Heinemann pbk 2009 £12-99
The period between the NME C-86 movement and the dominance of Britpop in the mid-90's really established the character of the British indie scene and also produced a lot of good music and groups, before succumbing first to the Grunge scene and then to "Britpop" (mainly after Kurt Cobain's death, as Luke Haines observes). This is the period and musical scene covered in this very enjoyable book - but this certainly isn't any kind of balanced musical history. It’s as biased a book as you're ever likely to read, and what you make of the book - and Luke Haines (LH) himself -will depend largely on whether you agree with LH's view that he should have been much more successful than he was (other than critically) and his fury at seeing the dullards, bandwagon jumpers and plodding donkeys cash in big-time while he's left in their wake.
LH started with as impeccable a list of influences as you could want - Only Ones, Velvet Underground, Television, Jonathan Richman/Modern Lovers, Fall, Wire, Go Betweens... Some of the early Auteurs singles, such as "Showgirl", are still breathtakingly good. There's an eloquence, insight and sharpness to his lyrics that most indie student bands (see Lloyd Cole and co) couldn't approach. LH has no time for false modesty, and if you go back to the Auteurs work, you'll see he's generally justified. Later he was prepared to take on more and more ambitious (and sometimes taboo) subject matter for his songs. If you haven't got any of the originals, the 3cd LH set (see below) is a great soundtrack for the book.
But this doesn't begin to describe this book - it’s just so sharp and witty, and generally spot-on with its targets. It’s not often that I laugh aloud when I'm reading, or punch the air in agreement, but this book constantly hits the spot. Of course, if the Blur reunion is the highlight of the year so far for you, you won't be chuckling much here. He's razor sharp on the Creation/Alan McGee scene, and is ruthlessly accurate with his barbs about trying-too-hard-to-be-decadent Suede, eternal bandwagon-jumpers Blur, mad-for-it Chris Evans and most of all the join-the-dots Beatles karaoke machine, Oasis, still lumbering on to this day. He's just as tough on himself tho, and spares no details of failures, breakdowns and drunken madness (a blind jump off a wall mid-tour, result: 2 broken legs), and an ability to mess up at crucial times unseen since the Only Ones.
All this is set against a narrative background that conveys the day-to-day group experience of rehearsals, gigs, tours, problems with labels and management, and the eddying flow of personnel and relationships within the group. Personally I'd like to have heard more about (and from) Alice, his partner for most of the book - tho' her shrinking presence towards the end of the book suggests their relationship didn't survive. The chapter headings are good too for setting the scene with what else was happening in the charts and press, and for remembering some long forgotten groups (Jesus Jones, anyone?) and Number Ones (Whitetown?).
The book does fade a little towards the end as the finishing line comes in sight. There are a couple of fantasy sequences that don't quite work, tho' there's also a hilarious evocation of a chaotic LSD trip in Surrey (tho why he's so coy about the psychedelic freeloader involved is odd - if you're going to give Michael Hollingshead a pseudonym, "Ashton Hollingshurst" won't fool anyone). There's also an intriguing allusion to a group who behaved so badly at a Swedish festival in '94 that he won't name them - reckon it might begin with a P....
If I'm going to make any criticism of the book, it’s that sometimes he tries too hard and it’s like he feels he's got to say something funny or outrageous on every page. This isn't necessary when there's so much brilliantly sharp writing there - and the more serious introspective passages are usually just as good - and sometimes feels like he's trying to shock for the sake of it. In the same way, when I went to his MySpace, there's a new song "Bad Reputation" - about
However, this mostly a very funny and provocative book. LH has paid his dues musically and earned the right to express his views more than most. It’s also a very valuable insider's view on a scene at a particular time and place, and how it developed. Take a listen again to some Auteurs/Baader Meinhof/Black Box Recorder and you'll see that most of the time LH really is as good as he thinks he is.
"Luke Haines is Dead" 3 cd's
Jonathan Richman and Modern Lovers
Only Ones "Darkness and Light"
Suede "Dog man star"
(Sorry no Blur or Oasis in this house, thank you)
And if you really want to get deep with LH's interests: Stefan Aust's book "The Baader Meinhof complex"
Reviewed by Den