Saturday, October 21, 2006

An Illustrated Guide To...Luke Haines

Luke Haines once told the BBC that his career had been "a rollercoaster romp of good slapstick entertainment". He always did have a curious sense of humour, though. Categorised as Britain's most misanthropic songwriter, a man who revels in a certain aura of self-confidence set against the dark heart of Britain, one who definitely has a sense of humour but it's just none more black, it's worth noting that Haines' core methods at heart tap into a lineage of English songwriting and pop awareness and only started scratching at the cynical seam once it seemed he was destined for footnote status in the modern history of what we shall term Britpop. With his third proper solo album on the way, it's high time we had a catch-up session.

Born in October 1967 in Walton-on-Thames, the Surrey town whose Jonathan King attracting nightspot the Walton Hop is commemorated on the new album, Haines moved to Portsmouth aged 14 and after short spells at art school and the London College Of Music joined David Westlake, classist songwriter recently of C86 alumni the Servants, to first put out a 1987 album under the Westlake name and after many record label wrangles and a period with ex-Housemartins drummer Hugh Whitaker a Servants album, Disinterest, in 1990 (video for single Look Like A Girl). The Servants split a year later, but piqued by Westlake's songcraft and a Go-Betweens infatuation Haines started writing songs and formed three-piece the Auteurs, including girlfriend and Servants bassist Alice Readman. Supposedly signed by Hut records on the basis of one demo and three gigs, incessant gigging made their name and debut single Showgirl marked their territory of caustic, literate, very parochial guitar pop. The following March, preceded by a Melody Maker cover, came New Wave, mining a more cynical version of Ray Davies' lyrical, mildly satirical storytelling in a way that hadn't been evisaged during the previous couple of years' grunge onslaught, although Haines has claimed it was more inspired by the Modern Lovers, and was shot through with references to stardom, subtle melodic touches - James Banbury's cello was well used - and a singular worldview that won it rapturous notices.

VIDEO: Showgirl
Junk Shop Clothes

There were signs of the truculence to come - Idiot Brother was a veiled attack on Clive Davis, whose Fire label put out Disinterest - but the return to classicism made the album a student bedsit favourite and won it a nomination for the second Mercury Prize, where it lost out by a single vote to Suede's self-titled debut. Haines responded by tracking down a judge and subjecting him to much the same verbals as he was to give Matt Johnson of The The from the stage, hastily ending a tour support slot.

With press interest still high and Britpop starting to take much of the raw materials of New Wave for itself - Haines has long held a grudge against Damon Albarn for what he sees as the co-opting of his idea for Modern Life Is Rubbish, even though the Blur album came out just two months later - Hut pressured the band into recording a second album. The result was Now I'm A Cowboy, the only album that Haines will publicly disassociate himself from, claiming it was a structured attempt to create a populist record, right down to a failed attempt to recruit Vanessa Paradis to duet on New French Girlfriend. It's louder but without a great deal of movement on from New Wave, although certainly this idea of populism was an interesting viewpoint, as the first two singles were Lenny Valentino and Chinese Bakery, the former an envisaged cross between Lenny Bruce and Rudolf Valentino (the namechecked John Judnich was Bruce's live album engineer), the latter an attack on a perceived class tourist apparently based on a singer-songwriter who'd supported the band. The singles charted at 41 and 42. That was about as lucky as Haines would get for the next six years.

