Mary, Mary, quite contrary,
How does your garden grow?
With silver bells, and cockle shells,
And pretty maids all in a row
A slightly vague rhyme that is either commenting on Mary’s unusual gardening methods or a run-down of what she grows. Either way, terrific stuff and hats off to Mary for her achievements which, lest we forget, were achieved whilst being only quite contrary.
It is with Mary’s mindset that Luke Haines has forged his musical output – as he writes in his entertaining sleeve-notes to this retrospective, to refer to it as a “career would be disingenuous”. A man born out fractionally out of time socially and musically, many of his heroes were already dead or culturally redundant by the time he was ready to present his own world views – though his band, The Auteurs, were teetering, against their will, on the craggy brink of genuine success.
Depending on how they were feeling, the weekly inky music press were huge fans (there is a huge irony that Luke has comfortably outlived their influence) and the 1993 Mercury Music Prize was theirs for the winning (in fact, Suede won and Luke had a wine-related fall off a wall, breaking both ankles and resulting in the cancellation of a European tour, essentially ending any chance of meaningful breakthrough success). Further albums followed, with a brief dalliance without a band with Baader Meinhof, a concept album about the terrorist group, but The Auteurs were disbanded in 1999. As sitcoms probably say in the margin, “wackiness ensues”.
Covering 16 years, 9 albums and an unlikely cast of some of the lesser-hailed characters from the 20th Century, Luke Haines is Alive and Well and Living in Buenos Aires comprises of 79 tracks across 4 discs in a nice little box. The first three discs offer a chronological progression of work, though if that implies there’s a logic to their sound, you’d be mistaken. The final disc of unreleased tracks and alternate versions sounds like anything but cast-offs, even down to his pre-Auteurs track, which, not for the first time, suggests that if he’d really wanted to have been in a commercially successful band, he could have been – but his soul has never been for sale to rock n roll. He didn’t even lend it out.
Disc one is as good a crystallisation of Luke’s world as any – a song on the louche grandeur of the Mitford sisters (2003’s Mitford Sisters); the silent world of the Gibbons sisters (1999’s Discomania) and the magnificent Leeds United, a song not about the football team but hammer enthusiast Peter Sutcliffe:
“There’s a killer on the terraces better call in Doris Stokes
The devil came to Yorkshire in the Silver Jubilee
It could be Kendo Nagasaki Jimmy Savile or the Queen”
A fondness for sweeping strings alongside electric and acoustic guitar has remained with him throughout the nine albums; not as a statement demonstrating that his music is culturally more advanced, it’s simply what his strain of pop music requires. Or rock music. His cap-doffing to his contemporaries has been a common theme, from Lou Reed (Lou Reed Lou Reed); to half of Suicide (Alan Vega Says); Nick Lowe (Nick Lowe the Badger from, perhaps his least nail-head-hitting release, Rock n Roll Animals) and T-Rex leader (Marc Bolan Blues), all have come under scrutiny without completely revealing exactly where his distinctly English gentleman act comes from.
This release is a time capsule for Britain in the 70s – his paeans to grapple from “9 1/2 Psychedelic Meditations on British Wrestling of the 1970s & Early ’80s” are well-represented and, perhaps tellingly, sound no weirder out of context here than they did on the concept album. Haystacks’ in Heaven is a lullaby of a slightly Space Oddity bent which is oddly affecting, once you wrench yourself back from pondering whether Kent Walton has ever been referenced in a song before.
Later albums have seen Luke experiment more with plasticky Casio keyboards and wonky Moogs, immediately leaving them impossible to date, given their already dated sound. His album British Nuclear Bunkers may have been contrary, but, like Mary, only quite, it standing up to repeated listens far more than, say, any number of Mercury Music Prize winners. This boxset is a well-deserved tribute from Luke to himself. If we’ve enjoyed it too along the way, that’s just smashing, but it has never, nor will be, a result of other peoples’ comments or opinions about him which inspires him to make music. Not unless you’re Dickie Davies or Klaus Kinski.