... your heart out
© K EITH M ILNE
Manchester Heritage Industry Inc. is a curious phenomenon. There is increasingly a sense that it has backed the wrong horses, and built its activities on the wrong foundations. A growing number of people are suggesting that it would be better off telling a different story, and should look instead for fresh inspiration that could be provided by records such as Sextet by A Certain Ratio. If the city‟s cultural legacy was fuelled by Sextet the world might be a far more interesting place. Sextet is, after all, the great ACR record, the finest Factory LP, and in many ways the MCR masterpiece. The greatest records are not necessarily the most accomplished, the most fully realised, the most professional. They just have a certain something that makes them special. And there are very strong reasons why Sextet is special. A Certain Ratio‟s Sextet LP was released in January 1982 by Factory Records. 30 years on it still sounds extraordinary. It could be argued that its impetus came from an extended visit to New York that the group made in the autumn of 1980, ostensibly to record their debut LP, To Each ..., with Martin Hannett. At the time A Certain Ratio seem to have been restless, a little jaded with what they were doing, despite the singles Shack Up and Flight being great successes. New York offered new vistas, new sensations, new experiences, and it‟s easy to imagine ACR soaking it all up. Suddenly they were hearing all the rhythms New York had to offer, from the adventurous disco tracks played in the more open-minded clubs, to the early stirrings of hip-hop, to the sounds of samba
bands, jazz sessions, people playing salsa out of doors, kids walking round with ghetto blasters, the variety of music played on the radio, and so on. It would have been intoxicating. “How are you gonna keep „em down on the Factory floor now that they‟ve been downtown?” They were also to find kindred spirits, too. They saw ESG playing live, and managed to find time to get them in the studio with Martin Hannett. And they found Martha Tilson, on the dancefloor of Hurrahs, quickly absorbing her into their circle as an additional vocalist, literally bringing new life to the group. It‟s oversimplifying the story, but there is a neat symbolism to ACR recording To Each ... in New York, capturing the older songs they were perhaps too familiar with, while simultaneously finding fresh inspiration, a number of new directions to explore while expanding their template of what could be called frozen funk or derelict disco. Ironically the LP they made in New York, mixed back in Manchester by Martin, was not the one ACR had been hoping for. Hannett‟s handiwork sort of swamped their sound. And this perhaps added to the urge to do something different, more adventurous, new music reflecting the group‟s rhythmic development which they came home and worked diligently at. By the time To Each ... finally appeared in the shops, in April 1981, ACR were preparing to make a new LP, the one that would become Sextet. The response to To Each was not warm. Ian Cranna in The Face wrote: “What‟s actually in the grooves is some of the most unremittingly colourless music ever committed to vinyl”. A few months earlier Robert Elms had been more enthusiastic in The Face, including ACR in a primer on The Mutant Disco and describing the Flight 12” as bearing “all the hallmarks of the newest funk; radical, intelligent, danceable, proving for once there‟s life in the sceptre isle”. To Each ... sounds great now, even with Martin making the drums sound more martial than funky, but in contrast the selections on Sextet feel like someone has turned the lights on and turned the temperature up considerably. A Certain Ratio had in 1981 moved up to a higher level. This was the sound of a group reaching out, stretching, searching, trying to do something different, trying to capture all the ideas that were making their heads reel and their minds spin. Sextet is a triumph of ideas. It is also, in many ways, a triumph for ideas over ability. On Sextet A Certain Ratio were exploring musical areas where traditionally the successful players were remarkably accomplished and usually pretty experienced, having served their dues. And yet here was a collection of young punks, if you like, having a go at incorporating elements of Brazilian and Latin music, trying to assimilate the sounds of big studio funk, when with the exception of rhythm master Donald Johnson the group was not technically proficient in the orthodox sense. And yet, the virtuosos may be totally devoid of ideas. They may play in an impressively professional way but be hopeless at having what is thought of as soul or spirit. They may be unable to improvise, uncomfortable with unfinished surfaces, and uneasy about the unexpected.
ÂŠ K EITH M ILNE
If the incarnation of A Certain Ratio that made Sextet was about a victory of ideas over ability, it was not for want of trying. The received impression is of a group of individuals who were working very hard at mastering new instruments, new rhythms, new challenges. There may be a degree of punk presumptuousness at tackling Brazilian and Latin forms without having served the necessary apprenticeships. But there was about Sextet no suggestion that the approach was disrespectful. There was no air of exploitation. There was no sense of wilful amateurism. A Certain Ratio were very serious about what they were doing, and clearly in love with the source sounds. A good indication of this is Simon Topping later spending time formally studying Latin percussion in New York. What A Certain Ratio were doing in terms of rhythm on Sextet was very different to the later vogue among numerous groups for almost randomly banging percussion instruments, adding chants to suggest a sense of tribal or primitive spirit. Similarly the group veered away from using the sort of Trout Mask Replica or Contortions-style abstract abrasions when dealing with funk forms which just might have made more sense to many of the natural A Certain Ratio audience. It should be stressed Sextet sold reasonably well. Generally it seems to have been favourably reviewed. The LP reached number 53 on the national album charts without any conventional sales drive. But one of the great things about the record was that it was not preaching to the converted. With Sextet ACR were in many ways introducing a new audience to certain sounds.
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One of the more dispiriting aspects of any art form is the tendency to give the audience what they want. Even what are supposedly the most inaccessible or avant-garde works are usually delivered direct to a niche audience that will be warmly receptive. For many reasons the audience A Certain Ratio was playing to in 1981 was a partisan Factory-oriented one. There were very specific notions about A Certain Ratio. But during the course of that year increasingly the group veered away from that, using a female singer, performing extended percussion work-outs, blowing whistles, generally acting in a way that was anathema to many of the groupâ€&#x;s fans. And ironically ACR were not really reaching a natural target audience, which would have been the disparate funk tribes around the country. Factory missed a trick there. Who knows if things would have been any different if ACR had appeared at a soul weekender or two? Who can tell if Sextet would have fared better if Factory had put in some work courting the specialist shops on the funk scene? It has to be said that ACR did not exactly go out of their way to make Sextet commercial in the traditional way of independent label acts wanting to get
on. The sound really is solid but astonishingly skeletal, and all the better for it. There is seldom more than the bass, percussion, and vocals. And that is slightly perverse. Where embellishments are added it is whistles and the trademark ACR trumpets. The electric guitar is rhythmic and never that prominent. There are no guitar solos. There may be the occasional use of a vocoder. A piano can be heard at times. But there are no auxiliary layers of keyboards or synths to sweeten the sound. There are no hired-in horns. No strings are added to the mix. No session players pulled in to pad out the sound. The intensely stark sound suggests something of dub science, or what has been beautifully called x-ray music. The stripped-down nature of the music may be directly related to dub techniques, but on Sextet ACR stop short of playing anything quite so straight as reggae, the default „other‟ option for many UK musicians in the early „80s. But ACR were certainly more than familiar with working with dub ideas and dynamics, echo and effects, as beautifully demonstrated on the phenomenal Funaezekea which was on the flipside of the Waterline 12”, the incredibly low profile trail for Sextet which would shortly follow. Dub of course is directly linked to reggae music, but interest in the art form had spread to other areas. Mike Dorane and Davitt Sigerson had put together the Disco Dub Band project, and the idea had spread considerably among producers in the disco field. Gaspar Lawal‟s astonishing afrobeat LP Ajomasé is very much influenced by dub philosophy. The ECM label had its very own minimalist aesthetic not far removed from dub. These were all things it is possible to imagine ACR being aware of. And their own interest in dub was made explicit, covertly, when in the same timeframe as Sextet they put
