The Auteurs

TrackAlbum
Bailed OutNew Wave
HousebreakerNew Wave
Lenny ValentinoNow I'm A Cowboy
Unsolved Child MurderAfter Murder Park
TombstoneAfter Murder Park
Baader MeinhofBaader Meinhof
MogadishuBaader Meinhof
Your Gang, Our GangHow I Learned To Love The Bootboys
Some ChangesHow I Learned To Love The Bootboys
ShowgirlDas Capital

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Contributor: Duncan Harman

The Auteurs. Alice Readman on bass. Glenn Collins, then Barney Rockford on drums. James Banbury – he did the cello. And a certain Mr Luke Haines; he’s the villain of the piece. A right ne’er-do-well (see also: vox; guitar; the songwriting; kazoo, if necessary). Should you chance upon a moustachioed, top-hatted silhouette tying some fair maiden to the railway tracks, you’re not going to have to search far and wide for a culprit. Haines did it. And he isn’t about to apologise.

And as we’re in the mood for apportioning blame, I must own up to being quite the Haines fan boy. Hence the three part aspect of this trawl through back catalogue; future Toppermosts will include the work of Black Box Recorder, followed by Haines’ more esoteric solo output. For now however, we’re limiting ourselves to the 1990s, when everything was rose tinted and we all bounced about the streets of Camden on Union Jack spacehoppers.

That’s an allusion to Britpop, by the way, which – in the early days, at least – The Auteurs were (unfairly) filed under. Partly because debut album New Wave was nominated for a Mercury, but mainly due to music journalists being very, very lazy. Melody? Guitars? The 90s? Aye, that’ll be Britpop. Well, it ain’t Britpop; there are no jaunty angles here. No Anthony Newley impressions, and no playing to the gallery. You could cut yourself on an Auteurs record – and it’s this acerbic inclination that’s very much part of the appeal.

Not that Haines’ long-worn reputation as spiky outsider, always armed with a withering put-down or two, is in any way representative; to spend an evening with his Auteurs output is to appreciate the nuance inherent in the songs. Lyrics that pivot on the shapely turn of phrase. A subjugation of mood and timbre, through which contrasting textures dictate setting, and cut, and thrust – one minute and it’s stripped-back, acoustic guitar at the fore, the next: fuller-paced, all interplay between Fender Telecaster and the strings. And then there’s the constant behind all this – Haines as arch nostalgist. Not as a crutch or reactionary posture, but as route to a truer understanding of this weird and atavistic world. The argument that, via song and subjectivity, each listener is perversely pulled closer to the objective.

Okay; that last sentence may be something of a reach, whilst the use of nostalgia as narrative device is a topic we may just be touching on in this three-parter; no need to labour the point in the intro. One comment before we get to the songs, however: unlike certain contemporaries we could mention, none of this sounds dated or anchored to the irrelevance that was mid-nineties’ whimsy. The very best records have a timeless quality underpinning their dimensions, and should you be drawing up a list of tracks most cherished, I’d suggest at least some of the following should be included.

 

Bailed Out

Because New Wave arrived on the agenda just as that strange, goon squad dynamic began to permeate throughout the (British) indie scene, this record instantly sounded somewhat out of place. Not stranded exactly, nor even wilfully anti-vogue, but readily and thematically aloof; if the default setting of mid-nineties indie-pop was defined by mainstream attention jumping into bed with derivative bandwagon nonsense, then a track such as Bailed Out is instead aligned to a diffident, intellectual iconoclasm.

The arrangement here helps; acoustic guitar, supplanted by waspish bass, then fluid cello, then vibrato pianoforte. But there’s also something sly; something that sparkles within the lyrical pay-off; the ennui of popularity as seen through Evelyn Waugh’s glassy, trigger-fingered stare. I was lucky enough (or ancient enough) to lay my paws on New Wave on day of release; this is the track that had me hooked.

 

Housebreaker

“When I first met you, you were not house trained”. Which in my book is up there with Billy Bragg’s “I’ve had relations with girls from many nations” as an opening gambit – not for reasons of neat-and-tidiness; you couldn’t label Haines spick and span, for instance. Rather, such a line suggests a narrative confidence. Cohesion. Recognition that this isn’t a hack at work, blithely hurling words at a song in the hope that some of them stick, but something far more lucid.

Housebreaker. Allure. A pugilistic bent; think boxing gloves punching from behind velvet curtains, a cat-burgling call to arms that balances. Such is the clever switch between instrumental lead – the piano of the verse, guitar in the chorus, the harmonica (!) of the middle eight; this transfer of weight provides a vaulting sense of momentum. File under agreeably sly.

