Full Steam Ahead
In 1979, when A Certain Ratio first started making records, there was meaning to be extracted in that name. Three words, starting with “A”, not ‘The’. They went for the indefinite article. Not an ordinary band, then. An arch proposition, one set up to confound, in day/night contrast to does-what-it-says-on-the-tin band names like their US progenitors Chic and Funkadelic. And what was this ratio? Three parts mardy rain-soaked Manchester, one part trash-glamour of New York’s 1979 club scene? Half dour miserabalism, half joyous hedonistic abandon? Some kind of imperfect mix, anyway.
The name is actually taken from an early Eno song, and their first label, Factory, the one they’ll forever be associated with, shared its name with Warhol’s New York gaff. So the nomenclature placed the band in the company of outliers and weirdos, artists and kitchen-sink intellectuals. They were dissatisfied uptight funk wreckers, purveyors of all-nighters energised by trumpets and lavish percussion that rubbed up against scratchy guitar and chants, paperback Sartre at the ready for the all-day existential crisis hangover breakfast in the caff. ACR is American pop art internalised, filtered through art schools, rinsed and repeated. The best of British, then.
Pretty much every riff on this killer album, their first for 12 years, could be extended into a 10-minute dancefloor slayer. ‘Yo Yo Gi’ recreates the excitement when you first heard a funky acid house bassline, splices it with Tokyo underground train announcements for a sense of international adventure and adds ACR’s trademark percussive exuberance.
From ‘Bouncy Bouncy’, through ‘Yo Yo Gi’ and ‘Supafreak’, it’s Friday night at The Haçienda which, as memories fade and eddy, morphs into imagined nights at the Danceteria in NYC. Close your eyes and there’s Madonna dancing around the pillars of The Haçienda on the telly, Madonna launching herself into a bankrupt New York that didn’t take her seriously in 1982. ESG recording with Martin Hannett, Liquid Liquid, 99 Records, Ze Records, Factory Records, New Order, Rig. Remember Rig and their cover of ESG’s ‘Moody’? Faulty synthesisers, four-to-the-floor, wooden funk basslines, machines proto-acid basslines, billows of strawberry-scented smoke stuttering into your atmosphere.
But, as ever with ACR, there are breaks in the action. ‘Always In Love’ is heartfelt pop, the radio-friendly New Order in reflective mood moment, the album’s hooky stalking horse that demonstrates ACR’s knack for inclusivity. No one is left out. Likewise ’Berlin’ opts for a straight bat, leaving the twisting funk on the sidelines as it eulogises and berates the allure of Germany’s once divided city and the romantic trap it sets for the dreamers. ‘You never ever leave, your head alone’ it warns.
But then it’s back to the dancefloor with ‘Family’, with the late Denise Johnson singing ‘We are family!’, the nod to Sister Sledge and Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards oblivious and obvious, evoking the same message of unity and joyousness they did. “Brothers and sisters!” goes the refrain, “Love peace, harmony” without a shred of irony. “(What’s So Funny ’Bout) Peace Love And Understanding?” as Nick Lowe put it.
‘Get A Grip’ features Sink Ya Teeth’s Maria Uzor on vocals, and she executes her specialised cirrus-high vocal snake charming abilities alongside her darker verse delivery for a slow burning, loping smoky funk workout. “I can’t get a grip on it” she sings as the music slips around her. “Maybe I’m in need of sunlight” she ponders. Whatever it is that’s eluding her grasp is another consequence of the night’s endless hedonism, the regret that kicks in even as you’re partying. It’s a theme of Sink Ya Teeth’s work, a favourite arena to explore their own insecurities.
‘Taxi Guy’ ends this barnstorming album, seven minutes of abstract carnival imagery summoned via the jazz conversations between the saxophone and trumpet and a fairly outrageous percussive build of snare and agogo bells. It’s all held in the warm embrace of string pads until it wriggles free of any restraint for a joyous yet somehow dark journey through rhythm and melody which explodes into a 303 acid bassline.
ACR are several bands in one, the uptight bolted rage funk of the late 1970s; the smooth perfection of the early 1990s and tracks such as ‘27 Forever’, and today’s version, which like a Russian doll, contains them all.
ACR were further gilded by Denise Johnson’s presence. Her death leaves a void. Her own album is due any moment, but this one serves as a fitting tribute to her spirit and her contribution to British music, in particular the sound of Manchester.