A Certain Ratio: Ten Years on the Factory Floor

Can you feel the ‘force’? A CERTAIN RATIO’s decade of inconsistent, meandering flight between trash and flashes of brilliance may well have come to an end. JOHN McCREADY is reconverted to the funky FAC boys by the new album, by their long-term struggle, and by tales of tantrums with Tony Wilson.

IN A BAR that plays Prefab Sprout and Motown Gold; a bar that sells French cigarettes and designer lager, a bar that houses all seven of Manchester’s Golf-driving yuppies, four reasonable young men count their pennies. They have a manager called Mick.

“Hey, Mick,” they say, “lend us a fiver.” In the scheme of things, they should be drinking cognac on the house. But life’s not like that.

A Certain Ratio have spent ten years making music which has gone up and down but never over and out.

They were just bits of kids — 16 and 17 — when they began their all-night party; growing up in public, shifting from funky headaches and existentialism-made-easy to jazz flecks and serious rhythm. As musicians, A Certain Ratio became proficient. As a human being with more than just music to think about, I got bored.

Now we’re sitting here, talking over Marvin Gaye and Faron Young, thrown back together by Force, a startlingly complete new record from a group who, ten years on, have nothing but sticks and strings and drums and wires to call their own.

Martin Moscrop thinks there’s something wrong. “The record industry is like any other. The workers get ripped off. There are people on 30 grand a year telling you, the musicians, the shop-floor workers, what to do. They then take the profit. But I’m more concerned about the music than the money. I’m happy as long as I can pay my rent…”

Jeremy Kerr says, “We couldn’t put a financial price on our music. But we know what it’s worth in terms of respect.”

Respect. Recognition. Justice. When Donald Johnson sleeps at night, these are the things his dreams are made of. When Donald wakes up, he is not modest.

“We’re not saying we’re great cos we know we’re f*****g great. And we can back it upon any stage in the world, with any band anywhere in the world. But we’re not as popular as we’d like to be. We’re still the sort of underground, culty type of band. Over the past year or so, we’ve looked at other record companies, other ways of putting our music out. But nobody wants to take risks. A lot of people look at ACR as a risk. ‘They’ve been around so long, why haven’t they had a chart hit?’ — it’s a load of shit. There are loads of people around who don’t need that fool’s yardstick to justify their existence. Look at Cameo, they made eight albums before they got what they deserved…”

Force is the fifth recording by A Certain Ratio. It’s the point at which all those disparate threads, the parched rhythms, the shrieks and sparks and those oddly sedated melodies break the surface; start making sense. Jeremy Kerr, who’s lived with these sounds since 1977, can’t see what all the fuss is about.

“Maybe it’s just taken people a long time to accept our music. What we do now is what we’ve always done. People have accepted this LP more readily than any of the others… I don’t know why that is.”

Do you resent the fact that Force has brushed the rest of your history under the carpet?

“No, I don’t resent it — I think about it but I don’t resent it…”

Donald Johnson tells me A Certain Ratio are “into the Miles album”. Martin Moscrop says a friend told him Tutu reminded him of the group. Martin seems very proud of that. Donald talks of Davis and Anita Baker and Cameo as ‘quality music’.

A Certain Ratio are ‘quality music’ too and, if prompted, Donald will also tell you that pop criminals like Sigue Sigue Sputnik and Duran Duran, things that dispense with songs and sticks and sweat in favour of high heels and hairspray, will soon be getting their cards.

“None of them create music. They just create a mass of crap which is sold as music. It’s all around us 24 hours a day and we’re conditioned to think that it’s music. But it’s not. We know we’re far superior to all of that. Look at Anita Baker. What’s that about? It’s about singing and music and craftsmen playing their instruments. It’s not about someone programming tricks and toys which make exactly the same noise every time they’re switched on… who’s going to play a Sigue Sigue Sputnik record a year from now? It’s dated, it’s finished, it’s out of the window.”

While Donald’s war on the bullshit pauses for breath, I get a doubt in edgeways. What about all that technology on Force, the expensive funny noise machines. You’ve used those things too.

“Exactly. But we interact with them. We use them, they don’t use us.”

