This year The Charlatans’ debut album, ‘Some Friendly’, celebrates its twentieth anniversary with a special edition reissue. A cornerstone of baggy Manchester, Tim Burgess remembers its conception and the two decades that have followed as we try to figure out why this Salford band are the chosen survivors of the 90s, Britpop and such a turbulent history
I’d never met Tim Burgess before and yet he strolls into east-end dive The Griffin, pulls up a chair and starts chatting away like this is a weekly ritual of ours. He’s as friendly as expected, and just as pasty, despite having been a Hollywood resident for the past 9 years, and regardless of a long weekend in Barcelona for Primavera Sound.
“It’s a brilliant festival, isn’t it?” he says. “I DJ’d there last year and it was them that gave us the idea of performing the whole of ‘Some Friendly’ this year.
“It all went a bit mental from the point that they wheeled a birthday cake onstage for me,” he says. “They’d sprinkled ketamine on it, and I’ve not taken drugs for five years. I just kept saying, ‘ain’t sugar brilliant!?’.”
While Burgess was turning 43 (an unbelievable number for the Benjamin Button of indie – a man who looks suspiciously younger every time he releases a record), his band was officially exiting its teens.
Twenty years ago The Charlatans released debut album ‘Some Friendly’ when ‘baggy’ was still in its psychedelic infancy. Back then they formed part of the holy trinity of scally groove pop, along with Happy Mondays and The Stone Roses – a movement these days undermined by the corny ‘Madchester’ tag and today’s lairy geeze-rock of Kasabian. But before the poetic, effeminate aspects of baggy were stripped away by Oasis and gigs in football stadiums, Manchester was a city swaggering to a clever, inventive, ecstasy-scoffing sound as important to the evolution of alternative music as punk, going on to inspire early Britpop and later the punk-funk of The Rapture. And The Charlatans were playing their part.
“I dunno,” ponders Burgess of the ‘how come baggy’s become so macho?’ question “because the record [‘Some Friendly’] wasn’t like that at all, was it? We were singing about polar bears, y’know? But without giving too much of the game away….” Tim trails off, which he does quite a bit. “Obviously the Roses and the Mondays were going on but they weren’t lairy,” he continues. “The Monday’s weren’t at all – they were cool and they were street, and it was almost like New York or Harlem with the Mondays, but it was never like… I dunno, maybe it just got a bit more lairy with…err…Kasabian,” he laughs “or Oasis. With the Hacienda all the lairiness went out with ecstasy because men started to dance – men from the building site. Like, I worked as a labourer. The music I was listening to at that time was Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Axis: Bold As Love’, which is all ‘Castles Made of Sand’, and ‘Renaissance Fair’ by The Byrds, and psychedelic records like The Nuggets box-set. Baggy had that scally thing and there was definitely a swagger there but it was romantic as well.”
The romance wouldn’t last longer than four years, and with The Mondays lost in a Barbados drug fug and The Roses taking half a decade to release ‘The Second Coming’ and promptly split up, Burgess and his band were left to hold the fort alone. Not that they cared too much.
“The first record was everything I’d ever dreamed of,” smiles the singer. “Being in a band was. Like, I met Iggy Pop, I met Ice-T, I met The Cramps, Sonic Youth – people that were all American really but heroes of mine that I never thought I’d meet, and the thrill of it was just instinct really. It was the enthusiasm of living inside the moment. It was everything. It was perfect when we did Top Of The Pops, and we toured all over the world and got invited to all of these groovy places. And with it all being for the first time, it was like a first sexual experience or something.”
Rather aptly, album closer ‘Sproston Green’ documented just that. A track about Burgess losing his virginity, it’s a strong argument in favour of the 20th Anniversary Edition of ‘Some Friendly’ being released this month. This one knows she comes and goes, he eventually chirps after an endless, wiggy intro of guitars and organ. Everything she stole was mi-e-i-e-i-e-ine, he later professes.
Elsewhere on the band’s forgotten beginning (many consider the hit-heavy ‘Tellin’ Stories’ to be the band’s most identifying record, some even mistaking it as the group’s birth), ‘Then’ prowls and grooves like The Charlatans rarely have since and ‘Opportunity’’s sparse vocals more than hint at Burgess’ love for The Doors. It’s a record more patient than it should be, full of expansive instrumental sections, and purposefully misses the band’s top ten single ‘The Only One I Know’ and its b-side ‘Indian Rope’, a track Burgess regarded very highly.
“For me, when we did that song in Strawberry Studios, I did sit down next to Martin and say, ‘how are we going to better this song?’,” he says “and he, quite bravely, just said that we will, and that was really cool because I was thinking this might be as good as it gets.”
Two decades on, ‘Indian Rope’ – critically and commercially – clearly wasn’t The Charlatans’ peak. ‘Tellin’ Stories’ is a definite contender, whipped up in the storm of Britpop and thus making the band (along with anyone with a Bealtes-ish haircut) a household name. But it was eleven years after ‘Some Friendly’, with the band’s Third Coming that people started to look at The Charlatans differently.
