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Music to Die For

Sound compo: amplifier and microphone Remember that Monty Python sketch? Michael Palin exclaiming that although he was an accountant he really always wanted to be a lumberjack? Well, when I was young I wanted to be an accountant. Or, rather, an accountant is what I thought I would be. But in my dreams I was front man in a great pop or rock group. I’d started buying records at the age of ten or eleven, and soon thereafter I formed my own band. They were called Kaput (I think), with Ian Kaput on lead vocals, Blue Lightning on guitar, and Zed “Killer” Macintosh on bass. Alas, the band existed only inside my head and on paper. I would write their lyrics, plan their tours, script their media interviews, and design their record sleeves. Then there was the weekly top-ten singles and album chart, which necessitated dreaming up nine other bands. I was doing what every writer does: creating a parallel universe where things would work out pretty much as I wanted them to. As I got older, Ian Kaput formed a new band, the Amoebas. He no longer sang three-minute hits but had gone “prog,” and the band did album-length “suites” with titles such as “Continuous Repercussions.”

So far, so sad.

In time, I put away Ian Kaput and the Amoebas. At university, I joined a new-wave band called the Dancing Pigs. We lasted six months. After university, I worked on a music magazine in London for a short while. Once I’d built up my record collection and put together a decent system to play it on, I quit and went full-time as a writer. I’d already written the first Rebus novel, where Rebus tends to listen to jazz—stuff I reckoned loner existential cops might stroke their chins to on long dark nights. But another author, John Harvey, was writing gritty books about Nottingham and his cop was called Resnick. Resnick listened to jazz. To put some clear blue water between our two characters, I handed my record collection over to Rebus. Soon after, I even started stealing album and song titles for my books—Let It Bleed (the Rolling Stones), The Hanging Garden (the Cure), Dead Souls (Joy Division), The Falls (the Mutton Birds). Musicians liked the references in the books. One, Jackie Leven, got in touch and we worked together on a project called “Jackie Leven Said,” with which we toured. There was even a CD—for a few weeks I could walk into HMV and see me and Jackie on the racks.  REM asked if I could hook up with them for dinner. Pete Townshend sends occasional e-mails when I mention his work in my novels. Robert Smith liked what I did with The Hanging Garden. I’ve done a gig in New York with Aidan Moffat, and written lyrics for the second album by Saint Jude’s Infirmary. I got to meet Randy Newman backstage, and he told me I’d introduced him to Irn-Bru.

I’m not alone here. Plenty of other crime writers would rather have been musicians—I know because we talk about it whenever we get together, and lots of us reference music in our books. If we had the talent, maybe we could even form a band, but I’ve heard myself sing and it’s not pretty. So I’m happy enough indulging my fantasies on paper, just like always. Because in Black and Blue I needed one of the biggest bands in the world to be fronting a Greenpeace festival in Scotland. I could have chosen U2 or REM or the Stones. I chose the Dancing Pigs, naturally. That’s my lumberjack moment right there. . . .

Ian Rankin is a #1 international bestselling author. Winner of an Edgar Award and the recipient of a Gold Dagger for fiction and the Chandler-Fulbright Award, he lives in Edinburgh, Scotland, with his wife and their two sons. Learn more at and be sure to download the Ian Rankin’s Edinburgh app for your iPhone or iPad.