Telling Stories - Tim Burgess (2012)

4. Garlic Bread and Britpop

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Britpop hasn’t aged well. Its protagonists have hit middle age with a bump, from cheese making to making cheese and ill-fated reunion tours. Credible survivors are few.

Us? Do we get along? We’re like a family. Does your family get along?

We are a functioning dysfunctional unit at times, but when it’s good it’s magic.

I first moved to London in 1990. I moved in with my girlfriend Sam, who I’d met in Steve’s office at the record shop in Northwich. I fell for her straight away. She was gorgeous, with a confidence and class I hadn’t seen before. She worked in music publishing, for Warner/Chappell in London, and she wanted to sign the band.

We would spend days watching films at the Gate Cinema in Notting Hill, stuff by Ken Russell and David Lynch. And Paris, Texas.

Perhaps I didn’t realize it then, but at the age of 22 I had got the life I had dreamed of: a basement flat in Chiswick, a beautiful girlfriend who would bring home boxes of records, a kitten called Tipton and an ever-growing circle of people who just seemed to want to talk to me.

Chiswick felt permanently sunny and autumnal – it always reminded me of the opening scenes of The Exorcist. Mike Oldfield’s theme would be playing on my internal jukebox. Nothing too dark had gone on yet – either with Ellen Burstyn or the newly cosmopolitan me.

Everyone tends to imagine that these times were a blizzard of cocaine, together with magnums of champagne and endless groupies, but we were much more innocent then – nothing stronger than beer fuelled us. The descent into large-scale drug-taking came later.

It seemed that everyone used to drop by our flat. Richey and James from the Manics, Andy and Loz from Ride, EMF, World of Twist, Intastella and Northside – with no announcement, just a knock at the door. The characters who made up the contents of the NME were gabbling excitedly in my little kitchen, drinking tea and looking for biscuits.

I’d moved to London because it was the dream, it’s where everybody was, and I didn’t feel as though I was deserting the North: I knew that I would always have Salford in my blood. I was born at Hope Hospital and my grandma lived in nearby Swinton. Mum and Dad still live in Moulton. Don’t go and try to find them – though I am sure they would make you a cup of tea.

And Manchester? Well, it never felt very far away, and in fact it wouldn’t be too long before I was back there. And anyway it seemed that everyone from Manchester was in London.

Sam was my first muse and my confidante, she was the Suze Rotolo to my future wannabe Bob Dylan. As The Charlatans’ publisher, she and I would be in this together.

I remember being alone with her when she got the phone call telling us that Some Friendly was No. 1. It was the best moment in my life. I knew straight away by the tone of her voice that she had just heard some good news. Though she was teasing me and trying to keep it from me, her smile gave it away. It really was the sweetest thing: ‘You did it, baby, you’re No. 1.’

The Charlatans were as much a part of Britpop as we were of Baggy – we didn’t ask to be included, but it certainly helped us as TV executives and excitable journalists were falling over themselves for bands. At one time we appeared to fit into most genres that were kicking around – it certainly made for good times. Bands were being plucked out before they’d even recorded a note – bands like Menswear, whose styling came before their music.

Late ’93 found me recording an episode of the infamous Channel 4 TV programme The Word with St Etienne, for the single ‘I Was Born on Christmas Day’. I wasn’t. I was born on 30 May 1967. I suppose your date of birth has to go in an autobiography somewhere, doesn’t it? But this far in! Ah, well …

The Et’s Bob Stanley was born on Christmas Day, though, and he had suffered years of ‘joint present hell’. He’d penned the song for me and Sarah Cracknell to sing.

Martin Kelly, a new friend who worked for Heavenly, mentioned that there was a girl he wanted me to meet, a girl with a beautiful voice. He said he’d fallen in love with her on the phone. Eventually he introduced me to Chloe – the porcelain-skinned Creation Records employee with the sparkling bushbaby eyes and the owner of the voice. She was standing with Alan McGee, and said in her Scottish brogue, ‘I just told Alan to shut the fuck up.’

She seemed unafraid of abusing her boss. He seemed to like it, too.

I appeared on Top of the Pops with St Etienne, and afterwards we went back to Chloe’s flat, where I would stay for about a year. We were sharing with Adrian Hunter, a gig promoter and, like me, a total music enthusiast. At the time of writing, Adrian is, among other things, Pete Doherty’s manager. Also resident in the flat was Kleanthi Boutis, PR to Alan McGee at Creation. The final occupant was Kle’s boyfriend, Stephen Duffy. Famed for an early audition with Duran Duran, and singer of the brilliant 1985 hit ‘Kiss Me’, his most recent successes have been as a co-writer and co-producer for Robbie Williams. Robbie had hooked up with Mark Ronson in 2007 to cover our song ‘The Only One I Know’. Small world.

