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Tim Burgess of The Charlatans: ‘The fact that we’re still making music is an amazing thing’





That irresistible groove, that confident swagger, those anthemic hits, that hair, no, I’m not talking about Oasis, but The Charlatans, one of England’s most beloved indie rock groups and one of the few acts to emerge from the ‘Madchester’ scene of the late 80s/early 90s that has never gone away, despite personal tragedy and ever-changing trends.

The Charlatans, pictured in 1990
The Charlatans, pictured in 1990

To (belatedly) celebrate their 30th anniversary – the band was also at the forefront of the whole ‘Britpop’ movement of the mid-90s – The Charlatans are to embark on a UK tour this November and December, starting in Manchester on November 15 and calling in at the Cambridge Corn Exchange on December 3.

Accompanying the tour is an outstanding career-spanning best-of titled A Head Full of Ideas, which is also available as a six-vinyl LP box set and two-CD deluxe album. It was released on October 15.

The new 2021 Charlatans compilation album A Head Full of Ideas
The new 2021 Charlatans compilation album A Head Full of Ideas

Over the years, the band – which currently consists of singer Tim Burgess, bass player Martin Blunt, guitarist Mark Collins and keyboard player Tony Rogers – has had 13 top 40 studio albums, three of them number ones, and has notched up an impressive 22 hit singles, four of which made the top 10.

Sadly, the rollercoaster highs have been accompanied by some shattering lows, any of which could have felled a less resilient band, from nervous breakdowns to near bankruptcy and the deaths of two original members.

Possessing one of the most instantly recognisable voices in alternative rock, Tim Burgess spoke to the Cambridge Independent as he was arriving at Crewe station to catch a train to London.

“Last night I did a solo gig, in Manchester,” says the likeable musician, 54, who released I Believe, the first of his five solo albums, back in 2003. “That was for the album I Love the New Sky which came out in May 2020 – I’m just doing the shows for it now.”

Tim Burgess
Tim Burgess

Tim kept himself busy during lockdown by hosting Tim’s Twitter Listening Party, which puts a particular rock album past or present in the spotlight. Fans stream or play the album in real time on their own, while the actual musicians involved in the making of that particular longplaying effort live-tweet stories and anecdotes behind the songs.

The project has attracted members of such iconic bands as Iron Maiden, Culture Club, Tears for Fears, The Smiths, The Go-Go’s, and New Order – as well as Paul McCartney – to participate. Fans are invited to follow and share their memories via the hashtag #TimsTwitterListeningParty.

Tim even put out a book, The Listening Party: Artists, Bands And Fans Reflect On 100 Favourite Albums, in early September. “It was a fascinating thing,” says the hard-working star of his ambitious undertaking, which has proved incredibly popular, “but also a good way for me to focus on something that I love, which is music.

The Charlatans
The Charlatans

“It was a time where people were really stressing out and the listening parties, certainly for me, gave me something to look forward to and focus on. They gave me some joy during a really weird time.”

Did Tim, who lived in Los Angeles for a number of years, miss touring and performing? “I got used to not doing it,” he says. “I spent most of my time writing books and lyrics and music – 10 hours a day at the beginning at least on the Listening Party. But musicians are really adaptable and so when you stop touring, you just stop touring, and when you can again then you kind of get used to it.”

The main disc of the A Head Full of Ideas compilation comprises 21 tracks and includes such perennial Charlatans favourites as The Only One I Know, Just When You’re Thinkin’ Things Over, North Country Boy and One to Another, but Tim says it wasn’t difficult when it came to narrowing down the songs they wanted to include.

“This is the third best-of that the band has done, the first one being Melting Pot, the second one Forever: The Singles,” he notes, “and we kind of looked at them both and tried to do something a little bit different for the early years – and then there’s later things, the BMG era: Different Days [2017] and Modern Nature [2015].”

Tim says he especially loves singing The Only One I Know – “Obviously, because it’s a huge song” – “and I really love Come Home Baby because it means so much to me that song.”

I mentioned Just When You’re Thinkin’ Things Over as a personal favourite. “That’s amazing too, I really love that one,” agrees Tim. “It’s quite a big song – it’s the biggest song on that album [1995’s The Charlatans] and I think it got the album to number one really.”

Comments on its memorable video on YouTube include statements such as “Most underrated song of all time”. Does Tim feel that, despite its enormous success, the band has been somewhat underrated (certainly, Blur and Oasis seemed to get all the plaudits circa 1995)? “Yes, of course – underrated and overrated in some ways,” he laughs. “I’m completely happy with the path that The Charlatans have taken musically.

“I mean obviously there’s been elements of tragedy – huge tragedies which, if I had a magic wand, I would have erased, but as far as we go musically... The band has been going since 1989 and we make music now, and that is something that we all wanted to be in a band for. So the fact that we’re all still doing it is just an amazing thing – I love that. I wouldn’t give that up for the world.”

The “huge tragedies” to which Tim refers are the deaths of founding Brookes, the keyboard player and drummer who died in 1996 and 2013 respectively. Asked whether the band pays tribute to its fallen comrades in its upcoming concerts, Tim replies: “I would like to think so...

“I haven’t thought about it just yet but every time that Rob or Jon has a birthday, or there’s an anniversary of their deaths, we always tweet about it, or put something up on Instagram or Facebook. We won’t let them be forgotten. I mean I’m sure they’ll be some images of them as part of the visuals and the light show.”

The Charlatans first rose to prominence alongside the likes of Happy Mondays, The Stone Roses, Inspiral Carpets, James, and 808 State as part of the ‘Madchester’ scene that took pop music by storm at the tail end of the 1980s.

The Charlatans. Picture: Tom Sheehan
The Charlatans. Picture: Tom Sheehan

Tim looks back on it fondly as a great time. “Hugely... you’ve got to think that people only report on the reverberations of what’s actually happening, so that music is still looked at as a classic moment – a revolutionary moment – in music.

“The reason why people still talk about it now is because the music has reverberated around the world, and that was the intention.”

Despite The Charlatans’ impressive longevity, the Salford-born singer is sceptical about the band taking after the Rolling Stones and making it to its 50th anniversary. “I hope not!” he laughs. “Who knows? I didn’t even know that we’d last over a year, because you have to have that kind of feeling where you live for the moment and you just make the most of it.

“Every time we make an album... we’ve always made an album thinking it was the last one that we were going to do because if you don’t, then you’re a bit laissez-faire about it. You have to be determined to make something that you think is going to be really important.”

Tim hopes to carry on leading an “authentic life” and writing about it and says that the plan is to start working on new material with The Charlatans next year. In the meantime, check out A Head Full of Ideas and book tickets to their Cambridge gig on Friday, December 3 at cornex.co.uk. You won’t be disappointed. For more on The Charlatans, go to thecharlatans.net.

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