A Certain Ratio's Legacy Is Immense, and Impressive
A Certain Ratio's acr:box is a comprehensive and often stunning collection that charts the Manchester band's fascinating career.
A Certain Ratio
3 May 2019
Last year's acr:set distilled A Certain Ratio's oeuvre down to a single disc of 17 songs. With acr:box, we now get a gigantic and fantastic companion to that release, consisting of 53 songs over four discs or seven vinyl LPs, and it constitutes a fascinating (not to say rather exhausting, and indeed pretty exhaustive) survey of the band's career arc, all while resisting the urge to tread too much old ground. This is a truly impressive achievement both by the band and the curators of this collection.
The short version of this overview is that disc one and disc four (this review will be considering the CD version of this rather than the vinyl experience) are almost completely outstanding, not to say peerless, while the second disc is perhaps the most problematic, and the third disc consists of a number of demos and experiments, much of which is interesting and some of which is excellent. What is also apparent is that A Certain Ratio are both pioneers and magpies at the same time, which is a slightly odd way to be, but an understanding of that dichotomy is vital in understanding and explaining the interesting and critical place they occupy in popular music history.
There are two issues to confront here from the outset. The first is one of genre, and the second is one of format. What we have come to know as "post-punk" is a term so broad, so multifarious and diverse as to be almost meaningless as a descriptor. Taken literally it is used to describe bands that took up the gauntlet after punk fractured in the late 1970s, but this fragmented scene contained a cornucopia of music that share only the term itself in common. At this point in music history it is generally used to describe latter-day bands of a stentorian ilk, such as Protomartyr, Ought, Preoccupations (formerly Viet Cong) and Total Control, among others, all of whom take their cue in some way from bands like Joy Division, Magazine, Gang of Four, Pere Ubu and Wire, and perhaps also the Fall and Public Image Limited.
Post-punk is tense, edgy, ominous, mostly very masculine guitar-based music that re-captures the dystopian sound of art-rock that emerged from the smoldering wreckage of punk in a paradoxically vital and creative way. Some post-punk bands became relatively successful and temporarily famous, bands like New Order (out of the ashes of Joy Division, so therefore perhaps post-post-punk), Simple Minds, Japan, and Echo and the Bunnymen, to name a few. Lesser but no less shining lights of this strand of the original wave of post-punk included Orange Juice, Josef K, Durutti Column, Fire Engines, the Sound, the Slits, the Raincoats, the Au Pairs, and many others.
Much of this music was made against the backdrop of socio-economic circumstances that were just as bad as they were when punk began, but the kind of negation practiced by these post-punk bands skewed arty as well as it continued to practice (or at least espouse) a certain kind of mostly progressive politics. But there was an element in this second wave of music after punk that also wanted to break away from the rock template altogether and some of the aforementioned bands (and many others) went in experimental directions that led toward the avant-garde and also in some cases toward the dancefloor, paving the way in part for what would become the very mixed blessing of the New Romantic movement a couple of years later. These bands included 23 Skidoo, This Heat, the Pop Group, and later still Pigbag and Rip, Rig & Panic, who deconstructed jazz in a very punk way and created an utterly glorious kind of chaos. This group of bands also included A Certain Ratio, a band whom Simon Reynolds described in his benchmark document of post-punk history Rip It Up and Start Again, as "funk noir" (italics his).
A Certain Ratio began already in the enormous shadow of Joy Division, and then later in the equally giant and twinned shadows of New Order and Talking Heads. In a way, they never stood a chance, and in truth, they have always been somewhat sidelined in the story of what we have come to call "post-punk". Simon Reynolds' two books about post-punk (Rip It Up and the companion tome Totally Wired) take up about 1,000 pages in total. A Certain Ratio barely occupy a dozen of those pages, and then mostly only in passing. And yet, they have an enormous body of work. They released five albums on Factory Records (six if you count a later singles compilation) before moving on to A&M.
But this also presents us with the second conundrum previewed above. How do we make sense of such a vast body of work and how should we approach it? To their great credit, Mute have done a terrific job of curating this box set in a way that is, for the most part, chronological, and yet which allows each disc to stand more or less alone as a satisfying listening experience. In these respects, acr:box exists both as a historical document, but also as a living cultural product that we can enjoy as well as appreciate. Inevitably, an artifact as comprehensive and sprawling as this is not going to be absolutely and consistently successful, but there is a surprisingly large proportion of material here that not only stands the test of time but also continues to be startlingly relevant more or less 30 years from its original creation.
The box set presents challenges for the curator and the consumer alike. To what extent is the curator recycling previously available material and balancing out a desire to be representative of the band's oeuvre with a competing need to offer something new, without compromising quality by putting out some poorly recorded and more poorly preserved demos that were never meant to see the light of day? And how is a listener supposed to approach a daunting amount of music that may or may not conform to what might be their natural listening patterns and habits?
This box set does a masterful job of presenting sides of music that somehow go together to form a satisfying listening experience at the same time as they also chart the band's trajectory over time. This is an impressive accomplishment, and it's possible to watch the band's career in motion here from the very first notes of the first disc through to the very last song of the fourth disc, a beautiful and bucolic re-working of "Won't Stop Loving You", re-cast here as "W.S.L.U."