We were quite a bunch. We were in a cool flat above a pizza joint on Camden Parkway. There was a whiff of garlic bread and Britpop in the air.

It’s hard to imagine now, but Camden then was arguably the most happening place in London. Like Shoreditch has been for the past few years, and like wherever next will be whenever. It seemed that everyone I was bumping into along the way was now in a band that was making waves. One day I was being introduced to my neighbour, a bookish young guitarist named Bernard, the next day Suede were on the cover of every magazine. And from back home we could hear the distant squabblings of the brothers Gallagher.

In the flat we were all very close and were all shoulders to cry on when times got tough, weird or downright psychedelic. Chloe, Kle and I were together in the flat on 8 April 1994, doing nothing in particular, when Kle took a call from Gerry Love. Through the Creation Records set we were friends with Norman and Gerry from Teenage Fanclub. Gerry was ringing to pass on the news that Kurt Cobain had taken his own life. They had toured together, and the Fannies had been a huge influence on Nirvana’s sound. It was two weeks after our album Up to Our Hips had come out and four months before the release of Oasis’s Definitely Maybe. The tectonic plates of the music world were shifting.

Oasis played Glastonbury’s second stage just before the release of their debut album. John Robb asked me if I was taking notes or picking up any tips. Cheeky git. Everyone used to call Liam ‘Tim’, just like everyone used to call me ‘Ian’ after the Stone Roses frontman. Tips? Maybe. After all, it’s all about giving and receiving, isn’t it? What you get you give back, just double the dose. You make it into your own.

Anyway, it was a strong performance from Oasis. I was a fan of the first album.

The Heavenly Sunday Social began on 7 August 1994 in the Albany pub on Great Portland Street and went on for thirteen weeks. I, along with just four others, went to each and every one. For me it had all the same traits, emotions and feelings as the Haçienda did, but it didn’t go on long enough for the dark stuff to take hold. ‘Life is Sweet’ from the first Chemical Brothers album was the sound of the Albany. In some ways, though, the Social was about keeping the tradition of Sunday evening intact – opening only from 6 till 10.30, which was pub closing-time back then.

There was also a broadsheet, a weekly update typed out by Robin from the Heavenly PR company. It was a new twist on the old idea of a weekly newspaper but specially for Sunday clubbers, available for free. People have tried to emulate it since, but this one was first.

Heavenly were to play a big part in our PR. Till now we’d been handled by Savage and Best, PR company of choice for the Camden set. Their office was right opposite where we lived, next to the Dublin Castle pub. Our manager Steve had appointed them, which was reasonable since they were the biggest name at the time. But when the Social started up I began having some informal conversations with the Heavenly people, which came to a head at a party at Robin’s house in Shepherd’s Bush after the last ever Sunday Social in November.

It was quite some party. The partners running Heavenly were Jeff Barrett and Martin Kelly. On this occasion I remember Jeff sitting glued to the stereo all night, with his hand on the volume control, forcing it up to number 11.

‘Jeff, you gotta turn it down, mate.’

‘Turn what down?’

‘We can’t fucking hear anything!’

The people in the flat above were pouring boiling water out of the window on us as we stood outside smoking, trying to get us to lower the noise, while Jeff was cranking up Stevie Wonder’s ‘Superstition’ to full blast, out of his mind on E.

At some point during the party Martin told me how much he loved Up to Our Hips, but how bad he thought the press had been on it. In fact the press had been great – there just wasn’t enough of it. He also said he was gobsmacked that our single ‘Can’t Get Out of Bed’ hadn’t been a huge hit that January. It had got to just No. 24. He asked me who did our PR and what they charged.

‘20k,’ I told him, and added sheepishly, ‘It was our manager’s idea.’

Martin said, ‘You should let me and Jeff do it, we would do a much better job.’ I was already feeling tempted – we seemed to be completely on each other’s wavelength. ‘And we would do it for 10k.’ Deal!

I had to clear it with Steve, with the band and with our record company boss, Martin Mills, the smiling man of pop and a very savvy guy. For me it was a no-brainer, though from the outside it might have seemed crazy: Savage and Best, the PR company I wanted to leave, were the most successful in the country. But I felt we were moving to family: Heavenly’s PR roster included Primal Scream, The Chemical Brothers, Andy Weatherall, Underworld and Beth Orton. They had the hippest and best club in Britain, possibly the world, and yet in some ways they were complete outsiders. They did things their own way.

