We recently published a review of Luke Haines’ (legendary front man of The Auteurs and Black Box Recorder) “New York In The ’70s” album to be read in tandem with this interview.
“It’s an album that wears its heart on its sleeve, about the music that I loved and still love.”
Luke Haines’s new album New York in the 70s is a warm, affectionate eulogy to the romance, glamour and sheer brilliance of the seedy denizens of Max’s Kansas City and CBGB’s. Lou Reed, Alan Vega/Suicide, Jim Carroll and the New York Dolls are just some of the rock ‘n’ roll heroes canonised and celebrated on Haines’s shimmering, pulsating conclusion to a dream-like trilogy that commenced with 9½ Psychedelic Meditations on British Wrestling of the 1970s and Early 80s and got seriously strange with its follow-up, Rock and Roll Animals. You can read Ged Babey’s full review of New York in the 70s here.
Louder than War’s Gus Ironside spoke with Luke Haines about amphetamine transvestites, glam rock wrestlers, searching for kicks in the sticks and the real golden age of UK punk (that’ll be ’71-’73, hepcats!).
This trilogy of albums started with 9½ Psychedelic Meditations on British Wrestling in the 1970s and early 80s, and the cover of (Black Box Recorder’s debut album) England Made Me featured an extraordinary picture of ground-breaking wrestler “Exotic” Adrian Street. Was Adrian Street the New York Dolls of wrestling?
Definitely. Adrian’s look was invented about ’68, so he’s well ahead of the game there. He made all his own clothes and weirdly, he saw it as art; he was a professional wrestler as well but he completely got the theatrical side of it as an art statement. There’s a thing with Jeremy Deller (conceptual artist) where we did a link-up with Adrian Street. He now lives in Florida where he runs his wrestling academy. He also made a lot of the costumes for the Mickey Rourke film “The Wrestler”, so he’s done a lot of stuff in his time! He made a novelty glam rock record and he also made records in the 90s. When we did the “England Made Me” sleeve, we got a message to him to ask if we could use that sleeve ‘cos at the time no-one knew who the photographer was. He got back to us saying of course you can use the photo, you can use it for nothing and I hope your album’s number one!
Harvey S Parkes (moving image work director) has a script together, “Kellett”, about Les Kellett (legendary British wrestler), I suppose. It’s a sort of docu-fiction feature film with Kellett being the monolith it all revolves around. There is a script knocking around so hopefully it will be made in the next couple of years.
I listened to your new album, New York in the 70s, when I was very sleep deprived, which was a good way to hear it…
I think it maybe is a sort of late night album, dark synths and that kind of thing. I wanted the sound to be more dream-like, so hence it’s quite keyboardy with not as many really rough guitars as you might expect. So yeah, quite a dreamy sound I was going for.
One of my favourite tracks, Bill’s Bunker, has what sounds like a Wurlitzer on it…
There’s loads and loads of old keyboards and old synths all over it.
It has a lot of heart and soul to it – it’s a very romantic album
It’s completely serious. The last one, Rock ‘n’ Roll Animals, was more jokey because of what it was about. This one is more serious, it’s about bygone times and about rock ‘n’ roll as it used to be when rock ‘n’ roll was a serious business- but also of course a lot of fun! I didn’t want to over-burden it with knowing jokes; it’s all a kind of eulogy really, with a lot of list songs. I’m very wary of list songs, but I’m also a fan of them and there is a risk of being corny, but you kind of have to be. It’s an album that wears its heart on its sleeve, it’s me talking about the kind of music that I loved and still love. Most of the people are no longer with us, who are mentioned on it. Some of the songs, like New York Stars, the very last song, are deliberately quite corny but also very heartfelt.
The bands from that era were so great – The Heartbreakers, Richard Hell – Alan Vega and Suicide especially
Alan Vega Says is a true story about a friend of mine, John Moore, who I was in Black Box Recorder with. He went over and did the whole rock star thing and lived in the Gramercy Park Hotel (New York) for about 6 months or a year. One evening he met Alan Vega, who was also living there. They got drunk together and maybe indulged in a few other things, and they went up to Vega’s room to continue the party. Vega got out a tape recorder with the backing tracks of his new album on it and started singing all his new songs while jumping up and down on the bed in his underpants!
Wow! Was he doing his full-on stage performance?
He was doing it all, the Funky Monkey, all this kind of stuff!
Vega must have been in his late 40s by then…
Yeah, he started Suicide maybe in his 30s; he saw it more as an art thing as he had sort of done rock ‘n’ roll, I guess. But he’s a fantastic performer, and what a band!
The track UK Punk has the line “UK Punk ain’t got no rock ‘n’ roll moves. But the UK had its own Ladbroke Grove freak scene before punk – Third World War, Pink Fairies etc, which was perhaps closer in spirit to US mid-70s punk. Is that a scene that interests you?