If there is one common denominator that unites all of what we have come to call "post-punk", it is that almost all the artists arising out of the ashes of punk are more or less performing a certain kind of anxiety, whether overtly or in some kind of sublimated form, for example in an anxiety of influence if not of psychological or cultural condition. Disc one of acr:box is remarkable in that it offers a history of the ACR trajectory in capsule form while enacting almost all of those anxieties and vicissitudes in plain sight. The material on this first disc more or less covers the period from 1979 to 1983, the heyday of post-punk and the genre explosion that it ushered in.
The opening two tracks of this first disc, "All Night Party" and "The Thin Boys", the A-and-B-sides of their first single in 1979, are kind of a misdirection in terms of A Certain Ratio's ultimate identity, because they show the band most in thrall to the version of "post-punk" that has colloquially come to be what we think of when we think of the term. This is the sound of a band still in the plug-in-and-play stage of so many punk bands. There is a ponderous bass line, angsty guitar, and a very serious vocal that seems both slightly ill and very worried indeed. Joy Division would clearly corner this market in a much more spectacular manner and in short order.
There is nothing about that first single to prepare you for "Blown Away", the third track on the first disc and the b-side to 1980's "Flight". In a remarkably short period, A Certain Ratio have fully achieved the conversion from anxious post-punk scratchers to magnificent exponents of polyrhythmic funk. The focus on bass and drums that would ultimately become their dominant mode is more or less complete, and we see the direction that ACR will pursue for most of the rest of their career. Interestingly, though, the next track, "Son and Heir", another B-side, this time from 1981, sees them revert, temporarily, to their quasi-Joy Division identity, as if they didn't have the full confidence necessary to shed that skin quite yet. But this is almost the last we see of that kind of post-punk anxiety.
For the rest of this first disc, we become fully immersed in the wonders of polyrhythms, dub, Afro-Caribbean funk, all run through the ACR filter. It's a stunning sequence of songs that includes classic cuts from 1981 and 1982 where both A-sides and B-sides of their singles output were equally strong. From "Waterline" to "Knife Cuts Water" the band barely put a foot wrong, building a funk engine as powerful as anything else that was out there at the time. The 12" version of "Knife Slits Water" and the b-side version "Kether Hot Knives" weigh in at nine and almost 11 minutes respectively, and neither of those feels a moment too long. These are long and deeply pleasurable funk excursions where every aspect of the relationship between drum and bass is explored and worked out to its fullest possible extent. It's a glorious sound indeed.
However, the end of the first disc offers a harbinger of some less successful adventures in sound that we will encounter at greater length on the second disc. "I Need Someone Tonight" and the truly unfortunate cover of Stevie Wonder's "Don't You Worry 'Bout a Thing" provide fair warning that we are about to enter the cod funk zone. ACR are most successful when they function as a dancefloor-oriented instrumental powerhouse, and it seems to be a consistent common denominator that their vocals are mostly quite weak. The repeated slogan of "I need someone tonight", along with the slightly embarrassing "Work your body!" from the earlier "Guess Who?" all carry the awkwardness of cultural appropriation that also sounds like it was made for an exercise video. That is where the strength of ACR's love of traditionally non-white music forms seems to collapse in on itself.
The old love and theft conceit has been well rehearsed elsewhere, so we won't revisit it again here, but in these moments of relative lameness the love of certain "other" musics that turns into borrowing that then in turn becomes a re-casting of the form in some really vital and interesting ways can also, unfortunately, also result in something that sounds like Level 42 doing karaoke. Deeply immersed as they were in the club scenes of both Manchester and New York (they spent some time recording in New York City and even worked briefly with ESG), A Certain Ratio were both spectators and participants, consumers and producers.
So it is understandable that they, just like New Order, would want to translate what they were hearing into their own version of music they had heard and had fallen in love with. And indeed, when ACR's cultural appropriation works (for example the tropical and dub excursions on the first disc) it works spectacularly well. When they stray into the realms of soul and jazz fusion, they find themselves only a hipster's hair's breadth away from Level 42, Shakatak, and Swing Out Sister (perhaps ironically, two erstwhile ACR members and contributors did end up breaking away to found the latter band, so that may explain some of the aural resemblances in places here).
It is to the band's great credit that this tipping over into self-parodic white funk doesn't happen more often, but one has to acknowledge that it does indeed happen. Thankfully, most of those moments are combined on the second disc of this collection, which is perhaps the weakest passage of the collection, but that doesn't make it any less fascinating as a cultural document. The first two tracks of the second disc are "Life's a Scream" and "There's Only This", two sides of a single from 1984, are non-pareil exemplars of what happens when, as Dave Chappelle once said, keeping it real goes wrong. The earnestness of these funk experiments really ends up sounding like radio-friendly gambits rather than the effortless detours into similar genres that were so successfully carried off only a year or so earlier. It's a curious transition for the band, and it feels more genuinely like an identity crisis than any other period in their history as if they once again become haunted by their influences to an almost debilitating extent.
