Pathways of The Charlatans (interview: Jon Brookes)

October 18th sees the release of The Charlatans’ debut major label LP, ‘Us & Us Only’, on Universal/Island. Many lessons have been learned along the way, and with almost a decade of Indie status behind them the band have done as much homework as R.E.M in How To Be A Global Superpower. But is it what they want? Teetering on the eve of their headline performance at the 1999 Reading Festival, drummer Jon Brookes joined RMB in looking at the Pathways of The Charlatans. And the path revealed shows that the top is sometimes a dizzying place to be.

The Charlatans sold 15,000 copies of their first single, ‘Indian Rope’, which worked its way to the top of the Indie charts. The next thing to do was record an album, and the situation continued in its flagrant disregard for reality when it too went straight to number one.

Thinking back to these days, Jon says: “We got together quite quickly as a band. A lot of groups get together and craft their first album, and then just go on to rewrite that first album over and over. ‘Some Friendly’ is very bright and bubbly, and it was put together quite quickly. It wasn’t crafted over a long period of time-I think you can hear that on it.”

If there is anything that makes the Charlatans stand amongst the quality bands at the turn of the decade it is the drums. Amidst all the ego it’s easy to forget that association with the best bands in the land can be a very good thing. In 1990 The Charlatans stood in the same field as The Stone Roses when it came to a sorted rhythm section, and Brookes considers the Roses’ drummer Reni as one of the best ever.

The Charlatans’ own talent is best heard in ‘Then’-the second single from ‘Some Friendly’. Brookes’ solid beats shape the song into a striking stop-start rhythm, pinning down and kicking up the melancholy air that fills out the body of the song. ‘Sonic’ also relies on its technically immaculate drumming, before the beautiful bashing of the ‘Sproston Green’ finale.

“Martin Blunt [Charlatans’ bassist] has had a big effect on my playing,” admits Brookes. “I mean he’s always going on about drums.”

The only songs from the first album that get a regular airing in the current set are the beat-heavy ‘Then’ and ‘Sproston Green’, and Jon believes that tracks can look after themselves. “There are certain songs that just stay rooted. They don’t move however much you change yourself. You can still refer back to them and they are still right.”

There is however something blurred about The Charlatans around the time of ‘Some Friendly’. Of course it was the era of blurred. It meant something then that we don’t understand now. Blurred album covers, blurred backdrops at gigs, and one blurred track on every album. The Stone Roses’ ‘Don’t Stop’, the Inspiral Carpets’ ‘Memories of You’, and the Charlatans’ ‘109 pt2’. (Wisely, Blur consigned their early experiments in sound to their b-sides.)

But the whole of ‘Some Friendly’ has a blurred quality about it. Jon Baker’s guitar is all soundscapes, and blends in with the Rob Collins’ drifting Hammond technique, making the overall effect monotone. At times it washes together to excellent effect, as in ‘Opportunity’ where it couples with an inevitably looping bassline and relentlessly long-worded lyrics. But too often there is a lack of contrast, and the star tracks suffer by being up to their hips in similar-sounding music.

After the furore over the new major label material has died down (“probably late 2000”), Indie label Beggars Banquet is proposing another between-albums album. It will be another harvesting of the band’s nine years at Beggars’, comprising of all the non-album material recorded up to 1997. Amongst over thirty tracks under this category are two that didn’t make last year’s ‘Melting Pot’ compilation. ‘Happen to Die’ and ‘Me. In Time’ are two of the most interesting tracks to come from the Charlatans fold.

They hark from two EPs sandwiched between the first and second albums, and hopping from one to another is to hop from a monotone era to a much more exciting, fluctuating, challenging era. Hard as it was for the band, you cannot look at the 1992 Charlatans through Stone Roses tinted spectacles. ‘Happen to Die’ is a gem of a track (relegated to track 3 on the ‘Over Rising’ EP due to Gulf War sensitivity), and it constitutes a logical progression from ‘Some Friendly’, all I-Shot-The-Sheriff Hammondy with that bass line, a beautiful chorus, a beautiful song. And, retrospectively, ever-so slightly dull.

Compare then with ‘Me. In Time’-a track that has been fairly well dismissed by the band, who call it “really hesitant and unsure”. The opening gamut is a crystal clear guitar, quickly backed up by beautiful clarity, a piano sound cutting the Hammond cliché and a lovely pop song all round. This last offering announced a real change for the band, with Mark Collins taking over from Jon Baker as guitarist, presenting a much-needed change of dynamic.

