It’s diverting to wonder what might have happened to Luke Haines if everything predicted early for him had come true: if the music press had followed up the early interest in The Auteurs that saw them on the cover of the Melody Maker very early on and featured in the famous Britpop launching issue of Select magazine; if their debut album New Wave had actually won the first Mercury Music Prize rather than losing out by one vote to Suede; if one of their three top 50 singles that didn’t break into the top 40 had gone a little further. Reading Bad Vibes: Britpop And My Part In Its Downfall, Haines’ bleakly, acerbically tragicomic retelling of his story and his place in things during the early and mid 1990s, you suspect he might not have ridden it out all that comfortably. Then again, given what he actually did was jump off a fifteen foot wall in Spain aiming to end a tour early, succeeding admirably by breaking both ankles, and then while in convalescene writing a warped avant-funk record about and named after the 1970s West German terrorist collective Baader Meinhof, that’s probably just as well.
Bad Vibes has been painted as Haines’ kiss-off to the Britpop (“can you say it out loud without a twinge of embarrassment?”) phenomenon and revivals therein, and the celebratedly cussed Haines makes no short work of dismissing most of his supposed peers. Damon Albarn and Justine Frischmann bear the brunt of it, as having compared his relationship with Elastica to the Russian attitude to futurism in 1914 he refers to a street sighting of “a gruesome couple, a pair of greedy hobgoblins knocking down small children in their path, batting away passers-by and anyone they perceive as a possible threat to their rise to the top”, Parklife “a masterpiece in media complicity”. Pre-Bends Radiohead are “a heavy rock outfit, fright-wig and all”. Oasis are a “comedy band”, even if Noel tells Luke that he’s got “some top tunes” in a chance meeting, The Verve “useless prog rockers”, and when both conspire to make late night merry in a hotel fountain in Sweden Haines does what he sees as the only decent thing and fires at the party with a flare gun. (Notably, the only major band of the period he clearly has plenty of time for are Pulp, even if the Haines of the time doesn’t quite understand why in the week his own Lenny Valentino reaches number 41 they’re celebrating hitting 48)
But despite the image forming sub-title, Haines points out early on that the book is written not necessarily in retrospect but very much from the perspective of how he felt as the false idols mounted around him and took what he saw as his rightful position in the mainstream, and perhaps such cold water pouring is necessary. The only other first hand account actually about the times rather than the self is Alex James’ Bit Of A Blur, and that read as such an overegged parade of James’ unselfcritical fallacies as London’s own sophisticated playboy of the Loaded generation that by the end you felt like kidnapping him at his country home and stuffing every one of his bodily holes full of his own cheese until he became a natural producer of dairy produce scented foie gras. Whether Haines has ever so much as met Keith Allen is doubtful – he met Chris Evans, after playing on the pilot of TFI Friday, and mouthed “fuck off” at him when Evans tried to make bar conversation - but it’s not so much a story about the ghost at the Britpop party as the grumpy nearly man, the pioneer who got scalped. The prologue features him being attacked on stage in Strasbourg by a dwarf. Evidently, it happens.
In fact, it’s really a book about Haines’ own truculence and tribulations, written in a tone that pitches somewhere near self-awareness without ever fully engaging with it, at least not that he’d let on. Starting out looking up to the Go-Betweens and Jonathan Richman, both eulogised in genuine wide-eyed glowing terms, and as a former member of rejigged C86 survivors The Servants and rock god in mind alone, he forms a band as a vehicle for his own bored solitudinous creative ambitions, explaining “I am a cell of one. Great art must be created in isolation”. Having made an excellent melodic guitar pop album in New Wave, the Auteurs go on to support Suede as they take off, tour America, get plenty of attention and, as far as Haines goes, end up in A&E having put his fist through a glass panel in a VIP suite of the Grosvenor Hotel in a failed drunken attempt to punch a member of the Mercury judging panel. Having been an outsider looking in, as he quotes from an NME review, Haines ends up promoted into Britpop’s early manoevures largely through having a mocking song called American Guitars and, as Haines has it, seeing it co-opted as a signal of anti-grunge activity. “I think I may be turning into a pariah” he sagely notes. So the Auteurs go and make a follow-up Haines doesn’t like that brushes off Britishism at precisely the wrong time and go on a dispiriting town with The The, on one gig Spinal Tap-like going on before the then unknown Simon Day and ending the day nearly being beaten up by Matt Johnson. Not being blindly ambitious, he ends up outside the Cool Britannia party, having been living in Camden just as everyone appeared in town, much to his annoyance. “At this point I have become a fully fledged cunt”, he not inaccurately surmises. His words, and given he is busted for drugs on the way to that Scandinavian gig and hires and fires a rhythm guitarist in a short space of time just to annoy The Cellist – Auteurs cellist James Banbury is only referred to throughout as “The Cellist”, a nod, surely, to Bruce Thomas’ The Big Wheel, a similarly easily displeased diary of touring life by Elvis Costello’s bassist in which he will only refer to the other members of the band by their instruments – you can quite believe it. Eventually, tormented by voices and apparitions, he goes for the big leap. Not one for sensible career management, Haines.
