What does it sound like?:
A Certain Ratio are an intriguing band. Theirs was the first proper single on Factory (FAC 4) – the spectral ‘All Night Party’ – recorded before they had a drummer yet still somehow danceable with all the rhythm coming from the guitars grooving away in zero gravity. Tony Wilson thought he’d signed the new Velvet Underground. ACR had other ideas, and the thin boys with their wall of scything guitars recruited a drummer..and not just any old drummer. Donald Johnson would have a massive impact on their sound, and perhaps the signature sound of ACR is the contrast between the more instinctive, experimental sound the band made with Donald bringing a solid, seriously funky backing. They would go on to morph and change their sound, and like a sort of Indie Punk Fleetwood Mac the core of the band (Jez Kerr, Martin Moscrop and DoJo) saw through a series of line-up changes and a revolving door of lead vocalists, toying with warped Jazz fusion, dub reggae, slick Soul-pop, Samba, strident electro-funk, sophisto-pop, House music, Acid Jazz and eventually settling on a hybrid of all those things.
Suffice to say their back catalogue is a right old musical Tombola, but a fascinating one and if you get reeled in, you’ll probably want to hear the whole lot.
ACR’s catalogue has bounced around different labels over the post-Factory years (Creation, Soul Jazz and LTM have all reissued stuff in various permutations). Daniel Miller is a fan so they’ve now rejoined their old pals New Order at Mute and he’s decided to get their back catalogue in order kicking off with these three. As far as I’m aware there’s been no remastering and there’s no bonus material although there are coloured Vinyl editions as well as CDs- so really they’re just ‘back in print’ so if you missed out on previous reissues here’s why you might want to give ’em a spin.
‘The Graveyard and The Ballroom’ combines a mix of early recordings with Martin Hannett on one side (at Graveyard Studios) and a live recording at the Electric Ballroom on the B Side hence the name. This is basically post-punk funk ground zero, particularly the opener ‘Do the Du’ which has influenced more bands than anyone can count and is still being ripped off today. It’s an uneven collection though (‘Crippled Child’ has surely one of the most appalling lyrics ever) and the version of ‘Flight’ pales next to the majestic single. The live side is a bit lo-fi but nonetheless captures the band when they used weird, buzzsaw guitars and oscillating noise machines and there’s not a cowbell, bongo or trumpet in earshot. It’s perhaps not the best place to start though.
1981 LP ‘To Each’ is the first album proper and it’s an absolute killer. Martin Hannett is at the controls again and his signature is all over the weird FX and otherworldy textures which mirror ‘Unknown Pleasures’. The band relocated to New York for the recording and weirdly off-key Trumpets and a mass of percussion instruments are now in the arsenal. It’s an astonishing mix of weirdly bleak industrial noise and the monstrously powerful rhythmic force the band could now achieve. Simon Topping’s somewhat cold, unsettling vocals ride on top and it’s thoroughly disorientating. Check out ‘Forced Laugh’ Donald taps out a wrongfooting jazzy signature, while Pete Terrell and Martin Moscrop weave feedback and guitar FX around the verses before it explodes with trumpet-led electric shocks and Donald and Jez let rip on Drums and Bass. On tracks like ‘Back to the Start’ ACR start to explore the sheer joy of just getting the percussion going and going full Cowbell overload (if you’ve seen them live this is where they come into their own) and the closer ‘Winter Hill’ is an epic 13 minute homage to the TV transmitter which towers above the Lancashire moors, with a relentless Can style rhythm, eerie guitar drones, whistles and groans. Heady stuff and while ‘Sextet’ is considered their classic this one comes very close.
We then jump 5 years and land on ‘Force’. Another landmark record for ACR. By now Simon Topping and Peter Terrell have departed, bassist Jez has stepped up to vocals and the band have recruited Sax player Tony Quigley. Andy Connell is also on keyboards and co-writing the material although he left soon after to form Swing Out Sister (Corrinne Drewery guests on ‘Bootsy’). There are nods to the early stuff, there are still FX laden guitar textures galore and percussive workouts (and the bonus CD includes the magnificent Si Firmo O Grido) but we’re into sophisticated, dance influenced 80s pop territory – and this actually stands up really well with the likes of Scritti Politti, Prefab Sprout and China Crisis. There is an interlude from the pop songs with ‘Mickey Way’ – a huge, industrial Electro Funk workout. Well they would do that wouldn’t they? It’s a huge stylistic leap from the other two records but this is a classic LP in it’s own right and I daresay this might be more to some tastes than the earlier two. I like ’em all but the Fleetwood Mac analogy applies again.
What does it all *mean*?
If these reissues pique your interest they’ll be followed next year by more – including the long deleted ‘Good Together’ and ‘ACR:MCR’ albums they recorded for A&M which currently go for silly money on CD or Vinyl. There’s a box set of rarities in the offing too. No sign of any new material but ACR are touring next year so go see ’em.
Goes well with…
In order for each record: A pale ale, a Manhattan cocktail and a glass of Perrier.
Might suit people who like…
New Order, Joy Division, Happy Mondays, Pil, Pere Ubu, Talking Heads, The Pop Group, Scritti Polliti, Miles Davis, Funkadelic, Franz Ferdinand, LCD Soundsystem and any band who did anything a bit angular and funky with guitars, ever.