Telling Stories - Tim Burgess (2012)
3. Armed Robbery
Then came ‘Then’ – our third release before the album. We had another Top 20 hit. It came out in September 1990 and reached No. 12 in the UK singles chart. A month later, on 8 October, our debut album, Some Friendly, was released. Have you got Some Friendly? Put it on, make yourself comfortable. Let’s go through it together.
1. ‘You’re Not Very Well’
Lyrically this is a personal view, a social-commentary snapshot. Images of return visits to a now less familiar home, reflections on meandering round a Manchester I was now steadily drifting away from, feeling like an outsider.
The song was originally called ‘Some Friendly’ – we switched the name for the sake of having a killer LP title. Musically, it was worked out live in front of an audience around Martin’s funk bass line and the melody refrain ‘You’re not very well are you?’, with a signature Jon Baker lead-guitar solo.
The title is a tough love letter to city life, with the song breaking down in the middle and becoming more personal. It was the first track on the album, and I was aiming for a clarion call to the disenfranchised. It was also the sound of a big fish leaving a small pond.
2. ‘White Shirt’
Musically, this is inspired by Felt, a band who, I would go so far as to say, are the best thing to come out of Birmingham. If you need proof, check out the singles ‘Ballad of the Band’ and ‘Primitive Painters’ or the albums Poem of the River and Me and a Monkey on the Moon. Arguably, on any other day you could give that accolade to Swell Maps! Though if I was doing a DJ set right now I would quite happily slot ‘White Shirt’ in with ‘Me and the Major’/‘The Boy with the Arab Strap’ by Belle and Sebastian and ‘Twisterella’ by Ride.
When we were writing this song, I remember thinking about The Brilliant Corners’ ‘What’s in a Word’, Medway band The Claim’s 1985 album Armstrong’s Revenge and Other Short Stories, and Primal Scream’s Sonic Flower Groove.
Other people just said The Stone Roses. Ah, well.
This song is about clubs and their draconian dress codes, the eponymous attire representing bland but necessary conformity enabling someone to go out at the weekend. It was a paean, an aching for a minor revolution, and once those small statues had been knocked over it would open up more possibilities. Now everyone wears a Ramones t-shirt.
I saw myself as ‘a stain on society’s white shirt’. That was fine by me, as I was a punk.
3. ‘The Only One I Know’
Surprisingly, perhaps, we wanted to omit this track from the finished album. We were going for a Jam, Clash, Beatles or Joy Division ‘big song not included’ statement. As a compromise, our label, Beggars Banquet, asked us if we would consider including it on the CD version. We agreed, as we gave less credence to that format, though around that time it was actually the way most people were beginning to buy their music.
Lyrically, it’s about being a broken-hearted young man, still hoping to find true love. I borrowed the title from ‘You’re Not the Only One I Know’, by The Sundays – a band I was listening to a lot at the time, on my way to rehearsals. Have you got Reading, Writing and Arithmetic? Stick it on. (This must be making a mess of your CDs.) The album title is actually a reference to their hometown in Berkshire rather than the thing you’re doing with this book right now.
‘The Only One I Know’ has become a classic – Rob Collins said he got lighter treatment in prison because of this song. He walked into the bathroom nervously on arrival, with thoughts of that scene from Scum at the forefront of his mind. A heavy-set guy followed him in – and broke into the opening verse and told Rob that he was a big fan of the band.
It’s the song that started it all. We gave it a new lease of life recently with a re-recording we did at the request of David Lynch, for his foundation for education via transcendental meditation. It’s the gift that keeps on giving, as the chance to work with such a legendary figure was a high point for me.
This time the title is adapted from a Pet Shop Boys single, ‘Opportunities’, though it was originally entitled ‘Love Senses Chaos’.
The first part of the song is a stream-of-consciousness statement, written mostly in London and about being in love. It was inspired, though, by the poll tax riots in London in 1990 when I walked out of Goodge Street tube station to see absolute carnage on the streets – smashed shop windows, cars and buses on fire. It was like a war zone.
Midway through, the song appears to refer to me hating my own body, which I did at the time, but, then again, who doesn’t? Maybe it wasn’t deep-rooted at all, maybe it was just because I only managed to throw a brick in the riots. It felt good but I was hugely disappointed in myself afterwards, thinking, what I am doing with the band is actually more positive than throwing a brick at a policeman. Maybe I was just acting out my Jimmy from Quadrophenia fantasy.
Musically, the song was inspired by Talk Talk’s ‘Life’s What You Make It’. We boiled down their optimistic title into one word.
Four tracks in and the album has its groove. This song, our third single, starts with the line ‘I wanna bomb your submarine’. I was writing it at the time of rumblings of war in the Gulf – I was trying to imagine a relentless pursuit, something unstoppable. I’m not sure whether I got it, but that’s one of my favourite lines to sing.
The vocals are dreamy, about losing yourself – your direction or your edge. It’s psychedelic garage, with a trace of The Cocteau Twins’ shimmer. One of the music weeklies described ‘Then’ as us going all Emerson, Lake & Palmer, a nod to Rob’s sublime take-no-prisoners Hammond solo.
