Stereo-Typical by Brian Coughlan

Photo by Nathan Oh on Unsplash

My final memory of Let It Come Down is the four lads running onto the football field at St James’ Park in replica home jerseys, like over-excited magpies, to a bemused silence and then, when the backing-track finally kicked-in, incessant booing from every corner of the stadium, as the boys tried gamely to get their song and dance routine going. It was the one and only public performance of their fledgling careers and it fell on barren ground. Every hip shake, every thrust of the groin, every swivel and pirouette was sneered and jeered at, and the hatred in those faces from the stands was startling – especially from those men in the crowd whose phlegm had frothed in the corners of their mouths and was released in torrents of horrific, foam-covered abuse.

But, first, let me take you back to the inception. The year is 1997. I’m seated in a bustling London café, reading from the opening chapter of The Kingdom of God Is Within You, when I’m accosted by a well-known A&R man from a top UK record company. The guts of an exciting plan are spilled out over a skinny latte and pains au chocolat, many pains au chocolat. They (the record company) were keen to engineer the ultimate boyband, the boyband to eclipse all boybands, and my name was being bandied about as their third choice assistant manager. I would be responsible for the day-to-day scheduling of all the activities required to bring a supergroup to the top of the charts; I’m talking dance rehearsals, vocal training, recording sessions, acting classes, etcetera, etcetera.

How well you might have expected me to jump at the chance to be involved in something special, something unique, something ground-breaking; the enormous cheque on offer being dangled agonisingly over my reaching hands, but you would be wrong. I was starting my PhD thesis on Tolstoy, I had an eight-month old baby at home, I was lecturing on interior design at the London School of Economics, and I was nursing an addiction to pseudoephedrine nasal decongestant tablets – so getting involved with a boyband was not high on my agenda. Despite my protestations, they asked me to sleep on it. Truth be told, I didn’t sleep a wink that night. But once I started to think about the dance routines, the pyrotechnics, the abdominal muscle building exercises, the cheering pubescent girls losing consciousness, the early morning television show appearances, the bump and grind of life on the road with a boyband, there could only be one answer.

The following morning, I delivered that answer to the record company via fax and, within minutes, a black cab pulled up outside our house to whisk me away on The Road to Mandalay (the name of their headquarters). It was a blessed relief to escape the dirty nappies, incessant crying and endless regurgitation, not that I told my wife that. To her mind, I was securing the future of our daughter by bringing in some sorely needed cash to our household. Still, it was nice to go from dirty nappy to champagne within minutes of leaving our front porch, as a dossier was tossed into my lap. The front cover proclaimed ‘Let It Come Down’ in fiery typeface on a luxurious matt finish.

Let It Come Down was the appointed name for the group. The marketing department had already produced exceptional press release material on the genesis of the band. And I quote: ‘Let It Come Down – four different ethnicities, four different social backgrounds, four different young men – bringing music and performance to a completely different level.’ I suspect the word ‘different’ was in the original band name. Four independent focus groups had agreed on this latest name for the band and there was no arguing with anonymous people pulled in off the street and offered money for opinions.

‘Redmond’ would be the cool black kid with the rapper’s edginess. He would have an arm covered in meaningless tattoos and be fitted with a nose ring. He would be expected to have his hair cut and coloured in a provocative way at all times. And Redmond would never smile; he was going to be the ‘bad boy’ of the group and was therefore expected to pout and look menacing at all times. He would also be encouraged to get a few speeding tickets, assault paparazzi photographers and indulge in mildly antisocial activity to increase his profile.

‘Kim’ would be the Asian one, hailing from some invented Vietnamese village. He would be trained in martial arts, or would at least be expected to comply with the stereotype. Kim would be expected to train for fourteen hours a day on his martial arts expertise and develop a killer six-pack – as were the other boys – using a patented abdominal muscle crunch machine that massaged their torsos during down time. Kim would smile a hell of a lot of the time, so he needed to have really excellent teeth.

Did I mention downtime? I misspoke. There should never be a moment’s downtime. This band was to become the next big thing, so it was only natural that they should be kept busy from morning to night, with a strict regime of media training and assorted classes. The record company was bank-rolling this entire enterprise and they wanted to be sure of their investment; it was paramount that the boys worked their socks off and did not develop any kind of independent thinking. They would be housed in a cramped four-bed in Islington and given an allowance of fifty pounds each per week – the idea being to keep them on a short lead.