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out a dub plate 12” as Sir Horatio, taking apart the ideas on Funaezekea so beautifully it could easily be a genuine On-U Sound production. It is part of the stubborn ACR nature that they opted to release this 12” quietly on the unaligned 666 imprint without making a big deal about it. ACR were incredibly stubborn. Their approach to Sextet proves that. They were determined to produce it themselves. There may be many factors why they wanted to be so independent. One would be the experience with Martin Hannett in making To Each ... Perhaps more simply ACR simply did not want to have to explain the ideas they were working through, the sound they were stretching for. On a practical level Factory was not in the habit of employing outside producers. And while it is fun to speculate about Adrian Sherwood or Bob Blank working with the 1981 vintage ACR it was not likely. Factory‟s laissez-faire approach or disinterest worked in ACR‟s favour. Being allowed to self-produce the Sextet sessions and to work locally in Revolution studios in Cheadle Hulme really benefitted the group. It would be fair to argue that ACR were relatively inexperienced in studio techniques, despite being thrillingly filled with ideas. Therefore it is logical to suggest that the role of the engineer on the Sextet sessions was pivotal. ACR were fortunate in having Phil Ault at the controls. Phil seems to have realised at the time he was part of something special, and his view hasn‟t changed. He had trained as an engineer with Island Records at their Basing St. studios in the „70s, working with all sorts of people including Bob Marley, Jorge Ben and Gavin Bryars before taking on freelance work in the North West. He also engineered Spherical Objects and Grow Up for Object Music, 52nd Street, Vini Reilly, Section 25 and New Order for Factory. “My first encounter with ACR was working on the Flight single with Martin Hannett, and although I think the session went ok (difficult to tell at the time), I was still surprised to get a call to engineer an album with them. I probably felt that way because to them I may have come across as a hippy, long straggly hair and beard, which is fair enough, and maybe not the person to be too sympathetic to what they were trying to achieve. They needn‟t have worried on that score, however, even as a paid-up hippy I‟d never been that impressed with prog-rock and its variants, and even before punk reared its
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refreshing head I‟d been searching for more quirky stuff to listen to (such as Pere Ubu and early Devo), so was pretty open to new ideas; also as an engineer, you should try to leave musical tastes outside the studio as much as possible. “I think the Sextet sessions worked really well from all our points of view, although it was hard work on several counts – I had to try to understand „where they were coming from‟ without appearing condescending to some of their ideas, especially since a lot of the time they seemed to be exploring their own ideas just to see where it would lead, which included not necessarily recording in a conventionally structured order. This may not be apparent from the finished article which sounds very tight and deliberate, but there was a lot of „try it and see‟, which I always find exciting, and you tread a fine line between ending in chaos or discovering some moments of magic. This should not be confused with writing a song in the studio, which rarely works, in my experience, and which I don‟t remember them attempting. “Revolution Studios was a good place for an accurate sound, and well maintained, but its drawbacks (for the way I like to work, at least) include the main playing area being below the control room connected by a close circuit camera, and also there was no live area to record any ambient sounds. Close contact was very important with a young band like ACR, as communication at all times is so important. However, there were effects we could use, and there was an isolation booth alongside the control room which I used as much as possible, despite being a small room, and the band seemed happy with layering up the songs in this manner. There were enough reasonable mics to get a varied sound when needed and I was used to improvising by then anyway, so I don‟t remember too many problems with that. “Two memories stand out regarding the recording. One is the bass sound, which I was particularly pleased with – because it was a d.i. straight to the desk, it wasn‟t as full as I wanted, and I think someone mentioned it was a bit „normal‟, so I ended up doing two things, on some tracks at least. I used a very close double-tracking effect just behind the main signal, and to get a bit more slap I mic-ed up the actual strings, and all three signals went straight to one track of the tape. No faffing around with three separate tracks on the mix in those days – we took decisions! The other memory is a rare occurrence of me sitting in front of a guitarist for two hours, trying to teach a guitar part – rare because I don‟t play anything. I can‟t remember which song it was, but there was a lot of head scratching as to what needed adding, and it needed something. I tried not to suggest too much musically, as a rule, given it was their project and they were also exploring the new freedom of no producer, but on this occasion they indulged me. Martin (Moscrop) was either very patient or desperate, but we recorded a rhythm part that worked, although I can‟t recall if we used it in the final mix!”
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ACR showed their stubbornness or independent streak in the artwork for Sextet, too. It is the music on the record and the sleeve which combine to produce a complete aesthetic delight. There are not many LP sleeves that instantly capture the feel of a record, but Sextet does this perfectly. The warmth of the cover, and almost literally the feel of the original sleeve to the vinyl edition, is immediately suggestive of the new music ACR were making. In terms of impact it was a welcome and dramatic departure from the Peter Saville Associates/ Factory stereotype, just as the music veered away joyously from prevailing perceptions about the group‟s music and the label‟s output. The cover captures the warmth of the setting sun: Bahia, the Caribbean, Winter Hill perhaps, but it feels like a coastal location, a deserted bay, the perfect soundtrack for an impromptu ghost dance, the group summoning up ancient spirits perhaps best left dormant - ACR run the voodoo down. Ben Kelly was given the task of designing the Sextet cover, at the same time he was offered the opportunity to design The Haçienda nightclub. The striking image on the sleeve of LP was painted by Denis Ryan: “Ben Kelly and I were friends and still are. He was asked to design the cover, and as far as I can remember the band had an old lithograph print (Victorian, I believe) of two or three figures in period costume and in the distance was a sunset which they particularly liked. They had asked if someone could reproduce a part of that sunset and so Ben commissioned me to paint it. The original artwork is either
with the band or the record company. As far as I know the band were very happy with it. At that time I was working from a studio I rented in Soho. Funnily enough Ben and I started sharing a studio shortly afterwards, and still do to this day. We're now in a studio in Borough Market, London Bridge, where we've been for about 20 or so years. In those days I was working as an illustrator and animation artist but for the last ten years I've been painting for myself. Since then I've been elected into the Royal Watercolour Society.” At the heart of ACR circa Sextet was a series of great contradictions. For example, the group in its approach was simultaneously loosening up and tightening up. As Phil Ault has said, part of the excitement in making the record was the group experimenting in the studio, having the courage to try out different ideas and see what happens, developing the confidence to swap instruments around between themselves. Mark E. Smith may have been urging The Fall not to start improvising, but at the heart of Sextet there is a sense of jamming. While this can have negative connotations, there is a wonderful tradition in jazz, Brazilian, Cuban music of the jam session, the descarga. And in the case of ACR this loose approach led to some very tight, very smart pop songs. It is in this sense that Sextet remains an incredibly ambitious record: the willingness to stretch themselves as a group. It is this focus, this concentration, which has been interpreted as a certain arrogance or aloofness when they were really just absorbed. ACR could seem like a very hermetically-sealed unit, but they were far more outward-looking than most of their contemporaries. They just happened to be looking in different directions than most of their immediate contemporaries. And yet ACR were not ambitious in the traditional marketing sense of the independent sector. At the time ACR chose not to speak with the music press. Paul Morley had written a lengthy cover feature on the group for the NME in September 1980 where he teased members of ACR about superficial similarities with Dexys Midnight Runners. After that the group chose not to get involved with all the palaver of promoting product. This was ironic because so many of the groups ACR may have shared bills with in the past were queuing up to court Smash Hits as if favourable coverage in that publication meant something significant. The irony is that most of the people behind Smash Hits have since been exposed as sneering, sarcastic enemies of progress. If it seems ACR circa Sextet were out of step with the new populism, then that is fair enough. They didn‟t go out of their way to come up with glossy product. But in many ways ACR were far more in tune with the times than has been acknowledged. They were not exactly acting in isolation. There were links to other records being released by labels like Ze, Fetish, 99, and Y. There was common ground shared with off-shoots of Talking Heads, Tom Tom Club‟s Wordy Rappinghood and the Byrne/Eno project My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. But most significantly ACR were creating a form of dance music directly related to many of the singles that were propelled into the national charts from the underground, the network of clubs that was playing funk, jazz, and
Latin sounds. This was the territory that ACR seemed to be most attracted to, and at home in. A quick glance at the UK singles charts from the early 1980s is particularly revealing. There is a significant number of hit records that crossed-over from the clubs, with a ground swell of support generated by DJs and dancers, which it is difficult to imagine being successful at any other time: Jazz Carnival by Azymuth, Tom Browne‟s Funkin’ For Jamaica, George Duke‟s Brazilian Love Affair, Bobby Thurston‟s Check Out The Groove, Rodney Franklin‟s The Groove, Teena Marie‟s Behind The Groove, Jingo by Candido, the Average White Band‟s Let’s Go Round Again, Patrice Rushen‟s Haven’t You Heard, Leon Haywood‟s Don’t Risk It, Don’t Force It, Stomp by the Brothers Johnson, You Gave Me Love by Crown Heights Affair, The Whispers‟ It’s A Love Thing, A Lover’s Holiday by Change, Funkytown by Lipps Inc., Mystic Merlin‟s Just Can’t Give You Love, Like What You’re Doing by Young & Co., Sharon Redd‟s Can You Handle It?, Stacy Lattishaw‟s Jump To The Beat, Gladys Knight‟s Bourgie Bourgie, Casanova by Coffee, Don’t Stop The Music by Yarborough & Peoples. And that intoxicating selection is the tip of an iceberg, the songs that became hits. Why would ACR want to tread water when these records were there acting as a direct challenge? That is what is at the heart of Sextet.
