Formed in 1979 from the ashes of punk, and named after a Brian Eno lyric, A Certain Ratio’s influential blend of punk, funk, disco and Latin can be traced through the Manchester baggy explosion to today’s revived interested in punk-funk and no wave disco.
Signed to the legendary Factory Records, the band played live at the opening of the Hacienda alongside The Bronx’s ESG, whom ACR later toured with in New York as well as with a newly formed New Order and a very youthful Madonna.
With the 2000s seeing a number of re-releases, most notably courtesy of Soul Jazz, to add to a collection of 15 albums and numerous singles, the bands first gig in twenty years also saw a return to writing which produced new album and return-to-form ‘Mind Made Up’ (released 1st June on LTM Recordings).
We caught up with original Martin Moscrop to find out more...
Andrew Weatherall had included us on his ‘9 O’ Clock Drop’ compilation and shortly after that Soul Jazz released a compilation called ‘In The Beginning There Was Rhythm’ with two of our tunes on it. We started gigging again in 2002 when Soul Jazz asked us to play one of their nights at the Electrowerkz in London with Cabaret Voltaire, Andrew Weatherall and the Soul Jazz Soundsystem to promote the release. It was the first gig we had played in seven years and we started rehearsing again and really enjoyed playing live. As soon as we had done this gig people started asking us to play again but we are very choosy about what gigs we do because every gig has to be special and like a party. The main reason we enjoy it so much is because we don’t do loads of gigs and there is no chance of tour burn out which happens with a lot of bands and is the main reason why they split.
We never actually split up, we just stopped recording and gigging and spent time with our families being parents. It was a sort of semi-retirement come hibernation which worked well because we had been gigging and recording for nearly 20 years and we needed a break. Jez was working at the post office as well as writing songs for adverts and films and producing some excellent music with his 24 Hours project. Donald was working as a sports coordinator for Trafford Council and involved in a lot of basketball. Tony was also doing music for documentaries and producing stuff. Liam was working as a studio engineer/producer and later a software engineer. Denise was singing with Primal Scream, New Order and working on her own solo stuff. I was DJing, producing, working as the Head of Music at City College and failing with my short lived record label, Heart & Soul.
The new album packs all the rhythm and funk of past material but adds some more soul too. What’s the band’s current line-up and how did the process of releasing a new record all come together?
The current line-up is Donald Johnson – Drums, Jez Kerr – Bass & Vocals, Martin Moscrop – Guitar and Trumpet, Tony Quigley – Keys, sax and effects, Liam Mullan – Keys, Denise Johnson – Vocals.
The album grew organically and we actually started it in 2002 when we were rehearsing for the Electrowekz gig and started writing while rehearsing. The first tune we got together was ‘Starlight’ and we went into the studio and recorded it the same way as we played it in rehearsals. In the same session we recorded ‘Very Busy Man’ which is a mad percussion jam with Donald’s brother Derik on Bass. We really enjoyed the process and we released them on Fila Brazilia’s label along with a Fila reworking of ‘Starlight’. This was an important step for us because it gave people the message that we not only had a vast back catalogue of material but we were also producing quality dance music you could listen to again. We carried on doing selective gigs and rehearsing and jamming ideas. We started going into the studio again in 2006 and put together the rest of the songs over a period of a couple of years. We were rehearsing one weekend, developing a couple of ideas and going into the studio and recording what we had worked on while it was still fresh and in its infancy. We have a tendency to get a little too tight and professional if we work on something for too long so the time constraints of having to work quickly helped us create something which was more organic and rougher round the edges. Once we had enough tracks for an album I sent them to Soul Jazz but they passed on it because they thought it would be confusing to have a new ACR album on the label when we had had a lot of success with all our re-issues on the label. They said that the new ESG album they had released had not done as well as they thought and they were better off concentrating on the re-issues. Around the same time I gave Andrew Weatherall a few tracks of the album when he was DJing in Manchester and he phoned me up a week later asking what was happening with it and that he thought it was brilliant. I told him about Soul Jazz and he was amazed that they didn’t want to put it out in the UK.
I was DJing in Belgium and a French label called Le Son Du Maquis arranged a meeting with me and said they loved the album and wanted to put it out. They released it in Europe excluding the UK because we wanted a UK label for that. The album got rave reviews in France, Italy, Belgium and other territories but unfortunately the label were very dishonest and the relationship did not work out. James Nice of LTM had also re-issued ACR material previously and I sent the album to him and he also loved it and wanted to put it out.
What’s been called post-punk and mutant disco has had a huge resurgence in recent years, with much of your own past material re-issued. Do you feel that there are many current bands travelling on the continuum that started with punk explosion/implosion and are you in contact with other bands from when you started?