 

Lenny Valentino

Ah; the big single. Possibly the best known of all Auteurs material, its upbeat tempo and central riff falling closest to that radio friendly, indie-pop template. Or at least this version; Haines’ re-recorded it for his Das Capital album (of which more later), whilst there’s three different interpretations on the highly bizarre The Auteurs vs µ-Ziq EP, the Mike Paradinas remix disc that even now comes across more as two fingers raised at NME hacks rather than a serious proposition (it isn’t bad, per se, but there’s little about the Auteurs back-cat to encourage kinky, off-centre electronica. In fact, the entire EP may as well be comprised of entirely original compositions, such is the disconnect from source material).

Anyway; yes – Lenny Valentino. You’ll know this. The canny alignment between cello and guitar. Vim, vigour, a big dirty wedge of enticement, like a tasty, stinky cheese fouling the pantry air.

Also: a hand-clapped tattoo in the chorus. Buried deep in the mix but there, oh-so there, hand-claps being one of the reason why Luke Haines as artist is incredibly important. One day Haines will release an album entirely comprised of hand-claps – and I’ll definitely buy it.

 

Unsolved Child Murder

There are certain topics pop tends to veer away from, the parameters of the three/four minute song a barrier to addressing some of life’s more challenging aspects. In other words, a subject such as the paedocide the police never solved, and it’s extremely easy to get it wrong; to have events feeling sensationalistic, coarse, in dubious taste.

That the artist in question doesn’t blink an eye when faced with such risk – it’s indicative of ambition, and a slanted worldview that specifically does suit those challenging aspects. The trick being the dispassionate, observational slant to the lyrics; his method of using the unsolved child murder as literary device. As allegory. “Since they dragged the lake/You know they seemed au fait/Cordoned off some wood/and gave the photo to a psychic.” It’s intelligent stuff, using the mundanity of detail underpinning virtually any event against itself. It’s a cold track, and therefore unforgiving, but also one of his very finest.

 

Tombstone

If you haven’t read Bad Vibes: Britpop and My Part in its Downfall, the first part of Haines’ double-headed memoir, you should probably have a word with yourself. A book in which the author never soft-soaps the audience, instead pulling through random detail into a thematic whole, driven by intent.

Detail such as the “accident”, Haines’ reaction to the hackneyed rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle one of deliberately throwing himself of a wall. Cue shattered ankles, months confined to a wheelchair, and the After Murder Park LP, whose dark and brooding contours can’t help but imply captivity.

Tombstone says as much in its opening line. “Taking out the garbage at the Columbia Hotel,” Haines sneers, the Columbia being London’s rather infamous rock star hang out back in the day, leaving us in little doubt of the strength of his disdain for tinpot musicality.

After Murder Park: Steve Albini shares the production credits. And despite knowing next to nothing about the alchemy that is music production, I’ve long been fascinated by the sonic depth Albini fosters; a dull, flat sound, minimum reverb, which paradoxically helps to bring out the nuance behind the material – in this instance, accentuating the songwriter’s claustrophobic leanings in a particularly snug yet unsettling fashion. Should you be new to The Auteurs, do not start here; that would be like getting into a serious single malt fixation, yet kicking off not with a smooth and subtle dram (ie. New Wave) but a firecracker such as Lagavulin. Nope; in whisky and in music, save the Lagavulin for later in the evening.

 

Baader Meinhof

Well, yes … Haines’ Baader Meinhof project wasn’t an Auteurs record, so we could quibble over its inclusion here. But it does fit the chronology, sitting between After Murder Park and How I Learned To Love The Bootboys (and the debut Black Box Recorder album if you’re being fussy, but we’ll save that band for another occasion). Also, the album’s title track was re-recorded (alongside Auteurs material and a few odds and ends) for Das Capital, his string ensemble-backed dip into back cat – as much band obituary as the fulfilment of record contract obligations. Hence I think I can just about argue that this isn’t out of place here; the textures are a departure from the musicality of previous LPs, but lyrically, and in spirit, you know exactly who is at the controls.

The attentive amongst you will have spotted a lyric from the previous record acting as a precursor to all this. “Take the fucking building out, Baader Meinhof style,” Haines sings on Tombstone, after which the only logical next step is a concept album on the Red Army Faction. Performed in some weird, stripped-back jazz-funk style.

