The Charlatans are rock. They said so themselves in the now legendary press release which followed the tragic death of original keyboardist Rob Collins in 1996. That statement, which showed a resolve to continue in the face of such loss, remains true to this day. Few ordinary bands could experience the trials and tribulations of the Charlatans and still be here to tell the tale. In the face of adversity and changing fashions, they have remained solid. Rock solid.
It seemed as though the Charlatans were up against it from the start. Their original sound found few takers in the music business and their 1989 debut single Indian Rope was only released after their manager scrapped enough cash together to get it recorded independently. But then the “Madchester” scene exploded and the Charlatans suddenly found themselves in the right place at the right time with the right tunes. Six months later and debut album Some Friendly was number one in the UK charts and the single The Only One I Know was a top ten hit. Suddenly they were at the forefront of a youth explosion alongside the Stone Roses and Happy Mondays.
It didn’t last long. The Charlatans jumped the Madchester ship as it was sinking and as a reaction to the latest flux in musical trends released the experimental but critically mauled second album Between 10th and 11th. American grunge flooded the UK market and the band found themselves on the fringes, already a relic despite their tender years. On top of all this, guitarist Jon Baker quit the band, bassist Martin Blunt was hospitalised with clinical depression and Rob Collins spent four months in prison for his involvement in an armed robbery.
“Most people I think wanted a continuation of Some Friendly and the following singles,” said singer Tim Burgess. “Although for others, the Weirdo single and the whole of Between 10th and 11th blew a lot of people’s minds. I guess being a Charlatans fan you have to be prepared for random changes because firstly we get bored with the same thing and secondly I have a very broad understanding of music. Whatever style we stumble upon, we tend to master eventually.”
Their third album, recorded against all the odds considering, saw the band return to commercial success before their fourth in 1995 cemented their position as indie rock stalwarts, returning to prominence as unlikely founding fathers of the burgeoning Britpop scene. Back on top, it was only natural that things would get worse for the Charlatans and they did. During the recording of fifth album Tellin’ Stories, Rob Collins was killed in a car accident, throwing the band into a maelstrom of grief and soul searching.
Typically, even this would not be enough to break the band. After agreeing to play on, Tellin’ Stories gave them their biggest hits and elevated them to rock royalty status. “Music and what we believe in keeps us strong,” said Burgess in reference to the band’s rollercoaster career of high highs and deep lows. “We would die for what we do. We work hard for it 24/7.”
Unshackled from their Madchester roots, the Charlatans have since experimented with different sounds, releasing the country rock-tinged Us and Us Only in 1999, the acclaimed soul-funk Wonderland album two years later and last year’s reggae-dub influenced Simpatico.
“I have records at home with the Dub Allstars doing Bob Dylan covers and reggae trio the Heptones doing Curtis Mayfield songs plus all the compilations of Country Got Soul on Casual records,” said Burgess. “People play what they love. Our rhythm section can be like Booker T or The Meters when they get funky. But experimenting with direction isn’t new to us. Don’t forget that when The Only One I Know came out we were called psychedelic and Between 10th and 11th was called avant garde.”
No longer wiry youths with bowl haircuts and life-threatening flares, the Charlatans are now the elder statesmen of the British alternative rock scene with the new wave of young underground stars lining up to pay homage. “I know The Klaxons and The Horrors refer to me as a role model,” said Burgess. But doesn’t it feel strange to be playing those early hits to kids who weren’t alive when they first came out? “It doesn’t feel weird playing The Only One I Know to 17-year olds because I think 17-year olds can still relate to us,” he added. “And besides, the song is ageless.”
The Charlatans may have suffered more than most on their journey but their spirit remains undimmed. A new album is in the pipeline as well as a European tour which will see them play their most intimate venues in years, such as Brussels VK Club. “I think it will be fun, romantic and fresh,” said Burgess of the low key tour. “We have played in many different situations and hung out with many interesting people but we have always been underground heroes. I think there is a really good vibe with the Charlatans and I think those who come will feel the passion and admire the beauty.”