APPENDIX ONE There was another British jazz funk LP released in that period where ACR were preparing the way for Sextet that serves as a strangely distorted mirror image. And that is Southern Freeez by Freeez. It is likely that ACR may have been too much the arch modernists, too snobbish to listen to anything that was not on an import 12”. But there are too many similarities to dismiss the connections between Sextet and Southern Freeez. And in his book tracking the history of the UK jazz dance scene Mark „Snowboy‟ Cotgrove features a quote from Ann Quigley, singer with the Swamp Children/Kalima and part of the extended ACR circle, citing Southern Freeez as a big influence along with the whole Funkadelic thing. The background of Freeez may be very much rooted in the London jazz funk scene, but the group approached recording in a different way to their immediate contemporaries. “What separates them from the likes of Linx and Light of the World is that Freeez, like any other hip band such as Orange Juice and A Certain Ratio, have gained their success independently” wrote Paolo Hewitt in a February 1981 feature for Melody Maker. The Southern Freeez LP was recorded by the group on their own initiative, grabbing session bookings here and there in studios when money was available. Unlike a lot of the people playing fusion or jazz funk the members of Freeez were not seasoned professionals. The core of the group was pretty young, probably around the same age as ACR and Orange Juice. The group‟s leader John Rocca was at the time doing a day-job, driving vans for a company that imported and distributed soul and jazz funk sounds, and he sort of directed the group‟s activities from behind a set of congas. Freeez were different from ACR, say, in that they hadn‟t emerged from the punk milieu. They were soul boys through and through. But Freeez definitely, defiantly, showed a punk spirit in choosing to put out the Southern Freeez LP on Rocca‟s own Pink Rythm label, very quickly selling out of the initial pressing of 1,000 copies, partly thanks to Rocca‟s knowledge of the specialist shops in London and the South East. Here there are almost eerie similarities with Adrian Sherwood‟s experiences in the reggae world. Beggars Banquet won the chase to pick up the rights to the LP, and the single Southern Freeez crossed over to become a Top 10 hit in the UK in early 1981. The LP itself was largely instrumental with strong Brazilian and Latin influences, rather like Sextet, though the London outfit used far more keyboards. There is even a track on the Freeez LP called Sunset. The hit single Southern Freeez uncharacteristically featured vocals, from Ingrid Mansfield Allman, and while the lyrical theme is rather anti-ACR the song itself is the brighter, lighter antecedent of Knife Slits Water. John Rocca and Freeez made an interesting choice in signing with Beggars Banquet. It was far from being the most fashionable imprint around, but the label had demonstrated its effectiveness by having success with Gary Numan, The Lurkers and Bauhaus. Beggars‟ excursion into the jazz funk market was
momentarily so successful that the label put together a compilation of the best of British jazz funk called Slipstream, featuring among others Light of the World, Incognito, Shakatak, Central Line, Level 42, and acts from Groove Productions (the label run from the Groove Records shop in Soho), and Beggars Banquet acts Freeez and Morrissey Mullen. The cover was a distinctive Neville Brody design, making a perfect connection to the Fetish label and to The Face. A second volume followed promptly.
The Slipstream collection also featured the Multivizion collective with its one-off single Work To Live, Don’t Live To Work which was released on the Beggars Banquet subsidiary Situation Two in 1981, which was briefly an intriguing imprint, with The Associates‟ series of singles, Drowning Craze‟s Storage Case, London Underground‟s Train of Thought, and New-Asia‟s Central Proposition. Multivizion were a multi-national white rap trio, with a message that was Wham Rap! a year too soon. What was interesting about the single was that most of Freeez provided the music, and one of the two versions on the single was produced by Peter Maas who provided the distinctive slap bass funk sound for Freeez. One intriguing post script to the Freeez/Factory story is that when New Order went to the States to work with Arthur Baker on Confusion in February 1983 they found themselves having to hang around for a couple of weeks while Baker completed work on an LP with Freeez who had been exploring the new electro direction that gave the world I.O.U., Pop Goes My Love, and the Gonna Get You LP. Baker was much in-demand at the time after his success with the Rockers Revenge (pretty straight) cover of Eddy Grant‟s Walking on Sunshine.
