Return Of The K-Tel Patrick Bateman: John Niven’s Kill ‘Em All

A decade after the best-selling Kill Your Friends, Eamonn Forde tucks into John Niven's sequel, Kill Em All

John Niven’s debut novel, 2008’s Kill Your Friends, was about Steven Stelfox, an avaricious and morally blank record label A&R at the height of Britpop trying to get to the top through a fug of cocaine. It was based, in part, on Niven’s former career as an A&R. Write about what you know, runs the advice for the first-time novelist. So Niven did.

Now he’s brought Stelfox back (after a cameo in 2011’s The Second Coming). Kill ‘em All is based in 2017, fifteen years since Niven left the music business, and it really shows. The book is riddled with major misunderstandings about how the modern music industry works. He also galumphs around an embarrassingly confused understanding of the stock market, which forms a significant part of what, biting my lip, I must refer to as the narrative. He is attempting to satirise the modern music business and high finance with, if we are being generous, a shaky understanding of how both work. More of which later.

(A warning before we progress: this will contain an enormous number of spoilers.)

The plot – as anaemic as it is – sees Stelfox return to the music business in the age of Trump. Stelfox is, naturally, a Trump supporter and this feels like forcing upon him personality traits by proxy. Except, well, Stelfox – the K-Tel Patrick Bateman – was a gossamer-thin “character” in the first place. Niven might argue that Stelfox is intentionally blank – a man only driven by an insatiable appetite for power, money and sex. OK. Yet the rest of the book is full of “characters” that are struggling to flower even in two dimensions, never mind three.

There’s a black ops specialist who seems to have been sketched out in crayon by a febrile Ross Kemp, a sultan so poorly developed that he almost evaporates from the page as you are reading and a series of side characters that never stretch outside of the monosyllabic.

In brief, Stelfox has to come back to help out Unigram (presumably a conflation of Universal and PolyGram as well as a cringing reference to cocaine) with one of the biggest acts on their books.

Lucius Du Pre was abused as a child and became famous at a really young age. He’s known as The Emperor Of Pop. He lives alone in a giant ranch, with a funfair and zoo attached, that he has named Narnia. He survives on a bewildering cocktail of drugs to keep him awake and others to put him to sleep. He routinely abuses children by feeding them Jesus Juice. He pays off the parents of children accusing him of sexual assault. He has not toured or made a record in years but is burning through cash at a ferocious rate and so has had to sell off his recording and publishing rights to keep going. He’s now begrudgingly planning a massive run of reunion shows at the O2 in London (and Madison Square Garden in New York) to pay off his debts. And he suffers from some unexplained form of dermatological trauma that makes him want to change his skin colour. Except… he’s actually white but wants to be black. Niven has really blindsided the reader there.

Niven’s satirical prowess is in doubt from the off. Then there are clunking mentions of a small indie label called One Hunchbacked Man Records of Inverness and dance acts like DJ Rectal Cancer, MC I’ve Actually Shat Myself, MC Fried Rice and DJ Registered Sex Offender. On and on it drones.

There is also a sub-plot about a bidding war for a terrible EDM act from Scandinavia called Norwegian Dance Crew (a razor-sharp play on… can you guess?) and one of them turns out to be a Nazi. That’s because there’s a whole far-right theme as well as something about fake news, Pepe The Frog, #MAGA, Brexit, immigration and Islamophobia that is all roughly crowbarred into the book in a half-hearted attempt to give it a contemporary sheen and perhaps for Niven to be hailed as some sort of powerful dissector not just of the unchecked male ego but also of the rise of extremism in modern politics.

The plot holes come thick and fast.

Niven presumes the most famous pop star in the world (even more famous now his death has been faked) just needs to add a bit of weight and wear a kaftan to avoid being recognised going through major airports and getting taxis to city-centre hotels. This is despite him not knowing how to buy a ticket at the desk and then springing for a $14,057 first-class ticket on his credit card (something that would surely alert suspicion). This bit can be excused by “artistic” licence, but there is much here that cannot be waved through so easily.

