Cult heroes: A Certain Ratio – genre-bending influencers put the funk in punk

They made their mark on everyone from Talking Heads to the Red Hot Chili Peppers, yet this Manchester group have never had so much as a sniff of a hit

Pop history is full of hugely influential acts who never received the success or credit they deserved. But it is hard to think of many who have been as influential as A Certain Ratio and remained almost completely unknown to the general public.

ACR were one of the first artists on Factory Records, were responsible for the label’s first single-artist release (the All Night Party single in May 1979) and were pioneers of what became known as “punk funk”. Their impact now stretches from Talking Heads to Happy Mondays, from the Rapture to the Invisible to the Red Hot Chili Peppers. The band are legends in Manchester, but recognition has come more from fellow musicians, Factory obsessives and dancefloor-friendly indie hipsters than from the man in the street.

Superfan James Murphy would give potential LCD Soundsystem recruits a tape including their frenetic early track Do the Du as an example of the jerkily funky sound he wanted. And DJ Andrew Weatherall was such an ACR nut that for a while in the 1980s he donned the band’s trademark “desert rats” style – although he admitted to the Guardian recently that a “Hitler Youth haircut, German army vest and big shorts” meant that while “I thought I looked like I was in A Certain Ratio, actually I looked like Don Estelle in It Ain’t Half Hot Mum.”

Watch Certain Ratio’s Shack Up

Like funky Forrest Gumps, ACR seem to have been present at scores of pivotal moments of pop history. According to frontman Jeremy Kerr, when they supported Talking Heads in the late 70s, David Byrne watched them every night, captivated by their collision of punk, industrial and funk, and curious about what they’d been listening to. “He’d never heard of George Clinton, which seems comical now,” Kerr told me in 2011. “But they were coming from a punk background. Their next album was funky.” To my ears at least, Reni’s revolving snare pattern on the second half of the Stone Roses’ I Am the Resurrection sounds eerily similar to that on ACR’s Winter Hill, released eight years earlier.

The band even had an unlikely hand in a major commercial pop phenomenon. When Sire Records’ Seymour Stein was interested in signing the young Madonna, she supported ACR in New York so he could watch her perform. Ian Curtis of Joy Division was a fan – ACR’s original frontman, Simon Topping, even stood in for him at a turbulent Joy Division gig in Bury – and ACR are immortalised in the film 24 Hour Party People as having the same energy as their illustrious labelmates, “but better clothes”. Kerr rescued the slap bass from the tyranny of Level 42.

Despite their influence, they have never had so much as a sniff of a hit. The closest they have come to widespread popularity was when their 1980 single Shack Up (a cover of an obscure 1975 cut by Banbarra) became a dancefloor smash in New York clubs. Not that the lack of mainstream success bothers the band. As Kerr told me in 2010: “If we’d had a hit, people would have known us. Now, people still ask, ‘Who are they? What are they?’”

It’s a good question, and one reason why their now-rare live appearances are greeted like glimpses of Halley’s comet, as fans of their various eras flock to see them (many of us digging out our old shorts and khaki tops, and, yes, probably looking like Don Estelle).

I’ve seen the band play live many times across four decades – occasionally copying their 1940s haircuts – and no two gigs have been alike. If there is an ACR sound, it’s a blend of urban funk and something more indefinable, existential and melancholy, but they have ricocheted from post-punk to Latin grooves to techno and electro-funk. I’ve seen them bleak, austere, dark and haunting, sporting their early “Demob chic” look (Futurama 1979), navel-gazing and stupefyingly boring (Leeds Warehouse, 1982), poppier and electronic (Cities in the Park, 1991) and putting on two of the most life-affirming celebrations of dance music I have ever seen (at the Brudenell Social Club, Leeds, in 2009, and the Womad festival in 1985, which is probably my favourite).

Three of us had hitchhiked – as we often did, surviving lifts such as the one from the psychotic HGV driver whose party trick was to jack-knife his vehicle in front of unsuspecting car drivers, or the spanking headmaster who prompted one of us to make a bolt for it at the traffic lights after mentioning the instruments of torture he kept in the boot.

ACR played on the Saturday evening, unveiling the songs that would appear on 1986’s mighty Force album – described by drummer Donald Johnson as “the Mike Tyson of funk”. Sweat dripped from the roof as they unveiled their latest new direction – the sound of Miles Davis visiting Hulme – with exuberant fans tooting on hand-held whistles to the Mancunian funk of Mickey Way (the Candy Bar) and Wild Party.

At times, ACR haven’t just soundtracked my life, but have played key parts in it. They helped determine my career by being the first band I interviewed, when I nervously tiptoed backstage at Leeds University to interview them for Past, Past and Future fanzine. Any expectation that they might be sullen, serious, miserable Factory Records stereotypes was dispelled when Johnson burst into the dressing room singing Cameo’s Word Up (“All you pretty laydeez around the world …”) with a huge red fire extinguisher between his legs.

Watch Certain Ratio live in London

Ah, Donald Johnson. The man who answered ACR’s call when they put out a request for “the funkiest drummer in Manchester”. The reason (along with Joy Division’s Stephen Morris and Echo and the Bunnymen’s Pete de Freitas) that I chucked my student grant on a drum kit. The two-legged funk machine; occasional ACR lead singer; the man who can apparently play New Order’s rhythmically demanding electro hit Confusion on a drum kit (even New Order play it on a machine).

The embryonic, pre-Johnson ACR played a weird, brooding, drummerless trance-punk with a disorienting atmosphere. They were post-punk Wire/Throbbing Gristle fans who got their name from a Brian Eno lyric (“I’ve been looking for a certain ratio”), but listened to Parliament-Funkadelic. Suddenly they were asking a drummer steeped in funk to join.

“At the first rehearsal, he said: ‘What the fuck is this?’” Kerr remembered. “But when he played over it, it sounded great.”

Johnson’s entrance prompted a run of killer singles such as Shack Up and the mesmeric Flight, and early classic albums such as The Graveyard and the Ballroom, To Each and Sextet. The old adage about ecstasy – that it “taught white kids to dance” – was also true of Johnson and ACR.

Along the way, there have been lineup changes, but the core of the band has been rock solid since 1979: bassist/singer Kerr, drumming maestro Johnson and guitarist Martin Moscrop.

I haven’t liked all of their records (although I can’t think of any I’ve actually hated) but I absolutely love most of them, from All Night Party through to their last album, 2008’s Mind Made Up, right down to their stunning sleeves. Sadly, much of their best stuff isn’t on Spotify, but a newcomer can’t go wrong with The Old and the New compilation, or Do the Du, Shack Up, Flight, Wild Party, Blown Away, any of the various versions of Knife Slits Water, futurist jazz funk monster Sounds Like Something Dirty, And Then She Smiles, the cowbell-banging Si Firmir O Grido, Life’s a Scream, 27 Forever, and on and on. Once you start listening to Certain Ratio, it’s difficult to stop. Now where’s that whistle?


Dave Simpson

The GuardianTramp

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