❉ One of Britain’s most enduring bands celebrate 30+ years with an epic sweep through their back catalogue.
‘Most of the time you are happy you’re a weirdo’… And with that line, a 15-year-old fan of The Charlatans was born.
Weirdo had been track two on the first ever CD I bought in 1992, the still-excellent indie compilation Precious. The music was mysterious, its church-organ sound portentous. A driving call to disaffected youth to beat out their frustrations on the dancefloor.
The Charlatans were not newly known to me with Weirdo; my interest had been piqued with their second single, The Only One I Know, back in 1990. That was around the time my own personal music tastes started fermenting and graduating from pure pop. I was acid house and baggy-curious, but too young and too far away from Manchester to participate in anything exciting. Weirdo was one of the tracks that started to change that feeling.
Around about the end of ’92, I started watching bands and going to alternative club nights. With Nirvana and the grunge scene at its height, the main floor in my first club was for heavy rock, metal and grunge. But I favoured the smaller room upstairs, playing indie cuts mixed with 1960s Hammond organ-influenced sounds and classics like the Rolling Stones. The Charlatans were a turntable staple there, offering the best sonic link between past and present alongside the likes of the Inspiral Carpets.
As time wore on and grunge began to fall out of favour, the upstairs and downstairs music rooms made a switch. And pretty much every indie club night I’ve been to since then has featured The Charlatans – meaning subsequent generations of fans are still being born. This may have been assisted in recent times by the popularity of lead singer Tim Burgess’s lockdown Twitter Listening Parties. An audience ready-made for the latest Charlatans release.
This month – following a year’s delay due to Covid-19 – the band celebrates its belated 30th anniversary with a new ‘best of’ compilation, A Head Full of Ideas, and an accompanying 20-date tour throughout November and December.
As with other recent collections released by indie bands, this is not The Charlatans’ first ‘hits’ album. However, as with Ash’s Teenage Wildlife, what’s on offer is a weighty package (especially if you’re lucky enough to get your hands on one of the limited edition formats). Although there is a significant crossover of tracks included in past collections – 1998’s Melting Pot, just as the band left Beggars Banquet, and Forever: The Singles in 2006, before they moved from Island to Cooking Vinyl – the additional material is what superfans will want to get their hands on. Beyond the regular CD and vinyl editions of 21 career-spanning tracks, there’s a 2CD deluxe or 3 LP edition containing Trust Is For Believers, a compilation of live (mainly festival) cuts.
Numerous other deluxe editions and vinyl bundles are also on sale, some of which contain further releases: Please to Meet You, an 11-track set of demos, and mini-album One To Another, featuring eight remixes by the likes of Sleaford Mods and Fatboy Slim. Online there’s a full rundown of what’s still available to buy direct from the band’s fan site – needless to say some items, including the super-bundle boxset with signed items and a seven-inch single demo of Indian Rope and The Only One I Know, is already sold out.
Although my preference is to buy full albums by artists, listening to a career-spanning selection allows you to take in the stylistic changes a band has made over the course of their career in one sitting. In The Charlatans’ case, A Head Full of Ideas offers the chance to ponder what makes them so enduring, always interesting and the rarest of things – an indie band that had breakout popular hits, but which don’t get on your nerves with repeated airplay.
Happily, one of my favourite tracks – Can’t Get Out of Bed – is No.3 in this collection. There’s no intro build up – after a mere second with Tim’s vocal, you’re hit by Jon Brookes’ drums before being thrown against a pleasing wall of guitars and keys. Every single time I hear it, I smile, yearn to dance and get transported back to the year it came out. The blend of its uplifting groove with Tim’s ‘down in the dumps’ lyrics nailed the dichotomy of being young for me: “You know that we’re all going off to nowhere/ You’re nothing that you wanted to be, wanted to be, wanted to be.”
The Charlatans’ back catalogue contains a knowingness about the fleeting nature of life, of melancholy-tinged happiness, and the need to play on, to live fully. I’m reminded of this acutely by the inclusion of anthemic One to Another, the first single that followed the untimely death of keyboard player Rob Collins in car crash aged just 33. I recall their stirring rendition played at the first V Festival in 1996, wondering how they’d got through it and the Oasis show at Knebworth.
