Luke Haines

TrackAlbum
DiscomaniaChristie Malry's Own Double Entry
Leeds UnitedOff My Rocker At The Art School Bop
Bad ReputationOff My Rocker At The Art School Bop
Peter Hammill21st Century Man /Achtung Mutha
Wot A Rotter21st Century Man /Achtung Mutha
Big Daddy Got A Casio VL-Tone9½ Psychedelic Meditations On British Wrestling Of The 1970s And Early '80s
Broadmoor Blues DeltaThe North Sea Scrolls
I'm Not The Man You Think I Am Karen, I'm The Actor Tony AllenThe North Sea Scrolls
Rock N Roll AnimalsRock And Roll Animals
Lou Reed Lou ReedNew York In The '70s

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Contributor: Duncan Harman

Should the prevailing fashions of popular culture be a pendulum, forever swinging this way or that, so its attentions toward Luke Haines have, over the years, been somewhat promiscuous. 1994, and vogue loved him. The millennium, and then too, trend’s fickle resonance was slanted in his direction (or at least in the direction of Black Box Recorder, which isn’t exactly the same thing, but it’s close enough for these purposes).

Yet on other occasions, pop culture’s ringleaders and tormentors have not been wired into interest. Perhaps not quite as disinterested enough to cast him out as a musical pariah (as with sometime collaborator John Moore, who – and I’m not making this up – spent a decade playing musical saw to a front parlour full of ventriloquist dummies), but there have been long periods in which record companies, the music press and radio airplay haven’t given a fiddler’s as to what he’s been up to.

The talent has never appeared overly fussed at this state of affairs. He’s long marketed (if that’s the correct verb) his music, writings and weird, daubed artwork under the banner of Outsider Art, and makes no apology for a refusal to compromise (or to quote directly from an interview: “Art is not for the people. What I do is not aimed at the man in the street – fuck him”).

Indeed, it could be argued that mainstream sponsorship has become less and less relevant over recent years, what with artists free to channel their work directly to the existing fanbase (even as I type these words, Haines is all over Twitter, and when he’s not live-tweeting the latest episode of MasterChef in his own inimitable style, he’s hawking his current crowd-funded project – a warped and no doubt obscene rock ‘n’ roll cookbook – to anyone foolish enough to hand over the readies).

That pendulum – it’s all gone a little Edgar Allan Poe on us, and I fear that any minute now we may start gibbering uncontrollably about ravens.

What isn’t in doubt is that by the mid-noughties, Haines’ stock was on the downswing. Neither The Autuers nor Black Box Recorder were functioning entities, and few if any record labels were interested in throwing filthy lucre at a vogue-slippy minstrel infamous for hitting the self-destruct button whenever the mood took him.

Certain artists wilt in such circumstances. Others, with mortgages to pay and offspring to finance, will jack it all in and get a proper job, like that fortnight I spent temping in a dodgy office ten or so years ago, and there was the guitarist of half-forgotten indie outfit Thousand Yard Stare pouring over a spreadsheet in suit and tie. Haines however – this exile from Main Street – had an empowering effect, these words an argument that some of his very finest work has arrived over the last decade. Not having to kowtow to fashion has seen his songs drift increasingly toward the idiosyncratic, as the weird concept albums of the last few years have demonstrated. But as with Julian Cope – another outsider artist if ever there was one – liberation from the mainstream has hit in wonderful patterns.

As referenced in previous Toppermosts (The Auteurs; Black Box Recorder – Luke Haines: The Early Years, if you will), I’m going to be discussing the Hainesian appropriation of nostalgia in this piece. Of how, by isolating nuggets of esoteric historical interest, then pushing the subsequent flight of fancy beyond intuitive conclusions, he’s unlocked something distinct within narrative constraints.

And at risk of this piece turning into some sort of academic screed, this mode of songcraft is exploited through three distinct methodologies:

One: The witty aside. The bon mot. Sentiment either waspish in nature, or slanted toward evocation. An example being Discomania, a track that appeared in a guitar-centric guise on the 2001 soundtrack to the Christie Malry’s Own Double Entry movie (a film squirrelled out onto DVD a few years after it should have been, and watched by nobody), then reappeared a few months later on The Oliver Twist Manifesto LP, subjugated by quirky analogue synth cadences (of the two, stick with the Christie Malry version).