6. ‘109 Part 2’
Track 6 and things take a turn for the experimental – no singing for starters. I always loved the fact that Pet Sounds had a couple of instrumentals.
Essentially it’s a remix/reworking of the B-side to ‘The Only One I Know’, hence the Part 2 bit. The rest of the title is taken from a type of flying boat that I’d seen on the cover of a novel of the same name. I never got past the cover.
It’s not strictly an instrumental, as it features the voice of Robert De Niro. But more about that later!
7. ‘Polar Bear’
This was originally entitled ‘Looking for the Orange One’, but again we decided to keep the name for something else. This time it was for our fanzine.
The song features the lyric ‘Life’s a bag of Revels – I am looking for the orange one’ – thus pre-dating Forrest Gump’s filmic linking of life and confectionery by about four years.
Andy Bell from Oasis/Hurricane Number 1/Ride/Beady Eye said that he read that we had a song called ‘Polar Bear’ and liked the title so much that he used it for one of his songs on Ride’s debut LP. The cheek of it! I was amused and flattered, but even if I hadn’t been, what could I say after all my liberal poaching?
The outro leans towards The Beatles’ ‘Hey Bulldog’, and I think I just heard a bit of ‘Breathe’ by The Prodigy in there.
This was the album’s dancefloor track. I’ve heard it a few times in clubs, and I think it works pretty well.
8. ‘Believe You Me’
This is a Rob Collins gem – a one-man show splicing Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Crosstown Traffic’ with The Spencer Davis Group’s ‘Gimme Some Lovin”, alongside 5th Dimension’s ‘Age of Aquarius’ and a touch of Booker T’s ‘Soul Limbo’. I felt it didn’t need a whole lot more from me.
Lyrically and emotionally it references ‘Ultraviolence’ by New Order. I wanted to get that kind of animosity into the song.
Up until our 2011 twentieth-anniversary gigs, this one had slipped down the back of the sofa – from some time in 1991. It was great to rediscover it and play it at the four shows at London’s Roundhouse, Glasgow’s Barrowlands, Blackpool’s Empress Ballroom and at Primavera Sound in Barcelona.
This is my favourite song on the album. About saying goodbye to a cold and hollow relationship, it was musically inspired by The Pixies and by Rain Parade’s ‘This Can’t Be Today’.
I sang the vocal in the garden at the Windings Studio with Rob Collins throwing stones at me just to get a reaction. It has a great organ and bass sound which reminds me of Nirvana’s ‘Come As You Are’.
It was the first song we wrote together and collectively said, ‘Wow! We really are the best band around.’ It was this song that flagged what we were to become.
10. ‘Sonic (Think About It)’
The Doors’ ‘Riders on the Storm’ mixed with Johnny Leyton’s ‘Johnny Remember Me’, resulting in a ’50s-inspired Madchester song, anyone? I’d been listening in the car to the Joe Meek’s Girls’ LP and It’s Immaterial.
The vocals are very innocent. I had two ideas: one was about living in a painting, and as the painting comes alive so do I; the second was about a girl who disintegrates through drugs and needs my help. For some reason I used always to think people needed my help.
The title came from Spacemen 3’s ‘Sonic Boom’, Primal Scream’s LP Sonic Flower Groove and even garage favourites The Sonics. Josh from The Horrors told me it was his favourite song of ours.
It’s our first and last song with a drum solo.
11. ‘Sproston Green’
Sproston Green is a place just off the M6, close to Middlewich – a small field, unknown to many but meaning different things to all who live near by. Like countless similar places around the globe it has an otherworldliness to it. It’s a stop-off point for dreaming, romantic liaisons, scraps, naps and general kickabouts.
I would never have imagined that we would end all of our shows apart from a handful with this song (we weren’t sure if a Rolling Stones audience would lap up a non-single that would have eaten up a third of our set time, so for those gigs we dropped it). However, for the ones who have loved us longest and lost their minds and shoes to us the most, this song is the signal to let you know you can go crazy one last time before going home.
It was remixed by super-producer and U2 stalwart Flood for a US single to follow up the success of ‘The Only One I Know’, with an accompanying Kim Peters video filmed at the Manchester Apollo. The Americans saw this song as the most suitable follow-up.
The proposed UK follow-up to ‘Sproston Green’ was ‘White Shirt’, video to be directed by Julien Temple, who had directed Absolute Beginners and The Great Rock ’n’ Roll Swindle. Phone calls were made, plans were hatched, but we were eager to move on and leave the world of Some Friendly behind and get started on the follow-up.
We were even offered a six-week tour of America with former Bauhaus singer Peter Murphy, but we were too frazzled. I don’t know how much fun it would have been at that time, in front of someone else’s audience, feeling the way we felt, though we didn’t dismiss it out of hand. Maybe I had just got accustomed to being the centre of attention. We politely declined.
Musically ‘Sproston Green’ had the engine of Steppenwolf’s ‘Born to be Wild’, the monumental layers of Spacemen 3, and the atmospheric drama of ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’ by The Who. And a finale containing the rumble of a departing Tardis on its way to another dimension.
