Sunday, March 19, 2017
by Simon Reynolds
In the U.K., the last few years have seen the original sequence of '60s rock replayed – in reverse. Nineteen eighty-eight was the year of 1969 – the year the hippie dream turned sour (Altamont, Manson).
Groups like Spacemen 3, Loop, and M Bloody Valentine resurrected a version of psychedelia that was more about the chaos of schizophrenia than a jolly day trip from reality. But in 1989, the U.K. pop scene backtracked to 1967, with the Manchester wave of groups leading the retreat to flower power's Day-Glo euphoria. The Stone Roses name-checked the Beatles, Hendrix, and Pink Floyd; the Inspiral Carpets exhumed the tin-pot organ and nasal harmonies of psychedelia's first flush of callow enthusiasm. In 1988, the watchword was ‘heavy’, in the last two years, it's been ‘good vibes’. Psychic and social disintegration has given way to mellow communion, as proclaimed by anthems like Primal Scream's ‘Come Together’ and the Stone Roses' ‘One Love’.
Some observers have compared the Manchester upheaval to the trajectory of mod music in the '60s. In both cases, British groups took lessons in rhythm from the black American dance music of the moment. "Detroit and Chicago have been to us, and other current groups, what Memphis and Chicago were to the Stones and the other white R&B groups of the '60s," claims Tim Burgess, lead singer of the Charlatans. "The acid-house boom was the first time I got excited about music that was happening in my lifetime."
The Charlatans hail from the midlands of the U.K. (a nondescript, industrial region south of Manchester). They originally formed at the instigation of keyboard player Rob Collins, who wanted to base a band around his Hammond organ. Martin Blunt (bass), Jon Baker (guitar), and Jon Brookes (drums) were recruited from sundry mod and psychedelic bands in the locality. The group's rise began when they supported the Stone Roses on tour. From the Roses, the Charlatans cribbed two essential factors for U.K. pop success. First, a loose-limbed, syncopated dance beat (ultimately derived from James Brown's ‘Funky Drummer’) Second, a desirable, charismatic front man, exuding laid-back arrogance. They spotted the lippy – that's to say, luscious and loudmouthed – Tim Burgess fronting his own group, the Electric Crayons, and wasted no time in nabbing him.
The result was the weird hodgepodge of period detail and 1990 pop currency that is the Charlatans – crisp rare groove rhythms, folk-edelic ‘60s harmonies, the sepia-tinted swell of the Hammond organ, and guitar that veers from flecked funk to flanged psychedelia. The Charlatans' LP, Some Friendly, ranges from lightweight Talking Heads-style albino funk like ‘The Only One I Know’ to glowering mood pieces like the frustratingly implosive ‘Then’ and groggy, druggy bouts of acid-rock experimentation like ‘Opportunity’, ‘1O9 Pt 2’ and ‘Sproston Green’. Like so much indie/college rock, it can't help but be music about other music, telling you more about the extent and excellence of a band's record collection than anything ‘out there’.
The Charlatans fail to shrug off the burden of their multiple precedents more often than they succeed (the exception being the aforementioned druggier songs like ‘Opportunity’), but like the Stone Roses they have been seized upon by a generation that's either too young to know or too desperate to care about what deja vu means.
When Tim Burgess's face made it onto the cover of The Face last year, it was an uncanny echo of a decade-earlier Face cover featuring the luscious, pouting Ian McCulloch of Echo and the Bunnymen. Nothing could have more clearly signaled the sea change in UK pop consciousness than this flashback to the days when the mop-top-and-black-clothes look was in. For most of the '80s, the Face had celebrated ‘style culture’ – a semi-mythical metropolitan scene, based around nightclubs and brasseries. Rock was decreed ‘dead’, and Face disciples danced on its grave to the beat of the latest U.S.-import 12-inch. But by 1990, style culture's bubble had burst (thanks to the anti-elitist rave scene and the insurgent indie rock/dance crossover). TheFace was forced to revert to what it had been in its early days: a rock magazine featuring the kind of pallid, spotty indie kids it would have previously barred entrance to for not looking sufficiently cool.
Burgess comes from Northwich, a small town equidistant from Liverpool and Manchester. "I've always believed that the northwest of England has produced better groups than the rest of the U.K. They have more time to develop, whereas London bands get hounded so quickly by the press. The early-'80s Liverpool scene is kind of a parallel with the Manchester thing now. Back then bands like Teardrop Explodes and Echo and the Bunnymen got lumped together; now it's the Roses, the Mondays, the Charlatans. I don't understand why, because all the bands are really different.
"We're not a total life-style package like the Mondays or the Farm," says Burgess, "with clothes and drugs and soccer and a whole attitude. We're obsessed with taking music further. We don't have the attitude of other groups who say, 'Well, we're not playing a gig that night 'cause a big soccer match is on TV.' I've never been into sports anyway."
1990 could well go down in the rock almanac as the year The Charlatans stole the initiative from The Stone Rose. While the figureheads of the Manc explosion spent the year paralysed by the expectations of critics and audience alike, The Charlatans materialised out of nowhere (the West Midlands) to usurp the Roses' rightful place as chartbusting purveyors of Sixties psychedelia with a 1990 funk undercarriage.