But this is not like Jonathan Coe’s The Accidental Woman where he is deftly parodying the tropes of the awful novel. This is no dream. This is really happening.

So let us move on to the real-world targets that Niven has trembling in his crosshairs of his satirical assault rifle. First, the music industry. The first real reference to the modern music business lands badly and it is rapidly downhill from there. There is a reference on page nine of the book to “when Warner Music bought EMI”. Warner did not buy EMI. Universal bought EMI and then had to jettison Parlophone, minus The Beatles, to get the deal past the regulators – so Warner bought that. Warner bought a small part of EMI. Warner did not buy EMI.

Niven also seems to presume that major labels still have private jets on standby to ferry senior executives around the world on short notice, a relic of the excesses of the 1990s.

Later in the book, there is a bidding war for Norwegian Dance Crew between Unigram and XL that gets to $750,000 and then is doubled. Because XL is well known for getting into public bidding wars with the majors for tin pot EDM acts. Most of the book is based in the US and there is a reference to the fact that Adele is on XL, presented as proof it can break enormous acts globally and so can go toe-to-toe with a major for a hot act. Except that Adele went through Sony in the US – her biggest market.

Du Pre, on his uppers, is also lent $100m by Unigram as a down payment against future earnings. He is, it is important to remember, a singer who effectively disappeared from the public eye 15 years earlier. But it is lazily presumed that his comeback album, if and when it arrives, will be such a blockbuster that it will make everyone a fortune. Just like all those other mega-acts who disappeared for decades only to come back with the biggest album of their careers like… Oh, there’s no one. Because that’s not how pop works. You don’t disappear for 15 years and stay as famous as you were at your peak.

The lack of basic fact-checking in terms of the music business side of things in staggering. But it gets worse – and utterly befuddled – when it comes to the stock market and M&A side of things.

In brief, Stelfox is a double agent. He’s going to help Unigram deal with Du Pre (who is being blackmailed by the parents of a young boy abused by the singer as they have video evidence), but he’s actually going to mess it up by cancelling Du Pre’s shows, massively overpaying for Norwegian Dance Crew (and then revealing one member was a Nazi in their youth). He is doing this in order to drive down the Unigram stock so that he and a consortium can “quietly [buy up] large blocks of shares” and stage a hostile takeover. He’ll then reveal Du Pre (whose death he has faked – remember the Ross Kemp-doodled black ops guy? – until the blackmailing is dealt with) is alive and his comeback album, The Resurrection, will be a sure-fire blockbuster. The market value of Unigram will shoot up and Stelfox will sell his 20% stake in the wheeze for four times what he paid for it. Or something. It’s hard to make sense of how Niven actually thinks it all works.

This next part – a significant chunk of the plot – will take some unpicking. I am having to make a few presumptions here about what Niven actually means when he talks about the workings of the stock market because, well, it’s clear he doesn’t have an iron grip on the workings of the stock market.

So, Stelfox is going to drive down the share price and he and his co-conspirators will buy up large chunks of shares at rock bottom prices (something that is only going to take a matter of weeks according to the chronology of the book). This “hostile takeover” will put them in charge and the second phase of their dastardly plan will be put into action now they have their hands on (presumably) all the shares. But, as Niven, flips between referencing the value of Unigram and its shares in dollars and sterling, it’s not exactly clear what the hell is going on.

Even a cursory understanding of how publicly listed companies work (and Niven makes clear several times in the book that Unigram is a publicly listed company) would expose just how much hokum is happening here. When a company is public, shares can be bought and sold on the open market. But a consortium cannot just quietly buy all the shares in a long-standing multi-national company in a matter of weeks and then reveal themselves as the new owners or even the majority shareholders.

