Looking back on 25 years of an underrated Britpop classic
Reclining cross-legged in an olive leather armchair with one arm draped over the back, hair and clothing stylishly unkempt, the dreamboat frontman for one of the UK’s most popular guitar bands delivers a brief address to the nation’s young music lovers.
It is August of 1995, and Damon Albarn is assuring BBC2 viewers that the tyranny of Nirvana and their American grunge ilk is over, and that Britain’s musicians no longer have to feel “embarrassed to sing about where they come from.” Pop fans across the sceptered isle rejoice, except for one disgruntled tunesmith stewing at home when he should rightfully have a place in the center of it all. He calls his manager. “Who did the last Nirvana album? Get him on the phone, pronto….”
That isn’t actually how it happened, but it’s not too many miles from the truth. The Britpop Now special that aired in the hot summer of that scene’s prime couldn’t capture all of England’s biggest new rock acts, let alone those on the periphery. The Auteurs, though, hadn’t always been on the periphery. Not much more than two years earlier, the band had been a key part of Select magazine’s “Yanks go home!” issue, which famously slapped Suede singer Brett Anderson’s midriff in front of the Union Jack and signalled the rising tide. Even then, of course, Auteurs leader Luke Haines was in fine contrarian form. “What’s so great about Britain and in particular Great British Pop?,” asked Select. “I don’t think there’s anything great about Britain as such,” began Haines’ answer.
The Auteurs were gathering music press buzz and accolades for their recently released debut album, New Wave, which came out in February of 1993. The bashed chords and clever lyrics of their debut single, “Show Girl,” were close enough to the sound Blur were heading toward with Modern Life is Rubbish that one could hear them as kin. Albarn picked apart the mundane, Haines dissected the sinister, but both were storytellers in the same English rock songwriter lineage that traced back to the Kinks and Pete Townshend. To use art as an analogy: if Oasis painted their anthems in a kind of broad-brush Expressionism, while Blur and Pulp went for Baroque, then the Auteurs were Pointillist, carefully stabbing their characters into life.
New Wave offered a dozen arguments for why the Auteurs were poised to break out, and came with a call to arms in “American Guitars,” which sent up the dominance of US rock. Haines was from the beginning a crisp and efficient songwriter with an arranger’s ear and a novelist’s eye. Commercially speaking, New Wave fared well for a debut of its kind at the time, and it may have done even better had it come out the following year after albums like Parklife and His ‘n’ Hers had significantly shifted the marketplace. The curse of the Auteurs, or at least one of them anyway, was being just far enough ahead of their time to miss out on the spoils of their efforts.
By intent or by nature, the Auteurs grew more difficult from there. Now I’m a Cowboy, their second album, which did come out amidst the ascendance of Britpop, had fetching singles in “New French Girlfriend” and “Lenny Valentino.” Yet on the whole the record was craggier terrain, rewarding to traverse but not as easy to penetrate. This was not the tenor of the times around them. Oasis were feeling “Supersonic,” Phil Daniels was feeding the pigeons, and a crop of newcomers were taking notes.
It was at this junction that Haines, in a wine-glazed moment of tour burnout, tumbled off a fifteen-foot wall in Spain and broke his ankles. Confined to a wheelchair back in his Camden Town townhouse in the latter weeks of 1994, he watched helplessly as the Britpop festivities carried on without him. As Haines puts it in his bitingly funny memoir of the era, Bad Vibes: Britpop and My Part In Its Downfall: “If I look up from my window, I can see them blowing up the balloons outside. The first guests are arriving and the marquee has been up for months. I heard about the party a long time ago, when I was well. Soon it will be in full swing, but I won’t be going. I’m not invited anyway.”
