The reason why Gillen and McKelvie’s newly colorized Phonogram—a book concerning ‘phonomancers’, sorcerers using pop music as the source of their magic—works is because music is already magic. A certain song—hell, a certain type of song, a certain sound—can begin to play and it becomes as if you’re hearing for the very first time. It’s universe-altering, it latches into you and begins to rewrite you.
In a first-issue flashback, protagonist David Kohl relates how, the first time he heard a particular song—Kenickie’s single “Come Out 2 Nite”—he was unable to stop listening to it. He hadn’t seen his girlfriend in over a month, and yet he can’t focus on her. “I need to hear it again. So I get up, leave the girl, and push the needle back”. It’s an uncanny moment, deep. Spiritual. “Because in a contest between how much I loved the girl and how much I loved that record. . . there was no contest.”
If this isn’t a moment that seems familiar to you, perhaps it just hasn’t happened for you yet. Worst case scenario, it never will, in which case this probably isn’t a book for you.
In the world of Phonogram, those moments—and the irreplaceable emotions that occur within them—fuel a sort of magic called ‘phonomancy’, and while it never gets fully established in the pages of Rue Britannia, it seems capable of bestowing immortality, of summoning goddesses. Of rewriting a person’s identity.
How many punk rockers, how many metalheads, how many exhausting teenage hippies have you known in your life? People so entrenched in a frame of mind, a ritual sound, a music-scene reality? It’s a form of tibe, a sense of purpose. The sound that’s caught you up is out there, walking around, and it becomes an endless hunt to feel it again.
In late ’90s Camden, that sound was Britpop, a quasi-resurrection of British guitar music dressed up in glitter, skintight mesh shirts, and a sense of true British post-punk nihilism. There was a distinct sense of rebellion by way of conformity, of being a part of a countercultural war machine bored with its own mission. “We all say ‘don’t want to be alone’/we wear the same clothes ‘cause we feel the same,” say figureheads Blur on “End of a Century”, “we kiss with dry lips when we say goodnight/end of a century, oh, it’s nothing special.”
Curious exactly what that sounds like? Don’t worry, I’ve put together a playlist for the book, using any songs referenced in the narrative or the book-end glossary (and for those brave souls, there’s a “Deep Dive” playlist from that glossary. I recommend hitting shuffle).
The world of Rue Britannia is a world ten years past the height of the scene, long after it’s fallen out of favor. Kohl, only half-moved on from it himself, finds himself racing to stop the resurrection of his dead girlfriend—who is, of course, personification of the scene itself.
Imagine Kohl as a sort of early-2000s John Constantine, only rather than be constantly messing around with Hell, he’s messing around with he demons of his own adolescent mistakes. No less messy, because something terrible happens to subgenres of music as they fall out of favor. The scenes that spawned them, rife with bands contributing to the sound—the movement—begin to get simplified, tidied up. The smaller, nuanced bands begin to be overshadowed by the larger, more popular acts—or influential bands with only a couple releases will all but be obliterated under the shuffle of bands who simply produced more content.
In a world of magic and in real life, that streamlining, recontextualization, and misremembering of a thing can deeply affect someone whose very identity is rooted within it. The things that you love—and the things you stand for—start being confused with the homogenized Greatest Hits of something you felt was very special.
For David Kohl, this means his very past is being magically altered, the very life-altering moments becoming either meaningless or misremembered. He’s beginning to hum all the wrong songs. It becomes a matter of desperately trying to hold onto interior truths or simply reinventing himself altogether.
Rue Britannia is a book that is, at its heart, about growing up in to a world where a new 7” can no longer change your life. Where things are a little less magical the more times someone tries to recapture the feeling. It’s a book about holding on to your passion, even when people tell you it’s not cool anymore.
With enough magic, you might just be able to keep yourself intact.
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