[25 July 2014]
When one sees the term “Britpop”, bands like Blur, Oasis, Pulp, and Suede automatically spring to mind. Nostalgia has been kind to Britpop—itself a genre reveling in nostalgia—with retrospectives focusing on those big four bands and glossing over the wealth of mediocre bands filling out the genre.
What might perhaps be Britpop’s biggest crime is the confining of an artist like Luke Haines to this largely lackluster genre of music. Fortunately, Haines has been an architect of his own legend from the start. Haines’ band, the Auteurs, rode its own self-worth to somewhere far more profound than the top of the charts. As excellent as a band like Suede is, that band’s go-to themes of sexual tourism, or Blur’s gems chronicling everyday British life, were no match for the poison in Haines’ pen or the subversive pop gleam he dressed, and still dresses, those words in.
Haines’ songs are largely about the darkness lurking just beneath life’s most benign surfaces, terrorist gangs, and corrupting the upper classes. Self-mythology abounds. Best of all, one could pick just about anything from Haines’ back catalogue and these traits would remain consistent, from his four albums with the Auteurs, to his three with Black Box Recorder, to his one-off projects Baader Meinhof and The North Sea Scrolls, and especially his eight solo albums. Any of those records would come across an example of the man’s genius, nine times out of ten. There is no finer place to begin, however, than with The Auteurs.
Critics are forever debating which band or musician stands as the most underrated artist of any particular era. The Auteurs remain my vote for the ‘90s, and Haines’ own self-proclamation as the consummate outsider need be defense enough. His two memoirs, Bad Vibes: Britpop and My Part in Its Downfall and Post-Everything: Outsider Rock and Roll present an artist uncompromising in vision and inclined toward self-immolation, an acquired taste who had no small part in tampering with his own flavors. Still, The Auteurs haven’t been so unheralded as to be overlooked in the ongoing re-issuing of the past. Luckily, the great, obscurity-loving label 3 Loop Music is handling expanded editions of New Wave, Now I’m the Cowboy, After Murder Park, and How I Learned to Love the Bootboys, as well as Haines’ masterpiece, Baader Meinhof.
New Wave (1993) introduced the world to the Auteurs and set Haines in his permanent role as the smartest person in the room. Everyone probably knew it, but no one was willing to accept it; or, they almost were, but gave the riches to Suede instead. Like Suede’s self-titled debut, New Wave owes a bit to glam rock, melodically. Unlike Suede, however, the majority of New Wave’s songs concern themselves with fame, either just within reach or long-faded. Haines’ entitlement would risk insufferability in lesser hands, but his capabilities are mercifully apparent from the start. “Showgirl” is a three-minute pop song that goes beyond the opening line’s “I took a showgirl for my bride” to mine the domestic realities underneath. “Bailed Out” is the first of many examples of James Banbury’s perfectly integrated cello. Whether thrumming slyly on “Housebreaker” or nagging like a persistent melancholy on “Starstruck”, it never once feels extraneous.
New Wave also strikes a particularly evocative mood. Songs concern themselves with fairly specific situations, but the air of dissatisfaction is so pure and universal as to be overpowering. Not many disgusted employees might go as far as the protagonist of “Valet Parking”, but most of us can identify wholly with a line like “I’m sick of parking cars”. Likewise, although “Early Years” is Haines’ attempt at mythologizing his years in previous band The Servants, anyone growing up in a nowhere town and entertaining delusions of grandeur likely knows very well what “Hanging out…in some hick town caravan (trailer) park” feels like. Then, after these opportunities to bond with the album, New Wave’s closing track, “Home Again”, creeps in like its sneaky narrator on a lilting acoustic tune and upsets the balance. One minute, the listener is looking at old photos with the house-sitter, the next, they’re being assured that “there’s no creeper in your lane” and being home is “better than drugs”, even though both statements feel increasingly false. Whimsy has never sounded so perverse.
Now I’m a Cowboy (1994) is a slight step down from New Wave’s greatness, but it shows a lot of prescience by analyzing the class tourism that Pulp would later address on “Common People”. At the same time, it flaunts a staunchly anti-Britpop album title; it is tempting to say it is the Auteurs’ most American-sounding record, but such a statement wouldn’t account for a song like “The Upper Classes”. That song, a six-minute screed about manipulating the titular social bracket, unfolds in a languid and glorious way that reflects the halcyon “champagne highs” recounted in the verses.
“Chinese Bakery” uses similar focus to address the uptown versus downtown mores of early ‘90s New York; in a clever, cruel way, Haines is making his trademark. In between, there is a breakthrough single in the form of the blistering “Lenny Valentino”, the strongest early sign of Haines’ gift of making ludicrous concepts accessible. As summarized in Bad Vibes, “Lenny Valentino” envisions Lenny Bruce overdosing and awaking in Rudolph Valentino’s body, on the day of Valentino’s funeral. Bruce hears Valentino’s mourners in the street and mistakes them for his naysayers, taunting him into the afterlife. Haines’ songcraft means this bonkers concept is presented in such easily digestible fashion that it’s puzzling it never became a college radio staple—although it is better than anything of that ilk. The song’s opening riff alone, especially how it interacts with every obscenely precise cello string scrape, should have been enough to send any number of bespectacled and pensive Bachelor of Art’s students’ heads a-bobbing.
