The Nazgûl were the rock band that had it all, but their career was extinguished at its peak when their singer was shot dead at a concert in '71. Now it's 10 years later and their erstwhile promoter has been ritually murdered in a manner that connects with that earlier killing. Sandy Blair, a failing novelist and ex-journalist, finds himself embarking on a quest to get to the bottom of the murder.
The journey takes him across America, interviewing the remaining members of the Nazgûl and meeting up with his old friends from the '60s. In everyone he meets he sees the disillusion and dissolution of the '60s dream, and he struggles to reconcile his life now with the idealism of his youth. Meanwhile he discovers that Edan Morse, suspected years ago of social agitation that verged on terrorism, is trying to engineer an unlikely reunion of the Nazgûl, for some dark and disturbing purpose.
The novel is a requiem for the 1960s: its hopes, its liberation, its friendships and most of all its music. I found myself wishing I was at the concerts Martin so thrillingly describes, and that I could go on amazon and order the Nazgûl's albums! But a bigger ambition than nostalgia becomes apparent, as the book edges into supernatural territory and Sandy Blair's fight to maintain his ideals becomes crucial to the future of the world.
Like everything George R R Martin writes, the novel is smoothly engineered, peopled with richly sympathetic characters, deeply felt and boldly imagined. A powerful and satisfying read.
Sandy Blair is a former rock journalist turned novelist whose latest project isn't turning out as well as it should. However, when the former manger of one the most vital rock bands of the 1960s - the Nazgûl - is murdered in a satanic ritual, Sandy finds himself drawn into an investigation that leads him back to his roots and to some unsettling home truths. Meanwhile, an engimatic promoter is determined to reform the Nazgûl for a reunion tour - difficult since their lead singer was shot dead a decade earlier - that will have a startling outcome.
Like the opening volume of A Song of Ice and Fire and Fevre Dream, The Armageddon Rag (1983) is only superficially a genre story. The SF&F trappings don't kick in until very late in the day (actually far later than either of the first two works; nearly three-quarters of the book go by before any SF or horror elements creep in at all), and once more the focus is squarely on the fascinating characters GRRM creates. There is more of a hint of nostalgia here though, as GRRM also grapples with the death of the ideology of the 1960s and 1970s amidst the rise of ultra-capitalism in the 1980s.
The book thrives on fascinating details: the carefully thought-out Nazgûl album covers, the songs, the setlists. Creating a fictional band and making them feel 'real' is an incredibly difficult task, arguably only successfully achieved in parody (Spinal Tap being the obvious example), but GRRM pulls it off here. Knowing that 'The Armageddon/Resurrection Rag' and 'Ragin' don't actually exist doesn't stop the reader wanting to go and download them from iTunes.
Those familar with GRRM's work will draw a lot of enjoyment from seeing connections that are deliberately drawn: a band called the Fevre River Packet Trading Company or a Nazgûl song called 'Dying of the Light', for example. There are also hints of what is to come in A Song of Ice and Fire: a father-son relationship that is reminiscent of the Tarlys, a giant hulking warrior (or in this case a bodyguard) and a similar mixture of pathos, nostalgia and cruelly unexpected plot twists.
There are a few minor faults with the novel: the events of the ending are ambiguous and one plotline is left seemingly dangling, although I suspect this was deliberate (either as a hook to a potential sequel or, more likely, simply so the book's conclusion wouldn't feel too neat and tidy). Otherwise The Armageddon Rag is an excellent novel that demonstrates the author's variety by producing a work that is as far from his later epic fantasies as is nearly possible whilst staying in the same genre, yet very nearly as compelling. Highly recommended.
on 20 July 2011
Starts out as a murder mystery before changing into something more sinister. I liked the correlation of powerful music with the supernatural - an evocative theme!
on 18 September 2012
I first read this book in November 1984 when New English Library published it as a UK paperback original...glossy black cover, electric guitar, bolts of lightning....I was 14 and loved it. When I saw the hardcover reprint I pulled it off the shelf, dusted it off, and read it again...18 years older it was even better. That's all I really want to say - a fantastic book. I recommend to anyone who wants something different.
on 31 May 2012
During the 1960's Nazgûl was a hugely popular hard rock band, the voice of a generation. But in 1971, when a bullet ended both the life of the charismatic lead-singer and the future of the band, an era came to an end.
During those years Sandy Blair was in the midst of the action. An activist while in college and an underground journalist afterwards he was present at the demonstrations and the concerts. He was there when the bullet found the singer and ended a revolution that never really started.
The world, Sandy Blair and the remaining band-members have changed in the decade since the shooting.