The song became so popular that the council eventually stopped replacing the signs at Sproston Green after they were endlessly stolen by our overeager fans. One of the giant signs emerged out of the crowd at a Glasgow gig, only to get swallowed up and disappear again.
Some Friendly went to No. 1.
Back in the rehearsal room in Wednesbury, the songs just kept on coming. By our reckoning we would have a new album good to go within a few months, but our record company wanted us to lift one more song from Some Friendly. That suggestion hit a brick wall. A compromise was agreed upon when it was suggested that three new tracks would form an EP alongside a remix of ‘Opportunity’ from Some Friendly. It became ‘Opportunity Three’.
We already had four songs finished and ready to record, one too many for the EP: ‘Happen to Die’, ‘Can’t Even Be Bothered’, ‘Over Rising (Are You Real)’ and ‘Way Up There’. After much discussion it was agreed that ‘Can’t Even Be Bothered’ was the ideal springboard for the next album.
Once we’d recorded the EP, the Gulf War stuck its nose into our business. In the same way that Massive Attack had the second half of their name removed by censors and The KLF lost the machine gun intro to ‘3 a.m. Eternal’, we were told that ‘Happen to Die’ was unsuitable for radio play as long as the war continued. From the two remaining tracks we chose ‘Over Rising’ as the lead. We got the total time of all four tracks down to just under 20 minutes by way of a last-minute harsh fade-out on ‘Happen to Die’, so it could count as an EP and not an album, and after its release on 25 February 1991 it rose to No. 15 in the charts.
We’d started off so well that in some ways people were viewing this as a kind of dip in fortune. It wasn’t like that for us: we were still on a high from the album being such a success, especially since some people had doubted that we could even get it together to write a whole LP in the first place.
Our follow-up album, Between 10th and 11th, was named after the location of the venue of our debut US show. It entered the UK charts at 21, but it spawned our biggest single in America, ‘Weirdo’, which topped their ‘modern rock’ chart.
By now the Madchester scene was fading, and some critics dismissed our new album as a failure when compared to the massive success of Some Friendly. We’d decided Between 10th and 11th would be more experimental and electronic. We were told we could work with anyone we wanted. We met REM’s producer Scott Litt after our Royal Albert Hall gig in June 1991. He was a real possibility. We were all REM fans, and I guess we were a worldwide band now.
Other producers had their credentials thrown into the ring, too, lists of albums and triumphs by an array of names. One of those suggested was Flood. He had been the assistant engineer on New Order’s Movement and was coming off the back of huge success producing both U2’s Joshua Tree and Violator by Depeche Mode. Plus we liked him and knew how he worked after he’d remixed ‘Sproston Green’ and ‘Opportunity’.
His was the name we all agreed on. We didn’t realize it at the time, but The Charlatans really needed him. It turned out to be such a great experience. He really moved us forward as a band.
The only thing was, at that point we didn’t have enough songs, following the release of the album Some Friendly and the subsequent EPs Over Rising and Me. In Time. It felt right to have so much material being released, but when we came to record Between 10th and 11th we had only two new songs written and ready: ‘Can’t Even Be Bothered’ and ‘Weirdo’. We were keen on making and releasing new and fresh sounds. I suppose we were naive – or perhaps just uncynical.
We were fans of The Clash, and they had done plenty of singles that didn’t appear on albums. But the practice seemed to be dying out, songs were getting referred to as ‘product’ and bands were having less and less say, as investment in them by the major labels had to be recouped. We, though, were reaping the benefits of being on an indie label, and anyway we’d proved ourselves. As a result we were able to do as we pleased.
In the end, we wrote most of the second album in the studio complex at Rockfield in the Quadrangle, pens, paper and instruments in my bedroom. Everything else was done in the TV room.
After a run of gigs that included the Free Trade Hall, Manchester, the Royal Albert Hall and the one-time biggest festival in the world, Roskilde, where we played directly after The Allman Brothers, we realized we had a problem. Without putting too fine a point on it, Jon Baker’s guitar-playing just wasn’t up to scratch. We were a band, a gang, and we’d done this together, but, as the saying goes, you’re only as strong as your weakest link. And it was increasingly apparent that our first sign of weakness was Jon. We’d gone from rehearsing in Wednesbury to playing sell-out shows across America, and people now began to rely on us.
We were only as sensitive to each other’s feelings and emotions as people in their early 20s can be, i.e. not very. We told the world’s press that Jon Baker had left of his own accord because things had got too much for him. He’d decided that he wanted to play in more underground bands. Martin occasionally chipped in with the Syd Barrett and Peter Green excuse that Jon had taken up gardening.
The truth? Well, it was a foggy mixture of lots of the above, but whatever the reason, Jon’s head just seemed to be somewhere else. And the band demanded full concentration and 100 per cent commitment.
