Telling Stories - Tim Burgess (2012)
1. The Best Band in the World
When I was asked to write this book, I quickly saw the true potential and scale of the opportunity I’d been given – though it took me a couple of years to ease myself into the driving seat. Like anyone else, my story has been a succession of days that roll into each other, sometimes with direction, sometimes without. Though I’ve probably had even less of a plan than most.
When I was little, I used to get told off for pushing things too far. Things that seemed to bother other people came quite naturally to me. Like testing whether the goldfish bowl could balance on the edge of the kitchen table.
Or whether I could pedal downhill with no hands and two flat tyres.
Injuries were painful and trips to the hospital frequent.
Yes, there was blood, but there was also an excitement that came shortly before the disaster. I got a taste for this kind of thing – not exactly danger for the sake of thrill-seeking, more just curiosity.
I don’t think like a book, in chronological thoughts; it’s more a question of ideas invading my head and then inviting others in. I suppose I think more like a magazine or a website: in short bursts, with pictures, charts and lists.
Perhaps it’s a mistake to announce this fact at such an early stage. I’m hoping for your sake that everything comes together in a book-like way.
Did they let me do any more after this confession? Are there any more pages?
They did? Cool, let’s get started then.
Occasionally in your life it seems like outside influences are sent as some kind of guide. You know the kind of thing: some badly behaved kid gets his comeuppance and you take it as a signal to slow down in your own delinquent ways.
At 15 I needed a guide and a path to follow. Something or someone to show me what was possible but with enough interest to engage my erratic temperament (a trait pointed out by Miss Gilchrist on my school report).
I was already of the mind that school wasn’t the place where I’d learn the best things to lead me through life, but in fact it was a school trip that first introduced me to the ramshackle parallel worlds of Factory Records and the Haçienda. They were to be my early guides.
For the life of me, I can’t now imagine for what reason a bunch of schoolchildren were being led around what would become the epicentre of a musical revolution. It was some time in 1982, and a forward-thinking teacher in the staffroom of Leftwich High School had seen fit, and had it cleared, to take class 5C to an as yet unopened nightclub that would, over the next decade, instruct the world in a new way of doing things.
When the Haçienda opened it showed no signs of being the cultural landmark it would grow into over the next few years. The likes of Graeme Park and Dave Haslam would usher in the house revolution in 1987–8, and with it came a drug called ecstasy and the unifying of a generation that a couple of years earlier had been knocking each other around on the terraces of Old Trafford and Maine Road. But the opening night saw local racist Bernard Manning on the bill, alongside South Bronx, post-punk girl funksters ESG.
So why were we there? I really can’t be sure, but I like to think that I was being shown the light. Not that my memories are entirely good. A girl threw up in the doorway. Let’s call that something sent from the future, to show me the flavour of things to come, a flavour I couldn’t quite put my finger on but one I knew I wasn’t fond of.
Anyway, just as some kids would have found their scientific future on our trips to the Jodrell Bank radio telescope or their condiment-calling at the Salt Museum in Northwich – thank God I didn’t see the light in there! – everything about the Haçienda and, in turn, Factory Records captivated me. Little we were shown through school had stirred much emotion in me, but Ben Kelly’s futuristic design mothership and Tony Wilson’s execution of his take on situationism left me open-mouthed, searching for more. I’d noticed catalogue numbers on the records I owned but they seemed to represent little more than an antiquated storage system. Factory made them into an art form.
In 1982 everything was different. Everyone was suited up and drinking away their wages in neon and pastel funk dens like Pips and Rotters – this was before any kind of nod towards metrosexuality. City-centre nightclubs were little more than weekend hunting grounds for a liaison with the opposite sex.
I grew up in a town called Northwich, twenty miles outside Manchester, which was our closest big city. Like many towns close to somewhere casting a cultural shadow, it’s safe to say that Northwich didn’t offer much to an inquisitive and bored teenage mind. It was definitely a case of looking to the bright lights of the big city. We heard that the best bands in the world would stop off somewhere near us, party and then leave for the next stage of their world tour.
Famously, there was the Free Trade Hall, where someone had accused Bob Dylan of being ‘Judas’ when he ‘went electric’, and he’d replied, ‘You’re a liar’; where The Sex Pistols had played one of the most iconic gigs in modern music history – OK, it was the Lesser Free Trade Hall, but who’s judging? You are? Well, it still counts!; from where Granada regularly broadcast musical milestones into our semi-detached suburban lives.
Punk had made anything seem possible, and the possibilities were starting to become realities at the Haçienda. Bands ruled the roost during the week – groups like Psychic TV and The Jesus and Mary Chain – with worship switching at the weekends to the DJ booth. So began the rise of the DJ cult.
In the mid to late ’80s, I would be there most Tuesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights, making the twenty miles each way pilgrimage from the village of Moulton, near Northwich, to the corner of Whitworth Street West. Any given Tuesday or Thursday night I could pretty much guarantee a ride back home, but on Fridays and Saturdays it was a little more complex. I had to walk, a feat made all the more psychologically daunting by the fact that Northwich isn’t even in the same county! The club would close at 2 a.m. and we – always Ronnie, often Frank, and occasionally Chedder and Staggy – would set off down to Deansgate, through Old Trafford, past Manchester United’s ground. We’d pass by Morrissey’s old house in Stretford, then on through Sale, before arriving at Altrincham train station at about 5 a.m. The first train to Northwich was at 6 o’clock, and we might take it if we had any spare change. From Northwich the final leg was a four-mile walk to Moulton. I would do that at least once most weeks at this time.
I saw a lot of bands at the Haçienda: Death Cult, who were formerly Southern Death Cult and later became The Cult, The Fall, Orange Juice, A Certain Ratio, Section 25. But the most important band I saw there was New Order. They were brilliant at any time, but beyond belief on an otherwise ordinary Tuesday night. Thursday nights saw resident DJ Dave Haslam host the Temperance Club, and although it was thought of as an indie night, the playlists were varied: New Order again, The Rolling Stones, Public Enemy, The Smiths, Mantronix, Sonic Youth, EPMD and The Brilliant Corners. These nights, a really important part of the Haçienda story, are sometimes lost in the all too often rewritten history of the club.
They blazed the trail for the likes of Justin Robertson and The Dust Brothers – Ed and Tom – who began their DJ careers in Manchester but would later change their name and slay the world as The Chemical Brothers.
The Haçienda was like a new friend – recommending music, always being there for the good times and sometimes the bad. It was there I would witness the changing face of youth culture. Anyone who considered themselves anyone in Manchester’s fashion elite would be sprawled on sofas looking cool and being seen.
Another important factor in my musical apprenticeship was my mum’s youngest brother, Andrew. That would technically make him my Uncle Andrew, but he never seemed like a traditional uncle, more like an older brother. He was seven years my senior and my first musical guru, the first person I’d come across who was always in a band. He played mostly in Manchester and Bolton, which is where my mum’s side of the family are all from, and I would go to as many of his gigs as I could.
He was a vinyl junkie and a gifted guitarist. I remember pictures of Jimmy Page, Marc Bolan and Slade on his wall. He had an inspirational record collection: Hawkwind, Genesis, Jethro Tull, Tommy. And he had a few guitars: electric, acoustic and bass. He tried to show me some guitar licks, but that wasn’t how he influenced me, really – he just naturally and enthusiastically brought a variety of music into my life. It was listening to his records and seeing the thrill of what being in a band meant that made me take some steps towards being part of this exciting world. I armed myself with a bass guitar, as it seemed a little less complex than the other options.
The U.K. Subs’ ‘Warhead’ was the first song I learned to play, bass in hand, 7-inch brown vinyl on the turntable (a Boots Audio 2000, if I remember rightly). It wasn’t the actual playing of the bass that grabbed me so much. I spent a great deal of time just mastering the poses. That was the moment I really decided I wanted to be in a band.
The bass gave way to a classic hairbrush/badminton-racquet/mirror action technique I still use on stage at moments when I am not exactly sure what to do next. I’d seen the world I wanted to be a part of but it still seemed a world away.
Aged 15, I hung around the clothes and record stalls in the underground market in the centre of Manchester where there were some great shops, including the Roxy, where Johnny Marr used to work for future Smiths manager Joe Moss, and a record stall populated almost exclusively by Numanoids, a strange breed of Gary Numan obsessives.
At 16 or 17, when I started my long-lasting love affair with the night life and became almost nocturnal, my uniform was that of the Perry boy, a hybrid of the soul boy and the football hooligan. It made for an odd sight in the streets and on the terraces, as rivals would be dressed in salmon-pink cashmere sweaters and lemon-yellow and pastel-blue tracksuit tops while seemingly attempting to murder each other. I copied my look from my mate Richard Lynch, the cock of the school – I’m not sure how that expression sounds these days, but at the time it was a huge compliment.
My pride and joy was a second-hand navy-blue Fila BJ Mark-2 tracksuit top given to me by my mate Mark Stagg. Staggy had the word BOTH written on his knuckles. At first I actually thought he was bisexual, but no; apparently, while dating a girl called Ruth when he was 14 years old, and being ‘absolutely head over heels in love’, he felt he simply had to have her name permanently inked on his hand, tattooed for all to see. Sadly she dumped him, so he had it changed to BOTH, as you do. Ironically the dumping was possibly linked to the intense elements of his character that led to the tat in the first place.
I have never been jealous of Staggy’s crude four-letter branding, although once in a while I am offered an either/or situation and imagine myself raising Staggy’s fist. Or in a parallel world I picture an air hostess offering Mr Stagg the usual choice of ‘chicken or fish’, to which he silently raises his hand to reveal the legend that demands the two.
I wore polo shirts and gold: a St Christopher, an earring and a krugerrand on my finger. Please take my word that it was ‘on trend’ at the time, although lately it has become the look of choice for the weed-smoking paternity deniers that populate daytime punch-up TV. Stonewash jeans and Wimbledon trainers completed the look. I’ve never seen Wimbledon trainers since. They were similar to Adidas Trimm Trab but white with blue and red, and they were easily the coolest footwear ever, alongside black, eight-hole Doc Martens and my classic blue Kickers.
