❉ Stuart Douglas revisits the distinctive vision of The Auteurs and the unique talent of Luke Haines.
“Luke Haines is a man incapable of mundanity, and even his mis-steps (and he admits here to one or two) are worth a listen in ways that the best work by other artists aren’t.”
The name of the band is a real statement of intent. Like cinematic auteur directors – think Godard, Karasmaki, or Von Trier – The Auteurs had a distinctive vision from the off and a self-belief big enough to move mountains.
And by ‘The Auteurs’, I mean Luke Haines.
Because, in weird box set synchronicity, like the Cherry Red clamshell crammed full of CDs I reviewed last month by the much-missed Fall, “People ‘Round Here Don’t Like To Talk About It The Complete EMI Recordings” is by a band fronted by a unique talent, with a unique voice, and populated by an ever changing line-up of musicians. Nobody sounded like Mark E Smith, and nobody sounds like Luke Haines.
Which is a bloody good thing, because I’m not convinced there’s room in the world for two Luke Haines.
This is a man incapable of mundanity (the booklet which comes with this six-CD set, written by Haines, is hugely entertaining), and even his mis-steps (and he admits to one or two) are worth a listen in ways that the best work by certain other, perhaps more commercially successful, musicians…well, just aren’t.
So, a bit of background. Haines formed The Auteurs with bass player Alice Readman after the pair left earnest indie types The Servants, and released their first album New Wave in 1993. For an album with a title which sounds as though it’s an explicit description of its contents, it’s not really new wave, at all, nor is part of the Britpop scrum which followed soon after, even though it’s often lumped in with them (largely on the back of the band touring with Suede, and then losing out to them by – reportedly – one vote for the Mercury Music Prize for 1993). Instead, it’s got gorgeous, melancholy cellos and clever, funny lyrics, as Haines drawls quick characters sketches of valet car parkers, housebreakers and child stars. ‘Don’t you recognise us?’ Haines asks at one point, and ‘Is your prescription right?’ at another, but you do get the feeling New Wave is more interested in asking questions than answering them.
Described by no less than The Times as the band’s breakthrough album, Now I’m A Cowboy opens with a song which compares Lenny Bruce to Rudolf Valentino, two misunderstood geniuses who died young. Generally, Haines isn’t slow to lay out his stall this time round, with a set of more pointed lyrics contrasting with those on New Wave, many revolving round the idea of fame. The music is brilliant – a bit more rocky and glammy than on the debut album (and – dare I say it – a bit more Suede-y too), but with cello still in place, but this is an album which (not for the last time with Luke Haines) is most interesting for its lyrics. ‘There’s a genius in every town’, he sings on Brainchild (though one without the fame he deserves, if the rest of the lyric, with its talk of ‘great lost albums’ and ‘getting older and past your peak’ is any measure). ‘ I’m a rich man’s toy’, he complains on the track of the same name, and ‘You can get so far with a perishing wit’ on Upper Classes. It’s not all pessimism and downbeat gloom though – the album ends by noting that ‘News of our legend and our exploits travelled far’ and ‘We’re the most famous people that they know’. On the back of this album, they really should have been, but while Suede, Oasis and Blur were scooping up the prizes and the profits, Now I’m A Cowboy came in at number 40 on Mojo’s list of the Top 50 Eccentric Albums in 2003…
So what do you do when you’re breakthrough album doesn’t actually break you through? You break your ankles jumping off a wall while drunk, hire Steve Albini to produce, and put out a record jam packed with songs about alcoholism, murdered children, and planes disintegrating at 2000 feet.
Course you do.
And when your record label decides to hold that album back for a year, during that terrible ‘Blur v Oasis summer’, when two actually pretty poor singles battled it out for the number one spot and sucked up what felt like every inch of every column of music coverage in the popular press? Well, obviously what you do is write a chunk of a funky/psych concept album about a group of European terrorists who may or may not have committed mass suicide while in the custody of the German police.
Course you do.
After Murder Park, the held-back album, is possibly the most controversial album of the 1990s – certainly the most controversial by any band linked to Britpop. It literally begins with what seems on the surface (but nothing is what it seems on the surface in a Luke Haines song) to be a slice of casual misogyny – ‘When you cut your lover’s slack/You’ll get a monster back’ – goes onto a chorus which is just a repeated ‘Light aircraft on fire’, suggests ‘a dark premonition an accident will happen’, and concludes that ‘Everyone will love your dust’. And that’s just the first song.
