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A Quietus Interview

"You Should Get Out More!" A Certain Ratio Interviewed
Maddy Sparham , April 23rd, 2010 07:42

Jez Kerr talks to Maddy Sparham about the influence of A Certain Ratio and the murky balance between art and commerce

I suggest to Jez Kerr, whose face can be seen looking insouciantly askance from the bottom right hand of the sleeve used for a compilation of some of his band’s finest moments Early (Soul Jazz, 2002), that he is something of a venerable elder statesman of the music industry. He wryly avers in a broad Mancunian accent: "Can’t get away from it. A lot of bands have cited us lately, ‘an’t they." A Certain Ratio, whose new album Mind Made Up is released on June 2 on LTM, are in the resurgent.

His was the band immortalised, if you like, in the mouth of Steve Coogan’s witty take on Factory Records’ svengali manqué Tony Wilson in the film 24 Hour Party People as having "all the energy of Joy Division, but with better clothes", only to be denounced in the next scene by members of that band as "fucking shit". "He was the manager in the early days," Kerr says of Wilson, "but he soon stopped that ‘cos he was not really a manager." He also rejects the suggestion that Wilson might have given the band a bit of a Brian Epstein style makeover. "No. We used to go to Oxfam to buy our clothes, we were on the dole... living in Hulme, you didn’t have any money so you went to the Salvation Army and the suits you had were old blokes’ clothes. The shorts and stuff came in ‘cos the army and navy store was next door to the Oxfam. Simon [Topping, the band’s original de facto front man] was a bit into army stuff, but it wasn’t really a conscious look. There were a lot of bands in Manchester who dressed like that."

Only on the sleeve I’ve just mentioned, they aren’t wearing any clothes. The naked busts of the band’s four white members are depicted in separate portrait shots with more than a whiff of Aryan-jugend about them ("the haircuts were the main thing, we had the short back and sides. Everyone else was like spiky hair – we looked like bank managers"), in stark contrast to drummer Donald Johnson who is funkily attired, wearing shades and is, incidentally, black. If you think about it one way, the idea projected is every bit as audacious a provocation to the conventional politeness of our repressed post-war societies as the swastika armbands and peaked caps flaunted by the likes of The Stooges and Siouxsie Sioux just a cultural microgeneration earlier. Or you could just say they look a bit like Haircut 100 - though it would be more Alan Partridge than Tony Wilson to point out that both bands got a guy with rhythm in on drums.

Nonetheless, and joking aside, the whole thing is more overtly reminiscent of New York’s James White & The Blacks racially angst-ridden jazz punk (as heard on 1978’s Off White) or, closer to home and a little less controversially, the bichromatic branding of Jerry Dammers’ 2-Tone. It is a signifier of the band as part of a vague and disparate faction of bands in the British music scene of the time who were smuggling Jamaican, Latin and funk rhythms, along with whistles and euphoric hedonism, onto UK club dance floors. By the end of the decade just dawning these elements would be unmistakably associated with the pills’n’thrills of the newly dubbed Madchester’s Haçienda FAC251, the Manchester club situated at the epochal intersection between the explosion of House and indie rock.

Kerr tells me that this was done very much in the teeth of a dour audience reception in the soon to be post-industrial north of England. "We struggled because we stopped playing the industrial stuff that we started doing on Graveyard and the Ballroom [1979] and started doing stuff like on Sextet [1980], jazz...the people who came to see us were like, 'what the fuck’s this shit'? Like in the film." However even Joy Division, as their increasingly monolithic ‘cold wave’ stumbled tragically into a new grave, found themselves absorbing the sweaty beats of an enduring and mutating New York disco scene to re-emerge as indie-disco avatars New Order.

Kerr is keen to point out how wide the movement that they were part of was - that the Factory association has perhaps inflated their perceived influence a little. "We weren’t the first to play funky music with a load a noise on it. We get a lot of credit but we’re not due it – we were influenced by the Pop Group, who were fantastic – John Waddington’s guitar. They were doing the same thing as us, they were listening to American imports and stuff like that and doing their version of it. I would say there were other bands who were as influential but we’re still here doing it, and we’re doing it quite well."

A Certain Ratio did have a perceptible influence on a diverse number of bands from a nascent Heaven 17, with their initial embrace of the (slap) bass, through to Happy Mondays. It is sometimes suggested that the band began losing their edge – to paraphrase LCD Soundsystem, one of a number of current acts proudly proclaiming ACR’s influence – as their sound later drifted towards a more chart-friendly sound in search of a hit. In the wake of many fellow post-punk outfits finding commercial success in the New Pop boom of the early 80’s (such as Leeds school graduates Scritti Politti, who left Rough Trade for Virgin Records and all but emigrated to the US to strike polished pop production gold, muttering about the inadequacies of ‘Brit funk’ as they went) I ask whether he feels the band went off-piste at any point in search of something that wasn’t quite true to themselves. "No no no, we were being true to ourselves in the fact that this is the music we were listening to, this is the music we were trying to play, albeit with a Manchester edge." They didn’t sell themselves out at any point? "We did sell ourselves out later on when we went to A&M and...we didn’t sell out, we thought let’s give it a go doing it this way, ie goin’ to London, goin’ to Sarm West, using [Pet Shop Boys producer] Julian Mendelshon, using a major record company – and it was a total mistake."