Only me and one other boy, Howard Clarke, had the footwear. He was my partner in crime at that age. Howard owned a 1960s Triumph Vitesse and a GT6, and listened only to ’60s pop, not so much The Beatles and The Stones, more The Monkees, The Searchers, Georgie Fame and The Dave Clark Five. He collected ’60s theme tunes, too, and had the best leather jacket in the world. I haven’t come across him since, but he certainly was a very cool teenager.
At this time my hair was a homage to – or rip off of – Bernard Sumner’s. I have always been a fan of the follicles, and it’s been an outward expression of my inner self since I saw a picture of Julie Driscoll on my mum’s cabinet. I have been told a time or two that people have gone into the hairdresser’s clutching a picture of me. As many girls as boys, I’m happy to say.
If these times can concentrate into one moment, like the alignment of the planets, it was 7 March 1983 and the release of New Order’s ‘Blue Monday’. I had no idea ‘Blue Monday’ belonged aesthetically to New York: I just thought it was right out of Manchester. I instantly became a huge fan because New Order took me somewhere else, onto what I considered a more serious level of musical consciousness. I realized music could be intelligent.
If you want to trace it, like some kind of musical genealogy, it goes all the way back to 1972. The first record I ever bought was Jimmy Osmond’s ‘Long-haired Lover from Liverpool’, not such a misdemeanour if you consider that I was only 5 years old. From there, it was Slade and The Bay City Rollers. I particularly noticed the effect that The Bay City Rollers had on the girls at Moulton County Primary School; it seemed like almost overnight everything turned tartan. Next I remember turning my attention to Thin Lizzy after watching them on Top of the Pops. I loved the fact that Phil Lynott had an earring. In his left ear one week, and his right ear the next. Disgruntled dads across the land would claim it was a subliminal, subversive, sexuality statement.
Top of the Pops was a yardstick and lifechanger for each generation and each style of music for a couple of decades. Many a Friday morning would see the youth of Britain adopting a sound or look only seen around 7.30 the previous evening. From Queen to Wham to Dexy’s, to the coupling of The Stone Roses and The Happy Mondays on possibly the most iconic edition in its history. My watershed moment came when The Vibrators played ‘Automatic Lover’. I declared myself a punk the next day at school and from then on I was on my path towards wherever it was I was going!
Top of the Pops mapped my every musical phase, from glam through early punk, through two-tone, New Wave and New Romantic, despite often being fronted by grinning goons like Dave Lee Travis, Mike Read and Pat Sharp. It also introduced us to the good guys, like Janice Long, John Peel, Kenny Everett and Jimmy Savile. I was too young to remember when I first saw it, and I’m too kind to dwell on the day it limped out of existence. It just always seemed to be there.
But outside the mainstream that the TV chart rundown was giving me, I was developing a hunger for something extra. And knocking around with people who I considered much more sophisticated in their music taste gave me the chance to find it. While I was listening to bands like Discharge, Crass, Blitz, Vice Squad and Chron Gen, all of whom I still love, they were listening to Kraftwerk, Scritti Politti, Throbbing Gristle and Joy Division. I wanted to hang up my studded leather jacket and bleached jeans and change into Harrington, loafers and Sta-prest.
The year was 1983, and New Order’s Power, Corruption and Lies was permanently on the turntable. New Order were ever-present, and I wanted to know all I could find out about them. The geekier side of my personality became a scrapbook junkie. I bought everything connected to them.
I had a vivid imagination and I even used to write up fictitious set-lists for imaginary gigs. I bought all the music magazines and cut out all the articles about them in Sounds, NME and Smash Hits.
They defied convention, opting for abstract images and anything but their faces on their Peter Saville sleeves. And their songs didn’t even mention their titles. New Order were everywhere. In my room. In my head.
I found The New Order Scrapbook for sale in a small ad in the Melody Maker. I was encouraged and relieved that there were other people out there like me. At the front of the book there was a photographic discography featuring all their releases, including bootlegs, and a list of every interview the band had done up to this point, the summer of 1983. Plus there was a whole section on Joy Division and Ian Curtis. Ian was the pinnacle of cool with the people I was trying to be like, but all I knew was that he’d died in 1980. I wanted to find out more about him.
Outside my new-found cool friends, who were the Northwich wine bar and regatta crew, I was still hanging around with the old gang. We were 16, slightly aimless but inquisitive.
We did a ouija board one evening round at Janet Moore’s, and naturally we asked to contact a spirit. The only people I knew on ‘the other side’ were my paternal grandfather, my much-missed nan and a recently deceased school caretaker. I wanted to contact someone more exciting.
The glass skidded around the letters and I asked if ‘the spirit’ knew Ian Curtis. The glass took off, spelling out Y–E–S.
‘How?’ I replied, with a mixture of giddiness and fear.
‘I share a room with him!’
I wanted to challenge whatever force we were talking to, to prove its credentials. ‘If you share a room with Ian Curtis, you’ll know which band he was in.’
The glass responded slowly: J–O–Y–4–T–I–M
Looking back and not wishing to belittle the excitement of my younger self, I think the naivety of those in contact with the spirit world was revealed by the fact that the eternal afterlife involved roommates, a situation uncannily similar to many of our domestic set-ups at that time! I’m a little less naive now than I was then, though only lately, and not necessarily for the better.
Anyway, back to the tangible world of my new scrapbook and its listing of tours that had taken place in Australia, New Zealand and America. It had never crossed my mind that bands played in such exotic places. I had got to grips with the badminton-racquet posing, and now world travel sat high on my agenda. This was a job I had my sights set on.
I began to see the bands I liked more and more on TV. It was a great time for music, but New Order were special and there was the bonus that they were from near where I lived. They were my local heroes, and I was watching them grow. This incredible music was being made by four people, three men and one woman, two of whom were from Salford, where I was born, and two from Cheshire, which is where I was growing up. For the first time, that job with no application form seemed like it might be attainable. And on top of all this New Order managed to make the biggest-selling 12-inch record of all time.
In my mind there was always the possibility of running into them, and a little background knowledge suggested that the Haçienda would be the most likely place for this to happen. I became a regular. In time, it would become the hippest club in the world.
Tony Wilson spoke on behalf of the band, or rather he spoke instead of the band. Tony was a great orator, who loved the sound of his own voice. He had a lot to say and they had very little. The perfect team. He was their frontman in a lot of ways.
Everything about the band appealed to me: Peter Saville’s iconic sleeves, the catalogue numbers, the aloofness and their ever-changing manifestos, and the fact that Tony Wilson read the news on TV to me while I was having my tea. Their ownership of the coolest club imaginable was the icing on the cake.
There was one more thing which tied it all together. My mum used to work in a newsagent’s in our village, and Tony Wilson and Alan Erasmus, who was one of the partners of Factory Records, were regular customers. My mum would chat with them, Alan mostly. She said he was very charming. She told him she had a son who was really into music. One day Alan gave my mum a badge, an enamel beauty, a blue and yellow rectangle with three letters and two numbers: Fac 51.
From Alan, to my mum, to me.
As my mum handed me the badge my mind was awash with thoughts. Was this the best thing I’d ever owned? Was I part of the gang? Did they even know who I was? Did this mean I’d made it?
And why did my own mother have more connections with the music business than I did?
Later in the week, when Alan came back to the shop, she told him how excited and grateful I was.
For my 16th birthday, I received copies of Low-Life (Fact 100) signed by New Order, a ‘Confusion’ (Fac 93) 12-inch white label, The Durutti Column’s LC (Fact 44) and a 12-inch version of ‘Lips That Would Kiss’, which was on Factory Benelux – the catalogue number was FBN 2.
From that point on I collected everything that was on Factory, not so much as a geek thing, more as a taste thing. I knew that the records Factory were putting out were at best genius and at worst extremely interesting. I was falling in love with the label – and with the story regarding my mum’s acquaintance with Alan Erasmus. I was now part of the whole thing. According to me anyway.
On that birthday I went for a meal with my mum, dad and sister, and there was an extra place setting. I later found out it was meant for Alan, but he never showed up. He wrote me a letter apologizing for ‘his mad existence’ and dropped off even more records. Maybe he didn’t realize he totally had me from the moment he gave me the badge.
And maybe I joined a band just to see if he was telling the truth about the mad existence.
Although I had still never met Alan I received an invitation to the Haçienda for a live special of my favourite TV show, The Tube. The show was to include The Factory All-Stars, various artists on the Factory Records roster including Donald Johnson, Bernard Sumner, 52nd Street, Mike Pickering, Vinni Reilly, Section 25, Marcel King and The Wake.
Oh, and Madonna, making her British TV debut.
The invitation was for Friday, 27 January 1984. On Thursday, I was in the back seat of a mate’s car that hit a lamp post on the corner of Leftwich Green on our way back from a night out in Northwich. I’m not sure whether I broke my ankle on impact or when I jumped out of the rear window as the car was filling up with smoke. But on the Friday morning I was on crutches, in shorts and in plaster. I just couldn’t face the show.
Once fully recovered I told myself I would never miss out on anything again, even if I had to go to gigs on my own. I kept my promise to myself and went to London to see New Order at Heaven in August 1984 and at the Woolwich Coronet in April 1987.
I was also at the Macclesfield Leisure Centre, one of their most legendary gigs, in April 1985. I remember Hooky hitting someone over the head with his bass as a fight broke out at the front. I also remember giving Hooky a hug in the car park at Warrington’s Spectrum Arena!
Despite their contrary marketing ways, New Order proved that having good songs was the key. This led to a headline slot on the main stage at the 1987 Glastonbury festival. I remember Bernard smashing his guitar and putting it through his amp during the encore – a cover of ‘Sister Ray’ by the Velvet Underground. Joy Division used to play it, and their live version is on side 2 of the album Still.
Andy Liddle was New Order’s lighting guy, and on the BBC recording of the Glastonbury show you can hear Bernard growl some strobe command over the microphone, leading to an overwhelming laser spectacle. Andy now does the lights for The Charlatans. As I once collected their records, we now appear to be collecting New Order crew: Dian Barton, Oz, Roger Lyons and the much-missed Rex Sargeant.
