A few years ago, Manchester, England, was notorious for its underground acid-house clubs where young Brits gobbled X-tacy and other designer hallucinogens and trance-danced 'til dawn. The Charlatans UK singer Tim Burgess was a fixture at these stimulant-fueled shindigs. But Burgess was less interested in the available drugs than the acid-house sound: a deejay's collage of old funk samples and hypnotic bass and drum patterns.
"To me, house was the first revolution in music since punk-rock," claims Burgess in a telephone interview from Britain. "I was too young to be a part of punk-rock, but I wasn't about to miss out on house."
In Britain's acid-house culture, the rock 'n' roll band was dead. The deejay was the new god. Burgess was one of those a-house addicts who saw something more vital in a deejay's spontaneous dance mix than in the music of your average rock band. That's why when it came time for him to start up his own group, he wanted to deliver dance tunes that captured the trip-your-brains-out excitement of underground house music.
"House music influenced the Charlatans a hundred percent initially," acknowledges Burgess. "It's the music that inspired me to form a group. I think I was the first person in England to come up with the idea of using the Chicago-house rhythms in a standard five-piece group."
Out of Manchester's acid-laced club scene have sprung several other bands--like the Stone Roses and the Happy Mondays--that also base their songs around the hypnotic house beat. Some critics are even comparing this Manchester band boom with the Echo and the Bunnymen-led Liverpool invasion of the early Eighties. Burgess says he's not bothered by the Roses-Mondays comparisons, but rather all the talk of a "Manchester sound."
"I have no problem being lumped in with the Happy Mondays and the Stone Roses because they're good bands," he states. "But there is no uniform sound among the bands. We're all quite different. I think all the Manchester hype is just lazy journalism."
One simple distinction between the Charlatans UK and their Manchester peers is that the Charlatans are a better band. With its trancey rhythms, ambient melodies and rolling dance grooves, the band's debut Some Friendly is altogether more intoxicating than the efforts by the Roses and the Mondays. The Charlatans also pack a punch lyrically. The act's U.K. and college-radio hit "The Only One I Know" is infused with simple, genuine heartbreak: "Everyone's been in love before/Everybody knows the pain."
True to their acid-house roots, the Charlatans borrow riffs from several Seventies polyester-boogie standards on Some Friendly. Burgess claims "The Only One I Know" grew out of umpteen listens to Donna Summer's Greatest Hits. However, the song's guitar "wah" and percolating beat probably scream Isaac Hayes' "Shaft" to most of us. While the majority of the album's retrorhythms are undeniably funky, we can only hope the band is joking with the cheesy Sanford and Son-theme groove that it came up with for "Believe You Me."
Even though it borrows heavily in spirit from vintage R&B as well as psychedelic numbers, the band avoids outright sampling. Instead, the Charlatans duplicate their favorite riffs themselves, mucking them up enough so they're not instantly recognizable. But Burgess downplays the band's revivalist streak. "Up until two years ago, I refused to listen to anything before 1980," he notes. "It meant nothing to me. If I ever thought the Charlatans were a sort of a Sixties or Seventies revivalist band, I'd pack it in right now. I consider our music to be quite Nineties."
Whether Burgess likes to admit it or not, in many ways the Charlatans are a throwback to a more free-spirited rock 'n' roll era. This is especially true of the druggy image the band's cultivated--an anathema in these zero-tolerance times. At its gigs, the band's trademark routine has it taking the stage to the strains of "Aquarius" while cherry-scented fog is pumped into the audience. This opium-den concert atmosphere, combined with the consciousness-altering effect of songs like "109 pt2," have some people suggesting that the band hasn't quite outgrown its acid-house days. But Burgess is too smart to put a juicy rumor like that to rest.
"I like people to think what they want to think," he says coyly. "I'm too intelligent to need to take drugs to write music. But I'm not going to say, `Yes, we do' or `No, we don't.' That's up to you to believe. Maybe some people will get a better buzz out of listening to our music while on acid. But that's their prerogative."
The Charlatans UK will perform at Club Rio in Tempe on Wednesday, February 13. Showtime is 8:30 p.m.
"I was too young to be a part of punk-rock, but I wasn't about to miss out on house."
Burgess claims "The Only One I Know" grew out of umpteen listens to Donna Summer's Greatest Hits.