There are days the relentless tide of bad news, bad takes, bad faith, makes you want to tune out of everything, forever. Yet, deep in the thickets of virtual gloom lie bright little clearings: communities of like-minded people who draw strength from their shared passions for art, books and music.
The most prominent of these, perhaps, is #TimsTwitterListeningParties. Flickering into life as the world closed its doors, Tim Burgess’s online soirées quickly established themselves as lockdown havens, providing a fleeting respite from Covid dread. The concept was simple: fans of a particular album (or those interested in hearing it for the first time) would gather online at an appointed hour to listen together track by track. The party would be led by a member of the band, who would tweet insider information on its creation. Stories were told, memories were shared, joy was had.
At the same time, in another corner of Twitter, a second, more organic, but similarly positive music-based community was mobilising. These fans were just as ardent, their commitment to myth-making unbounded, as they rallied around Memorial Device: the greatest Airdrie band that never existed.
How to explain this phenomenon to anyone who has never encountered it? At its most basic level, Memorial Device is a fictional group, the best of many on the post-punk, post-industrial DIY Airdrie scene of the late 70s/early 80s.
Comprised of Patty Pierce, Lucas Black, Remy Farr and Richard Curtis - “but even better when they had Mary Hanna in them” - this Joy Division-inflected bunch of misfits first burst into the public consciousness in author David Keenan’s debut novel This Is Memorial Device in 2017. Keenan’s Airdrie is peopled with oddballs and outsiders brought together by their love of culture. Were it not for “excess and uncompromising bloody-minded belief”, Memorial Device might have gone on to support Sonic Youth.
Last week, Keenan’s prequel, Industry of Magic and Light - set in the same semi-fictitious Airdrie, but in the 60s and about hippies staging a psychedelic light show - was launched in London; and a theatre adaptation of This is Memorial Device adapted and directed by Graham Eatough, and soundtracked with original music by Stephen McRobbie of The Pastels, won a Scotsman Fringe First award.
But This Is Memorial Device is not merely a book or a play: it is a state of mind, a fever dream, a “psycho-geography”, as author Alan Warner once put it; and the band at its centre long ago escaped the clutches of its creator to take on a life of its own.
Fuelling the Memorial Device mythopoeia is @memorialdevice, the band’s mysterious Twitter account. I say “mysterious” because no-one really knows who lies behind it. He - for it is a man - is an online Banksy, adding layers to the lore at will. Many people assume it is run by Keenan, or Lee Brackstone, of White Rabbit, which published Industry of Magic and Light; but it is not. Neither Keenan nor Brackstone have ever met the man though they support the account. I finally caught up with him last week. All I am willing or able to divulge is that he is not from Airdrie. Indeed, he has never visited Airdrie; except, of course, in his imagination.
This man - let’s call him Sam - set up the account three years ago after reading the book. He is not a social media guru. He does not have a personal Twitter or FaceBook account. He doesn’t use hashtags.
For a while, he only had one follower: Keenan; but gradually numbers swelled. They now stand at 34K. The account promotes the “counterculture”, mainly music Sam loves and considers under-exposed. He also posts nostalgia threads: countdowns of the top toys, gadgets, household dangers from the 70s and 80s - anything that evokes the lost childhoods of working class Generation X-ers.
One day he came up with the idea of giving those he considered deserving the Memorial Device seal of approval. “I got annoyed that ‘national treasures’ were always establishment figures, so I started a list of MD Alternative National Treasures,” he tells me from his base somewhere in northern England. “Musicians like Michael Head of Shack - he was one of the first, but also plumbers and teachers and carers, all the brilliant people who make a contribution but go unheralded.”
It was all quite low-key. Then author Ian Rankin added #MD Alternative National Treasure to his Twitter bio. Other people followed suit, and it quickly became a badge of honour: something to boast about in a tongue-in-cheek way. Friday’s 18 new ANT additions included a mix of writers, artists, the head of communications for an electric cargo bike company and a nurse. Within hours, five of them had added the accolade to their own Twitter bios.
Sam thought a list of anti-heroes would be too negative. Instead, those who fall short of MD values are said not to have “heard Marquee Moon” - Television’s debut album. The catchphrase is now part of the MD argot.
