In the summer of 1996, I was abroad, lucky enough to be studying art history in Italy, the renaissance Eden of architecture, painting and sculpture. Like many in university, I left behind many of my foundational supports: family and friends, weekly comic book fixes, the late 1980’s and early 1990’s British music I loved to listen to, and the live concerts and underground dance clubs I frequented.
Surrounded by all of the fantastic culture and experiences that Siena, Florence and Venice had to offer, of everything I had left behind, it was music that I was most missing. My music.
At the time, the Spice Girls debut, “Wannabe,” was all over the in-house speaker systems of every café, restaurant or museum shop in Italy, but I was pining for the alternative Britpop sounds that I so adored on those dodgy late night, broken glass-covered dance floors, left-of-the-dial radio stations, and my extensive CD collection of albums and singles by musical artists that the mainstream world had never heard of. All of that was left behind at home, waiting for my eventual return. But I was missing them, heavily, in the here and now.
In late July of that travel/study experience, I desperately and thankfully discovered a tiny but impressive record shop in the small, northern town of Castelfranco. It carried the New Music Express, a weekly newspaper touchstone into all things British music. It was there, in the nearby piazza, that I sat down and unfolded the latest issue of the NME and read that Rob Collins, the iconic and beloved keyboardist of the great Britpop band, The Charlatans UK, had died.
Coming off a UK number one with the 1995 release of their self-titled fourth album, The Charlatans UK were hard at work in the studio laying down blistering tracks to what would be their fifth, with an August support slot for Oasis’ highly anticipated Knebworth concert on the near-term agenda. That’s when word came that Collins had been in a violent car accident on July 22, on his way to the studio, and had passed away.
Collins’ Hammond keyboard work had been a signature sound for the band since their inception in the late 1980’s. At their core, The Charlatans UK were psychedelic rock fused with American soul, but the group stretched their interests over time, growing and evolving to adopt acid house, electronic and shades of 60’s folk into their music. They were brilliant musicians, dedicated to the artform, but also students of its history. Many bands tried, but no one sounded quite like The Charlatans UK coming out of the glory days of the Madchester music scene. And the sounds that Collins conjured had been at the heart of it all.
The raucous “One To Another,” the planned first single from their upcoming fifth album, was released on August 26, 1996, nearly a month after Collins’ death. It was a radio hit with the song reaching number three on the UK Singles Chart, the band’s highest-ever charting song. With its brooding industrial keyboard sounds, swirling guitar and heavy drum and bass, the song fueled expectations and pointed at growing anticipation by fans for an eventual album release. There was also heightened mainstream interest due to the death of Collins, the shocking news of which had been splashed across all British media headlines.
Following that tragic loss, The Charlatans UK reconvened in studio, drafting Primal Scream’s Martin Duffy to contribute keyboards in order to help finish where Collins’ work had, unfortunately, left off. Tom Rowlands, of the electro-dance band The Chemical Brothers, was also onboard to provide loops. The album, Tellin’ Stories, was released on April 21, 1997 and was a critical hit. It went to number one in the UK, ultimately reaching platinum status.
The album opens with the song “With No Shoes,” whose first sounds are harmonica overlaid with an echoing guitar reverb, a marriage of new rave and traditional America folk sounds. Immediately, listeners knew that Tellin’ Stories was going to be something interesting.
The second track and second single, “North Country Boy,” was more straight-ahead rock-pop even with The Charlatans UK signature sound still being omnipresent. Thrust forward by the groove of Martin Blunt’s bass and the throb of Jon Brookes’ drumming, fleshed out by guitarist Mark Collins’ brilliantly twangy and catchy riffs, Tim Burgess’ always sugary vocals and Rob Collins’ signature Hammond organ sounds that drift tantalizingly between the background and foreground, the song is an accessible and eminently singable fan favourite. It had mainstream success immediately and became a live show stalwart, still sounding as fresh today as the day it was first released.
“How Can You Leave Us” is an emotional call to the band’s departed keyboardist. “I don’t want to believe it, how can you leave us, how can you bleed on us,” Burgess plaintively sings in the chorus. It’s a harrowing and desperate song about family and the twists that come with relationships, the loss of innocence and the dearly departed. “No Saint will save you this time round,” continues Burgess, “I only wish you were here with us now.” The song is an important story and a significant touchstone in the oeuvre of the band’s existence.
On an album that alternates between the elegiac and plaintive, the boisterous and thoughtful “How High,” the third single from Tellin’ Stories, offers an energetic lust-for-life sound and fury. The song is anthemic, full of bravado guitar licks and rich, room filling piano breaks. Lyrics like “I’m gonna let you pass on another path I want to be the king while you zig zag on a holy road like Caine from Kung Fu oh! I can kiss the sun” could be comfortable in a rap if it had different genre percussion and a different vocalist. Here, it sounds all big, open-air rock’n’roll and, under the definitive vocal of Tim Burgess, the message is an urgent, nearly open-verse, plea to live life to the fullest, a hallmark subject for the Charlatans UK.
Birthing four successful singles, three of which entered the top ten in the UK, Tellin’ Stories proper (some copies of the release contained bonus tracks) runs at eleven songs, including two instrumentals, of which the closing track is affectionally titled “Rob’s Theme.” That offering begins with pastoral meadow and babbly brook samples, overlaid by a young child’s indecipherable voice, before experimental keyboard sounds envelope those of nature. A trippy hip-hop drum beat jumps in, providing the backbone on which all the other sounds are showcased. At just under four minutes in length, “Rob’s Theme” is a slow and fascinating dirge of studio manufactured sounds, the varied musical interest of the band and the remembrance of their lost, founding member, who continues to influence generations of musicians.
Dedicated to the memory of Rob Collins, Tellin’ Stories by The Charlatans UK is a wonderful and timeless album that showcases both a band in transition and one exhibiting the hard-fought trait of perseverance, an aspect that has remained with them. The band also lost their original drummer, Jon Brookes, in 2013 due to a brain tumor, but have carried on with the help of friends, family and each other.
Still releasing music today, with a career that spans nearly four decades and thirteen studio albums, not including best of and rarities compilations, The Charlatans UK, ever young, are the true survivors of Madchester and the early 1990’s Britpop scene. They are musicians whose love of music, in all of its varied forms and genres, is found in the heart of their constantly evolving music. They are an influential band and an important remembrance during young adulthood. They are also a welcomed friend across modern radio and digital playlists, heard in the ears of old and new fans, alike.
As all great and indispensable music offers, The Charlatans UK are, like the lyric in “How High” of the seminal Tellin’ Stories album states, “the hand that holds and keeps you warm and helps you live today.”
JP Fallavollita is the Consulting Editor and regular contributor to Biff Bam Pop!