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A Certain Ratio
Force Mick Middles , April 1st, 2010 10:00

Manchester, Mid-80s. Frenetic days in a city divided. Mike Pickering filtering Chicago house into The Hacienda while, over in unlovable Longsight, Roger Eagle's perceptive booking policy brought in a new spread of bands...REM, Green on Red, Prefabs, Waterboys. There was more. Colin Sinclair's Boardwalk attracted the indie injection and the new wave of breakthrough Manchester bands – Roses, Mondays, James, Easterhouse, Chameleons, Jazz Defekters and Kalima, Creepers – jostled for position in the wake of Simply Red's instant rise.

The big three (Smiths, New Order and The Fall) remained dominant, as indicated by the success of there competitive sets at The Festival of the Tenth Summer in 1986. It would all bubble on until Madchester…after years in the wilderness, a city resurgent. All this and ACR. Resurgent also and seemingly riding this activity with consummate ease. In tandem with the city that surrounded them, they had evolved, expanded, grasped a new diversity and, not least, surged to new levels of musicality. Not everyone was happy with this. Though I disagreed with him, Tony Wilson preferred them locked in their initial guise, of ragged trousered urban funksters; spirited and, at times, truly ground-breaking. They were - and remain - quite impossibly defensive. I don't think they ever forgave me for having the audacity to suggest in early reviews that it would take time for them to grow into the music that was in their heads. As to Tony Wilson's claim that they were the Manchester Sex Pistols! Nonsense. It did them no favours.

But I couldn't stay away in the mid 80s. The moment they hit a groove that resulted in the recording Force, they had gained a musical joy that belied their reputation as sullen boys with heavy brows. In terms of albums, four barren years preceded Force, which was recorded in the expanse of Yellow Two Studios, (Strawberry's sister studio, across the road in Stockport) in November 1986. Included in this reissue are the sleeve notes of LTM label owner, James Nice, and they neatly guide you through the recording process, suggesting that the AKAI Sampler, which was just seeping into the country, would be heavily utilised on Force.

The album would become the last to include the considerable musicianship of keyboardist Andy Connell. His main side project Swing Out Sister, formed with singer Corinne Drewery, had scored a global hit with 'Breakout', one of the most infectious pop hits on a decade full of such things. That Swing Out Sister is still producing successful if rather ineffectual albums and sell out shows in the Far East, is an intriguing twist here. On Force, Drewery even adds distinctive vocals to 'Bootsy', without question ACR's finest if rather unlikely pop moment, almost five minutes of lush, unashamed cocktails. While it is welcome here, one wonders if Connell's continued presence might have swerved ACR towards an MTV-centred pop career. As it is, the band are still lost gloriously in a state of semi-existence, emerging here and there (Brighton, last month), to perform sets still simmering with musical belligerence.

The hinge moment on Force is undoubtedly 'Mickey Way'. This proved to be the slab of quality funk to which they always aspired. For anyone who hung around Manchester in 1987, it remains impossible to hear this song without being instantly transported to vision of Hacienda bollards; of a club finally coming to terms with an influx of house and truly a parallel club to New York's Paradise Garage. Indeed more than that, in the entire span of pre-Madchester Hacienda, only A Guy Called Gerald's 'Voodoo Ray' retains a more evocative effect. This remains a time travel song built from the steely influence of George Clinton.

Needless to say, 'Mickey Way' dominates this album, its raw groove seeping into almost every track present. It's a welcome intrusion, too, unifying in its simplicity. To the band's surprise, Force immediately struck a nerve, not just within the confines of Manchester either, pushing the band close to the success they always deserved. Not surprisingly, this new found popularity also served to sever their ties with Factory, a label that was curiously reluctant to push too heavily into the dance arena. (Curious indeed and this split would eventually cause frustrated director, Rob Gretton, to form Rob's Records, a compilation of which is released in tandem with Force and also on LTM.) Soon ACR would take courageous step of signing to A & M, recording the poppier follow up, 'Good Together'.

Nevertheless for myself and, I suggest, for the majority of people who have followed this band for three decades, Force remains their purest moment. Again, Tony Wilson would have strongly disagreed… and Simon Reynolds, Paul Morley and, I sense, Jon Savage. For it can be argued that this was also the moment that marked the loss of their embryonic naiveté. The moment when the writers turned away. Most of them… not me, though.

They will dislike me for this review. Of that I am certain. But even that indicates that a spirit remains. It is selfish of me, but I am also glad that I can still see A Certain Ratio, if only occasionally, in tight, hot venues such as Manchester's Band on the Wall (Where I first encountered them). In terms of size, they are frozen, eclipsed perhaps, by the lesser-talented Happy Mondays who, in true Salfordian style, stole the ACR thunder. Mercifully, the music continues to evolve, whether as a result of the main unit or side projects such as Jez Kerr's stunning, cinematic '24 Hours'. What's more, there are still places to explore, I strongly sense but it just so refreshing here, now, to feel the beauty of the Force.