If this all sounds a bit in-joke-y, then perhaps it is. But what makes @memorialdevice great is the solidarit it has fostered, and the comfort it has brought in desperate times. “One of the things that locked me into this account during the pandemic was the incredible messages I received from people who were sharing the nostalgia posts,” Sam says. “One man told me his dad was in a care home and he couldn’t see him, but he would send the countdowns to his dad’s iPad and they would reminisce about past times together.”
He gets messages from people who are overjoyed to have been made ANTs, too. “Sometimes new members will send me a DM that says: ‘I’ve been having a really hard time. You’ll not believe what a lift this has given me,’ which makes it all worthwhile.”
There’s a political dimension to @memorialdevice. It’s not pro any particular party, just anti-Tory and the policies that are causing so much misery to so many. “I didn’t want it to be just a comfortable nostalgia account,“ Sam says. “I wanted it to have some bite.”
But what marks it out - and is perhaps more interesting to This Is Memorial Device fans - is how it has fed into the book’s growing cult status and expanded the story.
One of its best post-modernist moments has been a review of a “fabled” Memorial Device EP: the East Kilbride Mushroom Giro Scene, which came into the possession of freelance music critic and acquaintance of Sam’s, Bobby Gant, in enigmatic circumstances (when he moved house, he found a package lying on the carpet with his name scrawled in purple marker pen).
A homage to the style of This Is Memorial Device, Gant’s review is itself a work of art with tracks such as Harvesting in the Rain described as “clattered by chunky, reverb-laden guitar lines,” and the text rich with allusions to Keenan’s other novels. The Memorial Device account sent it to Keenan and it ended up being published on the Louder Than War music website.
“Some people bought into the idea of it existing. Even if they knew it didn’t, they made up their own stories about having been at gigs,” Gant says. “Others, who follow the Twitter account, but aren’t as familiar with the book, were confused. They said: ‘I didn’t know this was a real thing. I can’t find it online.’ I love the idea of myth and reality merging, the blurring of lines, and people not being quite sure what’s going on.”
After writing the review, Gant was given MDANT status. “I thought: ‘that’s a nice touch’,” he says,”but I was really surprised by [followers] across the country saying: ‘Congratulations, welcome to the club.’ It was slightly surreal, but it’s nice to have a small gesture which means a lot to people.”
For Rankin, the appeal of Memorial Device - both the book and the Twitter account - is rooted in his own childhood. From the ages of 12-17 (1972-77) he formed and managed a band called the Amoebas, which existed only on paper. The Amoebas moved from prog rock to punk as musical trends evolved. “I created band members, wrote their lyrics on paper, designed album covers and scripted a chat show they appeared on,” he says.
“I was doing what a lot of kids do - creating a parallel universe where I could be a rock star. The lead singer was called Ian Kaput - which was obviously me. I was never going to be a real rock star, but I could be a fictional one.”
Forty years on, Rankin’s fiction turned into reality as he became lead singer with the band Best Picture, which is currently taking a sabbatical. “It appealed to me that David Keenan had created this almost believable alternative universe in which Memorial Device existed,” he says. “That fictitious version of Airdrie resonated with me growing up in Fife at a time when you maybe knew someone who was in a band, or you wanted to be in a band and you went to gigs and you bought all the fanzines. That was the youth culture I grew up with.”
This Is Memorial Device is structured as a series of interviews by local music journalist Ross Raymond with people whose lives were touched by the band. Rankin says Keenan likes to play games with the reader. “The book is written in such a way that it’s trying its damnedest to look as though the band did exist,” he says. “I think, at a meta level, it’s saying something about fake news and the sort of world we live in.”
As the creator of the popular Inspector Rebus series, how would he feel about losing control of his own characters? “I think fanfiction is a lovely thing. It is all done from the heart by people who love what you do and feel they would like to try to do something else with it, long after you have let it go.
“I say that, but I haven’t seen any Rebus fanfiction yet,” he laughs. “If I saw any of that, I might change my mind.”
As for Keenan, he is delighted by the thought of Memorial Device spinning off into its own orbit. He loves Eatough’s adaptation of the book, which is being staged in the Wee Red Bar at the Edinburgh College of Art, and with actor Paul Higgins’ portrayal of Ross Raymond.