“Listening to the album with fresh ears in 2012, I‟m struck by how much Martha‟s vocals offset what else is happening. I was aware of it then, but there was a great balance which perhaps the next album lacked, despite it being important in developing uncharted areas yet again. Simon‟s brooding contributions only serve to highlight Martha‟s delivery, and if you add Donald‟s enthusiasm to the whole process, it‟s hardly surprising Sextet sounds as fresh and captivating as it did back then.” – Phil Ault, engineer on Sextet James Nice‟s incredibly thorough book Shadowplayers about The Rise and Fall of Factory Records contains the best account of how ACR met Martha Tilson and the fresh stimulus she brought to the group. Tony Wilson told a different story. One of his party turns was to tell about how in 1981/1982 he was managing two groups, and his entire life was spent trying to get Vini Reilly of the Durutti Column to stop singing and to get Simon Topping to start singing again. Wilson‟s punchline was that he failed miserably on both counts. In the Shadowplayers DVD James Nice produced about Factory‟s early years Wilson sits on his couch, taking a comically contrary, typically tough line about ACR: “Simon retreated behind his trumpet, behind the bongos, and suddenly this nice but irrelevant bloody American girl, who was Jez‟s girlfriend, becomes the lead singer of this phenomenal group. How do these things happen?” Wilson‟s wrong, of course, and probably would be the first to admit it with a twinkle in his eye. Martha‟s singing, or Tili‟s contributions to ACR, completely transformed the group for a short while. On a practical level she was part of the fresh impetus ACR needed. But it went far beyond that as her very presence completely changed the dynamics of the group. The presence of an American singer in what was considered a quintessentially Manchester outfit was an important
departure from the norm, a perfect symbol of ACR straining at the leash, wanting to reach out beyond what was comfortable. Tili wasn‟t an experienced vocalist. But she caught the mood just right. And as ever with ACR any imperfections worked in the group‟s favour. As a singer she could sound detached, disengaged, distant, distracted, deadpan, disembodied. There was nothing unique in this. The Chic Organisation had turned that style of singing into an art form. It‟s there too on Southern Freeez. There was something in the naturalness of Tili‟s singing that suggests both the fascinating flatness that was the hallmark of UK lovers rock and the performance art trait of NYC contrariness. There are plenty of wonderful moments on Sextet to highlight the significance of Tili‟s involvement. But Knife Slits Water is the pivotal track on the LP, and the one where Tili really comes into her own. James Nice‟s Shadowplayers book would be important even if it only featured the few quotes from Tili about her time with ACR and Knife Slits Water itself. It is one of those rare occasions where a writer and singer explains something of what‟s behind a song without destroying the mystique. According to Tili the song is “about sex, plain and simple, but also desire and sexual politics”. The song in its Sextet form remains unsettlingly sensual, with its dub disco context and muggy atmospherics driven by Donald‟s precision piston drumming echoing ominously. In Shadowplayers Tili confirms the title‟s connection to Roman Polanski‟s early film noir Knife in the Water, which is something of a relief for those keen to avoid unnecessary use of Factory critical clichés. For those ACR fans, convinced that Sextet is the group‟s masterpiece, that have remained fiercely protective of Tili‟s role, it was particularly exciting to discover that on volume #107 of Chuck Warner's invaluable Messthetics series, which covers the DIY activity in London between '78 and '81, and in particular focuses on Dave Henderson and the Dining Out story, Martha Tilson features as vocalist of the group Occult Chemistry who put out an EP through the label in 1980 in conjunction with Zip Records. The complete EP can be heard on the website of writer Glenn Carmichael who was a member of the group and its predecessor the Twilight Zoners. Glenn remembers: “During the post punk DIY period we were squatting in Whitechapel. We were in Adelina Grove, I think Tilli was staying in a sister squat, Fieldgate Mansions. I can't exactly remember how we first met, but in 1979 I put out the first Twilight Zoners EP. Tilli sang some backing vocals. I'd come into a bit of money when my gran died (£1,000) and Tilli had the lyrics for the concept and lyrics for the Occult Chemistry record. Tom Dixon (bassist) went on to join Funkapolitan and then to have a career as a furniture designer. Justin (drummer) went on to join another band (whose name I've forgotten) and then was DJing. Is Justin Langlands the same man as in Pressure Drop? Yes I think so, but we never stayed in touch.”
Tili has told a similar story, via a comment on the Bimble’s Windy Weather site: “I was living in Whitechapel, London then and showed my friend Glenn (aka Gordon Calm) a series of poems I'd written. His grandmother had just died so he had a little money for a proper 4-hour studio recording session. Friends got together and we whipped up the songs in a few days. Later, Gordon's friend Selima added the flute & Justin Thyme the piano (he's the drummer who also did woodcut for the cover, I think). We never played live.” Glenn adds: “Shortly after the OC EP Tilli went to America. We didn't stay in contact for long. She put out a copy of the OC EP as a transparent flexi disc in a USA mag called Bikini Girl. The next time I met Tilli was, I think, 1981 when the band I was in, The White Brothers, supported ACR at a club in Leeds. It was a surprise for me to see Tilli as part of ACR. She'd gone to New York - then moved to Manchester. We were probably both being a bit cool. I remember ACR weren't particularly friendly. The White Bros were dressed in black leather with shades, ACR were much more informal style.” The Occult Chemistry EP is a classic example of the DIY/post-punk sound, and has worn remarkably well. Each track is named after an element: Water, Earth, Fire, Air. Musically there is common ground with contemporaries such as The Raincoats, Essential Logic, prag Vec. There was also a video made of one of the tracks, Fire, after Tilli had left for New York. This was put together in the basement of the London College of Printing, the same location and the same team as for the video for The Mo-Dettes‟ White Mice. It is easy enough to imagine the Martha Tilson-era ACR listening intently to the „70s era Miles Davis. It is also tempting to speculate about how far the group ventured into the world of fusion: Weather Report, Chick Corea and Return to Forever, Herbie Hancock and the Headhunters, Lonnie Liston Smith, Stanley Clarke, Airto Moreira, Flora Purim, and so on. How much of this music would
they have heard at the time? The Flora Purim question is particularly intriguing. Many ACR fans whose tastes will have diversified over the years, and who will have explored certain areas of music because of seeds sown by Sextet, must have wondered when they heard Flora Purim‟s recordings from the 1970s whether her singing was a factor in shaping the group‟s sound. There is no suggestion that Tili was standing at the microphone trying to be Flora Purim, but in the tone and the way the voice was used to add colour and shade, almost as an additional instrument, there are specific similarities. Having escaped from Brazil in the late „60s, moving to New York with her husband the great percussionist Airto Moreira, Flora would feature on an impressive series of electric jazz and fusion recordings: some of Airto‟s LPs, the earliest Return to Forever records, Hermeto Pascoal‟s Slaves Mass, Alphonso Johnson‟s Moonshadows, Opa‟s Goldenwings, and so on. Then there are Flora‟s own records from that same era, often with a considerable overlap of personnel. Tracks from these LPs became perennial favourites among DJs and dancers on the jazz dance scene: Moon Dreams and Dr Jive from Butterfly Dreams, Vera Cruz and Casa Forte from Stories To Tell, for example. It seems reasonable to assume ACR would have had some sort of awareness of her singing. Sadly they did not have the opportunity to explore further the possibilities of working with Martha. Restless again, shortly after the release of Sextet she had moved on again, as an ACR timeline claimed, “to further her studies of the occult in the low countries”.
