Q Classic Album recipients tell the stories about their 1996 LP Tellin’ Stories.
In 1996, at the peak of their powers, The Charlatans were robbed of their talismanic keyboard player Rob Collins in a car crash. But in the midst of their grief, the band regrouped to play Knebworth with Oasis before returning to the studio and completing
Rob Collins was The Charlatans’ dark horse, a mysterious yet talismanic figure whose oceanic Hammond-organ sound defined the young band’s introduction to the world on 1990’ s The Only One I Know – their breakthrough hit at the height of baggy. “He was the best musician in the band, and he was the best singer in the band,” reflects Tim Burgess today – no idle praise from the man who was, of course, their lead vocalist. “He didn’t really say too much, but he was our leader, because he was the oldest. And the hardest.” Raised in Willenhall, Walsall, this cryptic, hedonistic talent was, however, merely a sideman in the public’s perception, which chiefly focused on Burgess’s pin-up potential, and, increasingly, on The Charlatans as “the Stone Roses who didn’t disappear”. Ever since the Roses’ epochal debut, which preceded The Charlatans’ Some Friendly by a year and half, Ian Brown and co had holed up at Monnow Valley and Rockfield, a pair of fabled residential studios near Monmouth, separated by little more than a mile. As months and then years went by without hearing a peep from them, The Charlatans, by contrast, kept on delivering, initially suffering a minor backlash, but eventually topping the album charts for a second time with 1995’ s self-titled fourth album, whose Stonesy influences chimed perfectly with the neo-classical impulses of Britpop. “It felt like we were hitting this indestructible path,” says Burgess, and it hadn’t even been disrupted when Rob Collins was imprisoned for his involvement as a getaway driver in a bungled armed robbery in Cannock, Staffordshire. In 1994, after serving four months of an eight-month sentence, Collins was chauffeured from prison straight to Top Of The Pops, where he rejoined the group for a triumphant performance of Can’t Get Out Of Bed. Post-chokey, their keyboard wizard had acquired a certain rock’n’roll cachet, but was now a man of even fewer words. According to founding bassist and fellow Midlander Martin Blunt, “he was an enigma wrapped in a puzzle”. Blunt also describes him as “like Tony Hancock crossed with John Thaw in The Sweeney” – he had a violent side, but was possessed of a fabulously withering sense of humour. “While we were recording The Charlatans,” Blunt recalls, “our label boss came down to the studio, and went to Rob, ‘How’s your wife and daughter?’, because he’d just had a kid around that time. Rob took a drag off his cigarette, and went, ‘Starving!’, and walked off.” By the time they finished touring that career-high album with a gig at T In The Park, however, the Charlies were on a roll and raring to rack up Album Number Five. In autumn 1995, Burgess and guitarist Mark Collins wood-shedded new tunes, first in a Lake District holiday apartment, then back at Burgess’s flat in London’s Chalk Farm, while Blunt, Rob Collins and drummer Jon Brookes worked on grooves at the band’s rehearsal room in Stone, a village just off the M6 near Stoke. With two potential singles under their belt in the shape of the lurching One To Another and the gleefully self-celebrating North Country Boy, confidence was high going into sessions for what became that fifth long-player, Tellin’ Stories. Coincidentally or not, The Charlatans also had a long-established penchant for those two studios near Monmouth. “It was different in those days,” says Mark Collins, “because the record company used to pick up the tab and then charge you later, so you’d book the studio for six months at a time, and run up huge bills. ‘Can you be arsed working today?’, ‘No, let’s build a fire.’ Or, ‘Tim’s got a Twin Peaks boxset, let’s watch that instead.’ We’d been at Monnow Valley so much, the woman who ran the place, Sandra, used to call us, ‘My boys.’” “Every time we went there, we lived it,” adds Burgess, “like we were doing Exile On Main St.” They had arrived to record their fourth album there, just as the Roses were finishing off Second Coming, at Rockfield. Having shared so much airspace, Mani, the Roses’ affable bassist, and Rob Collins had become mates, bonding over a love of fishing. They’d often decamp for hours to the nearby River Monnow, “on E, using baked beans as bait,” says Blunt. “One time, they cast off so excitedly, the hook landed on the opposite bank, and it was only an hour later they realised.” Their manager had installed 40 cases of Rolling Rock lager in the studio, and a load of champagne, on the questionable logic that they’d soon get bored of it and knuckle down to work. Rob Collins, however, was getting darker by the day. Aged just 32, he and the mother of his child were getting divorced. “He had some new friends from down Swansea way,” says Blunt, “and come Friday afternoon, he’d address the whole divorce situation by saying, ‘Right, see ya on Monday afternoon’, and heading off with them to the clubs in Bristol for the weekend.” In Burgess’s autobiography, Telling Stories [ sic], he writes of how they all felt they’d lost a part of Rob following his incarceration. Four years his junior, Burgess always felt a special connection to the tough ivory-tickler.