Oh absolutely, to me that scene seems more punk than punk was, it was certainly more politicised, if you think about it. All those bands, Hawkwind, Pink Fairies, Third World War, they would do big benefit shows all the time. Britain was much more polarised at that point. It was also the time of The Angry Brigade, ’71, when they bombed the Home Secretary’s car (two bombs were detonated outside the home of Home Secretary Robert Carr). That certainly resonates, all that kind of stuff. The Pink Fairies were basically just a punk band with long hair and again, Third World War were basically The Clash anyway! Those bands got a bit forgotten because it was that weird hangover of the 60s and between glam rock as well. Hawkwind were the ones that made it through because they had the hit single and the big shows – they did their own thing.
Space Ritual reminds me of The Stooges’ album, Funhouse
Yeah, it’s biker psychedelia! But even stuff like Psychedelic Warlords by Hawkwind from ’74 was completely punk, it’s just three years too early! Hawkwind were kind of like a biker band and then Motorhead came in with On Parole with Larry Wallis, that was just taking the biker thing forward. I love a lot of the UK punk stuff, don’t get me wrong, but it seemed almost like a fashion version – and there was nothing wrong with that- with McLaren, who knew how to sell it, which no-one had done before.
Your song Peter Hammill (from the album 21st Century Man) intrigues me…what is your particular fascination with Peter Hammill and how does that tie in with you and what you identify with?
Hammill works in the abyss, or has done, and you could lose yourself in Peter Hammill and Van der Graaf Generator, the catalogue’s so vast it’s a lifetime’s occupation really, and so varied. Some of it I really don’t like. And then some of the more obvious things like Pawn Hearts and Nadir’s Big Chance are fantastic- their big hit albums in a way. They were incredibly big in Italy.
Hammill seems to respond to no-one other than his own will to force his ideas through, which is what I think it was all about really. It’s the work of someone who is a force of nature. You can tell that with every note. And you don’t get so much of that now, I guess.
This question is from Scottish musician Roy Moller: Alan Vega Says includes the line “If variety is all that you’re after, then get out of the Church of Repetition, man, ‘cos you’re interrupting a master!”. Do you think when Bruce Springsteen hears Suicide, he picks up on the same elements as you do? (The question was prompted by Springsteen’s cover of Dream Baby Dream).
I’ve no idea, I’ve not heard his version. I’m not a huge Springsteen fan; in fact I’m not a fan at all, so I’ve no idea what he’s thinking about! I suppose if you toss aside all the art stuff and confrontation, Suicide wrote a few really solid pop songs like Cheree, Harlem, stuff like that. They had hooks, they never went the Throbbing Gristle way, never alienation by no tunes whatsoever!
The Springsteen cover was the only time I’ve seen a Suicide track on a CD in Tesco…
I hope they get some good royalties from it!
Danny Fields (legendary Elektra Records “Company Freak” A&R man and early Ramones’ manager) recently posted on line the transcript of the first time he played the Ramones’ debut album to Lou Reed. Lou was blown away by the record and instantly picked up on the conceptual, thought-out element of the Ramones, which he described as being distinct from the “natural” Stooges. Do you think that’s the difference between New York and UK punk- New York bands had a more conceptual, art-trip approach?
It’s a weird one; you’d have thought it would be the other way round with McLaren and his art school thing! I don’t know if there’s ever been an instance where John Lydon has made mention of the Situationist influence at all- even in lyrics like “I give a wrong time, stop the traffic line” out of Situationist manifestos, that may well have been fed to him by McLaren. A lot of the things seem coincidental, like (PiL album) Metal Box within a metal box so that it would damage other records, and Guy Debord’s sandpaper-covered book (Mémoires, 1959).
For me, I think the first Ramones album is one of the greatest works of 20th Century art. It’s totally an art statement, everything about that group is brilliantly conceived, the whole playing dumb but not really, just Joey Ramone from what he was to what he became – Joey Ramone. He was in a band called Sniper and he was called Jeff fucking Starship! It’s ludicrous, that this guy with all his tics and OCD, total jerky nerdiness, then could reinvent himself brilliantly as this fantastic rock star. It’s one of the greatest works of art ever, the first Ramones album. The idea was the best idea in Rock, that we’re going to look like THAT, we’re going to write all these songs at breakneck speed and we’re all going to call ourselves Ramone. Fantastic. There was obviously nowhere to go (after the first three albums), it was so perfectly formed.
Cerne Abbus Man is a very funny song and seems to me like it’s getting to the heart of your motivation to make the album. Is this you trying to understand why you love the romance and glamour of New York rock ‘n’ roll?
I write quite a few songs about being from Southern England and not being from London, or anywhere which has a particularly rock n roll heritage, it’s just the dull suburbs. When you’ve lived in those places you’re always looking out- especially when you’re younger- you’re always looking out to find somewhere. I was a teenager in Portsmouth in the 80s and I was reading about the Velvet Underground and Max’s Kansas City. When I went to art college in Portsmouth, I walked the streets at night thinking there was somewhere like Max’s Kansas City, when I was out on the booze…the scary amphetamine transvestites and poets that I was missing out on! But there wasn’t at all. I don’t think there was anywhere, except for Max’s. I thought I was going to stumble on It…it’s about that, it’s about stalking the streets as a teenager, wanting to know girls and wanting to know amazing people but being stuck in a crap provincial town in the crap end of the crap early 80s!