New Order live was no easy ride. One minute they were electrifying and self-assured, the next thrillingly confused. They were working with very advanced, state of the art technology which could and would go wrong at any second. Remember, at this time a calculator was the size of an iPad and could perform little more than the basic + − ÷ × operations, and they had early versions of drum machines, sequencers and samplers which were wheeled on stage resembling techno fridges. They and their technicians were learning from scratch in the public eye, while enjoying a cocktail in summery clothes: shorts and t-shirts for Bernard, flowery dresses for Gillian.
Charming, aloof, casual and random, New Order were unpredictable and just like life. That’s why I liked them. You had absolutely no idea what to expect, from sheer ethereal beauty to audience brawling. They had it all. They were shiny but not polished, free-form within the unidentified box they had plonked themselves in.
According to my mum, I always wanted to be involved in music. Trouble is, I had a tendency to say one thing one minute, and then forget about it the next. My mum was also known to say that I was going to be a spaceman, as I was fascinated by the moon. I suppose it’s true though that from an early age I did want to be involved in music, but then again so did everybody else.
I was surprisingly happy working in an office, sticking down envelopes, photocopying, filing and losing stuff. I was like Jimmy from Quadrophenia, without the uppers and the angst.
I began a job at ICI when I was 16. I was a mail-delivery boy, delivering the post by bike to the various drop-off points around the chemical factory in Winnington. All of this was made less mundane by my Sony Walkman, the original personal audio cassette player. I would make compilation tapes at home in the evening then listen to them all day at work. The cassettes had to be just so.
I must have been preparing myself for a life in the studio as I loved sitting at home, drinking black coffee and dreaming about a wider audience. I would serenade girlfriends with the compilations, documenting cool times together.
I learned how to drive while at ICI. They gave me free lessons and a free test. I passed first time, and my life simply got a tiny bit better. I got myself a 1974 Triumph Dolomite in British racing green with a white boot. The pile of tapes in the passenger seat featured the sounds of The Style Council, The Cure, Everything But The Girl, REM, The B-52s, Fad Gadget, Aztec Camera, Orange Juice, ACR, The Meteors, Prefab Sprout, Scritti Politti …
I had the car, I had the music, and as vain as it may seem my hair was next on my list of priorities. Hey, I was 17 and I was sharp.
Only later did I get serious. At this point, I had an ever-growing fringe and an update on the short back and sides, courtesy of Dean Sutton of Suttons’ Unisex hairdressers, Northwich. Dean used to cut my hair, but I would source the inspiration from record sleeves or magazines, or give him a hastily described style I’d seen on someone at a gig or in the street.
I had a few variations featuring elements of the flicker, the flattop and the moptop. I had a Specials-era ‘Terry Hall’ cut and a Fun Boy Three-era ‘Terry Hall’ cut. Dean advised drawing the line at a ‘Grace Jones’ silver wedge-head look. Looking back I think I need to thank Dean for refusing to take part in that one.
A classic Sutton cut was the one you see in the ‘Only One I Know’ video. I had been having that style for a good few months before word filtered back that people were going in the barber’s asking for a ‘Tim Burgess’.
Thursday was pay day, and with that tradition came my own tradition – a weekly trip to the record shop, Omega Records, owned by our future manager, Steve Harrison. I would spend nearly all of my £40 wages, keeping back the minimum amount of board I could hand over to my mum. This was roughly half of what my dad thought I was paying.
I would ride my bike back home one-handed, the other hand firmly gripping the sweet-smelling heavy vinyls I had just bought. Then upstairs till late with my headphones on, listening with keen ears till falling asleep, my dreams becoming videos to the songs I’d just bought.
And then Friday night’s soundtrack was listened to with windows and doors open and a hastily grabbed bath during the advert break of The Tube. The Tube was hosted by Jools Holland and Paula Yates, the bloke you wanted to be and the girl you wanted to go out with, except they were in your living room and talking about the things that ruled your life.
As well as being a music tastemaker, The Tube was the first show to feature A Certain Ratio in their sexy shorts. I was smitten, I’d been bitten. The Tube would give me a start on next week’s list for my splurge at Omega Records. The likes of New Model Army, The Associates, The Cocteau Twins, Devine, The Gun Club, Scraping Foetus Off the Wheel, SPK and Wall of Voodoo. As The Charlatans’ manager, Steve Harrison would eventually be earning 20 per cent of the band’s income, but at this time in his shop he was taking around 80 per cent of my weekly earnings, which I would eagerly hand over on pay day.
Steve was a genuine music fanatic. He was ten years older than me, a veteran from the era of Eric’s in Liverpool and the Electric Circus in Manchester. He was full of stories from those days; fortunately, I could listen to his stories all day long – and I often did. Steve had seen Joy Division and Wire, which was enough to seal the deal on our friendship.
When he became the manager of The Charlatans, before I joined, Steve got them a few gigs.
Would it be inappropriate to say that they weren’t fully formed yet as a band? Yes, maybe it would, so I won’t. I’ll try another way. Let’s just say that they weren’t quite there yet as a band.
But hey, I don’t want to be too harsh. After all, I was in a not fully perfect band myself then, bequiffed and doing cover versions.
The Charlatans’ frontman was Baz Ketley, though it was obvious to me that Martin Blunt, their bass player, was at the helm. He’d been in a couple of bands before, most notably the mod band Makin’ Time, who I had liked. When Makin’ Time broke up I was interested in what each of them was going to do next.
My attention was caught by Martin, who, along with Makin’ Time frontwoman Fay Hallam and The Prisoners’ guitarist, had formed a band called The Gifthorses, which also featured Keith Moon-fanatic, phenomenal powerhouse drummer and West Midlands nutcase Jon Brookes.
One single and a German tour later the band split.
Martin and Jon now formed the backbone of The Charlatans. Years later, after our first show at the Brixton Academy, someone pointed out that they were reminiscent of the Mighty Stax rhythm section. The Brummie MGs. What they needed now was their Booker T.
Around this time the best Hammond organ player in the West Midlands was a character by the name of Rob Collins, who could be regularly seen lugging his X-5 around with local pub outfit The Rembrandts. (Not the LA band who recorded the theme tune to Friends. Nope, this lot were firmly rooted in the Bloxwich underground music scene.)
Martin’s vision was to be in a band like his heroes, The Prisoners. Their sound was based around the Hammond organ, and Martin was listening out for the right person for The Charlatans. Admittedly the West Midlands music scene wasn’t awash with masters of such a specialist instrument, which is way more complicated to play than a regular keyboard. Jon Brookes had played in a band with Rob and suggested he join them – Martin was keen, although Rob’s reputation as a bit of a loose cannon had preceded him, making Martin also a little wary. He had already been charged with a couple of assaults, reportedly only minor pub scrapes or chipshop-queue misunderstandings and always with a willing party. I must say, he was always very protective of me, but though I never saw him set out to start anything, in truth I never saw him duck out either.
This was Rob. He became the newest member of The Charlatans.
Baz Ketley had had various levels of success with ex-members of both The Bureau and Dexy’s Midnight Runners. He was a gifted singer songwriter who was admired in local circles and seemed like a dead cert. Martin invited him to write some songs with them, and Baz became the singer and guitarist in the band.
So The Charlatans now consisted of Martin Blunt on bass, Jon Brookes drums, Rob Collins keyboards and Baz Ketley guitar and vocals.
This was The Charlatans Mk 1. They had a manager, they had a place to rehearse, and they had songs.
Martin retained his mod credentials. Jon had a floppy fringe and reliable blue and white striped t-shirts. Baz sported spikey hair and 501s. Rob had a black leather car coat, faded jeans with ripped knees and … a moustache, grown unannounced. It was a style last seen on one of Dexy’s Midnight Runners circa ‘Geno’, 1980. I imagine he was thinking a bit Clark Gable, while everyone else was thinking Coronation Street’s long-serving grease monkey, Kevin Webster.
Nobody at this early stage knew him well enough, or perhaps was brave enough, to say that, though none of them was really keen on it. It was an unwelcome feature in the group. Steve backed out of telling him, claiming it was out of his managerial jurisdiction.
It was Martin who eventually took it into his own hands and did something about it, although in an unconventional and roundabout way. He had been choosing photos for the band’s very first publicity shot. He picked his favourite, but directly before handing it to Steve he made one small amendment. With a swipe of Tippex the moustache was gone, replaced by a mysterious and obvious white brush stroke on Rob’s upper lip. When Rob saw it, he was at first furious, but he either took a shine to his new look or was embarrassed by the silent censorship. Shortly afterwards the moustache was no more and Rob’s top lip matched the one in the photo.
Steve Harrison invited me to see the band opening for The Stone Roses. I still don’t know if there was an ulterior motive to his actions or whether he was simply proud of his new signings. The Stone Roses were in the early stages of being the band that they were about to become. They were hitting a groove after some line-up and image changes. Mani had just joined and they were exorcizing their Goth beginnings with their new-found Byrdsian jangle. They were now sounding a little like the bands that had recently been lumped together and touted as ‘The Paisley Underground’, a predominantly LA-based scene made up of bands like Rain Parade (check out ‘Talking in My Sleep’ and ‘You Are My Friend’), The Three o’Clock, Dream Syndicate and Green on Red, as championed by Manchester DJ Tony Michaelides, otherwise known as Tony the Greek.
The Roses’ manager, Gareth Evans, owned a club called the International on the corner of Anson Road and Dickenson Road in Longsight (now a Turkish supermarket called Venus Foods, should you be driving past). The venue subsequently became known as International 1 after he opened International 2 on a much bigger site on Plymouth Grove in Rusholme.
Gareth was a manager/club owner/entrepreneur, at a point somewhere between Peter Grant and Ron Atkinson. Like many entrepreneurs, some of his skills in his chosen field were limited. His musical knowledge wasn’t great, and some would say he didn’t know what he had in The Stone Roses. But someone somewhere, maybe him, knew how to book a good gig. His venues hosted some of the most iconic shows ever put on in Manchester: The Pixies, De La Soul, The Housemartins, Jane’s Addiction, Suicide, James, The Inspiral Carpets, The Ramones.
And, on multiple occasions, The Stone Roses.
Gareth became friends with Steve Harrison through Steve’s record shop. And, because he needed musical affirmation, Gareth would ask whether his band was any good. To which Steve would duly reply, ‘Gareth, they are the best band in the world!’ Steve ended up booking some of the Stone Roses gigs outside Manchester, venues like Nottingham Trent Polytechnic, Dudley J.B.’s and Warrington Legends, and he recommended The Charlatans as the support band.
