A Certain Ratio: Failed CSE Rock!

WE LEAVE the grubby Hulme human hutch where some members of A Certain Ratio live. The view from this particular section of hutches is not completely derelict, but neither is it splendid.

I stare out from the fourth floor landing into the miserable spread of concrete, scrap, brick, wire and wasteland, imagine in my mind A Certain Ratio’s next single ‘Flight’, and the logic of the relationship between the entertainment and the environment makes my hands clammy.

Logic! In this world – today! I don’t know.

A Certain Ratio are a crazed Mancunian unit who spent their wild youth doing some heady, posey nightclubbing at Manchester’s more decadent clubs. The members gathered together to make music almost out of spite.

Their sound is a derisive, decisive contemporary coalition of abnormal rhyme, the recession and no distinct reason; where funk’s smouldering exuberance has been coarsened by lack of money, lack of future and a certain neurosis, and twisted viciously by an impatient post-Ubu/Pop Group spirit. It’s a wretched, wretching doppelganger to the sensual funk that reached a creative peak a couple of years back, the darkest, deepest side of disco imaginable.

And if truth be known ACR play not art-rock but failed CSE rock.

A Certain Ratio’s attitude is that “we can do better” – than anything of anyone. Singer/trumpeter Simon Topping once said to Chris Bohn that in all the two years he went to The Factory and Rafters he only saw two groups he liked – and they played on the same night. As soon as I read that I knew he meant Pere Ubu and The Pop Group. They were noisy and kinky, you could dance to them or collapse to them, they weren’t out to do any whitewashing. They weren’t normal! I was going to ask ACR what they thought of The Pop Group these days, but decided I didn’t have to. In the middle of the tiny living quarters of the Ratio hutch there was a 12″ copy of The Pop Group’s greatest hit ‘Beyond Good And Evil’; two cigarettes had been dissected on it. Chopping up cigarettes and scattering the crumbs over records is a strange thing to do.

But A Certain Ratio like to do strange things.

WE WALK down darkened stairs to the ground level of the precinct. I mock bass player Jeremy Kerr’s black plastic hold-all. Very Dexy’s. ACR have already been accused of being the ‘genuine’ young soul rebels – whatever that actually signified – but Kerr’s not into that line of thought at all. He makes sure that he always has the holdall slung over his shoulder, never gripped in his right hand as a symbol of dejection. When the group are being photographed he even gives me the bag to hold, so that silly links between the two ‘moody’ post-punk soul boys are not even remotely seen to be there.

I ask Topping what he feels about the Dexy’s current campaign.

“What am I supposed to feel about it?” he snaps back reasonably.

The Ratios have less than nothing to say about other groups and their attitudes; and only slightly more to say about their own group and attitude. They are not keen chatterers.

We wander along the darkening precinct. Always curious about what others think about the group and their occasional tricks, Topping asks whether I’d seen them play in Khaki shorts. The time when fake tan could be seen coursing down their usual pale bodies? (A no doubt discreet reference to their manager’s prediction that ACR will soon be cruising round Bel Air in Cadillacs.)

“Yeah, we got some girls to rub in that stuff, but afterwards they wouldn’t take it off.”

I can’t say I’m surprised.

“Did you think wearing those shorts was funny?”

Within reason. Is that why you did it?

“Not really. Tony (Wilson, Factory boss) got us them. They were only two quid. They’re really practical, it gets very hot on stage.”

We drift towards a ‘phone box, a dirty red shadow amist the great concrete shapes all around us, to call a couple of taxis. Ratio’s cute guitarist Peter Terrell, whose cheeky grin should easily snap away any fear of their music, tells me that sometimes when he strolls through this part of the hellish Hulme structure young kids probably not much smaller than himself hurl stones and abuse at him.

“They’re instant stiffs as soon as they’re born,” he scoffs, “stiffs” being the ultimate insult. “They’ve got to fall in with the rest of them, they grow up like their parents. They don’t even think about being different.”

As the group collects around the ‘phone box and various Ratio’s attempt to get through to a taxi firm, the temperature’s so low a different kind of stiffdom beckons. I’m close to being frozen on the spot in a lost corner of Hulme.

It’s the middle of the evening, and in a few hours’ time ACR play Manchester Rafters. This hanging around, shivering into space, doesn’t seem the ideal preparation.

“Is this going to be a page interview?” asks Terrell.

“Or a double page spread?” crows Topping, snidily.

“Do you think it’ll get on the cover?” wonders Terrell.