The first time I noticed the resurgence in Punk Funk was when I was asked to DJ in New York. It was about the time ‘The Rapture’, LCD Soundsystem and !!! were getting going. It was fresh and exciting that all these young DJs and musicians were listening to bands like ACR, ESG, and Gang of Four for their inspiration. At first I didn’t really see the connection because I thought it was just new original dance music and people would send me stuff saying “these people sound just like ACR” and I didn’t really hear the connection until later on. It’s thanks to labels like Soul Jazz and Andrew Weatherall’s ‘Nine O’ Clock Drop’ that really helped people start appreciating the more dancey side of ‘post punk’. There are even young DJs like Scream and Benga who listened to old ACR stuff and it’s the mixture of dance rhythms with head music which appeals to them because it is not too dissimilar to the more intelligent dubstep vibe. These guys influence us as well and I can’t stop listening to them as well as Joker and Coti. The first time I DJed in NYC in 2002 the promoter who booked me, Adesh, said it was like hearing an encyclopaedia of dance music and I think that describes what ACR do pretty well.
When Donald joined the band he injected his funk into us like the Meteors. That mixed with what four white guys from a punk background were doing just created a totally original sound. We had about ten songs when Donald joined and when we added his drumming it transformed us into something that people had not heard before. We were one of the first urban outfits fusing dub, reggae, jazz, funk, punk and Latin. The Pop Group were one of the only other bands doing this at the time and we were really influenced by them. They had Dennis Bovell producing them and we had Martin Hannet. We were very jealous. After Martin produced ‘To Each’ we told Tony Wilson that we want to produce ourselves because too many people said we sounded like Joy Division and we didn’t want to sound industrial or rocky. We wanted to sound like the records we were listening to.
You famously played the first night of the Hacienda alongside ESG. As a live band, did you have much of an affinity with Manchester now legendary club culture? And what are your abiding memories of then going to New York around that whole period?
Of course we had an affinity with Manchester club culture and this started well before the Hacienda. The reason we met Hewan Clark, the first Hacienda DJ, was because we used to go to his jazz-funk night at Fevers way back in 1980. We then started to go to Legends where Colin Curtis and Greg Wilson used to DJ and we were quite often the only white guys in the club. We used to take our tunes and give them to Greg and Colin and they were the first DJs in Manchester to play ACR in a black music club. They used to mix jazz-funk with Latin, disco, electro and anything with a groove. We took ‘Skip Skada’, which is a sort of Latin percussion jam, for them to play and it filled the dance floor. The Jazz defectors, a Manchester dance troupe, used to perform to this song.
We were one of the first bands in the UK to tour with a DJ and no support act. In the early days it was Hewan Clark and later on Jon DaSilva who was also one of the Hacienda residents.
The Hacienda was important to us and we used to go there when it first opened and I can remember on the midweek nights being asked by bouncers to leave because there weren’t enough people there. That all changed when the ecstasy arrived and all those tunes from Chicago and then Detroit.
We went to New York in 1980 to record our first album and that had a massive influence on us. Hip-hop was just getting going and there were some really good clubs with sound systems which put clubs in the UK to shame. We also did a few gigs before and after making the album and ESG supported us. After spending a few weeks in NYC we had to come back to Manchester which was very depressing. There was so much music happening in NY and we saw people like Afrika Bambaataa, James Brown, Chick Corea, Salsa and Brazilian music all which influenced us greatly.
The second time we went to NYC the Danceteria had opened and we played there with Madonna supporting us. We also played the Roxy which was an amazing club.
When Acid House came around it was a whole new lease of life for ACR because we always thrive on something new to take and develop into our own. The NYC and hip-hop thing had become commercial and then all of a sudden this music that anyone could make happened. It was like the DIY punk explosion all over again.
We play a lot of club nights and prefer playing them to your normal ‘gig’ type venues. Recently we have played club nights such as Electric Chair in Manchester, Optimo in Glasgow, Fabric in London and festivals like ‘The Big Chill’.
Tony Wilson was once your manager. What’s your most fitting memory of him?
The new album is dedicated to Tony which we felt was fitting because it has a lot of the spirit we had when Tony managed us and it’s a pity he never got to hear it because we think he would have loved it. Tony loves lyrics and Jez’s lyrics on this album are the best he has ever written and the best lyrics I have heard in a long while. Not long after Tony stopped managing us Rob Gretton, New Order’s manager, took us under his wing and we started releasing stuff on his label Robs Records. The fact that both Tony and Rob looked after us at different stages in our career is a real honor and when I think about it there must be something special about us having two guys like that working with us. Both of them were special, talented people who did more for Manchester than any politician and were second only to the industrial revolution. It’s very sad that they are no longer with us and never got the chance to enjoy our new album.
My fondest memories of Tony were from our first trip to New York. He loved NYC and spending a few weeks with him taught us a lot about everything because he was a very knowledgeable person who was interested in music, the arts, culture, politics, sport and more. It was like having an extra father.
Visit their MySpace for full live dates.