The Charlatans are the photogenic option in the post-Manc jamboree: Tim Burgess' enigmatic, androgynous allure makes him the material for classic teenybop obsession, in a way that the laddish likes of Shaun Ryder and Peter Hooton never could be. And where The Stone Roses have been stalled by the obligation to articulate Manchester's ‘new vibe’, The Charlatans are free to be vague, to suggest more than they reveal.
After the Top 20 hits ‘The Only One I Know’ and ‘Then’, the critical/commercial success of their debut album Some Friendly, and the first signs of future mega status in America, The Charlatans now look like the ones-most-likely to prosper after the Manc hype runs out of steam.
Here, Tim Burgess reflects on a glorious year.
It's not a movement, it's more like an atmosphere. Any idea of it being a movement was created as an afterthought, usually by journalists. But I think it's true that in 1989, a whole load of fresh attitudes started to come through. The independent scene used to have this traditional indie attitude, which was that if you were successful, that meant you weren't really indie. But the Charlatans have never been afraid to call ourselves pop. At the same time, our attitude is independent. We're not puppets, there's no one dictating anything to us. We've always despised that kind of thing.
Northwich, his hometown
It's 18 miles south of Manchester, and 20 miles away from Liverpool. So I've had the most brilliant musical upbringing. I've always believed that the North-West has produced better groups. They have more time to develop. London groups get hounded so quickly by the press, the music business is right on your doorstep if you're a London group. There's quite a few parallels between the Manchester thing and the Liverpool scene in the early Eighties. Back then, Teardrop Explodes and Echo And The Bunnymen got classed together, and nowadays it's the Roses, the Mondays, the Inspirals, The Charlatans, who get lumped together. But all the groups were really different from each other.
Being a sex symbol
I never, ever thought of myself like that. But I won't argue with it, so long as it's not used to trivialise the music. Before I was in a group, I was never considered to be particularly good looking. For about three years, I was going out five nights a week, but I never had a girlfriend. I can't complain about being regarded as a sex symbol. It won't affect my ego, because I've always had a big ego! At the same time, I'm pretty realistic. All the people in this band are among the most sorted out people I know.
Fame, Destiny, life in a small town
Being a teenager in a smallish town, it always seemed so tragic to be so far from the cities, where all the excitement was. But I always knew I'd be doing something extraordinary one day. For years, I was dying to be doing what I'm doing now. Everything apart from being in a group just seemed so trivial. It was either that, or wanting to be a pilot or a footballer or a writer.
The indie/dance crossover
We definitely have a kind of black feel in our rhythms. I suppose that's why everyone compares what's happened in the last two years to the Stones and the mod groups. They were influenced by the black dance music coming across from the Memphis and Chicago. And our sort of band has been influenced by the House rhythms coming over from Detroit and Chicago. House was the first time I got excited by a music that had happened in my lifetime. See, I just missed out on punk. So the rave scene was the first musical revolution of my 22 summers!
The Hammond organ
When we started out, we realised that there had never been a brilliant group whose sound was based around the Hammond organ. And we wanted to be the first. I don't know what it is about that sound, it just gets me really excited. There's something really perverse about that instrument. It sounds sort of orgasmic. It really turns me on!
‘You're Not Very Well’: I suppose it's a bit like out ‘Get Off My Cloud’. It's our response to the people who try to scrutinise you for having a good time, and analyse everything to death. It was originally gonna be called ‘Sick In The Head’, but we decided to go for the understatement. We're too clever to say, "F*** off!"
‘Flower’: It's a death threat aimed at someone who's been disrupting my past. I don't harbour grudges generally, but there's three that I won't forget. ‘Sproston Green’: It's about a place in Northwich, where I had my first sexual encounter. I was 14 or 15, and there was this girl who used to make me do things to her. She was much older than me. So I guess you could say that I was seduced at an early age.
Androgyny Versus ‘The New Laddishness’
If we adopted a laddish image because that's what's fashionable, it'd be contrived. We're not like that. We're just into music. Whereas with Happy Mondays and The Farm, they're about a whole lifestyle package: the football, the clothes, the drugs. Music is our supreme obsession. We don't have that attitude of other groups, where they'll say that they won't play a gig on a particular night because there's a match on telly, or they won't rehearse on Sunday because they're playing five-a-side. We've no interest in anything apart from music. We're obsessed with taking the music further. I've never been interested in sport. I've very little time for football.
I don't like to open myself up totally. After all, it's not as though I know the people who interview me. Sometimes I'll leave the room after half an hour, when I know the interviewer wants five hours of open heart surgery. Always leave them wanting more, that's my attitude.
With the lyrics, I like to leave things oblique. Like the title Some Friendly: I kept it deliberately vague so as to give people a chance to think. And they do, they read so many different things into it. With a lot of lines, I don't know where they came from, or what they mean. There's parts of the brain that we don't know anything about. I use intuition and dream imagery and random things. And I like to use images and allusions that I know only mean something to me. Listeners seem to make more out of stuff like that, rather than if you spell everything out. It's the only way I know how to think or speak or be. I don't like to analyse, it ruins everything. For instance, if you were married to someone for two years, you could probably write a really accurate assessment of that person. But for me, it's the guess-work that's interesting, that early stage when you can't figure someone out.
The songs are a mixture of fact and fantasy. Sometimes they're about imaginary relationships, or they're wishful thinking, things I dream of happening. That's far more exciting than some dreary factual account of my life. Who wants to know if I've had sex and what it was like? It's miles better if I'd never had sex and wrote about what I imagined it was like!