Luke Haines, Kendo Nagasaki and Uncanny Island

“Greetings, Grapple fans!”

The e-mail from Matt at Cherry Red Records was uncannily timed. Would I be interested in attending the opening of Luke HainesUncanny Island exhibition at Eston Arts Centre, and meeting up with Luke to discuss his paintings of Mick McManus, Kendo Nagasaki, Giant Haystacks and Catweazle? To check my inbox, I had literally broken off from re-reading Simon Garfield‘s extraordinary book The Wrestling. Mystical forces were clearly at work. Sweaty, grunting, slightly overweight mystical forces, but mystical forces nevertheless.

Eston Arts Centre is a converted bank in the middle of this old Teesside mining town’s main High Street. I’d been a long-term admirer of Luke’s music, from The Auteurs to Black Box Recorder and beyond, and was aware of his previous excursion into the almost dreamlike world of mid-20th century grapple – his excellent 2011 solo album 9 1/2 Psychedelic Meditations on British Wrestling of the 1970s & Early ’80s.

So, on a sun-baked Thursday afternoon, I joined a merry throng of Teessiders picking at a plate of liver sausage sandwiches and admiring Luke’s work. It’s a hugely impressive collection. Les Kellett glowers menacingly from beside the window, and – around the corner – Brian Glover grimaces at the future of television sport: hallucinogenic visions of It’s A Royal Knockout.

World of Sport supremo Dickie Davies grins down from the adjacent wall, and – in his wake – a wild card exhibit: a silver Christmas tree festooned with shiny baubles, each decorated with the face of a one-time member of The Fall.

Luke was there, amiable and in good humour. We sidled into a quiet corner, conveniently close to the buffet, and enjoyed a genial ten-minute chat. Here’s how it went:

Bob: How did you first become interested in wrestling? Your Dad had previously taken you to see Portsmouth FC play at Fratton Park, hadn’t he?  

Luke: Yeah. I didn’t really realise that my Dad wasn’t that into football, but what he was interested in was the fighting on the terraces. He wasn’t a violent man at all, he just thought it was hilarious. He’d be nudging me, laughing. So I suppose the next progression was to take me to the wrestling. This was the pre-rock and roll me, and I maybe saw pop stars and wrestlers as being the same sort of thing.

Well, if you look at someone like Adrian Street, there isn’t a huge gap.

Not at all. Even Giant Haystacks seemed like a pop star. In a weird way, wrestlers were what pop stars should have been. I like the idea of pop stars being freaks. So, in the late 1970s, you got people like Ian Dury and Johnny Moped… they were outsider artists, really. And the world was open to those people. Now it seems less open, and taking that kind of route isn’t very viable.

But the wrestlers seemed like the ultimate expression of that.

I love the way that wrestling almost became an outlet for working class fantasies. You’ve got someone like Kendo Nagasaki, who was actually a guy from Crewe called Peter Thornley, and he’s clearly lost a finger in some kind of industrial accident. But all of that gets co-opted into this bizarre world where he’s a masked Samurai whose finger was removed in a strange initiation ceremony…

[Laughs] Yes, and of course there was his manager, Gorgeous George Gillette! There’s the campness as well… some of it was the Dick Emery version of camp, where you had people like Beautiful Bobby Barnes. Check out the clip of him fighting with Catweazle… it’s just astounding. Bobby has to comb his hair, and when he takes off his robes he carefully folds them. And when he shows the referee his boots, he’s going… [adopts camp stance]! It’s sort of outrageous, and obviously the Grannies would go mad and boo him because – in the 1970s parlance – “he’s a poof”. It was like: “How dare he be this outrageous!” But it was great.

I’m guessing World Of Sport played a big part in this as well? We’ve got Dickie Davies on the wall opposite us…

Yeah, of course. That was very much my era. That was Saturday afternoons, for years.

Is there a cut-off point for your love of wrestling, then? It does seem to wane around the early 1980s.

It probably was the early 1980s, yeah. Towards the end, it always just seemed to be Big Daddy.

Was there a little bit of resentment from the older wrestlers about Big Daddy’s dominance in the 1980s?

Well, the Crabtree family seemed to control everything. They seemed to monopolise wrestling. Did you see the Gods of Snooker programme? That was quite similar – it was all about whether or not you were with Barry Hearn. Big Daddy’s brother Brian Crabtree was actually a referee, which was a bit weird!

