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Even in an age of such constant artistic recycling, it still seems strange to release a 3-CD box-set of rarities celebrating such a relatively obscure musician. But Luke Haines has always thrived on such aesthetic left-turns, and appears to delight in confounding expectations and confusing his audience. The hubris continues in Haines's own myth-taking sleeve notes, and the inclusion of a nonsensically pretentious 'essay' by critic Paul Morley just adds to the contrary, paradoxical image of a man who enjoys baiting his fans: the very people who keep his status as an artist alive.
After spending time as the guitarist in The Servants (where he met bassist Alice Readman and got the chance to indulge a life-long fascination with the Go-Betweens), Haines first appeared as a bandleader in 1992, charismatically fronting The Auteurs. As far as the indie music press were concerned The Auteurs, along with the more popular Suede, represented a new breakthrough in British music, against the dominance of the US grunge and alternative scenes. The Auteurs first strike was 'Showgirl', although this compilation (which incidentally takes its name from a Vichy Government song) properly starts with a take on 'Bailed Out', which was originally slated to be the debut single. It's good, but sounds better on the album, and has nothing like the impact and uniqueness that 'Showgirl' has.
Both Suede and The Auteurs had a sound that was firmly rooted in the glam rock of the early 70s, although I would argue that the latter band were more subtle in developing this influence. The guitars are suitably trashy, but have a wonderfully bright, unique sound that has yet to be truly repeated. The lyrics also appear to take glam as a starting point before moving on to something more perspicacious. Appearing to celebrate the kind of glamorous, sophisticated lifestyle many pine for and want to be part of, Haines avoids the grasping sentiments of needing to be part of a community that plague similar songs (contrast with Suedes call-to-arms debut, 'The Drowners'), the song's seemingly iconic images ("I took a showgirl for my bride Took her bowling, got her high") instead hiding a seething undercurrent of distaste and such self-obsessed and inflated behaviour, the preening fancies of a moneyed middle-class left unchecked in their behaviour. The songs final line, "don't you recognise us?" is ironic: a ridiculous, self-aggrandising statement that ties the whole song together. The characters in the song may appear unblemished and unattainable sophisticates, but why would anyone want to associate with such pompous, venal characters? The B-sides for the single continue with this imagery, investigating the undercurrent of sleaze and ridiculousness manifested in the most glamorous of creations. 'Glad To Be Gone' is a fiery waltz, Haines unleashing his fury and disgust at an unnamed target, while 'Staying Power' is the perfect summation of Haines's career, hilariously written by the man himself before he's even released a song: although he may never be popular with a mass audience, his music has the grace and longevity to appeal after other bands have fizzled out (and, indeed, time appears to have shown this to be the case).
New Wave, the debut album from '93, expanded on these themes, cementing their importance in Haines's career. Various songs are represented here, in alternate and single versions: 'Junk Shop Clothes' pours scorn on those who think their faux-artistic temperament can be revealed and developed purely by the cheap garments they wear ("Lenny Bruce never walked in a dead man's shoes, even for one night"). That such bile is attached to a gorgeous descending chord sequence is a masterstroke that adds an impossibly appealing edge to lyrics that could otherwise be distancing and unpalatable. The Auteurs's strengths definitely lie in these juxtapositions: they're present in 'Subcultcha', a litany of ridiculous behaviour set to driven drums and catchy melody. Perhaps Haines's voice is one of his weak point; a thin wisp that some listeners never quite grasp, but he makes the most of it and connects it to the music and lyrics. 'Housebreaker' and 'Valet Parking' both push glamour into criminal and mundane jobs, portraying Haines as a gentleman thief and the smirking brains behind the murder of a celebrity, perhaps?
The games continue of 'How Could I Be Wrong' and 'Starstruck', referencing the lunacy of showbiz fixations; and the constant talk of 'stars' throughout the album accumulates on both tracks, a deliberate device highlight the obsession in society with the rise (and especially the fall) of the celebrity (and this was released in 1993 remember; it's only got much worse since then!). 'Home Again' shows Haines as a stalker breaking into an ex-girlfriends house, cataloguing what she own. It could almost be a love song, the way the lyrics are constructed ("It's better than drugs to be in your home again"). The acoustic version included here doesn't do the song justice, highlighting one of the major problems with this compilation. It appears to be aimed a completists who would want to own such things, and yet rare B-sides are missing , making it unsatisfactory for dedicated and the newcomer alike. Perhaps if you truly want to get into The Auteurs, New Wave is the place to start.