The “really hesitant and unsure” feel is certainly encapsulated in the next album title. ‘Between 10th and 11th’ arrived at a nervous time for UK music. Lead-weighted hopes were hung on the Charlatans and Oxford’s Ride to progress and maintain some kind of Indie scene after the creative burst of Madchester. Ride rebelled, refusing to cut their songs down from seven minutes, although the album they produced, ‘Going Blank Again’, contains quality material. The Charlatans’ second album is a similarly awkward affair, with its sullenly non-co-operative title and its bunch-of-bananas cover contradicting the clear, direct, pop style of a number of the songs.

Tim Burgess once recalled, “Lyrically it was weird, it was like ‘Please get me out of this place…What am I up here singing for? I only wanted to play the tambourine anyway’.”

The whole album does have a faintly apocalyptic feel, with ‘The End of Everything’ an attempt at something like a protest song. It doesn’t sit right, with the lyric ‘They only want a “yes-man”/they will tell you what to believe and no (erm…)/Yes I do I only want to be strong’ standing out as being out of kilter with the band’s personality.

Jon Brookes recalls the mood: “I think we were concerned-not that the bubble had burst exactly, but that we were there at the top and we were starting to question if it was what we really wanted. It really shook us. A certain panic started to set in.”

‘Weirdo’ was the first single (Tim: “We were going to scrap it because we thought it was crap”), and the contrast with earlier material is great. There is the rebellious mashing of the Hammond’s keyboard, which really does lend a weird, dangerous sound. Again, the drums signal a change. The organics of ‘Some Friendly’ are replaced with the Genetically Modified sequencer that was prevalent at the time. After all the Baggy Music, producers like Flood and Robin Guthrie were cleaning up music. Unfortunately the rest of the world was going Grunge, leaving hitherto promising bands like James, Lush, Chapterhouse and Curve trying with little success to reverse out of the cul-de-sac of UK music.

It was too soon to go all Eighties again, although ‘Between 10th and 11th’ has dated better than ‘Some Friendly’. The vast effects work foretells the work with the Chemical Brothers and tells much about the band’s interest in dance. If the album didn’t produce their best singles, the sequence of tracks drifting through ‘Subtitle’, popping through ‘Can’t Even Be Bothered’, crunching through ‘Weirdo’, chewing through ‘Chewing Gum Weekend’ and finally breathing through ‘(No one) Not Even The Rain’ is some of the deftest album-work around. The last track quotes e e cummings’ poem-‘not even the rain has such small hands’. No one, not even the Stone Roses had done this.

By the time the realisation was made that drum pads were not the way to go, the UK had no music industry to speak of. Blur were going to be the next big thing, but were still circling for landing with ‘Modern Life is Rubbish’. The best thing happening was in America. The Black Crowes’ ‘Southern Harmony and Musical Companion’ was providing a healthy foil for Grunge, and was certainly doing great things with keyboards. If anywhere was going to provide inspiration for a UK band it was there, hence Primal Scream’s blues/gospel incarnation.

“Something was said about us recently,” says Jon, “That really struck a chord. We were described as the closest thing to white soul. I wish that had been said about us earlier, because I think we’ve had that for a long time. It comes out on the third album, ‘Up to Our Hips’. We’d had such a tough time, and that album has like a ‘phoenix rising’ vibe.”

The greatness of the opening track on ‘Up To Our Hips’ comes in its maracas, harmonica and blues piano. The reaction against ‘Between 10th and 11th’ is huge, and with it came a return of the blurredness, only this time it was an anti-technology blurredness. Blurredness with intent, if you will.

Jon says, “We used a lot of handheld percussion with really raw production. The most technological thing we used on that album was a torch, because we used to go out fishing in the pitch dark after a day in the studio!”

There is certainly a new soul shining through what sounds now like a fairly dark album. The opening track is a real high point, and ‘Jesus Hairdo’ provides a poppy relief, again drawing confidently on the blues piano, with lyrics suggesting a sympathy for America: “If everything you say is true it’s bad TV”.