Automatically – if I had my way. Terrell half-heartedly pulls a face.

Would a front cover mean much to him?

“They’d probably stop our dole. I don’t know. I suppose it’d be quite nice. Something to show your parents,” he chuckles.

Jolly drummer Donald Johnstone fails to get a taxi, but trumpeter/guitarist Martin Moscrop fares better. Taxis should be on their way. We wait, freezing into the pavement. Four fifths of Ratio look the part for this sort of dreary street corner lingering. Johnstone, tubby form not very well hidden by a large-ish yellow and black tracksuit, wearing an ever-present jockey cap, looks like a Central Park jogger. The others, who could all be described as quiet, have a baggy, anti-chic chic Jarrow March look.

A taxi arrives, takes Moscrop and Kerr into the city centre a couple of miles away. The rest of us wait some more. The second taxi doesn’t turn up, so we have to wait even longer for Johnstone’s girl to come along in his new car. We move along the pavement a few yards to be more noticeable, wait some more. Forty-five minutes in Hulme open air is not recommended. No wonder ACR always look so grim on stage if this is their usual preparation.

“It’s always something that has gone wrong, some bad luck during the evening,” shrugs Johnstone, shaking his head, perking up to exclaim that he’s having trouble getting accustomed to Topping’s new and startling short back and sides.

“My Grace Jones look,” says Topping, defensively. A sleek, shiny hatchback motor pulls up. I whistle. Not an expected ACR vehicle! It’s Donald’s.

“He works at the airport and earns £75 a week,” marvels Terrell with an unexpected blast of total awe.

We drive off to the centre of the city, Topping perched on Johnstone’s knee in the front seat.

WHEN A journalist writes a piece on a Factory group he is inevitably met at Manchester’s Piccadilly Station by Factory’s wizard Tony Wilson (to Hannett’s mad professor, Gretton’s hooligan, Erasmus’ tramp and Saville’s executive). And sure enough as we burst through the ticket barrier of platform nine there’s the grinning Wilson, pushing loose hair out of his face, striding towards us in pathetic khaki balloons, happily sockless. He’s skiving off more time from Granada Television.

Taking such time off has meant that Wilson by mutual agreement has been taken off the World In Action team. Too fast, youthful, unpredictable within that context, he once hitchhiked to an important interview with Sir Keith Joseph and turned up dishevelled and disorientated, with a minute to spare.

Granada’s respect for him as an on-screen personality – the man who grannies used to love, who still gets recognised in Manchester streets by teenage girls shoving each other in delight – has meant that he’s to link an upcoming Granada pop show, The World Of Pop, the inevitable attempt to visualise Smash Hits.

The probable success of this, combined with the phenomenal and significant success of Factory Records, suggests what the more flexible amongst us have always thought: that So It Goes was more perceptive and brilliant than merely being erractically entertaining. Wilson’s understanding of rock’s volatile inner tension, its crude art and its ace style, is unimpeachable. Factory Records is a success because it perceives what is wanted and needed in 1980 pop.

By not limiting eccentricity, extremity or indulgence, Factory – along with labels like Ze and Fetish – define where pop is and where it’s going as a reflection of today’s turmoil. They are dragging rock forward.

Who else but Factory would have discovered and patiently encouraged A Certain Ratio, a group who in their early days were unhelpfully primitive? And what a loss it would have been if no one had!

By totally lacking general rock expectations, Factory are more likely to spot inner coherence in a superficially messy group like ACR than in the restricted code of an average tidy rock band. By saying that commercialism can be anything, not just this and that, Factory’s definition – rather lack of it – is best.

It allows ACR to be. They’re continuing punk spirit rather than the letter of the law. Listen to them and you know what’s going on all around.

TONY WILSON is ACR’s manager. As such he is ruthless, ever watchful and scurrilously protective. The first time I ever saw Ratio was in May ’79, the London debut of Factory groups at Acklam Hall (along with Joy Division and Orchestral Manoeuvres when there were less than 100 in the audience). They were drummerless and I thought cumbersome. I didn’t like them.

“We thought we’d played really well,” comments Topping wryly. “But Tony thought we were drunk and he gave us a right bollocking because people like you didn’t like us.”

ACR are not too sure how honest to be about their manager. They like to have it their way at all times. Equally they are not too sure about their position of relative acceptance, but try to take it in their stride.

“I think the reason that we are accepted has something to do with Factory Records. Yeah, it’s only because we’re a Factory band that we get a lot of the attention that we do. Factory bands do get a lot of attention. Tony knows how to do things right.”