International 2, 6 May 1989
Steve and I walked through the foyer and into the gig. Sweaty bodies dressed in the daisy age long-sleeved t-shirts and loose-fit coolness of the day mixed with regular indie kids and girls. Lots of girls.
Steve confided in me that there was trouble on the horizon, Charlatans-wise. Apparently, Baz was the source of these difficulties.
We made our way through the mass of bodies and ended up about thirty rows from the front, just about the time that The Charlatans hit the stage and kicked off with ‘Hey! Teen’. Jon led, with a Ringo-inspired, all-out, heads-down drum loop. The audience began to move to the beat, and seemed to realize that this was going to be more than your average local filler support slot.
We were standing nearest to Rob, who was fast becoming the focal point. Stage right, Martin epitomized the solid bass-playing cool famously trademarked by John Entwistle of The Who. Front and centre was the figure of Baz, a tough guy in black denim wielding a Fender Telecaster. His stage persona came across like someone who idolized The Clash when the world was shifting over to something a little more West Coast than Westway.
Thinking about that gig now is like having an out-of-body experience, watching somebody play me in a film where I was set to play the ghost of someone else before they’d actually left us.
I might not be putting this very well, but let’s just say time was running out for Baz.
They went through their handful of songs, a couple of which I had heard on demos that Steve had played in the car. They also did a cover version of Department S’s ‘Is Vic There?’ However, the most exciting and memorable part of the set for me was the end section of the final song, a long sprawling psychedelic freakout called ‘Nothing’s Left’, in which Rob really came to the fore. You could see his feet working as fast as his hands through the chrome bumper stand, which gave the impression that the Hammond was levitating in front of him. He was tearing up and down the keyboard, punching, kicking and wrestling out what would become the axis of The Charlatans’ sound, leading to the climax of Jon kicking over his beloved drum kit.
Up till that point I had been a little surprised that, while Martin had got his wish for a Hammond-heavy band, it wasn’t until the final section of the last song that the organ took the lead. Rob literally pulled out all the drawbars. Looking back now, I can see that the band were finding their feet and heading towards a new world – taking steps towards writing songs like ‘Indian Rope’, ‘Everything Changed’ and the set-closing magnum opus, ‘Sproston Green’.
The band left the stage having caught the interest of about a third of the audience. Ian Brown came on stage playing with a yo-yo and the whole crowd erupted. The Stone Roses were on their way.
As fate would have it, it would be Baz who I would get on with best. He had no idea that I was about to get his job, but then again neither did I. I wasn’t aware that the rest of the band were looking beyond Baz for their future.
After the gig I tried to keep my thoughts to myself. But as he was driving me home Steve asked me what I’d made of the band’s performance. He really wanted to know, and since I didn’t appreciate at the time that this was some kind of unorthodox job interview, I offered my opinion a little bit tentatively.
He agreed with me, but told me I was never allowed to tell anyone what he and I had just decided: the band wouldn’t fulfil their potential with Baz there.
Oops, I’ve let the cat out of the bag.
I hope, after all this time, that that’s no major revelation. Martin, Rob and Jon didn’t really like where they were going musically, but Baz was their singer, guitarist and songwriter. They loved The Prisoners, The Stone Roses and the club sounds coming from Detroit and Chicago.
It was 1989 and the Haçienda had morphed from cavernous indie financial drain to sell-out ecstasy-fuelled clubbing vanguard. The yardstick for me was New Order, fresh back from Ibiza holding the masters for their new album. The entire world had changed in a matter of months.
By this stage I was forming a really tight bond with Steve Harrison, spending more and more time in his record shop. So when he booked The Charlatans to play at Northwich Vics’ club, I asked if my band, The Electric Crayon Set, could open.
I had tried to get Steve down to look at my band before, but he had never shown up. I was convinced he didn’t like us, but I wanted him to at least sell our record in his shop. I secretly wanted him to manage us, but anyway he agreed to let us support on this occasion. Rob watched The Electric Crayon Set, and although he wasn’t keen on the band itself he saw something in me. The rest of The Charlatans just took a cursory glance.
I think we did OK – I enjoyed myself, anyway.
I was standing in the front row when The Charlatans themselves came on stage and I found myself singing along to a couple of their songs. When it got to their encore, Martin gestured for me to get up and sing into his mic. Thus emerged The Charlatans Mk 2. Very short-lived – one song – but a highly important transitional line-up.
Rob later told me that he was sure he had found The Charlatans’ new singer that night: me. I was doing cool and aloof at the time so didn’t really respond, but inside I was dancing.
The next obvious step was to tell Baz.
Martin was the de facto leader, and he decided straws would be drawn, as nobody really wanted the job of informing Baz of his fate. They were all scared of him, except perhaps Rob; he just pretended he was scared of him. It was an unpleasant job which nobody wanted to do.
Martin drew first and it was evident that there wouldn’t be any shorter straws, as Martin had cut them up himself. It broke the tension, but increased the look of worry on Martin’s face.
The story goes that Martin knocked on Baz’s door and said to him, ‘Hi-ya, mate, can I talk to you about something for a second?’ To which Baz replied, ‘Yeah, sure. I got something I want to tell you too.’
Baz went first. ‘Listen, Martin, I’ve been thinking that I should leave the band.’
Martin went quiet. ‘Oh! Sorry to hear about that, mate, but if you’ve thought long and hard about it and you’ve made your decision, me and the lads will have to accept it.’
Baz asked Martin what he’d been planning to say. ‘Nothing, really, I was just going to ask you a few questions about Steve and a few bits and bobs about the band – but it doesn’t really matter now.’ And with that he was off the hook.
They were now a singerless, guitarless three-piece. Through Steve they arranged for me to go to their rehearsal room to sing. The term ‘audition’ sounds a little too formal; I already knew them well, and, while I was very aware of their ambition, this getting together was more about hanging out and seeing where it would go, seeing if I could do it – not a shot-in-the-dark Melody Maker small ad.
They were also going to try out a new guitarist called Jon Baker, from Walsall psych band Liquidy Egg Box. They moved fast and had already lined up a rehearsal for us both that weekend.
They were doing exactly what I had hoped.
They sounded like Brian Auger and The Trinity mixed with The Chocolate Watch Band. And Jon Baker looked like a cross between Brian Jones and Graham Day from The Prisoners, so much so that for some reason the credits for ‘The Only One I Know’ refer to him as Jon Day. Perhaps a homage? Perhaps he was still signing on?
This first meeting was in Wednesbury, on a Sunday in late May 1989. Steve drove me there in his black Mercedes. I kept it simple and cool with just a touch of weird: a white t-shirt and dark-blue girls’ flared jeans, with blue Kickers.
My mind was churning. Had they liked me fronting the Crayons? Was I the only candidate? And would I take the job if I was offered it?
It was a secret meet-up, and I had feelings of guilt because The Electric Crayon Set, who were now just called The Electric Crayons, were about to release their debut single, ‘Hip Shake Junkie’ c/w ‘Happy to be Hated’.
I asked Steve exactly what the band were thinking, as everything seemed to be up in the air, but he was quite cagey. Once we were there, I met the band and was introduced to their new guitarist, Jon, who had spent the previous couple of days learning the songs.
We did a cover of ‘Lucifer Sam’ by Pink Floyd, and on the second run-through Martin said to me, ‘Try singing it this time, Tim.’ Blunt by name, blunt by nature, but I got what he said. And so began a band and a set of relationships where everybody felt confident and comfortable enough to say what they thought.
I had myself down as more of a frontman than a singer, and in The Electric Crayons I had been doing my best Iggy-meets-Jim-Morrison impersonation: no shirt, writhing across the stage, shouting and screaming along to ‘LA Woman’, Led Zep’s ‘Houses of the Holy’ and The Stooges’ smash ‘I Wanna Be Your Dog’, as well as a couple of our own songs, so I had lost myself in that style. But, as ever, I immersed myself in my surroundings, and during the next run-through I sang ‘Lucifer Sam’ as softly and with as much fragility as I could. I imagined Syd Barrett whispering in my ear. Martin looked surprised and Rob looked happy, but truthfully I was more surprised than Martin and happier than Rob!
Then we did a couple of Charlatans songs, written by Baz and still considered part of their set. First the sprawling Hammond-jam ‘Nothing’s Left’, which had been the stand-out track at the Roses gig, and also the song I’d sung backing vocals on at the Vics’ club. Then ‘Hey! Teen’ – my favourite of theirs, with its beat reminiscent of ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’. The only trouble was, I had no emotional connection to the lyrics. They had no real meaning for me, and I found it hard to sing as someone else. I wanted to sing about my world, fifty miles away, a world that took in Brighton Rock, Calvin and Hobbes, the West Coast, dinosaurs, Anthony Burgess, Letter to Brezhnev, Felt, Ken Loach, Ken Russell, Kenny Everett, and the thousand and one things that were invading my senses each day.
They then played two instrumentals, one directly after another, and I made up the melodies then and there, inventing the words on the spot, singing about bad girls and saying goodbye. It was what you might call A Moment. A moment of pure magic. It was effortless and spontaneous. This was it. This is what I had been waiting for. I had been thrown in at the deep end, and this was the sound of me emerging drenched but euphoric.
I sang really softly. It was slow and psychedelic. It was the first time I had ever really used my own voice. After Martin passed me a note that read, ‘Don’t bring me flowers, I am not dead,’ I took it as a given that we were in this together. We called the song ‘Flower’, and I knew straight away that we were on to something good. Just over a year later it would be on our debut album.
I wasn’t really sure whether the band were considering anyone else at the time, I certainly didn’t see anybody else in the queue. I know Steve and Rob were already convinced that I was the man for the job, but it’s fair to say that Martin and Jon Brookes needed some persuading.
If Song #1 was ‘Flower’, the second would become ‘Always in Mind’ – an early live favourite that never made the album but did eventually appear on a John Peel Session.
To me this was the kind of song that Rob was made for.
And it felt like the best music I had ever heard in my life.
We went for a drink and they told me quite matter of factly that I was now in The Charlatans. The Charlatans Mk 3.
