Foundations: Ian Rankin

Prolific crime writer guides Clash through his musical inspirations...

Music runs like an invisible thread throughout many of Ian Rankin’s books. Clash enjoyed an illuminating conversation with the novelist about his five most influential albums; those that inspire him to write and those that his most famous creation, Inspector John Rebus, listens to.

Not only did Ian furnish us with well-considered choices, but he presented them chronologically, taking us on a tour of his youth: growing up in Scotland, his short lived spell as vocalist in a post punk band and his abiding love of Brian Eno…

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The Rolling Stones – ‘Let It Bleed’ (1969)

The first album I remember listening to, that I still listen to, would be ‘Let It Bleed’. I was about 11 when I first heard it; my older sister’s boyfriend bought it brand new and I thought it was a racket.

I was very much into T. Rex at that time and I didn’t really get these older guys and what they were singing about, but obviously it stuck at the back of my head because a few years later I ended up buying it and getting into the Stones. It’s still my favourite album of theirs.

‘Let It Bleed’ is dark and sleazy, very much redolent of the end of the ‘60s. It’s like that whole hippy dream was coming to an end, and this was the soundtrack to it. It’s got drugs, it’s got serial killers, casual sex, you name it. It’s got rape and murder. It’s a very violent album.

Has it been specifically influential to your writing?

Well yes, to the extent I called one of my Rebus novels Let It Bleed. So yes, it has been influential. The Stones are almost certainly Rebus’s favourite band, although he’s of a slightly different generation to me. He’s probably the generation of that boyfriend of my sister who bought the album the first time round.

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The Sensational Alex Harvey Band – ‘Next’ (1973)

This is probably the album that got me out of T. Rex and bubblegum pop and into something that was a little more adult. By this stage my sister had gotten married and I was visiting her – she lived just outside of Perth in Scotland and we went to her friend’s house and she had this album.

What I remembered was, I think, that I saw these guys on the Old Grey Whistle Test and they were weird. They had a string section, were wearing rubber masks, they looked ugly and dirty and violent and as soon as I heard the album I thought, “I love this band!” straight away.

I was fortunate enough soon after that to see them in concert in Edinburgh, this would be about 1975 or ‘76, so I was about 15 or 16 and I was just getting into writing at that stage, getting into writing little stories about where I grew up, Cardenden, which was quite rough. It had been a mining community – there were gangs, bovver boots and spray painted walls. I was reading A Clockwork Orange and I was watching Alex Harvey spray “Vambo Rules” on a wall.

It just all seemed to click. It was a world that I was keen to explore in my writing, if not in my real life. I was one of those guys that wore the Dr Martens and hung around the street corner, but when the rest of the gang said, “We’re going to go fight the kids from Lochgelly,” I would make my excuses and go home and write about it. While they were having pitch battles with the youths from the neighbouring village, I would be at home, imagining what that would be like.

Was it important to you that Harvey was creating Scottish narratives?

Yeah. The whole “Vambo Rules” things felt very Glasgow gang. You would see it on walls in Fife, “Vambo Rules OK”, and you would see kids wearing stripy black and white T-shirts. But there was definite gang culture there. A rock band is nothing if not a gang, and this was kind of coming across, this notion of Glasgow as a place with a very violent underbelly. And it was at a time when sectarianism was rife, various gangs were still using razors on each other; you name it. It just seemed like a dangerous time to be a teenager in certain parts of the world, and certainly in parts of Scotland.

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Joy Division – ‘Unknown Pleasures’ (1979)

At university a friend came round one night, and he had a spare ticket for a band called Joy Division. I said, “I can’t go, I’m writing an essay,” so I missed my only chance to go and see them play in concert. But the next day – my friend had piqued my interest – I went and bough their first album, ‘Unknown Pleasures’, which had literally just come out.

Straight away l loved it. It was urban, it was weird, it was glitchy, mysterious. You couldn’t quite work out what the lyrics meant and I would think about them and try to form a narrative from them, stories from the lines that I could make out. I’d just started being the singer in a band, a punk band in Fife. They were called The Dancing Pigs and I became their vocalist, just as they were beginning to move into New Wave and we were getting more influenced by people like The Cure and Joy Division and it was just one of those things.

At university everything was up for grabs. Someone said, “Do you want to sing in a band?” and I go, “Yeah.” Do you want to stand up and recite your poetry to an audience? “Yeah.” Do you want to try writing for a newspaper? “Yeah?” It was the punk ethos, this was 1978 or ‘79 and the punk ethos was to just give it a go. You don’t have to have gone to Oxbridge or a private school, you don’t have to be able to play an instrument, you don’t have to have contacts in the publishing world – just get on and give it a go.

Do you think that afforded you more integrity than if you had those foundations?

What it meant was that you were genuine and you were hungry. You don’t just fall into this stuff; you had to work hard to get any breaks that were going. You had to be keen and you had to have thick skin because you were going to get rejections a lot of the time. But there was this ‘can do’ attitude; let’s just give it a go; what’s the worst that could happen?

So that was all swirling around at that time. I was starting to send poems and short stories into magazines and radio stations, getting loads of rejection letters back and living in a fairly seedy student flat in Edinburgh in the winter, when it’s dark all day. I was listening to Joy Division, feeling very urban and gritty, and wanting to be Ian Curtis.

