Telling Stories - Tim Burgess (2012)
5. Tellin’ Stories
Knebworth 1996 was as big as it could get. It wasn’t The Charlatans’ gig, it was Oasis’s, but we, along with the most important bands of the time, played Knebworth. Oasis were obviously headlining, and Noel picked us, The Prodigy, The Chemical Brothers, Ocean Colour Scene, Kula Shaker, The Manic Street Preachers and The Bootleg Beatles to play with them. It was 250,000 people over two days in total, and what was hard for us was the fact that Rob Collins had died in a car crash a few weeks before we played it. It was our first gig post-Rob, the end of an era for the band, and potentially the end of The Charlatans: a disaster waiting to happen in front of our biggest audience yet. It was also the end of an era for Oasis, because how could they have got any bigger than that? But for us particularly the future was, to put it mildly, a little fragile.
Rob died in a car accident driving back to the studio from Monmouth town centre just before midnight on 21 July 1996. On that fateful Monday, his BMW slid off Rockfield Road and, after hitting several parked cars, flew fifty yards through the air before landing in a cornfield. Rob wasn’t wearing a seatbelt, and he was thrown through the sunroof. But he wasn’t killed instantly; he got up and staggered about for a while – an image that still haunts me today. He probably got to see his life flash before him, which is reassuring; I hope he had some nice thoughts among the dark ones.
During the weeks between Rob’s death and Knebworth we had to work out whether we were going to continue. We had to cremate Rob. We had a lot of crap to sort out.
Bobby Gillespie from Primal Scream suggested that Martin Duffy could help us out. I remember taking a call at Monnow Valley Studio from Jeff Barrett telling me that, despite Rob’s death, we had to do the gigs, and Duffy would play keyboards. I don’t think Duffy was aware of any of this at the time, but he was being put forward by friends who knew we needed help. There were three concerts coming up: Loch Lomond on 4 August, Knebworth on the 11th and the V96 festival on the 18th with Paul Weller. I just didn’t think it was possible.
We were numb and scared, but Jeff was persistent, telling me that we had to do the gigs: it was too important not to. He said it would be just like riding a horse after a fall: once we got back on we would be fine, it was just the first few hesitant steps that would be difficult. I loved Jeff for saying that. He didn’t have to. He was a big player in London, but he really came through for me. Without his nurturing and help, I wouldn’t be here today. I could quite happily have not played those gigs and taken a long time off to recover from the blow of Rob’s death, but they became the future, our future: the moment we would leave the past behind. We would do it and we would do it in glory, with true-grit Brit spirit and all that!
Loch Lomond, scheduled for just under two weeks after Rob’s death, seemed too soon for a comeback. Even for Jeff. So we politely cancelled and began getting our heads together to begin what seemed like a mountain climb.
Duffy was our angel sent from London, via the Midlands. I had been a fan since his days in Felt, and he was now a fully paid-up member of the Scream team. I’d met him for the first time under a table backstage at a Charlatans gig in Amsterdam. We were both on E. Cypress Hill were passing round joints as big as the Camberwell carrot. The paranoia had got to me, but I didn’t want to bail out and I think Duffy was hiding from his girlfriend, so I joined him under the table and kept him company. We clicked. I loved him and we just continued the conversation when I met him in the pub at Stone Station before rehearsing for Knebworth. It was natural. He was my hero.
We pulled it off: Knebworth was a great success. Yes, it was Oasis’s crowd, but we were the band of the day, because it was so emotionally charged. I could really feel people willing us on. We arrived in a helicopter, which added a bizarre aspect to the already strange goings-on. There were two reasons for it. Steve said he wanted us to feel like kings (his exact words); and, more mundanely, there was the traffic. We were staying in a hotel miles away from the venue to keep us away from prying eyes and press attention, as everyone was really interested in how we would cope. We were car-crash TV waiting to happen. The band had just lost their keyboard player, arguably the mostimportant member of the band, and we were going to come out and play in front of 125,000 people. What they didn’t know, though, was that Martin Duffy, Rob’s replacement, was a genius.
We all had dinner together in the hotel the night before the gig, and I remember watching Later with Jools Holland – it was shown on a big screen for us while we were eating. They replayed our most recent performance from Later and then, at the end of the programme, they broadcast in silence a picture of Rob for an entire minute. I was choked up. We all were.
When we landed at Knebworth, a TV crew came running towards us, saying, ‘Tim, Tim, what’s going on? Who are you most looking forward to seeing today?’ To which I replied, ‘Us.’ I meant it. I wasn’t being arrogant: it was euphoria. I was just ready. I wanted to see us go down in a blaze of glory or do ourselves the biggest favour and steal the show. I was so on edge, but I had nothing to lose now. I didn’t know it then, but the whole of Knebworth were on our side before we even set foot on the stage. We were already in their hearts.
When Rob died, we were half way through recording Tellin’ Stories, our fifth album. It was only Mark and myself who were in the studio on the night Rob died. The whole day afterwards was a blur. It was Jon Brookes who said, ‘We can’t split up on the morning of the 23rd July.’ When he got to the studio we all agreed that that was the place to take care of business for the next few days. We all got together. We had reporters outside the window, local and national press. We had friends coming over to pay their respects, and Rob’s mum, dad and sister came by, which was very hard to take in. I don’t think Rob’s mum ever got over his death, and for some odd reason Rob’s dad seemed to take it all out on me. Maybe I said something weird in an interview? I know I had a different vision of who his son was from the one he had.