VIDEO: Lenny Valentino on Later With Jools Holland
Chinese Bakery

As a remix album, Auteurs vs U-Ziq, in which IDM mainstay Mike Paradinas completely reworked three tracks from Now I'm A Cowboy (Paradinas claims Haines loved it, Haines has begged to differ) filled a gap incessant touring and chart pressures were by now getting to Haines, who ended up breaking both his ankles in Spain late in 1994. Two years later he confessed to Alternative Press "I jumped off a fifteen-foot wall at a particular low point in our touring, in a bid to finish the tour and get the insurance... It gave me a chance to slow down and take stock. Sometimes you need to bring yourself into reality... I really wanted to get out of the whole thing without doing anything really dramatic. So it was kind of a cop-out. I probably should have just killed myself." Confined to a wheelchair for two months, Haines found his songwriting muse re-emerging and that it was darker than ever, perhaps as a result of his musing that his act was "irrational... The tour had even been going all right, but I was just kind of fed up with the situation as it was, playing the same old rock and roll crap that everyone goes through, the general moaning when you really should be grateful that you don't work in the checkout counter at the grocery." Finding Britpop overtaking all by the March 1996 release, Haines also decided that one way out of the morass would be to employ Steve Albini to record the band at Abbey Road Studios in a live, abrasive fashion that suited songs about child murder, alcoholism, abuse and fantasy bombing alongside the usual takes on England's glamour and fickle fame, loosely based around a theme park concept and lyrically recalling Elvis Costello at his guilt-and-revenge angriest while providing a handy antidote to the day's radio playlists. The press and public didn't know what to make of After Murder Park, which was probably half the idea. When we saw Haines at Summer Sundae last year he observed that a quarter of the tent emptied during this song.

VIDEO: Light Aircraft On Fire
Unsolved Child Murder

Incidentally, the only Amazon reviewer not to give this five stars does so because "the mixer should have been shot for thinking a guitar gritch was more important than a clean vocal track that can be heard & understood by Americanos." Perfect understanding of Haines' sound, there.

At the time Haines claimed he was only listening to "trashy Belgian techno", although in the same interview he also claims "the next album will be lighter". The next album was a concept album about terrorist plans under the name Baader Meinhof. Apparently boasting the working title This Is The Hate Socialist Collective, Baader Meinhof the album took the Auteurs template and gave it a funked up electronica reworking and an even more nihilist attitude that the music press found hard to swallow at the time, the NME supposedly refusing a review on morality grounds, although Back With The Killer Again was a third top 50 single. On reflection this would seem to be the bridge between the Great British Songwriter In Waiting and the observer confusing years, as well as making clearer his debt to the 70s.

Meet Me At The Airport

Around this time he met John Moore, one time Jesus & Mary Chain drummer and Expressway leader who was at the time importing absinthe and helping out nascent band Balloon. Briefly toying with a noise project, they instead hired Balloon's 24 year old Dorset-born backing vocalist Sarah Nixey, a former drama student whose cut glass accent appealed to the two men. Moore claims they saw themselves as a classic songwriting to order partnership, but inevitably England Made Me was nothing of the sort, sinister slo-mo Velvets guitars and effects underpinning blackly comedic lyrics, Nixey's sweet/sour nothings on kidnap, suicide and ennui, famously declaring on first single Child Psychology "life is unfair, kill yourself or get over it", mixed in with a curious version of Uptown Top Ranking. Some called it depressive, and missed the point entirely.

VIDEO: Child Psychology
VIDEO: England Made Me
Girl Singing In The Wreckage

Intended as a one-off, Haines returned to the Auteurs name in 1999 with How I Learned To Love The Bootboys, an album that was supposedly originally "a concept album about feral gangs of telekinetic youths" but instead ended up making his fascination with the decade that he grew up in and his disillusionment with the populist reductionism of the day's nostalgia explicit. 1967 was sung from the point of view of his father, The Rubettes, to which Nixey and Moore contributed, referenced Sugar Baby Love against deliciously wry period commentary, and Some Changes and Future Generations ("And of course I love the old songs, from New Wave to Murder Park/The next generation will get it from the start/It's the ending of the modern age
and I know I'm just a sham") assessed his own place in history to come, all over retro guitar sounds and cheap glam production. Inevitably, Haines posited that this was his most accessible work, although he also suggested it was "an incendiary device in a car boot sale".

VIDEO: The Rubettes

Still, the pop bug was there, and a year later it exploded in style with a Black Box Recorder single Haines says was intended to sound like Billie's Honey To The Bee. As usual he got it wrong - everyone claimed it resembled All Saints instead - but The Facts Of Life, mixed by Pete Craigie whose CV also features the Sugababes, Atomic Kitten and Liberty X, made Radio 1's B-list and charted at number 20, getting the trio onto Top Of The Pops. The album, also The Facts Of Life but originally titled Children Will Be Conceived To This Record, was advertised by Haines as "sounding like nothing else on Earth" but in fact was a progression in the BBR sound onto a sourer, seductive St Etienne, with flecks of Serge Gainsbourg, more death marches and a return to off-kilter storytelling.

