The Charlatans’ tenth studio album, ‘You Cross My Path’, is nothing less than a masterpiece – only the latest triumph, in a career which has been positively stuffed with them.
It was one of the most talked-about records in recent years, before anyone had even heard a note of it. It was first released in early March in MP3 format, via alternative radio station Xfm’s website. In a revolutionary move, The Charlatans were charging their fans not a penny to own and enjoy their latest music.
“I know some people have given their music away free before, like Throbbing Gristle, and Pete Doherty,” says Tim Burgess, the band’s singer, proudly, “but we’re the first to give a brand new album away free. The idea was just to get the music into people’s iPods. We came to the conclusion that we didn’t really care how people got it, just as long as they got it.”
On that score, mission accomplished: within a week, ‘You Cross My Path’ had been downloaded no less than 60,000 times. Had those transactions taken place within “official” channels, it would’ve been sufficient to send the album to Number Two in the UK charts. Another week later, the album was posted for download on the band’s own website, www.thecharlatans.net , again for free. At the last count, approximately 90,000 MP3 copies of the album were out in the world.
For those many happy owners of ‘You Cross My Path’, this hasn’t been some bizarre virtual twist on the money/old rope equation. Without having their minds made up for them by the media, they’ve come to realise that the album is amongst The Charlatans’ very best, if not the finest of all.
“The idea actually came up about two years ago,” says Tim, “soon after I asked Alan McGee to manage the band. I was really looking for a fresh start in a lot of ways. I decided to give up drinking and taking drugs, just to see where that takes me. It was a really painful time, because I loved drinking and taking drugs so much, but after about three months I really began to feel the benefit.
“Anyway, after we had that idea, personally I felt really inspired, and I think it helped the whole band. You try to get up in the morning and write a new record, but unfortunately it doesn’t happen all the time. You need something inspiring to fuel your energy. Lots of things seemed to start happening, it was really invigorating.”
At home in Los Angeles through the latter half of 2006, Tim had been submerging himself in his huge and ever-expanding record collection. As ever, the tunes he was listening to in that period provided the starting point for, and became a shaping influence on, the music that he and the band created over the ensuing months.
Tim: “We’ve been influenced by Motown, punk, 60’s psyche and we’ve been through Bob Marley, Bob Dylan, Gram Parsons and Curtis Mayfield… I wanted a different thing this time. I was listening to Brian Eno a lot, which triggered thoughts of Joy Division, who I found out were really inspired by Eno and Bowie, and that set me off listening to all the records I was listening to in 1981-86 – Section 25, The Wake, Royal Family And The Poor, and all those obscure Factory bands.
“Plus, my wife, Michelle, discovered ‘The Head On The Door’ by The Cure. When that originaly came out, I was working in a chemical factory in manchester; at the weekend, I’d go to the pub, drink bad cider and get pissed. They were times of optimism for me, hope for the future. I’d got to clubs and dance to Grandmaster Flash, D.A.F ‘The Cutter’ by Echo & The Bunnymen, ‘Temptation’ by New Order and ‘Felicity’ by Orange Juice – all in a row. In the same way, all that stuff blended into one over the two years of making the record.”
For the first time, Burgess wrote his initial song ideas using the Apple programme Logic. This enabled him to send them instantly to Tony Rogers, the band’s keyboard player and in-house computer wizard, “to get my ideas more fully realised”. In February ’07, Rogers and Mark Collins, the Charlies’ guitarist, joined Tim in LA for preliminary sessions.
The trio then reconvened for a couple more sessions at Tony’s house in Ireland, in April and October, before the remaining parts were completed, with bassist Martin Blunt and drummer Jon Brookes, at the band’s studio HQ in Cheshire, Big Mushroom. The album was then mixed by Alan Moulder, revered for his work with, amongst others, The Jesus & Mary Chain, My Bloody Valentine and The Cure.
‘You Cross My Path’ includes some of the most euphoric music the Charlatans have ever made – some of the most disturbed, too. Like on a classic Cure or New Order record, Blunt’s basslines lead from the front, for a driving, danceable sound, which is both nostalgic and fiercely contemporary. Burgess was keen to cut against the music’s polished upfulness in his lyrics. The first song he worked on was ‘Oh! Vanity’, which he says is “about nostalgia, and not a warm nostalgia – I wanted it to have quite a cold atmosphere.” You Cross My Path’, meanwhile, is “angry – someone had backed me into a corner, and I came out fighting”.