I had become friends with Jon and felt terrible about the looming showdown. But, being the last to join, I felt it best not to say too much. Or maybe I was just chickening out. Anyway, however we tried to dress it up, whichever way we looked at it, Jon’s time was up. The cracks had started to show just after the debut album, when there would be not so subtle hints like, ‘Hey, Jon, you should go and get guitar lessons.’ I’d been for a few singing lessons, because I wanted to push myself, but Jon was treading water.
By early 1991, when we were recording the Over Rising EP, the banter had become taunts and the taunts were mutating into what some people might construe as bullying. This is not something I am proud of, but we were in deep, and, like Hunter S. Thompson said, ‘When the going gets weird – the weird turn pro.’
We came home after playing the Belfort festival in France, and were back under the microscope of the rehearsal room. Jon Brookes and myself were sent home early while Martin and Rob talked to Jon Baker. I think he knew it was coming, though he later told his friends and family that it was the hardest time of his life. It may not have seemed it, but it was really hard for us as well.
There was no back-up plan. However, we had all been writing and felt confident that anyone we asked would want to join us. No advert was placed, but try-outs were arranged, and first up was a guitarist from a band called The Honey Turtles. They had supported us on some dates and they had a similar sound. Their song ‘Don’t You Know’ got played on Mark Goodier’s Radio 1 show.
He sounded great on the tape he had sent in and he was a great guy. Martin really wanted him in, but there was something that was niggling me. We went out for a smoke and I found out that something was worrying Rob, too.
‘He’s tiny, mate!’ he said. Which is exactly what I was thinking. My thoughts had turned to photographs, vain as this may seem. At 5 feet 10 I was by no means the tallest in the band, but I reckoned that if he joined then photographers would struggle to fit us all in, top to bottom. In my eyes the look of the band was right up there with the sound.
So he got three No’s and one Yes. Our search would go on.
The guitarist in The Waltones had caught my eye. I had seen them play at the Boardwalk and the Haçienda, and he stood out. I heard he was now playing with ex-members of The Bodines in a new band called Medalark 11, who were signed to Creation, and that he was also doing merchandise and driving for The Inspiral Carpets. We got a message to him, and some time in July ’91 Mark Collins (no relation to Rob, incidentally) turned up with a view to joining The Charlatans. When he walked through the door at Rich Bitch Rehearsal Rooms in Selly Oak, Birmingham, he apparently thought we were only after a second guitarist.
Ladies and gentlemen, I give you The Charlatans Mk 4. This would be the last line-up change we would make out of choice.
Mark and I became inseparable. He was the Keith to my Mick that I had been looking for. He was into The Beatles, The Byrds and The Smiths, his guitar-playing had a natural chime, and he possessed a swagger and bags of the right kind of attitude. He was another Mancunian and we spoke the same language – in a similar accent.
History tells us that breaking up an original line-up in public can have catastrophic results, but Mark’s arrival brought a new-found stability which meant we could look much further into the future.
The opening chords of Between 10th and 11th put Mark slap bang at the front. It shows how keen he was to pick up the gauntlet.
When we handed the album in to the label it was called Anticlockwise, and some of the early promos went out under that name. But it got a last-minute change when we decided that Anticlockwise was too negative.
I had found myself a new spiritual home in New York City and had met some new friends there. I’d decided that I would split my time for a while between the East Village in New York, Chiswick in London, and my mum and dad’s place in Moulton. So I also felt a reference to New York would be more positive than the backwards-spinning sound of Anticlockwise.
The cover was a homage to Andy Warhol. I’d bought a rare copy of the Velvet Underground and Nico LP for $200 in Bleecker Bob’s Records on 118 West 3rd Street. I blew a week’s per diems on it. It was expensive because it was one of the first pressings, with the picture of Emerson on the back of the sleeve and with the peelable banana. Emerson was an ‘it’ boy, an ‘acid-freak’ and a member of the band The Magic Tramps. He’d threatened a lawsuit unless he got paid for the use of his image – they withdrew the sleeve rather than agree, but some had sneaked out and one was now mine.
The inside sleeve of our album had the lyrics and various headshots of the band taken by NME/Select photographer Steve Double. While the rest of the band have a moody coolness, myself and Jon Brookes are sporting rather serious black eyes. The honest truth is that I can’t remember how they got there, although it’s not beyond the realms of possibility that his was done by me and mine was done by him.
Jon and I are perhaps the most volatile members of the band, and from time to time blows have been exchanged, either in the privacy of the rehearsal room or the more public arena of a soundcheck, sometimes over a bum note, sometimes over a sandwich. Like siblings in a dysfunctional family it’s never got in the way of our love for each other, but, as in all families, it’s not always pretty.
I was consumed by NYC. Like any music fan I pictured John Lennon arriving from a ’60s Liverpool, Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson in Central Park, and The Ramones goofing around in the Bowery. I hoped I would bump into Debbie Harry. I stood outside the Silk Building in NoHo where both Keith Richards and Cher owned entire floors. Influenced by all this, our song titles started to take a dark turn and our electronic influences surfaced.
‘Can’t Even Be Bothered’ was the natural follow-up to Some Friendly’s ‘Flower’. ‘(No one) not even the rain’ referenced e e cummings via Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters. It ends with a tribute to Throbbing Gristle’s 20 Jazz Funk Greats as the outro. ‘Chewing Gum Weekend’ was a less than subtle post-party comedown tale.
