Luke Haines: A Britpop outsider grapples with life in the ring
Even by his own perverse standards, Luke Haines's album about wrestling seems obscure. But his interest is sincere, not ironic, he tells James McNair
Friday 02 December 2011
The true test of the imagination, noted Samuel Butler, is to name a cat. That of Luke Haines is called Colin, but he was christened by a previous owner. Said moggie is also a needy insomniac who keeps Haines, 44, up at night, but the former linchpin of Nineties indie act The Auteurs bears no malice. "It's annoying but he's worth it," says the wan, moustachioed singer, peering out from beneath his Panama. "My six-year-old son loves that cat."
Haines and I have met in a café in Camden Town. We're perilously close to The Good Mixer, social hub of the music scene that my interviewee parsed in his misanthropic 2009 memoir Bad Vibes: Britpop and My Part in Its Downfall. A highly literate creative with idiosyncratic interests, Haines has penned lyrics alighting on esoteric subjects such as the drowned Victorian siblings The Deverell Twins, and beret-wearing 1970s vocal act The Rubettes.
Still, even by his standards, his new album seems daringly niche. Titled Nine and a Half Psychedelic Meditations on British Wrestling of the 1970s and Early 80s, it's a trippy and sinister re-imagining of the lives of Giant Haystacks, Kendo Nagasaki, Mick McManus et al as played out in locations such as Crewe, Stoke and Wolverhampton Civic Hall. More than that, it is long-term grapple fan Haines's skewed love letter to wrestling itself.
"My dad's quite ill at the moment, so I'm remembering things we did together," explains the singer. "Eating liver sausage sandwiches and watching the wrestling on World of Sport when I was a kid," for example. "I remember being terrified when my dad took me to see Kendo Nagasaki at Portsmouth Guildhall. It was very much pre-postmodernism, and I felt it was cause for mass public concern what lay behind Nagasaki's mask.
"I believed he was a genuine Samurai with powers of hypnosis," Haines goes on, "but for a kid in 1978 it seemed almost logical that Nagasaki could be the Yorkshire Ripper, too. Obviously, I'm not saying that he was, or that he was even a suspect. I'm just saying that this album is based on the idea of wrestling at that time being a very non-ironic thing."
While late grappler Jackie Pallo's revealing 1985 autobiography, You Grunt, I'll Groan, cemented the majority view that wrestling was mere pantomime, a sport to be laughed at, it's typical of Haines – not just Auteur, but also provocateur – to dissent. It's not that he doesn't acknowledge bout-fixing was rife, you understand; more that he's here to root for the hard-working, often veteran grapplers whose hip-replacement operations tended to predate those of the grannies egging them on.
"I think [West Yorkshire-born grappler] Les Kellett was 58 when he started," says Haines. "Sport in general placed much less emphasis on youth and fitness back then – that's why people got so injured."
The singer says he first envisaged Nine and a Half Psychedelic Meditations... as a TV screenplay. Wary of losing control and "sitting around in development for 10 years," however, he began composing an album instead. Naturally, he'd read Simon Garfield's seminal grappling text The Wrestling, but keen to avoid more reportage, Haines opted to view the sport's glory days through the distorting lens of psychedelia.
It's this oddly fruitful juxtaposition of two subcultures that makes the record so vivid, Haines factoring in enough truths to make his tragicomic, sinister or just plain weird vignettes seem almost feasible.
Opener "Inside the Restless Mind of Rollerball Rocco", for example, mines the true story of aforementioned wrestler Les Kellett retiring to invest his winnings in an infamous Bradford transport café / small holding called The Terminus, but the plot thickens when Haines adds his lysergic twist. "I thought maybe Les could be like a Sufi dispensing the sacrament to younger wrestlers from his thousand-trip bag," he says. "Apparently they kept hogs and things out the back in terrible conditions. I imagined people like Rollerball Rocco coming to seek knowledge over this awful food in this awful setting."
The song's opening couplet runs, "I was trying my best to understand / how a beautiful bouncing baby becomes an 'orrible man", woozy synth and cycling acoustic guitar underpinning proceedings. When Haines examined the lives of Big Daddy, Bully Boy Muir and the like, did he notice any unifying patterns, anything that might explain their shared career path?
"Well, with those particular lines, I was thinking more about what your lot in life is," he says. "It's something that I also deal with on 'I Am Catweazle', because the wrestler of that name was someone I genuinely felt for.
"I think it would have taken a lot of courage for that guy – who was really called Gary Cooper and from Doncaster – to assume that character and make himself a laughing stock. I chose to imbue the song with some sadness that might be associated with that, but actually I know very little about him, other than that he died of cancer in his fifties. There are a couple of bits of YouTube footage and that's it. He's pretty much lost to us."
Haines recorded his wrestling album in his front room with old World of Sport footage running silently in the background. Sounds of various children's toys feature alongside more conventional instrumentation, this, the singer says, "somehow giving things more emotional depth".
One gets a sense of wrestling's impact on Haines's childhood – and a sense of he and his father bonding around the sport – when listening to the record's penultimate track, "We Are Unusual Men". It's a funny, curiously touching snapshot of a late-1970s household in which the exertions of female wrestlers Mitzi Mueller and "Indian Squaw" hold more erotic allure than Miss World, Eric Morley's televised beauty pageant.
Elsewhere, on the song "Linda's Head", Haines pays homage to the lady grappler Miss Linda, who fought in a tag-team alongside her future husband "Exotic" Adrian Street. "The song's about this weird ritual they had where, as Street went into the ring, he'd step on Linda's head," says the singer. "I suppose there's a bit of a Lou Reed, double-entendre thing going on with the title, too."
In an oblique nod to artist Peter Blake getting Kendo Nagasaki to sit for him in the 1992 Arena documentary Master of the Canvas, Haines has also painted 12 acrylics of his favourite wrestlers. These will be reproduced in Luke Haines's 1978 Grapple Calendar, a freebie accompanying the physical release of the record.
Though the singer stopped watching wrestling in the early 1980s, it was in 1988 that the then controller of ITV Sport Greg Dyke opted to axe grappling from the station's schedules. "The tide was turning towards a more American version of the sport where the guys were all pumped up and less charmingly out of condition," says Haines.
Giant Haystacks and Big Daddy are belly-flopping their way around the great ring in the sky, but Kendo Nagasaki is still around. Would Haines like to meet him? "I'd love to meet Kendo, but I don't think he'd say much." How about Mick McManus, now 83?
"No, I don't think so. The reality is that wrestling was a very hard, working-class sport that had very little to do with psychedelia or music. If I was to meet McManus, there might be a slight schism while I tried to explain."
'Nine and a Half Psychedelic Meditations on British Wrestling of the 1970s and Early 80s' is available now on CD and at Fantastic Plastic Records (www.fpmusic.org/record-label)
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