“Me and Rob, we’d never be able to hear our voices onstage,” he recalls, “because the equipment was bad or the crowd were so noisy, and the only thing we could do to make sure we were in harmony was to stare each other in the eyes. It was beyond listening to each other – like we communicated through looking. Because of that, he felt like the closest person to me, like the big brother I never had.” Though absent at weekends, Collins Sr had contributed much to the writing process, whipping up Area 51’ s funky groove, and reshaping the title track beyond the others’ capabilities via some Wurlitzer chords. The Charlatans had always been very much the sum of their own parts. They’d also been nurturing an external source of inspiration in The Chemical Brothers, whom they’d befriended as fellow DJs at Heavenly’s legendary Sunday Social night in London. By early 1996 the relationship had evolved to the point where musical brains Tom Rowlands joined them at Monnow Valley, and added loops to three tracks, including One To Another, which eventually ended up, according to Mark Collins, “half us, half Chemicals – and our bits go out of time, but that’s what’s good about it”. By July ’ 96, Tellin’ Stories was “virtually there”, and a day was set aside to shoot a video for One To Another in South East London. Thereafter, Blunt, with chicken pox, and Brookes were ferried to their respective homes in the Midlands, while Burgess and the two Collinses returned to Monnow Valley in high spirits. They now sensed that large-scale victory was within their grasp. “But that,” says Burgess, “is when we were punched in the face.”
After a reasonable lie-in, the three Charlatans on shift spent the afternoon of Monday 22 July arguing about some drum programming for the title track, which Rob Collins had been working on with their engineer, Ric Peet. As it was Peet’s eet’s birthday, they decided to down tools, and take him to the pub to celebrate. “Rob drove us into town,” his namesake recalls, “and everything was fine. Rob got half a lager, put it on top of the fruit machine, and sat feeding in coins for four hours. He didn’t even get through that much of his lager.” Since Burgess’s girlfriend, Beth, had met them there, come closing time there were two cars to navigate back to the studio. Mark Collins had actually taken a back seat in Rob’s car, but switched to Beth’s to
“every time we went to the studio, we lived like we were doing exile on main st.” Tim Burgess
help her negotiate the country lanes back to Monnow Valley (the mid-’ 90s- model Burgess was not a man for directions). Beth drove on ahead, carrying Tim and Mark, while Rob followed behind with Ric in the passenger seat. “Our car got back to Monnow Valley,” says Mark Collins, “but when theirs didn’t materialise, we thought, ‘Oh, they must’ve called in to see Black Grape’, who now were at Rockfield. Another hour went by, and that’s when the police arrived, saying there’d been an accident. Rob had taken a corner too fast, flipped the car into a field and smashed his head on the roof.” Beth drove them to the hospital in Abergavenny, and while she parked the car, Mark jumped out and was directed to an empty room, where a nurse told him that Rob had died. He was taken to another room, where Peet, who, unlike Rob, had been wearing a seatbelt, was alive, but “in bits”. Mark smiles wanly, scarcely masking the pain of remembering that ghastly night. “After we got back to the studio,” he says, “there was a thunderstorm. We had all these cases of Rolling Rock to get through, so we sat there getting pissed while it was thunder and lightning outside.” Early the next morning, Blunt and Brookes drove down for an emergency band meeting. Burgess remembers Brookes, their enthusiastic sticksman, being the one who said, “We’ve got to carry on, this is what we do.” For the immediate short term, though, they each returned home, to grieve, and prepare for Rob’s funeral, which, they soon realised, clashed with the first of two minor live engagements they had, supporting Oasis at Loch Lomond. The other was Knebworth, the next weekend, again with Oasis, in front of 125,000. Still in shock, they had no idea what to do. “For the first time,” says Burgess, searching for the right words, “I don’t wanna say we felt mortal, but we were knocked off-stride.” The way forward became apparent while Burgess was on the phone to Heavenly’s Jeff Barrett, the band’s PR, who informed them that Bobby Gillespie had offered them the services of Primal Scream’s keyboard maestro, Martin Duffy. “It felt like we had to see how far we could go with it,” shrugs Burgess today, “and that everybody was with us to do it.” After just five days’ rehearsal with Duffy, the patched-together Charlatans choppered into Knebworth for, in any circumstances, the gig of a lifetime. “It was a do-or-die performance,” says Burgess. “I just remember looking over to see Rob’s eyes, and they weren’t there. For a long time afterwards, I didn’t know whether I was in tune or not.” When they came offstage, he says, “everyone was crying with joy”. The band themselves collapsed from the whole trauma of it, but soon had to do it all over again at V96 festival. Only thereafter did they give themselves a couple of weeks off to process all that had happened, before returning to Monnow Valley to finish the LP.