For the sessions Rob bought an Emulator sampler that he never used, at least never as an Emulator. To him it was a shelf for coats, ashtrays and precariously balanced cups of tea. In the studio he spent much of his time playing darts and table tennis – while coming up with the amazing melodies, riffs and harmonies of ‘Tremelo Song’, ‘Weirdo’ and ‘The End of Everything’ between his games.
As well as playing keyboards, Rob sang backing vocals. Singing harmonies live with Rob gave me one of the best feelings. Sometimes the only thing we had to go on was a look in the eye, since we couldn’t hear each other most of the time, but a glance would keep us in tune. It’s a very intimate and sometimes uncomfortable sensation, but when we sang together it was incredibly soulful and one of the most personal and satisfying feelings I have ever experienced. I always thought Rob was a better singer than me. Not only wasn’t I the best singer in the world, I wasn’t even the best singer in The Charlatans.
Mark brought in lots of pedals and guitar effects, and alongside them he brought amazing quality – like George Harrison, Johnny Marr or a Forever Changes-era Arthur Lee. He fitted in perfectly and had a competitive spirit that drove him, and in turn us, forwards – we learned to play chess, which he soon mastered, and he always beat me. I could see how he’d become such a great guitarist and he made it look effortless.
I loved The Byrds, Mark loved The Byrds, The Byrds did Dylan the best and took his songs to the top of the charts. I started studying Bob Dylan at this time, at first casually then discovering all the layers in his work. I was enthusing over Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde. Anyone wanting a beginner’s guide to Bob should start here. I hoped traces of Dylan would seep into my writing.
But in truth I was finding songwriting more difficult. Martin had become critical of my lyrics, to the extent that I could hardly write any more. I felt I was losing whatever it was that had come naturally to me in the beginning.
Martin was actually in a bad way. He had taken our domestic dip in success the hardest. He became increasingly distant towards all of us, and communication dried up. He seemed to be inching closer to the edge. Things came to a head in an apparently trivial incident, when he went to the supermarket for some dog food and mistakenly returned with cat food. It seemed to trigger a kind of breakdown.
He needed some time off, so we decided to cut our touring short and come home. Touring and studio life can take its toll on anyone. It’s a terrible cocktail of erratic air-conditioning, muddled time zones and languages, grip-and-grins with excitable marketing executives, introductions to label associates from across the globe, baggage reclaim and resultant lost luggage, airports, radio stations, hotel lobbies and dressing rooms. Imagine all of this shaken with Jack Daniels and served on the rocks to a jet-lagged band, crew, roadies, truck drivers, bus drivers and groupies – who are most of the time either on drugs or desperate to find them. It’s difficult after a few days, impossible after a week, becoming near fatal after a month.
Don’t get me wrong – the good times are amazing. But the bits in between can be extremely damaging. It’s either nothing happening for seven hours, or an intense need to get things done. From the joy of thousands of fans packed into a venue to the loneliness of nobody to talk to at a hotel full of businessmen.
This lifestyle has claimed a near endless list of casualties over the last fifty years. Throw in the almost inevitable self-doubt, an addictive nature or a need to impress, and you are in for a major storm in your teacup. When your confidence is knocked, you pay more attention to the reaction elicited by something than to your own view of it. You become a slave to other people’s opinions.
After the electronic sounds and the attempted far-outyness of Between 10th and 11th, we decided the third LP would be a stripped-down, back-to-basics affair. We were rehearsing in Heaton Norris, Stockport, at the Greenhouse, enjoying recording new ideas on our little 4-track cassette recorder.
In some ways, I feel Up to Our Hips was our first serious album. ‘Can’t Get Out of Bed’ – everyone seemed to think it was our finest song to date – would be the first single from it. But ‘Jesus Hairdo’, ‘Inside-Looking Out’ and ‘I Never Want an Easy Life’ were all highlights. Mark and I had written ‘Another Rider Up In Flames’ just by ourselves, out of necessity really, as this was the album where we had to write everything quickly.
We were about to enter an unexpected, forced sabbatical. The band were all dedicated fans of the rock ’n’ roll lifestyle, and we had picked up quite a reputation for enjoying a party. Rob in particular had taken to it like a duck to water. He had always enjoyed living for the moment. In fact it was something people really admired in him. He had a natural cool that attracted and intrigued people. One of the characters who really looked up to him was a guy who went by the name of Michael ‘Ratty’ Whitehouse.
We had just got back from a tour of Japan. Rob was a fully paid-up rock star now, and I’m sure his mates thought that his globetrotting meant they would have to raise the bar on their antics in order to impress him. We would often find out about his escapades the following morning and help pick up the pieces of whatever had gone wrong. But on this particular day it seemed much more serious.
I’d been at my mum and dad’s at Moulton and was waiting for Martin to collect me for a practice. Steve Harrison called and informed me there would be no rehearsal as Rob was being held in the cells at Cannock Police Station.