There’s a quiet respect for Wilson mixed with a tinge of suspicion. ACR have gained a lot of attention through the Factory packages, packages that now become slightly predictable and restrictive.

“We don’t want to do that anymore. We’re going to stop doing them after America. That’s where arguments have started…Tony thinks that we’re being arrogant. We can’t understand in what way.”

Wilson’s side of it is that he hears Ratio developing the type of crusty aloofness of latterday Pop Group. This so-called arrogance could be rooted in Ratio’s intense desire to keep everything as personal as possible.

“Well, it’s just we want to do things our way and they want to do things their way. It’s mainly that Tony’s ideas are so different from ours because of his age and everything, and he used to say that we could do what we wanted but now he’s trying to control us – not the music, just the other things. It’s become less of a family, Factory. It’s more of a major record company. It’s definitely gone up a stage since six weeks ago. Some things have changed. Since Joy Division. Since the money started coming in.”

To some extent ARC are being mollycoddled as the next Factory superstars: right now they’re elitist press darlings, in the shadow of J.D. but ready to leap into the glare…they skirt around any such pressure there may be to be the next year’s successful Factory band.

“If there is that sort of pressure we can leave. We are not chained to Factory Records.”

Mildly controversial stuff. Their pragmatic attitude to the organisation that gave them everything is typical.

At one point whilst Ratio are mutely discussing Factory flaws, happy Donald Johnstone, a faithful Factory man, puts things into perspective.

“Where would we be without Factory? No equipment, no records, no gigs…no money.”

The less convinced are not too sure about “no money”. But then there’s a continual ration of uncertainty in ACR’s make up. This uncertainty, thinly disguised, is what makes ACR’s whirl go round.

We drive over to the other side of Manchester to pick up ACR at their rehearsal room. They hardly acknowledge me, but I wasn’t really expecting them to. As we drive back into Manchester for the soundcheck at Rafters, Wilson and ACR work out some vague plan for sleeping accommodation for when Factory invade New York this month.

Being caught up in Factory has meant that Ratio will spend some weeks in New York, gigging and recording. They’re not exactly tickled ecstatic by the prospect.

“The original reason we were going over was that some record company was interested in us.”


“Antilles, the Eno thing. But when Tony went over there for a week to see them he said they were stupid. But we’re going over anyway.”

Inside Rafters, people rush here and there. Musicians seem to be turning up minute by minute looking to soundcheck. Four groups are to play: Swamp Children, Blurt, Durutti Column and Ratio. Wilson lectures Invisible Girls’ Steve Hopkins about some important date he must remember.

“There’s always some excuse. One minute it’s working with Pauline Murray, the next it’s being interviewed by the bloody NME.”

The bloody NME withdraw into a dark corner to watch ACR soundcheck. A wacky house light show is set in motion by Eric Random. Everyone present seems to be in their recession/military togs. This is beginning to become an Era. Johnstone soundchecks for a couple of songs he’ll be doing with Vini Reilly (bassist Kerr has also been doing some work with Reilly, his soft voice more suiting Reilly than Ratio, and Moscrop will play drums with disconcerting Swamp Children and then we leave.

Moscrop, Terrell, Kerr and Topping walk from Rafters to the Hulme hutch. By now we’re talking, but closer to sulking than plotting a conspiracy. Terrell and Topping buy some toffees. Moscrop gets a Mexican take away. We head for the Hulme hole. Topping chucking me toffees, Terrell pointing to the underside of an overpass scrawled with punky slogans.

“If we were a punk band that’s where we would have our photo’s taken.”

Somebody remarks that in Hulme someone has sprayed A Certain Ratio on a wall.

“Should we have our pictures taken in front of that?” suggests Terrell. The group groan. One of them burps. One of them asks if there are any eggs in the hutch.

Like I say, ACR are not keen chatterers.

BEFORE I set the tape in motion, Kerr sits next to me and runs his fingers up and down his bass strings. Two are new and he’s slackening them. “Tina Weymouth taught me how to do this,” he mock-gloats. “She taught me everything I know about bass guitars!”

ACR finished 1979 by supporting Talking Heads on their short British tour, last minute replacements for Human League whose non-human film idea was not up to T. Heads standards. ACR did the Heads tour, and look where they are today! (That will make more sense when you hear ‘Flight’, which took more time to craft than ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ – and if it doesn’t freak you out you must be very cold.)