We had a meeting round the dining table at Monnow Valley Studio, and it was agreed that I would ring Jeff the next day and get the whole business thing rolling.

Heavenly immediately began to do the press for the Boxing Day release of the single ‘Crashin’ In’. We all started to plot how to get The Charlatans back on track, though we weren’t really sure how far off the track we were. Or which way things were going – but we sensed a musical sea change in the air.

Inspired by the goings on at the Social and the Camden scene, ‘Crashin’ In’ was recorded in a weekend at Monnow Valley, with the idea of starting sessions for a new album. We recorded four songs and on a whim decided to release them straight away. Why fuck about? Let’s do the show right here right now!

So ‘Crashin’ In’, documenting the times, my times, our times, the Sunday Social times, was released on Boxing Day 1994, while everyone else was snoozing in their Christmas-cracker paper crowns.

I was in Glasgow with Chloe for Christmas. We headed for the HMV store on Sauchiehall Street and everyone was scrambling for the record, a good sign. The sleeve looked good; it was a great shot of the band on the street with a Hammond organ, an idea borrowed from the cover of The Beastie Boys’ seminal album Check Your Head!, a favourite of ours at the time. The focus of their picture on the cover was a ghettoblaster; ours was a Hammond X-5. I got Tom Sheehan to take the photograph, and all of a sudden we’d had a much-needed makeover and we were back in the groove.

It wasn’t much, but it was the shot in the arm we needed. We didn’t get much radio play, just a few spots in the evening. Steve Lamacq and Jo Whiley were, as ever, very supportive. But still – no major radio airing.

Whatever it means to be played on 6 Music or Xfm in terms of record sales these days, at least there are those outlets. You can sit and listen to 6 Music and you can discover new sounds. In 1994 Radio 1 was as mainstream as it has always been, and Radio 2 was a golden oldies station. It hadn’t started to become even vaguely credible. It’s sometimes hard to remember the world without the internet; these two stations had a stranglehold on the airwaves then, and we fell somewhere in between the two.

‘Crashin’ In’ sauntered in at No. 31. I wasn’t unhappy. It was low, but it felt like we were at the beginning of something new. People were taking notice again.

Martin Kelly and I became inseparable at this time. I remember going to his flat in Ladbroke Grove and spending the whole evening talking about Bob Dylan. I was into Dylan, and getting in deeper. Martin pulled out Biograph and asked me whether I had it. I didn’t. He played me ‘You’re a Big Girl Now’, a version only available as part of this box set. Martin thought it was the best thing Dylan had ever done. He had two copies of Biograph, a CD and vinyl, and he generously gave me the vinyl. Mates for life!

As a result of our shared enthusiasm, Dylan’s influence began to be heard in The Charlatans’ sound. I had used him as a reference point as far back as 1991, with the song ‘Happen to Die’, but the more I listened the more I loved. Songs like ‘Here Comes a Soul Saver’ and ‘North Country Boy’ showed how Dylan was becoming further integrated into our music, via osmosis and many late nights. It was evident on our self-titled album and Tellin’ Storiesespecially. I was aiming to bring an American ’60s influence into what was being called Britpop.

It irritates me when we are described as the archetypal band for a number of different scenes. Were Baggy and Madchester one and the same? We apparently represented both. After that we were Britpop.

Oasis were all about The Beatles and TRex. Blur were channelling Wire and The Kinks. As well as Dylan, I was completely absorbed by Gram Parsons and The Lovin’ Spoonful, and discovering for the first time The Staples Singers.

We were on a roll again, and people were saying we were the new Rolling Stones. Did I believe them? Would you? I wanted to. The Stones had an American flavour, and me and Mark could definitely pull a Mick and Keith pose once in a while. We were outsiders, on the fringes of Britpop. Just like we’d been outsiders in the Madchester scene.

Anyway, I was happy. I was just glad that people were listening to bands again. And we were doing our own thing.

The first time I ever heard Gram Parsons was in 1993. Bobby Gillespie had given Chloe a copy of a CD called Farther Along: The Best of the Flying Burrito Brothers, and Gram was their singer. He referred to his country/soul vision as ‘cosmic American music’. Not since New Order’s Power, Corruption and Lies a decade earlier had a record floored me like this. I remember listening to it on repeat in Camden: drinking coffee and smoking Marlboro and observing an impromptu, uninvited, mouse-based floor show taking place by a hole in the skirting board while singing along to ‘Cody Cody’ and ‘Christine’s Tune’.

