If it’s scratchy, scuffed at the knees post-punk with a groove yer after, all roads lead to the twin metropoli of Manchester and New York.
A Certain Ratio are something of an enigma. They’ve been around long enough to have witnessed every important youth movement since punk and have steadfastly ploughed their own furrow, grooving somewhere between the hands-in-pockets introspection of Joy Division and the hands-in-the air exhibitionism of the Hacienda and the rave culture it gave birth to, while sometimes dressed like wonky extras in It Ain’t Half Hot Mum. They’ve seen off grunge, grime and good old Britpop as well as the entire careers of The Smiths, New Order (the real New Order that is) and just about every influential band these isles have produced.
Revered by all manner of bands whose funk DNA pops up in the least likely of places, from Talking Heads and Happy Mondays to Red Hot Chili Peppers, ACR have the dubious fortune of being incredibly influential yet incredibly unheard of. It’s just the way they like it. They have the freedom to bypass trends, to surf across the wave of whatever zeitgeist is hip that week and get on with the job of making records for themselves.
Du The Du from 1979’s The Graveyard And The Ballroom album is the perfect jumping off/jumping in point.
ACR– Du The Du
It fairly rattles along on a barbed wire bed of steam-powered, clattering industrial funk, with powerhouse drummer Donald Johnson somehow making his kit the lead instrument. Lo-fi guitars that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Josef K record do their chicken-scratch thang, an Asda-priced Nile Rodgers played by cosmopolitan Mancunians. The vocals, all pent-up anxiety could be Ian Curtis on Lemsip. There’s even an elastic band bassline midway through which threatens, but never quite gets to Level 42 on the muso-meter. I defy you not to wiggle at least a finger to it.
Du The Du also happens to be the track by which LCD Soundsytem’s James Murphy measures (measured?) his own funkiness. If the New York band’s latest track seems weak by comparison, it’s binned forever until something more in keeping with ACR’s wonky, jerky funk turns up. Du the right thing indeed.
Talking of New York…
Such a melting pot of cultures and styles is always going to be responsible for inspiring exciting new trends and movements. ESG was formed by the three Scroggins sisters from the Bronx. Given a variety of instruments by a mum keen to keep them on the right side of wrong, the group took equal inspiration from their Motown favourites and the nascent New York hip hop scene. The result, in a way, was neither. As with ACR, much of their stuff is sparse, cold and music for the feet rather than the head.
A show in Manhattan’s Hurrah club brought ESG to the attention of Factory’s Tony Wilson, himself no stranger to an ACR record (he’d go on to release 5 of their albums on Factory). Wilson brought ESG to Manchester where they recorded with Martin Hannett, fresh, believe it or not, from manning the desk as ACR recorded Du The Du. There’s serendipity right there for you. Or plain old musical incest.
ESG wouldn’t go on to sell all that many records, but in the intervening years they’ve been a clear influence on bands such as Luscious Jackson and Warpaint. They’ve also found themselves heavily sampled by acts looking for something beyond the usual James Brown riff; Beastie Boys, Tricky, even TLC have found gold within their basslines and rippling drums, leading to a late-era ESG releasing the telling Sample Credits Don’t Pay Our Bills EP.
1982’s Dance To The Beat Of Moody from their EP of the same name is where you should start though:
ESG – Dance To The Beat Of Moody
As fresh as a hot pretzel on Avenue Of The Americas, it’s great, innit? You wouldn’t be in the least surprised if it were to pop up on BBC 6 Music next week, rotated heavily on the a-list as the hottest new thing. It’s only 36 years young. Original vinyl is almost impossible to track down though and, even of you’re lucky enough to uncover a 1983 press of Come Away With ESG, you’ll need a small bank loan to pay for it. Thankfully, the wonderful Soul Jazz do a good run in re-presses.