VIDEO: The Facts Of Life
VIDEO: The Art Of Driving
The English Motorway System

In 2001, while Moore and Nixey went off to get married (rumour has it they split this year) and B-sides, remixes and videos compilation The Worst Of Black Box Recorder kept its placeholder Haines was keeping himself busy. First in June came Christie Malry's Own Double Entry, the soundtrack to a film version of cult experimental novelist B S Johnson's final novel about a man settling his scores with society via double entry book-keeping - never a soundtrack job meant for Ronan Keating, at a guess - that starred Nick Moran. The soundtrack found Haines taking matters at hand with relish and musically all over the place, from acoustic to electronica to fuzzy guitars via a spooked-out version of Nick Lowe's I Love The Sound Of Breaking Glass. This was followed within two months by The Oliver Twist Manifesto, stripped back but up to Mark E Smith levels of curmudgeonliness - the tracks we've picked out don't perfectly illustrate this, we're aware - taking the hacksaw to pop culture and excess (opening lyric: "this is not entertainment") on the likes of YBA-fantasising The Death Of Sarah Lucas. Ever the individualist, Haines declared a National Pop Strike for the week of its release, his call for a cessation of all musical activities getting him a slot on the Today programme but not proving tremendously successful, although judging by his recent No Music Day declaration Bill Drummond remembers it well.

How To Hate The Working Classes
Never Work

2003 saw the third and probably final Black Box Recorder outing, the uneven electronic outing Passionoia which saw cudgels taken up against all manner of pop (Being Number One, Andrew Ridgeley) as well as the previous disenfranchisement/sexual mores themes. (Aside: John Moore ploughed much the same mordantly funny/wretched furrow on his 2005 solo album Half Awake, while Nixey's solo debut is expected in 2007, in collaboration with ex-Auteur and now half of Infantjoy James Banbury, following single The Collector) In fact Haines seemed to be putting everything to bed in 2003, Das Capital, subtitled The Songwriting Genius of Luke Haines And The Auteurs, being a curious reworking of various favourites plus three new songs in a light orchestral style, apparently because he thought it'd be more rewarding than a straight compilation. Yes, of course he toyed with calling it Mein Kampf. Not that he couldn't do that, 2005's Luke Haines Is Dead being a 3 CD, 63 track cherrypicked overview with typically overarching Haines sleevenotes and typically obtuse Paul Morley ones. Since then it's been the occasional acoustic tour before Off My Rocker At The Art School Bop, released on 30th October. We haven't heard it, but apparently it's quite eclectic and retro-cauterising, and Richard X produced the title track single (video). There are also reports that the soundtrack to abandoned musical Property, featuring Nixey, will see the light of day.

So, how to sign off this most wilfully angular of bristling British songwriting talents, labelled "music's Graham Greene" by Word and not without merit? With the introduction to the programme of Saint Luke At St Luke's, the church-based launch gig for Das Capital: "It is my pleasure and duty to welcome you to my inauguration into the rock'n'roll hall of fame, here, tonight, live at St Luke's. Of course, being of a modest disposition, I shall not be mentioning it during tonight's performance and would be grateful if you, the audience, make no reference to this momentous event. This is, in many ways, a homecoming. After three arduous years of pop strike, with only a dozen or so Black Box Recorder-related scabbing incidents, I do hope you will forgive me for any light-heartedness or ebullience. I am now, after all, a free man. On the subject of freedom and forgiveness, I have only just noticed that there are no 'original' Auteurs amongst my backing band. But as some of these so called 'original' Auteurs were dismissed on the grounds of diminished musical responsibility, I feel the present arrangement works very favourably."


Anonymous said...

An awkward bugger, but not without his charms.

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