Another musical door had opened for me, similar to the one Crass had smashed open in 1979. Before Crass it had been The Buzzcocks and The Vibrators, and before them – thanks to Uncle Andrew – Peter Gabriel-era Genesis.

We were pretty close to Oasis, and our paths crossed on lots of occasions. Noel was a fan and we played a number of gigs with them. Our names were often linked, and we would run into them at the annual award bashes that magazines would throw. After the red-carpet entry it would be like some kind of indie music AGM. There were those who had given up drink while others had taken it up almost professionally, and gaggles were taking regular trips to powder their noses as others looked on disparagingly, the line becoming blurred as the night went on and the drinks were sunk.

I left Camden and moved a mile up the road to Chalk Farm, where I started writing for our fourth album. It was originally titled First Shag in Ages, after an Irvine Welsh quote. Some promos were even sent out with that title before we settled for the less controversial The Charlatans – though the vinyl retained the original name etched in the run-out groove as some kind of nod to nonconformity. I call it The Black Album.

Mark and I had just started our writing relationship together. Our songwriting honeymoon was a week’s holiday with girlfriends on Spain’s Costa del Sol, where we mapped out all our ideas while lying on lilos in the sun.

Creation was based in Primrose Hill, just over the bridge. Mark would visit for a week at a time, and we wrote ‘Just When You’re Thinking Things Over’, ‘Tell Everyone’ and the beginnings of ‘Here Comes a Soul Saver’.

We bumped into Liam in the Pembroke Castle pub after he and Noel had had one of their heated debates, and he came back to the flat. We drank, shared stories, generally got all Mancunian, and we played him the latest track we’d been working on and had high hopes for – ‘Just When You’re Thinking Things Over’. We were really proud of it, and we thought he’d like the Lennon influence. Like some kind of Northern game of Top Trumps he pulled out a Maxell C90 and handed it to me, with the instruction, ‘Stick this on.’ We started to play it, and one of Noel’s familiar guitar riffs rang out, followed quickly by some tambourine, pounding drums and Liam’s declaration, ‘Some might say that sunshine follows thunder’. Our song would hit the dizzy heights of No. 12 in the singles chart, but theirs would be their first No. 1.

Primrose Hill was also where Primal Scream had their studio, and I would often find myself there while they were recording their album Vanishing Point – Liam would also call in, as would lots of the bit-part players in that scene: Lisa Moorish from Kill City, Brendan Lynch, Paul Weller and My Bloody Valentines’ Kevin Shields.

Chloe worked with a woman called Splash – a Canadian employee at Creation and one of my favourite people to hang out with. I’m not sure about exact job titles at Creation, and I’m pretty sure they aren’t either. She was married to Dave Rowntree, the drummer with Blur.

The Britpop juggernaut was hurtling along now. Oasis were approaching the peak of their powers, and Shaun Ryder and Bez were having a resurgence through Black Grape. Magazines outside music were picking up on the rising popularity, and it brought out a communal spirit which was at its height during the summer season of festivals. At T in the Park, after Kylie Minogue had played and then we had gone on, I was introduced to a familiar face, looking rather concerned. ‘I think I’ve lost Bez,’ were Joe Strummer’s first words to me.

I’ve never been overly concerned whether people know what I do when I meet them, but the fact that Joe Strummer was aware that I was a singer in a band gave me a giddy glow, and although I had just walked off stage and given Kylie a peck on each cheek, those first few moments with Joe instantly became the highlight of my weekend, week, month, year. We ambled over to his transit van, chatting about nothing in particular, and Joe began rummaging through some plastic bags, sleeping bags and a weekend’s worth of camping detritus. He was a seasoned festival-goer, and in one swift move he changed his boots and rolled a spliff, then off we went again.

Joe invited me to his campfire that evening, but unfortunately I had to be off to my next festival, with thoughts that some day I would take him up on his offer. Joe’s campfires became festival legend, and Strummerville, a charitable foundation set up by his wife after his death, is a fitting legacy.

Joe’s music had a profound impact on my musical life from the earliest days, and, as they say, the first cut is the deepest. My ever-changing top nine records would always have Sandinista! completing the ten.

It’s a sprawling Hollywood epic, with a cast of thousands but starring Mick ‘Bogart’ Jones, Joe ‘Travis Bickle’ Strummer, a strung out Topper Headon, and a loucher than louche Paul Simonon. I bought Sandinista! from Woolworths in Manchester for £3.99, the price insisted on by the band, stopping CBS charging more. Imagine a time when bands had not only the power to insist on releasing a triple outing but also the clout to set the price!

