Brian Paone

Author // Musician

Transpose's "Retribution" turns 7 years old

My band, Transpose, released our second album, Retribution, seven years ago this month. It had been four years since our first album, and we had played enough shows within those four years where we really wore out that first album. It was time to not only have some new material to play live, but way past due to give the fans a new batch of songs.

This album was the most unique album I have ever been a part of. It is the only true concept album I have ever written. The songs can't be listened out of order; there are characters, dialogue, a plotline, a climax, and resolution. We began writing this album right around the time I was in the editing stages of my second novel, Welcome to Parkview, and there was a part of that novel (which was eventually removed and did not appear in the published version) that was about 20 pages long and told the story of a man who knew his wife was cheating on him, so he follows her and spies on her meeting some random man at a hotel. When he confronts her the next morning, she won't tell him what happened, so he burns the hotel where the affair happened to the ground, killing everyone inside, but ultimately forgiving his wife in the process.

I removed this part from the book and instead rewrote the 20 pages into lyrics, keeping some of the dialogue to be sung in the songs. We were really going for a true concept album like Pink Floyd's The Wall, Genesis' The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, or The Who's Quadrophenia. An album that is really just one long song; a story put to music.

It was also the first album, of the now 7 albums I have written, where the lyrics were written first, and THEN the band put music to what was happening in the story. Up until Retribution, every other albums' songs had been finished musically first, and I would come in and write the lyrics and vocal pattern around the preexisting music. This time, as a band, we had to verbalize what was going on in the "scene" and then write the music to that action.

In the studio, we added sound effects to accent what was happening in the scene: alarm clocks, sounds of people eating, a woman moaning, footsteps on stairs, firetrucks etc. It was a lot of fun to drop those into the songs throughout. This was also the most amount of keyboards I had written/played on an album since Drop Kick Jesus' album Splatterguts, which came out in 1998, so it was also a lot of fun to get behind the keyboard and compose again.

As soon as the album was finished, it marked the birth of a totally new live show for Transpose. Gone were the random order of songs from the first album. Our shows were now Retribution from start to finish, and then our encore; which consisted of about three songs from the first album, A Delicate Impact. We moved the songs from the first album to the end of the show and performed the new album in its entirety as the meat of the live shows. We toured pretty extensively on the Retribution album for two years.

I even made a film to go along with the album; a visually journey of the story as the album plays. That film can be found here on my site under the MEDIA tab or on YouTube. We would play the film at our merch table on a TV during the tours and shows.

I have been a part of 7 albums in my musical career total, and Retribution, still to this day, is the album I am most proud of than any other album I have written. I don't know what the future will bring in regards to how I will feel about future albums, but this one will always be super special to me. It was one of those albums where I felt everything just clicked the whole way through. And not just because it was the first time one of my stories had been turned into an album that I could sing every night on stage.

Oh, and we also recorded a cover of Digital Underground's "The Humpty Dance" during the recording sessions and added it as a hidden bonus track on the album. Ha!

The Grave Machine album turns 13

*The album is cuurently available for free from this site*

When my band from 1997 through 2001, Drop Kick Jesus, officially broke up after releasing two albums and touring multiple times, the bass player and I decided to start a new band. In 2003, we recruited guitarist Pete Tachuk and moved forward as a three piece (something I had never done before). This new band, The Grave Machine, was steeped in horror movies and industrial / progressive metal (the average length of each song on the album was seven minutes long). We knew exactly who we were sonically, borrowing styles from bands like Ministry, Neurosis, Jesu,  Pitchshifter, and little bit of Pink Floyd. We knew exactly who we were atmospherically, using mass amounts of samples from movies like May, War of the Worlds, The Amityville Horror, and The Pit & The Pendulum. But here was the problem: I didn't quite know what I wanted to say lyrically.

I had a whole bunch of verses and scattered lyrics left over from the Drop Kick Jesus songs we had been working on when we broke up, but I didn't want The Grave Machine to just be Drop Kick Jesus v2.0. Drop Kick Jesus was angry, unapologetic, and like a constant quick jab and uppercut. The Grave Machine was gloomier, brooding, menacing, and more atmospheric. Some of the lyrics I had penned for the never-written third Drop Kick Jesus album just wouldn't fit the tone of The Grave Machine songs.

