There’s a quote attributed to filmmaker John Ford that states that when given the choice between the fact and the legend, print the legend. Thanks in no part to the tall tales and entertaining half-truths popularised by Tony Wilson’s book 24 Hour Party People and the 2002 film adaptation, A Certain Ratio were treated, for better or worse, as a punchline. The Hitler Youth-looking uniforms, the torturously oblique studio time with genius/madman Martin Hannett (his instruction of playing something “faster, but slower” was told to Joy Division in the semi-fictionalisation but in fact was told to ACR during their early recording sessions), and the general sneers at the ‘Wythenshawe Jazz Band’. A Certain Ratio were musically far, far ahead of their time. ‘Madchester’, a solid decade before the term was conceived- their brand of punk-funk acting as the yang to the yin of Factory labelmates Joy Division and The Durutti Column, warm light piercing through the gloom and the mire, closer in spirit to the likes of Talking Heads and ESG (another Martin Hannett project), and it’s possible to trace a fairly straight line from A Certain Ratio to LCD Soundsystem.
This year has seen A Certain Ratio’s entire back catalogue reissued by Mute Records, which has given the band the chance of revitalising themselves, to show that they are deserving of their legendary status, and this hometown show is the best way to showcase themselves.
Special guests Gramme have supported the band several times over the years, and from the first moment it’s clear to see why ACR clearly love them. Forty minutes of tight, focused electronic funk and angular post-disco. Gramme hit the ground running with infectious, boundless energy, thanks in no part to singer Sam Lynham. A leaping, twirling blur, bounding across the stage, flanked by double bass guitars and an array of vintage electronics (an ARP Odyssey generating ‘strings’, a piece of machinery used by the disco pioneers). The mixture of Moroder-style sequencers, slap-happy bass pops and fluid drum work (with added cowbell!) give Gramme’s sound a vintage or retro sheen, but it’s clear that the band do have an ironic bone in their collective body- the joy is genuine, they live to dance.
The South Manchester sextet opening with atmospheric instrumental ‘Sounds Like Something Dirty’, a slow-burner complete with bass clarinet noodling straight from Bowie’s Berlin before launching straight into early single ‘Do The Du’, which would have unglued the crowd, if they were not already thanks to Gramme. The laid-back, molasses-thick funk of ‘Forced Laugh’ brings Martin Moscrop’s bluesy trumpet into the show, which is a world away from the chilling, claustrophobic ‘Flight’ (arguably the most obvious Martin Hannett sonic fingerprint), the move between the two songs highlighting ACR’s evolution as a band that continued to push the envelope, while the blaxploitation groove of ‘Mind Made Up’ offers an alternate world where New Order discovered Isaac Hayes instead of Kraftwerk.
A Certain Ratio’s secret weapon is similar to Joy Division’s, yet a polar opposite- while the latter had the robotic precision of Steven Morris at their disposal, ACR have Don Johnson. Answering a music magazine ad asking for “the funkiest drummer in Manchester” (the band had already recorded and released a couple of drummerless tracks), Johnson is the source of ACR’s sound, ably handling all manner of rhythms and styles from the effect-soaked minimalist ‘Flight’ through to the powerful disco beat of ‘And Then Again’.
The band is something of a duality, simultaneously frenetic yet smooth, icy yet warm… faster but slower. When they choose to cut loose somewhat and let the groove take over, their proto-acid house leanings show how truly ahead of the zeitgeist they were. The wah-wah guitar, shakers, whistles house piano a soundtrack to unending Haçienda nights, a solid half-decade before the Happy Mondays hit their peak. Going back further into their back catalogue, ‘Shack Up’ almost serves to deny its creators, a lost funk-disco classic that nobody would consider to have been written and performed by a bunch of dour Mancunians who dressed up as boy scouts on stage (thankfully a practice that has fallen by the wayside over the years). A taut, lithe performance highlighted by a whirlwind of latin-infused percussion, and an incredible slap-bass-heavy version of ‘Knife Slits Water’ followed, dedicated to former road crew member and close friend of the band Duncan O’Brien. Not once did A Certain Ratio slow themselves down, blistering through their energised set with one goal in mind – to keep people moving and to keep the party going the way only they can.
Words and photos by Liam Moody. A Certain Ratio performed at The Ritz on Saturday 16th December 2017.
Fancy listening to some of the best artists performing across Manchester in the coming months? Listen below for our latest playlist previewing those in town for this month’s best shows!