- The Charlatans U.K. (Tim Burgess, foreground) are making danceable music again.
Three cheers for the steady bastards. Those not swayed by the swish of a passing skirt or the latest buzz. Anyone can be popular for a moment. (Does anyone know whether Jenny McCarthy is even alive?) What separates talent from luck is having more than one idea and the resilience to abide. Though it's been a bumpy, bittersweet ride, the Charlatans U.K. have survived the passing of the Manchester scene that birthed them, a tragic "family" loss, and countless music trends to establish themselves as Britain's most intriguing and unsung export.
They came of age in the white-hot glare of Manchester as the '80s came to a close, a time when the Stone Roses and Happy Mondays seemed on the precipice of world domination, thanks to their fusion of rock guitar with dance loops and rhythms. The Charlatans -- they were forced to take on the "U.K." because a '60s American garage band had laid claim to the name -- though popular, were generally seen as also-rans.
"We were," admits singer Tim Burgess. "But I like to consider us the leaders of the second generation. Just because of timing, really. Happy Mondays had been around for a long time when they broke, and so had the Stone Roses. So when they broke, everyone who was following behind them broke a lot quicker than they did."
Seventeen years later, the Charlatans U.K. are still standing and still vital, which is more than those other bands or their members can say at this point. Their meteoric rise to fame on the strength of their debut, Some Friendly, brought them together ("it all happened really quick, and we became like instant family"), but it's owing to their adventurous musical tastes that they persevere.
Speaking from London during a break from a video shoot for their new album, Sympatico, Burgess describes the quintet's itinerant tastes as a product of their expansive love of music.
"We all started off as music geeks really, where the music really helped us to get through the day when we were all in mundane jobs or getting the dole queue. Music got us through our lives," Burgess says.
In fact, it's what brought them together. The band's manager, Steve Harrison, ran a music shop, and much as Malcolm McLaren did more than a decade earlier with the Sex Pistols, he shoehorned one of his patrons into auditioning for his band.
"I used to hang out in his record store, and I guess he thought I looked like I needed something to do," Burgess laughs. "It was quite weird. And you think, 'What should I look like? Should I shave?'"
Neither as effortlessly poppy as the Roses nor as trippy as the Mondays, the Charlatans took a while to find their identity -- or perhaps simply to shed their first skin. Though they work a similar '60s-inspired neopsychedelic vibe, with lots of guitar jangle and warm textures, what's really distinctive is keyboardist Rob Collins' swirling Hammond organ, which evokes Deep Purple as wedded to a bubbly dance rhythm.
But by the time they followed up their U.K. hit debut with Between 10th & 11th, the air had gone out of Manchester. The album produced only one hit single, "Weirdo," and the Charlatans seemed well on their way to the cut-out bin. Making matters worse, Collins was convicted of armed robbery after following his drinking buddy into a liquor store.
"He committed the crime, but went to jail like nine months later," Burgess explains. "We made this, our third album, pretty much knowing that he was going to go down for a couple years. So it was quite a harrowing record to make.
The album, Up to Our Hips, was more organic in approach, calling upon classic rock influences from the Stones to the Faces and hinting at the coming Britpop explosion with the infectiously lilting hit "Can't Get Out of Bed." But an even bigger boost for the band came in the person of old Manchester chums the Chemical Brothers.
"They did the remixes for it, which added a new edge to it when [the Manchester sound] had started to fade, definitely. And then pretty much every record we did, they'd do a remix of, for a while. They added a new flavor, really," says Burgess.
The collaboration put the group back in the public eye and led to another U.K. No. 1, 1995's The Charlatans. But the comeback triumph was short-lived. During the recording of their next single, "One to Another," Collins was killed in a car accident. The band made the hard decision to soldier on, reaching No. 1 again with Tellin' Stories. Primal Scream's Martin Duffy offered to help out, and he filled Collins' shoes for a while.
"He's a very very gifted player as well, but very different than Rob, and so we played with him for a while and . . . we realized then there were other people. We can't replace Rob, but we can continue. Those were tough days, and obviously there were a few dark times when I thought, 'What's the point, our mate's gone,' but then you get through to the point where what doesn't kill you makes you stronger," Burgess says.
Keyboardist Tony Rodgers eventually replaced Collins, and the Charlatans continued to explore new sounds in the Blonde on Blonde-inflected Us and Us Only, the groovier, more dance-driven Wonderland (released on September 11, 2001, on the eve of a subsequently canceled U.S. tour), the more sedate, reflective Up at the Lake, and this year's Simpatico.
Simpatico is as danceable, catchy, and stylish as anything the band's released since Tellin' Stories. The band was inspired, Burgess admits, by the recent emergence of a new wave of groups mixing dance and rock, such as LCD Soundsystem. (Burgess is a fan.) Still, at its core, the Charlatans' aesthetic has remained consistent: "The music is quite uplifting, but we have a dark lyric over it, becoming like an oxymoron."
While songs such as the reggaefied "City of the Dead" and the haunting "When the Lights Go Out in London," about the terrorist tube bombings, bear the mark of the dark times we live in, Burgess -- who's married to an American and now lives in L.A. -- doesn't spend all his time worrying about the state of the world.
"I think I definitely got affected by the world and ended up feeling sorry for myself. No, I'm just kidding," he says offering a big, self-mocking laugh. "I'm a huge fan of Project Runway and American Idol. I'm just taken in by all this TV. Basically, when I'm not writing underground pop classics, I'm watching trash TV."