Elsewhere, The Child Brides concerns itself with fourteen year old brides escaping from a loveless marriage by drowning themselves, Dead Sea Navigators appears to be a wake for lost friends, and Tombstone fantasises about ‘taking the fucking building out/Baader Meinhof style’ (we’ll come back to them later). And then there’s Unsolved Child Murder (about…an unsolved child murder) and the title track (which, perversely closes the album), which is a follow-up, in which the parents of the murdered child consult a fake medium. Parklife, this ain’t.
And neither is Baader Meinhof. Yes, it really is called that (both artist and album), and yes, it really is a concept album about the terrorist group known by that name (quick bit of additional background for those readers not in their fifties/history buffs – the Baader Meinhof gang – more properly, the Red Army Faction – were a far left group of anti-imperialist terrorists, who carried out a series of assassinations, bombings and kidnappings throughout the 1970s, primarily in what was then West Germany). Rarely can there have been a less likely subject for an album from a popular musical artist.
The fact that it’s a Haines career highlight is, therefore, perhaps a bit of a surprise. Haines actually works very well when concentrating on a single theme (my own personal favourite of his back catalogue is 2011’s 9 1/2 Psychedelic Meditations on British Wrestling of the 1970s & Early ’80s which – like Baader Meinhof – is exactly what it says on the tin). For one thing, and unexpectedly for a concept album, Haines states outright that ‘There’s no manifesto / There’s no formal plan’. It’d be easy to get pretentious about tracks with lyrics like ‘Christ was an extremist / with a Kamikaze soul’ but it’s also damn funny (‘Colindale is now a Police College’ Haines sings on It’s a Moral Issue, ‘I was born 20 miles from there.’). Better experienced than described, Baader Meinhof is funky as anything, mixing dance floor beats with acoustic guitar, and is a real highlight of this boxset.
Back to The Auteurs, and rounding off their time in the sun, 1999 saw the release of How I Learned to Love the Bootboys. It’s a less successful album than the others, though still packed with great songs; Haines, fresh from Baader Meinhof, was apparently sure that the record label was about to dump The Auteurs, and so had moved at least one foot into the camp of his next project, Black Box Recorder, with whom he had released the exceptional England Made Me the previous year. Composed in pieces and at different times, it can feel like a more fragmentary than other Auteurs albums (though it was very positively reviewed at time, it was not a massive seller).
There’s some great tunes on it, but no consistent style, which feels a bit odd in an Auteurs album. Opening track, The Rubettes, for instance, is a tribute to the band of the same name, complete with girl group-style backing vocals, while the title track, just two tracks later, is an electronic piece complete with sirens and sound effects. Elsewhere, there are loud, glam rock influenced tracks; quiet, contemplative ones; and strange songs, which 20 years after I first heard them, I still have no idea what’s going on. Listening to it again for this review, though, I liked it more than I remembered doing back at the turn of the millennium – as a set of songs, rather than the New Luke Haines album, it perhaps works best.
Rounding off the boxset is Das Capital, a ‘compilation’ of Haines songs subtitled The Songwriting Genius of Luke Haines and The Auteurs, which makes explicit what had always been to some extent hidden – that each of these bands were basically the creations of Haines, even if ably supported by a variety of talented musicians. Comprised of orchestral versions of old tracks by both The Auteurs and Baader Meinhof, along with a smattering of new songs (including Satan Wants Me, one of my favourite Haines’ songs), it’s not a Greatest Hits, really, nor is it a new album as such. It’s more like one of those Will Oldham records where he re-invents old songs of his n new and interesting arrangements. As such, though, it was always most likely to appeal to listeners already familiar with his work and world, which is a shame as it’s a release which deserved to be more widely heard.
Hopefully, with this boxset, all of these albums will be more widely heard, and lead listeners onto the other parts of Luke Haines’ varied and fabulous back catalogue. That’s a musical journey very much to be recommended.
❉ The Auteurs: “People ‘Round Here Don’t Like To Talk About It The Complete EMI Recordings” 6CD Box Set (Cherry Red CRCDBOX141) was released 10 February 2023 by Cherry Red Group, RRP £30.99.
❉ Cherry Red Records have been releasing and reissuing the most innovative and independent thinking music since 1978. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site.
❉ Stuart Douglas is an author, and editor and owner of the publisher Obverse Books. He has written four Sherlock Holmes novels and can be found on twitter at @stuartamdouglas
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