While 2-Tone revive the fashions of the Sixties, A Certain Ratio are stretching their legs towards the future. In fact, since drummer Donald Johnson joined them, there has been a danger that they might even start enjoying themselves on stage. CHRIS BOHN analyses the state of the awe-struck zombies.
FEWER THAN 5,000 people bought A Certain Ratio’s rough but otherwise wonderful debut single, ‘All Night Parties’, making it one of the few early Factory products still in stock. That’s not so much a response to its quality as a reflection of its hostile reception, prompted by the band’s unconventional no-drummer line-up, and the picture of a dead Lenny Bruce sprawled across its sleeve.
In retrospect, the artwork might appear injudicious, but the image did seem to fit the song’s despairing content, based on a “work all day/drink all night” lifecycle, especially in context of the inescapable drones arranged in a circular wall of sound to create rhythm, covering for the lack of a drummer.
Its gloomy disillusionment, allied to the band’s demob look and stylised standing stoically-in-a-row stage appearance, hastened their brief critical dismissal as just another band of modern noise-makers from Manchester. The putdown’s severity and the general lack of media interest contributed to their poor sales, as independents like Factory rely heavily on the music press to make their bands known nationally.
As it happens, though, things couldn’t have worked out better, because, free from constant examination, their development has continued at a natural pace, rather than being artificially accelerated by the sort of sudden interest which, with hindsight, has hindered the careers of bands like the Cure.
Instead, A Certain Ratio drifted away from the mainstream and back to the rehearsal studio they share with Joy Division, where they began fashioning their exotic and exciting mesh of hard funk and harsh noise with drummer Donald Johnson, who arrived late last summer. His urgent, quick-stab style of playing clipped the droning guitar noises of the other four into a far more immediate shape, which was quickly recognised as such by the more enthusiastic reception they began to achieve live, most notably during their support spot on Talking Heads’ last tour.
The elements of black funk and post-punk modern music are not as disparate as they at first sound, both originating as they do in concrete city environments. But, more importantly, in A Certain Ratio’s case, they’re related by the band’s pre-history.
EXCITED BY such a radical switch in direction since I last saw them, eight months ago, I went to meet them at the Manchester flat shared by vocalist Simon Topping, guitarist Peter Terrell and bassist Jeremy Kerr. Waiting for the others to arrive, Jeremy played a diverse selection of modern dance records — Pere Ubu, Slits, Kraftwerk and the Velvet Underground. When Simon came in, the emphasis switched to disco, like the Kaygees and Atmosfear.
All aged between 18 and 21, their formative years were, unsurprisingly, spent listening to the likes of David Bowie, Roxy, Gong (?) and disco, as opposed to Sixties-derived rock and soul.
“We were too young for that,” says Simon.
Peter adds: “About the only rock you could say we listened to is the Velvet Underground…”
“And that’s like a national pastime, isn’t it?” interrupts Simon, continuing: “I used to go to this club called the Painted Wagon (which played punk and disco), which was, like, dead trendy; it was pretty avant garde at this time. Fashions were really wild. We used to go there first, then to Pips, which was like avant-garde posing, where everyone was dressed like Ziggy Stardust.
“I didn’t know what to do, or which way to go. In the end one club shut, but I still liked disco. Then Saturday Night Fever came out, and we totally dropped it.”
Jeremy: “When it becomes commercial and gets processed through the media, then anything artistic gets lost. Saturday Night Fever was a big jump from George Benson, things like that. It just totally commercialised it, though the film itself wasn’t bad.”
SIMON AND Peter used to go night clubbing together, though they didn’t feel particularly at home. Then, though the Sex Pistols had begun the DIY band philosophy, the release of Wire’s first album, Pink Flag, gave them the impetus to start something of their own.
Wire proved the importance of having ideas first and technical ability second, taking the DIY approach beyond the basic ramalama thrust, and giving longevity to the spirit of ’78 by constantly asserting imagination above technique.
“Wire’s first LP was so simple,” says Simon. “Knowing that they couldn’t play then, we thought we could get up, too, and play what we liked.”
A Certain Ratio, at first just a duo consisting of Simon and Peter, but soon to be joined by Jeremy, made their first shoddily rehearsed appearances as a reaction against the “many shit groups around,” says Simon. “We thought we could do better than that.
“Like, we used to go up the Factory and Rafters (now both defunct) and I think we saw only two good groups in two years — and they were both on the same night.”
Unable to play properly, Peter and Jeremy extracted noises from their instruments, over which Simon sung. They’d only rehearsed once with Jeremy before they played live, and not surprisingly the reaction was “ghastly”.
“It wasn’t like we are now,” says Simon. “Everything’s worked out now. It was all haphazard then.”
Second guitarist Martin Moscrop joined soon after, but they still couldn’t find a suitable drummer. Thus, out of necessity rather than intention, their music was crudely designed around droning guitar figures — which, along with Simon’s boomy, balladeering voice, had an undeniable attraction, even if most people found it inaccessible.
Tony Wilson, from Factory records, didn’t, and was so taken with them that he’s now managing them, giving them career aspirations they hadn’t previously entertained, starting with the release of their first single, which was followed by their first gigs in London and a media silence broken only by one favourable review by Jon Savage and a few impolite putdowns.