But, contrary to the general tide, there are tracks which utilise a more complex production value. In ‘Feel Flows’ it is as if the house culture is struck through with techno/indie sensibilities. An absolutely filthy keyboard, links up with a frosted glass guitar over very cymbal-driven percussion. It is definitely a fine moment for the Charlatans, and their best instrumental by a long stretch. More greatness follows on the title track, with a similarly organic dance feel. The soul is high, although as an album ‘Up To Our Hips’ doesn’t quite gel, with the dance and blues influences seeming to pull in contradictory directions.

One important move towards the Charlatans of today is in the lyrics, which start to shed the hesitancy that characterises previous albums. On ‘I Never Want and Easy Life if Me and He Were Ever to Get There’, the words are much more direct: ‘Save me I wanna slip with the slide/Shoot it up and go for a ride’. The choice of this as a single shows the intent of the band to get much more randy, but the whole album can probably be considered transitional. The album scored well, although the singles performed worse than any others, barely cracking the top 40, with ‘Jesus Hairdo’ peaking at 48.

But The Charlatans knew what they wanted to do, and they went ahead and did it. The change of direction to come is evident in ‘Up To Our Hips’, and with the release of ‘The Charlatans’ the change was thrust into position. A high-profile vocal slot for Tim Burgess on the Chemical Brothers’ single “Life Is Sweet” helped both bands at this point, helping the Chemicals achieve debut success and thrusting the Charlatans back up to the fore.

Oddly enough for an eponymous album, ‘The Charlatans’ sits awkwardly in The Charlatans’ output as being somehow unlike them. You might say it was their American Rawk album, if it would benefit you to do so. It is certainly very loud and very trebly. It sits there as a statement of intent: a more expansive sound, with flat-out qualities rather than the (comparative) plinky-plinky gentleness of before.

So what made the difference? “That was when Tim and Mark Collins [guitarist] really clicked,” recalls Brookes. “It was their honeymoon period. Tim was looking for someone to write with and they came together at that point.” It certainly shows. The blurred Hammond sound is mixed low to allow for big fat wedges of guitar and thrusting lyrics, although Rob Collins turns up trumps on ‘Just When You’re Thinkin’ Things Over’ with some inspired piano work.

Jon remembers: “Everything going on in music at the time was self-destructive. Nirvana were really big, and everyone was talking about taking heroin, and we were like ‘No, no, no-that’s not what we want’. Mark especially was adamant that what we did socially should work in the band’s favour. It was quite a conscious decision to behave positively. We ended up with a massive clutch of really upbeat tracks, each one fighting to get on to the album.”

For a band who are constantly fending off comparisons-and The Charlatans’ career has virtually been defined by accusations of sounding like other bands-it is very dangerous to radically change direction. Of course these are the days when bands can duplicate their heroes and it passes unnoticed in a wave of adoration. But anyone taking the trouble to play ‘Here Comes a Soul Saver’ beside Pink Floyd’s ‘Fearless’ will see every reason not to take the material as The Charlatans. The Rolling Stones’ ‘Exile On Main Street’ also leaps readily to mind.

Tim concurs about the lifting of material: “With ‘Just When You’re Thinkin’ Things Over’ we were thinking of ripping off ‘Ramble On’ by Led Zeppelin. ‘Toothache’ was us trying to capture the spirit of ‘When The Levee Breaks’.”

Undoubtedly this was a very silly time for the UK bigshots. Suddenly it was okay to sound like someone-and I mean exactly like someone. For all the quality there were little indulgences that sank entire ships. Oasis have consistently flirted with pop writing excellence before trampling all over their strawberries with irrelevant Beatles references. Ian Brown must sorely lament allowing The Stone Roses to screw up a perfectly good start to an album with Led Zeppelin licks.

But the fact of the matter is The Charlatans have always been able to maintain a high standard of musicianship. That was what put them up there with the best of the Baggy lot, and that is what keeps them there through thick and thin. ‘The Charlatans’, when it comes down to it, is an excellent album. It is tight, focused and confident.

Lyrics like ‘Feeling good, feeling high, it’s a rush’, and ‘I can go for miles and miles and miles and miles and miles’ leave no doubt as to where the band are coming from. They mark a new phase for Tim Burgess who sings with a spitty brashness, withering the former timidity.