It’s possible that the only reason Now I’m a Cowboy feels like a lesser album is because the release that follows it sees Haines at his most nihilistic. After Murder Park (1996) could have been the Auteurs’ breakthrough, and would have been if the music-listening public preferred their pop music with two sets of shark’s teeth. In a time when everyone was scrambling to get Steve Albini to produce their album, After Murder Park presents itself as a perfect marriage between two incendiary personalities. Albini and Haines got along swimmingly during the recording process.
After Murder Park nearly matches Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ Murder Ballads in death count, and gets a special prize for its many imaginative deaths. The album has it all, from amputees to a murder in a Cantonese restaurant, to meditations on children passing before their elders, couples with dead children in their car trunks, the British music scene reimagined as a Peckinpah film, and not one, but two songs about plane crashes.
“Light Aircraft on Fire” is After Murder Park’s opener; its razor wire guitars and opening line (“When you cut your lover’s slack / You’ll get a fucking monster back”) setting the tone immediately. On the other side of the coin, “Fear of Flying” is Radiohead-esque in both melody and subject matter, and is one of a number of appallingly beautiful moments on the album. One of these such moments comes in the form of “Unsolved Child Murder”, a slight two minute concoction similar in sound to one of the Velvet Underground’s sweeter, more sing-songy offerings.
This represents another one of Haines’ strongest suits, in which he takes something as unpleasant as a missing child and dresses it in an absolutely irresistible tune. He also throws in a couple of ugly truths via the lines “sod this town and people’s pity / let’s get on with the nitty gritty / presumed dead.” The subject matter is revisited on the title track, which juggles the tricky narrative of a three-way conversation between the child’s parents, a medium, and the child’s voice from beyond.
After Murder Park may arguably be the Auteurs’ masterpiece, but Baader Meinhof, also released in 1996, gets top prize as far as Haines’ entire body of work goes. Baader Meinhof lays bare such a level of mastery that it’s almost obscene how overlooked an album it is; its composite parts are impressive even at a mere description of their layout. Intriguing facets of the album include its subject matter (the ‘70s German terrorist organization the Red Army Faction), its singular sonic melange of funk, toy instruments, Middle Eastern vibes, its Beatles references far more profound than Oasis’ meager name-checkings, and even simply the way Haines states, “Walking around with heavy manners / You’re going home in a fucking ambulance” on “There’s Gonna Be An Accident”. Haines has stated recently that, when making the album, he believed its sound would pioneer a “new direction for dance music,” where the genre would assume more thoughtful properties. That wasn’t to be the case, but Baader Meinhof still holds the upper hand in that its originality still hasn’t worn off.
The first half of Baader Meinhof is faultless. “Baader Meinhof”, “Meet Me at the Airport”, “There’s Gonna Be an Accident”, and “Mogadishu” aren’t intended to advance a plot, but rather act as vignettes of terrorist activity, all backed by Haines’ aforementioned, highly idiosyncratic musical direction. The highest high may be the persistently catchy funk guitar riff anchoring “There’s Gonna Be an Accident”, but “Mogadishu”’s beguilingly twinkly percussion and easygoing melody ranks high as well. In Haines’ world, even a song about a plane hijacking can sound like a lullaby. Baader Meinhof’s second half holds a number of riches as well, including a sound collage of the album’s nine tracks (“GSG-29”) and “Back on the Farm”, with the startling line “this is the hate Socialist collective / all mental health corrected”. An alternate take on the title track closes the album, refashioning the theme song flavor of the opener into a fuzzed-out ballad.
The final Auteurs album was released in 1999. Entitled How I Learned to Love the Bootboys, its production was continually halted due to Haines working on his first album with Black Box Recorder for 1998’s England Made Me. The inconsistency of its recording process makes it all the more impressive how consistent How I Learned to Love the Bootboys is as a record. Although a few tracks, like “Asti Spumante”, feel like filler—and the subject matter of something like “Lights Out” feels slightly rehashed—songs like “The Rubettes” and “Future Generation” more than compensate for any missteps.
These songs stand as two of Haines’ greatest and bookend the album perfectly. “The Rubettes” is a masterwork of subversion, appropriating the Rubettes’ hit “Sugar Baby Love” and mangling its sweet sentiment of young love into a far more realistic and deviant coming of age narrative. It also contains Haines’ most sarcastic delivery in the line “Weren’t the ‘90s great?” “Future Generation” brings together Haines’ deserved arrogance, myth-making, and tongue-in-cheek lyrics to create a song about future generations of music fans understanding The Auteurs’ music “from the start.” Considering that the album to this point has investigated the dark side of nostalgia, it’s both an ironic tune and completely in line with Haines’ entire mythos. In between is the arid disco of the title track, the orchestral, biting “Some Changes”, and “Johnny and the Hurricanes”, maybe one of Haines’ weirdest pieces and an absolute winner. Not so much about the titular band as a jumping off point for sinister biographical recollection, it puts Haines’ sometimes strained and ghostly sounding voice to excellent use.
As with any reissues, the Auteurs and Baader Meinhof re-releases contain a wealth of bonus material, from live takes to b-sides and demos. The second disc of How I Learned to Love the Bootboys even contains the final Auteurs concert in full. It can’t really be said that this is the perfect time for these reissues to happen. They transcend eras and buzzy genre titles and belong in the annals of great pop songwriting, thus any time is perfect for revisitation. Whether a newcomer to Haines or just a completist, these works stand the test of time, in a realm never once kowtowing to nostalgia.