Luke Haines: Bad Vibes
For the past fifteen years Luke Haines has been producing a solid body of music in a number of different guises, the best known of which is the Auteurs. If you haven’t heard of him, it’s because his musical destiny is to forever sit on the periphery of the British music scene. There was a time, in the early days, however, where he sought success but saw the ascending star of his band cruelly bumped aside in favour of the musical phenomenon of the mid-nineties, Britpop.
Since then Haines’ career has been willfully contrarian, turning out radio friendly ditties about missing children, airplane accidents, and the rotten underbelly of British life, all served up with a dose of irony and venom. That he has taken that venom and placed it in a memoir, Bad Vibes (2009) is an exciting prospect, and its subtitle, Britpop and My Part in its Downfall, practically guarantees he won’t mince his words, given previous soundbites on the movement in the press.
Haines begins his memoir in his twenties (“when I was young and cruel”) and writes in an “‘in the moment transmission of my life’ style”, which leaves out the wisdom of hindsight and allows us to experience his life in the present tense. After a prologue dealing with a stage invading dwarf in Strasbourg during a 1993 gig, he glosses over the period from 1986, with first band the Servants, to 1991 where he sets about working on a solo project (“I am a cell of one. Great art must be created in isolation.”) which becomes the Auteurs and leads to them getting a leg up in the British music scene, the next year, thanks to support gigs for Suede. The first album, New Wave, would eventually lose to Suede’s eponymous debut by one vote in 1993’s Mercury Music Prize, an event which best pinpoints the change in direction his career would later take.
These early days come with much touring, a promotional aspect Haines could easily do without. Having toured the UK several times, he describes an acoustic tour of France (“a country where English rock groups traditionally sell jack shit”) where little is expected, but has a surprising outcome:
…something happens. The French press add two and two together and come up with 12. You see the album’s called New Wave – which translates as Nouvele Vague. The band is called the Auteurs. Auteur theory, Cahiers du cinéma, ah, it all makes sense, a band of English Francophiles. Hell, the singer’s name even means Luke Hatred.
Hot on the heels of this is comes the American tour, a farce that results in the sacking of both tour manager and support act, sees a mugging, involves playing a residency at a hummus restaurant, and the loss of an opening slot for the Kinks.
America then. Undoing of cocky Brit bands, heads swollen with the overblown praise of the NME. America can provide a sobering shot of reality.
While America may prove an undoing to Brit bands, it’s also America, or one American in particular, Haines cites as being the cause of a new musical style. With teenagers the world over in thrall to the grunge scene, notably Nirvana, he states that the suicide of Kurt Cobain changed the face of British music (“Not only did Kurt Cobain rudely kill himself, he went and left the bloody door open.”) by leaving the path clear to allow a new scene to blossom:
Say it under your breath, whisper it if you can bear to. Britpop. Now, if you can, dare to say it out loud: BRITPOP. The final insurrection of the twentieth century. The century of Dada, the Surrealists, Italian Futurism, Russian Futurism, The Rite Of Spring, Wyndham Lewis, Blast, William Burroughs, the Beats, Gene Vincent, Pablo Picasso, Johnny Kidd and the Pirates, Viennese Actionists, Nijinsky, the Merry Pranksters, Brian Clough, Aleister Crowley, Stanley Spencer, Kenneth Anger, the Stones, ‘King Tubby’, Jean Luc Goddard, Fritz Lang, Burton and Taylor, Andy Warhol Superstars, the Factory, Valerie Solanas, The Scum Manifesto, Kendo Nagasaki, the Red Army Faction, Ingmar Bergman, Karl Heinz Stockhausen, Chuck Berry, Timothy Leary, Lettrism, Alfred Hitchcock, the Situationalist International, Sly and the Family Stone, the Japanese Red Army, Lord Lucan, Gustav Metzger, Lou Reed, Big Youth, Teddy Boys, T. Rex, Howard Devoto, Bo Diddley, Performance, Colin Wilson, the Doors, Punk Rock, Poly Styrene, and now, the last great millenial hurrah, Britpop. Scream it from the pit of your fucking stomach till you can scream no more. Thought not.
Part of Haines’ disdain for the movement is that he’s often mentioned in the context of it, whether it be as a founding father or simply as its grumpy old man. One chapter is titled Adolf Hitler of Britpop. It’s something he aims to get straight and jumps into a short mock fairy tale that shapes his version of the truth. Haine’s truth, which he confesses is biased, is a riot, dismissing almost everyone and everything – Oasis (“derivative northern boors”), Blur (“habitual bandwagon jumpers”), and The Verve (“Utterly hopeless”) and Sting (“God’s Own Nitwit”) – with few getting away with praise, sarcasm undetected. Another aspect is that the bands he’s regularly bundled with tend to lack an intellectual streak, as evidenced by their proficiency in lyrics that mean nothing and often don’t even make sense.
Much of the accounts are given over to aspects of touring and recording, with ever more deliberate attempts to get out of the former and ensure commercial failure in the latter. After breaking both ankles while touring the second Auteurs album, the bleakness of the third came is expressed with real passion, outdone only by the making of side project, Baader Meinhof, an album of songs about the German terror gang set to funky guitars and handclaps. Later recollections revolve around the forming of Black Box Recorder.
Haines’s style throughout is that sarcastic streak that is unmistakably British and his world view recognisable to those familiar with his lyrics. His lack of modesty is winning, especially when he refers to his own songs as things like “a fucking classic”, partly because we know just as well as he does that, well, it is, and because it never will be. Wry comments add to the humour that, while not “very, very funny” as David Peace announces on the cover, can defintely elicit a smile from nowhere.
Late November. ‘Lenny Valentino’ has a midweek chart position of 35. It’s highest actual chart position is 41. Pulp’s ‘Lipgloss’, released the same week, reaches 48. Small victories.
While Haines gets stuck in to the bands that blighted the British charts in the nineties, the biggest target is not so much Britpop as the author himself. By opening his mindset up to the way he treated people or relating the extent of his alcohol and drug abuse in the early days he effectively lays himself bare. Sadly, by holding back on hindsight, we tend to get little more of a write up of what happened rather than mature reflection. Early in the book Haines describes his running out on a record signing saying, “This for me stretches the relationship between fan and artist to breaking point, a relationship which I feel ends when the punter hands over their ackers in exchange for the CD.” and it’s perhaps this distance between artist and punter that he wishes to maintain by preventing his contemporary self from interfering with the Haines of old.
As the book focuses primarily on the period between 1992 and 1997, it misses out on the fourth Auteurs album which would come two years later, and never mentions the albums recorded under his own name. Indeed, after the slowburn wallowing in the first few years of the period, the memoir gets wrapped up worryingly fast and with acknowledged loose ends. Fans can only hope there are further accounts to be had covering the later years. But, rest assured, while the book is titled Bad Vibes, it emits nothing but the good sort.
January 11, 2009