Luke Haines recently announced that he’s about to release the follow-up to 2009’s 21st Century Man. The new album has the rather improbable title of 9 1/2 Psychedelic Meditations On British Wrestling Of The 1970s And Early ’80s. And, apparently, it does exactly what it says on the tin. I’ve been following Haines’ career ever since the release of New Wave by The Auteurs in 1993. The band were always on the margins of Britpop and Haines later changed musical direction to form the electonic group Black Box Recorder. Haines has also collaborated with other musicians and has released a few solo records. He’s even written a couple of memoirs, beginning in 2009 with Bad Vibes: Britpop and My Part in its Downfall. Haines was quite uncomplimentary about his fellow Britpoppers, with Blur and Radiohead amongst his victims. I’ve seen him once in concert, when he performed recently at Cabaret Voltaire during the Edinburgh Festival. The show was advertised as the North Sea Scrolls and all I knew beforehand was that he’d be joined on stage by a number of companions. When I got to the gig, I was delighted to discover that Cathal Coughlan was one of those guests and that they would also be joined by the writer Andrew Mueller and the cellist Audrey Riley
I had a feeling it wasn’t going to be your typical gig when Mueller, Haines and Coughlan entered the stage dressed in white and wearing pith helmets of a similar hue. Mueller approached a podium to the right of the stage and introduced the show by telling us a little about the scrolls. He revealed that they’d received them from an actor named Tony Allen, who had come across them in a rubbish bin outside a Waitrose. Our heroes decided to present them to the British Museum, but not before writing fourteen thematically-linked songs about their “findings”. One of the biggest discoveries in the scrolls was that Ireland had invaded and conquered Britain in 1948 and went on to divide the nation into Northshire and Southshire. The other was that Sir Oswald Mosley had become the Lord Protector in two consecutive governments in the sixties. This led our performers to deliver over a dozen hilarious songs that combined sarcasm and surrealism with popular culture and an alternate history of Britain. Each piece of music was given a literary introduction by a sombre-looking Mueller that provided a nice background to each song. Some of the subjects that fell foul of the troupe on stage included Morris dancers, the Angel of the North sculpture in Gateshead and Jim Corr. Corr appears in a song called Australian IRA Show, a tribute act whose function in this alternate universe is similar to the role of the Australian Pink Floyd in ours. Jim manages to get the IRA to come out of retirement to dig holes around Belfast because he believes that Shergar and the Twin Towers are buried there!
The evening’s opening song took the piss out of English bands appropriating the musical style and subject matter of American blues musicians. Broadmoor Blues Delta focused in particular on Gomez, 1998 Mercury prize winners for their debut album and formerly part of the Hut Records roster along with The Auteurs. The song highlights the coincidence that Ian Ball is both the name of the vocalist from Gomez and of the man who spectacularly failed in his attempt to kidnap Princess Anne in 1974. In this parallel world, Haines imagines that The Devil offers the criminal Ball the chance to replace the Gomez singer and, perhaps, suggests a possible reason for the band’s demise. Coughlan takes over on vocals for the next song, Mr Cynthia, in which music producer Joe Meek becomes the Minister of Culture and decides to put John Lennon under house-arrest in case his extreme political views corrupt the British youth. In another song, Tim Hardin MP, an American singer-songwriter is parachuted into a governmental role
A recurrent character in the set is the murdered Irish criminal, Martin Cahill, who was commonly known in Ireland as The General. In Papal Pagan, he becomes an actual general in the Irish Imperial Army. Two of my favourite songs of the evening were I Am Falconetti and Savile’s Seven Funerals. Chris Evans is the subject of I Am Falconetti, in which the DJ has a cathartic vision whilst being burnt at the stake that will eventually lead to his sainthood. The Seven Funerals chronicles the week-long series of events to commemorate the death of Sir Jimmy Savile, including something to do with wrestlers. The final song of the North Sea Scrolls set is its Anthem and the projected lyrics allow the audience to sing along. For the encore, we are treated to a wonderful rendition of Microdisney’s Singer’s Hampstead Home by Cathal and a fine performance of Leeds United by Luke. It was certainly one of the strangest gigs I’ve attended, but also one of the most entertaining. I’d definitely go see this show again if I had the chance and I hope it comes out as a studio album before too long. Below, Haines’ downbeat take on the Nick Lowe classic is matched by Black Box Recorder’s slowed-down version of Althea & Donna’s reggae tune. I don’t know a whole lot about The Vichy Government, but their 2005 pronouncement about Haines’ untimely demise is way off the mark. In fact, he celebrates his 44th birthday today, though the persona that comes across in his music would suggest he won’t overdo the celebrations. Have a good one, Mr Haines
The above image was purloined from the North Sea Scrolls’ Facebook page and features Luke on the left, Andrew in the centre and, you guessed it, Cathal on the right