Blair, a published author with three novels to his name is facing a severe case of writers-bloc when the former manager of Nazgûl is murdered in his house; murdered in a way that reflects the lyrics of one of Nazgûl's songs.
When the magazine Blair worked for in the 1960's asks him to investigate the murder he can't reject the offer. Intrigued, Blair goes on the trail of a murderer. A journey that will bring him into contact with the remaining members of the once famous band, his own past and a man who wants to resurrect both Nazgûl and the revolution.
Soon after starting his investigation, Blair finds himself haunted by very vivid nightmares; dreams that become darker and more vivid as the date of Nazgûl's relaunch comes closer. Eventually Blair comes to believe that the visions in his dreams will become reality unless he takes some action.
This is very much a story of two parts. What at first appears to be a rather straightforward mystery - who killed the manager - turns into a psychedelic fantasy about halfway through the book.
The reader is lulled into a false sense of security as they commence on a road-trip with Sandy Blair. While investigating the gruesome murder Blair behaves as any investigative journalist would. He travels to the scene of the crime and talks to those he thinks are likely suspects. It is only later on in the story that the reader discovers that this won't be a straightforward investigation, although the story does end with a revelation that is somewhat surprising.
There is even more to this book though. This is also an ode to the 1960's, to the philosophies of the time and, most importantly to the music that was created during those years. Each chapter starts with lines from songs of that era; lines that in one way or another reflect the content of that chapter.
And finally, this book is also a study of how people's dreams and ideals change as they grow older and have to face the reality of having to life and work in the real world. And although that reality may not kill the original dream, it does make it hard, if not impossible, to live that dream.
I thought this was a fascinating book. The shift from mystery to supernatural story took me by surprise and delighted me. What made the supernatural aspects even more fascinating is that the main character has as hard a time distinguishing between reality and fantasy as the reader has. The reader is never on their own when they wonder what on earth might be going on. The supernatural is as unbelievable to most of the characters as it is to the reader, and therefore suddenly very credible.
This book was originally published in 1983, long before Martin achieved huge fame for his Game of Thrones series. The re-release now is without a doubt due to the popularity that series has now achieved, both in print and on television. Because I've neither read the Game of Thrones books nor watched the series I can't compare this book to Martin's later work. I can say though that this is a very interesting read for anyone who likes mysteries, the supernatural and, most importantly, rock and roll.
on 1 February 2014
As a novel this will probably have a limited appeal towards a certain audience. It will certainly never possess the mass appeal of the ‘A Song of Fire and Ice’ series. It is an exploration of what happens to a group of people who were either part of a late sixties early seventies rock band known as the Nazgul or were fans/followers/friends of theirs and their desire/belief that their music will affect some type of social revolution. Set ten years after the onstage assassination of the lead singer of the Nazgul the novel follows writer and past friend/fan of the Nazgul, Sandy, as he meets up with those from his past. Meanwhile others who have become more reactionary and militaristic are attempting to orchestrate the Nazgul’s return and bring about the revolution they believe they were denied.
Much of the first half of the book is terribly slow as the lead protagonist meets various old friends and associates. Most are quite well drawn characters but they do feel like they rely on a few clichés. Much of what they go through is based also based around uninteresting self-indulgence. Few of the characters evoke much sympathy.
One of the better aspects of the book is the way that the writing slowly increases in tempo until it reaches quite a pace once the Nazgul make it back on stage. The writing can be quite atmospheric then. The discordant style and pace give the scenes of performances and visions quite an intensity. There is an eerie sense throughout the course of the novel that it is building to something strange and dynamic. It provides intrigue but it fails to deliver on it. The book concludes quite lamely giving the sense that it was about a load of old nothing. The murder mystery element, that is at the forefront as the book begins, seems to fade into the background, the revelation of the murderer a little obvious and unimportant and the main antagonist seemingly forgotten about in the closing stages.
on 7 September 2011
Ok, nowadays, when you hear Martin's name, the instant association is (deservedly) with Game of Thrones. But Martin is far from a one-dimensional writer, as this book proves.
Here we find ourselves immersed in the modern world of the eighties, looking back at the music scene of the sixties and seventies, through the eyes of disillusioned journalist/novelist/former radical Sandy Blair, as he investigates the rather grisly murder of a rock band promoter most closely associated with the hard rock band Nazgul, whose lead singer was assassinated while performing. The trail leads through Sandy's sixties friends and associates and on to the SDS and other super-radical groups.
All very normal, could-have-totally happened - till Martin throws in a quiet, subtle, never totally in sight brush with the supernatural that, by the end of the book, just might make your hairs stand on end and have you totally confused as to who to cheer for.
