Home Music Luke Haines: Setting the Dogs on the Post Punk Postman

Luke Haines: Setting the Dogs on the Post Punk Postman

Luke Haines has been on the fringes of pop since the early ‘90s. He was the sallow-faced urchin who claimed he’d invented Britpop with the Auteurs’ debut album, New Wave, only to backtrack when the movement became “music’s equivalent of the Bloomsbury Group.”

He derailed his chances of success with side project Baader Meinhof, which were named after a terrorist organization, only to subvert the mainstream with Black Box Recorder. Alongside ingenue Sarah Nixey and former Jesus and Mary Chain member John Moore, they took witty songs about puberty into the UK top 20.

The short-lived band gave way to a solo career. Just as it looked like this had firmly relegated him into the “cult favorite” category, he hooked up with former R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck to release collaborative album Beat Poetry for Survivalists in 2020 to critical acclaim.

The thread that’s bound all these contrary phases of Haines’ career together is his sneering disdain for numerous contemporaries and popular culture. Yet it’s a disdain that seems borne of passion. If he uses anger as an energy, it’s only because he’s fascinated by the eccentricities of everyday life.

This has been expressed through various mediums. He’s created tree baubles decorated with members of the Fall for his first solo exhibition and is so obsessed with Lou Reed that he’s painted multiple canvases of him (Buck bought one, which is how they came into contact). Albums have also been themed around such obtuse topics as wrestling and a fictional miniature village.

His latest album, Setting the Dogs on the Post Punk Postman, is not a concept album in that sense. Haines has nonetheless given permission for a group of experimental Japanese psychologists to turn it into a five-act play. What they would say about the innerworkings of his mind is hard to second guess given the lyrics variously deal with murderous pumpkins and swimming with radical feminist Andrea Dworkin.

The themes and caustic observations have much in common with Mark E Smith, but while the Fall were at times willfully abrasive and uncommercial, Haines has an unerring consistency for writing memorable hooks. In that respect, there are musical parallels with the Kinks, being very English in nature yet having little truck with the parochialism or flag waving of Britpop’s uglier side.

There’s something of Ray Davies about “When I Owned the Scarecrow” and “Landscape Gardening,” which dabble in psych-folk with their recorder breaks and fanciful observations (finding happiness “in my peasant smock/ In my garden trousers”). Such musical whimsy is largely a sideshow to the dominant influences of glam rock and the post-punk of the album’s title.

“Never Going Back to Liverpool” and “U-Boat Baby” have perfected the style of Mick Ronson’s guitar, with the latter also featuring glam handclaps. His sour-milk delivery, which can expressively sneer even if it struggles to reach the low notes, makes sure the sound is far removed from the plastic disposability of the Sweet or Slade. The use of wah-wah guitar helps to bridge the style with something far heavier.

These heavy elements come to the fore on the title track, which also transcends genre by combining them with ascending prog-rock guitar lines as Haines variously chants “Throbbing Gristle” (industrial music pioneers) and “Epic Soundtracks” (Swell Maps’ drummer).

It’s a referencing of cultural heroes that resurfaces on “Ivor on the Bus,” which is the most experimental track on the album. An ode to Scottish poet and humorist Ivor Cutler, it features cosmic tinkling, sound panning between speakers and an interview snippet with the subject matter while Haines odes a man with “a wheezing harmonium and an old age pensioner pass.” It’s almost as winningly eccentric as its focus of attention

It’s doubtful that Haines will ever be regarded with as much affection as the characters he hymns. Along with Buck (“Ex Stasi Spy”), the album features the Mighty Boosh’s Julian Barratt (“Yes, Mr Pumpkin”), signaling his support by certain industry quarters, but he’s too spiky to be adopted as a loveable eccentric. Haines probably likes it exactly that way and this album is a prime example of why he’s still needed, sneering from pop’s sidelines.

Summary
The themes and caustic observations have much in common with Mark E Smith, but while the Fall were at times wilfully abrasive and uncommercial, Haines has an unerring consistency for writing memorable hooks
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