The Charlatans: how we made The Only One I Know – ‘I’m still not sure which bit’s the chorus’

‘I came up with it on the way to the garage to get fags. I had to pelt back to my mum and dad’s to get my Dictaphone before I forgot it’

Tim Burgess, singer, songwriter

I was in a band called the Electric Crayons and we managed to get a gig supporting the Charlatans. They had a different singer, Baz Ketley, then. I ended up jumping on stage and singing one of their songs. Shortly after that, I got a call from the band. They didn’t ask me to audition. It was more a case of: “Would you like to come down to Wednesbury in the Midlands and hang out?”

When I got there, it turned out the singer had left, and they asked if I would have a go. In the Electric Crayons we’d covered LA Woman by the Doors, so at first I did a sort of Jim Morrison impression. Martin Blunt, the bass player, went: “Right, let’s try again, but can you try singing this time?” I did and everything clicked. The Electric Crayons’ first single, with me singing, came out on the day I joined the Charlatans.

The Only One I Know was an instrumental at first. I had a job at ICI and one night after tea with mum and dad, I went to the local garage to get some fags and halfway there realised I had the melody and some words. I didn’t have my Dictaphone, which I always carried around with me, so had to pelt back to my mum and dad’s to get it before I forgot it all. I never got the cigarettes.

It’s a song about teenage feelings: I like somebody, why do they not like me? I was 21 or 22, but still had those powerful emotions. I was a big Byrds fan so the line “Everyone’s been burned before, everyone knows the pain” is a nod to their song Everybody’s Been Burned. I was ecstatic when the Byrds’ Roger McGuinn said he loved us.

We went into the Windings studio in Wrexham to record the song Polar Bear as our second single, but my mate Jonah – David Jones – said: “You’re recording the wrong one!” He’d come to all our gigs and pointed out that everyone went nuts for The Only One I Know. Then when we got to the studio there was a fax from Beggars Banquet, who’d just signed us, also saying: “We think you should record The Only One I Know.”

It’s an unusual song construction. I’m still not sure which bit is the chorus. The title and main hook is in the verse, but the intro – before the main song crashes in – gives people just enough time to get on the dancefloor.

Martin Blunt, bass, songwriter

We’d been influenced by the Stranglers, Stax Records, Joy Division and the Doors, but when everything came together in the summer of 89 acid house was in full swing. The repetitive beats rubbed off on what we were doing, so we suddenly sounded like the Spencer Davis Group on E.

In those days, most of our songs would start off with just drums and bass. Then Rob Collins, who played the Hammond organ, would put chord sequences over it to give it a template and add some organ stabs. To give The Only One I Know a bit more urgency, Jon Baker added a stream of repetitive guitar notes similar to part of the Supremes’ You Keep Me Hangin’ On. I remember telling him, “Try to make it sound like morse code”, which he did. After the second chorus, we dropped it down to the bass, like all the best old Stax and funk tunes.

When we recorded it, Tim was stuck in a tailback on the M6, so the vocals were added when he finally made it. Then Chris Nagle wanted to spend more time mixing it at Strawberry studio in Stockport, where he’d worked on the Joy Division stuff with Martin Hannett and where bands s like the Human League and the Housemartins had recorded. We were very young and excited and had all these mad ideas. Chris was very tolerant with us.

Whenever we played the song live, the reaction was carnage, in a good way. John Peel played the single on night-time Radio 1 and Simon Mayo made it single of the week. We were invited to go on Top of the Pops but being silly sods we turned it down, like the Clash had, but the single still went Top 10. At one point it was so popular that people said: “It’s the only song they know.” But thankfully, the songs kept coming.

  • The Charlatans’ Covid-delayed 31st anniversary box set, A Head Full of Ideas, is out now. Their UK tour starts at Limelight, Belfast, on 22 November.


Interview by Dave Simpson

The GuardianTramp

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