Eventually he, if not exactly coming to terms with it, is “liberated” from the burden of keeping in with the in crowd, although the in crowd are slow to notice, and settles for being the wound up outsider to the party through songs inspired by death, destruction and the bogeymen of his 1970s childhood that will form Baader Meinhof, musically inspired by Funkadelic and Carl ‘Kung Fu Fighting’ Douglas, and the scabrous After Murder Park, recorded with Steve Albini. (Being Luke Haines, he compares himself in this mindset to Witchfinder General Matthew Hopkin.) In a frankly ridiculous image an employee of their American record company brings three of Metallica to Haines’ house and they act appreciatory of an early listen to the album. Having reasserted his own desire to do something against the grain, a magnificently farcical US tour which ends up comprising one gig takes place.
The idea Haines had any part in the downfall of Britpop is wilfully misrepresenting his own part in the wider world. In the public scheme of things he’s a once briefly feted sideshow irrelevance. Now, of course, he knows this was going to be the case in the end, as he was never going to be a pictorial friendly pop star, being a full fledged misanthrope taking self-absorption as his own domain, harbouring a “biblical desire for revenge” and whose lyrics would after New Wave document counter-cultures and hidden histories when the idea of the day’s mainstream guitar music was to be smart but not so people would fail to relate several pints to the good. Referencing Momus’ verdict that Haines is the Hitler of Britpop, he passes it on to Albarn and instead delegates to himself the role of Britpop Albert Speer, the Third Reich’s in house armaments minister and architect who later apologised at Nuremburg.
Bad Vibes ends in 1997; Haines, having declared “the mission has been completed” and ended up taking a necessarily short amount of time out in a North Downs farmhouse with an LSD-crazed trepanning practitioner, has labels once again swarming around him despite everything as he puts the finishing touches to the first Black Box Recorder album. Three years later he will be on Top Of The Pops playing guitar behind a RP-accented sophisticated female singer on a top 20 hit about adolescent sexual frustration that he wanted to sound like Billie Piper’s Honey To The Bee. A year later, on the day he releases a solo album, he will call for a National Pop Strike, urging musicians to down tools for a week (what he makes of Bill Drummond’s No Music Day, which followed some time later, is unrecorded) Essentially he couldn’t have written this at the time, even as early as two years later when he made the mock-glam 70s anti-nostalgia album How I Learned To Love The Bootboys. He certainly wouldn’t have engineered it so he comes out of it worse than Damon or Noel do, enough distance having passed for him to not so much learn from his mistakes as claim the mistakes were necessary. On paper it might come across as some mix of non-stardom related bitterness and self-deprecating “cuh, the 90s, eh? Wasn’t me” self-regard, except it’s too self inflicted for the former and too self-excoriating for the latter, detailing the paranoia, egotism and idiocy that acted as marker boards on the way from potential scene leaders to comfortably lapped also-rans. Haines, who describes himself in the introduction as a “recovering egomaniac”, is where he is because he is the great British modern pop contrarian, and in expanding the sort of spare, acute vignettes his lyrics often pull off into a polemical self-analysis of where it all went wrong and why it sometimes went right, and with liberal use of comic moments and jokes aside too lest I’ve given the impression it’s one big moan, Bad Vibes is the first picaresque music autobiography. It’s also unmissable.