Each member of Let It Come Down would be reminded at regular daily intervals that, if they ever stopped believing in or acting the part of a successful member of a hugely popular boyband, there was a queue – literally a mile long – of other hopefuls ready to take their place. They could be replaced at the drop of a hat. It was no skin off our backs if Redmond or Kim had to be replaced by the next Redmond or Kim: the next bright-eyed boy in line with a tasteful portfolio of black and white topless photographs.

Next is the Indian chap from Mumbai. He was originally to be known as ‘Devi’ but then had his name altered to ‘Deepak’. I don’t know why ‘Deepak’ was considered to be more suitable than ‘Devi’. My notes from this time are a little hard to decipher – too much pseudoephedrine, perhaps. Deepak would be the best dancer in the group and would be expected to transition from one style to another while maintaining his vocals at an outrageously high level of excellence. Deepak would also be the spiritual leader of the group, interjecting during band interviews with wise sayings memorised from an approved list.

Finally, the appointed leader of the group would be a white-skinned boy from London with a cheeky grin and a glint in his eye. MeetWill’, the quintessential English lad with a heart of gold. Will would be cheeky, charming and slightly laddish. His charm and charisma would be hypnotic. He would be a rebel but also very willing to be told exactly what to do. He would be very much a man’s man but also in touch with his feminine side. He would write devastatingly real poetry but also enjoy the rough and tumble of masculine pursuits, like cage fighting.

To manage the overall career arc of the group, the decision was made to employ the grey-haired guru who had put together the three top selling boybands of all time: HubbaHunk, TotalOTT, and, of course, SweatShopBoyz. The Svengali figure from the West of Ireland, known only as ‘Huey’ – a portly fifty-something with an accent from nowhere – possessed (in addition to his unsurpassable track record of eleven US Chart Number 1 Singles) an abundance of chutzpah, dash, right-stuff, and whatever else you’re having yourself. He was the only man for the job. Rumours abounded about his private life but that was just jealous begrudgery from people with nothing better to do with their time, and by that I mean music journalists.

My primary concern with his appointment was that I felt he had gone off the boil over the last eighteen months. The word on the street was that he was more interested in his fried chicken franchise than in going back to the frontline of boyband war. I remember the first time I met Huey as vividly as if it were yesterday. I was enduring some awful induction day for the record company when he materialized in a cloud of cigarette smoke and expensive cologne. Grasping a cup of coffee in one hand and a xylophone in the other he invited me to abandon the induction and follow him to his office. There was so much work to be done. He would be leaning heavily on me to carry out much of the day-to-day grind. I would be his eyes, his ears and, in many respects, his torso.

We sat down to brainstorm individual backstories and invent tragedies to make each member more relatable to the general public. Redmond would be abandoned at the age of three by his drug addicted mother. He would never know his father. We spent a lot of time debating what drug his mother should be addicted to. Huey felt that crack cocaine would be to over-egg the pudding; I felt prescription medication was, well a bit too bland. We settled on alcoholism. Deepak would also be abandoned by his parents and left in an orphanage at the age of just six weeks old. He would be adopted by a Western couple but returned to the orphanage after just three months (irreconcilable differences). The emotional tug-of-war would leave him unable to express himself properly outside the medium of music. He would literally sing and dance his way through a tough childhood.

Will was the one we had the most trouble with. That is to say he would be the most troubled and therefore had to tick a lot of boxes; he would have variously suffered from anorexia, bulimia, Crohn’s disease, irritable bowel syndrome, and would be lactose intolerant – but we also decided to have him battle back from an earlier bout of testicular cancer. Yes, it was a touch risky going for the cancer with someone so troubled, and with the possibility of alienating our fan-base early on, but we were going for broke. It was important the backstories deliver a real emotional knockout blow to win over the hearts and minds of their fanbase. I forget what we made up about the Asian lad.

All that remained was to pick the boys to fit the description. We hired a warehouse and sent out the message through the usual channels. Thousands of hopefuls arrived. Some even tried to sing as part of their audition. They were told to stop. It was a decision based entirely on fit. Huey and I sat behind a desk and had each boy give a thirty second pitch for why we should pick them for the band. It was all over in a matter of hours, four boys picked from the line-up and separated from the chaff, contracts signed, farewells said to family members and they were bundled into a van to be driven to a top-secret location.