Their first Factory single ‘All Night Party’ is a representation of their sound when they were drummerless and all but formless. At the time, I played it a few times and just thought Wilson was being a perverse little toad for flirting with them. Playing it recently and joining in with it’s ache, I realised that it’s one of the best 2,000 singles ever made.

ACR’s development can be definitely split pre-Johnstone and post-Johnstone (and then pre-trumpets and post-trumpets). Pre-Johnstone they gravitated towards surly abstraction, laboriously and grumpily constructing hard death-drones; somewhere between ‘No Pussyfooting’ and ‘Sister Ray’.

Post-Johnstone – by which time Ratio had spent some months learning their way around their instruments – the sound became very much a dance music, still undecorative and devious and in many ways non-epically daunting; somewhere between Pere Ubu and the end of a dream.

At one point Topping asks me (I think ACR for all their apparent reserve asked me more questions than I asked them) what I thought ACR were going to sound like once Wilson had uncovered Johnstone and eased him into the fray. I did hope it would become more a dance music.

“Mmmm,” he ponders, “it’s just that some groups sound like we did when we didn’t have a drummer even when they do.” A savage indictment?

The first chance the people had to purchase post-Johnstone stuff was The Graveyard And The Ballroom cassette-in-a-purse. A sweet Factory idea, typically creating their own trendiness, it wasn’t really much to do with ACR. One side was recorded on the Heads tour at London’s Electric Ballroom, the other side is some demos recorded at Prestwich’s Graveyard studio by that man Hannett.

Graveyard And The Ballroom is horror music, elegiac in a strange way, violently contemporary, nervy, pugnacious. Black comedy, white noise, nightmares and phobias. It was music of fear – but for all that, compelling communication of enjoyment.

Free of the perverse shackles a lack of rhythm had placed on their music, ACR had stretched out, were translating their own lacerating language.

The songs were a lonely, longing statement. ACR didn’t want to make the world a nicer place. They just wanted to make it out. The feeling isn’t dismal but stimulating. When I ask if they feel their music is emotional, the question is so dumb they don’t even bother answering.

ACR are not afraid of playing live (although Johnstone said he got a bit scared playing those large places with Talking Heads: “I couldn’t see the faces of the people.”) In a way they’re playing too many gigs.

“We’re not as enthusiastic about what we do as we were at the start. We still like what we’re playing, but we play it all the time. We’ve been on the road for two years now playing…it doesn’t make a difference when you’re playing the same old things over and over again. I think we’re in a dilemma at the moment because Donald’s often working and we don’t get a chance to rehearse.”

WHAT ACR are working towards will remain vague. Probably just the day it all disintegrates. They just are and that’s very much how they operate. They place all the emphasis on their music, that spilling over into how it’s presented. There’s a constant, unquenchable thirst for the mythical change. With dry submission they maintain that there is nothing they can do to change rock’s web of deceit, and so commit themselves to retaining their own purity, their own particular creativity. Dancing down the tunnel to dystopia.

They continue for their own enjoyment. “And the development of our ideas. To play music how we feel it should be played.”

How should it be played?

“The way we play it.”

Sometimes they say their music’s not that good, other times they imply it’s the only music. I ask myself if they think they’re not as good as they can be because they’re dominated by influences.


They must have learnt from something else.

“You use what you can. You can’t be totally original. What we’re playing is like everything we’ve ever heard recycled, how we’d like to hear it done. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. What is good about our music is that we try new ways. We try to be different. It’s just like a combination of all the things we like.”

ACR say they want things to change and yet they say nothing can be achieved. When I say this, they feel threatened.

“What we’re trying to achieve we’re achieving through the music we play. Is that alright? I don’t think the music’s very important. It’s just what we do. A way of expressing ideas, feelings.”

To start the interview I had sat down in front of the tobacco covered copy of ‘Beyond Good And Evil’, Ratio spread around me in a semi-circle, and asked the group if they wanted to be rich. A daft, abrupt way to start an interview, but I felt in a stupid mood.

“No. That’s just a snide shot,” murmurs a voice. Ratio’s subdued voices blend into one another on tape, and it’s impossible to separate who said what. I remember Terrell did the most talking, Topping was the most sarky, Johnstone didn’t say a thing while the tape was humming, but that they all agreed with whatever was being said (apart from minor details like who first saw them – Wilson or Gretton).

What’s the good thing about playing music?

“Playing what you like.”

What don’t you like about other music?

“It’s safe.”

Aren’t ACR?

“Yeah, in a way. We used to play to annoy people but now people don’t get annoyed anymore. Which isn’t what we want!”

What fun did they get out of annoying people?

