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A Certain Ratio
Sextet (Reissue) Mick Middles , September 26th, 2014 12:32

The sound of the embryonic ACR had been a jittery affair. A thick soup of chopping funk spliced with a lonesome trumpet and topped with snaps, whistles and Simon Topping's evocative dour vocals. It seemed to hang in the Mancunian gloom. I fully admit, it took me a while to catch the drift...a fact perhaps not aided by Tony Wilson's insistence that "...they are the new Sex Pistols". A claim founded in nothing other than the undeniable fact that they were forging their own path, less obviously expansive than The Pop Group but frenetic nonetheless. It was with the arrival of drummer Donald Johnson that truly set the course. A fact that became apparent on the early single 'Flight', a lovely airy shuffle that prized the band away from the shadow cast by label-mates Joy Division.

The band's album first, To Each… released in 1980 had been recorded in New York in visionary Factory move to forge a link between The Big Apple and Manchester. Tony Wilson had even rented a loft in Tribeca and had furnished it with six mattresses, six pillows and six sheets, one for each band member. The only flaw in this arrangement was that the resultant album would be produced by Wythenshawe's Martin Hannett, whose pedantic approach may have worked to legendary effect to sharpen Joy Division's rockier stance, but served only to bleed the funk from Ratio's broader attack. Not that To Each… was a bad album. In fact it seeped to cool effect from many of the sharper Mancunian clothes emporium tannoys of the day and also became the quintessential Factory artefact, but it lagged behind the band's increasingly exotic musicality. To Each... remained reminiscent of the chunk-a-chunk pops and rim-shots of the band's earlier outings–at The Band On The Wall, perhaps? – and languish at the start of Tony Wilson's white boys drunk on funk dream. In short, it was to remain firmly in that area of post punk. Certainly worthy of revisiting today – I now adore Ratio's early bashings–but a whole different band to the one that served up 1982's extraordinary Sextet.

But by 1982, everything had changed. A flash of shameless pop colour had all but replaced the stark industrial visions of post punk. The advent of glossy magazines such as The Face and Blitz had married this brash new pop adventure with extreme street and club fashion and even the NME and Sounds seemed suddenly keen to embrace brazen acts such as Wham! Spandau Ballet and anything produced by Trevor Horn. Even Dollar. (Morley lost it, for a while). As for Factory, the love affair with the NME would soon end as the organ noted of the label, "will someone please shut the fucking place up."

A Certain Ratio could have been forgiven for displaying a modicum of musicianly angst as the funk stance they had so doggedly pursued seemed to flow past them on a gushing stream to chart stardom. Bands from Sheffield, Leeds and Bristol suddenly grasped the fashion-led media. What were ACR to do? Ditch the grey suits and buy some pastel coloured trousers and join the party or remain true to their vastly improved musicality?

With Sextet, arguably their greatest moment, they answered this question by presenting a kaleidoscope of an album full of zest and, in places – 'Knife Slits Water' – sheer blinding brilliance. Gone was the dour rigidity of To Each.... This was a band, under the guidance of  Johnson, now capable of truly matching the complexities of their own musical ambition. A flower had opened. Not since PIL's dominant 'Metal Box' had a band so seamlessly traversed such an unexpectedly broad musical landscape.

While To Each... had appeared as the ultimate Factory artefact, Sextet neither sounded, or looked remotely like any other Factory record. The vividly colourful sleeve – created in part by Hacienda designer Ben Kelly – promised a dense exotica which was answered the moment the opening 'Lucinda' took Ratio's crisp funk base and literally tugged it into new territories. 13 tracks later, as the needle lifted, the listener experienced extraordinary flurries of world beats, samba, flurries of jazz and even scat singing  on the dizzying 'Skipscada', hypnotic trance and several stabs at music that wouldn't generally be heard in Britain until the close of the decade. That's how far ahead of the game they were.

One of the reasons for this, I controversially state, was the decision to self-produce, thereby neglecting to use the services of Hannett. Interestingly, New Order had taken a similar step with their ground-breaking single of 1982, 'Temptation'. For once, New Order and A Certain Ratio seemed to have something in common. Both bands were fond of visiting New York for inspiration. Sextet, if nothing else, sounds very much like an album made by a band doused in vibrant multi-culturalism. It could have been made in Brooklyn – where vocalist Simon Topping would soon live after departing the band intent on studying percussion – rather than, as was the case, Cheadle Hulme in Stockport. (Revolution Studios). The band, Topping, Kerr, Moscrop, Terrell and Johnson were joined by co-vocalist Martha 'Tili' Tilson. Despite departing around the time of the album's release, Tilson provided a significant input. Her vocals suitably expanded the lyrical expression beyond Topping's cool but narrow delivery. She also supplied the sex-fired lyrics to 'Knife Slits Water', arguably the album's stand out track.

Tilson's departure and, indeed, Topping's a year later, served to add a seal on the celebrated Ratio of Sextet. Whatever was to happen in the future, and quite a lot did, it could never really be the same again. Perhaps that kind of perfection remains the key. For more than any other ACR album, Sextet is governed by a fluidity that provides a certain timeless aura. Walking about Topping's home town of Flixton in the Autumn sunshine listening to the album, as I have done repeatedly this week, has been a liberating experience. Not a trace of nostalgic drifting. This album belongs, well, wherever you want to put it. This re-issue is stretched to a whopping two discs, although, in truth, I am not sure that disc two, with its numerous variations, actually adds much to the party. Completists will disagree and label Factory Benelux only really want to present a fuller picture. Fair enough, but it is the initial album that keeps dragging me back. Back amid all the colour and hype and noise of 1982, I failed to notice the albums true hypnotic heart. That is the key.

Now that Sextet lies gloriously out of context, it is possible to fully submit to its steamy heartbeat. It is enough, just to let the whole affair to flow through you, and allow it to lift your spirits. Evocative? More than that. Sextet was a visionary musical statement that, in a world dominated by garish clad clubbers and headline grabbing gobshites, could only revel in its own outsider status.

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