Let's Meet And Have A Baby Now
What did I say about Luke Haines a few months ago? “Not as good as he thinks he is.” And some other patronising balls. Well, I can up my game or fuck off. Even better than he thinks he is. Which is saying something. Modern history will eventually pan all the silt from the benighted nineties, and the one decent-sized nugget we little Britons will be left with is Haines, without doubt the greatest British songwriter of his generation.
That’s an extravagant claim, perhaps, but let’s remember we’re talking about the nineteen-nineties here and have a quick look at the competition. Stuart Murdoch started well, but seemed to lose his nerve early on in the face of his band’s unexpected popularity, resulting in albums half full of half-assed tracks written by his junior colleagues and a steady drift in the direction of Radio 2. Albarn’s good, as he proved much more convincingly in the second decade of his career, but he’s pastichey: so much of Blur’s output gurns smugly from clumsy inverted commas, an interminable series of “Tonight, Matthew”s with the impeccable taste and profound lack of depth of a dadmag guide to smart psychedelic pop (Floyd, Wire, Beatles, Buzzcocks, you know the drill) with bonus faux yobbery content. Jarvis lacks the melodic chops to do justice to his often brilliant lyrics. Gruff Rhys mostly lacks the lyrical chops to do justice to his sometimes brilliant melodies. Case closed, then, unless anybody would like to provide light relief in the form of a nomination for Noel Gallagher.
There’s a well-worn quotation, I don’t know where or who from, that runs “Give me the child at seven and I will give you the man”. Our identities are formed early and don’t change much as we grow older. At seven, I was enthralled by the singles of T-Rex and the Sweet. And that was the damage done, right there. Three years later, I thought Abba’s Arrival was the pinnacle of human achievement. Still do, sometimes. Another three and I’d had my head torn off and stitched back on again by Buzzcocks’ Another Music In A Different Kitchen and the first Clash album, but more importantly by the proliferation of timeless singles generated by both bands, and literally hundreds of others, in 1978-1980. I’m a Europop glampunk.
I’d guess that Haines, who was born a year or so later, is formed from pretty much the same mould. True, he’ll tell you that he doesn’t care about your punk rock hits and, little bits of After Murder Park excepted, the Auteurs’ records don’t sound much like punk rock and her misshapen brood. But a similar aesthetic is at work, politically and musically, and in common with most of the best punk rock the polemic punch is derived from the way the political and the personal are shown to be indivisible, and the musical muscle from a minimalism that insists not that you should do nothing difficult, but only that you shouldn’t keep on doing it for the next five minutes. In any case, prosecution counsel suggests that Back With The Killer contains lyrical allusions to both Making Plans For Nigel and the Fall’s English Scheme. And the ghost of the mid-period Clash’s very English hard rock is never far away. Future Generation’s “this music could destroy a nation” (lyric and melody alike) and the way the lead on Tombstone freewheels alongside the vocal, in particular, have Mick Jones written all over them, while the delicate Car Crash (this and fellow Light Aircraft On Fire flip X Boogieman are textbook B sides from a man who clearly understands the sacrosanctity of the form) mentions that “somebody got murdered” and Government Bookstore plays out on a sly melodic steal from Death Or Glory.
The records also don’t often reflect the fact that the Auteurs were a loud and bold live act: a power trio, no less, despite the brilliance of the Cellist’s contributions and the temporary addition of a prosthetic guitarist. If Haines is under-rated as a songwriter, he’s even more so as an electric guitar player. Unafraid to turn up and put his fingers where his mouth is, he’s as comfortable with the kind of one-string, one-finger drones that characterise After Murder Park’s more abrasive moments as he is with the pursed-lips, George Harrisonesque solo on The Upper Classes or the clipped, Go-Betweeny lead on Subculture. By the definition the term had taken on by the 1990s – the one that tells a story about its limitations rather than its aspirations – the Auteurs were very far from being an “indie” concern.
