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A Certain Ratio

+ {ACR}

Atop of Svengali/manager Tony Wilson’s early crop of Factory Records wannabes that didn’t quite make the grade or fit the groove (alongside the likes of DURUTTI COLUMN, CRISPY AMBULANCE, SECTION 25, et al), Manchester’s indie hopefuls spread their post-punk avant-funk before the mainstream guaranteed the siphoning of their sound. One of the original Factory acts from the turn of the 80s, ACR came to shape and influence the nascent “Madchester” dance scene in much the same way as NEW ORDER, if never gaining even a fraction of the commercial success afforded that classic band.
Formed in 1977 around vocalist/trumpeter Simon Topping, bassist/vocalist Jeremy `Jez’ Kerr, guitarist Peter Terrell and guitarist/trumpeter Martin Moscrop, A CERTAIN RATIO took their moniker from the lyrics of an ENO song (`The True Wheel’) from the album `Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy)’. Eventually signed to the aforementioned independent by head honcho Tony Wilson, the quartet’s debut single, `All Night Party’, became an indie hit by late ’79; the half-studio/half-live , cassette-only THE GRAVEYARD AND THE BALLROOM (1980) {*7} was – almost by definition of its non-LP status – an underground record. Featuring tracks that emerged later on more bona fide releases, `Flight’, `Do The Du (casse)’, the very JOY DIVISION-cloned `Oceans’, `Choir’, `The Fox’ and `Loss’, ACR paved the way for others acts of their ilk to follow in their footsteps. By this point the oblique drum machine had been superseded by a real live musician, Donald Johnson (younger bro of SWEET SENSATION’s Barry Johnson), while ACR began expanding on their primitive bass-heavy, punk-funk/industrial sound towards an increasingly experimental and rhythmic dance style.
Released on Factory’s Belgian sister label, Factory Benelux, ACR’s re-vamp of the Banbarra funk classic, `Shack Up’, suggested the direction the band were headed. Following another 12”-type take of `Flight’, the team issued their first album proper, TO EACH… (1981) {*7}.
Produced by Martin Hannett at the EARS studio in East Orange, New Jersey, and despite the in-house engineer inadvertently wiping the master mixes, the band showcased tracks such as the 12-minute `Winter Hill’ under the mirror-ball lights (supported by a then little-known act, MADONNA) around the East Coast of America; a Michael Shamberg film, “Tribeca”, was duly shot at Hurrah’s.
With Martha Tilson taking over demure vocal duties, and trumpeter Topping sliding into a more percussive role (`Crystal’ being the exception), the ACR sound was lent an even greater rhythmic dimension on1982’s SEXTET {*8}. A benchmark of the band’s early career and, incredibly, one of their few chart entries (at No.53), the LP was an acclaimed collection taking in everything from funk and Latin (`Skipscada’) to avant-jazz; the monotone Tilson brought a bright light to the group’s bass, guitar and percussion meanderings, best served on opener `Lucinda’ and the 7-minute `Knife Slits Water’.
By the release of third album, I’D LIKE TO SEE YOU AGAIN (1982) {*6}, ACR – without Tilson – were stripped back to a basic New York funk that split the group into two factions. Almost instrumental but for chants and repeat lyrical prescriptions, the quintet turned to WEATHER REPORT or HERBIE HANCOCK on the excellent jazz-funk-spew of the title track, while `Axis’ and rare 45, `Guess Who’, would go down a storm at the newly “funk-tional” Hacienda club.
Inevitably, ACR duly lost two of its founder members – Topping and Terrell – their berths filled by keyboardist Andy Connell and a fresh guest vocalist, Carol McKenzie; Topping would join T-Coy with Mike Pickering of QUANDO QUANGO. Aimed at the mainstream, `I Need Someone Tonite’ (b/w: STEVIE WONDER’s `Don’t You Worry ’bout A Thing’), was the first in a series of 12″ singles; sax player Tony Quigley further enhancing the group’s complex sonic textures. Note too that at various times throughout the 80s, Moscrop and Kerr were part of KALIMA (formerly known as SWAMP CHILDREN), alongside Tony and Ann Quigley.
After a farewell album for Factory through 1986’s FORCE {*7}, little was heard from the band – save an Italian 12″ and a LIVE IN AMERICA (1987) {*5} album for Dojo Records – as they made the transition from cult indie band to a major label. Of the studio set itself, future SWING OUT SISTER singer Corrine Drewery made a groove-enhancing entrance on `Bootsy’ (a tribute to BOOTSY COLLINS), while her chart-busting SOS “Breakout” buddy, Connell, was marking out a slicker commercial trail on the likes of `Only Together’, `And Then She Smiles’ and `Mickey Way’; almost forgotten was their exclusive cover of Sarah Vaughan’s `Smiling Hour’, featured in the cool jazz-pop movie, Absolute Beginners.
On the mighty A&M Records, 1989’s club hit, `The Big E (I Won’t Stop Loving You)’, was released at the height of the house craze ACR had helped pioneer, yet both GOOD TOGETHER (1989) {*4} and the live M.C.R. (1990) {*4} albums, failed to make any inroads into the mainstream chart. Shaun Ryder (of HAPPY MONDAYS) and Barney Sumner (of NEW ORDER) lent their support on guest vocals for the 1990 EP, `4 For The Floor’, but ACR – as they were now billed – were clearly looking for an easier way into the mainstream.
A subsequent move to dance label Rob’s (set up by former NEW ORDER manager, Rob Gretton) saw future PRIMAL SCREAM collaborator, Denise Johnson, guesting on the UP IN DOWNSVILLE (1992) {*6} set, the group now ploughing the most accessible furrow of their career; extended on the singles `27 Forever’, `Mello’, `Turn Me On’ and `Tekno’.
In recognition of their far reaching influence on both dance and independent music in general, Creation Records released remix tribute set, LOOKING FOR A CERTAIN RATIO (1994) {*5}, featuring such Manchester luminaries as ELECTRONIC, while Rob’s again produced CHANGE THE STATION (1996) {*5}. Deciding that enough was enough for the future ACR activities, the group went into musical liquidation for the next decade.
Buoyed by plaudits coming in every direction from industry peers, A CERTAIN RATIO (Kerr, Moscrop, Donald Johnson, Denise Johnson and Liam Mullan) re-formed in 2008. As funky and punchy as their 80s salad days, but released only in France, MIND MADE UP (2008) {*6}, finally received its British airing in 2010 for L.T.M. From group compositions `I Feel Light’ and `Down, Down, Down’, to the title track and one (`Teri’) scribed with Tony Quigley, Simon Topping and Peter Terrell, ACR could well’ve built on this enterprising comeback.
A dozen years in the making, but still maintaining mostly the same core line-up (even though Denise had passed away July 2020), A CERTAIN RATIO once again stepped up to the plate on coronavirus-diverting dance-funk set, ACR LOCO {*8} – the maddening thing was just how long they’d been embedded in their perennial lockdown. Mute Records – responsible for a spate of recent re-masters – took up the mantle on this freewheeling and all-encompassing record that opened in fine fettle with `Friends Around Us’. Denise was a perfect fit for the obviously upbeat, `Bouncy Bouncy’, `Family’ and `Get A Grip’; the latter enhanced by new girl guest on the block Maria Uzor (of Sink Ya Teeth), whilst the fiesta-styled ORB-like `Yo Yo Gi’ had mileage until the onset of carnivalistic anchor piece, `Taxi Guy’, featuring that unmistakable sax parp of Tony Quigley.
© MC Strong 1994-2003/GRD // rev-up MCS Nov2013-Sep2020

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