The Charlatans: Great survivors of rock‘n’roll
There’s an incredible moment during our conversation with Charlatans singer Tim Burgess which reveals all there is to know.
We’ve talked about the band’s present tour, which started in Newcastle at the end of November and features a string of sold-out shows. We’ve also spoken about Burgess’s side-hustle as a successful author, his inspired use of social media, and his altruistic campaigning for bands to get a better deal on merch.
We’ve looked back at the band’s extraordinary history – for few bands have had a more Rolling Stones-like tilt at the rock’n’roll dream than the men who once rehearsed at a small studio in Wednesbury.
And then I ask Burgess what he’s made of it all, what sense of perspective, or what reflections, he’s had on his journey?
He laughs. “I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy,” he says. And his comment is brilliantly honest, profoundly insightful, and remarkably true.
Because being in a rock’n’roll band that lasts from the late 1980s, when they recorded demos in Birmingham and Dudley, and practised in Walsall and Wednesbury, through to the present has featured a hellish number of ups and downs.
After exploding onto a scene that had been enjoying acid house – and being likened to the Spencer Davis Group on E – The Charlatans were soon swept up in a wave of music that included the brilliant and remarkably influential Stone Roses, who they supported in one of their earliest gigs, in 1988.
They enjoyed indie success on Beggars Banquet offshoot, Situation Two, and had soon become mainstays of the chart, with their debut album, Some Friendly, featuring The Only One I Know, which became one of the defining tracks of the Madchester and baggy scenes and took them to number one on the chart.
Such highs, however, were punctuated with lows. Around the time of their brilliant hit single, Weirdo, which coincided with a series of successful Daytripper gigs, keyboardist Rob Collins was charged with armed robbery after a friend had robbed an off-licence while he was waiting in the car outside. Collins claimed to have no foreknowledge of the robbery until he heard a gunshot inside the shop and his friend exited, although he later admitted that he should not have picked up his friend after he had realised what he had done. In court he pleaded guilty to the lesser charge of “assisting an offender after an offence” and served four months in prison.
There were happier days to come. The band enjoyed fame during the mid-nineties, topping the UK albums charts and enjoying such hits as Just When You’re Thinkin’ Things Over. The roller coaster continued, however, as Collins was killed in a road traffic accident during the recording of the band’s fifth album, Tellin’ Stories. While the band were supporting Oasis at Knebworth at a gig that was the high point of Britpop, they were also mourning the mercurial talent of Collins, whose death came during recording sessions at Rockfield Studios.
And so Burgess saying he wouldn’t wish the band’s 35-year history on his own worst enemy is perhaps not surprising. From the imprisonment and unexpected sudden death of Collins to playing alongside Oasis at Knebworth, from the death of drummer Jon Brookes in 2013, from a brain tumour, to supporting Liam Gallagher at the Etihad Stadium, in Manchester, last year, from the endless shenanigans, rip-offs, highs and lows of four decades in the music industry to the release of seven albums that variously secured platinum, gold, and silver discs. Not to mention hitting number one on three occasions and number two twice, The Charlatans have embodied the highs and lows, ups and downs, highlights and hang-ups that come with rock’n’roll.
Not since The Rolling Stones has any band endured such a turbulent run and survived. Most bands – from Oasis down – give up the ghost when the pressure gets too much. But The Charlatans have stayed the course and their present tour – which reaches The Halls, at Wolverhampton on December 8 – is an opportunity to celebrate.
“We’re looking forward to playing Wolverhampton,” says Burgess. “We’ve had some great nights there. That part of the world’s important to us anyway. We had our origins in the Black Country, around Walsall and Wednesbury, so there’s a strong connection. But it’s also the people, they’re so warm and friendly, they’re always up for a good night and we’ve got a good history there.”
There’s been real longevity in The Charlatans and while former members Brookes and Collins have passed, fellow stalwarts Martin Blunt, Tim Burgess, and Mark Collins remain. There’s a sense of family, a sense of familiarity, about the band.
The Charlatans, unlike so many from their generation, are not a band who feature one remaining member and a bunch of guys from Leicester, America, or somewhere else. They’re a band of brothers, a group with shared history, a collection of people who’ve lived and grown together.
