A quick return to Islington’s excellent Lexington pub to see a solo set from a great English contrarian. Luke Haines has been writing and singing surreally barbed satires under various guises for over twenty years, and this show has I guess been put on to promote his most recent album, the extremely pleasingly entitled 9½ Psychedelic Meditations on British Wrestling of the 1970s and early 1980s. I say I guess because on checking later I find that the album doesn’t seem to be currently available to buy as a CD, a fact you can imagine Haines taking great enjoyment in.
Haines takes to the stage in front of a rather magnificent hand painted backdrop depicting a selection of the figures that used to brighten up pre-internet Saturday afternoons: Big Daddy, Giant Haystacks, Mick McManus, and if these names aren’t familiar to you you probably had a pretty enlightened upbringing. For the first half of the set he’s accompanied on stage by a mysterious masked figure dressed in the costume of the legendary Japanese wrestler Kendo Nagasaki. Kendo maintains a tasteful silence throughout the proceedings and spends most of his time sitting down and reading The Daily Star, but he’s on hand to distribute offerings to the audience: first, a liquid that Haines cheerfully refers to as “acid from Devon” and later a platter of liver-sausage sandwiches that are reverentially handed around like a sacrament. Haines is dressed in black, with his trademark hat and whiskers, and sits in front of the mic armed only with an acoustic guitar. He proceeds to entrance the small but highly attentive audience with a slew of starkly brilliant songs interspersed with bursts of vitriolic but somehow reassuringly avuncular banter.
He starts with some numbers from the new (ish) record, and while it’s uncertain how much effort it’s worth expending making sense out of the umbrella concept for the album (something to do with Mick McManus retiring and setting up a transport cafe which becomes a hub for wrestling gossip. I think), Haines’s gifts for an arresting image, a cutting pay-off line and most importantly a hooky melody are without much competition. We hear of Nagasaki’s manager George Gillett revealing secrets over sausage and mash, Big Daddy getting obsessed with a Casio VL Tone, and Rollerball Rocco being presented with the most inedible food known to man. It all sounds wonderful. We then get an interlude in which Haines reads some astonishingly bitter but frequently hilarious extracts from his books lamenting the vacuity of both popular culture in general and an older generation’s hopeless attempts to understand it (his impression of John Humphrys’s dismissive pronunciation of “pop music” is a pearl), before the man in black picks up his guitar again and briskly runs through what in a parallel universe might have been greatest hits. Haines likes to name names, and has a particular penchant for skewering sacred cows of the hip and trendy, so we get Young British Artist attack I Shot Sarah Lucas and Alan Vega Says, which recasts the singer of the ultra-cred Suicide in a surprising light. He finishes with his old band The Auteurs first single Showgirl and it’s over. He’s been on for over an hour but it feels like five minutes. This man might well be some kind of genius. Though he’d probably castigate me in song if he heard me say so.