‘We never wanted to become a Factory tribute band’: A Certain Ratio on mortality, Manchester – and Madonna

The massively influential band have been plying their blend of jazz, funk, post-punk and pop for 45 years. But as they release new album, the founding members are in no mood for nostalgia

When A Certain Ratio performed at New York’s Danceteria in 1982, the gig would be remembered by the Manchester band for a showdown with their up-and-coming support act. “I had a massive argument with Madonna,” says drummer Donald Johnson. Although it was one of her first performances, the 24-year-old singer insisted that the headliner clear the stage of instruments before she played. “I love that she stood her ground,” Johnson adds. “She knew what she wanted.”

For ACR, it was just another bracing experience during a formative stint in NYC where they witnessed early hip-hop shows, sweated by night at Studio 54 and slept by day on the floor of an apartment with Robert DeNiro as its upstairs neighbour. Their new album, 1982, isn’t so much nostalgic for that year as a way of communing with the eclectic, up-for-grabs spirit of the time: one the Manchester institution has drawn on to overcome a period of loss and personal reflection, as they discuss over video call.

Not the new Sex Pistols … Simon Topping and Martin Moscrop.
Not the new Sex Pistols … Simon Topping and Martin Moscrop. Photograph: David Corio/Redferns

For 45 years, ACR have pioneered a unique sound by warping jazz, hard funk, dance, samba, post-punk and pop. First, though, they were a doomy duo that formed in Trafford in 1978, though reluctant vocalist Simon Topping and guitarist Peter Terrell were soon joined by bassist Jez Kerr and guitarist and trumpeter Martin Moscrop. Taking their name from a Brian Eno lyric, the nascent group initially aped the moody abstraction of the Velvet Underground and Throbbing Gristle until the arrival of Johnson, the group’s first proper musician. He grew up in multicultural, working-class Wythenshawe, where he was “exposed to everything”, he says. “Bolan, Slade and Bowie, but at the same time Herbie Hancock and Tower of Power.”

As Kerr puts it: “We all caught up with Donald.”

ACR came to the attention of Tony Wilson through early shows alongside Joy Division and the Fall at Manchester’s Band on the Wall club. The Granada broadcaster offered to manage the group, proclaiming them – with typical bombast – “the new Sex Pistols”. Few agreed, but ACR’s early Factory Records singles such as Do the Du (Casse) and All Night Party, produced by studio maverick Martin Hannett, pioneered an icy funk-noir later recognised as essential touchstones of post-punk.

In 1979, they supported Talking Heads. “Their sound engineer said we sounded like a fire in a pet shop,” says Kerr with an approving grin. “Lots of clattering, but exciting.” Kerr remembers David Byrne watching at the side of the stage each night. “The next minute, they’re hiring the Brides of Funkenstein and using all these funky people, which they did great.” A 1980 session with Grace Jones should have been a coup; instead, the Jamaican vocalist failed to lay down her vocal track after the session was waylaid by attempts to locate a bottle of wine on a Sunday night in Stockport.

‘That set us up for life’ … the band in New York, 1980.
‘That set us up for life’ … the band in New York, 1980. Photograph: PR

It was Wilson’s idea, says Moscrop, “for us to go to New York so we would be influenced by what was going on there”. They first visited in 1980, and their manager’s plan worked – and continues to. “That set us up for life really,” says Moscrop. ACR’s cover of New York dancefloor favourite Shack Up by Banbarra became a hit while minting an indie dance sound that would become ubiquitous a decade later. In 1982, the band released their first self-produced records, Sextet and I’d Like to See You Again. Both are masterpieces, showcasing their signature combination of slap bass, cowbell and frequently steamy lyrics.