This wasn’t hugely surprising, considering Rob’s past scrapes. I was sure that there was some kind of mix-up, though, when we were told that he was under arrest for his part in an armed robbery. Armed robbery just sounded so serious. A lot of bands would have members caught up in drug misdemeanours, hotel trashings, and various bust-ups, but definitely not an armed robbery.
It transpired that no armed robbery had actually taken place, though Ratty was definitely armed. The word ‘bungled’ was now being used. That made it sound funny, but Rob was only just married and had a young daughter, which turned the whole thing into a disaster.
Details were initially thin on the ground, but as more news came out we put the information together like a jigsaw. For years it would puzzle people how Rob had managed to involve himself in something so serious – the band was doing well, we had a future.
Later, Rob was to tell me his side of the story. He had invested some of his share of our early financial success in a rather smart bright red BMW. He loved the idea that people could see how well he was doing. We were all proud of what we had achieved, and we’d become local celebrities. There was always a big guest list at the gigs and a revolving door of hangers-on and associates. On the day in question Rob had seen Ratty and pulled over to offer him a lift. Ratty was always one to rise to a dodgy challenge, and he was always out to impress Rob. As they passed an off-licence in Cannock, Ratty exclaimed, ‘I could do that place over if I wanted.’ Rob came back with something sarcastic, thinking Ratty’s bravado was getting the better of him. He then pulled on the handbrake and called his bluff. It was at this point that things escalated, as Ratty pulled out an imitation pistol; an imitation, but realistic enough to scare anyone looking down its barrel.
Rob was still sure it was all a show of machismo. ‘Go and get me some chewing gum, then,’ or some such put-down was Rob’s retort. Whatever the details of what went on in the shop, ‘bungled’ does seem to capture it. Ratty pulled out the gun but the shopkeeper was no pushover. He produced a customized baseball bat from behind the counter. The nails sticking out of it were enough to make Ratty turn tail and run. The bat-wielding shopowner was in hot pursuit. They actually ran past Rob’s car, from where he was watching events unfold, smoking a cigarette and listening to the radio. The chase was abandoned, but Rob, still unaware of what exactly had taken place, picked up his passenger – while the police were being called and given the registration number of his car. Still not sensing the seriousness of what had taken place, Rob drove to a pub in Wednesbury to call in on Jon Brookes. Soon, Ratty was bragging about his exploits. Apparently, he was pretending to shoot the gun when they drove out of the car park, making a noise, shooting fake bullets or whatever it is you do when you’ve just bungled an armed robbery.
When he arrived home, Rob was met by armed police on his garage roof, and his wife and daughter were under armed guard in the house – the police were unsure who exactly was involved. As he pulled up, undercover officers leapt from their cars and handcuffed him after getting him to lie face down on the pavement. He’d really done it this time. Steve Harrison and the band’s lawyer, Stephen Lea, were called, and we were all informed.
The original charges were attempted robbery and possession of a firearm, which could result in five years in prison. But Rob’s solicitor and Stephen Lea managed to get the charges adjusted to assisting an offender after a crime. The idea then was to convince the judge that, seeing as Rob had had a No. 1 album, he was hardly likely to do over an off-licence for a hundred quid. Added to that, he was using his own car.
Rob was held in the cells and didn’t say anything for two days. Then he was told that Whitehouse had owned up to it all, so on the third day Rob told them everything.
Harrison and Lea came up with a game plan to get Rob bail. Once he was out, my not-very-helpful suggestion was for him to do a runner, but apparently he had had to surrender his passport – and it was pointed out to him (and to me) that to abscond while being in a high-profile band might be difficult.
At the end of the trial Ratty was sentenced first, and the judge read it out really slowly: ‘Michael Whitehouse, you are sentenced to … four … years.’
Everybody gasped. Then the judge came to Rob: ‘Robert James Collins, you are sentenced to eight [Rob just thought, ‘Oh, shit’] … months. Take them down.’
Rob’s temporary new home, Her Majesty’s Prison Shrewsbury, or the Dana as it was known, was a hangover from the Victorian age. It was severely overcrowded at the time, and still is, and it is currently earmarked for closure. Suicides were rife: there were three in one particularly grim fortnight. Being Victorian meant that not only was it crumbling and antiquated, but it had also been the site of multiple hangings sanctioned by the state.
Our thoughts of it being like the 1970s TV series Porridge were quickly dispelled. During visits, Rob’s wife and family would be searched and herded through gates and metal detectors, to see him in a prison uniform and high-viz tabard.
On the plus side Rob’s status inside was just about as high as it could be – he had been found guilty of involvement in an armed robbery and he was in a band that was in the charts. There isn’t much glamour in prison, but with that background and his affable nature Rob was an instant hit.
Unfortunately, in prisons even the plus sides have their problems. The rules of the outside world don’t apply, and the further up the prison food chain these people were, the more bad news they would be. It’s no surprise that prison warders are out for a quiet life and they generally don’t get in the way of anything that will keep their captives subdued. Rob spoke of the availability of every drug imaginable, and we were hoping he had resisted.