Inspired by Curtis Mayfield and recorded in Burgess’ new hometown of Los Angeles, ‘Wonderland’ took the baggy mould and continued to shun any surrounding, louty bravado by throwing falsetto vocals over the Hammond organ and bass grooves. Eleven years into a career, no band was meant to be this keen to try new things, least of all within the voice box of the group.
“I really like ‘Wonderland’ because of what it did and how it changed peoples’ perceptions of us,” says Burgess “and again, we wanted to record on Wonderland Avenue because of The Doors and the mythology of this one street in Los Angeles, and I’d just moved there. It felt like a brand new start…” Tim pauses. “I hate saying ‘brand new start’ but you can’t really say it any other way. ‘Tellin’ Stories’ was a hard one to make but was obviously pretty successful, so good memories, and the one before that was good as well. I didn’t really like a couple but I don’t really like…” he trails off again. “They are always the ones that people like the most, aren’t they?”
Having survived the imprisonment of original keyboard/organ player Rob Collins in ’92 (for his involvement in an armed robbery), and his sudden death in ’96, Burgess’ move to L.A. was yet another test for The Charlatans existence, and one that the singer says “pushed the band to the edge”. It ended up giving them their most credible and soulful crossover hit to date, followed by the-hit-but-largely-miss ‘Up At The Lake’ and the even less notable ‘Simpatico’. And still the band remained baggy’s and Britpop’s most unlikely survivors. Why?
“The thing that keeps us going is that we all like modern music,” explains Burgess. “It’s cool having a record out, but what about the next one, and the one after that? That’s kept me going. I don’t really listen to our old records at all.
“My favourite record now is the last one we did – ‘You Cross My Path’. It’s very me in a lot of ways.”
By that comparison, Tim Burgess must be one very generous man, because ‘You Cross My Path’ was The Charlatan’s ‘In Rainbows’, only unlike Radiohead’s experimental pay-what-you-like model, this album was completely free to all.
“I don’t regret it because I don’t live like that,” shrugs Tim “but we wouldn’t do it again because we’ve already done it and it wouldn’t be the same. A friend of mine pointed out that if his band did it, it wouldn’t even have the same effect, because it’s already been done. It’s almost as if as soon as it was done, it was over, and that’s great because I feel like we’ve saved the music industry,” he laughs. “We took one for the rest of fucking society.
“People who like to level that The Charlatans never do anything first said that we were just copying Radiohead, but that was wrong, and we really upset a lot of people who were high up at major labels, which I got excited about.”
It was also a record based around three chord songs; unusual to all who know that bouncy Charlatans Hammond organ sound, but not to Burgess who declared himself a punk at the age of seven after watching The Vibrators on Top Of The Pops. That particular smiling confession explains a lot about Burgess’ extracurricular activities as a Shoreditch face, Horrors’ club DJ and fledgling producer of new punk and new wave bands.
At Primavera he wore a Factory Floor T-shirt onstage (his favourite band at the moment) and he’s recently produced Electricity In Our Homes’ new single, following on from last year’s work on Hatcham Social’s debut album. Next in line are new singles and EPs for Blue On Blue and Chapter Sweetheart, respectively.
“I love people in bands,” he reasons. “They’ve got really good stories to tell and I love watching people work stuff out. I think music is as good as it always has been, especially in London.”
To some who are stuffier than others, that’s not true, not of any music, least of all The Charlatans. And to those people, Burgess and the band will always be (rather inaccurately, really) Britpop’s unlikely survivors, in a world where even Oasis have called it a day. But the mystery of how they’ve kept going really is as simple as the fact that they’ve never become old fashioned within themselves. It’s quite the anti-twist in the tale – a ‘the butler did it’ ending, baffling because to many, as The Charlatans swagger on under early 90s haircuts to their slowly evolving organ-laden indie, ‘old fashioned’ seems to be exactly what they are. But ask yourself this, when was the last time you saw experimental minds Damon Albarn and Thom Yorke in The Old Blue Last, checking out a new band? Or DJing at Offset Festival? Or producing a noisy DIY band without mountains of cash to pay for their limo rides to the studio?
A handful of ropey albums (and it would be wrong to say that they don’t exist) and the damage to baggy’s legacy caused by Oasis and later Kasabian have made us forget how youthful, tuneful and brave, even, The Charlatans can be, and were, on ‘Some Friendly’ especially. Its twentieth anniversary couldn’t have come sooner to remind us of that, and by September The Charlatans will be ready to release their eleventh album, ‘Who We Touch’, because as the band’s singer says, “it’s cool having a record out, but what about the next one?”
“Well, it’s incredible,” he tells me before we end the interview and return to discussing how much we think of Primavera Sound. “I don’t want to say that it’s been a challenge, because of course it has – it has to be. But it’s been a really intense, ongoing thing, and because the last record had three chords running through it we really wanted to stretch this out so I went into this one in an experimental frame of mind, like using a Brian Eno technique of finding my favourite chords, pinning them to a wall and randomly picking them, y’know to create something out of nothing. We were going to be recording it in the autumn, so I wanted to have that idea of a European frosty record.”
And if it’s not suitably ‘experimental’ or ‘frosty’ enough for you, just wait for the next Charlatans record, or the one after that, or the one after that.
By Stuart Stubbs
Originally published in issue 18 (vol 3) of Loud And Quiet. June 2010