On Writing A Book
Step forward Mr Luke Haines, whose Bad Vibes: Britpop And My Part In Its Downfall pulls off the enviable feat of being simultaneously self-aggrandising and self-deprecating, and is also extremely funny. It’s not the Greatest Rock Autobiography Ever, as some are currently claiming for it, because of Julian Cope’s, but it’s a very good read. There are minor scabs to be picked at. Some of the footnotes veer into patronising, stating-the-obvious territory, and sometimes they’re just plain wrong, as when Myrna Minkoff is described as Ignatius Reilly’s “nemesis irritant” where clearly she’s his one saving grace. Oh, and the one concerning the North American Indian practice of “potlatch” is lifted wholesale from Greil Marcus’s Lipstick Traces without any hint of acknowledgement or apology. More reprehensibly by far, Haines lacks a proper understanding of the nature of Cheap Trick.
Quibbles be damned, though. The second best Greatest Rock Autobiography Ever was easily self-aggrandising and self-deprecating enough to have me sniffing around the internet for a cheap Auteurs record to see what all the minor kerfuffle was about. So I ended up with Now I’m A Cowboy, which must be the one that was manufactured in greatest quantity because it was the cheapest by some distance. And, you know what? Haines is good. Not as good as he thinks he is, perhaps, but nonetheless the jobs he turns in here as songwriter, singer and guitarist are leagues ahead of almost anything his contemporaries had to show for themselves.
In truth, Now I’m A Cowboy has little apart from the year (1994) in which it was created and feted to connect it to the Britpop farrago. Musically, apart from the fizzy, unsatisfying mid-nineties production, it’s firmly in the lineage of Television and The Only Ones: clever, poppy rock with one eye on the economy and modernism of late 1970s “new wave” and its antecedents and the other on the much-rifled bag of tricks signifying “classic rock”. On reflection – and give or take “clever”, so you’d have to exchange Verlaine and Perrett for Paul Weller and Noddy Holder, the Top Trumps hand from hell – it has that much in common with the moronic Oasis, if not many of the other Britpop acts, who’d have struggled with the “classic rock” bit. And lyrically it shares few of the suburban, English concerns that typified the likes of Blur, Pulp and Sleeper.
This isn’t always to its credit. Most of the lyrics are the kind of impressionistic and only partially penetrable first-person narratives of the writer who thinks he’ll have a crack at being Dylan. Credit where it’s due and that, at least he’s not happy to settle for Ray Davies. But the problem for the listener here is that it’s not clear if or when Haines is singing in character, and read as autobiographical – which I suspect is often the “correct” reading – some of the songs (I’m A Rich Man’s Toy, Modern History) come across as the bellyaching of a man who wants both to mythologise and to whine about the iniquities of paid employment at the sharp end of the music industry. This theme has been boring since 1973, at least.
But when Haines gets it right he’s pretty fucking unstoppable. I haven’t the faintest idea what he wants to say in any of Lenny Valentino, Underground Movies and Daughter Of A Child, but all three are so perfect that I couldn’t care less. And The Upper Classes, the song Damon Albarn would have written for the first Elastica album if he’d been a little bit crueller, mines Britpop’s obsession with the English class system while (with strokes subtle enough you don’t quite feel them going in) demolishing the same. When Lindsay Anderson finally rises from the dead and gets around to making that definitive Britpop film, he’ll use Tommy Steele’s version of this song to soundtrack the scene where the Donna Matthews character surreptitiously hands something to Malcolm McDowell / Haines, who goes on to experience a vision of himself shaking hands with a gurning, latex-faced Prime Minister a couple of years hence.
That was supposed to be a compliment. For all my sniping, I do love this record, or at least I’m having a lot of fun with it at the moment, and I’m slavering at the imminent prospect of the arrival of After Murder Park so I can find out whether it’s possible for songs called things like Light Aircraft On Fire and Unsolved Child Murder to live up to their titles. Writing a book, if you are able to write a good one, seems like a very smart move for the has-been suffering from lack of back cat recognition. Much less like hard work than those awful reunion tours. Good luck to Monsieur Hatred. It never occurred to me at the time they were released to listen to Auteurs records, because an entire generation of “lance corporals” (Haines’s term) with no ears and fewer brains repeatedly told me the band was the poor man’s Suede, if it’s possible to imagine such a thing. More fool me, really. But now I’m intrigued, and I won’t be alone in that. You’d have to ask Amazon and co for details, which they would refuse to provide, but you can bet that sales of Haines’s records have shown a marked upturn recently.