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The Charlatans

+ {Tim Burgess}

Second only to The STONE ROSES in terms of cultdom, long-running post-“Madchester”-affiliated baggies, The CHARLATANS, eventually toppled their rivals from the crease as the 90s came to a close. Quintessentially an English chart-topping phenomenon (three No.1 sets, but globally, they couldn’t buy a hit), the Tim Burgess-led group were also an essential forerunner to OASIS and their ilk in the effervescent Brit-pop movement.
Stemming from the West Midlands in 1988, and from Northwich, Cheshire in 1989, when frontman Burgess (ex-Electric Crayons) superseded singer/guitarist Baz Ketley, The CHARLATANS went through a few other teething elements before original members Martin Blunt (bass), Rob Collins (keyboards), Jonathan Baker (guitar) and Jon Brookes (drums), fused their blend of indie-garage, 60s soul and R&B. After a few attempts at garnering a major deal, the quintet set up their own Dead Dead Good Records for the release, in early 1990, of massive indie hit, `Indian Rope’. Following the boom of the “Madchester” scene, the label was taken over by Beggars Banquet subsidiary, Situation Two, for whom they delivered their first Top 10 hit, the excellent `The Only One I Know’.
Another Hammond-driven classic, `Then’, preceded the chart-topping debut album, SOME FRIENDLY (1990) {*8}, although all was not satisfactory Stateside (where they’d signed to R.C.A.), when a 60s based San Francisco combo of the same name forced the Brits to re-title the album with “The CHARLATANS UK” tag. Produced by Chris Nagle at The Windings in Wales, psychedelia was the main factor in the group’s make up; the swirling WINWOOD-meets-LORD-like keyboards of Collins and the funky, sunny-day rhythms of the lush `You’re Not Very Well’, `White Shirt’ and `109, Pt.2’, sucking in the grooves with horizontal aplomb.
A relatively quiet year followed, during which (after a third Top 20 hit, `Over Rising’) Blunt nearly retired due to severe depression. However, it was actually Baker who bailed after performing for the final time at London’s Royal Albert Hall. Come 1992, Mark Collins (ex-WALTONES, and no relation to Rob) was drafted in as things looked positive again when the single, `Weirdo’, gave the band yet another top hit.
Their sophomore album, however, BETWEEN 10TH AND 11TH (1992) {*6}, was duly given the thumbs down by the music press, hence its failure to secure a respectable Top 20 chart placing. It’s difficult to pinpoint why the set split reviewers down the middle, but one thing was clear was the fact producer Flood was not to blame. Showcasing atmosphere and sass in equal measures, only `Tremelo Song’ was thought worthy of a single release, and when that platter only just squeezed into the Top 50, sales of the set just evaporated. This was not the only setback that year, as keyboard player Rob Collins hit the headlines when he was embroiled as “assisting” in an off-licence armed robbery; as driver of the vehicle he was charged with aiding and abetting his friend.
A year later, although maintaining his innocence of the crime itself, Rob pleaded to a lesser charge and was imprisoned for several months; he was released in early 1994 after serving half his sentence. On his release, the single `Can’t Get Out Of Bed’ saw The CHARLATANS return in fine style, one of several good songs (including further hits, `I Never Want An Easy Life If Me And He Were Ever To Get There’ and `Jesus Hairdo’) from the Top 10 album, UP TO OUR HIPS (1994) {*7}. Co-produced by STEVE HILLAGE, the former GONG man was no stranger to trippy psychedelia, and with tracks `Autograph’ and the title track, the band’s swagger was back in full swing.
Burgess, meanwhile, was credited on a single (“I Was Born On Christmas Day”) by SAINT ETIENNE and was guest singer on The CHEMICAL BROTHERS’ “Life Is Sweet”, before the group were again back to their best on the eponymous 1995 album, THE CHARLATANS {*8}. From its retro cover art, to the “Sympathy For The Devil”-style single, `Just When You’re Thinkin’ Things Over’, the record was an obvious part homage to The ROLLING STONES. Okay, PRIMAL SCREAM had entered that territory in ’94 with “Give Out But Don’t Give Up”, and if one wanted full-fledged retro – this time by way of echo-ing PINK FLOYD’s “Fearless” riffs on `Here Comes A Soul Saver’ – The CHARLATANS had won the day with glorious attendant 45s, `Crashin’ In’ and double-header: `Just Lookin’’ and `Bullet Comes’.
Then tragedy struck, when on 22nd July ‘96, Rob was killed when his car spun off a road in Wales. The coroners report concluded that he was the driver and also that he had twice the legal amount of alcohol in his blood.
The CHARLATANS had just about recorded their fifth album, the chart-scaling TELLIN’ STORIES (1997) {*9}, arguably their biggest and best set to date. Augmented by PRIMAL SCREAM’s Martin Duffy on guest keyboards to fill-out their sound, the spirit of Collins was carried with the band through four mighty Top 20 hits: `One To Another’, `North Country Boy’, `How High’ and the title song.
With The CHARLATANS momentum seemingly unstoppable while every other “baggy” band fell by the wayside, Burgess and Co celebrated their longevity with a career retrospective, MELTING POT (1998) {*8}. With newboy Tony Rogers finally getting his chance to perform in the place of Rob, and with the group signing a major deal via Universal, they were ready to take their place back in indie-rock circles – albeit minus a few hundred thousand admittedly stolen by their Middlewich-based accountant, Trevor Williams.