As a proposition it’s all rather queer, and shouldn’t really work, but as with Unsolved Child Murder, here is an artist uninterested in conventions of popular music or where it draws thematic boundaries. The title track, reprised at the end of the album, and again its lyrics are dispassionate and observational, spiky but not gratuitously so, and witty with it, a line such as “Andreas says ‘She’s not the girl that I used to know'”, indicating both a sharp knowledge of the West German radical urban guerilla outfit’s internal politics (the controlling, ungracious Andreas Baader became increasingly dismissive of Ulrike Meinhof) as well as implying that, above all else, they were little more than gangsters.

The hand-claps are worth price of entry alone when it comes to this track. And the brooding, caustic strings, of course – but yes; mainly the hand-claps.

 

Mogadishu

In a certain light, this sounds like a slowed-down reinterpretation of Kinky Afro by Happy Mondays. Seriously, play the two back-to-back, and you’ll see what I mean. Only, this story of plane hijacking hi-jinx in a far-off land is approximately 4200% more engaging.

“Yippee, ippee, ey, ey, ay, yey, yey” sings our hero. “I had to crucify some brother today.” But with better words. Because (as I may have mentioned earlier), this Luke Haines chap embeds his lyrics with a marvellous, backlit sharpness. Tony Wilson famously compared Shaun Ryder’s idiot scratchings to W. B. Yeats; Wilson’s views on Haines are not recorded, probably because the latter is a softy Southerner who never signed to Factory Records, but I suspect that, had you forced a dictaphone machine beneath his snout and shouted: “The Auteurs … Go!”, Mr Manchester may have run out of superlatives.

And the track itself – concerning itself with the 1977 hijacking of a Lufthansa jet that ultimately ended in bloodshed – has a wonderful swampy quality, Haines’ vocal sitting at the other end of the room, the tabla percussion and fuzzy analogue synth bass lines of the second half hinting at kinds of esoteric exotica. This track: it’s dangerous.

 

Your Gang, Our Gang

Of the seven tracks featured so far (and the two beneath this one, to be honest), it’s possible to detect a streak of intellectual nous. The erudite songwriter, channelling the artistic pretensions of band name (and perhaps reacting to them as well). Yet, Your Gang, Our Gang – it’s different; not just a nod to the artist’s beloved Hawkwind (although that’s present, too); there’s also a dumb and innocent joy (the lyrics; that derivative, schoolboy riff). It’s the song equivalent of being a kid, watching the big match on your family’s only television set, when suddenly some dodgy free-kick or a sending off send the crowd into an orgy of on-pitch violence (which happened frequently in the 80s), and even though your under-developed mind suspects such rampant hooliganism is a bad thing, there’s still a frisson of excitement at what is playing out.

 

Some Changes

It’s easy to caricature The Auteurs. To understand them as a singular King Mob figure, the supporting cast reduced to anonymity.

Indeed, in Bad Vibes Haines never mentions James Banbury by name; he is simply “The Cellist”. A stock character. The musical equivalent of being employed to wash the dishes. It’s all very tongue-in-cheek of course, but even so, such a stunt reinforces perceptions that the rest of the band were present mainly to look moody in the background of their press shots.

Because none of us were present during the recording sessions it’s difficult to know just how much input the others had. What I will say is that Some Changes – possibly the strongest track on final LP How I Learned To Love The Bootboys – has the feel of wider collaboration. It’s busy, but also tight, layered, with gorgeous contrast between verse and chorus underlining a sense of carefully controlled aggression – particularly with the strings buzzing away just the right side of mania.

 

Showgirl

Let’s end as we aimed to begin. Showgirl, New Wave‘s lead single, albeit refashioned on that Das Capital record I keep mentioning. Despite my devotion to Herr Haines, I’m still far from certain that performing amidst luxurious banks of strings are his natural habitat (even if this does feature those hand-claps I’m oh-so fond of). Then again, a song stripped of its constituent parts, then reassembled as a pseudo show-tune highlights the sense of playful contrast (this is, after all, a terrific song; enigmatic and sepia-tinted). And if nothing else, the final album with an Auteurs tag line does suggest the end of one road, but very much the beginning of another. Oh yes, for our chum Luke went on to quite the run after this. As we’ll find out in future Toppermosts. Do come back …

 

 

Unofficial Auteurs Website

Luke Haines facebook

Black Box Recorder toppermost #445

Luke Haines toppermost #451

The Auteurs biography (iTunes)

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

TopperPost #440

1 Comment

  1. Rob Millis
    Oct 26, 2015

    Worked in a record shop when New Wave came out. Played it to death. Loved it and still do. And that says a lot, because record shop repeat playing kills an LP for you if it isn’t the very best. That first Portishead LP was such an album; bought it but heard it too often. I couldn’t hear Showgirl or Starstruck too often. And I’m easily bored.

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