I wish I’d seen them in their heyday (when no one liked them anyway). The fact that I didn’t demonstrates as well as anything that the ongoing paradigm shift in the way pop music is produced, distributed and consumed is the best thing to have happened to it since the rise of the independents in the late 1970s. Here’s your humble correspondent interviewed by Lime Lizard, March 1992, in full-blown pontificate mode. Amazing now to think that this kind of thing mattered to me, or to anybody: “The British scene has shunted itself into a corner, the press deserve everything they get, they’ve failed themselves, because they’ve put themselves behind this dogshit for two years. The baggy thing and the shoegazing thing. They’ve put so much rubbish in those papers, they’ve shot the whole British thing in the foot now and it’s gonna take a while to recover from that.”
What a wanker. We learn three things from this. One of them is the – well, one – reason I’ve never sold any records. Another is that at the time my bag – and therefore the bag of all right-thinking people – was American Guitars. The “British thing” had to prove itself against the likes of Fugazi and Shudder To Think and Medicine and Slint. Inspiral Carpets and Ride just weren’t going to cut it. But the vaguely interesting one is the reason I never heard the Auteurs when they were happening. By the time New Wave came out, you could pretty much take it for granted that if the UK press was making a fuss about a homegrown act the act would be derivative, fad-following toss. It’s testimony to the strength of this belief that even making a record with Albini and another one under the enticing flag of Baader Meinhof (both of which I had vaguely heard about) weren’t enough to shake my lack of interest in Haines. One mention in the same sentence as Suede and you’re dead, pal.
What the press did get as the nineties grinded on was a massive increase in sales due to an unholy symbiosis with the tabloids. Which probably was what they deserved. They were right about the Auteurs, of course. But for the wrong reasons. And if they’d known that the future would contain an Unsolved Child Murder, and if additionally they’d been able to grasp the enormity of an Unsolved Child Murder, they’d have stomped on the whole project there and then. Because Unsolved Child Murder is transgressive in ways the piss-poor likes of Whitehouse and Skullflower couldn’t comprehend if their little deaths depended on it. It’s perfect that this and its companion piece After Murder Park were the songs Haines decided not to play to Paul McCartney the day Sir Thumbs Aloft visited the Auteurs at Abbey Road (“they were too good for him”) because the inseparable pair, with their jaunty rhythms and French horns, are direct descendants of Penny Lane. But an action-packed quarter century has passed, so instead of the mildly acid-tinged Camberwick Green characters who inhabit the latter you have a lost, presumed dead, child “on a bed of mud and wire”, Esme the psychic and Rachel, who is “married to a doctor” and who with all the forlorn, hopeless hope in the world tells the parents that “when they find him / we can cure him / we can make him better / raise him from the dead”. It’s heartbreaking and it’s fucking insanely beautiful. It stakes out a territory hitherto explored without success by pop music. The comparatively hamfisted likes of Morrissey and Marr’s Suffer Little Children or Big Black’s Jordan, Minnesota just don’t get a look-in, because while both similarly attempt to animate the scenario they describe by inhabiting the voices of its characters, their lyricists lack Haines’s eye for the detail that matters. The resulting difference in the finished product is like that between an affecting but cacky drama-documentary and a Mike Leigh film.
When I first wrote about Haines I hadn’t picked up on this filmic quality his stuff has. Calling the band “The Auteurs” was too subtle for me, you see. I would have required him to have done this while repeatedly punching me about the head, which turned out to be impossible due to budget constraints. But a good Haines song – and the evidence is mounting in my living room that there isn’t any other kind – is like a thumbnail sketch for an arthouse movie. You could go anywhere with it. It allows you to use your imagination. Perhaps that’s why budding children’s author Louise Wener opined in her Observer review of Bad Vibes that his songs “aren’t about anything”. Mind, she described herself as a “doe-eyed siren” in the same piece so maybe she was just trying to be funny. But Wener’s addle-pated remark illustrates as well as anything the gulf between Haines and his erstwhile contemporaries, and the reason why little or none of the latter’s work has stood the test of time while the Auteurs will eventually be recognised as one of the great groups, with After Murder Park their masterpiece.