The album, all ten songs, took almost two full years to write. At some point during that first year of building the songs, my doctor put me on anti-depressants. Effexor-XR to be exact. I stayed on them, never missing a dose, for ten weeks ... and then I hocked the bottle into the trash and quit cold turkey. Never again. And that's when the withdrawal symptoms started and lasted for a week. Now, that doesn't sound like a long time, but one of the side effects of the withdrawal was I would get these shocks in my brain, like someone had just electrocuted me inside my head for half a second, and this happened over a hundred times daily. And during the ten weeks I was on the meds, I felt like an emotionless robot. Sure, I wasn't sad anymore, but I also couldn't get happy. It was atrocious.

That experience, between the lows before the pills, the emotional flat line during the treatment, and the ungodly withdrawal symptoms, gave me everything I needed to write what might be considered my first concept album. We didn't write the album as a concept album, but the album takes the listener through a journey of those terrible ten weeks. I had found an emotion in my lyrics and vocal melodies that I had never had in either of my two previous bands: Yellow #1 and Drop Kick Jesus. I was writing lyrics in a style I had never written before. Both in Yellow #1 and Drop Kick Jesus, all my lyrics were very straight forward, no reading into different meanings, nothing cryptic. If I screamed, "Because I hate you!" in one of the songs ... it literally meant, "Because I hate you." The Grave Machine songs were finally a catalyst for me to build a world with adjectives and similes. I tried to take the listener through the experience without actually telling them about the experience. In the writing world, we call that "show don't tell." In my last two bands, I had been telling the listener everything. I was now showing the listener what I was trying to say.

After two years of writing, we traveled to Albany, NY for two weekends and recorded the self-titled album. Tragedie Ann vocalist, Nick Panneton, traveled with us for the first weekend and sang guest vocals on the song, "Covered In Silence." He's still convinced the bathroom in the studio is haunted.

The album was recorded thirteen years ago this month, and even after more than a dozen years removed, I am still very proud of that album; the music that was written, the use of the samples, my lyrics, and my willing to try to branch out vocally and try to convey new emotions with the tone of my voice. My wife still says that of the six albums I have been the lyricist/vocalist for in my life, this one is her favorite and feels it's my best vocal performance.

We disbanded in the summer of 2005 for personal reasons. It's a shame the album never got the legs I think it deserves, but the personal issues that separated us have been rectified, so maybe, just maybe, The Grave Machine might have a rebirth at some point in my life. If not, I will always be proud of being in that band and writing those songs and having that album as a part of my personal discography as a musician.

And oh, it was because of The Grave Machine that I met my wife ... so there's always that.

"What It Means to be a Rock-Fiction Author" - interview

In her anthology, The Best of Rock Fiction, editor June Skinner Sawyers writes, "Rock fiction has not received the proper respect it deserves, which is unfortunate given the caliber of writers who have captured its fleeting essence on the written page."

Nick Horby's High Fidelity is credited as the first rock-fiction novel published in 1995. In 2011, Writer's Digest held a contest to "write a story based on your favorite song's lyrics." This prompted Randy Blazak to write his novelization of Electric Light Orchestra's A New World Record album, titled Mission of the Sacred Heart. Inspired by Blazak, Brian Paone published Yours Truly, 2095, credited as the third-ever rock fiction novel.

I had the pleasure to interview Brian Paone, a pioneer in writing rock fiction, and Pam Van Allen, who recently released her debut novel, to discuss the musical genre category of rock fiction.


How would you define rock fiction? Can a non-musical fan enjoy your work?


Pam Van Allen: Rock fiction can be any fiction that incorporates rock music in the storyline. The first few works were novelizations of albums but stories about purely fictional rock stars and their music would qualify too. Even fictional accounts of real rock stars would fall under that rubic. I wrote Midnight on the Water intending that people who had never heard an Electric Light Orchestra song would be able to enjoy the story. The main character wants to escape his boring life and many people can relate to that. He is swept up in a search for meaning that many people can relate to as well. The Easter eggs (hidden meanings) buried in the story will delight and entertain the ELO fans, while the non-musical fans will just skip over them. I don't think they will miss out.


Brian Paone: A genre where a single song, an entire album, or the span of a band/artist's complete work is adapted into a work of literature (novel, novella, short story, etc) using the literal lyrics to directly create the plotline and story arc, and usually the title of the book/story is taken directly from the song/album that the work is an adaptation of. But what makes it special, is being able to write a story or a novel where the reader doesn't even have to have heard the songs/albums to understand and enjoy the work. These novels and stories, although adaptations of songs/albums are also stand-alone books. Just like you don't need to have read a book to enjoy or understand the movie adaptation, you don't need to have heard the album (or even need to have heard OF the band before) to understand or love a rock-fiction novel. (Think the film or play adaptations of albums like Pink Floyd's The Wall and The Who's Tommy, except it's the novelization of the album, not the movie adaptation.) Rock-fiction novels are unique in the sense they already have two built-in audiences right out of the gate: the fan base of whatever the band's album is being adapted and the fan base of the genre book it's written in. It's not a prerequisite to know the album to read a rock-fiction novel. In fact, I bet most people read a rock-fiction novel based on its blurb and have no idea its an album adaptation. That's the beauty of rock fiction.


