Bad Vibes: Britpop and my part in its downfall, By Luke Haines
These recollections of a bitter former pop star could be mistaken for a great comic novel
Sunday 04 January 2009
Intellect is not so much distrusted in pop musicians as entirely unnecessary, an unfortunate truth that powers this oddly compelling memoir. Luke Haines was the mastermind behind the Auteurs, a once touted, relatively literate indie band whose burgeoning career was pretty much flattened by the juggernaut of Britpop and in particular his acerbic reaction to it: despite the subtitle, he could only watch while plebs unworthy of domestic service in his household grabbed the ring of peripheral pop fame. A born contrarian, Haines has long been a Southern middle-class equivalent of Mark E Smith, a man who can't help but be right, albeit perpetually at the wrong time
Despite Haines's attempts to portray himself as an unashamed elitist, it isn't his forte. (His reputation for erudition was deflated forever when a song on his first record casually referred to the artist Chaïm Soutine, yet rhymed his first name with "lame". For shame.) He does scathing much better than elevated. So "The Cellist" (it's not explained why James Branbury is never named, seeing as his name is on the credits of every Auteurs record) is dismissed as some kind of pretentious dilettante for seeking out a pissaladière during a promo trip to Paris (it's an onion tart, not an ortolan). Meanwhile his employer cares what the NME thinks, and even at 15 years' distance, fails to explain the essential difference between some northern rock musicians chanting "two world wars and one world cup" and himself touring Germany and blasting the theme from The Great Escape at every rest stop.
Yet it's this obliviousness to his own obnoxiousness that makes Bad Vibes such an entertaining read. At one point Haines recalls hanging out with Donna Matthews, just as she was forming the fleetingly popular, notoriously toxic band Elastica. A decade later he invited the now cleaned-up guitarist to support him on tour, only to find out that they wouldn't be exchanging old war stories, since Matthews had no recollection of even knowing Haines at the time. But his description of Matthews arriving in the Big City with just enough skag to corrupt the fresh and fruity metropolitans sharply references all those heroin(e)s of picaresque novels where ingénues go bad.
Haines is as funny as he is grumpy. Offended at being described as "the Adolf Hitler of Britpop", he nominates Damon Albarn for that unwelcome title (though surely Albarn's perceived bandwagon-jumping would make him more of a Goebbels). He prefers to compare himself to Albert Speer, though whether this is because he never fulfilled his megalomaniacal plans or because it took years to admit his culpability remains unstated. After being handed a large sum of money on the off-chance his career won't stall, he moves to Camden Town, just as Britpop explodes and it becomes fleetingly the planet's most powerful chancer magnet. Surrounded by the clueless and despicable and on crutches all the while, he suffers. One still shares his pained disgust. For Haines, Britpop befell his generation like the Vietnam War, only with dirtier drugs. As a red wine and skunk man, he could never fit in.
He's hardly softer on himself. Rather wonderfully he doesn't even bother to recall the correct title of a cynically conceived "remix" set released to separate from their money lovers of that comically named, now forgotten sub-genre "Intelligent Dance Music", while retaining the publishing profits. (It worked.) In his introduction Haines is at pains to make it clear that he bears no ill will towards those mentioned, "most of whom I don't think about very often", before going on to insult just about everybody in a terse style, not dissimilar to his cover endorsee David Peace. The occasional dream sequence, a device about as welcome as a Mod revival, is forgivable alongside his many quirks. Throughout he endearingly refers to his own compositions as "classic", safe in the knowledge that few will remember them. Having dug them out, I can definitely say that the imagining beats the reality, though Haines certainly had the singing voice of a consumptive poet.
Quite honestly, with its references to the long forgotten and barely were, Bad Vibes is just as easily taken as fiction. Whether the author really leapt off a wall to escape the endless grind of touring (he broke both ankles and spent months immobile), or ordered his publicist to add a couple of years to his age ("for gravitas") is irrelevant. The formless, unpredictable life of the minor rock musician, forever jetting about on unspecified "promotional" duties or being loaded on to a tourbus like cargo rather than talent, has rarely been captured so acutely. Vignettes pass like snatched naps. A crew member on an LA video shoot witheringly describes the Auteurs as "Just another English band. Another. Fucking. English. Band." Three of Metallica turn up at his home uninvited and politely comment on his forthcoming album.
Despite the legend, he never released a Christmas single called "Unsolved Child Murder". But you could easily believe it of him. Bad Vibes, good book.
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