Book excerpt: “Utopia Avenue” by David Mitchell

David Mitchell, the bestselling author of such kaleidoscopic novels as “Cloud Atlas,” The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet” and “The Bone Clocks,” has returned with the story of the rise of a British band in the 1960s.

“Utopia Avenue” (Random House”) not only traces the band’s journey from London to Italy to New York and Los Angeles; it also features cameos by musical icons of the era, from David Bowie and John Lennon to Janis Joplin.

Read an excerpt below from David Mitchell’s “Utopia Avenue”:

Random House


“We decided an hour ago,” groans Elf. “The third take’s best.”

“Take six is more precise.” Levon speaks on the control-room talkback. “Dean fluffed that descending scale.”

“That adds to it,” insists Elf. “It comes just as Jasper sings the word ‘broken.’ It’s one of those happy accidents that—”

“Jasper’s vocal’s better overall on take six,” says Levon. “And Griff played it more ‘tick-tock-tick-tock,’ too.”

“If you want ‘tick-tock-tick-tock,’ ” said Elf, “just get a giant hairy metronome in a vest to sit in the corner and record that.”

“If the giant hairy metronome can get a word in.” Griff lies on a saggy sofa, his angry new scar crossing his left temple. “Mosser’s bass bled into my snare. Can we do a take seven with an absorber?” “I left the absorber out on purpose,” says Digger, Fungus Hut’s in-house engineer. “Like the Stones. They let it bleed on purpose.” “So?” Dean is perched on an amp, picking his nose and not caring who sees. “We’re not Stones clones.”

“Taking a leaf from the Stones’ book doesn’t make you a clone, guys,” says the tanned, tooth-whitened, Playboy-esque co-owner of Moonwhale, Howie Stoker. “Those boys are a gold mine.”

“They’re a gold mine ’cause they found their own voice, Howie,” replies Dean, “and not by acting like bloody parrots.”

“Nobody at Chess Records’d agree the Stones aren’t parrots.” Griff blows a smoke ring.

“None of this is the point!” Elf feels trapped in a circular night- mare. “Can we please just—”

“No, but, guys, here’s an idea.” Howie Stoker accentuates his speech with hand-chops. “Ditch that line, ‘Down in the darkroom where a lie becomes the truth’ and replace it with ‘sha-la-la-la-la-dah sha-la-la-la-la-bah.’ I had dinner with Phil Spector last week and he says sha-la-las are making a comeback.”

“Definitely a thought, Howie,” says Levon. 

Shoot me first, thinks Elf. “Dean, it’s your bass part. Take three or six. Choose one. Put us out of our misery.”

“I’ve listened to them so much, my ears’re on strike.”

“That’s why God invented producers,” says Levon. “Digger, Howie, and I agree—take six is the one.”

“We were agreed it was take three,” Elf tries not to shout because then she’ll be the hysterical female, “until you—”

“Take three led the field for a while,” explains Levon, “but six rallied strongly and reached the finishing line first.” 

God give me strength. “A badly fitting metaphor is not a winning argument. Jasper. Three or six? It’s your song.”

Jasper peers out of the vocal booth. “Neither. I sound like Dylan with a cold. I’d like to do a croonier retake.”

“Phil Spector has a saying,” says Howie Stoker. ” ‘Don’t let the good be the enemy of the best.’ Is he right or is he right?”

“I’d say that’s truly sound advice, Howie,” says Levon. 

You arse-licking pun-cracker, thinks Elf. “If we had all week I’d agree to try it five hundred ways. But we only have …” The clock shows 8:31 a.m. “… four hours and twenty-nine minutes to do two songs because we’ve spent so much time on this one.

“‘Darkroom”s the A side,” says Levon. “This is the song that’ll be coming out of a million radio sets. It has to be perfect.”

“Shouldn’t we hear how my and Dean’s songs come out before deciding what’s the A side?” asks Elf. “Otherwise—”

“No, but—” begins Dean, and a fuse blows in the brain of Elf, who slams her piano keyboard and tells the studio, “If anyone talks over me again I will ram my Farfisa up his arse.”

The men look shocked, except for Jasper. Then they swap uh-oh-someone’s-having-her-period looks.

“Miss Holloway?” Deirdre, Fungus Hut’s receptionist, is at the door. “Your sister’s in reception. She says she’s expected.”

Bea’s been sent to save me from killing someone, thinks Elf. “Okay. Everyone. Do what you want with this damn song. I’m past caring. I’m going to the Gioconda. I’ll be back at nine.”

“Go ahead,” replies their manager. “It’ll do you good.”

“I wasn’t asking for permission, Levon.” Elf gathers her coat and bag and exits without a backward glance.

From “Utopia Avenue” by David Mitchell, published by Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2020 by David Mitchell. 

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