‘Tellin’ Stories’ is immediate. Opener ‘With No Shoes’ is massive, and single-handedly makes the album “What the Stone Roses’ ‘Second Coming’ should have been™”. The lyrics (“Stone me”/”I’ve been walkin’ with no shoes”/”I could hardly wait to shoot you down”) is all Roses, head on, without a care. ‘One To Another’ becomes so packed with energy it is almost unbearable, almost breaking the Charlatans’ careful shape-it is a real favourite moment.

‘You’re A Big Girl Now’ is firmly driven, denying the pause for breath that most acoustic tracks afford. ‘Area 51’ breaks the album just past the centre before the trump card of ‘How High’, which sums up the relentlessness of the set. Burgess’s vocal melody is a one-noter, repeatedly battering the listeners up high and keeping them there: “Yeah too right I’m gonna pledge my time ’til the day I die.” The crescendo is reached with another glance at the old adversaries, with ‘Get On It’ bearing a structural resemblance to the Stone Roses’ first album-closer.

‘Tellin’ Stories’-according to Martin Blunt-“sounds like a big bag of spanners”. It is another huge leap forward for the band. But it is so great, so confident, so emotionally charged (coming as it does on the back of keyboardist Rob Collins’ untimely death), one doesn’t-can’t-stop to see the reality of it.

Jon Brookes, inescapably tangled in its making, cannot hear what the fan hears. “I’ve listened to the album a million times just to try and figure out what mood Rob was in, if he was unhappy,” he told RMB. “And I can hear certain conflicts on there between us all. I think the ascent made us dizzy again. I still haven’t quite digested the songs-there are a few ghosts on that album. In time it might make some sense.”

One track that will provide a great selling point for the proposed Beggars Banquet non-album tracks compilation is the b-side to the ‘How High’ single. ‘Title Fight’ was reputedly recorded too late for inclusion on ‘Tellin’ Stories’, and it certainly makes for a class-A b-side, pausing marvellously before its conclusion to get all dirty with some superloops supplied by Bentley Rhythm Ace’s Richard March. As it turns out, it’s a pointer for things to come…


‘Us & Us Only’. What a title. Only, thinking about it, it’s like calling it ‘The Charlatans’, except there’s already an album called ‘The Charlatans’. And now is the time for The Charlatans to make a definitive mark. UK music desperately needs a pickup, with all the thunder-stealing acts like the Manics, Oasis and Blur on something of a back foot. What The Charlatans can do is establish themselves once and for all as mainstays, unaffected by the flitterings and nonsenses of fashion and fad. ‘Us & Us Only’ it is then.

According to Jon Brookes, opening track ‘Forever’ is a touchstone of stability: “It’s a great starting song. It’s the first track and the first single to come from the album. Tim took the music with him to Japan and wrote the lyrics in an afternoon. We thought it was the perfect way to start an album, and it remains so even now. It has stayed exactly where it is as a track.”

Clocking in at over seven and a half minutes, ‘Forever’ represents a new direction for The Charlatans. Now safely in the Universal/Island fold, they can afford the time to experiment on the album as a whole. Here we are introduced to a distorted vocal and a choppy drum loop which, together with a classic dub bass line, keep the song throbbing under a Hammond/strings haze.

The track to really flip out with new form is ‘Good Witch, Bad Witch 2’. A double bass and keyboard repeat a dreamy handprint, providing crystal clarity over the filthy failing drum. Burgess’s lyrics switch from exorcism to bluster to Simpsons-style drunken maniac and back, making for an unhinged feel. It occupies the penultimate spot on the album, but the positioning of a minute-long taster at track two means that it suffuses the whole set, skewering it with a dark tension.

‘The Blond Waltz’ starts a little canter of tracks that display a supreme relaxation and self-assurance with the material at hand. (It’s the band’s first ever foray into a three-four time signature, music fans!) Martin Blunt has described the new album as “Bob Dylan and The Band on Ecstasy playing at the last night of the Heavenly Social”, and Tim Burgess’s tendency to imitate Dylan reaches its extreme in ‘A House Is Not A Home’. To be honest the vocal sounds like a digitally remastered Shane MacGowan over a relaxed rush of a song that is musically all smiles.

‘Senses’ is said by Blunt to lay late keyboardist Rob Collins’ ghost to rest. It brings the mood right down, starting with a solemn piano chime accompanied by harmonica before bursting into an impassioned valediction from Tim Burgess. Once again it is unlike anything heard from the band before-not a familiar song structure or sound, but rather a flat-out emotional expression.

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