The lyric in question is opening salvo, “They’re having sex to the ‘Kids In America’.” A small, perhaps even inconsequential line that nonetheless serves to channel context down a highly particular route. For nostalgia as a concept is multi-faceted; conservative and revisionist of course, but it’s also a tool through which both the lucid and the naff can be celebrated on equal terms. ‘Kids In America’ is a great single – Kim Wilde herself is namechecked later on – but it does suffer from a bored, suburban British interpretation of the American dream, and in that regards it works neatly as a metaphor, the listener free to extrapolate.

Two: Song. The whole ruddy lot of it. Leeds United, say, from 2006’s Off My Rocker At The Art School Bop. Everybody has a track entitled Leeds United. Well, Amanda Palmer has a track titled Leeds United, which is close enough to everybody as makes any difference. Haines’ interpretation of theme is (obviously) around 493% less flouncy and attention-seeking than the Palmer proposition. But it is gloriously rumbustious, exploring nostalgic notions of England’s north/south divide and references to the Yorkshire Ripper via a glam-rock stomp up Elland Road way – and in particular, the 70s “Dirty Leeds” era, when it was sometimes difficult to ascertain if there was more violence on the pitch or up in the stands.

There’s some great touches to this: the Mick Ronson-style lead guitar, and lyrical nuggets such as “There’s a killer on the terraces, best call Doris Stokes”. The pre-warned indication of a double chorus, and above all else, the shirt-off muscularity of the coda; “The North, the North, where we do what we want to. The North, the North, where we do what we like”. It’s celebratory in tone, the irony being that Haines is a Southerner – and an avowed Southerner at that; in a way he has no business channelling Don Revie vibes (but that he does so anyway is very, very deliberate).

Three: Album. The whole ruddy lot of that as well, 2013’s Rock And Roll Animals perhaps representing the most extreme (I’ll also accept: contrived) example of LP as nostalgic, thematic device. The artist, who’s been aligned with a number of different labels as that pendulum has yinged and yanged, was signed to Cherry Red by this point, and whilst indie labels have far greater scope to take risks, even I may have baulked had Haines skipped into my office offering up this particular concept; the adventures of Jimmy Pursey, Nick Lowe and Gene Vincent (or their fox, badger and cat equivalents), venturing up the compass to vanquish the Angel of the North.

Not many artists have the chops to execute something as strained without it shattering in the oven. And as the title track, suspiciously titled Rock N Roll Animals suggests, Haines is one of those few. The whole album is a blast (even if it does – courtesy of the Julia Davis narration – carry that weird, Peter and the Wolf bedtime story vibe), but its overture occupies that specifically slanted territory by which words such as trademark were invented. The distinctive songcraft, the back-handed humour, the fact that he’s someone who makes it looks oh-so-easy.

Or to put it another way, so much of what we (lazily) file under indie or alternative is prescriptive, defined by narrow, cockatoo ebullience or the type of earnest expression thrown in as a freebie with an NME subscription. And whilst your man here is far from the only recording artist to escape these narrow boundaries, such is the glee by which he burrows under convention that, as audience, we can’t help but sit up and take notice.

Should my rudimentary maths be correct, there’s still seven tracks to discuss, and each of them exhibit at least one of these banjaxed, nostalgic traits. Not that it’s especially easy to identify a full set of ten, best in show examples. Haines has been rather prolific these last few years, even releasing albums under his Outsider Music badge in strictly limited quantities. Also – via that kinky mission to reclaim the concept long player from flaccid prog rockers – because it’s the album rather than any individual track that functions as unit. 9½ Psychedelic Meditations On British Wrestling Of The 1970s And Early ˈ80s is, in this writer’s bloated opinion, Haines’ masterpiece, and it’s a musical crime not to listen to it in its entirety. The cheap and tacky world of 70s grapple action couldn’t be more perfect as a Luke Haines metaphor, its corridors populated with rogues, scoundrels, and maladjusted egos on the verge of a funny turn. I will however point you in the direction of Big Daddy Got A Casio VL-Tone, which is silly but necessarily so, and lithe with it.

Alongside characters such as Kendo Nagasaki and Rollerball Rocco, Haines has continually populated his material with dark, sinister, or just plain esoteric protagonists. You could argue that his fixation with celebrity wrong ‘uns – Jimmy Savile, Jonathan King, and, on the excellent Bad Reputation, Gary Glitter – is in questionable taste, but these appearances are never gratuitous, serving as a route through which the rough hinges of celeb presence are examined. It’s the position that popular culture and childhood memories have become interchangeable, and as a child of the 70s myself, I can very much appreciate such bad juju.