Their sixth album, US AND US ONLY (1999) {*7}, was a test of sorts, its subsequent No.2 peak position an indication that they were still wanted by their ageing fanbase; The STONE ROSES and The VERVE: where were they now? Borrowing from DYLAN, The ‘Stones (c. mid-to-late 60s) and every groove-friendly Brit-pop cousin, The CHARLATANS were at their infectious best on top hits such as `Forever’ (edited from the opening 7 minutes), `My Beautiful Friend’ and `Impossible’, although at 8 minutes, `Watching You’, was probably stretching it a tad.
Seven albums in and still going strong, the band set out their stall for the 21st century with Top 3 set, WONDERLAND (2001) {*6}. This time around Burgess was wielding a bit of soul power, reaching for the skies with a hitherto unheard falsetto on hit singles such as `Love Is The Key’ and `A Man Needs To Be Told’. The grooves were also slicker and sexier (pity their original version of `You’re So Pretty – We’re So Pretty’ was shelved), hints of CURTIS MAYFIELD’s funkier moments revealing themselves on the latter especially. As with just about every band on the globe, The CHARLATANS were no exception when they trailed in an attendant concert set, LIVE IT LIKE YOU LOVE IT – THE BEST OF THE CHARLATANS LIVE (2002) {*5}.
Frontman TIM BURGESS branched out on his own in 2003 to record the brilliantly diverse solo album I BELIEVE {*6}. Sounding nothing like his usual band, the album, laced with sugary pop melodies, strange waltzes and finely executed keyboards (example `I Believe In The Spirit’, `Only A Boy’ and `Oh My Corazon’), one could be forgiven for thinking that one was listening to early TIM BUCKLEY fused with DONOVAN. A resident of Los Angeles, Tim’s dreamy vox was again utilised for a CHEMICAL BROTHERS hit song, by way of `The Boxer’, available on the “Push The Button” album.
It’s just a shame, however, that The CHARLATANS, at this stage, were below their usually high-grade standard of music, which made one wonder: was it worth BURGESS going back to the fold when he’d such a good thing going? On the evidence of UP AT THE LAKE (2004) {*7}, the answer was well… yes. Realising where their strengths lay, the band left the edge cutting to post-punk preoccupied teenagers, returning to the Hammond-grooving, Beatles ‘n’ Stones sound which made them perennial festival favourites back in the late 90s; both the title song and `Try Again Today’ garnered the usual Top 30 place.
SIMPATICO (2006) {*5} – their first for Sanctuary Records – was likened again to the ‘Stones, its groovy, danceable rhythms also harking back to the days of Madchester, while it proved to be another Top 10 record that divided fans and pundits. `Blackened Blue Eyes’, `NYC (There’s No Need To Stop)’ and the non-hit `The Architect’ were stylish as usual, but the reggae-fied `For Your Entertainment’ and The CLASH-like `City Of The Dead’ were genre-busting – and somewhat too far.
Better known for their advances with twilight-years neo-folk acts, Cooking Vinyl came on board for The CHARLATANS following two sets, YOU CROSS MY PATH (2008) {*6} and WHO WE TOUCH (2010) {*6}. The first of these sank further into retro, courtesy of Rogers’ BOOKER T & THE MG’S-meets-NEW ORDER touches on the likes of `Oh! Vanity’ and `The Misbegotten’. 20-odd years in the business of selling their swaggering shoegazer rock, the elasticity of The Charl’s cool and cocky demeanour was down to a matter of stop-me-if-you’ve-heard-this-one-before tracks; `Smash The System’, `Your Pure Soul’, `Love Is Ending’ and `My Foolish Pride’, nice and nocturnal without setting the nation alight.
TIM BURGESS was happy to take time out in Nashville to record his second solo set, OH NO I LOVE YOU (2012) {*6}. Employing R. Stevie Moore and LAMBCHOP’s Kurt Wagner to enhance his “North Country Boy” soundings, the equally seasoned TimBu indulged in some off-kilter expressions via his softer side; `White’, `The Doors Of Then’ and `A Case For Vinyl’, proof enough that the singer had probably reached his zenith in commercial terms.
Diagnosed with a brain tumour in 2010 (his place filled by The VERVE’s Peter Salisbury for subsequent tours), drummer Jon Brookes finally met his maker on the 13th August 2013; he was only 44. One thinks that The CHARLATANS will continue to keep on keeping on.
Despite what might’ve ended some combos, The CHARLATANS reconvened with a session drummer instead of a permanent replacement. Buoyed by a couple of well-received limited-edition 45s, `Talking In Tones’ and `So Oh’, the psychedelic-soul of MODERN NATURE (2015) {*8} suggested the quartet were nowhere near the twilight zone of rock. Instead, the group’s grooves were at times hallucinogenic and hazy, echoed by such retro-fied Madchester/Britpop pieces such as `Lean In’, `Let The Good Times Be Never Ending’, the soft-ish `Emilie’ and `In The Tall Grass’. While others (including `Come Home Baby’ and `Keep Enough’) body-popped or smooched to a different beat, the trump card was played on the ROY BUDD-esque `I Need You To Know’.
© MC Strong 1994-2006/GRD / rev-up MCS Aug2013-Jan2015

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