Martin details the music, the belief in change, the youthful optimism of the counter-culture and their defeats and clashes with authority that is sure to invoke strong feelings of nostalgia for those who lived through and were part of that period. At the same time, he shows just what happened to those who were part of that time, as they aged and were faced with the realities of work and supporting a family. There are quotes from various songs of the period throughout the book, some as chapter headings, others woven into the dialog, that do much bring the period to life (for those that remember those songs). His characterization of Sandy is excellent, and many of the supporting characters come through as very distinct, believable, and in many cases somewhat eccentric people. His ending is excellent and surprising, suspenseful right to the final climax.
There's an awful lot to like here, though perhaps it might not resonate as well with younger readers, though even they should be captivated by the both the finely drawn characters and the suspense. As for me, I thoroughly enjoyed it.
Reviewed by Patrick Shepherd (hyperpat)
on 24 November 2015
As a fan of George RR Martin’s ‘A Song of Fire and Ice’ series, and of music and general popular culture from the 1960s, I was very eager to read this book.
But I was bitterly disappointed.
The story concept is a good one. In early 1980s America, an ageing rock band, once popular but now well past-their-prime, reforms during the midst of a murder investigation of their former manager. A music journalist, and old associate of the band, begins to investigate the murder which leads him to reluctantly work alongside the very people he chiefly suspects as being responsible. A murder mystery layered with pop rock references, and incorporating elements of fantasy and mild horror should go together like Simon & Garfunkel and a Greenwich Village folk festival.
But it doesn't.
The story struggles to form a coherent piece of fiction. In a relatively small number of chapters, the story arc (which starts off slow and measured), beings to progress at a rapid rate. The protagonist, who isn’t particularly likeable and spends a good number of chapters detailing his somewhat exaggerated and repetitive visions caused me to lose interest in him. He also frequently benefits from a lot of good fortune and unrealistic favouritism from the books other characters which always places him in very convenient situations just as the story needs to progress from one phase to next. I continued reading the book believing that the story would unravel to something of epic proportions (this is George RR Martin after all) but the actual revelation of the murderer is such a let-down and the ending is just a massive anti-climax.
I struggled with it.
on 17 April 2014
Well you know the rest. I was still a child when the Sixties finished, so I remember them as a child. The Beatles for me were figures on the back of a packet of Cornflakes which I cut out and stuck in my scrapbook. However we are all the children of the Sixties now, even if that is only because the most popular drama on TV at the moment is the blood soaked fantasies of someone who was there.
The Sixties changed everything, not because of what that decade achieved, but rather because of what it didn't. There was despair before the Sixties, but the Sixties was a decade of hope that things could be better. When things did not get better - "Where have all the flowers gone?" - the despair came back, but now it was worse. If you were there, Woodstock was the greatest Rock Festival ever and there would never be a better one. After Woodstock there was the Altamount Festival where Hell's Angels were employed as guards and someone got killed.
For many the hope of the Sixties died when Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King were assassinated. That's right Bobby, it was Bobby Kennedy who was the great hope of some Sixties' activists - the non-violent ones.
In this book these 2 factors are combined into the West Mesa Rock festival where the lead singer of the Nazgul is assassinated. In this story someone is trying to recreate the Sixties by re-staging this concert, but without the unhappy ending. All the points about how the failure of the Sixties just made things worse are here:
-There is the Sixties' idealist who is now cleaning up in the city - the hippies who became yuppies
-The college kids who have lost any anger and who are just studying to get jobs
-The sad refugees in communes trying to hold on to their ideals at the fringes
-And the violent radicals who decided that the peaceful protests just weren't going to change anything and adopted the ways of those they purported to despise.
The Sixties - "Yeah baby!!" You'd laugh if it wasn't so crushingly sad.
Game of Thrones: "In the Game of Thrones you either win or die!"...really is that all that is left now George? As Ethan Morse says, "The bleeding won't stop! The !!!!! bleeding won't stop!"
on 13 July 2013
As always with Martin's work, the writing is flawless, almost liquid. There is no re-reading of sentences for lack of understanding, or the feeling that you're reading a story for two-year-olds (subject.verb.direct object.stop.reapeat). It's just beautiful in its simplicity and clarity.
A crystal ball through which this messy, drug and alcohol infused 60's era is looked upon not only by us, the readers, but by the strong minded, intelligent reporter (Sandy) who is our protagonist.
Although the plot isn't for everyone-rock band is brought back to life, so to speak, for another chance at the fame and fortune that they had in yesteryear.- it is appealing in the sense that it shows a before and after, a transformation.
The fact that one can remember a large amount of characters credits Martin's capability for description of people and their interactions. Yes the long scenes are a bit overbearing, but so was the music of the time, everything was done excessively.
Recommended for all those old hippies out there, or anyone wishing they were one.