Now I was in the band I felt more comfortable. The others seemed to feel the same and we all opened up, sharing ideas, tapes and recommendations.
I was into The Rolling Stones’ ‘Child of the Moon’ and Orange Lemon’s ‘Dreams of Santa Anna’. One is Chicago house, the other a B-side of a 1967 single. Quite diverse, but we were looking for the point where they crossed. Jon Brookes threw in ‘Talk Talk’ while Jon Baker contributed Diana Ross and the Supremes’ ‘You Keep Me Hanging On’ and Dionne Warwick’s ‘Do You Know the Way to San Jose?’, as well as all things Roky Erickson. Martin brought The Stranglers and The Move into the mix.
When he was in Makin’ Time, Martin like me was inspired by The Prisoners. They were obviously going to be a big influence. Their lead instrument was the Hammond organ pushed through a wah-wah pedal and distorted Leslie speaker, and their singer’s voice was close to Steve Marriott or Stevie Winwood.
I travelled to London, Leeds and Bradford to see Kent’s greatest exports.
Their albums In from the Cold and The Last Fourfathers helped define The Charlatans’ nascent sound. For reference check out the song ‘Find and Seek’. They supplied us with the mod discipline, an aim for a three-minute rush, all done within strict boundaries set up by the likes of Pete Townshend and Steve Marriott, seen through and magnified by Paul Weller and now being meddled with by our various conflicting, complementary musical tastes: punk, acid, prog and even hip-hop.
But if there was a blueprint in Martin’s mind for the post-Baz Charlatans it was to splice the looseness of the emerging new sounds of Manchester’s Chicago/Detroit-influenced groove with the retro-tightness and primal energy of The Prisoners.
Which is what I think we achieved.
There seems to be a dispute as to where exactly the band are from. Because Steve had an office in Northwich, it was decided that that was where the HQ would be. I slept there on boxes of records from time to time, riffling through the stock and asking Steve for permanent loans. But the majority of the band were living in the West Midlands: Walsall, West Bromwich and Wolverhampton. In my opinion we were never a Midlands band. We were always a Manchester band.
Or a Northwich band!
I’m not sure why people get so hung up about it. Didn’t Ian Brown say it’s not where you’re from, it’s where you’re at?
When I first started hanging out with the band, I would spend time writing with Rob and Martin, and I would stay over at Rob’s house. The first night I stayed there, he offered me a cigarette and informed me, ‘A lot of people say I look like Paul McCartney.’ The only link I could think of was a penchant for a now-absent dodgy tash. Maybe there was a similar warmth in the eyes, but I was getting more Rodney Bewes.
He said, ‘Maybe we could be the new Lennon and McCartney.’ I was thinking we could be the new Likely Lads.
Looking at old photos now, I would say he had more of the look of Stu Sutcliffe. He loved Julian Lennon, probably just because he was the son of John and Cynthia. No disrespect, but he was the only person I’ve ever heard enthuse about Julian’s work.
Rob had been a gravedigger and during our first discussions he seemed to get quite excited about explaining his former line of work.
I told the band I wanted to write our lyrics, but Martin’s defences were up after the odd mauling at the hands of labels and the music business in general. Martin was the most experienced member of the band. He had put out an album with his old group on Stiff Records, which was a major label; after its demise they put another record out under their own steam, without much success. His caution was well founded given his experience. Looking back I can see that we were a bunch of giddy kippers who were just eager to play gigs and make records, but Martin wasn’t going to settle for anything short of the right way. He definitely had the best interests of the band at heart, and he thought this was his last chance. At 24, after a glimpse into the world of showbiz, he had had to pick up his old brushes and was working once more as a painter and decorator.
He didn’t want the door closing on him again, especially if he was expected to sand it down, undercoat it and gloss it.
Our main aim was to keep at arm’s length the kind of boring life mapped out for people like us – not that there was any problem with living that way. From very early on lots of people, particularly young men, kind of pinned their hopes on us. There was a responsibility that came with being in a band. It was a responsibility I had spent so long avoiding, yet it tracked me down and I think I liked it.
The gigs from the outset were a release of anything and everything. People seemed to be able to express themselves in an unbridled way. They were like what I had become accustomed to seeing in the Haçienda, outward displays of affection from people who wouldn’t normally do that kind of thing. I had witnessed enough gigs to realize there was something special going on here, and from our very early beginnings we all agreed to look after what came with being The Charlatans.
Meanwhile, The Stone Roses and The Inspiral Carpets were taking their ’60s-tinged psychedelic anthems into the indie charts, which was the ultimate aim and meant more than anything at the time. Both bands were selling as many t-shirts as records, to the extent that the Inspirals were effectively being funded by their merchandise sales. They were taking their fans abroad on coach parties organized by the management themselves. These were small, upcoming managers and promoters with big ideas. Steve Harrison, The Inspiral Carpets’ manager Anthony Boggiano, The Happy Mondays’ manager Nathan McGough and Gareth Evans had lots of differences, but they also shared many qualities. All possessed a Northern spirit making them more like extra members of their respective bands than orthodox managers.
If the rulebook was not being ripped up exactly, it was certainly being thrown around a bit. The Stone Roses were on the verge of something really big. And I mean really big. Their single ‘Elephant Stone’ was doing well. And I mean really well.
I was into The Happy Mondays. I saw them live in London at a student-union bar in support of their first album. I loved their wild-bunch, chancer attitude. I saw them open for New Order in Birmingham promoting their second LP, Bummed, which at that time I thought was the best album of all time. This was 1988, and it’s still in my Top 10, though my favourite album of all time changes from day to day.
What would I have done if I had not been in a band?
Actually, I was quite happy in my day jobs. I had worked my way through mail-delivery boy, toilet cleaner, labourer and office worker.Yet enjoyable as it was, meeting people and having a relatively responsibility-free existence, I felt I needed more. The only thing that fulfilled me 100 per cent was music. I was happy with my tapes and my coffee, dreaming of making records, but other things called.
I’d been in The Electric Crayon Set with John, Alex and Nick. John was a decent guitarist, an amalgam of Steve Jones and Billy Duffy. Everyone in the band loved Iggy Pop – New Values was the record we all agreed on.
I chose the name The Electric Crayon Set from a UK psych compilation album on Bam-Caruso Records; there were some great tracks on it by The Poets, The Flies and The Mark Four, an early incarnation of The Creation. It was John who shortened our name to The Electric Crayons. What he had against those three other letters I will never know.
We recorded a single, paid for by me, and the day I joined The Charlatans was the day it came out. John was furious and saw me as a traitor for leaving them in the lurch. I have never seen anyone so upset. He became my first hater.
The decision to leave The Electric Crayons was an easy one for me, but I knew they would take it really hard. I was certainly Judas for a while in their circles. As soon as The Charlatans’ first single, ‘Indian Rope’, came out, the music weeklies got letters giving me grief, all in the same handwriting and all from the same village.
It would be fair to say that abandoning The Electric Crayons was the first cut-throat decision I ever had to make.
My first gig as lead singer of The Charlatans was in Walsall, on Tuesday, 29 August 1989, at a place called the Overstrand. It was Jon Baker’s hometown and he was the booker for the club; the entrance fee was £1.50. We had seven original songs at the time: ‘Always in Mind’, ‘Flower’, ‘Everything Changed’, ‘Indian Rope’, ‘You Can Talk to Me’, ‘Imperial 109’ and ‘Sproston Green’. I had joined in late May ’89, so it had been pretty fast and furious on the songwriting front.
But you know how it is when you first really get into something? You can fully throw yourself into it. We thought we could play our first gig as soon as we wrote our first songs. All we talked about after we’d written those first few was:
When are we gonna play?
Where are we gonna play?
When are we gonna demo?
There was an intense chemistry between us during those first four months. We had all been waiting for this to happen to us. It really was like falling head over heels in love.
The idea/manifesto/only-thing-we-knew was to play live a couple of times and then go and record a demo.
Steve Harrison had sent out letters to record companies with a press release and a clipping from a football fanzine called Hit the Bar, who claimed that they had seen us at a private party in Manchester. They hadn’t.
It was something me and him had come up with in the stockroom in Steve’s new shop in Crewe. There were quotes from me saying, ‘The Charlatans are necessary and necessary is something you can’t do without,’ and ‘I think we will be the third biggest band in the world!’ These were actually remarks I had made to a drunken girl trying to chat me up at Rob’s wedding the week before. (Well, she was either chatting me up or taking the piss; I couldn’t tell which with the Brummie accent.) Steve had been listening in and used my quotes on the press release, so it’s not like they had never been said. It was just that they had been said by the singer. That’s not cheating, is it? Into his mate’s fanzine, taken right outta my mouth.
Steve showed me the piece, photocopied it and sent out the press release. I thought it was great! Loog Oldham-inspired.
It worked as well. It got people interested in the band. A word-of-mouth thing started to happen. I soon figured out that if you own a record shop and you have reasonable taste, then people will listen to you.
I guess Steve thought of himself as a kind of Brian Epstein at this point.
We had great songs and a couple of oil lamps, which we used to light the stage. I think they were Rob’s. He found them in his neighbour’s garage, so they were kind of his.
Anyway, back to the gig. We came on stage to ‘Across the Universe’ by The Beatles and ‘Age of Aquarius’ by The Fifth Dimension, lit by those lamps, or psychedelic lights as we liked to think of them, and we had ‘Sproston Green’ to end the set.
We really thought about every detail: what to wear, the complete look. It was really important, especially to me, Martin and Steve. And it set the tone, set the standard. If we were going to get anywhere, we had to think about the smallest things. The manifesto grew at the same time as the songs.
We wanted to be a psychedelic band, and it had to be Northern. I was the singer: they would be my words, our vision. We felt that people like The Jesus and Mary Chain and the shoegazing gang had kept it dark for a long time. We wanted to throw a splash of colour and optimism into our world. Acid house and the pills, and my current love of anything ’60s West Coast kaleidoscopic: it all seemed to be coming from the same place.
Our second gig was in Northwich, at the Winnington Rec Social Club on Friday, 1 September. The crowd at the Overstrand had mostly been friends of Jon Baker. There wasn’t a stage and there were fewer than fifty people: audience and band as one. The Northwich gig was huge in comparison, I guess because it was close to Manchester and the record shop, or perhaps because the buzz had begun.
