Grief among readers and friends for Iain Banks

Friends, readers and fellow-writers remember a Scottish literary great.

On receiving the news that he had terminal cancer renowned novelist Iain Banks, 59, immediately asked his partner if she would do him the honour of becoming his widow.

Taking bad news on the chin is something that, as he explained in his final interview with the BBC, is a natural reaction for him: “I just took it as bad luck, basically. It did strike me almost immediately, my atheist sort of thing kicked in and I thought ha, if I was a God-botherer, I'd be thinking, why me God? What have I done to deserve this? And I thought at least I'm free of that, at least I can simply treat it as bad luck and get on with it."

According to a statement from his family he died in the early hours of Sunday morning, his wife Adele said: “his death was calm and without pain”.

Fans and celebrities alike paid Tributes to Iain on Twitter, Author Neil Gaiman tweeted: I’m crying in an empty house. A good man and a friend for almost 30 years.”  Six time Olympic champion Sir Chris Hoy commented,” Rest in Peace Iain Banks. Such sad news.”

Author and comic writer John O Farrell said: “So sad to hear of death of brilliant and charming Iain Banks. The Wasp Factory was the first book I finished and then immediately read again.”

 The release date of his new book The Quarry has been pushed forward to June 20th,  when talking to the BBC Banks tells of how he used the dark thoughts he had to “really go to town on it”

When I first got the original bad news in the Victoria Hospital in Kirkcaldy, I'd taken my laptop in - I thought I might do a bit of work while I was there. And I couldn't really be bothered. I'd basically done my words for the day anyway. So, having got this news, I sat in bed and I wrote.

There's a bit in the book where the character Guy says I shall not be upset to leave this stupid bloody country and this bloody human race and this idiotic world and the rest of it, it's a proper rant. I remember sitting there and thinking right out, you've got to use some of these feelings that you're having right now. Use it to go to town on the whole idea, so some of my darkest thoughts at that point were channeled into that bit of writing.

I was 87,000 words into the book before I discovered the bad news. I had no inkling. So it wasn't as though this is a response to the disease or anything, the book had been kind of ready to go. And then 10,000 words from the end, as it turned out, I suddenly discovered that I had cancer.

The Fife based author who most well known work is his debut novel, The Wasp Factory, he wrote fiction as Iain Banks and Sci-Fi under the name of Iain M Banks and was widely regarded as one of Scotland’s greatest writers.

Banks revealed plans for his ashes to be scattered across Europe, in Venice, Paris and the Scottish islands of Barra and Vatersay. In a letter to fans he said: “I want to say thank you to all of you for your messages, your memories, your wit, your sympathy and your kind, supportive thoughts. It means a lot, almost more than I can say, and – whatever type or size of screen I read the comments on – I come away from the computer, laptop, iPad or phone with a happy smile on my face.”

Iain (M) Banks was the author of 27 novels and 2 short story collections. Photograph: Tom Page/Creative Commons.
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Women don’t make concept albums: how BBC Four’s When Pop Went Epic erases popular music’s diverse history

Why are the only albums blessed with the grandiose description of “conceptual” the ones made by white men?

Tonight, BBC Four airs a documentary exploring the history of the concept album called When Pop Went Epic: The Crazy World of the Concept Album. Presented by prog rock veteran Rick Wakeman, the programme set out to “examine the roots of the concept album in its various forms”, as well as cycling through the greatest examples of the musical phenomenon.

“Tracing the story of the concept album is like going through a maze,” says dear old Rick incredulously, while ambling round a literal maze on screen, just so we fully get the symbolism. But if the history of concept albums is a labyrinth, Wakeman has chosen a gymnastic route through it, one filled with diversions and shortcuts that studiously avoid the diversity of the format’s history. He imagines the concept album to begin with Woody Guthrie’s 1940s record about poverty and class struggle in America, Dust Bowl Ballads, following on with Frank Sinatra’s Only the Lonely (1958) and The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds (1966), before moving on to big hitters like Sgt Pepper and Tommy. It quickly seems apparent that the first albums blessed with the grandiose description “conceptual” are the ones made by white men, and Wakeman’s history credits them with inventing the form.