APPENDIX THREE “A Certain Ratio are a crazed Mancunian unit who spent their wild youth doing some heady, posey nightclubbing at Manchester‟s more decadent clubs. The members gathered together to make music almost out of spite.” Paul Morley, NME, 6 September 1980
There is, to borrow Jeff Chang‟s phrase, a „dub history‟ of Manchester‟s music where the names Curtis and Wilson loom large. As with recordings, dub versions are often the most thrilling. So, reading about the incredibly important parts played by DJs Colin Curtis and Greg Wilson in the story of Manchester‟s nightlife is revealing. Fragments appear here and there. Greg Wilson‟s Electrofunkroots site hosts some valuable interviews. The same applies to Bill Brewster‟s DJHistory site. The Manchester District Music Archive has been doing some valuable work collecting information. And Mark „Snowboy‟ Cotgrove‟s book on the UK jazz dance scene is particularly good at placing Curtis and Wilson within a national rather than purely regional context. In the book Ann Quigley refers to Colin Curtis having “a God-like aura about him. People were in awe of his name.” Simon Topping when referring to ACR‟s cover of Shack Up has dated his 7” copy of the Banbarra original to the late „70s when he attended all-dayers at
the Blackpool Mecca. Colin Curtis was one of the main DJs at these very popular events, playing jazz fusion and soul. In the late „70s Colin also had a residency at Rafters in Manchester where in his own words he got away with playing some very serious jazz funk sounds. In mid-1981 Colin started a night dedicated to jazz at Rufus in Manchester. It was a low-key, midweek event. Hewan Clarke was another DJ that played there. He has described how regularly a small group would turn up, huddled up in the corner, seriously absorbing the music, and that this would be members of the ACR/Swamp Children collective. The music they heard at the Rufus jazz night was an important part of their musical education. The same was true of the dance crew The Jazz Defektors. As things developed ACR would invite Hewan to DJ at some of their live shows, and The Jazz Defektors would put on a performance, demonstrating a resolve to move away from the predictability of the „gig‟ format. The ACR association was also behind their manager Wilson inviting Hewan Clarke to be the first DJ at The Haçienda when it opened in 1982 where he faced an uphill struggle to create the right atmosphere in an environment that had been created a little back-to-front. Later Colin Curtis had a night at Berlin, which Hewan Clarke also played at. The emphasis seems to have been on soul, jazz and Latin sounds. Again, for the jazz dance crews and for the ACR/Swamp Children circle this was a very important night. Ann Quigley is quoted in Snowboy‟s book as saying: “Berlin was amazing. Colin was given free reign and could probably take more chances there than perhaps some other places that he‟d played at. It was sophisticated and inspiring. The music he played was quality, vintage wine, and it‟s as simple as that.” Gilles Peterson used to come up from London to take notes. Aniff Akimbola of Chapter and the Verse was another regular there, and would later immortalise Colin Curtis and Hewan Clarke in the intro to the group‟s jazz dance classic Black Whip. Greg Wilson may be mainly associated with being the North West‟s leading champion of electro sounds. His residency at Legend is part of Manchester folklore. But before electro 12”s took off Greg had a reputation in the early „80s for playing a lot of jazz funk or fusion sounds. He has documented playlists and created mixes of the sort of music he would play at that time, and it is striking how often pretty obscure and uncompromising album tracks would be played. It is also noticeable how unfamiliar a lot of the selections remain. It is easy to understand how much of a revelation this music will have been for young kids who were on the dole without many other opportunities to hear these sounds.
“Jazz is the teacher, funk is the preacher” declared James Blood Ulmer in a message widely broadcast in 1981 when the song was included on the NME/Rough Trade cassette C81. ACR did not need to be convinced. They were doing their best to spread the word. So were kindred spirits Swamp Children led by siblings Ann and Tony Quigley. They were part of the ACR extended circle in Hulme. Swamp Children and ACR shared a rehearsal space. ACR‟s Martin Moscrop played drums in Swamp Children. They were listening to the same music. They went to the same clubs. They played on the same bills. Ann did some artwork for ACR. Simon Topping did some production work for Swamp Children. Factory never really got Swamp Children. Factory never really got behind Swamp Children. But Factory stayed incredibly loyal to Swamp Children and beyond. “Sade two years too early, progressive Latin American jazz from a Hulme squat” wrote Tony Wilson in 24 Hour Party People. Tony had a line about jazz. It‟s been widely repeated. Tony had another line he repeated very often about doing things and then later understanding why you did things. Maybe the fact that Factory pretty much ignored Swamp Children and Kalima (the group they became) has been a major factor in their recordings subsequently becoming massive cult favourites. It was all 'planned. The first Swamp Children release was a 12” released in the autumn of 1981 featuring the expansive Little Voices plus the tracks Call Me Honey and Boy. The Quigleys would be the first to admit the group were not overly proficient, and there was a punk arrogance and impatience in wanting to tackle sounds and ideas clearly influenced by Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, Airto and Flora without having served years working away learning the ropes and right notes. But that very attitude is a massive factor in what makes that debut 12” such a
classic. It is also noticeable how other influences are at work. The impact of the Slits can still be detected strongly, but not in the squall of the Peel sessions sense. It is the influence of Return of the Giant Slits, instead, that can be felt on Little Voices where Ari, Viv and Tessa were becoming more focused but looser, more structured but ever more experimental and open to more influences and ideas. Subsequent Swamp Children recordings were much more directly influenced by jazz and Brazilian sounds. Where they differed from, say, Weekend who were working in similar ways was that Swamp Children seemed intent to do it alone whereas Simon Booth‟s strategy was to bring in experienced jazz musicians to augment the sound. Both approaches have their merits. And while the few Swamp Children recordings have their flaws they did find favour among serious jazz fans. Greg Wilson still includes the album track Samba Zippy on playlists. And it is ironic that the dedicated jazz dancers immediately took to what Swamp Children/Kalima were doing while to this day the established music critics mutter about „faux‟ jazz while railing elsewhere against notions of authenticity. In 1983 Swamp Children evolved into Kalima, and if anything strengthened connections with the ACR camp. But the group was very much the Quigleys‟ project. Their 1984 single with The Jazz Defektors on backing vocals, one of the finest Factory moments, was a cover of The Smiling Hour, a song Sarah Vaughan had sung on the second LP in her excellent Brazilian trilogy only a handful of years before. Sarah‟s version itself is a cover or reinvention of Ivan Lins‟ Abre Alas from his 1974 Modo Livre LP. There is something fascinating about the way Swamp Children and then Kalima developed. Ann in particular found her own voice and identity. This is preserved for posterity in the video made to accompany The Smiling Hour single. The Kalima approach seems to have been atypical of what else was happening in Manchester, and more in keeping with what was going on elsewhere around the country, and they showed stubborn independence putting on events of their own at venues like The Tropicana on Oxford Road, where they would get up DJs like Paul Murphy, a legendary figure on the jazz dance scene in London and the South East, as well as local figures like Colin Curtis and Dean Johnson. Dean is quoted in Snowboy‟s book describing how later at The Haçienda he would play boogaloo at the start of his sets and later some harder, faster Latin sounds. Things changed though: “They fired me because I wouldn‟t play House music all night. Playing a mixture of music was no longer acceptable there.”
There is an argument that Sextet marks a moment when music was at its most open to different influences and ideas. Soon interests would become more focused, ideas more concentrated, and this would last for some years. That is a massive generalisation, of course, but with Sextet at least it could be argued the pull of both T.S. Monk and Throbbing Gristle are felt, which is a good thing. The policy was integration rather than obliteration. And ACR‟s links with TG were very real. Peter Christopherson did the sleeve for To Each ... for better or worse. The trademark ACR trumpet sound echoed Cosey and Chris‟ use of cornets. And in December 1980 ACR played at a TG psychic rally in Heaven, which was billed as “beyond jazz funk”. TG had released their 20 Jazz Funk Greats, and while this hardly messed up the minds of suburban kids with Maze car stickers it must have caused some confusion among Industrial camp followers. For all the talk of irony and shock tactics there was no doubt TG could produce very functional music of astonishing depth and beauty. It‟s easy to think of Edwyn Collins at the start of the „80s insisting people had got the Velvet Underground all wrong, and that they weren‟t this horrible dark, depressing group. Many people will have first heard Throbbing Gristle via the subversively sweet pop song United on the Zigzag/Business Unusual small labels compilation, along with Thomas Leer, Robert Rental, UK Subs and Outcasts. It seems perfectly reasonable to envisage the ACR camp listening to TG‟s Heathen Earth and then going out dancing to Herbie Hancock. It‟s not an either/or situation. And it wasn‟t all one-way traffic. Pigbag‟s Papa’s Got A Brand New Pigbag debut 12” took off with support from the funk DJs and dancers. The same with Was (Not Was) and Tom Tom Club. Hewan Clarke has mentioned that he would play tracks from PiL‟s Metal Box when DJing in clubs. At the time Swamp Children might share a bill with Prince Far I. And ESG would play at the opening night of The Haçienda and the closing night of the Paradise Garage.