Doll’s Forever seems to have an almost religious or pseudo-religious aspect to it, canonising all these amazing people from the New York scene…
That’s the one that maybe goes the most to the heart of the album; the whole thing’s a eulogy and that track is literally a eulogy to the New York Dolls and I wanted it to sound celestial, with no judgement. I was really nervous about using that line “died a drug death?” for Johnny Thunders. But I insisted it’s “died a drug death question mark”, because I didn’t know. I wanted to be as matter of fact about them; I saw the reformed Dolls, and it was funny and a lot of it was good, but it wasn’t really the New York Dolls, and about a week later Arthur Killer Kane died. He didn’t look good on that night and it’s just about that and about loss, really, when everything goes. And it’s about people; it’s weird to live a life where you’ve recorded two albums and you’re defined by those moments in a studio, which was possibly only a couple of weeks in your life, but you’re defined by it.
Do you think that glamour and swagger that the Dolls had exists anywhere now?
I think it could do, yeah. I think you just have to step off the irony, because we’re all instantly ironic now. But there’s good stuff out there and there’s always ideas; when people have a good idea…I mean that band, the Sleaford Mods – who are fantastic! It’s about someone having the one idea that you want them to have, and they’ve done it, they’ve pushed through, and they’re now getting noticed. It’s about when you think there’s nothing new and there suddenly is.
Are you interested in 70s dystopian TV, like the Terry Nation series Survivors, etc?
I’m not a collector of any of this stuff, I only collect the memories of the stuff that I saw, I don’t hanker after 70s TV…I’m not Jonny Trunk, I don’t care about stuff in an archival way. It’s just shifting through my memory boxes. I don’t really have a dystopian idea about things, I just have an idea about wanting to pursue an imaginary world, rather than the world at the end of the fingertips on a laptop, where everything is available and yet it’s kind of nothing, it’s all binary codes.
William Burroughs- whose centennial it is this year- the most interesting thing he said (and he said a lot of interesting things!), but he said that “speech will eventually be replaced by the subconscious”, which I really like.
I’m trying to get to that kind of thing with my song-writing, rather than observational, which is more what I used to do a lot; I’m trying to get into a more subconscious way of writing and see what happens. Maybe not even writing lyrics anymore, ‘cos I kind of get bored with lyrics sometimes so I’m trying to live out this subconscious fantasy, I guess.
Does that relate to the lines in the song UK Punk about the Holy Man?
That bit in that song is meant to be a conversation between Alan Vega and Sun Ra; Sun Ra had been there before and Vega is always going to be a misunderstood prophet- however revered he is- and it kinds of harks back to when Suicide supported The Clash on the White Riot tour. It’s about the prophet always being misunderstood, and the kids just wanting The Clash! Again, it’s an imagined conversation that might have happened about the Holy Man and going up Holy Mountain. I’m thinking about that Jodorowsky film (The Holy Mountain, 1973) as well on that song.
Do you know, or have you worked with Nina Antonia, the author of the Johnny Thunders’ biography In Cold Blood?
No, but I know of her and I’ve read it.
A film treatment of the book is in development (The Dangerous Life of Johnny Thunders, directed by Alexander Soskin); who would you choose to play Johnny Thunders?
God, that’s hard, I don’t know many Hollywood actors…I don’t really see contemporary films, I don’t know, you’d probably end up with someone like Joaquin Phoenix! Maybe go the way they did with that Bob Dylan film (I’m Not There, 2007) and get a woman to play him or something like that, rather than trying to get some Hollywood star to Method it out and get on the gear!
Are you working on your next project yet?
At the moment I’m working on this micro-opera thing with the artist Scott King, at the Berlin Festival in July. It’s about Mark Smith (Mark E Smith from The Fall) going on a caravan holiday and crashing into Ian Stuart, the lead singer from Skrewdriver’s car and it just continues from there. There’s been a few people interested in doing it here, so hopefully we’ll do it here. It’s just a 20 minute micro-opera. We’re calling it a micro-opera because no-one’s got the patience to sit through an actual opera and the idea only needs to extend to 20 minutes! The trouble with the theatre is, it’s dead boring, so we only offer you a slice of this shit and then you can just go away and do whatever you want!!! And there’ll be enough in it, rather than sitting for two hours in a hard seat, watching an interminable opera about Mark E Smith and the lead singer from Skrewdriver! That’s the next thing.
I’ll look forward to it!
Luke Haines’s website is here: lukehaines.co.uk.
Rock and Roll is OM
Keep your dreams a-burnin’
All words by Gus Ironside whose Louder Than War archive is here.