What about Duke Ellington’s Black, Brown and Beige (1943-58), a history of American blackness? Miles Davis’s Milestones, a 1958 LP-length experiment with modal harmonies? Sun Ra’s particular blend of science fiction and Egyptian mythology on albums like The Futuristic Sounds of Sun Ra (1961)? When Wakeman reaches what he considers to be the first from a black artist, Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On , he notes that it “comes from a musical culture where the concept album was quite alien”.

Certainly, Motown was a towering monument to the power of the single, not the album, but we know that one of Gaye’s greatest inflences was Nat King Cole: why not mention his 1960 concept album, centring  on a protagonist’s varied attempts to find The One, Wild Is Love? Wakeman does recognise the importance of black concept albums, from Parliament’s Mothership Connection to Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back and Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, but his history suggest black concept albums begin with Gaye, who is building on the work of his white predecessors.

It takes rather longer for Wakeman to pay his respects to any conceptual woman. 53 minutes into this 59 minute documentary, we discover our first concept album by a woman: Lady Gaga’s The Fame. The only other female artist discussed is Laura Marling, who, perhaps not coincidentally, is also a talking head on the documentary. That’s two albums by women out of the 25 discussed, given cursory attention in the last five minutes of the programme. It feels like a brief footnote in the epic history of conceptual albums.

Jean Shepherd’s Songs of a Love Affair is perhaps the earliest example of a female-led concept album that springs to my mind. A chronological narrative work exploring the breakdown of a marriage following an affair, it was released in 1956: Shepherd has a whole two years on Sinatra. Perhaps this is a little obscure, but far more mainstream and influential works are equally passed over: from themed covers albums like Mavis Staples’ duet record Boy Meets Girl to more conventionally conceptual works.

The Seventies was a decade that did not solely belong to pasty men rambling about fantasy worlds. Female-fronted concept albums flourished, from Manhole by Grace Slick, conceived as a soundtrack to a non-existent movie of the same name (1974) and Joni Mitchell’s mediations on travel in Hejira (1976), to Bjork’s debut, an Icelandic covers album (1977), and Heart’s Dog & Butterfly (1978).

The Eighties were no different, featuring gems like Grace Jones’ Slave to the Rhythm (1985), which pulled a single track into a wild variety of different songs; the Japanese distorted vocal experiment Fushigi by Akina Nakamori (1986), and Kate Bush’s playful faithfulness to A and B sides of a record, producing “The Ninth Wave” as a kind of mini concept album on Hounds of Love (1985).

Wakeman skips over the Nineties in his programme, arguing that conceptual works felt hackneyed and uncool at this time; but the decade is peppered with women making thematically unified works from Madonna’s Erotica (1992) to Hole’s mediations on physical beauty and trauma, Live Through This (1994) and The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (1998).

Since then, women arguably led the field of conceptual albums, whether through the creation of alter egos in works like Marina and the Diamonds’ Electra Heart, Beyoncé’s I Am… Sasha Fierce or through focusing on a very specific theme, like Kate Bush’s 50 Words for Snow or in their storytelling, like Anaïs Mitchell’s Hadestown and Aimee Mann’s The Forgotten Arm. Wakeman includes no black women artists in his programme, but today, black women are making the most experimental and influential conceptual records in modern pop, from Janelle Monáe and Kelis to Erykah Badu, and, of course, Beyoncé. It’s no coincidence that Lemonade, which would have been considered an abstract conceptual album from a male artist, was immediately regarded as a confessional piece by most tabloids. This issue extends far beyond one documentary, embedded in the fabric of music writing even today.

Of course, concept album is a slippery term that is largely subjective and impossible to strictly define: many will not agree that all my examples count as truly conceptual. But in his programme, Wakeman laments that the phrase should be so narrowly defined, saddened that “the dreaded words ‘the concept album’ probably conjure up visions of straggly-haired rockers jabbering on about unicorns, goblins and the end of the world”. Unfortunately, he only confirms this narrative with a self-serving programme that celebrates his musical peers and friends, and ignores the pioneers who would bring variety and colour to his limited classification. 

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.