There is the enduring image of PiL promoting tracks from Metal Box on TV in the States and Lydon shepherding members of the audience up on to the stage, swamping the group, and people really getting into dancing to the music. Jah Wobble has always insisted that American audiences „got‟ Metal Box far more than British ones. He attributes this to there being a wider musical vocabulary in the US. It is something he touches on in his autobiography. His own musical vocabulary was shaped by his pre-punk thrills, dressing up and going out dancing to funk and soul at Crackers, the 100 Club, the Lacy Lady, getting attracted to the reggae played at impromptu blues dances, going to see Hawkwind, Dr Feelgood, Bob Marley & the Wailers. There are some similarities here with ACR‟s background in youth club funk and northern soul. Like ACR, Wobble later had his head turned by hearing the electric-period Miles while he was in PiL, sending him scurrying off to explore related sounds. There is common-ground too between the Sextet-era ACR and the music Jah Wobble made immediately after leaving PiL, particularly the collaboration with Holger Czukay and Jaki Liebezeit of Can on the How Much Are They? EP. Wobble credits engineer Mark Lusardi with being the unsung hero on that recording by giving it a tough disco sound and adding some nice dub touches. Wobble and Lusardi worked together again on the Fading/Nocturnal 12” shortly afterwards where J.W. reveals surprisingly Simon Topping-style vocals. Mark Lusardi is such an important behind-the-scenes figure at the start of the „80s, through his work with PiL, Subway Sect, Dennis Bovell, many dub and reggae recordings, very early Killing Joke, and his involvement with the recording of T.W. Funkmasters‟ Love Money, a British track which proved to be so influential on the New York underground disco scene. ACR never gave much away but they have conceded that The Pop Group were a big influence on their development, and it is easy to understand why. The Pop Group were a galvanising force through their very glamorous and precocious presence in the late 1970s. By the time of the Sextet-era ACR The Pop Group had splintered and been absorbed into different activities. The splinter groups were just as fascinating: Rip Rig & Panic, Pigbag and Maximum Joy. There were so many influences at work within these groups: be-bop, funk, African rhythms, samba, salsa, reggae and dub, Beefheart, etc. Yet out of the chaos came some remarkable pop music from each of the groups. And perhaps with the benefit of hindsight it is the underdogs Maximum Joy with whom ACR had most in common. Knowing the ACR outlook it is likely they will have identified with John Waddington and Dan Catsis as the quiet, nonflamboyant, undemonstrative dynamos powering The Pop Group. So the lowkey Maximum Joy approach made more sense, but even they at times lacked the ACR control and gave in to urges to honk and squawk which the Manchester group would have considered far too obvious and terribly vulgar. Among the producers Maximum Joy worked with was Adrian Sherwood. There was quite a bit of give-and-take between Sherwood‟s On-U Sound activities and the extended Pop Group circle. Various Pop Group personnel
played on On-U sessions. And Adrian would work extensively with the group‟s former singer Mark Stewart. It‟s fair to say that ACR had more in common with the activities of Sherwood & co. than with most of their MCR peers. It makes perfect sense playing Sextet along the early On-U releases. ACR and On-U Sound were part of the same jigsaw puzzle. Was there any interaction between On-U and Factory? Probably, but the Manchester label was not one of the companies that On-U Sound leased its recordings to in the early „80s. 99 was. So were Cherry Red, Situation Two, Statik and R.O.I.R. If ACR were single-minded and stubborn then the same must apply to what Adrian Sherwood was doing in the early „80s. His vision of putting together a number of loose collectives of singers and players creating a futuristic music was brilliantly realised, though at the time he was aware that what he was doing was way ahead of what other people were producing and distinctly removed from other well-defined areas of musical activity. The roll-call of Sherwood‟s early On-U Sound productions speaks for itself: Creation Rebel, African Head Charge, New Age Steppers, London Underground, Singers & Players, Dub Syndicate, Playgroup, and the remarkable Pal Judy LP for Judy Nylon. Like Sextet, these recordings benefit now from having been created in an environment several steps removed from populist pressures.
“Now, jump a few years past punk and we were all living in Hulme. Anyone that was an artist or musician seemed to live there.” – Ann Quigley, quoted in Mark „Snowboy‟ Cotgrove‟s history of the UK jazz dance scene. “We leave the grubby Hulme human hutch where some members of A Certain Ratio live. The view from this particular section of hutches is not completely derelict, but neither is it splendid.” – Paul Morley, NME, 6 September 1980
There are many conundrums at the heart of the Factory Records story. One is Tony Wilson, a man with an English degree from Jesus College, Cambridge, not acting as a magnet to aspiring novelists, poets, playwrights, scriptwriters. The label gave catalogue numbers to all sorts of activity, people and events, but books do not really feature. Similarly, if Hulme‟s crescents in the 1980s were a godsend, a place to gravitate to for creative types on the dole or on the Enterprise Allowance Scheme, then what happened to the writers? Where are the contemporaneous accounts of bohemian life on the edge? Where is the great Manchester novel or play of that time? London had its equivalent locations, to the south and the east of the centre, and it had its document of the time in Geoff Dyer‟s The Colour of Memory. It is easy enough to transplant its central characters and themes to Hulme, and to bring in members of the ACR and Swamp Children/Kalima collectives. But the fact remains Dyer wrote about life in Brixton in the 1980s, drawing on his own experiences. And while he would go on to become a respected author he has not produced anything as vividly romantic as this “album of snaps” that captures a particular moment, a specific way of life. At the heart of The Colour of Memory is a lifestyle that almost seems impossible now. Its key characters live in cheap housing; draw dole money; sit around talking, drinking, smoking dope; never seem to get anything done or anywhere with their plans; view the world with detached bemusement; listen to music and read a lot; almost assume mugging and break-ins are inevitable; get by somehow. In a particularly important passage one of the book‟s protagonists Steranko declaims a manifesto of sorts, with a sparkle of selfmocking irony in his eye: “Listen I‟ll tell you how I‟m involved in politics: I never eat at McDonald‟s, I never play electronic games, I‟ve not seen five minutes of soap opera on television. I try not to listen to pop music, I never listen to Radio 1; I don‟t read the review pages of the Sunday papers. I don‟t buy any South African goods, I don‟t own a car and generally I don‟t spend any money on the kind of crap shops are full of. I‟ve no interest in getting a proper job and I don‟t care if I never own my own house – when people talk about house prices I don‟t listen. I don‟t know any bankers or any people who work in advertising – I‟ve only ever been to the City once. If someone is reading a tabloid newspaper I try to make sure I don‟t see it. Ok?” Dyer studied English up at Oxford, but even then his ambition was to sign on the dole and use his free time productively. Of course he was organised enough to write, and smart enough to record scenes of people sitting on roof tops in South London sunshine, reading Calvino, listening to Coltrane, and saying nothing much, just as in Hulme A Certain Ratio were motivated enough to rehearse diligently, striving to master new rhythms, new instruments. Later when asked about his dole-dreaming days in Brixton Dyer has said: “Bear in mind it was the 1980s, so the welfare state was still intact, and there was this quite welcoming dole scene culture which supported a whole generation of would-be artists, musicians and dancers. So rather than the rather pointless
specialism of the PhD, I'm glad that I went on this route of reading widely and being interested in lots of different things.”
