Weird ’90s – The Auteurs: After Murder Park

weird90s

Weird '90s

The Auteurs: After Murder Park

Graham Williamson returns with another helping of '90s outré via the ostensibly anti-commercial third album from The Auteurs, After Murder Park. Welcome to Weird '90s...

1996 was a year of great optimism in England. Euro ’96 was within our grasp, a Labour government was waiting at the door of Number 10, and most of all, there was Britpop. Knitting together the fractious history of British rock – mod to punk to indie to baggy – into one glorious legacy, it had stormed the pop charts and produced one band – Oasis – tipped to inherit the Beatles’ crown.

Those who looked beneath the surface of all this jollity, though, will have noticed a ghost at the feast. ‘Last year we brought you Suede,’ panted the cover of a 1993 issue of Melody Maker. ‘Now get ready for… The Auteurs – the new saviours of UK rock’. [1] The same week’s issue of NME offered notional variety, with a cover story about Suede and a sidebar about The Auteurs. In 1996, Suede released their album Coming Up, which spawned a string of hit singles. What were The Auteurs doing?

The answer landed on John Niven’s desk one morning. Now an acclaimed author, Niven was working in the PR department of Virgin Records, The Auteurs’ label when a colleague flung the latest single from the one-time ‘saviours of UK rock’ down in front of him. ‘You like these’, the co-worker said, disgusted, before walking away. [2] It was the new Auteurs single, ‘Unsolved Child Murder‘.

Titling a single ‘Unsolved Child Murder‘ was nothing if not a fair trailer for the Auteurs’ upcoming album, After Murder Park. Recently they’d released ‘Back With the Killer Again’, a theremin-haunted slab of hard rock whose video – directed by a young Chris Cunningham, later to work with Aphex Twin and Bjork – starred an emaciated, eyeless man who mimed the lyrics before vomiting blood.

After Murder Park proved this was not a passing fit of madness. Over feedback-split guitar and walls of sonorous organ and cello, lead singer and songwriter Luke Haines sings of talk-show hosts going mad and killing offshore workers, poor wretches killed by government assassins for accidentally intercepting secret communications, dissolute, fascist aristocrats trapped in abusive relationships and, of course, an ‘Unsolved Child Murder‘.

The irony is, for all its viciously anti-commercial title and lyrics, ‘Unsolved Child Murder‘ does a better job resurrecting the spirit of the Beatles than any of The Auteurs’ retrophiliac peers. Haines sketches in his tale of a village driven mad by a hideous crime over the kind of descending mid-tempo melody familiar from songs like Mother Nature’s Son and We Can Work It Out. The mix of Lennon/McCartney homage and unpalatable subject matter produces shattering sick jokes; a chirpy French Horn precedes Haines welcoming ‘More hate-mail through the door!’ before shrugging it off a line later with a crushed, embittered ‘People can be cruel and spineless’.

Yet After Murder Park had far more on its mind than mere bad taste. Recorded in 1995, its release was held back until March 1996, allowing Haines plenty of time to sit and watch as the bands he once shared the cover of NME with graduated to being on the cover of The Sun. In his incredibly entertaining memoir Bad Vibes: Britpop and My Part in Its Downfall, Haines expresses relief that being stuck in the studio during the Blur v Oasis chart battle allowed him to be ‘psychically removed from the whole debacle’. [3] Yet he was still living in Camden, and as such had to grudgingly share oxygen with bands whose sunny soft nationalism could not have been further from his headspace.

Part of After Murder Park‘s identity is an anti-Britpop album, with even Haines’s choice of producer – Steve Albini, fresh off Nirvana’s In Utero – readable as a V-sign to the movement’s anti-grunge, anti-American rhetoric. Oasis’s 1994 album Definitely Maybe contained a track called ‘Columbia’, a song of euphoric blankness (‘I can’t tell you the way I feel/ Because the way I feel is oh so new to me’) inspired by scenester parties at Bayswater’s Columbia Hotel. Haines issues his response on one of After Murder Park‘s most explosive tracks, ‘Tombstone’, which begins with the singer ‘Taking out the garbage at the Columbia Hotel’. Lest you think he’s got a job on the bins, he quickly threatens to ‘Take the fucking building out, Baader-Meinhof style’.

This is entertaining enough in a bitchy way, but the namecheck for the German Red Army Faction reveals another aspect to the album. Bad Vibes describes the writing of ‘Unsolved Child Murder’ as a near-unconscious process, based on a long-suppressed childhood memory of a local boy who disappeared. ‘Once Unsolved Child Murder has written itself’, Haines said, his thoughts turned to other nightmares of the age:

‘John Stonehouse, the Tory MP who faked his own death; Sandra Rivett, the nanny accidentally murdered by ‘Lucky’ Lord Lucan; the sub-post-office killing spree of Donald Neilson the Black Panther; the kidnapping of Lesley Whittle; Peter Sutcliffe and the notorious ripper hoaxer Wearside Jack; the car bombings of the Angry Brigade; the plane hijackings of the PFLP; and the simultaneous suicides of the leading members of the Baader-Meinhof gang. The devils are jumping out of the box.’ [4]

It’s a very 1970s list. The Guardian’s music critic Alexis Petridis once noted that the average Luke Haines album usually seems ‘far less esoteric five years after its release’. [5] Sure enough there is a lot on After Murder Park that seems uncannily predictive of hauntology’s later excavations of the dark side of the 1970s. Not for nothing is the novelist David Peace a Luke Haines fan.