How did you become interested in writing rock fiction?


Pam Van Allen: I read two books that were novelizations of my two favorite ELO albums: Randy Blazak's Mission of the Sacred Heart and Brian Paone's Yours Truly, 2095. The albums they adapted were respectively, A New World Record and Time. I thought: These books are great! Where's the book for the other ELO concept album, Eldorado? I looked all over and it hadn't been written, so I decided to write it.


Brian Paone: It was 1991. I was on a Billy Joel kick and overdosing on his iconic hit, "Piano Man," to the point where I was listening to just that song upward of ten times a day; just obsessing over the lyrics and characters he sings about. I had been writing short stores for three years at this point (not a single one having anything to do with music; just random horror, drama and sci-fi to amuse myself and my friends). I was lying in bed one night and thinking about the people in the bar portrayed in "Piano Man" and wondering if any of them had a backstory, or if any of them had a future story past that night Joel sings about. I decided to write my first novel and base if off Piano Man. I was going to congregate all these random people in a bar and just see what happens. Basically wanting the bar to be the main character of the book and the people secondary. Coincidentally, my stepfather came home late that very night and I had gotten inspired to write this rock-fiction novel (this type of writing didn't have a name yet) and I heard my mother ask him why he was so late. He told her a bad accident had happened in front of the bar Sneakers (a real bar in my hometown). As soon as I heard the name of the bar, I immediately knew I had to put some Piano Man-like characters in there and just let them ... exist. And see what kind of stories they had. So I started writing (at the time, the novel's working title was A Bar Called Sneakers) what would eventually become my second published novel in 2010: Welcome to Parkview. Throughout the writing of multiple drafts, the bar (even though it makes an appearance in multiple chapters) took a backseat and the city of Parkview became the main character--hence the novel's name change when I finished it. Once I realized I was writing a novel version of "Piano Man." I knew more songs needed to be adapted in order to move my characters around the town and create conflict and an actual story arc. Different songs by different bands organically inspired me throughout the novel's multiple drafts. I found songs that led my characters through their journeys and expanded upon the building of their town. Specific songs spawned specific characters. As "Piano Man" was the original catalyst to springboard the book from the speakers to the page (and I guess is also ground-zero song for me to become a rock-fiction author) the other credited songs for the novel's creation dictated pinpointing moments or conflicts for the characters. I started the book in 1991 and finished in 2009, coming in at 246k words. I hired three different professional editors, and in 2010, we had whittled it to a neat and concise 88k words. Welcome to Parkview was published in August 2010 (nineteen years after the night I decided to write my first novel based off a Billy Joel song). 


How many rock-fiction books have you written?


Pam Van Allen: Midnight on the Water is my first rock-fiction book. I'm working on another one based on the Traveling Wilburys. I've written five rock-fiction stories. Two of them placed in a flash fiction writing contest for New Mexico State University. 


Brian Paone: If you don't count Welcome to Parkview (because that novel is more of a smorgasbord of songs turned into a single novel), then I have written two rock-fiction novels and four rock-fiction short stories, covering Electric Light Orchestra's album Time (my time travel romance novel, Yours Truly, 2095), Dog Fashion Disco's album Adultery (my crime-noir novel, Moonlight City Drive), Moby's song "Spiders" (short story "Outside of Heaven"), Jethro Tull's album Rock Island (my short story "The Whaler's Dues") Porcupine Tree's album Fear of a Blank Planet (my short story, "Anesthetize (or a Dream Played in Reverse on Piano Keys)") and Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers' song "Two Gunslingers" (my short story of the same name).


What is the title of your latest release? What album is it based on? Did you have any input or approval from the band?


Pam Van Allen: Midnight on the Water was published on December 14, 2017. It's based on Electric Light Orchestra's Eldorado: A Symphony, released in 1974. I contacted a friend of mine who runs the American fan club and works for Jeff Lynne's management. She said there was no point in sending Jeff Lynne or his manager a copy because they throw things like books and recordings away. Apparently, they don't want to give the appearance of endorsing such works.