“Watching the play has been mind-blowing,” he says. “To me, Paul has completely captured what it is to be Ross Raymond: that level of mania and obsession. I think the whole team has got to the book’s DNA.”
When it comes to the other spin-offs, Keenan says he realised some time ago that he has no ownership of Memorial Device. “Everyone has their own Memorial Device - that’s the point, and the reason it’s so popular is because it reflects everyone’s life. Even in the book, people contradict stories, tell different versions of them, so it’s true to the book to have as many iterations of it as possible. As with Dr Who, everyone who engages adds to the myth. For instance, in the play, it says Memorial Device once played the Wee Red Bar. I didn’t know that. I thought their only [Edinburgh] gig was at The Venue.”
When Keenan first noticed the Twitter account, he thought it was slightly weird, “but I got a message saying it was an act of love, and I thought: ‘That sounds brilliant - roll with it,’ and then, as he started to do his own thing, it was so joyous. I trust it completely. It celebrates the culture we care about, and takes it seriously, which is another Memorial Device thing.”
As a long-term follower, he finds himself part of the egalitarian community his book inspired, but in which he has no special status, a concept he has embraced. During lockdown, a group of ANTs, including writers Wendy Erskine and Wayne Connolly, invited him to join weekly online readings of his then new book Monument Maker.
As the Covid restrictions eased, he went on to meet some of them in real life. One of the followers made Memorial Device badges, giving the proceeds to charity, so now ANTs can spot each other at cultural events such as last week’s launch of Industry of Magic and Light in London.
“The book is about how you couldn't listen to a record or read a novel without wanting to contribute to the culture, not passively consume it,” Keenan says. “The story of post-punk was never Siouxsie and the Banshees or the big bands that were in the NME ; the real story was the kids who made one cassette, who pasted up posters round town once, who played a gig In Coatbridge once, but who believed enough that it changed their life. So when you see people getting involved, just through enthusiasm and exuberance alone - it’s totally in keeping with the Memorial Device spirit.”
There are more spin-offs afoot. But with every fresh iteration comes a question: has the time come to give Memorial Device some real-life music? For Keenan, it feels like the answer will always be no. “I’m not sure any actual music could live up to people’s wild imaginings of it,” he says.
Eatough’s stage adaptation found a way round this. “What Stephen did was he used music that maybe he had recorded early on, pre-Pastels,” Keenan says. The play ends with a full piece created by McRobbie. The piece is The Morning of the Executioners: a song Lucas Black is supposed to have recorded, and which Patty and Remy remixed and released after his death (so technically not Memorial Device). Others have created Spotify playlists or produced Memorial Device-adjacent tracks. Keenan says music producer Andrew Weatherall, who died in 2020, recorded a double album evoking the book’s “milieu”. He wanted to call it: “This Isn’t Memorial Device.”
The Weatherall recordings have not been retrieved in the wake of his death. However, Keenan says two other LPs are in the offing, one related to This is Memorial Device, the other to the Industry of Magic and Light. The production of these LPs are being overseen by Andy Bell from Ride. “The Memorial Device LP will feature music by some of the groups around Memorial Device, but not Memorial Device themselves,” he says.
Who wants the greatest Airdrie band that never existed to cross the reality Rubicon? Not me. Rankin suggests the next great twist could be for Tim Burgess to host a Twitter Listening Party for a Memorial Device non-album. “We could pretend we were listening to it and we could say things like: ‘I am not sure about the trumpets on this one’, or: ‘The sudden introduction of the sitar was a bold move’,” Rankin says. Think of the stories we could share. Of nights that never happened in dingy basements who knows where.
One of the best things about a group that lives largely in your imagination is it is less likely to disappoint. Its members won’t do a Morrissey or an Ian Brown. They won’t spout slogans you disapprove of, espouse values you abhor. And you yourself can decide how big a part you played in its success or downfall. Maybe you were there when Memorial Device performed in that smoke-filled garage in Caldercruix; or maybe you’d passed out drunk on the other side of town. Maybe you recall an electrifying gig Keenan knows nothing about. It’s up to you. It’s in your gift. The possibilities are endless. #HWFG