Luke Haines @ Whelans February 17, 2012Posted by smiffy in Music.
It was hard to know what to expect from the Luke Haines gig in Whelan’s a few weeks ago. I had never seen him perform live, either solo or as part of The Auteurs or Black Box Recorder, and much to my annoyance I’d missed his North Sea Scrolls with Cathal Coughlan late last year. As well as that, I was very underwhelmed by his latest album 9 1/2 Psychedelic Meditations on British Wrestling of the 1970s and early ’80s.
Much as I’ve enjoyed his work to date, including the two volumes of memoirs, the Psychedelic Meditations album sounded like he was treading water, turned in on himself, parodying what can be seen in his previous work as an obsession with the 1970s as a secret history of England, in songs like ’21st Century Man’ and ‘Leeds United’ (not to mention the Baader Meinhof album). Musically the album is unremarkable, differing little from everything he’s turned out over the past ten years. As amusing, clever and well constructed as the songs are, they don’t sound like the work of someone interested in pushing themselves creatively. At times, in fact, it sounds like an album for people who prefer books to music.
However, his performance to a less than capacity crowd (around 50 or so) came as a welcome surprise. A mix of readings from the books, and acoustic renditions of songs from Psychedelic Meditations, and back catalogue highlights, it presented a different side to Haines to the image he cultivates, a side that was funny, engaging and self-effacing.
Stripped of the album’s production, the songs of Psychedelic Meditations are more distinct, and more emotionally resonant. The nostalgia for childhood is more sincere and moving than arch (although it would be the height of pretension to equate Saturday afternoon wrestling on ITV with Proust’s madeleine cake), and the performance lacked the irritating ‘Haines by numbers’ feeling of the album.
The same themes recur again and again in his work, particularly and recently in the recurring themes of the 1970s. But Haines foregoes the lazy evocation of Space Hoppers, retro fashion or the TV show ‘Life on Mar’s. His themes are closer to the novels of David Peace, aiming an uncovering a hidden side of a particularly dark decade. It’s interesting to consider why so many artists and writers (including, in particular, contemporary crime writers) are so drawn to that particular era. It’s often agreed that the mid-1970s represented the death of 1960s optimism, that the hopes of the soixante-huitards collapsed in the violent adventurism of the RAF, Red Brigades and others. Further, one might look to Alain Badiou’s argument that the 1970s (specifically the end of the Cultural Revolution in China) represented the end of the second sequence of the communist hypothesis which began with the Bolshevik revolution (the first sequence, this argument goes, lasted from the storming of the Bastille to the liquidation of the Paris Commune; the third sequence may be upon us soon).
However, even if one does not take as programmatic a view of history as Badiou, it is clear that there can only be a limited value in this kind of nostalgia, artistically as well as culturally. While there is certainly some value, clawing over the bones of past glories, and past optimisms, even exploring why those hopes ended in failure, will only get you so far, and one hopes that Haines will be able to move beyond this in whatever he comes up with next.
Having said that, he can be forgiven pretty much anything, by me at least, giving his history of kicking against prevailing trends while at the same time being immersed within them. This is, let us not forget, someone who happily jumped off the Britpop bandwagon and, at a time when Blur were topping the charts with faux-cockney novelty pop, and Oasis were playing to hundreds of thousands with warmed-up Beatles covers, put out a concept album about the Baader Meinhof, and sang about leaving children in PFLP camps.
And it’s hard not to feel at least somewhat moved by the expression of lost hope and unrealized potential, and to give credit to a self-consciousness undiminished by self-pity when, during the gig, the rendition of ’21st Century Man’ segues into The Auteurs’ ‘Junk Shop Clothes’ just after the lines ‘I was all over the 90s/I was all over in the 90s’.
The second line, at least, is a sentiment that could be shared by many of us, unfortunately.