Stage to page: Has Luke Haines written the great pop masterpiece?
Luke Haines is the latest Britpop survivor to perpetrate a book. In memoir and fiction, musicians and writers hunt the great pop masterpiece. Jonathan Gibbs wonders if anyone ever will find it
Friday 16 January 2009
It's nearly 17 years since the NME put Brett Anderson of Suede on its cover, heralding the start of what would come to be called Britpop. Three years later, Blur and Oasis contrived to produce the scene's risible high-water mark with their chart battle, squaring off over the underwhelming singles "Country House" and "Roll With It". By 1997 they had killed the whole thing with the albums Blur and Be Here Now, US-influenced and dire respectively.
Today, Oasis are on their seventh studio album, Blur are poised to reform, and bands like Kaiser Chiefs and Glasvegas are citing these old-timers as influences. It seems we are finally able to come out from behind the sofa and look back at the Britpop era with a certain degree of objectivity.
Which is absolutely not what you will get from Luke Haines. The man behind of The Auteurs, Baader Meinhof and Black Box Recorder was there; he "moved into a townhouse in Camden just as it was overrun with ten thousand teenagers in mod suits and Adidas trainers"; and even claims some responsibility for setting the whole thing in motion. Now he has taken it upon himself to spill the beans.
Bad Vibes, subtitled "Britpop and my part in its downfall" (Heinemann, £12.99), is a wonderfully disaffected memoir, bleak, venomous and hilarious by turns. If you want gratuitous name-calling, its here. Brett Anderson? His "pseudo-bumboy androgyny is more Grange Hill than Bowie". Oasis? "Comedy band." The Verve? "Useless prog rockers." Damon Albarn and Justine Frischmann? "A pair of greedy hobgoblins, knocking down small children in their path ... and anyone they perceive as a possible threat to their rise to the top."
But even when not being deliberately offensive, he is funny, comparing Jarvis Cocker's early career to "one of those silent movies showing man's early attempts at aviation. Each Pulp release is like a preposterous flying machine trundling towards the cliff edge, only to break up like balsa wood as it flops into the sea."
Poor old David Gray gets a blasting for his endless on-stage guitar tuning. "Deoowwwing. String goes down. Boowwang. String goes up. Time passes ... Yeah, strum a chord, see if it sounds OK. Murwaaang! No improvement then." Haines is as brutal in his self-excoriation as in his wholesale character assassinations. He details the rank egotism, the rampant paranoia, the drugs and booze and plain idiocy that turned The Auteurs from industry darlings (apparently losing the Mercury Prize to Suede by one vote) to washed-out failures, playing a farcical final US tour to complete indifference.
Haines puts his catastrophic career down to a mixture of bad attitude and bad timing, but the truth is he was never cut out to be a pop star. It was only when he delegated that part of the job to glacial beauty Sarah Nixey, in the Serge Gainsbourg-influenced Black Box Recorder, that the pieces fell into place.
Haines may hate Damon Albarn with a passion, but Blur's bassist Alex James doesn't get so much as a mention in his book. Haines doesn't get a mention in James's autobiography, Bit of a Blur, either, but then not many other musicians do. Brian May is there, at Buckingham Palace, and James spills his drink on Dave Stewart's fibre-optic carpet after a night at the Groucho, but his account of the band's rise to fame reads like a rewrite of A Hard Day's Night. There are screaming fans, and fawning celebrities, and plenty of mayhem, but other bands don't feature.
If you pay attention, you'll find an early assessment of Radiohead ("a bit depressing"), and a swift dismissal of Oasis ("The singer had a good voice, but the music was honky"), but really James is writing his reminiscences from inside his reformed rocker-turned-gentleman farmer persona. He's interested in what it was like to be famous, and in Blur. Which, to be fair, sounds like a lot more fun that being in The Auteurs.
Perhaps it wasn't that much fun being part of Britpop. For the really nasty underside of fame (or its approximation), try All That Glitters, an account of Britpop heroin addiction by Pearl Lowe, of the rarely-remembered Powder.
You might argue, too, that being in a band just isn't worthwhile material for a memoir. Reading about the precious recording process is not all that interesting, unless you're a major fan, and reading about going on tour is not interesting, ever, full stop. Everyone gets mobbed in Japan. Everyone plays to a dozen people in the American Mid-West. Everyone trashes the hotel room, wakes up next to a groupie then sacks the tour manager over breakfast.
If happiness writes white, then rock hedonism writes a sickening, hungover shade of grey. It's never as much fun on the page as it seems in the mind. Which is one reason why the rock novel gets such bad press. Rock and pop music play such a huge part in so many people's lives, during those crucial years between childhood and adulthood especially, that anything that falls short of the joy and pain the music gives is going to feel like a betrayal.
People still try, of course. Iain Banks tried, Louise Wener (of Britpoppers Sleeper) tried. Don DeLillo got close with the gnomic Great Jones Street, and Salman Rushdie nearly blew the genre up completely with the roundly-derided The Ground Beneath Her Feet. More recently, name writers such as Jonathan Lethem and Toby Litt have had a pop, as well as newcomers like Doug Johnstone and John Niven.