Not that that makes songwriting particularly easy, these days. “We all live in different parts of the world and so it’s harder to get together to make new music,” says Tim. “One of the band likes jamming, the other hates jamming, I’m somewhere in between.”
And so, for now, there are no imminent plans to follow the band’s most recent record, Different Days, which was released in 2017 and was the band’s 13th studio album. It was their most ambitious record for many years and, arguably, their best for 20-odd years.
The turning tide of the music industry has made it harder for bands to record, even those with such a loyal fanbase as The Charlatans.
Music is considered free, by most people, who stream it, rather than buy it, in an era where bands receive next to nothing of the royalties from streaming sites.
That, in part, has led to one of Burgess’s most notable crusades – to give bands a fair deal on the sale of their merchandise.
Burgess has used his platform to speak out.
“Look, this isn’t particularly about us, it’s more about the new bands that are coming through and need their merch money to stay afloat. If they can’t survive by selling a few T-shirts, they can’t afford to carry on and that means they’re lost for good, which is wrong.”
Against such a backdrop, band members also have to be smart in the way they spend their time.
The days of touring, recording an album, taking time off, touring, and recording another album have long gone. That’s no longer viable.
An increasing number of musicians produce records by other bands while, in Burgess’s case, he’s begun a successful side-hustle as a writer.
The kid who left school at 16 and worked for the ICI overseas distribution department at Runcorn has hosted BBC Radio 6, appeared in a short film, and written a magnificent autobiography, Telling Stories, before going on to write a series of other books, including the equally popular Vinyl Adventures From Istanbul to San Francisco.
“I’ve enjoyed doing the books, yeah,” he says. “We’ll see what happens in the future. They were fun to work on and a different way of getting the story out there.”
His autobiography was a no-holds-barred affair, which detailed the hardship – and, also, offered further insight into Burgess’s earlier ‘I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy’ line.
“Everything that happened happened because we made a decision at a point in time and at certain ages. I had a relationship with drugs for quite a long time. I’m glad it’s over but at the same time I don’t regret it.
“I must have enjoyed it because I did it for so long. It’s the same with the relationship with other people. They lasted as long as they did because they were mostly quite good.”
One of his books, The Listening Party, was a product of the pandemic. In March 2020, when the Covid-19 pandemic resulted in most live music concerts being cancelled, Burgess started “Tim’s Twitter Listening Party”, where he would tweet whilst listening to an album with one or more guests, normally a member of the band, who would provide insights and anecdotes about the songs, recording the album or other associated items.
Over 700 parties were held in the first year. On August 31 2023, Burgess announced on his X (formerly Twitter) account that there would be no more additions of “Tim’s Twitter Listening Party” but it would continue as a radio and podcast format.
On March 20, 2023, it was announced that Burgess would present Tim’s Listening Party, a six-part radio and podcast series based on Tim’s Twitter Listening Party, which would air on Sunday nights on Absolute Radio. The first series began on March 26, 2023 followed by a second series on July 23, 2023, which will have eight episodes. A third series began airing on October 29, 2023.
“Those have been great,” he says. “When the pandemic came, all of us were stopped from doing the thing we’d done for all of our lives. We couldn’t play shows, we couldn’t record music together in the studio, we couldn’t go out and come up with ideas. We just had to stop.
“So the listening parties were a way of reconnecting. They were also a way of celebrating albums. They were a chance to listen to some of the obscure tracks and deep cuts that so often get neglected.”
The parties proved hugely successful and reached a vast online audience, before switching to radio, where they’ve been similarly successful.
Thoughts of books, crusades, and social media successes however are, for now, furthest from Burgess’s mind. Being back on the road provides an opportunity to rekindle friendships with long-standing bandmates and long-standing fans.
And while The Charlatans have endured a rockier road than most, Burgess wouldn’t swop it for the world. One of the most popular stars in rock’s firmament, he’s a guy with an impeccable reputation who’s widely liked for his truth-telling, his personable nature, and his authenticity. It would have been easier to jack it all in years ago and do something else – the way so many in bands do.
But The Charlatans have lasted the course and when they reach Wolverhampton in a few days, it’ll be as though to present the nation’s best indie jukebox, with a cavalcade of hits.
The Charlatans are in town. It’s time to let the good times roll.