But Wilson lost interest. “Tony liked our post-punk side, but not the funk side,” concedes Moscrop. Though they commercially floundered in the shadow of their Factory peers, their discography reveals a band on the creative upswing. Acid house meant a new audience was ready to give Manchester’s funkiest a fresh hearing. Lineups fluctuated around a core of Kerr, Moscrop and Johnson, and in 1990 they courted singer Denise Johnson, (no relation to Donald). Though initially horrified by their scratchy art-pop, Johnson would perform with them for 30 years, bringing a new warmth to the perennially abstract outsiders. “She became the connection at gigs,” says Kerr. “She got the crowd to love us.”

By the early 2000s they had been on a seven-year hiatus, but that hadn’t stopped younger audiences from rediscovering them. Soul Jazz reissued their early albums to critical praise whilst LCD Soundsystem cribbed the beat from Do the Du for their landmark single Losing My Edge. The late Andrew Weatherall gushed about their style influence, pointing to “the Hitler Youth haircut, the German army vest, the big shorts”.

They were mentioned only as a joke in the 2002 Factory biopic 24 Hour Party People and have dodged the nostalgia industry that surrounds many of their peers. Not that they minded: “It’s a pile of bullshit,” says Moscrop. “We never wanted to become a tribute band like most of our Factory counterparts.” By the time the pandemic hit, the group’s stock had never been higher, releasing new and reissued albums on Mute.

‘She got the crowd to love us’ … Denise Johnson.
‘She got the crowd to love us’ … Denise Johnson. Photograph: Jim Dyson/Getty Images

But as lockdown hit the band encountered tragedy. Denise “hadn’t turned up for rehearsals”, says Moscrop. “Totally, totally unlike her.” On the same day, a friend noticed that the singer had been atypically inactive on social media during a game by her beloved Manchester City, and visited her home. On 27 July 2020, she was found dead aged 56.

“I think about her every day,” says Donald Johnson. “I dream about her. We love her immensely and we miss her every single second of every day.” Kerr fondly recalls how long it would take them to leave venues after shows because of Denise’s largesse. “Everybody at the club would know who she was, she’d thank everybody, all the bar staff.”

For Kerr, lockdown also became a period of intense personal change: he got sober and clean “after ruining my body for 40 years”. Then in 2021, he was hospitalised for six weeks after falling while exiting the band’s van, fracturing his pelvis in six places. His mobility is still impeded. “The day after I got out, I got septic arthritis, which nearly killed me,” he says.

During this period of rehabilitation, Kerr made an announcement on ACR’s social media. “I’m bisexual and cross dressing has been part of my life from an early age,” he said in in October 2022. “Confusion and shame led me to suppress it and keep it secret.”

His statement referenced the toxic effects of the Catholic church on his childhood and being a Manchester United fan on his masculinity. What prompted it? “It was on my mind,” says Kerr. “My daughters, they know about me, but I’m quite a loner. I think it made me quite isolationist about myself. I have a problem with myself. It’s not that I’m frustrated in life, I’ve had happy relationships and I’ve got three kids. But I just wanted people to know it.”

Kerr also developed a new love of painting, and often creates large impressionistic canvasses inspired by the New York painter Jean-Michel Basquiat. He also influenced the new ACR album – the track Samo takes its name from the Manhattan street master’s graffiti tag.

In other changes, ACR have a new vocalist, Manchester neo-soul singer Ellen Beth Abdi. “Ellen being in our universe changes it for the better,” says Johnson, who says he thought hard about how to bring out the best in her. “If you’re stood in a room with three other guys, that can be intimidating.” Lead single Waiting on a Train also features the acclaimed north west underground rapper Chunky. “It’s important to introduce new talent in the same way that Miles Davis used to,” says Moscrop.

Today, it isn’t the band’s influence or famous fans that they’re proudest of. “I saw a funny comment on Facebook,” Moscrop says with visible pride. “This guy who’s just got stoned and listened to ACR for the first time. He’s having an amazing journey. People like that being inspired …” He pauses. “It makes it all worthwhile.”

• 1982 is out now on Mute.


Fergal Kinney

The GuardianTramp

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