Luke Haines: Nine and a Half Psychedelic Meditations on British Wrestling … – review

Has one of pop's most misanthropic figures lightened up? Alexis Petridis detects a definite shift in mood

In 2003, Luke Haines – singer-songwriter, sometime author, former Auteurs frontman and one-third of Black Box Recorder – announced that it was time to change his misanthropic public persona. "People often mistake me for an incredibly miserable person," complained the author of Unsolved Child Murder, How to Hate the Working Classes and Satan Wants Me. "I'm not completely reactionary. I'm not Alan Clark."

That was in 2003. Anyone looking at his body of work in the subsequent eight years might suggest that if he wanted to rid himself of his misanthropic image, he's got a funny way of going about it. There have been albums, featuring blackly comic songs about the Yorkshire Ripper, Gary Glitter and Klaus Kinski: "Who needs people? Who needs friends? They only drive you round the fucking bend," he spat on the latter, his voice a vinegary drizzle of contempt. There have been two volumes of hilariously bilious memoirs, which opened by describing Alan McGee of Creation Records as "utterly unbecoming … a fool" and got progressively less kindly from thereonin.

Still, anyone searching for signs of a softening of attitude might alight on Haines's new website. Its predecessor, which offered for download an Auteurs live bootleg entitled No Dialogue With Cunts, announced an appearance at Latitude with the words "Luke Haines at a music festival in England in the summer – feel his pain, people" and first accused the fans who took to his online forum of "a particularly high level of witless whining and inarticulate bleating", then closed said forum down altogether ("Happy Xmas"). The new one offers recipes for kedgeree and Moroccan chicken stew, albeit in what you might call a certain inimicable style: "Dinner parties – by Christ they're awful … God was playing fucking hardball when he invented the anchovy … arseholes with food blogs … my palette is completely shot through years of boozing". You might also note that the last time Haines made a concept album based in the 1970s, it was called Baader Meinhof. Released with a certain gleeful party-pooping intent, at the height of Britpop's nostalgic knees-up, the music oozed malevolently along, like T Rex in a filthy mood, while the lyrics were thick with hijackings, embassy sieges and fatal hunger strikes. Whatever you make of the old-fashioned showmen hymned on the crisply titled Nine and a Half Psychedelic Meditations on British Wrestling of the 1970s and Early 80s – Kendo Nagasaki, Rollerball Rocco et al – they're noticeably cosier characters than, say, the members of the Commando Martyr Halime.

Anyone who's read Simon Garfield's astonishing oral history The Wrestling knows the world of Rocco and Nagasaki was frequently a grimy and low-rent one, 12 million television viewers or not. That's what you might expect Haines to concentrate on, but if a lot of the album's laughs come from the parochial bathos of their lives – "first we take Berlin, then we take … Stoke" – the songs largely neglect harsh reality and revel in the fantasy of wrestling, a cipher for the almost inexplicable weirdness of 70s popular culture. The similarity between the intro's sprawling guitars and chanting and the opening of the Fall's 1984 album The Wonderful and Frightening World of … could be coincidence, but it seems more likely it's deliberate, a Wonderful and Frightening World being precisely how Haines views wrestling, perhaps as a hangover from a childhood spent wide-eyed in front of World of Sport, swallowing every tall story spilling from the screen. "Rollerball Rocco got kicked out the pub, don't let him in dad, he'll steal all our grub," he gasps on Saturday Afternoon, a lovely, chansonnier-like drift of a song that manages to communicate the hold TV can exert over a young mind without slipping into sentimentality.

Elsewhere, it actively burnishes the myths that surrounded the stars of wrestling. So Kendo Nagasaki isn't just possessed of mysterious hypnotic powers, he's the author of a rock opera: "I'm no Leonard Cohen, I'm certainly not Nick Drake," he advises. Big Daddy becomes an obsessive electronic composer, his "mind blown" by the possibilities of the Casio synthesiser that blips in the background. On the oddly moving I Am Catweazle, the late Gary "Catweazle" Cooper's aggression is explained as a result of family dysfunction: "I've got a face only a mother could love … I asked her once, she said, 'All love's conditional, son.'"

Some spoken-word sections aside, the music on Nine and a Half Psychedelic Meditations on British Wrestling of the 1970s and Early 80s doesn't shift too far from the kind of vaguely diseased-sounding ballad Haines mastered long ago with the Auteurs, but there's a definite shift in emotional temperature: you're stuck by the obvious fondness he feels for his subjects, which isn't something you can say about much of Haines's oeuvre. Perhaps he is mellowing with age, after all. What's certain is that his originality is intact. You struggle to think of another songwriter who'd make a concept album about wrestlers, let alone one like this, as strange and beguiling as the lost world it describes.


Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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