Baader Meinhof - Baader Meinhof
or better or worse, we here at Stylus, in all of our autocratic consumer-crit greed, are slaves to timeliness. A record over six months old is often discarded, deemed too old for publication, a relic in the internet age. That's why each week at Stylus, one writer takes a look at an album with the benefit of time. Whether it has been unjustly ignored, unfairly lauded, or misunderstood in some fundamental way, we aim with On Second Thought to provide a fresh look at albums that need it.
"If one sets a car on fire, that is a criminal offence. If one sets hundreds of cars on fire, that is political action."
When people get blown up, it's horrific. I think we can all broadly agree on that one. Even the explosive causes safely consigned to the "justified and necessary" category (World War II resistance fighters, anti-apartheid South Africa) fall under this axiom. The result should be cheered, but no one is likely to be looking at the body count and thinking "whoopee, a bunch of guys got killed!" Well, unless they're a psycho.
Tricky, then, to find too much humor in acts of terrorism. But not impossible. During the latter part of June 2007, reaction to a failed incident at Glasgow airport largely appeared to be cathartic bemusement. Coming hot on the heels of two foiled car bombings, the British public expressed their relief in the form of mockery. Far from being the nuke-wielding, water-poisoning masterminds of authoritarian fantasy, these were guys who couldn't even blow up a car properly and whose devious plans extended to "set myself on fire and drive into a door." Presented with this, it was hard to stifle the giggles. After years of government threat levels hovering around the You're Pretty Much Screwed mark, it felt like a refreshing change.
And if laughs could be squeezed out of a potentially deadly event in 2007, surely it wouldn't be too much of a stretch to find some fun in an album of bomb-related hijinks from 1996? After all, that's before terrorism was invented. Such a project, though, would demand considerable skill if it were to avoid becoming shamefully crass. Realistically, there was only one man in Britain likely to give it a shot.
Luke Haines' first band, the Auteurs, arguably found their stride with the Albini-produced After Murder Park, on which Haines was able to test the boundaries of good taste with tracks about unsolved child murders. Evidently pleased with the results, six months later he would release a self-titled album under the moniker of Baader Meinhof.
Not content with simply lifting the alternative name of Germany's anarcho-communist Red Army Faction (RAF), he based the entire thing around their "urban guerrilla" exploits. Then set it to loose funk arrangements, ordained with unlikely orchestral strings. The press of 1996 were unsure quite what to make of this. In terms of causing offense, it seemed to pass by largely without incident—something you can't really see happening in these hyper-aware times. Indeed, Haines would get into more bother with a track named "The New Diana." Which perhaps says something rather alarming about the British public's confused priorities when it comes to outrage.
For a spell, I was fascinated by Baader Meinhof. It seems to be open to near-endless exploration. The question of whether it's entirely right and proper to theme a record around terrorism (to which the answer is, as far as I'm concerned, "well, why not?") is merely the first hurdle. Once cleared, there remain the weightier matters of what, exactly, Haines was trying to achieve (if anything) and, naturally, whether the tunes are any cop. At just a shade over thirty minutes it's barely a full-length; but it's a presentation which asks searching questions of its audience.
Any notion of glorifying or glamourizing the actions of the Baader gang can immediately be ruled out. It's a claim regularly made whenever potentially unsavory material is used for any purpose; but although the cover art features images of the Meinhof membership from an infamous wanted poster, even a cursory listen to the contents will reveal that the group are far from being celebrated. Despite the serious, indeed fatal, consequences of many of their actions, Haines chooses to characterize the gang as somewhat naive—even inauthentic in light of their beliefs. Within seconds of the opening, they're scornfully reduced to a "rich kid with a gun." There's an amateurish calamity to their bank-robbing exploits and vain preference for stealing BMW cars, as well as a thuggish, nihilistic side to the violence—which gets likened to football hooliganism ("you're going home in a fucking ambulance," intones the Auteur). As with the fallout from Glasgow airport, these anti-imperialists are painted as targets for the poking of sarcastic fun.
However, whilst not supporting the group in any way, the album does tap into a certain "terrorist chic" which, in their first incarnation at least, the organization certainly possessed. It can be deeply uncomfortable to admit, but the Red Army Faction had style; from striking iconography, to the aforementioned penchant for quality motorcars, and even Andreas Baader's uncanny ability to keep his Ray-Bans on. Seductive though it is, no amount of trend-setting can erase inexcusable action; but the imagery itself didn't set any bombs, nor engage in hijack or kidnappings. When used two decades later, it feels sufficiently neutered to be deployed—not without any impact, for it still carries hefty connotations—but safe behind a curtain of irony. A record, after all, is not going to kill anybody.