Now I'm A Cowboy, the follow up, came only a year later, and represents possibly the only time Haines has rested on his laurels in his career as opposed to moving onto something new. Perhaps because of the speed it was created, it ends up mainly as a re-tread of the debut, with all the commercial aspects now pushed to the fore. Needless to say, this doesn't work. The biggest hit was the first single Lenny Valentino (almost a UK top 40 hit!) which could be Haines's best-loved song. It's a superbly catchy song that never outstays its welcome, blasting through three verses on a typically obscure subject (the title character being a melding of comic Lenny Bruce and actor Rudolph Valentino which ties in with New Waves's striking cover image) in record time. The music sounds beefed up, and the 3 recordings of the single available suggests that Haines is pushing (or has been pushed by his ersatz-'indie' record label, Hut) down a more commercial route. Wisely, this is something he wouldn't try again and, in truth, he'd never be able to water down his lyrics content enough. Haines takes his eye of the ball for 'Chinese Bakery' (catchy, but completely meaningless) and 'New French Girlfriend' is going nowhere very slowly (except onto the soundtrack of an obscure American film maybe that was the point?).
Elsewhere, the anger remains intact. 'I'm A Rich Man's Toy' is a blast, and if this was the song intially intended for Vanessa Paradis to sing, then it is a shame this genius piece of casting remained incomplete. 'The Upper Classes' is an amazing collage of character assassination, an investigation into a vacuous lifestyle that allows the band to stretch across an extended outro, the kind of thing severely restricted in future, as Haines sharpens his attacks. Now I'm a Cowboy also foregrounds Haines's melancholic side. 'A Sister Like You', 'Modern History' and B-side 'Government Bookstore' all emphasise an air of loss and have a warmth in their structure that only rarely appears again: perhaps one of the more obvious drawbacks to the intelligent assaults that make Haines so entertaining as an artists.
1995 was a quiet year, very effectively broken in December by the startling release of the 'Back With The Killer' EP. the very height of Britpop, Haines turned his back on the glam rock sound, instead enlisting Steve Albini to craft the third Auteurs album. Albini is the American producer behind many classic albums, including Nirvana's In Utero; the exact opposite of the heady joyous sounds of Blur, Oasis, et al. All four tracks from this EP are here, still exceptional in their musical rawness and lyrical nastiness. The title track is self-explanatory, but 'Unsolved Child Murder' is the true genius here. A matter-of-fact narration ("People round here don't like to talk about it ") set to a wonderfully simple Beatles-esque tune, it almost beggars belief how successful the track is, as the music changes a possibly controversial and distasteful subject into something even starker and heart-wrenching than should be possible. An undeniable highpoint here, it is also at the centre of the 1996 album, 'After Murder Park'. Haines at the height of his powers, it could be his masterpiece.
'Light Aircraft On Fire', 'New Brat In Town', Tombstone': these are not songs to be taken lightly; the latter begins with Haines destroying the Colombia hotel (as well-known musicians hangout) "Baader Meinhof style". The lyrics are heavy and the music sharp and punchy, with vocals being usurped by dissonant, vicious guitars. The songs are underrepresented here by tamer, unreleased versions, so if you like what you hear, then definitely get the original album. Haines also prunes back the songs, cutting unnecessary fat from the music to focus on the increasingly complex words; themes mixing and repeating to create a lyrical coherence that matches the pointed music. This period ends with a John Peel sessions. Produced by Albini instead of the typical BBC engineer, all four tracks are cut through with unspeakable menace, ominous keyboards that sound broken, vocals choking on murderous images, and bizarrely mournful cello played by the underrated James Banbury (an important sideman for Haines for the rest of the compilation). The simplicity of the recordings (due to necessary time limits) only adds to the foreboding, the horror, the majesty. I can't think of a single artist working during the same time period who was creating anything as aurally exciting as these tracks.
'96 also saw Haines's first solo album, under the pseudonym Baader Meinhof. A concept record about 1970s terrorists set to a funk influenced indie groove that includes Eastern-sounding strings and tablas, the lyrics are so incomprehensible as to make the whole thing almost incoherent. It's either the work of a genius or the raving of a madman. What's including here is interesting, if only for it's rarity, but the remixes are mostly dated rubbish.
Haines then moved onto Black Box Recorder (sadly, thought understandably, not represent here), and so The Auteurs necessarily became a solo side-project to the pop wickedness of his new day job. The Auteurs fourth album, How I Learned To Love The Bootboys, moved back to the 70s influences mostly discarded on 'After Murder Park', bring along some Baader Meinhof developed electronics. This was the start of Haines's love affair with 'anti-nostalgia', as scathingly heard on single 'The Rubettes'. 'Future Generations', like 'Staying Power' before it, riotously sends up his own career, casting the Auteurs as a Velvet Underground in waiting, ripe for re-discovery. The unreleased tracks from this period are the most interesting here, showing a different direction the album could have taken had Haines stuck with his original concept based around 'telekinetic youths'. In particular, 'Politics' is fantastic, and it is good that such a well-realised song has now got an official release. If only there were more unknown gems like this on the compilation. Highlight of the Bootboys album is 'Johnny and the Hurricanes', which cleverly and imperceptibly changes key at the start of every verse, creating an unstoppable rising tension in the music as it weaves its way through the fantastically evocative, 70s-set lyrics ("English tarmac, English rain . The Future's 1955").