It was nuts, kids jumping around everywhere. It was off the hook. I remember Gareth Evans coming to see us and telling us we would go far and saying things like, ‘The kids loved it.’ This was the first time someone with any kind of clout had said something so positive. It made us believe even more.
The next gig, at J.B.’s in Walsall, maintained the upward trajectory.
I remember the local newspaper saying at the time that anyone interested in what the band were up to should talk to Tim if they saw him wandering about town, and that he wouldn’t be hard to miss in his 24-inch flares and his bowl haircut. As the weeks passed, more of my mates took on that look.
My favourite song in the set was ‘Indian Rope’, a six-minute Hammond organ solo with a little bit of singing over the top. The singing wasn’t the focal point, though, it was just a melody that went along with the beat for a while before the Hammond took on a huge apocalyptic Bob Marley meets Julie Driscoll, Brian Auger and The Trinity stampede.
I sang along with what was being played. The words were not telling a story, but they were carefully chosen, reflecting and enhancing the mood, the sound and the melody. I also wanted the titles of the songs not necessarily to have any direct reference to the lyrics, to be vibe-inspired. And I wanted to see how far I could push it. For instance, the song ‘You Can Talk to Me’ I wanted to call ‘Choose Time’ and ‘You’re Not Very Well’ was originally titled ‘Some Friendly’. Our debut single made no reference to Indian rope apart from in the title. I thought if I gave them ‘mood titles’ it would imbue the songs with an air of mystery.
The words started to write themselves. It wasn’t anything as conscious as going direct from my head to my hand, they just seemed to arrive.
We wrote ‘Indian Rope’ one weekend along with ‘The Only One I Know’ and ‘Sproston Green’. Me lying on the floor, pen in mouth, surrounded by screwed-up pieces of paper containing lyrics that hadn’t made the grade;
Rob smoking a Benson and Hedges and fiddling with chord progressions;
Jon Baker taking photographs, our newly appointed roadie, Derek, also taking photographs;
Steve making phone calls and going to the off-licence;
Jon Brookes tapping away and then leaving for his holidays;
Martin playing his bass, chipping in with lyrics and cadging cigarettes from Rob.
There was never just one new song taking shape, there were always a few. ‘Sproston Green’ was inspired by John Lennon. I had read that once during a recording Lennon had used a megaphone while being spun round in a chair. Inspired, I decided to put a microphone inside a biscuit tin. I retired to my dad’s garage, together with an empty shortbread tin, a drill and some ideas.
I drilled a hole the size of a ten-pence piece in the bottom of the tin. The mic fitted in snugly. Then I drilled holes the size of pinheads in the lid. It was my own invention, although nothing went to the patent office should you fancy making one.
The result? Well, it never made it onto the album, but it was definitely part of the process that led to the final sound.
The song is a repetitive three-chord Spacemen 3 build-up, with a hint of The Who and The Beatles. Lyrically it’s about a liaison in the park and is a little short on romance. We weren’t taking any drugs to help us write, it was all pure adrenalin, natural energy. Sure, we would go out at night, but the rehearsals were deadly serious. We practised only on Wednesdays and Sundays: Wednesdays from 7 p.m. till midnight, Sundays from 2 till midnight.
So ‘Indian Rope’, ‘Sproston Green’ and ‘The Only One I Know’ were written on a Sunday. I’m not sure whether they have a churchy vibe, but they are heavy on the organ and Rob’s dad was a vicar.
It was beautiful, just playing music. I remember coming up with the middle eight for the song ‘You Can Talk to Me’ on a warm Wednesday evening with Rob, while the rest of the band went to the pub leaving us to get on with it. I would try to hum chord progressions, he would make sense of them on the keyboard. I would dance round the room, shuffling rhythmically, keeping the feeling of constant movement.
A lot of the early song ideas actually came from Martin and Rob. Maybe I would contribute a drum beat or a chorus – and always the lyrics. Martin was the judge; everything had to pass muster with him.
From September 1989 till the start of the new decade we were getting big really quickly.
In November, we played the Boardwalk in Manchester, which held about 300 people. We had to sell tickets ourselves to play, which is often the rule. We must have sold 200 in advance. We had a busload of fifty to sixty kids travelling up from the Midlands, and a rumbling of a following in Manchester. We were opening for Cactus World News, who were popular at the time. But after we played, the place emptied, slashing the audience to fewer than twenty; a sign of the shifting times, maybe?
Our next Boardwalk gig was part of our first UK tour, which kicked off in late January 1990 in support of our debut single, ‘Indian Rope’. The gig sold out two weeks in advance.
I gave up my job at ICI in Runcorn in January 1990. As I handed in my resignation, I knew I would never walk through those doors again, but Neil, the boss at the office, kindly said he would keep the position open for me.
I was living at home. I was permanently skint, the curse of those with rock ’n’ roll dreams. But somehow I always seemed to be clutching a bag of records and was always on my way to or back from gigs. They were great times.
I would always be working on lyrics, too. ‘The Only One I Know’ arrived on a late-night walk to the local garage. My Dictaphone went everywhere with me. I was a bit self-conscious about using it, although I was well aware that it had an air of otherworldly cool after I’d seen agent Dale Cooper in Twin Peaks.
I always used to channel ideas during my nightly walk and indeed still do. I’ve been a bit of a pacer all my life, and in those days I would listen intently to instrumental jams on my Walkman while strolling along.
We recorded the demo of ‘The Only One I Know’ in Lanes End Studio, Shropshire.
Steve organized it. He was an important part of what we were doing. He was older, he had the resources and the fact that he had a record shop meant that, for me at least, we had a cool place to base the best band in the world!
Anyway, before all that we had ‘Indian Rope’ to record.
I admired the instinctive pop approach of Bernard Sumner and Lou Reed, the unkempt simplicity of Syd Barrett and the disjointed English prole prose of Mark E. Smith. No matter what, you just always seemed to get the real them.
They were my favourite singers, so I did have something to go on. At the same time I have always felt an affinity with guitar players, because maybe I knew deep down I would always have to rely on one. Bowie had Ronson, Mick had Keith; I was looking for whatever it was in Jon Baker. I didn’t know then that it wouldn’t be him; meanwhile in a rehearsal room somewhere a guitarist called Mark Collins was being the best thing about The Waltones …
Recording ‘Indian Rope’ with Chris Nagle was probably the highlight of my life up to this point. Chris was the engineer for almost all my favourite Factory releases. He was Martin Hannett’s sidekick and a producer in his own right. Steve had fixed it all up, and I just thought it was brilliant that we’d be working with him.
We worked the night shift in Strawberry Studios, Stockport, because of the cheaper rates. There was a kitchen which Ian Curtis would have used, a sofa where Paul McCartney must have sat, a bathroom where 10cc would have washed their hair, and a peg on which Bobby Elliott would have hung his hat. The excitement of being in this particular studio was one thing; the thought of ending up with a single from there meant that we had taken another step.
Backing it with a couple of B-sides, we pressed it up on vinyl ourselves, and Steve put it out on his label, which was called Dead Dead Good – a term I used when getting over-excited about anything.
We went out on tour in January 1990 to promote the single, and on the first day I had a car crash on the way back from Manchester, outside the Smoker Inn in Knutsford. The woman whose car I hit pulled out suddenly from the central lane into the fast lane. I hit her as I was breaking, but I must have been doing 70 mph, slowing down to about 50 on impact.
A lot of things go through your mind in the seconds before something like this. Would my first record with the band be my last? Had me getting this far just been a cruel joke? Would I be remembered?
I blacked out for a second as the two cars collided with a crunch of metal, followed by the high-pitched screaming of an engine. Then silence.
I opened my eyes, and I was still on the A556, surrounded by smashed glass, a crumpled wing and some gathering rubberneckers. I ran through a quick physical inventory and, apart from blurred vision, a terrible headache and some whiplash, I seemed to be in working order. I rushed over to the other car to find the driver quite shaken too. She had a broken leg, and she soon left in an ambulance.
My thoughts then turned to that night’s gig in Stoke-on-Trent. I ran to the pub and called Steve. He picked me up and dusted me down, and we headed straight for the soundcheck. It turned out that my car was a write-off. I left it where it was and I never saw it again.
The tour brought in some great reviews, and the response to the single was incredible. John Robb wrote about us for Sounds, and on his recommendation they gave us our first cover feature.
We went to Glasgow, and it now seemed that the further we were from home the more fervent the reaction. We played King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut and Scotland became our home away from home.
I went back to King Tut’s many years later, and on the stairs leading up to the live room were the names of some of the bands who’d played their most iconic gigs. ‘The Charlatans’ was written on the first step.
In Leeds I remember local band The Bridewell Taxis challenging us to some kind of tribal regional punch-up at the Duchess of York. We declined. Present at that Leeds gig was local fanzine writer James Brown. He was one of the first truly inspirational characters that I met on our voyage. At this point the band had been speeding up and down the M1, M6 and A1, word of mouth bringing us most of our new fans. James could see what was happening and knew how to translate the buzz into writing. He had started a fanzine called Attack On Bzag in Leeds in the early ’80s, and with his fiercely brave writing style, he had taken on the world.
In 1986 he started working at the NME, and almost singlehandedly altered the face of the paper. At 21, he became their youngest features editor. He was there when it went from selling 70,000 a week to 120,000 a week.
Without taking too long to think about it he documented the times and just went with it. In the excitement and perhaps without them noticing, the old guard were being ushered out. This inspired us. You see someone doing something on a parallel path and it’s the affirmation you might not have been looking for – but when you clock it, it inspires and accelerates your work.
Because he was a journalist and I was an artist starting out on my quest, there was a mutual interest that turned into respect, but a kind of distance, too – a reticence about jumping in fully. Perhaps we were both still a little nervous of failure.
If The Stone Roses and The Happy Mondays were first and second in the NME’s view of the hierarchy, we were perhaps third, fourth or fifth – but we were James’s favourite band. As he moved up the ladder, our trajectory was upwards too, but it wasn’t like he was helping us without conviction.
Two things in the NME helped power us up: Single of the Week for ‘Indian Rope’ and a review of our debut London gig at the Powerhouse.
