Put out more flags
Bad Vibes: Britpop and My Part in its Downfall
Luke Haines Heinemann, 425pp,
Of all the confidence tricks and vainglorious fantasies that Britain has indulged in since 1979, the musical phenomenon known as Britpop must surely be one of the most spectacularly ill-conceived. A reductive, borderline racist distilling of English (very seldom Scottish or Welsh) pop at its most rhythmically inert and vacantly flag-waving, it was essentially a Mod Revival Revival - the mid-Nineties version of the late Seventies version of the mid-Sixties, with ever-diminishing returns. The New Statesman was one of the few publications at the time to have pointed out just how stark naked this emperor was, publishing Mark Fisher's critique of the non-movement, where he pointed out that this provincial reverie coincided with and obscured the multiracial, working-class rhythmic psychedelia of jungle, arguably the most original music ever made in these islands; yet when the Blur-Oasis chart battle made the Six O'Clock News it was obvious that resistance was futile.
Luke Haines's group Black Box Recorder planned to have as the cover for their 1998 debut England Made Me a photograph of the England football team giving the Nazi salute at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. A perfect anti-Britpop gesture, for all those who looked on in horror at the mid-Nineties: the omnipresent "mindless northern bluff" of Oasis, the election of a Thatcherite lawyer as Labour prime minister, the 1996 European Championship and the appalling football song "Three Lions", and the British public's sudden reversion to a penitent peasantry in response to the death of Diana Spencer. England Made Me's reaction to all this was perfectly poised - a chilling, spacious record documenting an England equal parts Graham Greene and Daily Mai, with Sarah Nixey's Selsdon vowels incarnating the cruelty, repression and xenophobia that lurked behind the £cool Brittania£ façade. As Vanity Fair declared that "London Swings Again!", she sang: "We don't like you, go away - we're swinging."
Britpop is, however, rather fondly remembered. John Harris's The Last Party and an accompanying documentary gave it an ennobling historical treatment, while tacitly acknowledging that (with the rule-proving exception of Pulp) none of these bands was exactly overburdened with talent. Horrifyingly, by 2003, there were even Britpop revivalist groups such as The Libertines and Kaiser Chiefs, reducing an already stagnant gene pool to positively Romanov levels. This memoir presents itself as an extremely welcome antidote to this revisionism. Not only did Haines write - with John Moore - Britpop's perfect epitaph in England Made Me, he also helped start the whole thing, something about which he is unsurprisingly contrite. The Auteurs, the group he fronted, was one of the first groups to resurrect the literary qualities of The Kinks, a return to "wryness and dryness", in a marginally more clever but substantially similar manner to Blur (lacking the mockney accents) or Suede (lacking the charisma or glam ambition). The Auteurs' first album New Wave missed the Mercury Music Prize by one vote.
Bad Vibes is almost entirely devoted to the years 1992-97, those of Britpop's ascent and ignominious descent. And while it has some fantastically splenetic moments, it is marred as much as it is enlivened by a titanic ego. Haines has been quoted elsewhere describing Britpop as music's equivalent of the Bloomsbury Group, and there's no doubt he sees himself as its Wyndham Lewis (frequently cited in the book), a sinister, amoral "Enemy" figure, a polymath who discharges himself on both sides. Yet the Auteurs' work hardly marks him out as an heir to the Vorticists. Haines's claim that his literate indie rock songs were avant-garde rankles, given that this was at a time when techno and jungle were creating a futurist music as avant-garde as it was populist. Also, his most interesting records - Black Box Recorder's three albums and two solo LPs, all lyrically fierce and musically inventive studies of the English disease - are outside this timeline.
This is an atypical rock memoir, of brief, minor success and several subsequent years of frustration, tour buses and hotels - seemingly no illicit sex (Alice Readman, the Auteurs' bass player, was also Haines's clearly long-suffering girlfriend) and not much rock'n'roll, albeit with a surprising amount of drugs. Haines's certainty about his own genius becomes tiresome, and when he refers to a record as his "second masterpiece", it's clear he's not really joking. Bad Vibes is often very funny and moves at a frantic pace, although Haines's remarks about music itself - paeans to indie heroes like The Go-Betweens or Jonathan Richman - reveal a leaden rock critic who would be lucky to write reviews for a student paper. Nonetheless, despite his limitations, the impressive honesty and malevolence, along with some addled flights of fancy - imagining himself as a Witchfinder in a Surrey pub, apprehending egregious Britpoppers Kula Shaker - make this a very readable, and fairly cautionary tale.