Haines's next two releases came finally under his own name, where he has comfortably stayed ever since. Companion pieces, the two albums work better together than alone, and see him starting to put more modern, dance and R&B influences into the melting pot. Mostly satisfactory, the period perhaps occasionally sacrifices the music in favour of the words, and the unreleased stuff here fails to completely convince. 'Discomania' and 'The Oliver Twist Manifesto' are both great though, combining various previous interests and astute lyrical observations to build confident, seething diatribes that are amongst Haines's most effective songs. And 'How The Hate The Working Classes' and 'Never Work' both showcase the writer's other side: the music sadder and reined in, the vocals softer, but the content still successfully scolds.
The last three tracks on Luke Haines Is Dead are taken from a previous compilation the arbitrary and largely unexciting Best Of, Das Capital, whereby previously released songs were re-recorded with string and brass sections. It's hard to tell whether this album was Haines's wickedest joke yet or not. Nevertheless, the tracks here, written and recorded specially for the Best Of, helpfully represent the best of worst of Luke Haines. 'Bugger Bognor' doesn't work because the music isn't up to stratch. So no matter the quality of the words, they flounder without a decent backing: proving without doubt something that is frequently underestimated by critics that it's as much the music as the lyrics that makes the songs work (I'd say you could apply this to any musician too). A good example of this is 'The Mitford Sisters', which moves brilliantly from a moody, haunting verse and chorus into a descending, fast-paced middle section, always carefully evoking a rotting war-time setting in the lyrics and gliding strings. All this is wonderful, and the mix of anger, humour and a little sadness in the uniquely, always developing music and lyrics is exactly what has kept Haines such an exciting prospect since the early '90s. Luke Haine Is Dead may not fully represent his self styled (and, I'd say, proven) 'genius', as unique as it is. But it definitely shows what a brilliant, underrated and, above all, consistent writer he is. Although Haines may not like it, I guess the rest is up to history.
NB: This review is also posted on Ciao
Disc #1 Tracklisting
1 Das Capital Overture
2 Bailed Out (Unreleased Single)
4 Glad To Be Gone (B-Side)
5 Staying Power (B-Side)
6 Junk Shop Clothes (BBC Session)
7 She Might Take A Train (Ltd Edition Single)
8 Subculture (Ltd Edition Single)
9 Government Bookstore (BBC Session)
10 Housebreaker (Acoustic Version)
11 Valet Parking (Acoustic Version)
12 How Could I Be Wrong (Single Version)
13 Starstruck (Live Acoustic)
14 Home Again (Live Acoustic)
15 American Guitars
16 Wedding Day (B-Side)
17 High Diving Horses (B-Side)
18 Lenny Valentino (Single Recording)
19 Disneyworld (B-Side)
20 I'm A Rich Man's Toy
Disc #2 Tracklisting
1 The Upper Classes (BBC Session)
2 Everything You Say Will Destroy You (BBC)
3 A Sister Like You
4 Underground Movies (Alternate Recording/French Single)
5 Brainchild (Alternate Recording/French Single)
6 Chinese Bakery (BBC)
7 Modern History (B-Side)
8 New French Girlfriend (BBC)
9 Light Aircraft On Fire (Single Rcording)
10 Carcrash (B-Side)
11 X Boogie Man (B-Side)
12 New Brat In Town (Unreleased)
13 Tombstone (Unreleased Version)
14 Back With The Killer Again (EP Track)
15 Unsolved Child Murder
16 Former Fan (EP Track)
17 Kenneth Anger's Bad Dream (EP Track)
18 Kids' Issue (BBC/EP Track)
19 A New Life, A New Family (BBC/EP Track)
20 Buddha (BBC/EP Track)
21 After Murder Park (BBC/EP Track)
Disc #3 Tracklisting
1 Baader Meinhof
2 Meet Me At The Airport
3 I've Been A Fool For You (Ltd Edition)
4 Accident (Fuse Remix)
5 Mogadishu (Dalai Lama Remix)
6 ESP Kids (Unreleased)
7 Future Generation (Unreleased)
8 Politic (Unreleased)
9 Johnny and The Hurricanes (Bootboys Out-Take/Unreleased)
10 The Rubettes
11 Breaking Up Is Hard To Do (B-Side)
12 Get Wrecked At Home (B-Side)
13 Essex Bootboys (Bootboys Out-Take/Unreleased)
14 Discomania (Alternate Version/Unreleased)
15 Couple Dancing (Unreleased)
16 How To Hate The Working Classes
17 The Oliver Twist Manifesto (Unreleased Version)
18 Never Work
19 Skin Tight (From Film Showboy/Unreleased)
20 Satan Wants Me
21 The Mitford Sisters
22 Bugger Bogno