Not that it’s just the wrong ‘uns being paraded. Peter Hammill – from the double LP 21st Century Man /Achtung Mutha – is a stramash of pomp and circumstance, the Van der Graaf Generator frontman suffering from the screaming abdabs (“too many jerks in too many Mercs, making with the heavy sound”). The 70s glam rock notions are replicated on the saucy seaside postcard of Wot A Rotter – a track loaded with sneers, causticity, and the type of beat beloved by The Sweet.

Even bona fide heroes don’t escape the Haines magnifying glass. Lou Reed Lou Reed has the air of pastiche about it as well as homage, but the colouring-in book simplicity and “suicide blonde with the Iron Cross” statements ring true in a manner that would be far less likely to work on a more complex composition.

It would, however, be a mistake to understand Luke Haines solely as misanthrope, hauling around a sack full of celebrity mugshots and obsolete riffs. I’ve spent an unhealthy amount of time attempting to distil the attraction for his back cat into a couple of cute soundbites – without too much success, to be honest. It’s something to do with songcraft, of that much I’m certain, yet beyond tortured allusion – Haines as Mr Punch, wood sprite or medieval plague doctor – the snappiness sits elusive. Which is possibly the point; to end, I’ll point you towards The North Sea Scrolls project – the jib-jab musicality of which serving as a far sharper description than this waffle ever could.

An odd trio, known on civvy street as Haines, Cathal Coughlan (formerly of Microdisney and The Fatima Mansions) and music hack Andrew Mueller, The North Sea Scrolls was originally a meditation upon the odd, hidden history of the British Isles, performed at the Edinburgh Fringe. Transplanted to disc, there’s a wealth of themes and fancy to get your teeth into. A most conniving proposition, Haines and Coughlan taking turns to weave their fabrications as if rhythmic gymnasts.

There’s a risk in two diverse artists alternating at the controls – that way, dissonance lies – but not only do Coughlan’s tracks compliment Haines’ (and vice versa), creating a complex and beautiful proposition of a record; this is also an artist at the top of his game, tweezing out drama where none should be prospering.

The show/LPs premise is not easy to summarise beyond the titular scrolls detailing an alternative past: “They were given to us by [obscure bit-part] actor Tony Allen, who found them in a bin outside Waitrose,” Haines admitted in interview. Which doesn’t explain I’m Not The Man You Think I Am Karen. I’m The Actor Tony Allen – but then again, I’m not sure what does. The portentous narration above brooding strings, then we’re swinging into typical Haines territory, the verbal dexterity abutting a sound that due to the cello, wouldn’t have been out of place on an Auteurs record.

Perhaps that’s the attraction; the nuanced nature of each arrangement, and how it interacts with the hefty weight of lyrical detail, such as on the barbed sacrament that is Broadmoor Blues Delta. “21st Century imaginations aren’t what they used to be”, the talent bemoans in the lyrics. And that’s it: those are the words I should have written instead of all the above. For Haines represents the tonic to all that inhibited thought. An iconoclast, but with songs (and a fine understanding of how they should function). Wit, swerve, and hand-claps; yup, I’ll meet you in the Broadmoor Blues Delta.

And finally, info around the Outsider Music stuff can be found here here. It’s where Haines sells much of his art, as well as the Outsider Music albums, the most recent example of which, Raving, was released as 75 separate, individual recordings, reviewed here at Lazer Guided Melody as I was one of the silly/lucky 75 who bought it. Raving includes songs about Bolan, The Incredible String Band, darts and Herbie Hancock’s dietary requirements.

 

 

Luke Haines facebook

Luke Haines Discography

The Luke Haines Story – interview for Cherry Red Records

The Auteurs on Toppermost

Black Box Recorder on Toppermost

Luke Haines biography (iTunes)

Record obsessive and occasional drunkard, Duncan Harman usually writes at Lazer Guided Melody.

TopperPost #451

1 Comment

  1. Craig Austin
    Jun 8, 2015

    Chapeau! A fine trilogy smartly concluded. I’d recommend Gordon Burns’ definitive Ripper text ‘Somebody’s Husband, Somebody’s Son’ to anyone, but if you’d prefer a more concise, yet still historically evocative, version you won’t go far wrong with the lyrics to ‘Leeds United’.

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