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

Q (UK) - - Contents - IN­TER­VIEW: AN­DREW PERRY

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.

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