Those two tunes set him off trying to strike a new and different lyrical vibe. His wife suggested he try the cut-up technique originated by William Burroughs, and transposed to the pop world by David Bowie.
“I was like, I did that when I was 21 years old! I was at home one day, and I ended up writing four sets of lyrics for an Italian disco record I’d got by Doris Norton – one about the band, one about my childhood, one a weird essay on Diane Arbus, this photographer I really love, and one about a bad acid trip in a hotel. Eventually, I cut it all up, but I didn’t just throw it altogether, I just took all bits I needed. That became ‘The Misbegotten’.”
Tim laughs. “It might seem like I had too much time on my hands, but if LA’s been good for me in one way, it’s that I’ve got time on my hands. I come down to the room where I’ve got all my records, and just get inspired by music, which to me is what it’s all about.”
As The Charlatans approach their twentieth anniversary, their music continues to be just as inspirational to hundreds of thousands of fans. They first appeared in 1989 with the self-financed ‘Indian Rope’ single, and quickly followed it with ‘The Only One I Know’, which is to this day amongst the most beloved hits from that exciting era in British music.
The Charlatans themselves have proved every bit as enduring as that signature song, in the face of often tragic circumstances. Their history encompasses imprisonment, a fatal car accident, testicular cancer and the embezzlement of half a million quid by their accountant, not to mention the passing of countless musical trends.
As a result, they have often been cast as “survivors” – a rather grim and unflattering image for a band, who have scored nine UK Top Ten albums (not including ‘You Cross My Path’, as yet), and 22 Top 40 singles. Burgess singles out ‘Tellin’ Stories’ (1996), ‘Us & Us Only’ (1999) and ‘Wonderland’ (2001) as what he calls “our championship title-winning records”, but their music continues to evolve, excite and excel, both in the studio, and as an unstoppable touring combo.
For this, Burgess and his cohorts have lately found themselves adopted as godfathers by a new generation of bands for whom they have been literally a lifelong obsession. When Mark Ronson included a rendition of ‘The Only One I Know’ on his ‘Version’ album (sung by Robbie Williams, no less), it soon became clear that he’d done so out of immense reverence for the original, and its makers. Burgess has since sung it onstage with Ronson.
“He introduces me as the person that got him into music,” says Tim, “which is quite humbling, really. The first time we ever played in New York, he snuck out to see us. He was only 13 years old, and then did a paper [at school] about his favourite band, which was us.”
Similarly, a list of admirers that includes The Klaxons, The Horrors, Carl Barât and The Twang, as well as rising acts like Electricty In Our Homes and Glasvegas, have been welcomed into the ever-growing, music-obsessed Charlatans social whirl. Another group, Hatcham Social, recently enlisted Tim to produce their single, ‘Till The Dawn’. “They’re really into Orange Juice,” he enthuses, before launching into a lengthy discourse on the producer responsible for many of Factory’s early masterpieces, Martin Hannett.
…Which brings us back to ‘You Cross My Path’. “This’ll probably sound fucked-up,” says Tim, “but every day, I used to walk to the gym, because I thought I needed to get into training to make this record. In the final song, ‘This Is The End’, there’s the line, ‘I look at all the amputees on the Strip’, because on my walk I noticed all these guys who’d come home from the War [in Iraq] and were homeless, starting to live on [Sunset] Strip.
“I just wanted to put all that stuff in,” he continues. “Everything! The whole record came out as one complete thought – like ‘Power Corruption & Lies’, or ‘Electric Ladyland’, or ‘Kollaps’ by Einstürzende Neubauten. Everything’s in there, as one big flow of ideas.”
There is, perhaps, a strong sense of irony about such an incorrigible vinyl junkie, who takes so much guiding light from his records, suddenly becoming a spokesman for the digital revolution. The irony wasn’t lost on him, right from the beginning. “When WE were first talking about [the free download], “I secretly knew I’d want it on vinyl as well”. So, the album now arrives physically, in 33 territories, on deluxe double CD, single CD and trusty vinyl, courtesy of Cooking Vinyl.
“It feels like a great idea – to release it again!” Tim concludes. “We’re learning as we go along. We’ll just see where it takes us. But the whole thing has been invigorating. It really feels like the band have been reborn, like we’ve got a whole new lease of life.”