For more than two decades now, The Charlatans have been an inspirational force in British rock. As they celebrate their twentieth anniversary with some very special gigs, they remain as exciting and relevant now, as when they first broke through to the immortal strains of ‘The Only One I Know’ ? if not, more so, as a new generation of young bands and fans today hail them as lifelong heroes.
Rooted in the Midlands and Northwest of England, the band have always exuded positive energy, whether in the first mania of their success in the early ’90s, or while suffering their many tribulations midway through that decade, or in their sophisticated, ever-questing vitality today.
The unshakable line-up of Martin Blunt (bass), Jon Brookes (drums), Tim Burgess (vocals), Mark Collins (guitar) and Tony Rogers (keyboards) have, along the way, made so much beautiful, brilliant music ? countless classic singles, bursting with melody and class; and an enviable catalogue of albums, each restlessly different from the last, none anything short of compelling, uplifting, or totally rockin’. Unlike all but a very select few bands of their vintage, Charlatans albums are urgent, and full of life, both commercially and creatively.
Their eleventh studio collection, ‘Who We Touch’, must surely rank as their boldest to date, radically broadening, in places, their aesthetic remit. It is, says Burgess, “a soulful voyage”, a journey through moods upful and profound, dark and delirious, ultimately concluding in blissful optimism. Its sound is inspired by many heroes, yet always sounds like no-one other than The Charlatans themselves.
“You don’t want to do something you’ve done before,” Tim reasons. “You have to start with a blank page. You need to be enlightened. The dead give birth to dead things.”
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For 2008’s ‘You Cross My Path’, The Charlatans were revved up on the groundbreaking idea of distributing their latest opus for free on the internet. Far from commercial suicide, it reinvigorated the public’s love for them, and they approached their follow-up record with fresh impetus. The whole process of making it began, however, a little earlier than they’d imagined.
“We were due to do an American club tour at the end of last summer,” Mark Collins recalls, “but then Jon [Brookes] had a mishap with his shoulder, so we ended up pulling the tour. Rather than sit around being idle, we decided to get cracking writing some tunes.”
In the past, their core writing team ? Tim, Mark, and Tony Rogers ? have generally convened at one of their homes, and written together. This time, ringing in the new, they each wrote separately, digging deep on their own for an intensive 12-week burst, in advance of studio time booked for December.
For his part, Tim sees his train of thought for the album beginning (as it often does) with his fanatical absorption of other music, at the dawn of 2009’s festival season. At Coachella, he was blown away by Throbbing Gristle (he was a TG virgin!), while at Primavera, he grooved on to My Bloody Valentine and Sonic Youth.
In June, Tim curated a day at the Isle of Wight Festival. His line-up, in the 10,000-capacity Big Top, featured a clutch of young acts ? The Horrors, Hatcham Social and The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart ? with whom Tim has struck up a rare cross-generational understanding. For the youngsters, Tim is an icon, an unswervingly cool British singer dude, who has been out there, living it and loving it, as long as they’ve been listening to music (or longer!). For Tim, their youthful energy has been contagious, reminding him that age is nothing but a frame of mind.
The Charlatans themselves headlined in style that day. Playing in the slot beneath them, Tim had a lifelong inspiration, one of the first bands he ever saw, Killing Joke, in their original late-’70s line-up, with Youth on bass. He watched The Horrors with Youth, and struck up a new friendship. Mark and Tony had actually already met the bassist in ’06, when, in his subsequent capacity as one of the hottest producers around, Youth was putting together a new version of their ’01 classic, ‘You’re So Pretty, We’re So Pretty’. Mark and Tony added a few overdubs back then, and liked his vibe.
While those two wrote at their respective retreats in Manchester (Mark) and Ireland (Tony), Tim beavered away across the Atlantic in his adopted hometown of North Hollywood, Los Angeles. “Rhys [Webb, The Horrors’ bassist] was in town,” he remembers. “I was saying, ‘What should I do, I’ve got this record to write?’ He was like, ‘What would Brian Eno do?’ ‘Yeah, good point! He would write loads of chords out, put them on his wall, and randomly just pick out chords’… And that was how I wrote the first song! It was a great way of starting something out of nothing.
“The whole of the last album was made up of three chords,” Tim continues, “every song was three chords. When we started making it, we knew we were giving it away for free, which felt like a very post-punk thing to do, so we went in with a three-chord attitude. But doing the same again this time would’ve been cheating ourselves, and the people who listen to us, so we tried to get in as many chord changes as possible, which immediately took it to another world.”
Early on, they decided to call in Youth, who, since his original stint in Killing Joke, has worked with artists as varied as Paul McCartney and Primal Scream, The Verve, Dido and The Drum Club, as their producer. Such versatility would prove essential as the ‘Who We Touch’ album unfolded. He also vibed up Burgess on Joseph Campbell’s ‘The Hero With a Thousand Faces’ ? a non-fictional book “about the responsibility of the artist, about having to be brave” ? which would have a massive impact on the singer.
After sending numerous ideas backwards and forwards to each other digitally, the five Charlatans convened to demo their first batch of songs at their own Big Mushroom studio in Cheshire. As ever, everyone contributed ideas: Mark chipped in with ‘Smash The System’, while Tony brought in ‘Your Pure Soul’ ? two complete musical pieces, to which Burgess added the lyrics and vocal melody. ‘Sincerity’, meanwhile, arose from a Krautrock-inspired jam between the band’s four UK-based instrumentalists, instigated by bassman Martin Blunt.
A month later, they laid down tracks with Youth over ten days at Britannia Row in Wandsworth (on the desk that New Order’s ‘Blue Monday’ was recorded on), followed by another five days at State Of The Ark in Richmond.
“We told Youth, we wanted the record to have the sound of a European winter,” says Tim, “with that fresh, crisp sound you get from some British records, but also something fearless, that was quite far-reaching, to challenge ourselves ? a real journey.” “Youth just comes in, smokes his weed and starts dancing around,” adds Mark, “If he likes something, he starts trying to fly. If you see him flapping his arms, you know he’s digging it.” “Yes,” Martin summarizes, “he’s a bit of vibemeister”.
In Joseph Campbell’s book, the author talks about the heroes of mythical sagas, who go through adventures and experiences, to emerge at the end with greater strength and wisdom. Such is the overall construction of ‘Who We Touch’. In ‘Your Pure Soul’, the singer comes to realise his own failing in trying to control his lover. The ‘motorik’ groover, ‘Sincerity’, meanwhile, finds him rather scornfully observing an excessively sincere person, but through that discovering something about himself: “With care it comes to me/I have autonomy and new possibilities”.
Though it has its melancholy, autumnal moments, ‘Who We Touch’ ultimately rises into optimism, with ‘Oh!’, a beautiful song of reconciliation, as complex as its shifting time signatures (one section is in 3/4 waltz time), and then ‘You Can Swim’, an exquisite ooze of ambience, reminiscent of ‘Another Green World’-era Eno, with whose creative ideas, of course, the album began.
As that track fades out into the ether, another circle is soon closed within the Charlatan narrative, on the hidden track, ‘I Sing The Body Eclectic’. When Tim was 13, his favourite band was Crass, the anarchist post-punk collective, and he still counts their 1981 album, ‘Penis Envy’, amongst his all-time Top Ten. Recently, he was introduced to Penny Rimbaud, Crass’s drummer, producer and ideological brains, whose portentous voice can now be heard booming the album’s story to an end on the grandest existential scale.