Brian Paone:  Moonlight City Drive, released in November 2017, is the supernatural, crime-noir novelization of Dog Fashion Disco's Adultery album. The band gave me the green light to write the adaptation before I had written a single word. The singer and guitarist were present during the entire process from the first and second drafts through the editing process. The singer even gave me some "insights past the lyrics" to help me fill in some holes that created the plot within the songs. He was also very forthcoming with which lyrics were concrete and which were ambiguous. The singer made the official announcement of the writing of the book on stage during one of their Baltimore shows in May 2017. Then the book's official release party was held at the Agora Ballroom in Cleveland during the band's two-day music festival that they headline. Before the first show, all members of the band and I autographed 200 paperback copies of the book as a "limited special edition" to be sold during the shows. During their set the second night, right before they played a handful of songs from Adultery, the singer announced to the crowd that it was the book's official release weekend and that copies were available for sale at the merch table, and I was there to meet and greet fans and sign copies.


Do you develop a general concept of the album or do you study the lyrics and attempt to write the story literally from the lyrics? Do you listen to the music while writing?


Pam Van Allen: I already knew the lyrics well when I started writing, having listened to them for so many years. I went much deeper into the meaning and looked for connections to other ELO lyrics. I did quite a bit of research to figure out how a man could actually live forever in his dreams since that is how the album ends. There is a real documented way, but you have to read the book to find out what it is. I used the sound of the music to develop the imagery and dialogue in the book. ELO fans don't seem to talk about this much, but I will. Jeff Lynne, as a producer, is an absolute master of musical imagery. He can create a picture in your mind or an emotion in your body with the instrumentation he chooses and the way that he uses the combination of instruments. The impact of his music is much like the classical composers such as Debussy, Mendelssohn, and Beethoven. Jeff has voiced his admiration for Debussy and I can certainly hear how he was influenced by him.


Brian Paone:  It begins with the music first. Because, honestly, rock fiction isn't a genre within itself, it's a category of writing. A genre is romance, horror, sci-fi, action, crime, drama, comedy, etc. A rock-fiction novel still needs to be a "genre." For instance, Yours Truly, 2095 is a time-travel romance, and Moonlight City Drive is a supernatural crime-noir. Both are rock-fiction novels, but both are polar opposites of genre. So I first have to decide what genre the novel/story is going to be set in. That happens with the music, not the lyrics. I let the music--the tone, atmosphere--dictate if the novel is going to be horror, drama, or even western (as in my new Tom Petty story, "Two Gunslingers"). After I have committed to the genre, then I study the lyrics word for word. This may take weeks. I try to interpret them frontward, backward, sideward. I even have contacted other fans to ask for their input on certain lines of lyrics that seem ambiguous. Once I feel I have a good idea of how the story will translate to a piece of literature, that's when I create an actual outline. Because most albums are about 2k words worth of lyrics, and I'm trying to create something about 80k words long, I need to fill in a lot of gaps. This is where my creative license comes in. And because songs on an album can jump from one major event in the story to the next with no inclination of what happened in between, it's my job to create scenes that are only alluded to in the lyrics so the narrative flows like a novel, and not listening to a bunch of separate musical tracks. I only listen to the source material while I am writing and editing the manuscript.


What has feedback from musical fans been like?


Pam Van Allen: My book was published such a short time ago, I haven't received much feedback from fans of the music. The few people who have gotten back to me have loved it. They feel it honors the album by expanding the story and tells us what happened to the protagonist on his quest.


Brian Paone: Both of my novels have a 4.5 star rating on Amazon.  Excluding the readers who had no idea they were reading rock fiction (the readers who read Yours Truly, 2095 because  they liked The Time Traveler's Wife and had no idea it's an Electric Light Orchestra's novelization), I would say about 5% of readers who bought and read books because they are fans of the band had some issues with the way I handled some scenes. Of course, we are talking about extremely heralded albums. But, it's the same when the film adaptation of a well-loved novel is made. You can't please everyone who holds the source material dear to their heart, but the ratio of readers who love the adaptation to the readers who think my head should be on a stake is so skewed that I know I must be doing something right with my interpretations and novelizations.


Where can readers find your books?


Pam Van Allen: Midnight on the Water is currently on sale in eBook and paperback versions through Amazon worldwide. Readers can email me at if they would like a signed copy. You can also obtain a signed eBook at Amazon.


Brian Paone: My four novels are available in paperback, eBook, and audiobook through my online store (the only place you can get a signed copy along with a free companion soundtrack CD for each book) Amazon worldwide, Barnes & Nobles, Books-A-Million, and Target. My short stories appear in the "Of Words" series, which are available through Scout Media's online store: as well as the other stores listed above.

Interview by Dawn Taylor

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