MEANWHILE, THE search for a drummer went on. Wilson eventually stumbled across Donald Johnson, whom he first introduced to his other act, Vinni Reilly (or Durutti Column, as he’s better known). The guitarist turned Johnson down, though they’ll probably work together on future projects.
Donald’s presence is vital to their current direction. At first they tried fitting their droning noises to his drums, but they plainly weren’t going to gel. His drumming is dominantly funky, always pushing forward. He’s also the only real technician in the group, so they only began working arrangements out properly when he arrived.
“We also got a lot better at playing our instruments, too,” points out Jeremy.
The point is taken up by Martin, who adds: “We’ve been playing for a year and a half now, so naturally we’ve improved a lot, but the sounds altered mainly because of Donald.”
Their music isn’t exactly led by the drums, but they clearly define it, making it irresistibly danceable. The band took advantage of their new acquisition as a liberation from their former restrictions, and their playing took on a new urgency.
With such a powerful base, Jeremy has the freedom to stretch out on the terse James Brown-style riffs he uses in some songs, to extract disturbing, deep-throated rattles from his instrument.
Martin Moscrop builds on the drive, sometimes by taking off from the nervously frenetic hi-hat chatterings — as on the current version of ‘All Night Parties’ — and other times supplying jarring, trebly riffs of his own. Peter Terrell, meanwhile, maintains the band’s most obvious link with its past by using his guitar mainly for effects and noises.
Simon’s voice, which bears superficial resemblances to Joy Division’s Ian Curtis, blends into the mix, sometimes making his singing indistinct, but nevertheless adding to the impact.
The results are colourful and explosive, tense and disturbing, giving truth to their slightly tongue-in-cheek description: “postmodernist funk”.
A FOPULAR theory around Factory is that bands make music for three reasons: (a) to push a message, (b) for artistic reasons, and (c) to make money.
A Certain Ratio contend that they’re firmly rooted in the second category, insofar as the band aren’t politically motivated. Their lyrics are nevertheless sharp.
Simon muses: “Our songs are just observations. But even if we were a political group, I think the best way would be to wing your way to the top without saying anything about it, and then when you get there, say what you think. If I wanted to say anything, I’d go to a conference or a students’ meeting. Nobody listens to groups, anyway.”
Peter adds: “The thing is, a lot of our lyrics are written haphazardly; we get the song first and then work the lyrics out for it.”
If I don’t agree with them on the potency of political pop (as Strummer points out, a “pokey” lyric is at least more interesting than moon-in-June material), they do have a point, insofar as most bands of political persuasion have yet to find a way of expressing themselves in an attractive enough way to get more people to listen to them, other than those who already agree with what they’re saying.
A Certain Ratio are nothing if not level-headed, and their firm grip on reality may be accounted for by the fact that three of them have full-time jobs. Simon works for British Rail, Donald’s a riveter, and Martin’s an apprentice electrical technician, which means they probably won’t turn fully professional until he finishes his apprenticeship in September.
Jeremy used to be associated with the city’s Contact Youth Theatre. He appeared in the film Making Tracks — about Manchester’s unemployed — and turned down the bass part of Jilted John’s ‘Jilted John’ single.
DESPITE THE drawbacks of having full-time jobs — Donald and Simon had to return to Manchester after every gig on the Talking Heads tour and then work the following morning — the situation has given them a measure of financial independence, allowing them to stay free of major companies’ influence — so far. Virgin have made tentative advances, which they turned down.
“It’s better, really,” says Simon. “You can end up broke signing with a major. It’s like going from one job to another, with people on top telling you what to do, and if you don’t they’ll sack you. The good thing about Tony Wilson being our manager and also the owner of the record label is that he runs it to our advantage.”
Naturally, they want to turn professional eventually, to buy them more time to work on extra Factory projects, like the movie Too Young To Know, Too Wild To Care, currently in planning. This will feature the band fulfilling typical musicians’ dreams, like blowing up a rivals’ gear and murdering a hostile critic. The script, ironically enough, is being written by the MM contributor Liz Naylor.
More immediately, Factory are about to release a 45-minute A Certain Ratio cassette, called The Graveyard And The Ballroom, in a first edition of 400, packaged in a see-through plastic evening bag.
One side was recorded live at the Electric Ballroom last October, while the other consists of seven demos recorded at Prestwich Graveyard Studios. The idea, says Tony Wilson, is to imitate the sort of tapes that new bands send out to people.
The sound is obviously a bit rough, but the price is cheap, at £2.99, and the 14 tracks really capture the raw vitality which makes them one of the best new dance bands around at the moment — and a band that’s looking ahead, unlike the 2-Tone/Mod axis.
Their music is far more alive and exuberant, with band members likely to switch to whistles, trumpets and percussion at any moment to invigorate songs.
Forget what you’ve heard about them being sombre and no-fun. They might have looked serious onstage once — and they are serious about the music — but that was just the stance. Anyway, they were probably only concentrating.
Martin: “City Fun (Mancunian fanzine), said that we make Joy Division look like Monty Python…”
Peter: “We used to all stand in a row then, but now we’ve started moving around more — so much so that we’ll be dancing like dicks at the end of the year.”
© Chris Bohn, Melody Maker, 2 February 1980