’s just perfect.
What new music artists are you into? Have you bought any records by new bands recently?
MB: Well, I tend to wander round Fopp for an hour and just end up coming out with old stuff – some of which I’ve already got on cassette and vinyl. I must have every Costello album in six different versions…
What’s your favourite album of all time?
MB: If you made me pick one now it would probably be Imperial Bedroom by Elvis Costello. If I could only take one album out of a burning house it would be that. I think Costello is the finest singer-songwriter of his generation, bar none.
You like The Beatles, too, don’t you?
MB: I’m a massive Beatles fan. How can you not be? Whenever I meet people who say they hate The Beatles, I want to slap them! Even if you don’t like what they were doing in ’62 or ’63, you’ve got to like Rubber Soul and Revolver! There’s never been another band in history that has progressed quite so much in five years. They were incredible – they turned the world upside down, like no other band has ever done. I’m actually working with someone right now who professes not to like The Beatles at all. He knows who he is!
Are you a Bob Dylan fan?
MB: I’m a Dylan fan, but I’m not a Dylan obsessive. For me, I can do with four or five of his albums – Blonde On Blonde, Blood On The Tracks, Desire.… There are a few other artists who I feel like that about – Tom Waits, Neil Young… Their back catalogues are so huge and too daunting. I’m much more excited about finding a band like My Darling Clementine [who’ve only had two albums out] – I’m in on the ground floor. And in five years’ time, when they’re massive, I can get quite cross about it. Tell people I was there at the beginning…
You’ve recently been showing off your superb music knowledge on the TV shows Celebrity Mastermind and Pointless Celebrities…. You won both of them.
MB: I’ve been a shameless whore. The sad truth is that I just love quizzes. Anything where there’s a buzzer involved, I go mental. On Pointless, it was a magical moment. Up came ‘Elton John albums’ and I leant across to my partner and I said, ‘I’ve got this’. I grew up with those albums and I had them all. I knew every track on them. I like doing music quizzes and I love setting them. If I’m on a long road trip with a friend, we’ll make huge playlists and play beat the intro. I have no life…
Maybe you could have incorporated a music quiz into The Bones Beneath?
MB: Actually, I would have loved to have made the playlist into a CD, but it’s a logistical nightmare. I’ve used song lyrics in my books a couple of times. In my first book, I used a lyric from Costello’s Radio Sweetheart – I had to pay for that. Like Elvis hasn’t had enough of my money over the years! Morrissey let me use lyrics from Bigmouth Strikes Again for free – good old Mozza. But most of the time it’s very tricky, so I try to avoid it where I can
So, what’s next for Mark Billingham?
MB: I’m doing a secret book, but I can’t say very much about it. I’ve written it with three other people – the crime writers Martyn Waites and Stav Sherez and the comedy writer and music journalist David Quantick. It’s a music book and there are some jokes in it. I can’t really say a lot more than that at the moment. I can say that we’ve all had enormous fun writing it…
Are you working on a new Thorne novel?
MB: I’m halfway through a new Thorne book – it will be out a year from now. I’ll finish that in September – hopefully – and it will come out in May 2015.
Do you think certain members of the literary community look down on crime writers?
MB: Well, there’s occasionally that slight element of literary snobbery, but sometimes it goes both ways and I think the lines between the two genres are becoming increasingly blurred. It’s fine by me – I’m very happy to be a crime writer. I don’t have pretensions to be anything else. I’m never going to deny that I’m a crime writer, in the way that some people do, even though their books are full of murder. The ones who claim to feel constrained by the conventions of crime fiction or say that they’re ‘transcending the genre’. We all want to push the boundaries, but it doesn’t need ‘transcending’. If you don’t want to write it, fuck off and do something else. No one’s putting a gun to your head…
Here’s a Mark Billingham inspired Spotify playlist
Mark Billingham’s latest novel, The Bones Beneath, is out on May 22. It’s published by Little, Brown.