‘People in raincoats with short hair were going ‘what the f***’s this?’ ’
Factory legends A Certain Ratio on Curtis, Martin Hannett, Grace Jones and a new album
A Certain Ratio’s Donald Johnson, Jez Kerr and Martin Moscrop: “Part of the reason we sounded like Joy Division was the gothic production of Martin Hannett. It didn’t really suit the music.” Photograph: Paul Husband
A few days after the death of Joy Division’s Ian Curtis in May 1980, Jez Kerr and the rest of A Certain Ratio visited the Macclesfield funeral home where the singer’s body lay in repose.
Respects paid, they hoofed it back to central Manchester for a concert. Under the spotlights, the dystopian funk troupe were soon negotiating one of their biggest hits, a baroque banger called Do the Du.
“My heart was just an open sore,” Kerr sang, looking out at the boisterous crowd and feeling he were in a surreal dream. “Which you picked at ‘til it was raw.”
Curtis’s death drew a line under Joy Division, which was reborn as the more pop-oriented New Order
“Ian’s death was a massive shock,” says Kerr, as A Certain Ratio prepare to release a thrilling and long-awaited 11th album, ACR Loco. “We did know he was having problems. Everybody felt that. It was a real blow. He was the pivotal person at Factory – his performance and his lyrics. We went to see his body. And straight afterwards we went to play a gig at DeVille’s. It was a strange time.”
“Factory” was Factory Records – the iconic Manchester label set up by dreamer and incorrigible wheeler-dealer Tony Wilson and which counted ACR, who were essentially LCD Soundsystem 25 years before LCD Soundsystem, as one of its headline acts. (The group’s name came from a lyric on Brian Eno’s Taking Tiger Mountain from 1974.)
“The press at the time was comparing us to Joy Division,” says ACR trumpet player and guitarist Martin Moscrop (the ensemble’s third member is drummer Donald Johnson) . “Part of the reason we sounded like Joy Division was the Gothic production of Martin Hannett. It didn’t really suit the music we had developed into.”
Hannett was an alcoholic and heroin user. He was also, depending on who you ask, a genius, maverick, diva and lunatic. He produced early ACR tracks such as Flight and the aforementioned Do the Du, along with their first album, 1979’s The Graveyard and the Ballroom. He was similarly in the control booth for Joy Division masterpieces Unknown Pleasures and Closer, the latter released weeks after Curtis’s suicide, which came amid failing health and the collapse of his marriage.
“He basically wanted the musicians to record and then f*** off,” says Kerr, ACR’s vocalist and bass player. “He didn’t want you hanging around. We didn’t want someone taking control the way he liked. It created loads of tension.”
Curtis’s death drew a line under Joy Division, which was reborn as the more pop-oriented New Order. A Certain Ratio were soon pushing on, too.
“We were always moving forward,” says Kerr. “We’d have an album out and we’d be playing live and we would be doing songs from the next album. We weren’t really guided in how we catered to our audience We lost a lot of our audience when we did the album Sextet, in 1982, which is really influenced by Brazilian music. All these people in raincoats with short hair were going ‘what the f**k’s this?’ That was really Tony Wilson’s philosophy. He’d rather something fail and it be a good story.”
ACR’s boundless musical curiosity is milked for laughs by Michael Winterbottom in his 2002 Factory biopic 24 Hour Party People, in which Steve Coogan portrays Tony Wilson. The band are a bit of a punchline in the movie, which argues incorrectly that Joy Division/New Order, Happy Mondays and The Durutti Column were the only Factory signings that mattered before the label’s collapse in 1992. They did and do matter. But so do ACR.
“The movie gets the spirit of Factory correct,” says Kerr. “I wouldn’t say it is factually exact. It got the sense that nobody knew what they were doing.”
Moscrop was musical adviser on 24 Hour Party People. However, he feels the film did ACR a disservice, with several jokes at the expense of their ever-evolving sound. Winterbottom does not dare joke about the saintly Joy Division.