Haines doesn't shy away from Baader's involvement in unforgivable activities. Quite the opposite. In keeping with his modus operandi, he dwells on them. The hijacking of Lufthansa Flight 181 is referenced at length; though even this is delivered with sizeable doses of absurdity, presented more like a holiday brochure than a high-stakes hostage crisis; "Captain Martyr Mahmoud says / It's a 24 hour flight / When the fireworks hit you / At Mogadishu / On a beautiful Saturday night." This detached, flippant approach may appear insensitive, but it allows some withering criticism of the hijackers methodology to slip through. When summarized as the couplet "For the right to be governed / Waste them without mercy," the sheer ludicrousness of Palestinian nationalists (the PFLP) involving themselves in the kidnapping and detention of an aeroplane of innocent Germans is thrust under the spotlight.
Instrumentally, the album is a weird hybrid of the rough-edged rawness found on After Murder Park and the more restrained minimalism of Black Box Recorder. Aside from blasts of Haines' fuzzboxed guitar, funky percussive rhythms are largely in the driving seat—joined by rasping keyboard sounds. If the aural palette had been restricted to this triumvirate, the low budget production may have been left exposed. This problem is side-stepped by the introduction of lush cello and violin, offering the mystique of middle-eastern tonality and some rapid, pensive bowing to ratchet up the tension. Somehow, it makes perfect sense for tales of bungled bank-jobs to be accompanied by the opening theme from a non-existent ‘70s detective show; and the twisted art-pop feel of the enterprise seems to perfectly complement the entangled threads of violence, idealism and morality. Where the record could all too easily have drifted into overwrought posturing or excessive ghoulishness, the bizarre backing keeps it ... well, fun. Dark, uneasy fun. The kind which forces highly inappropriate chuckles.
The chief culprit in tickling the funny bone of poor taste are the vocals of Luke Haines himself. They're worryingly perfect for the delivery of this sort of material, as each line is expelled with a cynical half-sneer. You can practically hear his lip curling in contempt as the words tumble out with a soft growl. It really doesn't matter what he sings, it automatically sounds as though he's taking the piss out of it.
Which returns us to those questions of intent. I'm not convinced that scorn and notoriety were the only goals of the piece. Foresight would show that Haines has something of a preoccupation with the ‘70s, surfacing plainly on the final Auteurs album How I Learned to Love the Bootboys (especially during the video for "The Rubettes"), and his recent solo outing Off My Rocker at the Art School Bop, which placed Peter Sutcliffe amongst the crowd at Leeds United. This, as much as anything else, probably led to the interest in the Baader group. When twinned with his evident love of turning controversial subject matter into danceable material and tweaking the noses of authority, Baader Meinhof's creation starts to make sense. Minor form of rebellion it may be, but the ridiculous truth is that in 2007 owning and enjoying an album with this subject matter could draw suspicious looks.
Yet neither tabloid-baiting nor personal amusement quite provide a full explanation. The project doesn't feel entirely self-serving by any means, and amidst all the larking around there are deeper issues being exposed. "Back On the Farm" is a nod towards the conundrum of how healthy anti-establishment thinking spills over into criminal activity; other seemingly throw-away lines "...she's not the girl that I used to know" also appear to dwell on this. The album is subversive in the best possible sense; not through an underhand agenda—indeed it seeks to pass few moral judgements—but by quietly, intellectually, engaging with the audience.
No one is under any illusion that densely complicated issues are being dealt with. The Baader Meinhof story alone is one of myriad twists, splinter factions, multiple waves, earnestly differing points of view, and questionable ideology. By piling on the references, the record can reflect this complexity on one level ("Happy Birthday Anna, you're 29 years old" isn't even the most obscure), but it knows the depths it can explore are ultimately limited. It's not an academic text, it's pop music—and no one's life is at stake in the recording studio (well, so long as Phil Spector doesn't drop by). This provides the vital freedom of distance and detachment to tackle the subject with tongues steadily eroding the sides of cheeks.
Why do people become terrorists? Why does a man write an album about terrorism? Topics with no equivalence of importance, but equally fascinating. Baader Meinhof remains staunchly enigmatic on both fronts. The intriguing blend of tunes, terror, and Teutonism invites indefinite philosophizing. Interesting though that is, it's probably best to hunt for glimpses of clarity in the channels of unfettered entertainment. Removed from extraneous pondering, the closest I've got to the truth is this: if Haines is joking, it's pretty funny. If he's serious... it's still pretty funny.
For more Baader Meinhof: check out this free download of a 1999 Auteurs gig, featuring several Baader Meinhof tracks: the delightfully named No Dialogue With Cunts.
Still confusing your RAF with your PLO? This extensive Baader Meinhof information archive may help.