APPENDIX SEVEN Every once in a while the triumph of Sextet has been discovered all over anew. Rev-ola reissued the LP in 1994, making it available on CD for the first time, along with the other classic ACR titles. Rev-ola at the time was a subsidiary of Creation Records which specialised in reissues and lost recordings. Joe Foster ran it, and had already overseen the release of compilations from Fire Engines, Dr Mix & the Remix, Shaggs, Fred Neil, Hurrah! and several out-of-print Jonathan Richman LPs. The parent label also put out an ACR remix project, Looking For A Certain Ratio ... It made sense for Rev-ola to reissue the ACR titles. People involved with or who supported the Creation label early on had been big ACR fans. Bobby Gillespie, notably, had been a member of Factory cult favourites The Wake. And when he first heard The Jesus and Mary Chain his initial response had been to think of ACR‟s Thin Boys. The Reid brothers were not familiar with the song, though. At the time of the Rev-ola ACR reissues the post-punk period was pretty much ignored. Naturally there were exceptions. Mute‟s Grey Area had been active. Pere Ubu CDs were in circulation. There was a Young Marble Giants CD compilation on Crepescule. Rough Trade had reissued titles by The Raincoats. There was an ESG collection on the Pow Wow label. A Bush Tetras compilation appeared on R.O.I.R. in 1995. Another one appeared on Henry Rollins‟ Infinite Zero label which had also been reissuing titles from Devo, Gang of Four, Contortions, James White & the Blacks. A Man Called Adam‟s Other label made Garçons‟ Divorce LP available again with a variety of remixes added in 1997. Mo‟ Wax put out a Liquid Liquid compilation around the same time. Overground collected up some old Subway Sect and ATV recordings.
But, in general, it would another four or five years before the postpunk era was back in the spotlight. The Rev-ola reissues were out a long time before the Manchester Heritage Industry Inc. got going. And yet, the mid-„90s were a good time for ACR‟s recordings to be back in circulation: some of the people from the drum „n‟ bass scene were beginning to take the same journeys of discovery as ACR had 15-years earlier. In particular, jazz and fusion influences would become felt very strongly in the music. The same could be said for other areas of activity like the Mo‟ Wax and Cup of Tea labels and groups in the States such as Tortoise and The Sea and Cake. There was a general opening up to diverse influences, which may not have been reflected in the mainstream/charts. Some of this opening up was to do with the growth of labels putting out lost sounds from the past, with some panache and purpose. Manchester at the time may have been rubbish at understanding its own past but it was host to the remarkable Blood & Fire organisation which specialised in reissues of roots reggae, DJ and dub recordings. The label‟s way of working was to salvage classic Jamaican recordings, and reissue them with superb sound quality and beautiful packaging. The design identity came courtesy of the Intro agency, and in particular Mat Cook, though the credits also refer to Julian House who would later be very much a part of the Ghost Box set-up. The other label that set the pace in terms of stylish reissues was Soul Jazz, which seemed to emerge from the London jazz dance scene. For the best part of 20 years now Soul Jazz/Universal Sound have been releasing exquisite editions of music that defies the tendency towards specialisation. It has thrived when many other imprints have folded or fizzled out. It has benefited from having a very strong brand identity, which is trusted and admired. And one of the factors that have contributed to the longevity of Soul Jazz is the continuity at the heart of the organisation: the research and organisation by Angela Scott, the design by Adrian Self, the presence of Pete Reilly, and the label‟s founder Stuart Baker. How much is known about Stuart Baker? He seems a remarkable figure, but has a refreshingly low public profile. Unlike, say, Tony Wilson who was very good at the grand sweeping gesture, in love with ideas, Stuart Baker seems very much the fan, obsessed with detail, genuinely interested in and knowledgeable about all these different areas of music, often contributing detailed liner notes. That‟s a good thing. Stuart Baker has acknowledged that Factory Records was his main influence as a teenager. And it can be argued that pretty much the entire sphere of Soul Jazz/Universal Sound activity can be linked back to Sextet. Take just
about any release on the label and a thread can be traced back to Sextet. That is really saying something, as Soul Jazz has covered such a lot of ground, both in the old and the new recordings. Some of the early collections were a revelation, past the excellent London Jazz Classics series on to compilations of Strata-East and Black Jazz, the Latin music in New York Nu Yorica! collections, the Batucada Capoeira set, and so on through the Studio One selections, on to recent titles featuring The Lijadu Sisters and UK lovers rock which are equally as appealing and exciting. Sextet, though, opened a door onto this world of music or rather universe of sound. So, it is only appropriate that Soul Jazz/Universal Sound got to reissue Sextet in 2004, with a couple of bonus tracks and some slightly more prominent lettering on the cover, curiously enough. It was a companion volume to reissues of The Graveyard and The Ballroom and To Each ... Soul Jazz had a couple of years before released an ACR compilation with the excellent title of Early, based on the succinct and spot-on description of the group by the often particularly astute commentator Peter York. This, in turn, followed a very important and timely 2001 Soul Jazz overview of post-punk activity which featured ACR‟s Shack Up and Knife Slits Water, alongside tracks by 23 Skidoo, This Heat, Throbbing Gristle, Slits, The Pop Group, Cabaret Voltaire, Gang of Four and Human League. Subsequently Soul Jazz has steered clear of the rather too obvious post-punk product, and has put together valuable collections of ESG, Konk, Arthur Russell, and New York No Wave. But just as importantly, and equally as close to ACR activity, Soul Jazz also released in 1993 British Hustle: The Sound of British Jazz Funk from 1974 to 1982, featuring wonderful selections such as Southern Freeez, Saoco by Gonzalez, FBI‟s Talking About Love, and Dancing in Outer Space by Atmosfear. These tracks come from a golden age when unusually British-made music was warmly welcomed on even the most discerning dance floors. The notoriously haughty British position was usually one of disdain for homegrown offerings: if it‟s not available on import it can‟t be any good.
APPENDIX EIGHT “A man who can remember the importance of ACR‟s Simon Topping‟s haircut”. – Paul Morley on Edwyn Collins, Uncut, May 2002 It almost seems irrelevant that Sextet is so remarkable, one of those rare occasions in popular music where all the elements fuse together perfectly. What really matters is that the group looked so brilliant that almost anything could be excused. ACR were at the time the most strikingly visual of groups, and as Tili has said: “We were awfully cute”. Publications of the time feature few ACR photos because of the group‟s decision not to speak to the press. The group did not seem to appear on TV nationally either. And yet the early ACR are preserved on film more than most groups of the time. This may have had something to do with Tony Wilson‟s day job, and a tendency to think in terms of capturing moments and images on film. Factory made promo films early on even if it was unlikely they would be seen at the time.
And yet perhaps the definitive Sextet-era ACR clip comes in the film Rough Cut and Ready Dubbed. This was put together between 1978 and 1981 by Hasan Shah, Dom Shaw and friends as a largely self-funded DIY project capturing aspects of the UK music scene of the time. It is a pretty unique film in that it genuinely captures a particular era. Tony Wilson is featured spinning some of his favourite lines, about a sense of place in music, Manchester as an extremely vibrant creative culture, and so on. But the appearance of A Certain Ratio says so much more. The group was captured playing Skipscada in their rehearsal space, in August 1981, shortly after Sextet was recorded, and a second John Peel session aired. The Brazilian samba-style percussion driven rhythms of the song are irresistible, and stripped of vocal exhortations the sound is more mysterious. The group itself in this environment is compelling, especially when the footage is cut up with images from a car driving round the surrounding environment and there incongruously is this group of urchins making glorious tropical dance music in a warehouse space.