The judge had appeared to be letting him off lightly when he passed sentence, but what happened in those few months had a marked effect on him. Prison did change him, but it certainly wasn’t for the better.
In some ways this was the beginning of the end for Rob. He was hardly a criminal, but he would never get his life together properly again. He withdrew into himself and had an ever-growing fan club of ex-cons and junkies following his every move. He seemed more and more aloof. He was into much harder drugs now, his eyes pretty much permanently glazed. Flashes of the old Rob would come back, but his fire, if not completely out, had faded in the time he was away.
For the last part of his sentence Rob was moved to an open prison, but that was not as easy as it sounds – people move about a lot more freely in an open prison, but there are cliques and pecking orders, and Rob found it just as tough. Workers in the gardens would arrange with family and friends to bury bottles of spirits, which an eager Rob would then dig up, dust down and be the toast of the wing.
On the scheduled day of his release, 3 February 1994, the prison received a call from Rob’s brother enquiring what time he would be coming out, as he was planning to collect him. The only thing was, Rob didn’t have a brother. The prison officers figured it was a sleazy journalist looking for a story, so he was released without fanfare through the back door half an hour early. I don’t know where most prisoners go when they get out, but, as ever, Rob Collins lived by a different set of rules. A car collected him and we were reunited at the Top of the Pops studio for our performance of our new single, ‘Can’t Get Out of Bed’. (The B-side of the single, sweetly named to coincide with his release but actually recorded before sentencing, was ‘Out’.)
Prison life, or maybe the awful prison food, had taken its toll on Rob, but outwardly he looked awesome. He’d lost weight, his hair was shoulder length, and when he smiled I knew the old Rob was in there somewhere. Anyway, we had our mate back. With an irony we’d got used to, Simon Mayo was introducing that Top of the Pops. It was an amazing feeling to look to my left and see Rob back in his rightful place at his Hammond.
‘Can’t Get Out of Bed’ had gone into the chart at No. 24. It had begun as a Small Faces-inspired instrumental, something that we felt could have been an outtake from their seminal album, Ogdens’ Nut Gone Flake, but we wanted to add vocals. We were recording in the Monnow Valley Studio. The rest of the band went home for the weekend, while me and Rob stayed to work on the vocals, with Dave Charles engineering. This was the first time the band had worked with Dave. He would become an integral part of The Charlatans – our sound, our attitude – and for me he is one of the most influential people I have ever worked with.
For the melody, Rob was thinking Bob Dylan — an idea that had perhaps come to him subliminally, as Dave Charles looked the spitting image of Bob – with a kind of ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ rap-style vocal.
I was thinking John Lennon, ‘I Am the Walrus’, but maybe we had used that on ‘I Never Want an Easy Life If Me & He Were Ever to Get There’. (Longest title in history? Maybe, but that’s another story.) I had lots of words scribbled down over a few pieces of paper, but there wasn’t any kind of order, so Rob just told Dave to ‘Keep playing the track,’ or ‘Keep playing the song’; that’s what he always did. I’m not sure whether he was really thinking of something or just playing for time, smoking constantly, smoking and listening. But that’s what he did, and then he went into the vocal booth clutching the sheets of paper and he just went for it.
He did the first verse, with the melody that is on the record, but with my lyrics re-ordered to his taste.
I was in awe. It’s the best memory I have of us two actually sitting down and pulling something wonderful out of barely nothing. We spent a few hours changing things round a little, getting the words to fit, and generally honing the song.
I wrote the bridge that evening, thinking about John and Yoko’s ‘bed-in’, and Rob took the lead vocal: ‘Can’t get out of bed, you’re keeping it straight, this city’s a mess. Can’t get out of bed, you’re keeping it, keep on getting together.’
Pure Lennon! I get a spine-tingling feeling thinking about it now. It might be the best song we wrote together, a really great joint effort, but at the time we were unsure whether the euphoria came simply from the excitement of getting it finished. Only the two of us had heard it. But the feeling we had created was otherworldly, and I definitely got that now-recognizable sensation that tells me when something is right.
We told Dave to take the Sunday afternoon off so we could go fishing. Rob loved spending his time by the river, and he was showing me the ropes. It was great to spend time with him and connect with his softer side, which wasn’t seen often on tour. It was a form of meditation for him, and we could shut out the pressures of the outside world, whiling away an afternoon at a river – not always by the rules recommended in the Angling Times, though: occasionally, elements of our other lives would be packed alongside the maggots. Whether our fellow anglers recognized the effects of ecstasy or just thought we were giddy, chatty and having the time of our lives catching fish was never discussed. Rob’s impending trial was worrying him, and it was time away from it all.
The rest of the band started to trickle back to the studio that evening. We were really excited about them hearing ‘Can’t Get Out of Bed’ for the first time. I remember being especially curious about what Martin would think. He wasn’t a fan of Dylan or Lennon, but he loved The Small Faces. So surely he would love it? I just knew it, we knew it. He was bound to.
And yes, the reaction generally was rapturous, but especially from Martin. Everybody saw it as a breakthrough, and in a way we all thought, well, if Rob does go down, then at least this one should last us a while.
