After 2018’s acr:set compilation and their LP reissue campaign, the new boxset – remastered by the band’s Martin Moscrop at Abbey Road Studios and including A and B-sides, alternative versions and more than 20 previously-unreleased tracks, available in 7 x coloured vinyl, 4CD and digital formats – follows the band’s delve into their vaults, with various hidden gems unearthed, among them tapes from a session recorded for a shelved collaboration with Grace Jones.
The new release coincides with the 40th anniversary of ACR’s Martin Hannett-produced debut single, ‘All Night Party’, Factory Records’ first single artist 7”, in later days described by Record Collector as ‘a statement of future intentions: to set funk off against nervous angst’.
That single – FAC 5, followed by Orchestral Manoeuvres’ ‘Electricity’, FAC 6 – was released in September 1979, with 5,000 copies pressed, soon selling out, the band recording their first session for influential BBC Radio 1 DJ John Peel within a few weeks.
As it turned out though, it was their next single, a 1980 cover of Banbarra’s ‘Shack Up’, that opened things up, not least after its early ‘81 US Billboard Dance chart breakthrough. Not bad for something that cost £50 to record, that song represented on the new boxset through a radio edit by Electronic, featuring New Order frontman Bernard Sumner and Smiths guitar legend Johnny Marr.
By the time of that initial stateside success, they’d already scored their first UK indie top-10 hit with next single ‘Flight’, a band in more recent times described as ‘cult punk funkateers’ (Uncut) and ‘mould-breakers’ (Mojo) soon expanding to a six-piece.
While embracing the ethic and culture of late ‘70s post-punk from the start, it’s fair to say ACR sounded like little else, yet went on to influence a diverse number of acts down the years, from LCD Soundsystem to Happy Mondays, managing nine UK indie chart top-30 hits from 1980/86 on Factory, including seven top-10s.
They made five albums for Factory, initial cassette-only compilation The Graveyard and the Ballroom followed by May 1981 debut studio album To Each…, featuring the expanded line-up and recorded in New Jersey, Martin Hannett again producing. That was their first UK indie chart-topper, and by June that year they’d recorded a second John Peel session. And before 1981 was over next single ‘Waterline’ had provided another top-10 indie hit.
Although early influences included Funkadelic, Parliament and Earth, Wind and Fire, their bass-heavy industrial/funk sound was not easily pigeon-holed, in time introducing more avant-garde elements of funk, jazz, electronics, tape loops and technology to pop, ‘wrapping it in a post-punk aesthetic, adding great clothes and the coolest haircuts’.
But let’s go back a bit here, their story with its roots in 1977 in Flixton, Greater Manchester, the band name taken from a 1974 Brian Eno song.
Initially a duo, comprising singer Simon Topping and guitar/electronics player Peter Terrell, they were then joined by bass guitarist/vocalist Jez, then guitarist/trumpeter Martin, the band without a drummer initially, Donald Johnson there in time for that first Peel session though. But while things hadn’t truly started to come together until Jez joined earlier that year, he had little musical grounding at the time, having taken a very different career path.
“My life had come to a bit of a crossroads. I was a footballer from a very early age. My uncle – my mum’s twin – played in the ‘50s, so I was following in his footsteps. He played for Everton, his main club, for about 11 years, then Derby County, Swansea (still Town at that stage) and Leyton Orient. A really good player, who scored lots of goals for Everton.”
That was Eddie Thomas, his Mum’s twin, Jez following his lead, playing in Manchester United’s youth team, his contemporaries including future England international Mike Duxbury.
“Football was my life really. All I wanted to do was play for United and play for England. And I was lucky enough to play for United until I was 17, signing schoolboy terms at 15, becoming a ball-boy. But at 17 I broke my ankle badly, was at a loose end, and finally found myself in A Certain Ratio.”
There are inevitably comparisons drawn between your band and fellow Factory act, New Order, who also happen to be stablemates these days at Mute. Also, Bernard Sumner hadn’t started out as the front-man of his band, albeit down to different circumstances.
“That’s true. I was the bass player. But I got the job … unfortunately!”
What inspired you to get involved in music?
“My Mum did a bit of acting and I joined Manchester Youth Theatre. That’s where I met up with Gordon the Moron (Jilted John’s arch-nemesis, real name Bernard Kelly). I left home at 17 and shared a house in Rusholme with him. I was actually there when he (Graham Fellows, aka Jilted John) wrote that tune on my sofa.
