A GUEST POSTING FROM ECHORICH
Well I took the bait and here is my ACR ICA, or should that be ACR:ICA?
I’m afraid I just couldn’t whittle it down to just 10 tracks and do ACR any real justice, so I have given you a Baker’s Dozen of 13 tracks.
I hope Adam also takes up the challenge as I hope and really expect we will take different approaches as well as choose different tracks to give ACR the justice they deserve as a 40 year survivor.
In every music fan’s collection, there’s a band that they cherish; a band that went unsung during their time or, if they still soldier on, have managed to persevere without breaking through in a sense that is considered successful. These bands become that much dearer to their smaller numbers of fans because they take on a very personal connection with the music and its makers. Some of those fans become proselytizing acolytes, some never mention “their band” to anyone.
For me, A Certain Ratio is one of those bands. And I am a proselytizer! I will take any chance I can to turn people on to ACR. To my mind, they were the middle child at Factory Records. Loved by their label but pretty much left to fend for themselves as big brother New Order and the baby, Happy Mondays were given all the love and attention. This led to a band with a mission and a sound that grew much more organically than that of those brothers.
A Certain Ratio’s roots are in the darker, brooding sound of Post Punk circa 1978 -79, but they found rhythm and beat and incorporated it into their initial sound fairly quickly. Their sound can be a bit difficult to pin down to a single genre – Post Punk – definitely, Funk – but more of the Fractured kind, Jazz – well certainly informed by Jazz and Jazz Fusion, but they know a great pop song when they hear one. In the end, it’s best to approach ACR by following the development of their sound over 40 years.
Now on to the personal… I first heard ACR in late 1979. I was 16 and Hurrah Nightclub was my music mecca. To this day I appreciate the lax enforcement of age restriction at clubs in NYC. All Night Party, their first single, was played along with other broody Post Punk tracks during dj sets. These were the days when a DJ didn’t have to worry about BPMs, or alienating the crowd by switching things up. You went to Hurrah FOR that switch up – to be surprised. I bought All Night Party and then the cassette only The Graveyard And Ballroom at the beginning of 1980. By the summer of that same year, alternative NYC radio and the dance clubs were pumping the follow up and their milestone, Shack Up. This was miles away from All Night Party, but was right in the groove of the sound that was taking over Manhattan. Fractured Funk with a bass sound that could destroy masonry.
But it was on September 26, 1980 that my fandom was signed and sealed. A Certain Ratio was in NYC and headlining at Hurrah – with a new band, New Order, as their opening act. This is one of those magical nights that is almost impossible to remember without giving it an even bigger legend that it already has. Suffice to say, memories of that night still fly in and out of my middle aged mind and cause me to smile that smile of experiential satisfaction.
A Certain Ratio – From The Graveyard to Mickey Way – a Baker’s Dozen ICA
This one always brings back memories of hanging out in the deeper recesses of Hurrah watching the dancers sway too and frow on a dark lit dance floor. All Night Party has a soulless urgency that just builds and builds until it stops. It is certainly night music, but the only party it would soundtrack would likely occur in a mausoleum.
2. Do the Du – From The Graveyard And The Ballroom
Amazing what can happen in a year or so. But I suspect that their heart and feet were never far from the FUNK. But where All Night Party was a night ceremony for the ghoul in us all, Do The Du was like a waking from the dead. With still disembodied vocals, ACR now seemed intent on defibrillating it’s audience with a bass sound that just took over. It’s said (by Jez Kerr) that when ACR opened for Talking Heads on their Fear Of Music tour, that David Byrne was on side stage every night, seemingly taking mental notes. I think that’s a fair assumption when you hear much of Remain In Light.
3. Shack Up
The song any music fan of the early 80s will know from A Certain Ratio. Here the band decides the best way to change the world is to work together, live together, sleep together. Pop sociology with thumping bass, manic guitar and horns straight off of J.B.’s charts. You can’t help but move to this. Played loud enough, the ground below you will force it upon you. I remember Shack Up being one of those songs DJ’s would wait to play at the peak hour in Hurrah, Peppermint Lounge or Danceteria for years. It never failed to get the crowd to the next level.
4. Felch – from To Each
To Each is an experimental masterpiece. Recorded in East Orange, New Jersey at the legendary Eastern Artists Recording Studio (EARS) with Martin Hannett, It is an album so many personalities, it could have text books written about it. Post Punk, Punk-Funk, Latin street rhythms, and lots of free form Jazz. Hannett, away from Manchester and Tony Wilson, was able to let freedom reign and put so much passion into the production of To Each that it remains among my favorites of all his productions. Oh and the album cover is an illustration by Ann Quigley of Swamp Children with art coordination by Peter Sleazy Christopherson of Throbbing Gristle.
5. Lucinda – from Sextet
Here is the stand out track from my favorite A Certain Ratio album. Sextet amps up the funk and the dark backroom Jazz with an undercurrent of urban decay. No pastoral English countryside here. There’s a sort of Apocalyptical urgency to these rhythms – like the band playing in an underground bunker while the city above devolves in flames. Martha Wilson takes on the vocals here adding a new dimension to ACR’s aggressive funk.
