"Every crime writer I know is a frustrated rock star" - Ian Rankin on why music is key to Rebus

From novels to TV adaptations, there’s a soundtrack to the detective’s struggle

Music is integral to Ian Rankin’s fictional Edinburgh detective John Rebus and the latest TV version to hit our screens in Rebus, a six-part reboot by the BBC starring Richard Rankin, is no exception.

The title track, Glory, is by Jamie N Commons, a British blues singer-songwriter who has worked with Lewis Capaldi, Eminem, Paloma Faith and Jay-Z, and is a fitting opener for the episodes.

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A growling, brooding track, its lyrics, “Truth be told, I'm not the man I once was, Truth be told, I feel broke down inside”, are appropriate for the jaded policeman.

Richard Rankin stars in the new series of Rebus, based on the novels by Ian Rankin. Pic: BBCRichard Rankin stars in the new series of Rebus, based on the novels by Ian Rankin. Pic: BBC
Richard Rankin stars in the new series of Rebus, based on the novels by Ian Rankin. Pic: BBC

Also on the series playlist is Waiting All Night (featuring Ella Eyre), when Rebus’ sidekick is letting her hair down in a club after a harrowing slashing incident (involving a certain Jimmy McJagger, cue Can’t Get No (Satisfaction) jokes) in which she saves her boss, and there’s also a section of Sanya’s dreamy Teddybears in one of the more moody scenes.

The contemporary TV 40-year-old Rebus differs from the version in the novels (a man who would now be in his seventies), who often mulls over a case with a whisky in hand and John Martyn, Jackie Leven, The Rolling Stones, Van Morrison, Leonard Cohen, Muddy Waters or Jethro Tull on the turntable. His work partner Siobhan allowing the writer to throw some Cocteau Twins and Belle and Sebastian into the mix.

When TV sidekick Siobhan is trying to get to know her new boss, she draws a blank on his cultural interests, declaring that he must like music, to which he replies: “Of course I like music. Everybody likes music. But I don’t pay any attention to it or buy records or anything like that. Not any more.”

It’s that ‘not any more’ that’s telling, an indication that all is not well with the detective.

Richard Rankin as Detective Inspector John Rebus in the TV series inspired by Ian Rankin's crime novels series. Pic: Eleventh Hour Films,Mark MainzRichard Rankin as Detective Inspector John Rebus in the TV series inspired by Ian Rankin's crime novels series. Pic: Eleventh Hour Films,Mark Mainz
Richard Rankin as Detective Inspector John Rebus in the TV series inspired by Ian Rankin's crime novels series. Pic: Eleventh Hour Films,Mark Mainz

As for Rankin, the author, he’s music mad. His Rebus detective series frequently references songs and albums in the titles of books and chapter headings, or in scenes, with Even Dogs in the Wild (2015) from a song by The Associates, Rather Be the Devil (2016) from a John Martyn song from his 1973 album Solid Air, and Black & Blue (1997), Beggars Banquet (2002) and Let it Bleed (1995) from The Rolling Stones albums, Dead Souls (1999) from a song by Joy Division, The Hanging Gardens (1998), from a song by The Cure, and two titles from Scottish folk singer Jackie Leven songs, ‘Standing in Another Man’s Rain’ which became Standing in Another Man’s Grave, and Saints of the Shadow Bible from One Man One Guitar.

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In the Edinburgh flat where Ian Rankin writes, there’s a photograph of him meeting Keith Richards hanging on the wall (he’s met all of The Stones and they’re happy with his use of the titles) above ranks of storage units filled with vinyl albums and CDs. He spent hours sorting and alphabetising them for the first time during lockdown, and the living room is furnished with three chairs facing the music system.

“I’ve got two old friends who like listening to records,” he told me during an interview in his flat last November, “so when I was furnishing this place I thought I just need three chairs, one for me and two for my mates, and if they’ve come for a listening night we put the three chairs in a row and listen to records and then turn the chairs round and listen to the streaming. I’ve got two music systems so we can stream music or listen to records and CDs.”

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Ian Rankin is also a fan of The Sensational Alex Harvey Band, and on his coffee table there’s an Alex Harvey mug, the Scottish musicians having impressed him during his teenage years at a gig in Edinburgh in 1976.

“I saw Alex Harvey quite early on,” he says. “I’d have been about 15, 16, I think it was the Odeon, and he came onstage by marching through the audience dressed [ironically] as Hitler. He was phenomenal. I loved Alex Harvey. I’ve still got all the albums dotted around. I only saw him once live.”

The author was even younger when he went to see his first band, Barclay James Harvest at the Usher Hall.

“I’d literally never bought one of their albums but a mate of mine had a ticket so I came over from Cowdenbeath.”

For the record Ian Rankin has named his three all time favourite albums as John Martyn's Solid Air, the Rolling Stones’ bluesy, dark, country honk infused Let it Bleed (featuring Fife-born - like Rankin and Rebus - keyboard player Ian Stewart who was a sixth member of The Stones and played at their gigs but wasn’t deemed photofriendly enough for the album covers) and Brian Eno’s Music for Airports.

With his long fingernails, the author looks like he might play the guitar, but he demurs.

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“No. I usually bite my fingernails down to the quick but I’ve not done it for a wee while and I’m quite proud of that, but they will break off eventually. No, I’ve never played the guitar. I bought an acoustic when I was about 13 and never quite learned to play it. Or indeed tune it.”

Now that we have a contemporary Rebus who, whether he admits it or not, inevitably has a different soundtrack to his life, the author is full of praise for his namesake actor.

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“I think he’s done a cracking job,” he says. “You cannot take your eyes off him. He’s got that great magnetism you want in a screen actor.

“Some fans might go, ‘oh no no this isn’t quite right because it’s set in contemporary Edinburgh’ and it’s Rebus in his forties, whereas they’re used to Rebus being about 70 years old. But if you’re a fan of the books you’ll go ‘oh, that’s from that book and that’s from that book’, because what Gregory’s [Burke] done is taken bits of themes and plots and characters from various books and put them in a blender to make something that works on screen as a single six-hour story.”

“So it’s not just about the whodunnit, it’s about Edinburgh and an in-depth look at the characters. Rebus’ brother for example, who’s alive and kicking, hurray, in this version of events, is a really interesting character, Siobhan’s there and Malcolm Fox, and there’s that thing about is she on Rebus’ side or is she going to have to take Rebus down ‘cos he keeps breaking, er bending, the rules too much. Who is she going to side with? The authorities or the maverick?”

As for the next book, due out in October, Rankin reveals that it’s going to be set in the present day with an older Rebus.

“And maybe after that I can do a flashback to when he was young and macho. Yeah, Rebus in the 1980s, when he was young and could chase a suspect, or get in a fight without losin’. That would be a different Rebus.”

A bit like the Richard Rankin version on TV right now.

And in his flashback novel the author could revisit the playlist of John Martyn, Jackie Leven, The Rolling Stones, The Who…

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“Yeah. All of that. Every crime writer I know is a frustrated rock star,” he says. “We’d much rather be rock stars than novelists.”

Rebus airs on Fridays on BBC Scotland at 10pm and on BBC One on Saturdays.



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