You can’t read music. Okay, maybe you can read music, in the sense that you can look at sheet music or a score and your use your brain to translate that into what the song would sound like if played on instruments. But you can’t read music—as in, you can’t write about a band and fully express to the reader exactly what that band’s sound is like. It’s like that famous quote, attributed to everyone from Steve Martin to Elvis Costello—writing about music is like dancing about architecture.
But still, dozens of novelists have peppered their prose with rock bands and singers, musicians who figure prominently in the plot and whose music is described either in passing or in great detail. These musicians are fictional, and so is their music, so it’s up to the theater (or radio) of the mind to imagine what those bands happen to sound like. Some seem so fantastic (or compelling in some way) that we wish they’d jump off the page and rock us until our heads explode.
The Paranoids, from The Crying of Lot 49
Like most Thomas Pynchon novels, The Crying of Lot 49 is often baffling and inscrutable, but not so much the parts that are explicitly about rock music. Those bits are among the most wacky things Pynchon ever did, approaching Weird Al levels of straightforward, easy-to-digest parody. Central to this is the Paranoids, a band matched only by Oasis in its Beatles-ness. Like the Fab Four, they get heavy into drugs and play songs everybody digs. (Unlike the Beatles, they’re American…but speak in English accents anyway.) However, it’s another band in the novel, Sick Dick and the Volkswagens, responsible for the greatest unheard Beatles rip-off of all time: “I Want to Kiss Your Feet,” an obvious send-up of “I Want to Hold Your Hand.”
Tucker Crowe, from Juliet, Naked
Nick Hornby writes about music so well, particularly in High Fidelity, and Juliet, Naked, which is really a novel about the pathological ownership fans take over the art they love. The impact of the story would actually be diminished if we could hear the songs recorded by reclusive, brilliant singer-songwriter Tucker Crowe, either his classic album, Juliet, or the sparse demos, Juliet, Naked. The novel tells the tale of Duncan, a Crowe superfan who gets awfully miffed when the object of his obsession strikes up a friendship with Annie, his girlfriend…who wrote the only online review of Juliet, Naked that isn’t full of fawning praise. Is Tucker Crowe as good as Duncan thinks? Or is he as adequate as Annie claims?
VTO, from The Ground Beneath Her Feet
It’s unfortunate that Salman Rushdie is most widely known for The Satanic Verses, a novel that led to a fatwa on his head, because he’s one of our most gifted, idiosyncratic, and varied contemporary writers. His writing is so surreal at times that it becomes insightfully real, exemplified by The Ground Beneath Her Feet. It’s the story of a rock band, but not a real rock band, and one that also inserts a great deal of fevered mythology (it’s based on the myths of Orpheus and Eurydice). Indian group VTO is the Beatles of this alternate universe of Rushdie’s creation, the most famous and most successful band in the world, probably because their frontman is the unbelievably powerful Ormus, whose style combines nods to real-life stars like John Lennon, Elvis Presley, and Freddie Mercury.
Vitaly Chernobyl and the Meltdowns, from Snow Crash
In his 1992 cyberpunk classic, author Neal Stephenson envisions a world where society, governments, and currencies have collapsed and corporations have taken control in the subsequent power vacuum. The declining importance of borders creates a pleasing blurring of musical forms, such as the “Ukrainian nuclear fuzz-grunge” perpetuated by a spiky-haired L.A. punk who calls himself Vitaly Chernobyl. That would suggest that songs like “My Heart is a Smoking Hole in the Ground” might sound like a chaotic combination of Nirvana, Daft Punk, and John Coltrane.
Löded Diper, from Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules
A recurring presence in Jeff Kinney’s monstrously popular Diary of Wimpy Kid series, Löded Diper is the garage band fronted by Rodrick Hefley, odious, obnoxious older brother of wimpy diarist Greg. Diary of a Wimpy Kid has been going since the 2000s, long after the kind of aggro, head-banging, Quiet Riot-esque hard rock that is the provenance of Löded Diper fell out of favor, but it serves to show just how off-putting Rodrick can be. What’s more “big brothery” than a big brother’s terrible, guitar-ruining heavy metal band waking up the neighbors? Besides, Löded Diper know what it takes to rock: merciless noise, black T-shirts, scowls, a van, and, of course umlauts.
What fictional band do you wish were real?