A Certain Ratio: sum of their parts

One of the first post-punk bands to get to grips with funk, A Certain Ratio insist not having a major hit has been a key to their success

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It seems unlikely now but back in November 1980 fashion icon and disco legend Grace Jones visited Stockport’s Strawberry Studios to meet Manchester post-punk band A Certain Ratio about collaborating on a single and possibly travelling to the Bahamas to produce her next record.

“The main thing that she liked about the tune was our haircuts,” recalls guitarist Martin Moscrop with a robust laugh. Suffice to say, Jones never returned to complete her vocal for the single – a cover of Talking Heads’ Houses In Motion – and the session tapes were placed on a shelf somewhere, left to collect dust for four decades.

Now they’ve been unearthed and reworked for ACR:Box, a comprehensive 54-track, four-CD box set featuring over 20 unreleased songs alongside singles, B-sides, demos and alternative versions from the group’s extensive back catalogue.

“People ask us to do Factory things all the time but we’re not into that sort of thing.”

“We were going through all these DAT tapes, hundreds of them, 30 per cent of which chewed up in the machine because they had mould on them, finding things that we’d forgotten even existed,” explains Moscrop, who remastered the compilation at Abbey Road Studios. “To me, sometimes the demos sound better than the final tunes, so it’s great letting fans finally hear that.”

“The ACR box set is really for the fans that have got all our albums and want more. I think they’ll love it,” chips in bassist and singer Jeremy “Jez” Kerr, seated alongside Moscrop in a small backstage room at Manchester venue Yes, where A Certain Ratio – or ACR, as their fans know them – will host a two-day festival to celebrate their 40th anniversary this week.

The two men first met when Moscrop’s band Alien Tint supported an early version of A Certain Ratio – named after a Brian Eno lyric – at Manchester’s Band On The Wall in the late 1970s. He joined them that same night. In May 1979, the band released its debut single, the brilliant, brooding All Night Party, which became the first Factory single-artist release.

The line-up consisted of Kerr, Moscrop, Peter Terrel and singer Simon Topping. The addition of drummer Donald Johnson to their ranks later that year took them “to another level”, recalls Kerr, laying the foundations for the band’s then pioneering mix of industrial post-punk, jerky funk, dub, jazz and electronics, influenced by George Clinton, Wire, Bootsy Collins, Velvet Underground, Throbbing Gristle, Hermeto Pascoal and Kraftwerk.

A support slot with Talking Heads on their 1979 UK tour brought the Manchester group to a wider audience and is said to have inspired David Byrne to go down a funkier direction. Kerr and Moscrop think that aspect of ACR’s history has been exaggerated but don’t doubt that they made a strong impression.

“He was on the side of the stage every night checking us out,” recalls Kerr. “He asked us who we listened to. We said Parliament and Funkadelic and I remember he didn’t know who George Clinton was.”

Moscrop picks up the story. “The next time Talking Heads toured they had [Parliament and Funkadelic founder member] Bernie Worrell playing keyboards, so that’s where that story comes from,” he says with a chuckle. “They were a great band. We were influenced by them.”

Over the next six years ACR released five albums on Factory, culminating in 1986’s Force. Although they never enjoyed the wider recognition that label mates Joy Division/New Order and the Happy Mondays received, the band’s influence can be heard today in everyone from LCD Soundsystem to Franz Ferdinand to post-punk duo Sink Ya Teeth, one of several acts performing at their festival.

Also on the bill are The Orielles, Section 25 and Shadowparty, while ACR will perform different sets, including one featuring Topping and Terrell, who left the band in the early 1980s. Kerr and Moscrop say it will be a celebratory, emotional affair without wallowing in nostalgia.

“People ask us to do Factory things all the time but we’re not into that sort of thing. If it’s a special occasion we’ll do it, but we don’t want to hammer the past too much,” explains Moscrop. He says A Certain Ratio, who released a further five studio albums post-Factory, remain a group looking towards the future.

“ACR have always been a forward-thinking band. What’s been before has been done. It’s about doing something new. This period we’re going through now is just as exciting, if not more exciting, than when we were 18 or 19. The most exciting thing about music
is every record that you make.”

To that end, the band are working on their first new album since 2008’s Mind Made Up, to be released on their new label Mute Records, also home to New Order.

Asked what they think is behind ACR’s lasting popularity, Kerr pulls no punches. “Not having a hit. Having a hit is what fucks it up for you. It defines you almost.” He draws a comparison between ACR and New Order, who despite enjoying huge global success, were born of the same independent punk ethos.

“Which is: we want to sound great. We want to be the best band in the world. Never rest on our laurels and always look to the next thing. And because we’ve always done that I think people see an integrity in that. We’ve always been a bit under the radar. We’re like Marmite. People either love us or hate us, which I like. When you really annoy someone you’re doing the right thing.”

“Arrogance as well is key,” adds Moscrop. “You’ve got to believe in yourself. It’s like when we DJ. We don’t pander to what people want because it’s pay day and people are pissed. When you’re playing records, your job is to educate people. It’s about: ‘Listen to this tune. You’ve not heard this before.’ And it’s the same with playing in a band. Music is about sharing something new and turning people onto new things. That’s what I get out of it anyway.”

Kerr says the hardest years for ACR were the mid-period, just before they left Factory, when they’d had a modicum of success, but not enough to make a living. Would they have traded their legacy as post-punk pioneers for having a hit? “Actually, no,” says Kerr after a long pause. “Because if we had it would be different now. It tends to create pressures. It’s the tunes that stand up at the end of the day and the records that you’ve released. Once you’re long dead and gone, it’s those that still remain.”

When ACR play live nowadays the audience contains a mix of young and old, while the six-piece touring line-up – also featuring singer Denise Johnson, percussionist Tony Quigley and keyboardist Matt Steele – is the “strongest band we’ve ever had,” claims Kerr. “The tunes have taken on a new life.”

“We’re getting lots of people coming to gigs who haven’t been for quite a few years or have never seen us and they’re the ones that are most surprised,” says Moscrop.

“If you listen to Houses In Motion, that demo was done in 1980 and it sounds like a record today. That’s more important that having success – the fact that your music is timeless and people respect you because of the music that you’ve made, rather than the popularity of it.”

“And those tracks will be there forever,” adds a nodding Kerr. “At the moment, we can’t wait to get onstage and play the tunes. It’s the best feeling in the world. All the money and all the popularity mean nothing as long as there’s some guy or girl at the front absolutely blown away by what you’re doing. And you’re blown away by what you’re doing. You don’t need anything else.”

ACR: Box is out now on Mute. A Certain Ratio play Liverpool, Phase One on 23 May, Manchester, Yes on 24/25 May and Sheffield, Leadmill on 30 May. They also make festival appearances at We Out Here, Green Man and Hardwick Live festivals in August 

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