It was an early Christmas present to myself, aged 13, and must have been the product of a lot of scrimping. The only other album of theirs I owned was Give ’em Enough Rope. Neither of these albums is considered their finest, but they are the ones that mean most to me. Sandinista! is my favourite Clash album for many of the reasons that some critics and fans were disappointed. I like its filmic, cartoon-like quality – it is genre-splicing, topical and brave. Critics, on the other hand, have called it patchy, pseudo-revolutionary and an unnecessary ego trip.

I’d first got to know of The Clash through my schoolfriend Panhead, who I assume these days uses the slightly more acceptable moniker of Peter Clews. He had two older brothers, Sticker and Tant, who unknowingly introduced me to:

Cockney Rejects – Flares ’n’ Slippers

Tubeway Army – Replicas

Devo – ‘Jocko Homo’ and Q: Are We Not Men?. A: We Are Devo

The Stranglers – Rattus Norvegicus

The Jam – All Mod Cons

The Sex Pistols – Never Mind the Bollocks

The Clash – first LP plus the singles ‘White Riot’, ‘Complete Control’, ‘Clash City Rockers’ and ‘White Man in Hammersmith Palais’

It was the summer holidays – isn’t it always when you think back to childhood? – and Sticker and Tant were out doing important late-teenage stuff like getting into trouble, locating magic mushrooms and going to early punk gigs. Mr and Mrs Clews were out at work or down the social club, so me and Panhead would be listening to their sons’ records.

Did I find Sandinista! immediately overwhelming? Not when I was 13. I remember not being that impressed by The Beatles either, but with both of these groups it would later dawn on me how important they were.

When you buy an album and spin it for the first time, you usually only have eight to twelve tracks to get to grips with. It’s a limited-overs one-day international. But Sandinista! was a five-Test series. It had thirty-six songs, some of which didn’t even feature The Clash; lead vocals on a couple are taken by schoolchildren.

If thirty-six tracks is not enough to satisfy your appetite, then check out Ellen Foley’s mostly Strummer/Jones-written album Spirit of St Louis (a.k.a., in some circles, The Lost Clash Album) to get more.

The tracks on Sandinista! I took to first were the ones that sounded most like the Clash of old: ‘Somebody Got Murdered’, ‘Something About England’ and ‘Police on My Back’ (an Eddy Grant cover). ‘One More Time’ and ‘Washington Bullets’ would come to me a little later, the latter being as political as anyone had ever been in the mainstream. Then ‘Ivan Meets G.I. Joe’, ‘Lose This Skin’ and so on and so on, till I was telling anyone who would listen that ‘Midnight Log’ and ‘Junkie Slip’ were as good as anything they had ever done. They weren’t, but with such a monolithic release there were bound to be a few cracks. With their ambition came flaws, but that was natural. I didn’t mind my triple LPs flawed, especially for £3.99.

To me this album is a blueprint of inspiration and bravery for anyone who is in a band at the height of its powers. In 1980 The Clash were a huge band, and the fact that they were prepared to risk releasing this crazy, sprawling beauty will keep this LP in my Top 10 for as long as I live.

I found out later that ‘Mescalero’ Tymon Dogg, whose ‘Lose This Skin’ appears triumphantly on Sandinista!, was a musician mate of Joe’s who Topper had bumped into in New York while they were making the album in Electric Ladyland. I went to see The Mescaleros on four consecutive nights at the Troubadour in LA, and it was a great excuse to hang out with Joe.

I was very fortunate to meet Joe on several occasions, and I spoke to him a few times over the phone while he was writing the words to a celebratory Manchester United song. I regret that I had no input in that, but as Mark had finished all his guitar parts for the album we were then putting together, whereas I was still up to my neck in it, I told him he should go to the recording session to represent the band. But the song was never released: United didn’t make it to the final.

Joe did an interview on my behalf when he came backstage to the dressing room after a Charlatans gig in Reading. He was interviewed in the shower for a Radio 1 ‘On the Road with The Charlatans’ piece by Emma Forrest. I had been documenting the tour for the BBC, and the Reading show would be the last entry. I bet they weren’t expecting what they got, but what a great way to end!

Later I met and hung out with Joe every time he came to LA. He commented that the only fault with The Charlatans was the fact that there was no music in the dressing room. I think he saw something in us that we shared. I hope I am not being too vain in saying that there was a similar thread. Just like he was to everyone else in the world who likes music, he was a hero to me.

On 22 December 2002 I received a phone call from Neil Mather telling me he needed Tony Linkin’s phone number. Tony was The Charlatans’ PR at the time, and one of my best friends. Neil said he needed Tony’s number before the news broke.

What news?

Joe Strummer died last night of a heart attack.