In order for a company or a consortium to get their hands on all the shares in a public company of the type we can presume Unigram is (given its size and history) and take it private as Stelfox is planning, its board has to make the decision to sell the company and convincingly argue that it is in the best interests of the shareholders to do so. Rival bids have to be sought and processed. Then the winning bid (based on a set price per share and the type of buyer they are) is put to the shareholders. In order to proceed with the sale, the board needs to get at least 90% shareholder approval – and that will then force the sale of the final 10% of the shares.

Shares in multi-nationals are normally spread across tens of thousands of investors – all the way from bulk owners and pension companies to former staff members who got or bought a handful of shares when joining or working at the company. Just because they have shares it does not follow that, even if the share price is tanking, they will bail. Also, shares can and do fall through the cracks if someone dies and has not passed them on to a family member in their will.

There are processes and regulatory rules in place, making this a complex, protracted and very public process that can run for several months or even years – and will often require the company opening its books to bidders so they can do full due diligence on the worth of the company and its assets. You cannot, in a matter of weeks, quietly buy up all the shares in a publicly listed company and then take it over without anyone knowing.

Niven gives no indication of how many shareholders in Unigram there are but, given it’s a massive global company, we can presume it’s more than a handful, especially as over the years new shares might have been issued and bulk owners may have sold off a percentage of their shares to a variety of investors. Buying up shares in a company of this size is not a simple process. Or it’s certainly not as simple as the book implies it is.

It’s easy, however, for Niven to get confused here as no publicly listed major music company has ever been sold – so he’s having to deal with abstract concepts and hypothetical concepts here.

Except, actually, this is exactly what happened in 2007 when EMI was bought by Terra Firma. Then again, if Niven doesn’t precisely know who bought EMI after Terra Firma lost control of it in 2011, it’s unlikely he’s going to know how the whole “selling a publicly listed music company” process actually works.

Yes, I know this is probably boring for most people, but it’s presented as a major plot point in the book – hence going into so much boring factual detail here. Of course, this is probably just me nit-picking – pointing out the galaxy-wide plot holes and the vague presumptions this book runs on. So let’s ignore trivial things like the narrative and focus instead on the writing style.

Readers of Niven’s previous books will know he is a man who really pushes the envelope and says the unsayable.

One thing is sure, his wilfully transgressive prose gets extremely tiresome very, very quickly when stretched out across 341 exhausting and repetitive pages. Most of the following is from the mouth or the mind of Stelfox, but it’s immediately apparent how reliant Niven is on shock tactics to keep the book in the air. It is also clear how tedious it can become.

Pick through, if you are so inclined, these quotes from the book. “It’s like Ian Huntley calling himself a ‘bathing coordinator’”; “ringing Domino’s for an American Paedophile”; “smashing back pints of Tits in the Great British Boozer”; “the average mongoloid”; an imaginary magazine called Just Rape The Poor; “slags, skanks and bumboys”; “a Hiroshima victim who’d been splattered with brown paint”; “the mad darkie”; “the fucking gyppos”; Brett Easton Ellis makes a cameo and is called a “[p]roper chunky old bumboy”; “Who fucking cares, you utter spastic?”; “he’s a fucking lowlife cocksucker who should get AIDS and die”; “[a] pair of American fruits”; “that pair of bumlords”; “to call it a ‘family home’ would be a savage understatement, like calling Peter Sutcliffe ‘unreasonable’”; “an iron”; “this old clit-chopper”; “some brick shithouse of a bender standing there [with a] massive cockduster moustache”; “the result of the mad bastard’s ongoing project to try and turn himself into a darkie”; “this pair of fucking retards”; “towelheads”; “I send her a few Pepe the Frogs and then tell her to get in the oven”; “You want to go to the town of DogFucker, Indiana”; “the frankly incredibly amount of cocks that will have gone off in her fucking face”; “a theatre full of dog-fucking toerags”; “You could become famous without having any talent, by going on Big Brother and wanking a dog off or something”; “Her face, not yet hammered senseless by life, loss and cocks”; “He looks like he’s got fucking AIDS in this”; “Joke titles included Get Black, Half-Darkie, The Buggerer and I Fuck Kids”; “Trellick and I haven’t laughed like this since Diana died”; “Modest Mouse, Saint Etienne, Mogwai – the kind of music that makes you want to own a slaughter house, or join the NRA”; “a ginger beer”; “you fucking libtard clown”; “sharks with rusted hypodermics for teeth, the chambers of the syringes filled with the plague, anthrax and AIDS”; “the Donald doesn’t give a gypsy fuck about that shit”; “the pair of Chinks”; “a bunch of Mexicans […] the beaners”; “camel-fucker land”; “sand negro”; “dune coon”.