By the mid-90s, the folk memory of the 1970s had softened from ‘the decade that taste forgot’ to a warm affection for Abba and platform shoes. The now-commonplace idea that there was something uniquely fraught about that decade, an undercurrent of abuse, horror and political violence, dominates After Murder Park, an album written two years before Gary Glitter made his trip to PC World.

Hauntology’s genre wing, folk horror, is present as well. In between the album’s recording and its release, Haines kept busy – he released, under the name Baader Meinhof, a whole concept album of curdled funk about the terrorist group he namechecked on ‘Tombstone’. This period also produced ‘Kids Issue’, a lyric where ‘vigilante mobs scour the countryside and backwards yokels torture their own’ [6] set to a tune tense and driving enough for the Last Shadow Puppets to lift it for their single ‘Bad Habits’.

Haines’s folk horror interests resurface on the album’s second track ‘Child Brides’. After the thrashy opener ‘Light Aircraft on Fire’, this kills the pace savagely enough to stop your breath. A minimal finger-picked melody backs ‘a half-remembered tale of a late-eighteenth-century double suicide pact on the Norfolk Broads’, [7] one where – as in Heart of Glass (West Germany, Werner Herzog, 1976) or Jim Crace’s 2013 novel Harvest – the suspicion falls not on the venal townsfolk but a mysterious intruder. Haines adopts the voice of the abusive villagers to upbraid the stranger’s ‘fancy talk and your big ideas’ before pleading like the parents of Hamelin: ‘What have you done with our wives?’

It should be apparent by now that After Murder Park needed no help to be uncommercial, but it was about to get it anyway. Less than a fortnight after its release, sixteen schoolchildren were killed in Britain’s worst ever gun massacre. Everything from the album’s lyrics to Cunningham’s inlay sleeve – a class of children with Haines’s face superimposed onto each small head, his identity effacing theirs – now gained upsetting extra meaning. Haines is at least semi-ironically open to the occult: Bad Vibes must be the only rock memoir that ends with the writer narrowly escaping trepanation and declaring himself to be Matthew Hopkin. Perhaps Light Aircraft on Fire‘s ‘dark premonition an accident will happen’ had borne fruit.

Equally, it might be that After Murder Park only seems predictive of major tragedies because practically every other piece of British pop culture from this era is maddeningly cheerful. Despite the buoyant national mood, bad things stubbornly continued to happen, and when they did it was easy to ascribe excess significance to the one record that acknowledged this. The cult of After Murder Park – and, to a large extent, Haines himself – lies in it being so thoroughly out of step with its era, rather than being predictive of it.

Except… It’s a common criticism of Britpop that its flag-waving celebration of national exceptionalism – in music, in sport, in everything – didn’t detoxify these attitudes. Rather, it normalised them: British rock journalism began the 1990s questioning Morrissey for draping himself in the Union Jack and ended by celebrating Oasis turning the flag into something close to a band logo. All of this was justified because Britain was so special – two world wars, one World Cup, the Beatles and the Stones, and so on, and on, and on. As Joe Banks notes in a piece on After Murder Park for The Quietus, [8] we know what this became.

Maybe, then, After Murder Park‘s real contribution to a ’90s hauntology is to offer a horrific counter-myth to the propaganda of Britpop. The abusive, aristocratic antisemites of ‘Married to a Lazy Lover,’ the helpless alcoholics of ‘Dead Sea Navigators’ and the drowned ‘Child Brides’ – these are part of our island story too. It didn’t chime with the British public in 1996. It’s their loss.


Sources:

[1] Melody Maker, 20th February 1993.
[2] Art Will Save the World (UK, Niall McCann, 2012)
[3] Haines, Luke, Bad Vibes: Britpop and My Part in Its Downfall, 2009, Windmill Books, p.166
[4] ibid., p.146
[5] Petridis, Alexis, Luke Haines: Off My Rocker at the Art School Bop, the Guardian, December 26th 2006
[6] Haines, p.184
[7] ibid., p.146
[8] https://thequietus.com/articles/29675-the-auteurs-after-murder-park-review-anniversary

Graham Williamson

Graham Williamson

Graham is a critic and film-maker from Teesside. He's worked for The Geek Show, Byline Times and Second Run DVD, but has never, to his dismay, seen a UFO.

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