“Just the fact that it was different. We were trying to annoy people into thinking about other things, instead of just accepting the same old things. But we don’t think it’s very easy to get through to people. We don’t think there are many things you can do to change how people feel.”

Tight! ACR reckons it’s commercialism that has diluted groups like Buzzcocks. It could happen to them.

“There doesn’t seem to be any way around it. It’ll just be interesting to see how we can deal with it.”

Are they in the middle of it now, in a slightly less fundamental way because of Factory’s support?

“We don’t feel that we are. We’ve got no benefit from it. No financial benefit…that is the thing that does change people. Lots of money. But if we have more money we’ll be able to do more things.”

Although it is the money that’s likely to compromise Ratio.

“Yeah. The whole thing’s a contradiction. The whole thing about rock music – it’s a contradiction.”

Maybe in their understated way ACR quite relish that. But they tend to talk about their essence in such a dreary way it is a wonder they continue. This is because what they do is intensely private – they live in their own heads, where that becomes negative who knows – that a stranger like me is hardly likely to penetrate. Ultimately they have no choice; they play music, they continue.

I say to them after being worn down by a confusing mixture of acceptance and assertion, pessimism and confidence, that they must want to have some effect. They must have aspirations.

“Yeah. Personal ones.”

But aren’t they making a public statement?

“No, I’m not telling it you now am I?”

Making it public by going on stage?

“If the statement is going on stage and making records and that we like making music and like making it in a certain way, then that’s the statement. As far as personal things go it’s not really more important than what should anyone else say really.”

Pretty humble. In some ways ACR are pretty things. In other ways they’re pretty vacant. Essentially, in their own way, they’re pretty sharp. Eventually I feel like I’m being bricked up, so the bastard tape recorder gets tucked away. Things tangibly relax. We drink some tea. They ask about that oddly edited review of their Belgium single ‘Shack Up’, and say they didn’t understand the retraction in T-Zers. Neither did I. They ask why they’re appearing in the NME indie charts when only 1,000 of the singles were released here.

Sheer elitism, I say.

Just before we’re due to leave to get those taxis, Kerr and I play electronic tennis on one of two large TVs dominating the room. He slaughters me 15-8, 15-7,15-7.

Now that’s reason not to show my face in public again.

THE GIG at Rafters was heavily under-publicised. Although Factory reckoned proceedings were only likely to be £350 they, with ritualistic cheeriness, spent £300 printing up a full-colour Jon Savage designed poster. ACR didn’t have much to say about that. The poster didn’t overshadow their performance, but that’s the sort of thing Factory are always trying to do.

The rabid mafia who do Manchester’s fly-posting conveniently pasted up only a handful of the posters. That’s about all the advertising there was. It looked like hardly anyone was going to turn up. A couple of hundred did.

The gig is not nostalgic, regretful or impeccable. It is either a precise statement or it is blather. On one level it is the best new dance music around. For ACR fanatics – and ACR are the type of group who attract hordes of those – it’s getting cosy; merely attractive. Not even the dual trumpets bawling like bad tempered babies over the mutilated funk makes it shocking for those convinced. In terms of the mainstream it is no doubt a tyranny of unconformity. Only with Factory’s inventive help will ACR reach into the mainstream to shock.

That’s not too important. What is important is that ACR linger in the shadows, offending people and callow notions. That they are around to genuinely and progressively document reaction to the apocalyptic landscape. ACR carry meaning in their very confusion and their irrational commitment. Their mood, however ambivalent, is one of real curiosity. They are for everyone who is interested.

I leave Rafters thinking that ACR have it in them to make some of the most cosmic and militant music of the ’80s, or that they could fall into a self-deluding cul-de-sac.

We’ll find out which way it’s going to be very soon.

At the end of The Interview Topping finally lost patience with my nagging. I’d asked if they intended their music to be depressing or stimulating. He didn’t want to know about that. He made a wild attempt to put the whole ACR thing into perspective.

“Our music…it’s like a mother, she has a baby and everybody thinks that it’s really ugly…but she absolutely loves it and thinks that it’s beautiful.

“That’s like us with our music.”

Donald Johnstone bursts out laughing, the only sound he made during the taped interview. ACR laugh so hard they cry. They cry so hard they laugh. I turn off the tape recorder, go outside for a brief breath of Hulme air, come back inside and drink my tea.

In a few minutes we’ll leave the grubby Hulme hutch where some members of A Certain Ratio live.

© Paul MorleyNew Musical Express, 6 September 1980

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