The four surviving Charlatans soon came to regard Tellin’ ellin’ Stories as their chance to showcase the talents of heir departed friend for posterity. “If you listen to the keyboard yboard solo on Area 51,” says Burgess, “it’s like no other thing ever, before or after. It’s like something from another world.” In places, however, although his input was all-pervasive compositionally, Rob Collins’s actual keyboard
parts remained unrecorded, so Duffy came back to help get them over the line. “You can’t get too down with that guy around,” notes Burgess, pointing to the photo in the album artwork’s centre spread of the maverick keysman performing a splayed-legs headstand behind a couch – you know it’s him, apparently, by the Guinness tattoo on his left calf. Their search for a full-time replacement was mercifully brief, as Blunt was tipped off by a promoter from Wolverhampton about a hotshot from Walsall everyone was talking about locally. Tony Rogers instantly turned out to be the right man – upbeat, uproarious. During the drive home from his first meeting with the band, he recalls, “Me and Jon worked out that Rob had lived 60 yards from where I grew up on Bloxwich Road. Jon always used to say, ‘Rob sent you – I just know it!’” Come their UK tour in support of Tellin’ Stories, Rogers remembers flying from Manchester in a “shaky little propeller aircraft” for the opening gig at Dundee’s Caird Hall. His first-night nerves were soothed somewhat, when the plane safely landed, and they were notified that Tellin’ Stories had entered the charts at Number 1. For Burgess, whose turbo-nutter lifestyle was by now reaching fever pitch, the tour went by in a haze. “It’s fair to say I don’t remember much about it,” he concedes, “probably because I was deep in mourning. I certainly didn’t enjoy it.” As a remembrance for their friend, they used samples of Rob’s backing vocals on One To Another every night – and still do, to this day. The tour ended up in arenas, but the eyes were gone forever. By the time Rogers, Hammond-player extraordinaire, came to record his first album with The Charlatans, 1999’ s Us And Us Only, the band were ready to move on. “Every time you brought in a song with heavy Hammond,” he says, “it’d be, ‘No, let’s move it in a different direction.’” With a new major-label deal, and a new studio of their own in Cheshire, everything was about starting a new chapter. With a horrible symmetry, that second phase would end in the mid-’ 10s, when this most life-affirming of bands lost sticksman Brookes to a brain tumour in 2013, aged just 44. In honour of the fallen, they again pieced together a masterpiece – 2015’ s Modern Nature, which a long-since straight-edge Burgess describes as “pretty Zen”. Tellin’ Stories, meanwhile, stands as a testament to The Charlatans as they were in their late- 20- something hellraising prime – out of time musically, on occasion, but timelessly exciting throughout.
“Rob Collins was the best musician in the band, and he was the best singer in the band.” Tim Burgess
V for victory! The Charlatans (from left, Tony Rogers, Martin Blunt, Tim Burgess and Mark Collins) Roundhouse, Camden, 2 November 2016; (left) the winning album.
North country boys: the band during the recording of Tellin’ Stories, Rockfield Studios, Wales, 1996; (above) the dearly departed – Jon Brookes and Rob Collins.
The way they were: The Charlatans (from left, Rob Collins, Tim Burgess, Jon Brookes, Martin Blunt and Mark Collins) back in 1996.
“A do-or-die performance”: (above) playing Knebworth, 11 August, 1996; (right) Mark Collins and Tim Burgess with Noel Gallagher backstage the same day.
“The big brother I never had”: Burgess with a photo of Rob Collins.