Factory‟s own film activities mean there are invaluable promo videos of ACR for early recordings like Shack Up, Crippled Child and Forced Laugh. It‟s with the video recorded in 1981 for Back To The Start that things get really interesting, though. The song is one of the highlights of To Each ... and features Tili on vocals. In many ways it is the direct precursor to Knife Slits Water. The video is erotic and funny. Kids are dancing round a swimming pool; a ghetto blaster plays; handclaps are accentuated; Tili undresses, fag in mouth, androgynous; Simon lounges provocatively; the group dances in the woods at night with just a spotlight. Earlier, back in the autumn of 1980, when ACR had gone to New York to record, Factory‟s man in the US Michael Shamberg made a short film based around the group rehearsing/jamming in the loft space in which they were staying, interspersed with footage of the group playing live at Hurrahs. The short is called Tribeca, named after the area on the Lower West Side where the group was staying: Triangle Below Canal. The deserted commercial space which would be reclaimed as loft living space must have struck a strange chord with the Manchester group. The final track on Sextet, a denuded Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough, was called Below The Canal. This was also to be the title of a full-length ACR film collection that was given the catalogue number FACT38 but which was never completed. The Tribeca footage did appear with the Soul Jazz collection Early and is posted on Michael Shamberg‟s website in full.
A Certain Ratio looked amazing as a group circa Sextet. Most bands at the time looked so awful. There were other exceptions. Orange Juice and the Fire Engines looked great, like small cliques, just as Subway Sect had early on. Dexys Midnight Runners looked brilliant, like a team, whose members had been carefully recruited. But A Certain Ratio seemed like a gang, just as The Pop Group did in 1978 when they first emerged and seemed so fascinating. A Certain Ratio, in particular, were like a secret organisation, a resistance cell
with its own codes. Because information about the group at the time was extremely limited they seemed all the more enchanting and glamorous. There were very specific ACR looks that have stuck in the mind. One is the demob utility look: baggy suits, voluminous overcoats, grey jumpers, austere shirts, sensible Oxford shoes. Then there was the functional military look, which Simon has claimed was influenced by seeing Funkadelic playing live, presumably on the Uncle Jam tour, though the ACR approach made them look at times more like desert rats in WW2. Throbbing Gristle also had something of a paramilitary look going on at the time, as did The Pop Group. Echo and the Bunnymen jogged along behind the pack in that postApocalypse Now age. Gradually the ACR look evolved into more of a casual image, conservative short-sleeved shirts with variations of singlets and shorts at times, which could suggest at different times a strict evangelical sect‟s dresscode, Continental-branded street fashion/sportswear or Chariots of Fire-style endeavour. Curiously there was another occasion when a screen adaptation seemed to suggest ACR. The Granada Television production of Evelyn Waugh‟s Brideshead Revisited which was broadcast in late 1981 had as its lead characters Anthony Andrews as Sebastian Flyte and Jeremy Irons as Charles Ryder. Watching the serial from certain angles it was difficult not to see a bizarre distortion of ACR on screen, with Simon Topping as Sebastian and Jeremy Kerr as Charles. It was something to do with the haircuts, but not just that. And if this seems absurd then it is worth noting that the serial‟s director Charles Sturridge had shared a flat with Alan Erasmus at 86 Palatine Road where Factory had its office. With Sturridge and Wilson both working at Granada it seems likely that at some stage Tony will have been holding forth about his protégés and their remarkable look. Sturridge later directed a video for New Order‟s Confusion single. It is hardly credible to compare the gentry‟s privileged life in the enchanted Arcadia of Oxford and Brideshead with ACR‟s impoverished existence in damp, decaying Hulme hutches. And yet Geoff Dyer has said: “In a way, it seems to me that what I was trying to re-create in The Colour of Memory was some kind of Brideshead thing, the romance of the leisure class in the council blocks in Brixton, but with a similar kind of idyllic/elegiac quality, too”. There are aspects, too, of ACR‟s life that seem impossibly romantic, a youth very much “unique and quintessential”, its central characters as detached from the daily grind as Sebastian and Charles, and in their way ACR appear as fastidious, exotic and elegant as any interbellum dandy. Treatises could, for example, be written in great detail about the ACR short-back-and-sides and its variations in the same way attention has been focused endlessly on the social circles that inspired Waugh‟s book. Notions of Arcadia and references to Brideshead are sprinkled generously throughout Michael Bracewell‟s riveting romp throug pop‟s highways and byways, England is Mine. He doesn‟t mention ACR though he will have been aware of the group. Also, Philip Hoare is quoted enthusiastically endorsing
Paula Byrne‟s Mad World, the story of Evelyn Waugh and the secrets of Brideshead. Hoare is an excellent cultural historian, and has explicitly made the connection between Charles Sturridge, Factory and Brideshead, although without mentioning ACR. Michael Bracewell has written about Philip that: “On the one hand, Hoare is a supreme anatomist of glamour, with an encylopaedic knowledge of society intrigue from Wilde to Warhol, by way of Noël Coward. On the other, he is an ascetic and a devout Roman Catholic, with an often dark view of history.” Before he was Philip Hoare the writer he was Patrick Moore who ran Operation Twilight for a brief time in the early „80s. This was an elegant UK extension of Les Disques du Crépuscule, and its important releases included Paul Haig‟s Running Away, Antena‟s The Boy From Ipanema, and 23 Skidoo‟s The Culling is Coming LP. Among the items given catalogue numbers but which never came to fruition were a book of Howard Devoto lyrics and a Virginia Astley LP that was the blueprint for the From Gardens Where We Feel Secure record which Michael Bracewell wrote about so vividly in England is Mine.
The most significant Operation Twilight release was the debut single by the Pale Fountains, (There's) Always Something On My Mind/Just A Girl, which appeared in July 1982. Patrick Moore around that time also took over as manager of the group, succeeding Nathan McGough who would later look after Kalima and other Factory personnel. Moore/Hoare tells the story of his involvement with Operation Twilight/Pale Fountains in the booklet accompanying the Longshot For Your Love Marina collection of Pale Fountains rarities, radio sessions and unreleased recordings. Patrick is pictured in 1982 sporting the de rigeur ACR short-back-and-sides and wearing a Fair Isle pullover, stood in front of a framed poster for a Pale Fountains performance at The Haçienda on 9 September 1982. There were certain inescapable similarities between ACR and the Pale Fountains. There were the haircuts, the total look. There was an implicit interest in Brazilian sounds and soul music. There was the lettering on the
sleeve of Sextet and the PF‟s debut single. Both groups had names with Roxy Music related origins. And it may be a gross generalisation but the Pale Fountains were somewhere between ACR severity and Orange Juice romanticism. Interestingly Edwyn Collins re-emerged around this time with a dramatic, new ACR-style short-back-and-sides cut which suited him exquisitely. Michael Bracewell, a sorely undervalued novelist, has written particularly well about the forces that shaped Roxy Music‟s art. A similar book is surely there to be written about the style of ACR. Manchester Heritage Industry Inc. has been lax in collecting together vital information about who cut ACR‟s hair, where they got their clothes, what were the influences that shaped their looks, who else was part of the group‟s inner circle and what ideas they contributed, what bookshops ACR browsed in, where they bought records, how they got about Manchester, what cafes they used, what they ate and drank, and so on. Sometimes you want to learn everything. At other times you don‟t need to know anything. It‟s just enough to let the music play. --------------------------------
With enormous thanks to Keith Milne for permission to use his photos of A Certain Ratio playing live at Valentino‟s in Edinburgh on 8 February, 1981. Please take a lot at Keith‟s flickr pages featuring photos of other live shows from that era. Very special thanks also to Phil Ault, Glenn Carmichael and Denis Ryan for their kind assistance and tolerance. I would recommend a visit to Denis‟ website. I should also acknowledge the enormous assistance provided by two books, in particular. And you really need to read both, not one or the other: James Nice‟s Shadowplayers: The Rise and Fall of Factory Records Mark „Snowboy‟ Cotgrove‟s From Jazz Funk & Fusion to Acid Jazz: The History of the UK Jazz Dance Scene This is dedicated to Keith Hawkins,
... your heart out