“I was asked to play bass on Top of the Pops with them, but I was so shit I couldn’t mime! I’d bought myself an amp and bass guitar, but couldn’t play and wasn’t in a band. At this house in Rusholme, John Cooper Clarke was always coming ‘round, and The Freshies, people like that.
“I didn’t know anything about it. It was only through Gordon the Moron and the Youth Theatre that I met up with these people, finding out about Rabid Records. And when they had a hit … ‘Fucking hell – people I know are on Top of the Pops!”
That memorable number reached No. 4 on the UK charts in the late summer of ’78, re-released via EMI after a Rabid release a month earlier, the self-titled hit originally lurking on the B-side of ‘Going Steady’. Readers of this website may recall me talking about that late ‘70s Manchester scene in January with C.P. Lee, reliving his Alberto Y Los Trios Paranoias days. And there’s a link for Jez there too.
“The Albertos were the first band I saw – after Status Quo, then David Bowie at the Hard Rock. That must have been one of the first nights at the Russell Club.”
if online records are right (try this great link), the Albertos headlined at the Russell Club, aka The Factory, in Royce Road, Hulme, in August and September 1978, with A Certain Ratio going on to play there at least three times in 1979 as a support band – on April 6th third on the bill to The Teardrop Explodes and Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark; on May 11th to third on the bill to Joy Division and Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark; and on June 18th second on the bill to Public Image Ltd. They then featured twice more as headliners, in September ’79 and then April 1980, on the latter occasion with support acts including The Durutti Column and Section 25.
“I didn’t see myself as a musician, but all this was going on. I used to go to Pip’s a lot, seeing A Certain Ratio there – just Pete and Simon – and chatting afterwards. Nothing came of it, but I told them I knew people at Rabid Records.”
Ah, Pips, according to the Manchester Evening News’ Matthew Cooper a four-room club in a basement under Fennel Street (behind the cathedral, now concreted over, with the Corn Exchange on top), which opened in 1972 – 10 years before Factory opened FAC 51, the Hacienda – and hosted Joy Division’s first gig, the night they changed their name from Warsaw.
Anyway, carry on Jez.
“Then about three months later I bumped into Simon in the street. I was waiting for this girl called Lisa, and they ended up going out together. He mentioned they had a gig at Band on the Wall and were looking for a bass player. I said, ‘I’ve got a bass’. So I basically joined the band that minute. We had a rehearsal at my place, playing the gig the next day. And that was it.”
Ah, the Band on the Wall, Swan Street, in Manchester’s Northern Quarter, first used as a jazz venue in the 1930s, this scribe writing this just a couple of days after seeing Robert Forster’s sell-out show there, having only learned before via Marc Riley that he played his first show with The Fall there, the venue also hosting Buzzcocks and Joy Division. Historic, geographic links, I’ve got ‘em, pop kids.
“Yeah … well, you know … I had a bass!
That line was almost delivered Spinal Tap style, I might add.
“Actually, I’ve got a cassette of that first rehearsal, and we did ‘All Night Party’, ‘The Thin Boys’, ‘Genotype Phenotype’, and a track called ‘Intro Talking’ which we never recorded, but I made into a tune called ‘Terry’ for the album Mind Made Up (2008). Neither Pete not Simon could remember who wrote it, but from that cassette I deciphered the lyrics, using a verse from that that and one from another tune.
“We started the set with that for the first six months … although we only had about six tunes. Anyway, the reason the band were playing Band on the Wall was that the Arts Council used to fund a night there, through Manchester Musicians Collective, run by a guy called Frank, an old hippie who lived in Didsbury, and his mate. He booked the night, with six or seven bands playing, a Monday night. They had meetings on King Street, and if you went along you got a gig.
“The Fall, Joy Division, all the bands really started there, the ones trying to make their name. And we played there three or four times and were very fortunate to do so. It was Rob Gretton (New Order manager and Factory director) who spotted us there, telling Tony (Wilson) about us, They’d just opened the Factory in Hulme – the Russell Club – and Rob got Tony to ask us to play there. So it was Rob who really discovered us, if you like.”
And Tony Wilson famously labelled you ‘the new Sex Pistols’.
