After the tetchy tirades of the Auteurs, Luke Haines decided to shift focus—his Angry Young Man for the ‘90s act never quite hit the mark. Which in my view was a huge shame. I remember a delicious live double bill, mid-decade, when the band backed The The on tour. It seemed that Haines’ outfit were the perfect heirs to Matt Johnson’s taut and tortured visions of a Britain hurtling myopically toward the end of a century.
But the Auteurs, great name, great style, appeared out of step with the times: spiky, pointed, satirical, their output just didn’t chime with a generation determined to enjoy itself despite the portents of doom and decline. In 1998, Black Box Recorder saw Haines change aesthetic clothes and attempt to marry his offhand insolence with the detached dronings of electro-pop—something to dance to, something to think about. He was joined in his mission by former Jesus and Mary Chain member John Moore and the breathy vocals of Sarah Nixey.
Initially the band were haunted by the vagaries of radio censorship as their song “Child Psychology” was declared a teenage suicide manifesto. But, that setback aside, the new formula was not long in delivering. “The Facts of Life”, the first single from the album of the same name, cracked the UK Top 20 in 2000, and suggested that Haines’ artistic u-turn had been finely judged.
Yet, disagreements with their label Nude meant that BBR never quite capitalised on that breakthrough and Haines has retained that disappointing reputation as a nearly man: in his two bands to date, he has managed to win press support without ever quite generating the critical mass required to fuel the bandwagon.
The compilation entitled The Worst of Black Box Recorder there is an air of missed opportunity. For a group to be embarking so soon on a rag bag collection of hits and bits, odds and sods seems to augur poorly for the main project. Gathered here are the offcuts of a career that would usually be considered a late-in-the-day, last gasp earner for an act with a five or six album career behind it.
For the relatively young BBR, the set—a mix of hits, B-sides, re-mixes and covers—has no binding rationale. “The Facts of Life” appears in a video format alongside a Jarvis Cocker re-mix, while “Child Psychology” is also present as a video. But the sequence of covers provides no more than passing distraction for the listener—“Seasons in the Sun”, Jacques Brel-via-Terry Jacks and Boyzone, is a tune I could happily never encounter again, while “Uptown Top Ranking”, a vivacious British chart-topper of 1977, becomes here a bloodless, teutonic rap, reminiscent of the Flying Lizards’ legendary take on Berry Gordy’s “Money”, but the joke does not work twice.
Ultimately, BBR end up sounding like a slightly more serious St Etienne or Dubstar which is no wholesale dismissal in itself—both of those bands made finely-honed modern pop. But the comparison only serves to emphasise that Haines and co have not quite fulfilled their potential; the edge and the intelligence that permeated the Auteurs at their best are rarely glimpsed here. “England Made Me”, which pays nodding reference to Graham Greene’s work of the same title, is an all too fleeting glimpse of how good this combo could be.