Overlooked: The Charlatans UK
Overlooked are playlists and write-ups that focus on artists that didn’t get the attention their music deserved during their time. Click on the streaming service of your choice below to listen to the playlist as you read along.
The extent to which The Charlatans have been overlooked depends entirely on where you’re from. In their native England, they’ve been very successful over their thirty year career. Outside of the UK, they’ve been criminally overlooked despite getting off to a good start in North America with their first two albums. In North America they’ve had to be known as The Charlatans UK due to a conflict with the San Francisco based, psychedelic-folk band of the same name (who were inactive at the time of The Charlatans UK arrival, but subsequently revived for periods in the ‘90s and 2000s). Therefore, being in Canada, it is with the ‘UK’ moniker that I’ve always known them. Regardless their name and reputation on this side of the ocean, there is a deep supply of great Brit pop and rock across the band’s thirteen albums.
The band was formed in 1988 by bassist Martin Blunt when he was joined with Rob Collins on keyboards, Jon Brookes on drums, and Jon Baker on guitar. The first singer was soon replaced by Tim Burgess which prompted a relocation north from the West Midlands to Northwich, which is south of and in between Liverpool and Manchester. As they recorded their first singles and album they would gain attention as part of the blossoming scene in Manchester at the time, to be known as Madchester. Their success was driven by their second single, “The Only One I Know,” followed by the single “Then” off their stellar debut album, Some Friendly. I still remember hearing “The Only One I Know” on Toronto station CFNY late one night in 1990. The organ flavouring the sound with driving guitar and thick drum and bass, along with Burgess’ slightly faraway vocals was a fresh take on the retro, ‘60s psychedelic sound and a thrill to hear after several years of generally uninspiring modern rock in the late ‘80s (I’ve read them compared to Spencer Davis Group, which is apt). Along with fellow Mancunians, The Stone Roses, The Charlatans helped restore Britpop into a dominant position among modern rock fans.
They followed the debut with another fantastic album, Between 10th and 11th, featuring the infectious and thrilling songs, “Tremelo Song” and “Weirdo” (that has an amazing organ intro, which you don’t hear everyday in modern rock). This album saw a change in guitarists as Mark Collins (no relation to Rob) replaced Baker. These first two cd’s, sheer joy from start to finish, were regulars on my stereo over the early ‘90s and I had a blast seeing them at The Concert Hall in Toronto in April of 1992 in a great double-bill with Catherine Wheel. The third album, Up to Our Hips, was good but not in keeping with the almost impossible standard they’d created with the first two. It was less edgy and more of a straight ahead, pop-rock sound with a Beatles vibe (they’ve always favoured the mop top hairstyles, as did many of the Madchester acts). I always thought the lead single, “Can’t Get Out of Bed,” was reminiscent of ‘80s modern rockers out of London, Squeeze, though from today’s standpoint sounds closer to Oasis, who was just starting then. The change in sound would be followed through more completely in the following four albums in the 1990s as The Charlatans settled into the Britpop sound that dominated the ‘90s, accompanied by fellow Mancunians, Oasis, as well as Blur, Pulp, and many others.
Whether it was losing the attention that the Madchester scene garnered for them, the change in their sound to a more traditional style or being eclipsed by the larger profile of their Britpop contemporaries like Oasis and Blur, The Charlatans lost their international following but maintained their success in the UK. Their debut album went to #1 in the UK, the next two did ok, but the next four between 1995-2001 each peaked at #1 or #2 in the UK charts. After the first two, none of their albums would chart again in the US. And while their singles are strong, their songs have never charted too highly, even in the UK, where they’ve never had a #1 but have cracked the top ten with four songs over their career. What is easily acknowledged through this is their consistency, as each album rarely has weak moments but can run a little too monotonous at times. Making this playlist it was just as easy to pull album tracks as singles to represent their sound from album to album.
The new century also marked changes for the band. They had lost keyboardist Rob Collins in 1996 who died in a traffic accident. There were less keyboards in their late ‘90s albums before Tony Rogers joined to fill that gap. He toured with them for Tellin’ Stories and was on the recordings for Us and Us Only in 1999. In 2001 they released a soul influenced album, Wonderland, which was followed by the fantastic Up at the Lake in 2004. The music from that album onwards seemed to step onto a newer plane, as the band’s sound was better produced, more smoothly written, and more engaging to the ear. They eased out of the harsher guitars of Britpop and settled into a nicer, R&B groove thereafter while occasionally dipping their sound into their original, ‘60s psychedelia of the first two albums. Their music often sounds like the Rolling Stones to me (not surprisingly, they’ve opened for The Stones), especially when the acoustic guitar comes to the fore, though Tim’s nasally vocals would never be confused with Mick Jagger’s. One of their more experimental efforts was Simpatico in 2006, which featured many songs with a strong reggae slant. It worked pretty well with their sound and was a nice change-up to the rest of their repertoire. I’ve also detected some similarities to their early oughts music to later day New Order, another fellow Manchester band (you can hear this in “Mis-Take” and other songs around You Cross My Path).
The band has continued to release very strong albums over the past ten years but had to deal with another loss when drummer Jon Brookes died of a brain tumour in 2013. His condition was discovered after he collapsed on stage in 2010, resulting in the cancellation of the rest of their tour which was to include a show in Toronto at the Mod Club in which I had tickets. Drums has been covered since through a selection of guest players from Manchester which have included Peter Salisbury of The Verve and Stephen Morris of New Order. I will have the chance to see The Charlatans again for the first time in 26 years when they visit Toronto at the end of September 2018.
The Charlatans have been one of the most successful and enduring bands of the Madchester wave of acts from the early ‘90s. They haven’t been able to translate their native success into international attention, but that takes nothing away from an impressive repertoire of albums and songs produced over a thirty year career. Their retro-rock and Britpop sound have strongly carried the tradition of modern rock forward, making sure those vibes stay alive in the contemporary music world.
The Playlist - song \ album (year)
Everything Changed \ B-side to The Only One I Know single (1990)
The Only One I Know \ non-album single, included on Some Friendly in North America (1990)
Then \ Some Friendly (1990)
Flower \ Some Friendly (1990)
Tremelo Song \ Between 10th and 11th (1992)
Weirdo \ Between 10th and 11th (1992)
(No One) Not Even the Rain \ Between 10th and 11th (1992)
Come in Number 21 \ Up to Our Hips (1994)
Can’t Get Out of Bed \ Up to Our Hips (1994)
Just When You’re Thinkin’ Things Over \ The Charlatans (1995)
One to Another \ Tellin’ Stories (1997)
North Country Boy \ Tellin’ Stories (1997)
The Blind Stagger \ Us and Us Only (1999)
Judas \ Wonderland (2001)
Up at the Lake \ Up at the Lake (2004)
Feel the Pressure \ Up at the Lake (2004)
High Up Your Tree \ Up at the Lake (2004)
Blackened Blue Eyes \ Simpatico (2006)
The Architect \ Simpatico (2006)
Mis-Takes \ You Cross My Path (2008)
My Name is Despair \ You Cross My Path (2008)
Love is Ending \ Who We Touch (2010)
Smash the System \ Who We Touch (2010)
Talking in Tones \ Modern Nature (2015)
Emilie \ Modern Nature (2015)
Let the Good Times Be Never Ending \ Modern Nature (2015)
Solutions \ Different Days (2017)
Not Forgotten \ Different Days (2017)
Totally Eclipsing \ non-album single (2018)