It just didn’t seem like a fantasy any more, it seemed a bit tatty. It was like The Wizard of Oz, where the curtain is removed… you know, “watch the angel not the wire”. It’s like when you know who The Residents are, it’s not the same. And I do!

I met Frank Sidebottom without his head on a few times, and it was always a strange experience…

Exactly that!

I remember a few reviews of your album 9 1/2 Psychedelic Meditations on British Wrestling of the 1970s & Early ’80s being a little surprised that you’d combined wrestling with psychedelia. But I can totally see the link – they both belong to that tradition of British weirdness.

And that’s something I’ve been doing with the painting. It’s like situation comedy… I’m not painting Terry and June, but I am putting popular – and unpopular – cultural figures into absurd situations. It’s kind of all I do, and I like that. I did a thing called North Sea Scrolls, and one of the concepts was having Hawkwind in a hot air balloon transferring secret information to someone in Ladbroke Grove. When you start thinking about these things, you think “If this really happened, the world would just be a much better place!” It makes me feel good about things. It might be complete escapism, but I don’t really want to say anything of any importance any more. Not that I ever did! But I’m quite happy being very trivial… [Laughs]

How did the Fall Christmas tree come into being?

I made a Mark E. Smith bauble for a friend who’s actually here tonight. And then I thought, “One day, I should do every member of The Fall…” I mean, it would have been a futile exercise, but…

How many people have actually been in The Fall in total?

I think you can get to 150, but the tree is somewhere in the late forties. There are some people I haven’t done, because they only played one gig or something! But when Neil [McNally, from Eston Arts Centre] asked me if I wanted to have an exhibition here, I actually had a reason to do it. I started during the first lockdown, which was perfect. I could paint a bauble or two every day. You know… don’t think about the end, just think about where you’re going. And one day you’ll have a Fall Christmas tree… [Laughs]

Did you ever get to spend much time with Mark E. Smith?

I met Mark a few times, yeah. He was always fine with me, and the times I could see that he was not going to be fine, I gave him the swerve. He was one of those people.

People’s reputations go before them sometimes, don’t they? You get the impression from the press that some people are utterly fearsome, but when you actually speak to them – they’re just not.

Absolutely. The people I’ve met like that… I mean, Steve Albini has a reputation, but I’ve always got on very well with him. Most of the people I’ve worked with I’ve got on well with… otherwise I wouldn’t work with them. Cathal Coughlan has a reputation for being a fierce performer, but he’s a very lovely man. Most people are. It’s never been an issue.

Mark obviously had a side to him, but when I met him he was very funny. Not unspiky… [laughs] but he wasn’t aggressive. I was a lot younger than him, and I was just starting off, and he’d tip me the wink if he was taking the piss a bit. “Alright, cock…”. He was fine.

How has Peter Buck been to work with? You put out a great album together last year – Beat Poetry For Survivalists.

Thankyou! He’s great. We’re working on another album at the moment. We’re aiming to get that out next April, and then hopefully we’ll be able to tour. Whatever the government is saying, Americans still can’t come to this country without quarantining – and they can’t get back unless they go via Ireland or Mexico! But that’s the next thing, and there’s a remix album of the first album, by Jacknife Lee, coming out in September.

How did this all come about? I’ve read Peter bought a painting from you…

He did buy a painting from me! It was a Mark E. Smith, I think.

Obviously Peter has produced a few albums. And when we did our album he said “Can I send this to Jacknife?” I said “Yeah, send it to who you like…”. So the next thing I know, Peter and Jacknife are sending tracks from a remix album back and forth, and I’m saying “This is great! Go for it!” Peter has paid for it, he gets the producer’s fee, and I’m just sat here. I get the publishing!

We should give a little nod to Cherry Red Records as well, who set up this chat. You’ve been with them a long time now, haven’t you?

I’ve been with them for ages! They’re my favourite label. They fully embrace their role – you know, they had Mark E. Smith, they have Lawrence, they have me… and inbetween, they’ll put out box sets of Sonia and Sinitta! Or they’ll do the new album by Howard Jones. They’re the nicest people I’ve ever worked with. All completely mad as hatters, but great. You’ll go to the office, and Lawrence will be standing there, and on the way out I’ll see Arthur Brown and Dave Brock. It’s exactly what you want in your middle age…

Uncanny Island is free to attend at Eston Arts Centre until 31st July.