Every single day was a carefully choreographed routine for the four boys. The alarm rang at 6:45am, beginning with two hours of intense modern dance, acting classes and tearing-up sessions (spontaneous crying) before even a crumb of breakfast cereal crossed their lips. I was there from the beginning, dressed in spandex and leg-warmers. I was the one hammering on the dance floor studio with a long stick, hurling abuse at the slightest dip in effort and making mental notes of each crevice and pound of flesh that was not accounted for. The boys had to be chiselled but not too chiselled, slick but not too slick, harmonious but not too… Kids had to be able to relate to them and, above all else, they had to know that we were spending a small fortune on their training.

A thirteen-minute breakfast was followed by two hours of media training. They would be expected to master the art of answering questions from the media and fans alike in the blandest way possible. Hours of repeat questions asked different ways to try and catch them out. If they couldn’t lie about their backstories there was no point going any further with the music. After a lunch of chicken breasts and peas they would spend a further two hours working on vocal harmonies and singing lessons.

Of an afternoon they were permitted one hour of chill-out time and then media engagements all over London. We had a plan to launch them at a series of press-evenings and red-carpet events where they would show up in the latest trendy apparel to pose for photographs and sign autographs. It was really amazing how well they connected with the kids, even from an early stage. For instance, at the film premiere for an abysmal action movie, the Hollywood star was shunned by the screaming masses when Let It Come Down sauntered into view in matching red bomber jackets.

Six months into the project, they started coming up with their own lyrics and dance routines. Yes, they were at it again: songs about the global recession, about social injustice, about growing up in a troubled world where religion had ceased to matter and human life was cheap as chips, about the real hurt and pain of falling in and out of love for the first time. I had to come down hard on them. They were immediately sacked and sent home with their tails between their legs. A week later we contacted them via solicitor’s letter and threatened a lawsuit for breach of contract unless they did exactly how, when and what we told them.

But here I am, flipping over and back, like a cartwheeling backing dancer. The lack of progress with the group came to a head when recording commenced on the opening track of their debut EP, Songs from my ♥. By this stage, I had succumbed to shiniest cliché of them all: good old-fashioned nervous exhaustion. It was inevitable when I think about it. All those nappies and night-time feeds, the research into Tolstoy’s convoluted childhood experiences and early writing career, my interior design lesson plans, the difficulties of training a boyband, the pseudoephedrine, the late nights and early mornings, the excess and largesse, the poor meals and minivan arguments, the pressure and screaming matches, the parental interference into what could have been something special, the… you get the idea.

From what I can gather, Kim led the mutiny. He claimed that they were being racially stereotyped. Unless the band could record the song that they had written together, he and the other members would do a kiss-and-tell for the tabloids, blowing the lid on a manipulative, degrading and racist record company. Huey silently jumped ship and the record company called us together for yet another crisis meeting. The head of new talent, Kevin-something, was apoplectic because a huge amount of money had already been sunk into Let It Come Down and they wanted to see a return on the investment. They were starting to panic. Talks turned to celebrity endorsements for shower gel and impotency gel and foot odour gel. It seemed to be all about gels and not so much about the music.

The outcome of this meeting was that, as a last attempt to drum up interest, they were to perform live (that is, miming to a backing track) during half-time at a football match in Newcastle in front of seventy-thousand football fans. They would run out on the field, dancing, cartwheeling and shape-throwing while miming to some classic Motown song re-jigged for the modern ear. As I alluded to earlier: things didn’t quite go to plan. The local metropolitan police deserve huge credit for protecting the boys and ensuring things didn’t escalate. Their cordon kept the hooligans out long enough for us to scamper into a waiting minivan.

In my nightmares, I still vividly picture the scarves, the punches and kicks, the spitting and, of course, the colourful verbal abuse. If they wanted to destroy the hopes and dreams of three young men and a major UK Record Label – mission accomplished! After their aborted performance Let It Come Down was disbanded and no mention of their short-lived career has ever been made, until now. Apparently behind-the-scenes-footage was filmed (without consent) for a fly-on-the-wall documentary. I’m on the shortlist to narrate, or at the very least provide some talking-head bombshell revelations.

Their song? You want to know if their unreleased song was any good?

What do you think?

About The Author

Brian Coughlan lives in Galway City, Ireland. His first collection of short stories Wattle & Daub was published by Etruscan Press in 2018. He has published work with Litro NY; Storgy; The Galway Review; Bohemyth; Litbreak Magazine; Lunaris Review; Fictive Dream; ChangeSeven Magazine and Crack the Spine, among others.

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