And this thing about glam and glitter. Haven’t there been people who’ve made great music while looking like great jessies?

“Well… yeah… maybe Marc Bolan did it…”

As a funky drummer who survived the funkadelic storms of the early ’80s (Favourite shirts and fascist grooves) Donald would do better to think about The Chocolate Coated Freak himself — George Clinton.

BUT OF course, there are those who can’t see the difference between Sigue Sigue Sputnik and ACR. Both make noise, records and potentially money, say those unit-obsessed capitalist bogeymen who used to wear silk bomber jackets with ‘Clapton Tour ’73’ zapped across the back. Now they disguise themselves with 501s and Good To Go caps. Force and the relative furore it has created means one or two record co. Sierras have made their way up the M6. ACR are on the shopping list. Will Donald Johnson end up in pink rubber trousers? Will we see Love Missiles flying over Manchester? It hardly seems likely.

Though the relationship between ACR and Factory Communications seems slightly less than blissful. Until 1983, Tony Wilson, executive fetishist and Granada reporter, played the part of manager to the Thin Boys from the Hulme flats.

“He was like our dad when we started,” says Martin, “but he refused to believe we’d grown up… we were just teenagers when we signed to Factory and he looked after us in those early days. I think it was a situation he enjoyed. But now he’s got to respect us — we’re not kids anymore… we haven’t had Tony on our side. He lost interest in us and it made a difference.”

A story unwinds of the errant father and his funky sons falling out over Factory’s pre-Force lack of support for ACR.

Has it come to blows then, Donald?

“I’ve threatened his life several times and I’ve meant it. He winds you up. A couple of months ago he wouldn’t talk to us and, now that he’s heard the album, he wants to live with us. He tries to manipulate you mentally. He knows I’m very extreme and I have a very short and bad temper so he winds me up in front of people who he knows will stop me from killing him there and then… but I’ve sussed it now…”

Is it wise to say these things, Donald?

“I’ll say it right to his face (I believe he would). It’s not that kind of relationship. He’s spoilt basically, an only child and I want you to put that down…”

I will do.

“Good. What would you be like if you had no-one to play with as a kid…”

Through laughs, Jeremy, Martin and quiet saxophonist Tony Quigley warn Donald that such remarks may result in a lawyer with a Peter Saville-designed writ calling on him.

“I don’t give a f**k — I know where he lives…”

There are more laughs. Then Jeremy — after telling me how in New York, he and Martin assaulted Tony in a club by stealing his joint and spitting in his face — dons his diplomatic head.

“Things have changed at Factory, but I can’t really see us being able to work with anyone else. We have a lot of freedom. And it’s great that we do have a personal relationship with the guy who runs the company. We can sort out any grievances face to face. You couldn’t do that on a major… I think we’re sorting out a way of working together. But it has to be said that things have changed at Factory. We used to feel a part of something special. I don’t feel that way now…”

JEREMY KERR writes the words that worry the music of A Certain Ratio. If the job were handed to Donald Johnson, the first thing he would write would be:

“Music was my first love and it will be my last”. And John Miles, of course, would sue.

“When we make a record or play live, we try to make our music as good as it can be. We practice a lot. There aren’t enough hours in the day to do all we want to do. There are always new ideas, new ways and not enough hours to work on them. We regard sleep as a waste of time. If there were another 24 hours in the day, we’d be happy guys. It’s an unfashionable attitude but we don’t give a f**k. We see each other every day, not just when we’re playing live or recording. We don’t have holidays or shit like that because we want to be in that rehearsal room working, stock-piling tunes. I don’t want to go out in front of 1,000 people and sound like a jerk… But don’t get me wrong. We’re not musos and I don’t want you to put that we’re musos. We just love playing music. There is a difference.”

The others nod agreement. Donald sounds excited. Is it better than sex then, this music?

“No, nothing’s better than sex.”

A close second?

“Not even a close second?”

There is laughter. There are handshakes. The interview falls apart and I make my way out. It’s raining in Manchester. A Certain Ratio drift toward the station studying their timetables. They should be rumbling through the city in a big car, supping champagne and pulling pampered faces through the plate glass windows. But life’s not like that.

© John McCreadyNew Musical Express, 10 January 1987

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