Johnstone's The Ossians is an interesting effort that follows a bolshy young Edinburgh band on a tour of Scotland, despite the best efforts of their singer Connor to wreck things with his drug-taking, egotism and propensity for fights. He's like a younger, sexier Luke Haines, with Razorlight's Johnny Borrell thrown in. Crucially, Connor's fictional antics do not match up to Haines's real ones. The Ossians' automotive massacre of a flock of sleeping seagulls on Aberdeen pier during a snowstorm seems horribly plausible. Haines firing a flare gun from a Swedish hotel window at Oasis, the Verve and a psychotic roadie, as they march drunkenly around a fountain at three in the morning, chanting "You'll never take the North", is so bathetic as to be unimpeachably real.
Toby Litt's fictional take on the rock-and-roll game in I Play the Drums in a Band Called OK is more oblique, and more incisive. He takes the long and short view at the same time, following Canadian art-rockers okay (lower case, italics, natch) over their career, in linked short stories. This means he can avoid as much as possible the monotonous round of the next record, the next tour, the next coke tantrum.
Johnstone's book, by comparison, goes on just long enough to get boring, despite the drug-dealing and stalker subplots. It's the grafted-on plot, too, that nearly does for John Niven's novel Kill Your Friends (Vintage, £7.99), which otherwise is the perfect pairing to Haines's venom. It follows the career of irredeemably appalling A&R man Steven Stellfox over the 12 torrid months of 1997; the year the Blair government was born and the Britpop scene it rode to power died. Stellfox shares Haines's neat device of heading each chapter with a brief summary of industry news. Niven's is hilarious for its roster of bands so completely forgotten they make Menswear seem like U2. Audioweb, Ultrasound and Peach, anyone?
The bile-black cynicism of Niven's writing makes this the funniest book about the music industry for ages, but it's not really about the music. It certainly doesn't help us understand why pop music matters. Which is something Haines, for all his posturing and self-justification, sometimes does. He recognises that pop and rock defies narrative. We love it because it lifts us out of time, whether the four minutes of "Good Vibrations" or the 15 minutes of a John Bonham drum solo; and binds itself unbreakably to our memories.
Haines's memoir will sit nicely next to two other recent books by cantankerous pop outsiders; Mark E Smith's Renegade, and 17, by eternal provocateur Bill Drummond, who, as if not happy with conquering the charts with the KLF, is now advocating the end of all recorded music. Until that time comes, the great pop novel is still waiting to be written, but it's a quest worth persevering with.
Finding words when the music stops
'All That Glitters'
An unglorified account of life with the Primrose Hill set, Pearl Lowe's 2007 autobiography is a warts-and-nothing-else account of "living on the dark side of rock and roll". As the lead singer of 1990s Britpop bands Powder and Lodger, Lowe was at the centre of a racy set. The 'NME' called her and her partner, Supergrass drummer Danny Goffey, "the Posh and Becks of the indie world". Partying with the likes of Kate Moss, Jude Law, Sadie Frost and Liam Gallagher led to a cocaine and heroin addiction for Lowe, who eventually got clean and moved to the country.
In his own words, The KLF founder Bill Drummond "used to manage Echo and the Bunnymen, was a one-hit wonder with the The Timelords and ... tore up a 20-quid note or something". '17' is partly a memoir about this career but more particularly an obituary for music and a manifesto for how to revive it in this digital age. "All recorded music has run its course," he writes. "It has all been consumed, traded, downloaded, understood, heard before, sampled, learned, revived, judged and found wanting ... Year Zero now." His solution, temporary music by amateur choirs, will not thrill everyone but it is a relief from Simon Cowell.
'Bit of a Blur'
In his 2007 book, the bass player of Britpop pioneers Blur annoyed many fans by writing an idiosyncratic autobiography, not the nerdish gig-by-gig acount that many craved. Shamlessly subjective, James looks back in bemusement on the days of coke and bubbly (a million blown in that direction, he reckons). But this is also – sorry – a 'Bildungsroman' about growing up through pop (mis)adventures and learning to leave them behind. At home with the wisdom of hindsight, James suggests that the Dionysiac frenzy of musical celebrity may finally not matter very much. Hence the fan rage, perhaps.
Mark E Smith
Has the veteran guru of The Fall, a postpunk maverick for 30 years, morphed into the Jeremy Clarkson of British rock? His "memoir", in effect the residue from meandering conversations with ghost Austin Collings, keeps up a raking misanthropic fire against the Manchester scene that spawned him as well as every other music wave. The drugs and debauchery are all present and incorrect, but the wild creative seeker who once wrote a play about a pope (John Paul 1)rambles his way towards self-parody.
'Goodnight Steve McQueen'
One Britpop survivor did break the mould. Once the mouthy singer of mid-1990s cult band Sleeper, Wener turned to fiction about the lower depths of the music biz in 'Goodnight Steve McQueen'. Rather than repeat the trick, she branched out over three more popular novels into other subjects – and found a respectable niche on the shelves.
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