No 481 Espedair Street by Iain Banks Book 5 of #20booksofsummer

It’s been a log time since I’ve read any Iain Banks, not since I devoured The Wasp Factory, The Crow Road and Complicity in my early 20’s.

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His fourth book feels like a departure from his earlier, more experimental novels. Espedair Street tells the story of the Danny Weir, former bass guitarist with the fictional Scottish band Frozen Gold. On the brink of killing himself Weird (as he’s known) decides instead to write a memoir documenting his chaotic decade in the drug- and booze-fuelled seventies music scene. From rags to riches, and and from world domination to personal tragedy, Weir has found himself washed up at only 31, with all the money in the world, but no purpose. Now a recluse, hiding his true identity from those closest to him and drinking his life away in Glasgow, can Danny come to terms with all that he had and all that he has lost?

Two days ago I decided to kill myself… Last night I changed my mind and decided to stay alive. Everything that follows is… just to try to explain.’

Espedair Street is neatly structured, with alternating chapters set in the past and the present. As Danny looks back on the history of Frozen Gold, from the early days of forming, rehearsing and landing a record deal to the stratospheric heights of sold-out stadiums, we come to gradually discover why he is now so lost.

With wit, and a touch of sadness, Banks explores what happens when all your dreams come true – easily and early – leaving little more to aim for.

This wasn’t the way I’d imagined it at all. I thought I’d find my band of rough-edged rockers, we;d argue and fight and eventually get a few tunes together, play small gigs in Paisley, then Glasgow, maybe a club or two in London, be dead broke, have vans break down on the M6, borrow money from parents and friends, have a session played on John Peel’s show, accept an offer from a tiny shoe-string label that’s go bust…at last sign with a big company produce at least one album that did nothing…play universities for a while, think about giving up, then bring out an earth-shatteringly good album, or have a brilliant but seemingly non-commercial single that topped the charts for two months. . . that was how I imagined it: lots of hard work.

Is it possible to go from that level of stardom to ordinary life? Danny feels the need to hide his real identity from his drinking pals McCann and Tommy, thinking that they won’t like or respect him if they know he has unlimited wealth. The very thing he always dreamt of is now the thing that is making him lonely.

There is some lovely characterisation here, even the briefest of characters leap off the page. The real triumph is that Banks maintains sympathy for Danny throughout – from his early tough childhood with a violent and then incarcerated father, through to super-stardom, Danny is always relatable and that’s no mean feat when describing a multi-millionaire rock star. Danny remains, at all times, human and in need of genuine human contact.

Banks has a real skill at the set piece. Highlights include a cocaine-fuelled nighttime aeroplane ride, a bar brawl that turns into outright carnage and an hilarious montage featuring a drunk and vomiting dog.

Does the novel descend into sentimentality at the end? Well, yes, a bit. The conclusion is neatly packaged and a little at odds with the rest of Danny’s chaotic life, but when a book is written with this much warmth, wit and heart, it’s hard to argue with the pleasure of a potentially happy ending.

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20 Books of Summer: 5/20

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Cathy746books View All →

I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!

30 Comments Leave a comment

  1. Hi Cathy, thanks for sharing this review of 481 Espedair Street. I haven’t read anything by Iain Banks – this particular book has a popular premise because the 70s music scene is something a lot of us are interested in. Have you read Daisy Jones and the Six? Hope you are doing well 🙂

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  2. I enjoyed this one when it was first published. I was drawn to read it because at the time I visited the actual Espedair Street fairly frequently. Later we got to know Banks who lived fairly close to us and it turned out that he had just liked the sound of the street, didn’t really have any links with it. it’s such a shame that he died at a comparatively young age.

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  3. I thought I’d read this as I’ve read most of Banks’s novels but I guess I haven’t. The topic doesn’t really appeal to me but you make it sound appealing.

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  4. I’m so glad you enjoyed this! As I said before, a lot of the early part of the book is set in my home town of Paisley, and it’s a book I re-read every so often. There was a rumour at one point that the book was going to be filmed with Marillion’s former lead singer Fish as Danny. He’s probably too old now. I was lucky enough to meet Iain Banks at a book signing for one of his sci-fi novels (I enjoy all his work) and he was just lovely.

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  5. I don’t think I’ve ever read anything by Banks, though I’ve made several attempts to read the Culture novels he put out under Iain M Banks. Really great writing that has just never grabbed me for whatever reason. This sounds great though – one for the (ever lengthening) TBR!

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  6. I haven’t read any Iain Banks since my early 20s, so it was a nostalgia trip finding this. It was a sensitive portrait of a time in history, still modern but I think more innocent. Like in the real life Tracey Thorn autobiog, slightly rough round the edges bands with a bit of talent could still find recording deals, selling records wasn’t as slick and image driven as it is now. As always with a Banks, well crafted, solidly plotting with set pieces like the aeroplane, and ironic/symbolic moments like breaking his platinum card.
    I actually thought the end was realistic on one level. Sometimes we just want to come back to a sense of home and people are happy to welcome us.

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