“That was Tony gobbing off! After playing the Russell Club, he asked us to do a single. We did that at Cargo with Martin Hannett, just carrying on from there, Tony sort of managing the band really. He was a great talker. You didn’t actually believe most of what he said, but punk opened up so much. We thought, ‘We can run a club, we could be a record label, we don’t need a proper manager – our mate will be our manager!”
When you go back and listen to tracks like ‘All Night Party’, does it take you back to a certain place and time?
“Yeah, that’s exactly it. When I joined, they had that tune, and I just put some bass on it, y’know.”
I suspect that’s a little under-statement. Either way, dad-of-three Jez – his daughters aged 14 to 24 -kept his job, and now the modern A Certain Ratio line-up – completed by Martin, Donald, fellow bandmates Denise Johnson, Tony Quigley and most recent addition, Matt Steele – continue their 2019 UK tour on Thursday, May 23rd at Jacaranda Records, Phase One, Seel Street, Liverpool, before a two-day festival at Yes, Charles Street, Manchester, on Friday May 24th and Saturday May 25th, special guests such as Section 25, Shadowparty, and The Orielles joining the band for a celebratory takeover of all four floors of the venue, marking the 40th anniversary of all that.
“Yeah, that and the subsequent 40 years, working with people and making music.”
You’ve already played a few shows, including shows in Islington, North London, Wolverhampton and Belfast, the first ACR visit to the latter. And Barrow-in-Furness was an interesting starting point for these dates.
“It was really good. It was like someone’s front room. Really nice people, and we’ve got quite a few gigs at places we haven’t played before, something I really enjoy. And it’s a conscious decision. We always used to play Manchester, London, Glasgow, Edinburgh … for a while now we haven’t gone around the places we used to play. So we’re playing Cardiff, Nottingham, Leamington Spa …”
You always had a loyal underground following. Was this part of the reason to reach further out to those fans?
“Well, people think we’ve just got together for this 40th thing, but while we had a break from 1994 to 2002, I don’t think we ever had the intention of never doing it again. But real life intervenes, takes over – kids, etc.”
Going back a bit again, there were many chops and changes before ACR’s final Factory LP, Force, surfaced in 1986. A move to A&M then followed for Good Together (1989) and acr:mcr (1990). How was the latter experience different?
“Ha ha! Completely different! “
Those were the latter days of big money being thrown at bands by major labels.
“Ha! Yeah, we were witnessing the very death of the music industry. I felt sorry for all the geezers who were there, set to lose their jobs, with a mortgage in London they’d been paying 10 years, or whatever. The gravy train was coming to an end.”
“I think we’ve always been slightly outside it all, yet fairly insular. In the early days, After a while Tony was more the director of Factory, so we were managing ourselves really. Then when we left Factory, we were on our own. We’ve been sort of self-sufficient for a long time. Even at A&M we felt this wasn’t going to last. But we made quite a bit of money out of them, and with that bought a studio and rehearsal space in Manchester where we could carry on making music. So when we did leave, after only about a year, we made two more albums for Rob’s Records.”
Those albums were Up In Downsville (1992) and Change the Station (1997), Rob’s Records set up by Rob Gretton. Speaking of whom, did you ever feel slightly aggrieved that the likes of New Order proved the bigger band?
“You’re going to feel a bit aggrieved, but we knew what we were doing was good, and business-wise, while we’ve always lived in their shadow a bit, fair enough. They’ve sold more records than us. It would be great not having to worry about money, but then again I think that brings its own problems.”
Indeed. They don’t seem to get on at all now, as opposed to your situation.
“I think that’s really unfortunate. I don’t know the ins and outs, and haven’t read any of the books, but it’s the same in our band. We’ve had big fallings out, but luckily we managed to plough through and come out the other side.”
I guess there’s always a danger at that level if you end up communicating entirely through lawyers and reading each other’s interviews and social media, rather than have face-to-face arguments that would possibly clear the air.
“Well, we don’t really see each other outside the music. We don’t socialise, particularly. But I think we realise we all need each other. All of us have got a part to play. Why bands split up is often about ego and money. We’ve come close quite a few times, but …”
You’re hanging on in there.
“Yeah, I’m really enjoying it. It’s better now than it’s ever been. There’s no pressure on us. The only pressure we’ve got is through writing new stuff – making that as good as all the other stuff.”