A Head Full of Ideas is close to being a chronological collection, but by the time you’re half-way through listening they’ve only managed to pack in songs from every album up to 1999’s Us and Us Only, including four songs from their commercially most successful release, 1997’s Tellin’ Stories. That’s the problem for a band as prolific as The Charlatans – 13 albums’ worth of work must be difficult to reduce down. But they’ve chosen the tracks well, particularly in showcasing the versatility and uniqueness of Tim Burgess’s voice.
His fairly high (and occasionally nasal) register often takes on a dreamy or breathy quality, which is complemented by their Hammond organ signature sound. But he has the ability to hold strong, long notes and drive his voice deeper in places on their stompers including Up At The Lake, One to Another and Love Is the Key. His voice’s beauty also comes into its own in the foreground on lo-fi Impossible and during the Beatles-esque sections of Forever. Tim’s voice is a constant in the band, sounding youthful on every track.
The first half also documents The Charlatans’ associations with baggy and the Madchester scene, when they were highly defined by Rob Collins’ swirling keyboards and their dance-inflected bass and drums, respectively of Martin Blunt and Brookes. Later, while always referencing those origins, they played with Americana, funk and electronica. They are adept at changing styles mid-tune, allowing each band member to show off their skills.
A case in point is Just When You’re Thinking Things Over, on which Mark Collins builds a sophisticated California-tinged guitar sound that shares qualities with Bread’s David Gates. Come Home Baby, from 2015’s Modern Nature, opens with a smooth ’70s/’80s yacht rock feel before segueing back to soaring classic Charlatans for the chorus. From tracks such as these, it’s easy to understand how the band have had better success in America than other UK indie outfits.
Blackened Blue Eyes from 2006’s Simpatico and Plastic Machinery from 2017’s Different Days show the band’s interest in exploring a more electronic sound (tracks on Different Days, in particular, having demonstrated added electronic pedigree in the presence of New Order’s Stephen Morris and Gillian Gilbert). Plastic Machinery has a more industrial sound than band usually goes for – and its colder qualities are enhanced to great effect by the Sleaford Mods remix (featured on some formats).
The remixes are a delight: qualities inherent in each track have been brought to the fore by the various experimenters. The slightly Eastern flavour of Tellin’ Stories is turned up by specialists in this area, the GO! Team. You’re So Pretty We’re So Pretty – already one of the band’s most dance-inflected songs – is ramped up further by the Lo Fidelity All-Stars, its trippy elements calling to mind a thronging field of people their hands aloft in unison. Hey Sunrise echoes that festival’s morning after the night before, coming down courtesy of The Orb.
Their ability to straddle genres is one of the things that keeps The Charlatans sounding fresh and eminently listenable. Although they are considered alternative/indie, the late ‘80s UK dance scene that was emerging as the band became defined is ever-present. When trying new things The Charlatans have remained true to the core sounds that made them unique among their peers. They pre-dated, successfully navigated and survived the Britpop scene which dominated the mid-1990s, coming out the other side with their creativity intact.
That they are one of Britain’s enduring indie bands must be testament not only to the strength of their thirteen studio albums and 22 singles to date, but also their bond through the music and the difficult times. Since 2013, they have been without founding member, drummer Jon Brookes, who passed away as a result of brain cancer. The band channelled their energies into charity benefit work and creating a fund in his honour. And then they ploughed on. Lyrics to 2015’s Let The Good Times Be Never Ending reiterates a message that’s always been at the core of this beloved band:
And in-between a place for new beginnings
To fill our dreams instead we keep on winning
Take the past send present to the future
Make it last slow down we’ll get there sooner
We know each other I get the love that you’re sending
Let the good times be never ending.
❉ The Charlatans: ‘A Head Full of Ideas’ was released 15 October 2021 on Then Recordings through Republic Of Music as CD, 2CD Deluxe, 2LP, and 3LPX Editions: ORDER HERE
❉ Nina Bea is a social historian and writer, still gigging around the outer edges of London. Instagram: @eeastlondonista