Pretentious, difficult and contrary, with a lead singer/guitarist/auteur who used to give spiteful, contrary, stroppy interviews about whatever was on his mind, The Auteurs never quite wormed their way into my consciousness back in the heady days of grunge and Britpop. They didn’t fit for me.
Which is a big shame.
I came to the Auteurs ‘arse backwards’ as my gran used to say. I loved Like Haines (lead singer/guitarist/auteur etc. etc.) solo single ‘Off My Rocker At the Art School Bop’* which was amusing, poised pop and in 2009 having read his thrillingly misanthropic book Bad Vibes: Britpop And My Part In Its Downfall^ I wanted to explore further.
The vinyl quest started with Now I’m A Cowboy, mostly because I became an absolute sucker for lead single ‘Lenny Valentino’ and I found a cheap reissue.
The Auteurs had an unusual line-up featuring guitar, bass, drums and cello and their sound had interesting depths because of it. They got lumped in with the Britpop crowd, well just because of when, but were never part of all that ‘idiot runt-child of all music genres’ and it’s sparkly mod revivalisms – Haines’ book is pretty much full of his withering assessments of it. The Auteurs were something more grown up, classier and more wilful than that.
Haines was a good expressive singer and guitarist, the rhythm section of Barney C Rockford (I kid you not!) and Alice Readman were rock solid – he hits hard, her bass playing seems supple and subtle. The jewel in the crown for me is cellist/Hammond organ player James Banbury – put down and sneeringly referred to as ‘the musician’ throughout Bad Vibes. I just love the additional colour he brings to the tunes and adds to the palette; always softening the band’s tone whenever his playing is prominent.
The most accessible and ‘up’ track is LP opener ‘Lenny Valentino’ which appears to be an ironic homage to Lenny Bruce^* ; not that it need detain us long, as it is simply a cracking tune, played confidently with a real swagger. There are shades of glam and a nice hint of guitar muscle herein, just a hint.
The lopsided waltz-time of ‘Brainchild’ (a dig at the music biz / his band?) is a more typical, more obscure treat. Maybe even a credo ‘Style – Meticulous and gaunt / Style – articulate! / Style – preoccupation’. I feel rather superior for even knowing this song.
Now I’m A Cowboy serves up the crunchy ‘I’m A Rich Man’s Toy’ – originally written, speculatively, for Kylie Minogue to sing and rejected with a brusque ‘It’s not really Kylie, is it?’ by her management. Shame, it would have made her far more interesting. I hear shades of Jonathan Richman in the measured, knowing ‘New French Girlfriend’, which is sometimes my favourite here, I love the way the guitar crunch is just drizzled all over an otherwise very delicate tune.
The cutting ‘The Upper Classes’ is a snide treat, the line ‘There’s nothing wrong with inherited wealth / If you melt the silver yourself’ is worthy of framing in my view. The tuneful, sometimes delicate ‘Chinese bakery’ covers some of the same ground as Pulp’s ‘Common People’ but in a far more oblique, less-anthemic fashion and as a result is not the song of my generation.
There are some lesser numbers on the second side of Now I’m A Cowboy but I would like to state for the record that ‘Underground Movies’ is definitely not one of them. Using the band’s unique instrumental configuration to the best advantage it sounds utterly, strikingly, individual; can’t beat some mean cello wielding. The lyrics again deal with dilettantism and bitterness, half-observed dispassionately, half-sneered at.
Now I’m A Cowboy is an unusual LP, it makes no effort to win you over, exudes no warmth towards the listener and seeks no common connection – you have to make the effort to cross its’ drawbridge. I think that’s why the Auteurs were blown away in the mid 90’s by their far more obvious contemporaries and it was our loss. There will always be room in my affections for something more literary, articulate and difficult, especially when allied to some real style and intent.
After this the band went on to record After Murder Park with Steve Albini, now that really is a whole other story*^; that really wasn’t very Kylie!
For now, we’ll wave the Auteurs a cheery goodbye and leave them poised, meticulous and gaunt, articulate and preoccupied, on the cusp of the huge success all those excellent qualities effectively isolated them from.
*Translation note for foreign folks/ladies and chaps not my age: ‘Bop’ in this context = Disco. At Leeds the best Saturday night in town was always the Leeds Poly Bop**.
**Best music, cheapest cider, beautiful ladies not adverse to dancing with skinny Welshmen who flapped their arms around a lot during the act (of dancing).
^which I would unhesitatingly recommend to all lovers of music history, drug tales, misanthropy and unreliable narrators, anywhere. The part where he tries to kill a roadie and several members of the Verve and Oasis with an antique German flare gun in Sweden is worth the cover price alone.
^*there are very little clues as to what any of their songs are properly about and I pieced this together from a reference to Bruce’s daughter Kitty and one to John Judnich. I knew my Lenny trivia would come in handy for something, sometime.
*^a single called ‘Unsolved Child Murder’ anyone? an opening track called ‘Light Aircraft On Fire’? it is a heavy, nasty and difficult to absorb LP. Fucking good though.