The Charlatans, ‘Indian Rope’ (Dead Dead Good)
What really happened when the monkey shot the organ-grinder. A soundtrack for the manic daisy – it is lazy – head, ‘Indian Rope’ has lashings of eerie organ, trippy vocals and a charisma that’ll have the JTQ cowering behind their Hammond and Shaun Ryder trembling in his purple moccasins – the ones he’ll only wear inside his flat. Undoubtedly the darlings of top society magazine Cheshire Life, The Charlatans stuff you inside their kaleidoscope and fling you back in time to the days when The Doors seemed as dangerous as the Vietnam war and NKOTB were mere pieces of sperm. The groovy ‘Indian Rope’ is as refreshingly long as it is laid back, an excellent first single.
A Whiter Shade of Male
THE CHARLATANS, LONDON POWERHOUSE
Nine hundred and twenty-four years ago – when William The Conq took Albion – did his victorious forces end each battle with the chant ‘Normandy nah nah nah, Normandy nah nah nah’? Just a thought. Tonight the fans, the ones that curve their bodies through that spectacular freakie dancing, are sandwiched between a hard wedge of music industry types bar-side and five boys trading songs from a psychedelic supermarket in front. Subtlety has been stamped out and layers of excitement and expectation collide eagerly. The difference between the two audiences (fans/industry) is manifold. The spotty beer-bellied bubble heads in their Modernist t-shirts and wide jeans have travelled with the Home-Pride skinned daisy age freaks from Manchester in an international luxury coach. It cost them a tenner for both the ticket to ride and the ticket to enter. The 150 who made the coach, and the hordes who’ve hit the capital from Aldershot, Cheshire and Wolverhampton, know what they’re going to get and they are bristling with anticipation. Theirs is the sound of hyped-up youth and downed lagers.
Leon Trotsky once reckoned that money talks but it don’t sing and dance and it don’t walk, and the record company men – the managing directors, the A&R people, the agents and the press officers who’d got here in their company cars – proved him right. Gary Crowley joshed with the whole of Phonogram’s A&R team; a gaggle of agents predicted how big or small The Charlatans would be in the coming months, the air was thick with corporate but trendy expectation. This is the sound of Big Money smiling.
The Charlatans came on and knocked their teeth out. When bowling ball-eyed singer Tim announced: ‘We’re the best band in the world’ and sprinted off into a set that attempted wholeheartedly to prove it I was reminded of Peter Hook laying the same claim two years ago. Remembering how poor Revenge were last week, it’s clear just how fast things have changed. Splashing away inside a bath of projected oil lamps the five mop-tops played their teenage psycho-delia with passion and confidence. Down the front, amongst the jungle of slack tops and rushing arms, amidst the undisciplined head-rolling and the free-form funk of young bodies, it was a different world to the space by the bar I’d watched the opening numbers from. Stage right, a beefy lad fingered a huge coffin-shaped Hammond organ until it shrieked its hellish harmonies across its followers like some weird entrancing voo-doo hoo-doo. Clear drug music minus the narcissism or drudgery, powered by energy, adoration and mutual excitement. The band weren’t so much sexy as brash and naive. Wanting to be cocky but ending up praising the audience. The songs came and went like the colours on a scrambled satellite channel. They opened up with ‘Only One I Know’ and didn’t stop for breath until they were singing ‘Sonic’ and ‘Polar Bear’, songs about helicopters and ‘looking for the orange ones’ – whatever that means. Lining the walls with their merchandising, The Charlatans have got more t-shirts for torsos than they have gigs under the belt; tonight was their 13th. This band infected the capital. It’s been difficult for domeheads the last few years, lagging with drug fatigue and retrogressive role models, but The Charlatans manage to give a positive kick to an often old sound. They’re exciting and yet shy, but not constipated, irksome, or tight-assed like so many other young bands. Like The Stone Roses they have charisma, it takes a while to stoke itself up but when it starts rolling the energy that bounds between the rhythm section and the Hammond is dynamic. Vocalist Tim lets his vocals ooze gingerly into the crevices and then explodes, his body rattling like the plastic chips in a kaleidoscope.
It isn’t their birthplace that’s made them interesting, they’re not actually from Manchester, nor is it the visual similarities to Ian Brown’s brilliant gang, but simply the energy, the throb, the confidence. They’ve a real feel for what they do. They’re Shaun Ryder’s children, but this is a whiter shade of male. The times have changed. Here comes the next Vietnam.
According to that week’s issue I was Shaun Ryder’s younger and prettier brother.
James came backstage after the gig and told us it was the best one he had ever been to. He said he was going to do a big live feature and give us a mention on the cover. We were freaking out. I was worried that it might be too much too soon, but he was convinced we were going to be massive. He stuck to his guns and we were namechecked on the cover like he said.
It gave me a sense of fear, as I’d seen bands hyped who then became whipping boys until they were finished. The inkies, as they were known, the NME, Melody Maker and Sounds, were famous for having a ‘we built you up so we’ll now knock you down’ mentality. Remember Birdland? I didn’t want us to become like them – some kind of forgotten footnote. But there was little I could do about it anyway.
I guess that’s the similarity between a band and a journalist. James was doing his job and asking us to go along with it, just like we were doing our thing and asking the world to come along with us. Let a dreamer dream.
Dreams can become reality; we were ploughing our own groove, but now we were unwittingly part of a bigger picture. Our generation was making its contribution to music history. Kids were taking lessons learned from punk, and the drug of choice was bringing out a collective euphoria reflected in a blissed-out soundtrack. Visually, the fresh, beautiful and debauched photos of Kate Moss by Corinne Day in The Face would kick-start heroin chic.
The daisy age was upon us.
It was the first time a band could self-release and get in the Top 75, when Top of the Pops was highly relevant and MTV was still mostly a music channel, pre-Facebook, pre-internet, pre-mobile phones. The Chart Show was TV’s only other Top 40 rundown – no superfluous presenters, just videos. As ever, we watched, and it said we were No. 1 in their indie chart. Then a caption popped up saying that ‘Indian Rope’ would be featured the following week. Eek! We had no video and no time to make one. Steve didn’t know what to do, so he sent them a photograph. We were convinced it wouldn’t be enough and we’d miss our chance. We still watched anyway, and there it was: on mymum and dad’s telly, our song playing to the hungover millions across the UK, alongside the promo shot that Steve had sent them. They had trimmed off the Northwich address.
According to John Robb, writing for Sounds, ‘the band are the soundtrack to a barmy crew of acid-casual, energy-burning joyheads … energy, excitement and execution – the three E’s that are counting for so much.’ We were being encouraged to help usher in new times. ‘Good riddance to the hellfudge zone that was the ’80s,’ was John’s final note in his review from Manchester University in March 1990.
Meanwhile, James Brown was changing the landscape around us, like a single little advance party, causing radio and TV people to sit up and take notice. He filled the gap between the audience and the businessmen, a mad fucker from Leeds into football and Factory Records, stagediving into the middle of it and then mingling with the money men to tell them what they were missing down the front.
I remember asking Martin, when we were recording ‘Indian Rope’, whether he thought we would ever top that song. I just thought it was the best thing I had ever heard.
‘Yes, of course we will,’ he said, and he was right.
Between ‘Indian Rope’ and our second single, ‘The Only One I Know’, I began to trust the people around me, people with experience and enthusiasm like Martin Blunt and James Brown. My natural self-doubt started to melt away.
We had everybody chasing us for a signature: Phonogram, Sire, Island, pretty much all the big guns. But there was one label, Beggars Banquet, that I really liked because they had The Cult, The Fall and Bauhaus. And the rest of the band liked them because they were an independent. Eventually, label boss Martin Mills got our signature over sandwiches in a pub in Wednesbury, which again we liked. It was a little bit perverse, a million miles away from the Groucho Club.
We liked Martin and his A&R man Roger Trust because they had been turning up at all the gigs no matter what. They drove to a Manchester gig in a blizzard, which was a big deal because the A&R from London Records called up to say he couldn’t make it as the weather was too bad.
Beggars went the extra mile, in fact the extra 163 miles, even if it was full of snow. They actually met my mum and dad that night, which was again quite cool. I’m not sure now why it seemed important, but I guess I was still quite young.
Martin promised he could do all a major label could do sales-wise in countries we had never even dreamed of playing, and promised also to give us the freedom we wanted artistically. He said all bands think they have creative and artistic freedom, but if they are signed to a major label, they actually don’t. We believed him! We had developed a major-label phobia, and we wanted to be a major act on an indie label. So we signed with Beggars Banquet for a six-album deal, and we went into the studio a couple of weeks later to begin work on our second single and our first for Martin Mills/Beggars Banquet.
We were going to record ‘Polar Bear’, but when I got to the Windings Studio in Wrexham, Roger Trust had been leaving messages telling us to go with ‘The Only One I Know’. We all thought it was a great choice, because the reaction to it at the gigs was off the hook. Steve Harrison, though, didn’t agree – he thought it was the wrong way to go. But we went ahead and recorded it, and everything in our lives changed.
‘The Only One I Know’ is essentially a Northern soul/Motown record spliced with Iggy Pop’s ‘Lust for Life’ and ‘Hush’ by Deep Purple, with a Diana Ross intro as the chorus. The lyrics were about being crushed and broken-hearted. We mixed it at Strawberry Studios again, and it became the hit record of the summer of 1990, arguably the biggest worldwide hit of the whole Manchester scene. It was all down to timing. When ‘The Only One I Know’ broke, the Inspirals were in the charts as well with ‘This Is How It Feels to Be Lonely’. Every label seemed to want its own band from that scene, and some monumentally bad bands got signed while others got lost in the crush: The High, Paris Angels, Intastella, World of Twist, The Mock Turtles, Northside, Milltown Brothers, Candyskins, New FADS, The Soup Dragons (even though they were Scottish), Flowered Up (even though they were from London), The Bridewell Taxis (even though they were from Leeds) – you decide what category they belong to.