“A friend of ours, Jason Brown, has a partner in a string quartet (Parent’s Sarah Brandwood-Spencer) who did this arrangement and played it to Donald. It sounded great, so we thought we’d do it as a special for this acr:box. We have done acoustic versions before, but not a string arrangement. And if someone’s passionate enough to come up with something, we’re not going to turn around and say no.
The boxset looks impressive. Is this like your life flashing in front of your eyes when you first set eyes on the finished product?
“It’s funny. I’ve not listened to it in its entirety yet, but I’m going to. Our tour manager, Pete, says that with all the different styles that are there you get a real sense of 40 years.”
Was this latest collection more down to Martin?
“Martin did a lot of work on it, but we all got together to listen to stuff. The first part – the B-sides and singles – was easy. They hadn’t been on the albums. But the second half was where we … all the stuff from the SoundStation, our studio, we were looking at DATs, and a lot were deteriorating and unplayable. It took us about three days to go through those. But we found (Talking Heads cover) ‘Houses in Motion’, which we didn’t think we had, a tune called ‘force’ which was suppose dot be on that album which we’d all forgotten about.
“There’s a lot stuff we missed. For one, virtually a complete album that we never recorded. We were in New York and played a gig at the Ritz, possibly the second time we went to New York. A guy called Tyrone Downey, the keyboard player in The Wailers, leant us loads of equipment as we had a lot of gear missing from our flight.
“We did a soundcheck at the Ritz and it was our worse one ever. There was a lot of pressure – it was our gig and a 3,000 capacity, our first big gig in New York. After the soundcheck Michael Schomberg, tour managing us and a friend of Tyrone, said ‘Let’s go back to Tyrone’s’.
“We went to Brownstone and this studio, and Tyrone was standing outside. I was handed a big bag of grass and Donald a big bottle of Southern Comfort. We walked in this room with this backing track going on. There was a drum kit, a bass, two guitars, keyboards and loads of percussion, and this Tom Tom Club-like backing tape of claps and so on. He said, ‘There you go – enjoy yourself’.
“We spent the next three hours jamming, and no one fucking recorded it! I tell you, there was a complete album there of new stuff. If someone had just turned the tape on, we’d have had at least four or five tunes from that three-hour jam!”
“We recorded the tunes with a view to her singing on it, but Chris Blackwell got wind of it, thinking, ‘No, I’m not having this’. It would have sounded great. There’s two versions – the one we brought out was our version, us learning the tune, and the other version is Martin Hannett’s, ready for Grace’s vocals to be put on.”
Taking of female vocalists and different approaches, I like Nouvelle Vague’s version of ‘Shack Up’.
“Yeah, I quite like that, but prefer their version of ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart‘. That’s my favourite. There you go again, see – we’re always being compared to them!”
And you just happen to have Bernard Sumner and Johnny Marr – as Electronic – doing a version of ‘Shack Up’ on this boxset.
“Yeah, I quite like that.”
And what’s next after this tour – is there a new LP on its way?
“Yeah, there’s still more to come on Mute – a live album, then there will be a remix album. And hopefully after that we’ll be ready with the new album. We’ve already got six or seven tunes together. And we want to make it a really good one, in between gigging and all that.”
And there are lots of gigs coming.
“There’s quite a few, yeah. Last year we did maybe 20, but prior to that we’d only been doing about 10 a year.”
I seem to recall you doing a solo set at the Continental in Preston a couple of years back too.
“Yeah, I did a solo thing for a few years. I really enjoyed doing that, but I’m busy with doing this now.”
And long may that continue.
ACR’s next UK dates: May 23rd – Jacaranda Records, Phase One, Liverpool; May 24th/25th – Yes, Manchester; May 30th – Sheffield, The Leadmill (Steel Bar); May 31st – Newcastle, Riverside; June 1st – Edinburgh, The Voodoo Rooms; June 2nd – Leamington Spa, Zephyr Lounge; August 16th – We Out Here Festival; Cambridgeshire; August 17th – Green Man Festival; August 18th – County Durham, Hardwick Live Festival; November 2nd – Dublin, The Sugar Club; November 8th – Cardiff, Clwb Ifor Bach; November 9th – Birmingham, The Crossing; November 15th – Stoke-on-Trent, The Sugarmill; November 16th – Glasgow, King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut; November 17th – Huddersfield, The Parish; December 6th – Stockton on Tees, The Georgian Theatre; December 7th – Nottingham, Rescue Rooms.