A Pox Upon the Nineties
By Richard Kovitch.
The 90s British music scene can be characterised by many trends, but it is noteworthy that the most conspicuous popular movement, the now defunct Britpop, has a legacy that is ultimately not musical. Rather, it’s the brand management culture that made Britpop possible, the cahoots established and perfected between the music industry and the media, cahoots only recently undone by the Internet’s assault on both sectors’ capacity to claim exclusivity upon anything — be it critical opinion or the music itself. Indeed, it’s worth remembering that Britpop happened before the Internet entered the average home, when the media could still build a scene and hype it without restraint. It was a boom period for marketing, upon which the Loaded, lad mag culture rode to prominence and engineered a popular zeitgeist. The perception was that the underground had gone overground. It was largely fallacy but it played to the galleries and a public that yearned for a very British return to the certainties of the Swinging 60s, not as subculture but as football stadium anthem. Indeed, this was the time when Premiership football found its voice and generated its own icons to transcend its parameters: Eric Cantona, Alan Shearer and David Beckham. And, of course, Politics generated even bigger egos to ‘show Britain the way’ — New Labour and Tony Blair. It was the era of spin, and the British music scene bought in and reflected it wholesale, desperate to escape the sense of cultural impotence American grunge had recently induced — ‘Yanks Go Home!’ indeed. Style was defined by primary colours and bold gestures, simply because it spun on the whim of a patriotic advertising culture, nothing more, nothing less. When Kurt Cobain imploded in 1995, ultimately taking the public’s interest in grunge with him, the vacuum was there to be filled.
We have had two notable memoirs documenting the period so far. Alex James’s insufferable, onanistic Bit of a Blur, a book so devoid of ideas that even Blur fans were left famished. And John Harris’s The Last Party, a nostalgia trip that suffers from being too subservient to the official narrative of the time, not to mention applying a ridiculous and unjustifiable ‘end of history’ context to its subject. Now, there’s a third memoir that revisits the era’s ghosts — Luke Haines’s Bad Vibes — and it’s certainly the best, even if the mood is a far cry from the Loaded generation’s cocksure swagger. This is Britpop — the dark days. And it’s a thrilling ride.
Luke Haines has long been nurturing a cult as “an outsider looking in”, and certainly this is the bad vibe that sweeps through his acidic, caustic but painfully honest reflection upon the Britpop years, an era he had a significant creative role in during its formative days, before finding himself cast out due to a toxic mixture of personal and creative obstreperousness. Haines spares nobody in his reflections — though he disclaims that this is “very much what I thought then, not necessarily what I think now” — as he gets stuck in to the lumpen idiocy of a music industry that hypes every naked Emperor that swans into Camden town. Least of all, he spares himself, who he likens to a variety of rogues and misfits, including Wyndham Lewis, Christopher Isherwood, Lord Haw Haw, even Albert Speer and John Hopkins, the Witchfinder General. Already you sense, this is a man operating in a wider historical context than the average pop star, which is why his art will ultimately struggle to cut through the euphoric din enveloping the nation.
Indeed, Haines has always had a strong sense of history, quite at odds with the Blair era. His lyrics are strewn with references to cultural outsiders and secret histories. He has always known much more than his enemy, it’s just nobody likes a smart alec. He won the argument but lost the popularity contest, and in an era of brand management that’s no use at all. Indeed, throughout Bad Vibes he deftly reminds the reader that when the nation thought it was going ga-ga for Blur and Oasis, Mr. Blobby, C&C Music Factory, Mariah Carey and Snap policed the upper echelons of the music charts. He likens Britpop to a “rat in my kitchen,” and while his deconstruction feels spot on, it is a story nobody wants to hear because History is simply a heritage industry now, served up as light entertainment, divorced from its difficulties and contradictions.
Haines is not an entertainer and so he finds he has no place in the story swirling around him. The Auteurs‘ 1996 masterpiece After Murder Park might be the great lost album of the 90s, but nobody cares because it contradicts the pervading sense of progress that dictates the 90s agenda — “things can only get better”. Indeed, Murder Park remains an album sufficiently potent and accomplished that it has now reached beyond its indie parameters to stoke the imagination of writer David Peace, arguably the UK’s finest fiction writer. “I played the Edinburgh Festival and was surprised when David Peace introduced himself after the gig,” recalled Haines recently. “He said he’d listened to The Auteurs’ LP After Murder Park a lot while he was writing his Red Ridings quartet. There’s an odd synchronicity — a track on my new album was inspired by the Red Ridings quartet”. Indeed, just as Peace was expunging and documenting the bad vibes of 1970s Yorkshire in his writing, so Haines was exorcising his own ghosts from a 1970s and 80s spent in the eerie stillness of the Thames Valley, a time not of Punk revolution, but dilapidated infrastructure, far-off terrorism and the sinister half life of Light Entertainment as embodied by Gary Glitter and Jonathan King. The dream meets the nightmare in Haines’s best work and there will be no whitewash. “The marauding wanderlust of the island race is merely a distraction from the emptiness within,” he states in Bad Vibes, a capacity for analysis quite at odds with the simplicity demanded by a press release. So broken was his relationship with the hard sell, that he finally resorted to sending a photocopy of The Anarchist Cookbook to plug his truly decadent Baader Meinhof album .
[Luke Haines (left) with film director Paul Tickell at 3:AM’s first London event on 26 August 2003]
As such, Bad Vibes dysfunctions as a fascinating, hilarious riposte to the official Britpop narrative and is all the more accurate for it. It highlights the fragmented, surreal nature of the music business, its parasitic bent, as Haines charts a hellish journey through a rapidly changing London landscape, beginning at the dark, end of the C86 80s, when pubs closed in the afternoon and Shoreditch was a wasteland, long before the ‘young people with silly hats moved in’, up to 1997 when Haines finds personal liberation from the Britpop wreckage with Black Box Recorder. Bad Vibes works as a thrilling portrait of the artist as a disaffected young man, one that crackles with insight and regret. “If you possess the wrong kind of ambition, you fall between the cracks,” Haines dryly observes. So it goes. But all the same, this book, as with his career, serves as a quite brilliant disclaimer.
Luke Haines’s Bad Vibes – Britpop and My Part in Its Downfall is published by Heinemann.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Richard Kovitch is a writer / producer based in Central London. He has been published online by Dogmatika, while his TV work has won awards in the UK and Europe. He is currently juggling too many projects.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, January 10th, 2009.