It was definitely the best song we had written up till now. But it was impossible to predict what the reaction of others would be. ‘Weirdo’ was a smash in America, while for some reason ‘Can’t Get Out of Bed’ couldn’t get arrested on the radio over there; in the UK ‘Can’t Get Out of Bed’ was hailed as our best single yet and ‘Weirdo’ was monumentally slagged off, as was the album which it came from. We had given up on trying to guess what would be a hit though we would occasionally bump into the mainstream like meeting an old friend, not sure when we’d parted or if we’d ever be reunited.
Before we got to Monnow Valley, we had been demoing at Jacobs in Farnham, Surrey. We had recorded an instrumental of ‘Can’t Get Out of Bed’ there and also made progress on tracks like ‘It’s Only the Music’, which would later end up as ‘Feel Flows’, inspired by Parliament and Can, and ‘I Never Want an Easy Life’, another Small Faces-inspired ‘soul’ stomper.
About this time we were thinking again about who to use as a producer for the album. We had talked about Steve Hillage, not for his ’60s psychedelic output with Gong, or his ’70s solo prog musings, but for the work he had been doing with Primal Scream, System 7 and The Orb. We loved Steve, from his pure and honest eyes to his tales of acid-frazzled flashbacks. We gave him the job.
Mark was on fire. He had just bought a guitar from his mate Noel Gallagher, a Fender Jaguar. Noel didn’t like the way it sounded, and probably needed the money too as this was 1993. Noel loved ‘Can’t Get Out of Bed’, so much so that Oasis booked themselves into Monnow Valley to record their first lot of songs. But all that comes a little later in another story.
‘I Never Want an Easy Life’ was a song about Rob’s impending court appearance, and the dual-lead vocal in the chorus meant, to me at least, that we were in this together. Perhaps the lyrics were about the twisted lives we were living. From the outside we looked fairly innocent – nice hair, happy smiles – but what was going on under the surface was a lot darker. We were trying to document it in the lyrics without being crass or too obvious, keeping our cards close to our chest.
In hindsight I guess we were all preparing for events to come – and under the circumstances I think we did well.
We finished off Up to Our Hips with Rob in prison. Unsurprisingly, our sound had moved away from our Hammond-driven past, and the album relied heavily on our new guitarist. Was it a direction we would have taken anyway? Who knows? It was out of our hands. We were nervous explaining to Rob how we had got Mark’s brother, John, and a guy called Nigel to play keyboards while he was incarcerated. But he told me that he felt he had no right to have any kind of say in the band any more. It wasn’t because of what he had done, it was what prison had done to him – it seemed to take away his self-confidence. Band-wise, he was a different person.
Martin instigated ‘Jesus Hairdo’, a Rod Stewart and The Faces-style good-time romp, featuring slide guitar, written, recorded and mixed in world-record time in Monnow Valley.
Last to be finished was ‘Patrol’, intended to be a Can/Blurt-style jam to ease in Mark’s brother, John. It quickly became something special, more than just a song, a feeling! I finished the vocals for ‘Patrol’ and an earlier song from the four-month Monnow Valley album sessions – ‘Inside-Looking Out’ – in Chris Rea’s Cookham studio, the Mill, in Berkshire.
I remember the mixing sessions and the vocal/lyric overdubs very well, because I was in love with a girl at the time. A girl called Chloe. And it was a big one!
‘Compromise is the devil talking,’ Kevin Rowland once said in the Dexy’s song ‘The Occasional Flicker’. He is right, of course. But then again, a lack of compromise can lead to an ill-advised Reading Festival appearance singing Whitney Houston’s ‘Greatest Love of All’ wearing a man-dress while being stroked by stocking-clad dancers!
But certainly compromise often entails the best part of an idea being lost. One such case with The Charlatans was the sleeve of Up to Our Hips. I’d had the idea of using a picture from the 1960s by Lewis Morley – a timeless shot of a hairdresser and his model.
The idea was to re-create it with different people. A notable part of the original photo was the fact the guy in the picture wasn’t wearing a shirt – our replacement, for some reason, wanted to keep his top on, and we went along with it. The only similarity between the final shot and the original is the number of people. Two. Everything else has changed. The models are too young, and at the time some people mistook them for the band. To me the sleeve looked like one for ’80s band Dollar.
As bad luck would have it, Up to Our Hips was the first album released in the US without us having to be called The Charlatans UK (there had been two US bands before using our name) – with the shorter name and a boy and girl on the cover, lots of Americans were uncertain whether it was actually our band’s new album.
To this day the sleeve is a regret. If I could change it to the original Lewis Morley photograph tomorrow I would, but we made the decision together. Later we would use Morley’s classic shot of Christine Keeler for the cover of the single ‘Tellin’ Stories’. The use of that original cost us over £16,000 – thinking back, we should maybe have used Christine Hamilton and kept the difference!
You can see that it niggles me just writing about it. I do, however, always look for the positive in something, and that picture is my reminder that compromise isn’t always the best way.
Now, where’s my man-dress?