Haines has a point. For instance, in journalist and author John Harris’ book Britpop!, the Auteurs are given but two brief mentions, one of them being the band’s inclusion in that 1993 issue of Select. They were insider-outsiders, guided by Haines’ acerbic perspective, and as the Auteurs carried on they only ventured further to the left of the field. In those bitter cold winter months Haines’ muse turned to the dark side, or at least the even darker side, exploring themes and characters not just damaged but dangerous as well. The end result would be After Murder Park, a concise and compelling melodic rock album flooded with images of abusive lovers, suicide pacts and lost children.
Before the incident in Spain, on an American tour in the summer of ‘94, the Auteurs had recorded a session with Steve Albini that yielded two new songs, “Everything You Say Will Destroy You” and “New Brat in Town.” Haines was so pleased with the results that when it came time to make After Murder Park in early ‘95, his record label agreed that Albini would be flown out to engineer the album in the unlikely setting of Abbey Road Studios. Those three elements on paper appear to be an incongruous fit, but in combination they found their own skewed harmony. Perhaps it should be no surprise that Haines’ persona and new material found a match with Albini’s stark and aggressive sound.
Appearances in the studio by George Martin and Paul McCartney – who may have been hanging around their legendary haunt more than usual due to the Beatles’ Anthology series being assembled then – did not necessarily rub off on the sessions. One notable song, with its bright acoustic pace adorned with pleasing cello and french horn, could have possibly passed for one of McCartney’s own, save for it bearing the morbid title and theme, “Unsolved Child Murder.” The rest of the tracklist didn’t read much less grim, strewn as it was with “Child Brides,” “Tombstone,” “Dead Sea Navigators,” “Fear of Flying,” the aforementioned “Everything You Say Will Destroy You” and the closing title track. Leading the whole thing off was “Light Aircraft on Fire,” which never clarifies whether it is about a flaming Cessna or giving an instruction.
The unrelenting subject matter should make After Murder Park difficult to stomach, but Haines, for all his sabotaging instincts, gets away with Murder by sticking to his strengths. “Nothing here should work, but everything does…” went an astute review in Rolling Stone, concluding that, “The Auteurs have achieved a kind of twilight status as underground superstars, but they’re at the top of the charts in some other lucky dimension.” Calling the album, “Disturbing, yet bizarrely catchy,” CMJ New Music Monthly observed, “That they are just as appealing in their misery…is a testament to the polish of Haines’ songwriting talent.”
Such assessments give the impression that America and all its guitars may have understood the Auteurs’ gamble more than the band’s home country. After Murder Park was finished and ready to go by the middle of 1995, but its initial UK release was held back until March of 1996, not quite a sign of overwhelming optimism. Nine months later when all the best-of-the-year lists came around, it completely missed both NME’s and Melody Maker’s Top 50, but their old pals Select came through and placed it at number nine on their Top 30, calling it “trad rock wrenched away from convention.” The Auteurs had bet against a Britpop that was becoming bloated but not yet tipping over, and, once again, they were just a little too early in doing so.
In terms of sales, After Murder Park was neither a total flop nor an improvement, but the band’s future had already been decided before conclusive figures came in. Haines called together bassist Alice Readman, drummer Barny Rockford, and cellist James Banbury not long after Murder’s release to “…tell everyone that after touring commitments have been fulfilled there will be no more Auteurs.” Haines’ attention had by then pivoted to his Baader Meinhof solo project. It would also be fair to presume that a run of three albums in four years with a good deal of touring in between had rendered them a spent force.
That split didn’t last long, as the band would be resurrected before the end of the decade, even though Haines was by then also busy with yet another venture, Black Box Recorder. The Auteurs’ fourth and final album, How I Learned to Love the Bootboys, had a tangibly lighter heart, and, while there’s no way to tell, one wonders if it may have fared better than its predecessor in the pop climate of a few years prior. The brasher tone and its place on the catalog timeline also sets Bootboys apart, and it would be fair to consider New Wave through After Murder Park the true Auteurs run, a tight and impeccably flawed rock trilogy that took all kinds of unnecessary risks in pursuit of a unique and detailed vision.
There was no further extreme for them beyond After Murder Park, something for which all concerned can remain thankful.