“If anything, it had a slightly negative impact,” says Moscrop. “A lot of people forget that 24 Hour Party People is basically a comedy. They see it as a factual movie. There were things in it that are factual. But most of it isn’t.”
Annoyingly Winterbottom pinched some of ACR’s best anecdotes and turned them into Joy Division ones. “There’s a bit where Martin Hannett says, ‘Play it faster but play it slower’ in the studio [to Joy Division drummer Stephen Morris],” says Moscrop. “That was actually to us. The stories get twisted a little.”
A Certain Ratio and the other Factory bands were close, and if there was rivalry they never begrudged Joy Division’s success. “Ian’s death propelled them,” says Kerr. “They didn’t have massive hits. New Order created themselves from the ashes . . . It gave them this mythical status. Unknown Pleasures and Closer stand up. The death of Ian created a bigger myth than was actually there. Maybe sort of larger than life.”
Rather than another Joy Division, ACR are best thought of as Lancashire’s answer to Talking Heads (whom they supported in December 1979, Talking Heads’s management having fired the Human League upon learning they planned to just mime against video projections). Like David Byrne and company, their music is transcendentally jittery, as if left overnight to soak in caffeine, nicotine and creeping despair. But it glitters with a ferocious intelligence too.
Among those paying attention was Madonna, who opened for ACR at the Danceteria in Manhattan, where she worked in the cloakroom, and Grace Jones’ A&R man. In November 1980, the latter arranged for Jones to travel to Strawberry Studios in Stockport and lay down some ideas with the group and with Martin Hannett.
This was the afternoon after she slapped Russell Harty on live television, so the atmosphere was fraught. The band’s memories are of a terrified lackey trying to procure some wine for her. (In the end they had to purchase a carry-out from a local Indian restaurant.)
“It got shelved. It was probably because Chris Blackwell [Jones’s producer and label head] didn’t want Martin Hannett messing with his star singer,” says Kerr. “I was surprised at the time. I didn’t really know what was going on [and why there was never a follow-up session]. Later, I thought, well, Martin Hannett was a rival producer, really, with his own sound.”
Rawness of loss
ACR’s new LP pays testament of the band’s fortitude and brotherhood. Alas, it is a celebration tinged with heartbreak. One of the featured vocalists is Denise Johnson, who also sang with New Order and Primal Scream.
Tragically Johnson, who toured extensively with ACR, passed away in July aged 56. ACR Loco is a wonderful tribute to her. However, speaking to Kerr and Moscrop, it’s clear the pain of the unexpected loss is still raw.
I played with Man United from 11 to 17 . . . I saw the last days of George Best, Denis Law, Nobby Stiles, Bobby Charlton
“We played Dublin a few years ago and she jumped into the crowd,” says Kerr. “It [her death] has been a massive shock. She was one in a million – a very warm person. When we played a gig she would always make a point of thanking the bar staff and everyone.”
ACR Loco is a fantastic album. In pivoting from funk to electronica via baroque pop, it captures the sweep of the trio’s sound (and their influence on artists such as The Rapture and LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy). Still, there’s no getting past the fact A Certain Ratio are all gentleman of a certain age. It is slightly late in the evening for them to become household names.
They have a healthy sense of perspective about their lack of commercial success. Before joining the band, Kerr lined out at inside forward for Manchester United youths (his uncle, Eddie Thomas, played for Everton, Derby County, Swansea and Leyton Orient). An ankle injury brought his soccer career to a premature end at 17. So he knows life doesn’t always work out the way it does in movies (unless that movie is 24 Hour Party People).
“I played with Man United from 11 to 17,” he says. “I was a ball boy as well. I saw the last days of George Best, Denis Law, Nobby Stiles, Bobby Charlton . . . I signed schoolboy forms when I was 15. I got to know the players. I played five-a-side with George Best and Sammy McIlroy. Best was the finest player I ever saw. After my injury, I was looking for things to do.
“ACR was the first band I joined. I’m still in them. It’s all been quite an accident.”
ACR Loco is out now on Mute Records