“If you possess the wrong kind of ambition, you fall between the cracks”, Luke Haines opines with the final sentence of Chapter 10 of “Bad Vibes”, the first part of his autobiography.
Chapter 11 is entitled “Commercial Failure”.
You have to decide if you want to be art or commercial, his label head had told him in November ‘93, when Haines wanted to release “Lenny Valentino” as a single in advance of a second Auteurs album. “120 seconds of meta-Motown-Dada genius” is how Haines describes the song – art-commercial, in other words. Lenny Valentino tells the tale of comedian Lenny Bruce being transported into the early twentieth century to play the part of Rudolph Valentino at his funeral procession. Lyrically, thematically, definitely art then. But musically, it’s a blistering two minutes of violin stabs and a chord progression that circles and circles, always threatening to go in for the kill, always holding off. Haines has dialled his vocals up to eleven, making the most of his sinister whispering snarl. Commercial, then.
Ought to be, but ends its first week at 41, down from a mid-week high of 35. Still, at least Pulp – Haines’ current bête noire, having moved on from Suede – only made 48.
Given the marginal failure of Lenny Valentino, which is by a long chalk the most accessible, most direct, most commercial of the eleven tracks on Now I’m a Cowboy it’s not a complete mystery that the album also stumbles. It shouldn’t but it does. It’s full of ambition, just perhaps the wrong kind.
How do you go about being commercially successful with an album that contains songs called “Chinese Bakery”, “Life Classes / Life Model”, “I’m a Rich Man’s Toy”, or the aforementioned “Lenny Valentino”? Not many people get to play both sides – Kate Bush, David Byrne, a select handful of others maybe – and if you come across as the kind of guy that might not only read Kafka but want to talk about it afterwards, then it doesn’t matter that your song “Modern History” builds over five and a half minutes to a brutally sumptuous thrashing and horns climax. To pull another example out of the air almost totally at random, if you’re the kind of artist who titles chapter 10 of the first part of their autobiography “Russian Futurists black out the sun” then you are going to find traction and popular acclaim to be an unusually slippery target.
The wrong kind of ambition. Not the kind that leaps about – left, right, ‘ere ya go, blimey is that Phil Daniels? – but the kind that writes songs like “The Upper Classes” – sample peerless lyric “there’s nothing wrong with inherited wealth, if you melt the silver yourself” or “you can get so far with a perishing wit but the money’s in trust – isn’t it?” – or Brain Child and its tidy little echoey guitar pings and accusatory closing refrain – “you’re a thief with style”.
Now I’m a Cowboy is a better album than its predecessor – it’s a better album than almost anything else released in 1994, but it’s not what the people want, or what the people understand. It’s uncompromising, but at the same time compromised: not necessarily even what Luke Haines wants. Demos. alternative takes and session versions of “New French Girlfriend” and “Lenny Valentino” show up the uncertainty in Haines’ plan for global domination, no matter how deterministically he later writes about the album’s commercial failure. Studio tinkering brings it closer to the intended vision until, as Haines writes:
I’m pretty sure we’ve done, at the very least, a great salvage job on the album, but I know in my heart that this is not good enough. I suspect I have a bloated corpse on my hands, and on my conscience.
When Now I’m a Cowboy is released all the people – so many people – go out and buy Parklife instead, and Britpop booms. Absolutely no-one whistles “Lenny Valentino” jauntily in the street, “Chinese Bakery” – a melody for the ages in want of a pat lyric – remains an unknown gem. In better news, Haines would channel his frustration into a third album, nattily entitled After Murder Park.