Luke Haines has always been a teller of unusual tales. His querulous English voice has delivered disquieting vignettes of unsolved child murders (in The Auteurs), ’70s terrorism (in Baader Meinhof), and sex and motorways (in Black Box Recorder). Now, after 2011′s concept album 9½ Psychedelic Meditations on British Wrestling Of The 1970s And Early ’80s — which did exactly what it says on the tin — he’s back with an Animals Of Farthing Wood-style musical story about three furry friends: Gene Vincent, (the legendary rockabilly singer, here in the form of “a wise old cat”), Jimmy Pursey (the Sham 69 singer anthropomorphised to a fox) and Nick Lowe (a badger) doing battle against “a fuck ugly bird from Tyneside made of steel and wire called The Angel Of The North” (after Antony Gormley’s towering sculpture in Gateshead).
The music features lots of acoustic guitar and recorders, along with “magic interludes,” where actress Julia Davies adopts a plummy, BBC children’s storyteller voice. For those of a certain age, this is a Jackanory with a delightful, sour difference.
“It’s a magic place, this Walton-on-Thames,” is certainly a line that has never been sung in rock ‘n’ roll before, and while such singular oddness could end up as thunderingly irritating, somehow Luke Haines gets away with it. Why? Partly, it’s because he’s always dealt in twisting reality, whether in his lyrics or the lurid portrait of Britpop he painted in Bad Vibes, one of the funniest books on music yet published. It’s also because there’s the sense that, whatever his persona, Haines invests in what he does. This is no Mighty Boosh-style wacky joke. Haines’s obsession with forgotten parts of musical history means that this is a warm, genuine tribute.
And for all his reputation as a misanthrope, Haines is capable of many a friendly earworm. Rock and Roll Animals has plenty of them, not least on the title track and “Gene Vincent.” There are also serious matters being addressed through the furry animals, puns and double entendres. The story about the badger, cat and fox doing battle against the Angel of the North is, broadly, about rock ‘n’ roll versus state-funded public art. As Haines sings, “The dogs in the park and our public art/ It’s an affront to all creatures and people.”
In a better world, Luke Haines would be in talks with the National Theatre to present a musical version of this on the South Bank, bringing ‘magic town’ to life with an animatronic Angel of the North made by the creators of the stallion in War Horse. Until that happens, enjoy Rock And Roll Animals for what it is: Luke Haines’s best recent work, and a comedic album that actually is funny.