So we decided to carry on, to keep Rob Collins’ name alive if nothing else, and we had to finish the record that would become Tellin’ Stories. (We were going through an unexplained phase of dropping ‘g’s – which I suppose made a change from dropping Es.) We all agreed that we were making a really good record. ‘One to Another’ was already finished, while ‘North Country Boy’, ‘Tellin’ Stories’ and ‘How High’ were written and almost finished, so the plan was just to go on.
But when I walked off the stage at Knebworth, I wanted to call it a day. The whole lead-up to the gig had been such an emotional time that when it ended I felt like the bubble had burst and the dream was over. I pretty much just sat at the side of the stage in tears. We all took a long time getting off the stage. Perhaps we felt it would be the last time we were all going to play together and were therefore savouring the moment. I remember hugging Mark and telling him how I felt, and he seemed to feel the same as me. So for at least ten minutes, or maybe an hour, or even the rest of the evening, we had split up and were no more. It was the end of the band …
I’m always on a high when I’m on stage, and the comedown from it is hard. But the two weeks leading up to this moment had taken an incredible emotional toll on us all: were we going to survive or were we not? My whole life I had wanted to be in a band, and at this point I was thinking it could go either way. But at least we pulled it off at Knebworth. The crowd were right behind us. It felt like the whole of Britain was behind us, really, and Oasis certainly were. Liam dedicated two songs to Rob that night. Rob had recently started hanging out with them quite a lot.
I spent a lot of time broken down in tears during the making of Tellin’ Stories. Maybe the cocaine comedowns had something to do with it. But I was also coping with the fact that my long-time girlfriend Chloe had left me for some goon from Go! Discs record label, and though I got quite a lot of inspiration from how distraught I was it still didn’t feel good at the time. Rob’s death was the last straw, the worst thing of all. At his funeral, I was absolutely beside myself. Uncontrollable. Confused. And I really thought the eulogy was a joke. Were they talking about the same person?
Coming off at Knebworth, the first person I saw backstage was Ben Marshall, a journalist and supporter of the band, and he was crying his eyes out. He was accepting the loss, obviously – he had been to the funeral – but he also thought there was a future for us as well. He had to write a review, and he said, ‘As I write this review with tears in my eyes, and I have seen the band over fifty times, I have never seen them so vicious and angry and passionate’ … or something like that.
So I guess we lost something, but gained something else on that day. Courage perhaps, but maybe spite, too. Maybe we grew up in forty-five minutes in front of 125,000 people, or at least in those few weeks since Rob’s death. I still get tingles down my spine and goose bumps remembering what we did. I think it was empowering. We got a weird energy from losing something irreplaceable. I felt like I’d lost a leg or an arm, but the great thing about having Martin Duffy in your band is the fact that he is probably the best keyboard player in Britain, or at least the most naturally gifted. He isn’t like Rob in any way at all. Rob’s playing was savage – he was a really angry musician – whereas Duffy is more classical, just beautiful, calm, naturally gifted. So he was completely different but, you know, the genius was there. Equal amounts of genius. And perhaps the key to all of this was the fact we didn’t have time to think before we walked onto the stage, we just felt it.
Emotions were certainly at an all-time high. Rob’s keyboard tech and habitual punchbag, John Clark, tried to get on the stage to pull Duffy off the organ mid-set, because he got it into his head that it was ‘what Rob would have wanted’ – one of the most dangerous phrases of that time. It can be a great sentiment, but it was overused and it exposed just how raw everyone’s emotions were. Those words got me into many arguments. Who’s to say what Rob would have wanted?
People went mental in the aftermath of Rob’s death, reacting in such weird ways, but I think the way The Charlatans handled it was very dignified. Although, in reality, it took me about ten years to get over it. I still think about Rob every day. Ten years of self-loathing and ten years of self-medicating; but almost ten years to the day since Rob’s death … I got clean.
The good thing about coming back to Rockfield, and going past the place where Rob died, is that I can now never be sure of the exact spot where the accident happened. It’s really reassuring that, after fourteen or fifteen years, I only have a vague recollection of all the gory details, and I have none of the nightmares any more.
Guilt is a strange thing. For ten years, I self-medicated. The sessions at Monnow Valley were really messed up, mainly because of drugs. Rob had learned to make crack with bicarb and cocaine and to heat it in the microwave. I was into that, and I also found it really amusing when he spiked my tea with speed, just as I was going to bed at two in the morning, so that I wouldn’t go to sleep for three days. I was the biggest drug-user in the band until Rob came out of prison; then we vied for the accolade.
There was no weirdness between us over drugs, but the rest of us managed to keep our shit together during sixteen-hour days, 11 a.m. to 3 a.m. But Rob was on a different schedule depending on what time he got back from the club in Bristol or the drug dealers in Swansea or London. That’s why we had to employ another engineer just for him, because he would want to record whenever he felt like it. Ric Peet was that engineer, and he and John Clark were his cohorts, and they would do whatever he wanted and get him whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted it.
But as the sessions went on, the songs which Mark, Martin, Jon and I had worked on in the daytime began to get butchered in the early hours. Songs Rob didn’t like he would ruin on purpose, and songs he did like he would ruin because he was so fucked up. Two days before Rob died, I had a huge argument with him, possibly about Ric Peet, I can’t really remember. He stormed off, got into his red BMW and went home.
Over the next couple of days I confided in Mark, and I pretty much said that Rob had to go. We had been recording for seven months at this point, making the follow-up to The Charlatans, our second No. 1 album, which had taken us just four months to record. I said, we can’t have him in the band any more. I had to check myself to see that this wasn’t all just a huge ego thing on my part, wanting rid of our star player. But he wasn’t our star player at the time or, to be honest, at the time of The Charlatans. Mark and I were the stars then.