forty years on, still no formula // interview: a certain ratio

 Photography: Paul Husband



This coming May marks forty years since the release of All Night Party, the first single by Manchester post-punk group A Certain Ratio (ACR), and the first stand-alone single release by the esteemed Factory Records. They can rank Joy Division and The Fall as their contemporaries, legendary music mogul Tony Wilson as their one-time manager, and Grace Jones among their collaborators.


In the decades that have passed since, ACR have flirted with virtually every form of music with a funky bone its body. They’ve toyed with the post-punk gothic of late ‘70s Manchester, the Mutant Disco scene of New York and the throbbing bass lines of Hacienda Acid House. Constantly soaking themselves with the rich sonic palette of their surroundings, the band have restlessly journeyed through samba, dub, jazz, ska, even big-shot ‘80s pop productions, all in their relentless pursuit of ‘the groove.’ Ever-shifting, ACR’s sound is hard to pin down. As they say themselves, their only rule is that “There are no rules.”


To celebrate the occasion, the band have co-ordinated a career-panning boxset, ACR:BOX,  featuring singles, B-sides and a well-stocked hamper of unreleased demos, set for release this May via Mute. In alignment, they’ve announced a string of UK tour dates and their own two-day-long festival at Manchester’s YES, pencilled in for 25th May.


Set with the task of unpacking forty years of winding musical history, Connor Thirlwell speaks with ACR veterans Jez Kerr, Martin Moscrop, and Donald Johnson to discuss run-ins with ESG, those abandoned Talking Heads covers and all the vast swathes of time in-between.



A Certain Ratio – Shack Up (1980)



Cool Brother: So, I’ve heard it was planned for Grace Jones to sing on your cover of Talking Heads’ Houses in Motion. There are two demo versions on the box set, one with Jez singing, and the second without vocals at all. What can you say about those?


Donald: We found a version [of Houses in Motion] which I did not like at all. It took a long time to kick it into shape, because it didn’t meet with what I would call our ‘Quality criteria.’ 

Martin: That recording was actually a mess! What I remember is that we used to get Strawberry Studios cheaply booked for the overnight session, from 10 at night ‘til 10 in the morning. Obviously, with lack of sleep, it got pretty slack! The song turned out all right after we did some repair work though.

Jez: We had that version – then, two weeks later, we found another version, the proper version, which obviously Martin Hannett had done, which was ready for Grace’s vocal! 

Martin: Tony Wilson, who was our manager at the time, set up the deal with an A&R guy at Island records. Grace Jones came to Strawberry Studios to meet us. The idea was to go out to the Bahamas and record an album, but Martin Hannett was going to be the producer and Chris Blackwell, who owned Island records, actually produced Grace Jones. So, the story goes that when he found out he wasn’t very happy about it!

Jez: The guy that arranged it got sacked from Island over that. It’s like a lot of our stuff. Like [second album] To Each… which we recorded in New York. When we got to the end of the session, the guy zeroed the desk, so all the work that Martin Hannett had put in over the three weeks had been ruined, because the guy set the controls to zero. We had three days of studio time that we couldn’t use, so we gave it to ESG. That’s where they recorded UFO.



 Photography: Daniel Meadows



Cool Brother: I find ACR’s music so hard to pin down. Over the years, you’ve expressed so many diverse influences in your music. Is there a singular philosophy that binds together your forty year history?

Donald: Martin always used to say, “We don’t do our own clichés.”

Martin: The unique thing about A Certain Ratio is that there isn’t a formula, y’know. There isn’t one way of doing things. We naturally evolve and go in cycles. If we come up with a tune and it sounds good, we’ll veer off and do something totally different. 

Donald: We’ve never been one of those bands that regurgitate the same thing. I think that we love challenging ourselves, pushing ourselves to the next limit. We look back at different albums and go, “Was that us?!” I was so in the moment, I don’t where the vibe of certain tunes came from.

Jez: In the early days, we never played stuff for long. Always onto the next stuff. We had all these people coming in raincoats expecting us to play All Night Party, and we were playing ska and jazz. We lost all our fans, but we didn’t give a shit because it was the music that was important.

Martin: I suppose the one thing that holds it all together is ‘Anything goes,’ really. There are no rules.


Cool Brother: How have your relationships with one-another changed over the years?

Martin: The relationship has always been good. That’s why we’ve been together for so long. We work really well as a team. We’ve never really made it big, so we’ve never had the pressure that lots of bands have when they make it in quite a big way. It’s allowed us to stay creative.

Jez: We’re better now than we’ve ever been, because we’re having fun. When we started, we were having fun. That’s why it was good!

Donald: The six-piece live unit that we’ve got now [completed by Denise Johnson, Tony Quigley and Matt Steele] is firing on all cylinders. The next set of live shows we’ve got coming up, if you can believe, is the longest run of live shows in the UK in 40 years we’ve ever done consecutively.



 Photography: Kevin Cummins



Cool Brother: What are the major differences between starting a band now, and starting a band in 1979?

Jez: I think we were very fortunate to start when we did. The only reason we started out as a band was because of the Arts Council in this country. They used to fund a night at A Band On The Wall called the Manchester Musicians’ Collective. [They] paid the owner the fee for the hire of the place, and they’d give you a crate of beer as well. Joy Division started there, The Fall, all the bands, because they could all get a gig, because it was paid for. It’s different now, I think it’s harder for people just starting out to have time to develop something. You’re under pressure to make money, get a house, do this, do that.

Martin: I love the way gigs are so popular now. Peoples’ appetite for live music is really good. Small venues are doing really well, they sell out. That sort of scene, the 200-500 capacity venue, is really good.

Jez: When we started out in Manchester, there’d be like four gigs over the weekend. And they’d be big gigs – the Apollo, the Russell Club, a couple others and that was it. So you had loads of people at those gigs – 400, 600, 1000 people… But now, you’ve got twenty gigs in town. 


Cool Brother: Are there any emerging artists that are particularly exciting you at the moment?

Martin: People compare DUDS to us, and Black Midi. I can’t see the comparison, but I like the spikiness of it.

Jez: I did a solo band for a while. I played a gig in Chester and my guitarist knew The Orielles. Henry [Carlyle] at that time was twelve. When they supported me, I saw them and I was absolutely blown away. Esme was fourteen, Sid was fifteen. I just fell in love with the band and thought, “These kids are gonna be massive.” I just knew that they were going to be a great band, even at that age. And they are!

Donald:  I listen to a lot of BBC 6 Music ‘cause I think they’re real pioneers. The production on HAIM’s last album was fantastic… But I’m leaving my mind open for things to flood in there. There’s a lot of stuff out there. I tend to let it wash it over me.



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