It’s Hebden Bridge several days after the Corbyn appearance that drew crowds usually reserved for pop stars, popes and royalty. The satnav urges us up onto the Pennines before gravity draws us down past brooding reservoirs and Tour de France memorabilia, via Mytholmroyd to the famous Trades Club. I think of Ted Hughes, the recent Plath revelations and the Heptonstall Pace Egg performances, scanning the horizon with the certainty that the pale figure of Amy Liptrot glides across the surface of every barely glimpsed body of water that we pass. Far beyond us, yet not so far as to make the journey too long, Manchester basks in an unexpected shock of late spring sun. A mysterious outlier and something of a rogue, is Hebden Bridge to Manchester what Luke Haines is to the music industry?
In the early nineties, the glammed-up sexual swagger of Suede was off-set by Jarvis Cocker’s tales of tawdry afternoon affairs, electrifying the urban possibilities and unlocking new musical landscapes for those of us eking out our early teens in rural hinterlands, spurring us on to the city. But in the long, dark, North Wales nights of the soul before emigrating to the University of Manchester, I would slip into an uneasy sleep listening to the whispered confessions of Haines’ Auteurs, his sotto voce drawing me ever closer…closer, to what? I did not know. A cassette recording of a gig for Radio One’s Evening Session was the only fragment I possessed. A C90 backed with a performance by Razzmatazz-era Pulp in a cracked plastic box. TDK. I could feel my life changing. I wanted a showgirl for my bride. I wanted a job parking cars and I wanted to dress in junk shop clothes.
The showgirls didn’t show. I failed my driving test twice and everyone’s seconds were too long or too short to be cool. Vintage was yet to become a viable lifestyle choice. Haines was right: the only place such accoutrements could get you was nowhere. In late ’94, our house was robbed. My stereo, along with all my tapes and CDs disappeared into the Mancunian night. Bye-bye New Wave.
The following year, while the singles from What’s The Story (Morning Glory)? and The Great Escape became mind-numbingly ubiquitous, Haines broke both his ankles and rather than step up to a predictable place on the Britpop plinth, he segued into the shadows to record the darker, more experimental After Murder Park. Haines had arrived, although arguably, as ever, like irony itself, his presence was strangely deferred. With production by Steve Albini, famed for his rawness and the way he had recently exposed the more caustic aspects of PJ Harvey and Nirvana, the album was recorded in Abbey Road Studios. This is where Haines’ aspirations to subvert the zeitgeist began to take hold. It was clear, to the few who were watching, that a very different kind of Englishness was being articulated to the chirpy cockney jeers and the Mancunian shoulder stroll archetypes that would culminate in Blair’s presidential coronation and a nation wrapped up in Geri’s Union Flag dress the following year.
Here, art and music fuse. At the point where the 70’s is explicitly brought to the forefront of Haines’ cultural agenda, the point in recent history when, for many, the 70’s had never seemed so far away and in contrast to the optimism of the buoyant public mood, Haines’ ‘side-projects’ gained the weight of alternate identities. Baader Meinhof, and despite its post-Auteurs longevity and brief commercial zenith, Black Box Recorder, are often regarded as footnotes to Haines’ erstwhile day-job. Both sowed the seeds of his later conceptualism, viewed unfavourably in pop music as an entirely 70’s notion at a time when words such as ‘prog’ and ‘experimental’ were dismissed as cultural anachronisms.
With the concept albums of his recent solo work, Luke Haines has come into his own as an artist and fulfilled his elliptical potential, coming into sharper, tighter focus after an erring arc through recent pop history: oh, how things have changed. Yet Luke Haines is still… Luke Haines. At the vanguard of something that often appeared to be nothing other than another dead-end alley, he stood against the tide until eventually it turned in his favour. Now he is a contemporary renaissance man, releasing acoustic meditations on British wrestling, reading from his memoirs at boutique festivals, recording an alternative occult history of the British Isles with Cathal Coughlan and releasing two albums of electronica in the same year, one of which is a celebration of British Nuclear Bunkers, the other an articulation of his patency of a sonic frequency. A pioneer pursuing his own idiosyncratic artistic vision come what may or indefatigable cockroach, oblivious to the blast?
Luke Haines has changed – he is nothing but change. Yet one can’t help feeling that media, technology and opportunity in the forms of crowd sourcing, small venues and a market for artisan, personally crafted wares have all evolved to facilitate his artistic aspirations. He has become, very much, a man of his time, an early example of 21st century man. Notoriously obstreperous, Haines – sometimes by his own admission – has appeared to sabotage his own career and those of his associates on numerous occasions. He has won few friends in the industry, isolated many and gained much in the way of reputation as a difficult curmudgeon, resistant to being pigeon-holed and determined to forge his own path, although perhaps his humour, both candid and self-deprecating, sets him apart from more 20th century characters such as M.E. Smith and even Morrissey. It’s hard to imagine that he would take well to being viewed as a man of the moment and there again is the irony that seems so quintessential to who he is and what he does.
Anti-heroes maintain their enduring hold over us because we often identify with their woes, their imperfections writ large, their opposition to all that is banal and crushing in life. We relate to them and we take solace in their empathy with us, against the system. As much as Luke Haines is adored as an artist, a raconteur, a musician and chronologist of our times, his caustic wit keeps such empathy at arm’s length: he is the anti-hero’s anti-hero. He takes the stage in Hebden Bridge to a rousing applause.