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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