Although Martin made his first sale in the early seventies, it wasn't until 1977 that his first full length novel, a science fiction tale called The Dying of the Light, appeared. In the years that followed, three more novels were published. In 1981, the fix-up Windhaven, a fantasy novel written in collaboration with Lisa Tuttle came out. It was followed by the historical horror novel Fevre Dream in 1982 and The Armageddon Rag in 1983. Martin started a fifth book, a historical novel this time, titled Black and White and Red All Over but due to disappointing sales of The Armageddon Rag, Martin was forced to look for other sources on income. He left for Hollywood to become a screenwriter and, aside from his Wild Cards adventures, did not return to writing novels until A Game of Thrones appeared in 1996. The Armageddon Rag derailed Martin's career despite being one of the best books he ever wrote.
The main character of the novel is Sandy Blair. Once he was deeply involved in the 1960s underground, writing for a radical magazine called the Hedgehog. That era has come and gone however, now Sandy is a moderately successful novelist. Life in the materialistic 80s doesn't suit him however. His next novel is not going anywhere, his relationship with realtor Sharon is shaky and their jointly owned brownstone house feels confining. It is not surprising that when the editor of the Hedgehog, now a respectable magazine, calls Sandy with an offer to do an article for him, Sandy is tempted. The manager of one of the hottest bands of the early 70s, The Nazgûl, has been brutally murdered in his own home. The more Sandy finds out about this murder, the more he's drawn back into his past. Especially when he finds out that someone is very eager to see a Nazgûl reunion. There is one problem though, the original lead singer was shot on stage during a concert in West Mesa, New Mexico in 1971. Someone is trying to wake the dead.
Martin likes changing genres and mixing them up. A lot of his science fiction has horror blended in. Martin has written in historical settings but also purely imaginary ones. His first four novels clearly show the breath of what his is capable of, which is why it is a shame that so much attention is focused on A Song of Ice and Fire. As much as I love that series, there is much more to Martin's writing. The Armageddon Rag is impossible to classify, which may have contributed to the poor sales. The setting is contemporary, it has some clear mystery elements (there is a murder to be solved after all) but also quite a bit of fantasy. The name of the band is far form the only reference to Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings for instance. The supernatural is not very heavily present in the story but it is clearly there. I have no idea what to call it other than a publicist's nightmare.
Another reason this book is unusual is the strong link with music. One of The Nazgûl's albums, aptly titled Music to Wake the Dead. Martin describes it with such intensity that you can almost hear the music when reading the book. There are bits of lyrics scattered throughout the book as well. The album and band are entirely fictional of course but you could be forgiven for thinking them real after reading Martin's descriptions. There is plenty of real music in the novel as well of course. In fact, the copyrights statements in the front of the book cover five pages and includes material by Jimi Hendrix, Simon and Garfunkel, The Doors, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, The Grateful Dead, Creedence Clearwater Revival and The Beatles. There's music everywhere in this novel. Sandy believes their generation had the power to change the world and that this change was driven by music. Martin picked stuff that mostly stood the test of time so you don't have to be an expert on the era to appreciate it.
Sandy is one of the complex characters we've come to expect from Martin. When we meet him he is a mid-life crisis waiting to happen and not a particularly nice guy. He has let go of his radical roots and it troubles him. He clearly doesn't feel at home in a society that seems to have forgotten the message of the flower-power generation. It has become something of a romanticized bit of history to most people. As Sandy digs deeper into his past, meets old friends and relives some of the crucial, sometimes painful, parts of his past, we get to see another image of the period. Darker, sometimes unsettling images of the music business, the consequences of excessive drug use, the more violent elements of the underground and of course the complete incompetence of the authorities in dealing with large groups of young people demanding change. The great events of their youth have left their scars on Sandy and his friends. So many scars in fact, that one may wonder why Sandy is so eager to dig into the past.
Still, the power of the movement is not totally forgotten and this is key to the mystery element of the book. Someone means to once again raise the rebellious atmosphere of the early 70s. Spearheaded by a reunion of The Nazgûl, driven by the dark lyrics of Music to Wake the Dead, someone tries to recreate the events at West Mesa. It is an event Sandy considers the end of an era, the place where the spirit of the 1960s was murdered. From a single murder the focus of the novel gradually shifts the question what happened to the movement. Martin deviates from history quite a bit with his fictional band and the West Mesa concert of course, but is is a question that has been asked by quite a few people. Don't expect to find the answer in this book.
The Armageddon Rag is probably the most unusual novel Martin has written. If you look at his development as a writer up to the 1980s one can only wonder what might have happened if he had continued to write novels. The fragment of Black and White and Red All Over that Martin published as part of the collection Quartet: Four Tales from the Crossroads (2001), shows that he was well on his way to delivering another very good and very different novel. One of the good things about the enormous success of A Song of Ice and Fire is that much of Martin's older work is back in print again (in this case despite the nightmare of getting permission from the copyright holders of several dozen songs). Each of these novels is well worth the read but personally I consider The Armageddon Rag the strongest of the four. Read it and expect to want to play lots of very loud music when you're done.
Title: The Armageddon Rag
Author: George R.R. Martin
Publisher: Bantam Books
First published: 1983