6. I’d Like To See You Again – from I’d Like To See You Again
I’d Like To See You Again was the band’s second album of 1982. On the surface it’s a more approachable album than Sextet, but it is still an album with little to no compromise. It features Brazilian rhythms, lots of Jez Kerr’s funky bass and jazz workouts, but the title track managed to have a pop purity mixed into all that and it was really something that stood out to me. The album would be followed by a stand alone single, Need Someone Tonite, six months later that further explored pop as another aspect of the band’s sound.
1984 and A Certain Ratio had become a leaner, tighter unit with the previous departures of both Simon Topping in 1983 and Peter Terrell at the end of 1982. Life’s A Scream was one of two stand alone singles (Brazilia was the other) in which the band could be heard to on a new journey into pop and dance – one that was sharp and focused, less freeform. This is a bright and airy ACR. Life’s A Scream that could be found on dozens of mixtapes I made in the mid 80s. A poppy, feel good track to make the subway ride to work an easier affair.
8. And Then She Smiles – from Force
Force should have been massive. Fact. Unfortunately, for ACR, their wasn’t a budget at Factory Records in 1986 to promote both New Order and, well, anyone else… Critics took to Force in a big way, and they scored some airtime as well. But that groundswell needed something to push them over the top from their record company. Unfortunately they were busy pushing New Order on a global scale with little time for anything else. (Yes, opinions may vary on this…) And Then She Smiles best exemplifies the band’s new found “slickness.” Jez is almost plaintive in his vocals and the overall sound has an emotional dreaminess about it. It remains to this day a song that moves me when I hear it.
9. Mickey Way – from Force
But all was not gone from ACR’s funky bag of tricks. Mickey Way is a razor sharp funk workout that incorporates samples sounds and words, punchy brass and tight driving bass in possibly the band’s cleanest, clearest production to date. Some fans may have lamented the loss of gritty, chaotic muscular funk of their past, but for me Mickey Way and Force overall kept ACR relevant.
10. The Big E
ACR would persevere over the next few years, releasing singles like the wonderful Bootsy off Force and an EP called Greeting Four made for the Italian market which included one of the bands gems in The Runner.
They resurfaced on vinyl in 1989 with a new record label – A+M – and a sound which was obviously influenced by House and Balearic sounds. But the album, Good Together was preceded by a single which absolutely floored me.
The Big E was this island of pure, soulful pop music surrounded by the burgeoning UK House and Madchester scene. It owes much to the previous, And Then She Smiled from Force, but it went another level in its execution and power. The strong bass and jazz influence was still there, but as a counterpoint to the beauty of the pop music at the song’s core. I consider The Big E to the song that closes my 1980’s musically. It even has an ending that darkens a bit like a reminder of times passed.
Many will pass over The Big E for the remake/remodel version which would be known as Won’t Stop Loving You which featured sported remixes by Barney Sumner and Norman Cook, but for the dancified remixes pale in comparison to the original songs beauty.
11. Spirit Dance – Four For The Floor EP
Now ACR was not about to ignore a sound that was growing out of the clubs of Manchester in 1989. House was more than just a trend and the band knew it early on. Right on the heals of the Good Together album, A Certain Ratio released the Four For the Floor EP. It contained the recent album acid-y title track with Barney Sumner and Shaun Ryder on vocals, and three other tracks which showed how their sounds of the past fit in well with the experimentations of House Music. Of those tracks Spirit Dance was the one which seemed to sum up A Certain Ratio’s position as a direct influence on the sounds of late 80s – early 90s dance music. It is spooky, and entrancing music with Jez’s signature growling bass and Donald Johnson’s machine like drums. All the songs from the EP would feature on ACR:MCR, which was put out to take advantage of the dollar power of House/Dance music. But ultimately, ACR would be let down once again in the marketplace.
12. Sister Brother – from Change The Station
ACR:MCR saw the end come to the band’s time with A+M Records and a move to former New Order manager Rob Gretton’s Robs Records.
I will admit I find the two albums the band put out at this time Up In Downsville and Change The Station to not have had any real immediate impact on me. In the intervening years though, I have grown to enjoy the return the band would gradually make back to a freer and funkier place musically.
Sister Brother is a perfect example of this return to their roots. It has a jazz funk musical bed with some gorgeous singing and scatting from Corinne Drewery and Denise Johnson. Andy Connell also returned to the band for this song, as he did for one track on Up In Downsville, making the track a sort of ACR/Swing Out Sister collaboration. It’s a muscular workout.
13. Mind Made Up – from Mind Made Up
Some 31 years after the original lineup of A Certain Ratio first got together, A Certain Ratio released Mind Made Up in 2008. In the wake of former manager and Factory Impresario Tony Wilson’s passing, Kerr, Johnson and Moscrop, along with the players they had been recording and gigging with since 1996, found it was time to get back in the studio and lay out another phase in A Certain Ratio’s history. They managed to entice original members Simon Topping and Peter Terrell into the studio to contribute on some tracks as well. It’s an album that smacks of A Certain Ratio acknowledging their past while looking firmly at the world around them and the future.
The title track is, for me, the stand out track. Jez Kerr pounds his bass while singing like a man who’s gained the knowledge of 30’s years experience. Donald Johnson keeps a strict time and Martin Moscrop plays some massively funky guitar riffs.
Mind Made Up is dark and lovely – especially with the distinctive soaring vocals of Denise Johnson. Mind Made Up is an album that I’ve played constantly now for nine years – it’s that good. I believe my patience will be rewarded later this year with an new ACR album.