One member of the aforementioned Pop Group, Simon Underwood ended up having one of post-punk funk’s biggest smash hits with ‘Papa’s Got A Brand New Pigbag’, and onetime ACR alumnus Andy Connell left to help Swing Out Sister ‘Breakout’. Never let that Manchester edge be underestimated, though, as it helps define ACR albums such as Force (1986) and Good Together (1989). For all their professed musicianship and mainstream flirtation ACR never went JTQ or ended up at Level 42, a bad place to be - in the charts or anywhere else. "They made money you didn’t," Kerr concludes of the whole period. "There’s no big deal about it. You have one hit and it lasts five minutes and that’s it, no-one wants to know you and you’ll always be thinking about that. Whereas we never had a hit but people respected what we were doin’, because when you saw us you thought, fuckin ’ell, they’re shit hot."

It is further evidence of their avant-garde cache that Mind Made Up is released on a label that, apart from a bulging portfolio of post-punk including Factory label mates Section 25, also has a sideline in audio books on subjects such as Dada and Jean Cocteau. "It’s a guy called James Nice who lives in Norfolk and it’s just a cottage industry." It’s a partial return to rawer form, the result of the songs being jammed in rehearsal one week and recorded the next leaving them rough around the edges. It is also littered with references to their early past, occasionally evoking its sinister atmosphere, particularly on the opening track ‘I Feel Light’, instrumental ‘Rialto 6’ which is seemingly a reprise from Sextet, and the lyric to ‘Bird To The Ground’ which is inspired by what Kerr reckons to be "our greatest tune", ‘Flight’. The ghostly ‘Teri’ is claimed to be the first song ACR ever wrote, never recorded or released until now. The rest is a mix of pleasing if more conventional driving funk and post-Screamadelica-style dance-ups, vocals courtesy of long time associate Denise Johnson, well known for her contribution to that album.

For many, however, the band’s reputation will always rest in the enigmatic aura created long ago by those baleful, eerie sonic backdrops generated by Martin Moscrop’s trumpet, counterpointed by Kerr’s angular bass and underpinned by Donald Johnson’s polyrhythmic drumming and percussion. All have worked continuously on the band’s intermittent projects up to the current incarnation. Whether or not ACR will ever break new ground again in an ever more saturated field is perhaps beside the point when so many of the bands that have drawn inspiration from them, such as New York’s incandescent The Rapture or !!!, are feverishly operating in the darklands between commercial success and artistic integrity to create something every bit as enduring in the imagination of their audience as their forebears. Kerr enthusiastically agrees: "They’ve succeeded. I saw LCD a few years ago now in Manchester and they were really, really good...the way that they approached it was how we did, which is that anything goes. It’s about how good you are, not what people say you are or write about you."

He talks of the post-punk era with a rather nostalgic passion typical of people who were there. "It was a special sort of time in that a lot of people were making music who previously wouldn’t have bothered, would be doin’ summat else or getting into trouble...there were no sort of rules. There seems to be a lot more rules now, you’re either an indie band or you’ve gotta be this band or that band. At that time punk was what was happenin’ but the people who were making music didn’t really like the three-chord thrash of punk, they wanted to do their own thing. That’s why it was such a fertile area for music that’s still interesting because of the way it was created, not really knowing what they’re doing."

24 Hour Party People (on which Moscrop was musical director) begins with clips of Iggy Pop and Johnny Rotten playing in Manchester and igniting, as Kerr puts it, "the vibe of a generation". Of course they’ve variously been punting out car insurance and butter of late, Lydon explaining with typical candour the plain necessity of needing the funds to tour in order to raise the funds to record. Kerr does a bit of work for an ad company himself, when he’s not setting up live projects with his old ACR band mates Pete Terrell and Simon Topping. "Well the art versus commerce thing, you’re always gonna get it. The best thing to do would be to work at Tesco’s, so you can do what you fuckin’ want with your music. Whereas try and combine the two and it becomes a bit difficult, which we found to our cost, the music suffered, and we suffered as a band..."

Whilst the likes of Luke Haines and Bill Drummond have called for national Pop Strike and No Music protests in defiance of an ever more homogenised and misappropriated pop music and culture, Kerr - who himself notes that "most kids have got 15000 tunes and have paid £10 for ‘em" - is more sanguine. "The times have changed but people don’t really change, y’know - especially when you’re 16 or 17 and you don’t fit in and you wanna do something, you’ll gravitate towards people who are like yourself and form a group". From the man who once helped stuff the first Factory sampler into its packaging at home in his bedroom, and with a revitalised ACR out on the road, the advice is simple: "You should get out more! [Laughs] Get out and see something, you’ll enjoy it a lot more."

I almost feel like ending this piece with a dedication: ‘In memory of Malcolm McClaren and his Northern godson Anthony H. Wilson - their revolutions may have been stymied and compromised by the enduring socio-economic realities of our times, but from all their boom and bust arose many a sustainable legacy.’ There you go, I just did.