There’s a more European aesthetic to this music, especially compared to things like The Sensational Alex Harvey Band.

Yeah, you notice that very much on the Scottish scene. Bands like Simple Minds, whose second album ‘Real To Real Cacophony’ was very Germanic, bit of Can in there, bit of Kraftwerk. There was a sense they wanted to stretch themselves. They weren’t happy just doing three-minute songs – well, eventually they would be happy doing that, but not at that stage in their lives. There was a lot of leftfield stuff coming out of Scotland. 

I was just having this conversation with my mate. There have been very few very successful Scottish bands, and it’s because they are too quirky, you can’t put them in box. I mean The Jesus & Mary Chain, Boards Of Canada, The Blue Nile, Josef K... Almost all the Scottish bands that I like, it’s very hard to put them into a box and market them. They’re not easily marketable. 

Do you think there was a cross fertilisation going on with what you were reading?

Yeah, you found out that The Cure had written a song about Albert Camus’s The Outsider, ‘Killing An Arab’, so you went and read the book. I mean The Velvet Underground had kind of started with ‘Venus In Furs’, and that got you scrabbling around trying to find a copy. There was a lot of, “Let’s read Kafka, let’s read Heart Of Darkness,” on the back on Apocalypse Now. Let’s read all of these strange, outsider novels, novels about not fitting in.

It was predominantly music and literature for young men who felt like they didn’t belong anywhere and were happy sitting in their bedsit wearing their second-hand coat that they got from the Oxfam shop as they fed coins into the gas meter and listened to The Cure. Or Throbbing Gristle. Or Joy Division. Or A Certain Ratio, or whatever it happened to be. Feeling estranged: that’s what it was. But at the same time I was writing all these dark short stories about nihilism and urban despair, which would eventually get channelled into the Rebus novels.

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Van Morrison – ‘Hard Nose The Highway’ (1973)

I left university, moved to London and got a job with a hi-fi magazine. London started to have a bad effect on me. The pace of life, the fact I didn’t have enough money, the 90-minutes-each-way commute and the stresses of trying to get out a 128-page monthly magazine with a complete staff of about five. I started to have panic attacks and couldn’t get on a train without my heart feeling like it was going to burst.

A doctor said, “You need to walk away for a week, just take a week off.” So I grabbed a bunch of promo cassettes that we’d been sent, my Walkman, and jumped on a train and ended up in Yorkshire, in Scarborough. I walked up and down the bleak waterfront listening to Van Morrison because that’s what was on these promo cassettes: the complete remastered Van Morrison. I’d never really listened to him before and there was one album in particular. It’s hardly anybody’s favourite Van Morrison album but it’s mine: ‘Hard Nose The Highway’.

I don’t want to say that it saved me, but it kind of chilled me out; it calmed me, relaxed me. It’s a beautifully constructed album, very well played; the lyrics are tantalising, the voice is strong. It’s almost the sound of Van Morrison having a good time. But it got me through that period and has continued to get me through some fairly dark nights of the soul. 

When a new album of his comes out, I buy it. When he plays a concert near Edinburgh, I’ll go. If I’m feeling a bit down, I’ve got it on the cassettes I originally had, the vinyl, the CD and on my iPad, so I’m never anywhere in the world without having access to that album in one form or another.

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Brian Eno – ‘Ambient 1: Music For Airports’ (1978)

My fifth and final pick is the album that I use to write to. When I’m writing novels I’ve always got music on in the background – I can’t work without music, but it has to be instrumental music. The purpose of the music is to construct a bubble. It’s a little bubble that I can live in and the album that’s most successful for me is Brian Eno’s ‘Music For Airports’. Luckily his latest album, ‘Lux’, is basically ‘Music For Airports 2’ – it’s very similar and it’s a great piece of chill-out music.

When I was a student I used to fall asleep with this album playing on the record player. It would be the last thing I heard at night before I fell asleep. If I’m travelling on plane, I’ll often have it on my headphones. If I’m writing it will be on in the background in some form or another. I can barely write a book without its presence. 

I wanted to tell Brian Eno that when I saw him give a lecture in Edinburgh in August, and I was sitting in the front row. But he had taken the step of bringing two burly security guards with him to stay standing at the side of the room throughout his talk. Maybe he knew I was in the room and was going to jump up onstage and embrace him at any moment. So he felt the need for protection (laughs). I’ve not yet been able to tell him what an integral part ‘Music For Airports’ has had on my career.

I’ve ended up leaving out the album that I chose for Desert Island Discs, the one record I couldn’t live without, which is ‘Solid Air’ by John Martyn. But I thought: there’s no room for it on this one. And things change. If you asked me tomorrow I’d likely give you five different albums.

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As told to Anna Wilson

Ian Rankin’s new John Rebus novel, Saints Of The Shadow Bible, is out now. Find out more at the author’s official website

'Kickback City' - a unique package featuring the music of Rory Gallagher, novella by Ian Rankin, artwork by Timothy Truman and narration by Aiden Quinn - is out now.

Find further Foundations articles, with Washed Out, Jimmy Eat World, Booka Shade and White Lies, here

Clash’s Pop Issue is on shelves now, and it’s totally brilliantly splendidly magnificent. But don’t just take our word for it – check out what’s inside here

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