Inspired by a link which my brother Matt recently sent to me* in which another middle-aged, middle-class white man indulges his passions for the edification of nobody in particular (you mean, I’m not the ONLY one?) I have decided to embark on a new strand of posts, riffing on each vinyl album and CD I possess, telling the stories behind the stories, the memories they evoke etc. But fear ye not, I won’t labour through every SINGLE album I’ve got, or we’d be here forever. No, I’m only going to talk about one album per letter of the alphabet, the rest of the artists who begin with that letter being relegated to a list at the end of the post for the benefit of the curious and/or anally retentive. And I’m not going to bother with compilation albums, Best Ofs or Greatest Hits. That means a mere 25 more posts between now and the end of the year, plus the usual stuff about cinema, Spain & South America. Bet you can’t wait, huh?
Well then, without further delay, to A Certain Ratio’s Live in Groningen 26.10.1980, the very first album in my collection. But should I file this band under A? Is it A Certain Ratio, or Certain Ratio, A? It’s easy with bands like the Residents (file under R) The Stooges (file under S) and The Wurzels (file under W). But A Certain Ratio? Surely the indefinite article is an integral part of the name? And how many bands’ names begin with an indefinite article anyway? A Flock of Seagulls? I would, I admit, probably file them under F for Flock (and Fucking Awful). There can only be one solution in the case of A Certain Ratio: buy two copies of the record, file one copy under A, and one under C. Yes, I am obsessive-compulsive. As a teenager, I was an obsessive-compulsive Heavy Metal fan. Then my Media Studies lecturer (and future jazz critic) Phil Johnson turned me on to A Certain Ratio and my life changed. Not that I was completely ignorant of musical developments outside HM. I belonged to a support group for obsessive-compulsives and we used to meet in the local medical marijuana dealer’s basement to purchase our supply of medical marijuana. Frequently, we found ourselves waiting for our prescriptions to be weighed and measured, and we would share our tastes in music (and our marijuana) to pass the time. Heavy Metal was banned but “head” music was allowed, so we listened to a lot of Pink Floyd, Hawkwind, Gong, Can, Doors etc as well as Bob Marley, Sly & Robbie, Talking Heads, B52s, Pere Ubu, the Fall, PIL… From that kind of post-punk pot pourri, it was a shot step to A Certain Ratio.
What’s with the name though? Was it really just a line from a Brian Eno song or were they – and Factory Records – trying to shock us with the fascist/futurist image? Because the term A Certain Ratio, according to some, refers to one of Hitler’s diktats, that everyone with “a certain ratio” of Jewish blood was to be considered Jewish. Then there were the Afrika Korps shorts and the side partings, the trench coats, the album covers, label mates Joy Division (the name given to Jewish sex slaves by their Nazi masters) and, later, New Order (i.e the Third Reich). You can say what you like in their defence, but it seems pretty obvious to me the whole Factory set-up – the label, the bands, the designers – knew full well what they were doing i.e. being “mischievous” in an arch, post-punk version of the Sid Vicious swastika and the Motorhead umlaut. If they’d all been rubbish, we’d have long ago consigned them to the dustbin of history with a stamp marked “Nazi Chic: Bad for You” but unfortunately, they were quite good. ACR, for example, did a very cool (as in “detached”) punk-funk version of Bambara’s rare groove classic Shack Up (“see” audio above). They had a brilliant drummer (Donald Johnson) who stuck out like a sore thumb because he could actually play his instrument, and because he was black. He also produced a lot of Factory’s other acts (Section 25, The Luftwaffe Six, Final Solution, Blitzkrieg etc)**
Back in the 80s I trekked across London to see ACR at the North London Polytechnic (this was when Polytechnics still existed, and Holloway Road seemed a grim and desolate place, instead of… oh, nothing’s changed.) I was even willing to wake my friends on a Sunday morning at Glastonbury Festival and make them watch a lunchtime set, only for ACR to play a lot of jazz-funk toss which sounded like Level 42 without the tunes.
To be honest, this record isn’t very good either. It sounds ias if they’re playing in a bowl of moules (this being Belgium). It’s funk for people who don’t really like dancing. I only bought it because it was reduced to a pound in the remainder section of a record shop. But ACR are back in fashion now. Perhaps that’s because the second decade of the 21st century feels a lot like the 1980s?
The rest of the As in my record collection:
AC/DC, Highway to Hell (Bon Scott’s last hurrah)
Gayle Adams (on Prelude Records – every track a gem)
Aerosmith, Live Bootleg (scrappy, funky, brilliant)
Amon Duul, Yeti (essential “Kraut” rock)
Anthony & The Johnsons, I Am A Bird Now (no you’re not, you’re a transexual)
Aorta (turn of the 70s US psych/prog concept album)
Area Code 615, Trip in the Country (I bought this for the Old Grey Whistle Test theme tune)
Ashford & Simpson, Stay Free (back when they were good, before Solid)
Atlantic Starr, Brilliance (a bit of a misleading title, tbh – more like Mediocrity)
Average White Band & Ben E King, Benny and Us (awesome)
**NB Three of these are not real bands, fact fiends. Or at least, not Factory bands. They might be Oi bands. You’d have to ask Gary Bushell about that.