In May we went on our third tour of 1990, put on by a fledgling Northern promoter called Simon Moran, who had worked with us on our second tour of the year in March. The speed at which things were moving can be seen in the sizes of the venues we were being booked into. In January we played venues of around 80–150 capacity, like Aldershot’s Buzz Club, the Wheatsheaf in Stoke and Southampton’s Joiners Arms. The March tour was at places like Nottingham Trent Uni, Sheffield Uni and a hometown gig at Manchester Uni, now the Academy 2, with a sold-out crowd of over 900. In June we were playing the Town & Country Club (now the HMV Forum) in London to over 2,300 fans. I was nervous that I was going to be nervous, but, surprisingly, I was freaked out by not being freaked out. It felt really natural and I just went with it. And the more lights we had, the less of the ever-increasing and increasingly enthusiastic audiences I could actually make out.
As we travelled up and down the country in the van, we would turn on the radio and hear our song being played, just like the stars do in those music biog films. No sooner had we picked up a few plays on night-time radio with the likes of John Peel than we were seemingly A-listed on daytime Radio 1, played six or seven times a day by Simon Bates, ‘Ooh’ Gary Davies and even Steve Wright. I was imagining kids listening in Dixons, painters and plasterers listening on their scaffolding, our own mums and dads in their kitchens.
In London people would beep their horns, I would look round and strangers would be waving at me. Back home, my mum never had to wait for the bus again, as people were always offering her lifts into Northwich. She was the most recognizable mum in the village.
We made our first video with ‘The Only One I Know’. Up to then we’d never thought about it – to me videos meant Thriller. We made ours in a warehouse near Northwich. There seemed no point in going grand – it would be against the spirit of the band. The only way to do it was get a warehouse, plug in, play loud and let our mates wander in as the word got around.
It was directed by Kim Peters, who designed our first seven singles covers and two album sleeves. He was a graphic-designer pal of Steve Harrison’s and was becoming a friend and fan of the band. He was also a bit older than us, and like Steve had been a regular at Eric’s in Liverpool.
He was very enthusiastic, but he had never made videos before. We had never made records before, and Steve had never managed anyone before, so it seemed like we were all in it together.
It goes without saying that there was always a posse of people following us, taking drugs and generally hanging out with the band. The video for ‘The Only One I Know’ was essentially a free warehouse party. And the arrests were real. We filmed the cops taking out a few kids. No one seemed to mind.
Since we were known for our live performances and our accessibility there was no need for a script, a storyline and the usual pop-video flab.
‘The Only One I Know’ entered the charts at No. 21. ‘Indian Rope’ had peaked at 89. A single just outside the Top 20 was hard enough to take in, but the following week it broke into the Top 20. The week after that we gathered round the radio to listen to the Top 40 on Radio 1. And we were No. 9. Top 10 singles meant people like David Bowie or even Duran Duran. It was now possible to add our name to that list.
We’d pressed 5,000 copies of ‘Indian Rope’, which seems like a lot now, but it sold out within a day by word of mouth. We ended up re-pressing and selling 15,000 with just one advert in Sarah Champion’s ace Manchester fanzine, Scam.
‘The Only One I Know’ was available in Woolworth’s. My nan would see it next to the pic ’n’ mix. Some die-hard punks might have called this selling out, but I called it the most exciting time of my life.
The world seemed to be revolving around Manchester. Every magazine, radio station and TV show was overrun with Manc personalities. We went on The Word, a TV show hosted by Mancunian motormouth Terry Christian, one of the first people to ever play our music. He had a radio show in Manchester and had played the demo of ‘Indian Rope’.
I remember being interviewed on the streets by film crews from London asking what it was like to be a real Mancunian. Of course, I said I was from Salford.
I don’t remember hanging out with other bands too much. We were aloof, we were moody, and we kept ourselves to ourselves. We thought that talking to other bands would dilute our spirit or let our secrets out, so we just did our own thing. I’m not sure where these thoughts and attitudes came from, but, remember, we were making it up as we went along. I do, however, recall being quite happy to meet The Pixies. Kim Deal was my favourite bass player and we appeared on The Word together.
We went back to the Windings in Wrexham to record our first album. As the 1990 World Cup was starting, ‘The Only One I Know’ went from No. 9 back to 10, to 15, to 19, and then to 31, where James’s ‘Come Home’, The Inspiral Carpets’ ‘She Comes in the Fall’ and The Soup Dragons’ ‘I’m Free’ were all within five places of us. The record went on to sell over 250,000 copies, and The Charlatans were now public property.
Nationally we had hit a groove, and the next step was to take it international. We started going to radio stations and were asked to do phoners all over the world. It was fun but harder than I ever imagined. Every radio station in America had me recording what they call ‘idents’, in which I had to claim that I listened to them.
Hi, this is Tim Burgess from The Charlatans UK, and whenever I’m in town I listen to Mikey Rozenowski’s hand-picks on the hour on WMZQ 98.7. Stay tuned for the traffic news at 9.
Just try reading that again out loud without stumbling over any of the words and sounding hugely excited. There are over eighty radio stations in Texas; times that by twenty DJs at each station, times that by fifty states, and you’ll see that the task was pretty daunting. But we were keen to go along with it.
Then Radio 1’s breakfast presenter Simon Mayo called up, expecting us to jump. I remember answering the phone in the Windings main reception area during the latter stages of the making of our all-consuming debut album. He was giving us Single of the Week for ‘The Only One I Know’. He said I had to call in at six in the morning.
Now, the only time I ever saw 6 a.m. in those days was as the end of one day rather than the start of the next. I was still a punk at heart, and chit-chat with breakfast DJs wasn’t what I’d signed up for. I said I couldn’t do it because I would be sleeping.
He was furious, the Nicey exterior replaced by the growl of an ogre with a dented ego. He informed me that the one-and-only Billy Joel had called him last week from New York to do his show when he was given Single of the Week. The fact that Billy Joel had done it the previous week encapsulated the very reason I didn’t want to.
We turned down a flurry of shows, including Going Live, which I liked to watch but which wasn’t the type of programme that we thought should figure in our (non-existent) masterplan. We also turned down the Brits because they were organized by Jonathan King.
Further afield, TV appearances were more of a gamble. We were unaware of the content of any given show in, say, Japan, Italy or Spain – but we were slightly less bothered because our mates couldn’t see us. Anyway, it was either sit and watch TV in the hotel and not understand it, or actually be on the programme and not understand it. Characters in oversized costumes would often appear, wielding custard pies. In Japan I remember being followed and somewhat upstaged by a Japanese Jimi Hendrix impersonator.
One of the most popular questions I get asked, particularly during UK radio or magazine interviews, is why The Charlatans have lasted so long. To me it’s been just as much about what we have turned down as much as what we have done.
So Simon Mayo told me I would never be played on Radio 1 again. Was I claiming to be bigger than Billy Joel? Or Simon Mayo? I was confused. It was like my John Lennon, bigger-than-Jesus moment, except ‘Burgess bigger than Mayo’ was never going to get quite the same headlines. It felt like we were starting to make enemies already. But, you know, we did get played on Radio 1 again.
This was also the time when I began to tell everyone, tongue firmly in cheek, that we were the most important band in the world. That didn’t go down too well either. We were definitely the most important band in the world to me.
The journalists would supply the intoxicants until they got the quote that would appear above the interview or on the cover in bold type. Hotel suite, tea, chips, lager, shots, champagne, disarming nature and sometimes even coke. Almost every inducement would be proffered. Masters of this particular art were the brilliant Stud Brothers from the Melody Maker, somewhere between good cop/bad cop and Bert and Ernie.
When our first album, Some Friendly, debuted at No. 1, there was a massive editorial in the Daily Mirror saying that The Charlatans were the biggest band in the world. Forget Guns N’ Roses, forget this, forget that, ‘The Charlatans are straight in at No. 1, the first band to achieve this since Johnny Hates Jazz’ – OK, I would have preferred someone better, too – almost three years earlier.
If The Stone Roses and The Happy Mondays had opened the door, we invited everyone in and poured the drinks.
We were No. 1. Did I say that?
Ham on rye, hold the mayo.
Our first ever gig in America was at the Marquee in New York in 1990. It was one of the biggest signs to us that we’d made it, or were at least on our way to making it. We were told that the city’s glitterati were there, including Martin Scorsese. I’ve since learnt that the 14-year-old Mark Ronson was there too, reviewing the gig for a school paper. He’d sneaked out of his mum’s house to come and see us.
After a quick trip to Toronto’s Horse-Shoe Tavern we then played the Shoreline Amphitheatre and the Pacific Amphitheatre in San Francisco and Orange County California for Ian Astbury of The Cult. Ian met us off the plane at LAX. He’d invited us to play his festival, called The Gathering of the Tribes. Ian had the idea to really fuck with the genres and bring everyone together – and it worked! The Cult headlined, and he’d asked us as the new buzz band from the UK. There was also Ice-T, Iggy Pop, The Cramps, Public Enemy, Michelle Shocked, Queen Latifah … and Joan Baez.
I remember sitting next to Iggy and being about as excited as I’d ever been about sitting near anyone. I was quiet, maybe a bit shy. In fact I didn’t say anything at all, and he suddenly jumped up and starts rubbing my head with his knuckles, like some crazed uncle at a wedding, smiling all the time in that manic Iggy (front cover of Lust for Life) way. Then he ran off.
We were on early and, because we were rowdy Northerners, were getting quite a lot of attention. We thought we were the bees’ knees. We had 40 minutes to do our set but we went over: 42 minutes, 43 minutes, 44 minutes … The stage manager was looking at his watch and signalling at us frantically to get off the stage. We were only half way through ‘Sproston Green’ when he came on and said, ‘Dude, you gotta get off!’
As this was going on, I turned round to see Jon Brookes being dragged off his drum stool by some roadie for The Mission, who had earlier made it obvious that they didn’t like us by throwing a bottle of Jack Daniels at us on our way on stage. Suddenly this huge commotion broke out. Security were pushing us about, Rob threw a punch, and our manager appeared on the stage. It was all pretty threatening. Until Ice-T stepped in with his crew. They were all wearing bullet-proof vests, which in 1990 meant ‘Don’t fuck with me’, and the message now was, ‘Don’t fuck with the white guys’.
Ice-T stopped us getting a beating. And, amazingly, we got asked to play again later in the evening, as an apology. We were told it was because Ice-T had requested it and I’m not going to dispute that. We politely declined.
This was our unofficial invitation into the rock ’n’ roll circus, and we took it up with relish.