A hallucinogenic fairy tale titled Rock and Roll Animals, about an anthropomorphized Nick Lowe, Gene Vincent, and Jimmy Pursey respectively taking the form of a badger, cat, and fox. A “mythic re-imagining of the New York Rock ‘n’ Roll scene 1972 – 1979” that begins with a bird named Chico whispering the lyrics to Television’s “Little Johnny Jewel” into the ear of protagonist Cerne Abbus Giant, who is in fact a giant. 9 1/2 Psychedelic Meditations on British Wrestling of the 1970s and Early ’80s. And yet, British Nuclear Bunkers might be the most outré solo affair Luke Haines has released in this decade so far.
Compared to those three previous records, and with pop culture having some time ago reached its peak end-of-society-as-we-know-it appetite, a concept album about living in fallout shelters would seem on the surface to be rather conventional at this point. That is not Haines’ way, however, as those familiar with his work can attest. Bereft of any narrative other than the song titles, and liner notes that blow up the words “MAXIMUM ELECTRONIC ROCK N ROLL” across six pages between piles of lemons, the CD is sorely missing the backstory given in its press release. Was it a nuclear attack, or germ warfare? Possibly neither. The citizens of the UK may have moved underground voluntarily. Either way, society is perfectly happy down there: food is somehow abundant, people all communicate telepathically, and everyone worships a piece of silverware.
Welcome to the world of Haines’ inscrutable imagination. It would be impossible to derive this much detail from British Nuclear Bunkers’ ten songs, as after the introductory “This is the BBC”, an emergency broadcast message that “a possible nuclear strike against this country has been received”, the album is mostly wordless. It is also performed almost entirely on analogue synthesizers, including the Mini KORG on which the throbbing tip-toe title track is built up from. Even if Haines had chosen to color in between the early Mute Records lines of this cold Earth fantasia, his true intentions would still be slippery at best.
The precedent for this dates back to 1996, when Haines unleashed his Baader Meinhof alter-ego art-pop concept album into the unforgiving Britpop whirlwind that he takes partial responsibility for whipping up in the first place. In 1993, his group, the Auteurs, found themselves at the vanguard of the UK’s media-driven grunge backlash with their debut album, New Wave. In addition to being one of the more idiosyncratic survivors of Cool Britannia, Haines is also one of its more forthright and unforgiving documentarians. His contribution to the growing and genuinely fascinating literary genre of Britpop memoirs, Bad Vibes: Britpop and My Part in Its Downfall, is a wry counterweight to the fond nostalgia that usually accompanies remembrances of the era.
Baader Meinhof was recorded in between the Auteurs’ Now I’m a Cowboy, their second album, and After Murder Park, their last. Though they were still riding the wave, by that point the Auteurs were, commercially speaking, lagging behind their early peers Suede, let alone newcomers like Oasis. Instead of trying to appease the “Wonderwall”-wailing masses, Haines went in the other direction, and made a loose concept album about a West German militant group from the 1970s. As he recalls in Bad Vibes:
“Baader Meinhof, to all intents and purposes a solo album, is released to perplexed reviews in November 1996. Q magazine claims the album is ‘jerrybuilt’ — it is. The Guardian claims that I have wasted some of my best music on impenetrable subject matter — one third true… The NME, on predictable form, does its best to ignore the album for as long as possible, before commissioning a postage stamp 5/10 review in which their man wisely advises the readers to study Hanif Kureishi instead. NME sister mag Vox chimes in with another 5/10 and concludes that I may possibly be a ‘twat’. These decidedly mixed notices all seem to think that a) I am being deliberately obscurantist, and b) there is a moral somewhere in these songs, which I have, again deliberately and quite wrongly, chosen to obfuscate. I am and there isn’t.”
History might not exactly be repeating with British Nuclear Bunkers, but the similarities are hard to completely set aside. “Surely the world is ready for my deathly slow, handclapping, synth-squealching ogre-funk opus in praise of ‘70s terrorism. Surely?”, he asks rhetorically with full hindsight in Bad Vibes. “Synth-squealching ogre-funk” is as good a description as any of what he’s done here now, nearly 20 years later. Compared to the real scars left by a real terrorist organization like the Red Army Faction that Baader Meinhof became, nuclear annihilation might seem like an abstract concept 25 years after the end of the Cold War. Humanity, though, is more armed to the teeth today than it ever has been, and missiles on all sides are still poised.
Perhaps this is why the squiggly, pin-prick old-tech dub of British Nuclear Bunkers bears traces of the same lighthearted flair behind his other recent concept projects. If any musician is going to frame a fictional apocalypse in a potentially positive light, it is probably going to be Luke Haines. From the opening radio warning to the children’s voices singing on “Pussywillow (Kids’ Song)” to the names of actual nuclear bunkers listed off on “Deep Level Shelters Under London”, there’s a pervasive and suitable creepiness to the album. “Bunker Funker” and “Mama Check the Radar at the Dada Station”, meanwhile, pump levity into this world without daylight. British Nuclear Bunkers is as stubborn, singular and compelling as its creator.