The Armageddon Rag by George RR Martin
Published by Gollancz, April 2012. Originally published 1983.
Review by Mark Yon
Note: A much shorter version of this review is in The Fortean Times, Issue FT289.
Thanks to The Fortean Times for allowing publication of this version.
Once upon a time, long ago, in the time before A Game of Thrones, George RR Martin was known as much for his SF and horror stories as his Fantasy. Winner of awards for his stories (A Song for Lya, Sandkings, The Way of Cross and Dragon) and novels such as the dark SF tale Dying of the Light, the co-written fantasy Windhaven and the Southern USA-based vampire tale, Fevre Dream, George was writing memorable and critically acclaimed material.
Following on from these successes, The Armageddon Rag is one of George’s own personal favourites, though at the time of its original release in 1983 it rather disappeared without notice. George was so upset by its failure that he wrote less fiction for a number of years and went off to write for television, for the newly revamped Twilight Zone and the Beauty and the Beast television series.
Coincidentally, and nearly thirty years later, this novel reappears in the UK. At first, it seems fairly straight forward as a rock and roll murder mystery. Sander (‘Sandy’) Blair is an underground rock journalist investigating the death of Jamie Lynch, a millionaire rock producer apparently murdered in some sort of a satanic ritual. His heart was cut out and the body left in his office with a copy of his most famous band’s last concert poster under him and their last album left playing on repeat.
Sandy takes on the freelance job for his old underground magazine to interview the three remaining members of The Nazgûl. Their singer, Patrick Henry “Hobbit” Hobbins, was shot dead on stage during a concert at West Mesa, New Mexico: the same concert found on the poster under Blair’s corpse.
Thinking there may be a connection, Sandy goes on a road trip to meet the remaining band members and some of his old friends from that time. Travelling around America, he visits first love Maggie, old friends Slum, a Vietnam objector now locked up at home, Bambi Lassiter, living in an alternative commune, his best friend Froggy and old associate Lark, once an advocate of The Underground Movement but now a corporate businessman.
Of the band members, drummer Gopher John now owns a small night club in Jersey which mysteriously burns down when Sandy visits. Guitar player Rick Maggio is a sad character playing small venues nightly to little credit, but still ‘ragin’. Bass player Peter Faxon, having had a breakdown of sorts after the shooting of Pat Hobbins, now lives with his family in Albuquerque, New Mexico near the West Mesa.
Weirdly, Lynch’s demise leads to a reunion tour of the band he used to manage, with a Hobbins lookalike, under the guidance of mysterious promoter Edan Morse. Despite having bad dreams about it, Sandy becomes the band’s press officer. The Devil and the Nazgûl have all the best tunes, it seems, and despite things not going well at first, their gigs increase in popularity to the point where they border on the messianic. Their concerts become both a means of commemorating the old days and a tribute to the band’s dead singer and promoter, as well as – perhaps something else…
Though it begins as one, it is more than a murder-mystery.
If The Armageddon Rag tells us nothing else it is that George loves his music, and also the culture it created in the 1960’s – 80’s. That Rolling Stone Magazine vibe, a la Lester Bangs, is recreated here in all its bizarre and surreal glory. Drugs, sex and rock and roll, in all its aspects.
With resonances of Stephen King, it is both a paean of rock culture and a hard look at an America in decay, with the optimism of the Sixties replaced with a Seventies cynicism and an Eighties materialism. Sandy’s visits to his old friends and rockers highlight how the dream has gone badly awry for many after the ideals of the Sixties have gone and been replaced with scepticism and despair. It is no wonder that our hero feels lost as he travels on the country’s back-roads to meet old friends and aged band members. The landscape of America, as seen by Sandy, echoes those scenarios so beloved of Stephen King.
Rock culture is a reflection of its times and changes quickly in some ways but not others. Whilst the music scene has moved on since the sixties super rock groups, the highs and lows of the business seem to still be there. Instead of manager Jamie Lynch and his real-life counterpart Led Zeppelin’s Peter Grant, whom Lynch reminded me a great deal, today we have Simon Cowell.
And yet as the basic dynamics of music culture stays the same, it also changes. Although the tale decries the loss of the Sixties, Armageddon Rag reflects its Eighties origins. It’s all about vinyl and cassette, with no mention of digital anywhere. George frequently bemoans the rise of disco at the expense of rock, with Sandy wearing out old vinyl rock albums and throwing Donna Summer records around with loathing. There’s much about the alternative culture Underground and Sandy is described at one point as ‘an old hippie’. The sign of success of his old magazine, The Hedgehog, is that now it has Suzanne Somers on the cover. Vietnam, Nixon and The Beatles are mentioned a lot, some well and others not. When they talk of Manson, they mean Charles, not Marilyn. Phrases like ‘Deader than Elvis’, once common, seem strangely dated. Some sort of introduction from George or someone else about the context of the novel might have helped reduce this dated feel of the dialogue.
And yet, despite this, the book has a great vibe. Interspersed with real rock lyrics, the detail accorded this imaginary band is terrific, with album titles and lyrics and concert set lists, and imaginary songs (‘Napalm Love’, ‘Elf Rock’, ‘Blood on the Sheets’, ‘The Survivor’) worthy of the rock-obsessed super-fan. I’m pleased to say that the cumulative effect of this is that, despite some initial concerns, the music side of the story feels more like The Rolling Stones or Led Zeppelin than Spinal Tap.
Encompassing rock culture, and combining Sixties vibes with Eighties society, The Armageddon Rag is leagues away from medievalist Fantasyland. You can’t keep a good genre writer down, though, and it is not long before Fantasy elements do creep into the book, from the naming of the band, The Nazgûl (hence the Sauron-like cover) to the band’s album titles such as their last, Music to Wake the Dead, which have a Black Sabbath/Grateful Dead type feel.
When the reader discovers that the cause of all this mayhem is more diabolic than dance-beat, we are truly into horror territory. Towards the climax there are some disturbing dream sequences portending doom that Ken Russell would’ve loved, and the ending is appropriately bizarre.
So was this the book such a failure originally? I think not. Perhaps it was more because it was based in rock and roll, or just so different to George’s earlier books. Perhaps it was because it was too depressing, holding up the magnifying glass to examine a time America would rather forget. Could it have been that it was a subject clearly dear to George’s heart but too personal for readers? Whatever it was, it seems a little unfair with the hindsight of nearly thirty years.
Today, though he edits and his Wild Cards shared-world series is still going, George’s writing attentions are pretty much the world of the Starks and Lannisters. It’s rather a shame that the plaudits given his A Song of ice and Fire series has rather overshadowed his other writing. Whilst not decrying the achievements of the Game of Thrones series, more writing like this would be very welcome. Hopefully this will now be recognised by a wider audience than it was first time around.
Though this is very different to George’s Westeros, and written over a decade before, George’s skilful use of prose and insightful characterisation is still apparent. The quality of the writing still shines through. If nothing else, this underrated novel shows a multi-talented writer at his most versatile.
Mark Yon, April/May 2012