Then there is Niven’s favoured leitmotif studded through the book – that of anal sex (or, more precisely, anal rape). Here are all the anal references one could ever wish for:

    • “the music industry has once again managed to insert a ten-foot dildo made of broken glass into the anus of an entire generation of musicians” 
    • “A Bog Boiler you can drag into the toilet cubicle and smash her back door in within fifteen minutes of meeting her”
    • “pumping away as though the very act of sodomy itself were about to be banned or rationed” 
    • “buggering kids like it was the Walton Hop Christmas party”
    • “You’ll spend your retirement in San Quentin, bent over in the laundry room, looking over your shoulder at a queue of spearchuckers with ten-inch cocks in their hand, waiting their turn”
    • “dragged into the bogs and have their back door kicked in”
    • “You scratch my back, I’ll do you up the coalhole with no lube”
    • “he has chosen to sow his seed […] in the barren wilderness of the male anus”
    • “pumping his mad dross up the fucking dung funnels of prepubescent boys” 
    • “Your own dad, screaming his head off as he smashes your back door in?”
    • “bend her over that gazebo and pummel her arse”
    • “ploughing his fucking farter” 
    • “softening the ground, paving the way, lubing the anus, for the outrageous cobblers, the monster cock to follow”
    • “your demented self-blackened balls banging off some kid’s arse cheeks”
    • “gang-beasted by those hillbillies in Deliverance”
    • “getting caught with your actual cock up a child’s arse”
    • “another kid who a rich celebrity has chosen to use as a human spunk bucket” 
    • “two men, engaged in an act of sodomy”
    • “still the wet, greasy tang down there” (after an anal probe at the airport)
    • “Now, Lucius had inserted his finger into many anuses. With KY, with saliva and even dry, he’d forced many a recalcitrant flower to blossom for him, he’d engineered his way into countless puckering anemones” 
    • “The brief icy dab of jelly and then – boof – the sensation of filling up, of needing urgently to defecate” 
    • “the Norwegian Arse Bandits”
    • “letting some paedo rapist lowlife animal use their own fucking kid as a human spunk bucket for a few quid” 

One grimly imagines Niven at this desk writing this. Perhaps, like a metaphysical poet with a skull on a bookshelf to remind them of their own mortality, he has a giant taxidermised arse on the wall of his office. A memento mori. Or, as Niven would surely have it, a bum-ento mori.

There is more, much more, wrong with this book: it most assuredly the The Worst Fictional Account Of The Music Business That Has Ever Been Written By Any Human.

Maybe some will read this – skipping lightly over the yawning factual chasms – and presume Niven has really nailed the modern music business and the age of Trump. But it is howlingly ironic that in a book in part about media manipulation and fake news there is so much factually incorrect (or factually murky) within it.

If there is one positive to be salvaged here it is, to misquote Dylan, that it stands as a stern warning to other authors setting their books in the real world: don’t satirise what you can’t understand.

Kill ‘Em All by John Niven is published by Heinemann

The Quietus Digest

Sign up for our free Friday email newsletter.

Support The Quietus

Our journalism is funded by our readers. Become a subscriber today to help champion our writing, plus enjoy bonus essays, podcasts, playlists and music downloads.

Support & Subscribe Today