That's not to say that the band enter any kind of permanent, um, funk, because "Si fermir o grido" and "Brazilia 6.10", from 1985, are powerhouse rhythm section workouts, both authentic and ersatz simultaneously, and that also recall what must surely be another important influence, August Darnell, who pioneered this particular exotic sound in both Dr. Buzzard's Original Savannah Band and then later Kid Creole and the Coconuts. But the passage of the second disc that includes 1987's Greetings Four EP is a truly odd reversion to the pseudo-Joy Division sound. "The Runner" finds them again in thrall to their Factory labelmate overlords, balefully intoning "will I find a home", sadly unaware of the irony in that statement, as they once again search restlessly for a genre that will welcome them.
"The Runner" is frankly just weird and seems perfectly symptomatic of the band's quandary, as if they have a recurring and chronic condition related to their own anxiety of influence. This is basically Joy Division's "24 Hours" unconvincingly remixed for an audience of people who might have liked King's "Love & Pride". It's a mess. Indeed, all of the Greetings Four material here is ultimately unconvincing, with the possible exception of "Fever 103", but that too veers into strange MOR white funk territory. This is truly the sound of a band looking for something in their record collections, and it's perplexing when you consider how assured they sounded a few years earlier. It feels like a generic uncertainty relapse, and it's almost inexplicable.
But this is partly what makes acr:box so compelling, in that we actually see in real time a band working out its identity through its influences, honing all of its sounds into something that is truly their own while translating music that they love into a language that they can then learn to speak themselves. It only becomes odd when the influences that they seem to be wearing on their sleeves are from what one would consider the mainstream, rather than from the hipper fringes and hinterlands, and this one of the points of inauthenticity around some of the band's efforts to forge an identity. Even so, it has to be said that all of this is incredibly brave and ACR's lack of fear means that they also aren't afraid to seem a tad ridiculous sometimes. That lack of fear is what leads, inevitably, through the funk morass of much of the second disc, to the much more robust and ultimately more successful groove that they finally discovered and stuck with. That turn is typified by songs like "The Planet" and "27 Forever", albeit that "Turn Me On" which more or less rounds out this disc, sounds like yet another imitation of love, another outfit the band are trying on, this time in the form of a conspicuous nod in the directions of both Soul II Soul and Swing Out Sister.
Any retrospective of A Certain Ratio that doesn't have at least some version of "Shack Up" (itself a cover version of the original by Banbarra) would be rightfully excoriated. We duly have a nod in that direction here at the end of the second disc, in the form of an "Electronic Radio Edit" which is much more flowery than versions you may have heard previously. It's not clear that this version improves on the classic standard version but it's an interesting curiosity at least, and to the credit of the set's curators that they found a way to spin this part of the band's catalog a little differently. And so closes what we have to conclude is a very weird interlude in the band's history.
But all of this lays the ground for the astounding variety and quality of the third and fourth discs, mostly comprised of demos and unreleased tracks. The latter disc could comfortably stand alone as a full club set, such is the consistently high quality and coherence of sound brought to bear on the tracklist. Appropriate credit should go to the curator of the whole box set, but particularly for the genius of the last disc. What will stand out here for many, though, are the previously unheard covers of Talking Heads' "Houses in Motion", of which we get two versions here to open the third disc. The first is a vocal demo and the second is the more successful and fantastically funky, almost dubby instrumental, where the band's massive bass sound is most fully unleashed. It is in moments like these that one can see the full flowering of the band's previously reference funk noir.
Evidently, the "Houses in Motion" demos were made with the intention that Grace Jones would provide vocals on top of the tracks, which would have been a marvel to behold, but it appears that she abandoned the collaboration at some point, leaving us with these incredible but unfinished pieces. These versions of "Houses in Motion" are extraordinary, especially the second instrumental one, but they also show us the third leg of the stool that holds ACR up, and which also kind of condemned them, unfairly, to the fringes of music history. They lost out in the angst stakes to Joy Division. Then they lost out in the danceteria stakes to New Order, and they were finally bested in the African polyrhythmic stakes by Talking Heads, who achieved something close to world domination with their version of this sound around the time of Fear of Music, Remain in Light, and Stop Making Sense.
But ACR deserve enormous credit for their 365-degree (that's a Talking Heads, joke, just FYI) awareness of what was going on around them at all times. Indeed, there is another sly nod to Talking Heads on "Bitter Pill", which appears on the fourth disc. There is a little keyboard figure that deftly mimics "Born Under Punches" from Remain in Light, even while the rest of the song sometimes rather unfortunately recalls the lesser lights of Wham! (as does disc three's "Backs to the Wall – not their finest moment). But that's the kind of sorcery this collection manages to conjure.
Disc four, though, is really quite astonishing, and this set combined with the percussive miracle of much of the first disc is worth the price of admission all by itself. This last disc is as accomplished in its achievement of a signature brand of dance music as the first disc was in its watertight high-wire performance of Afro-Caribbean musical forms. It's possible to hear this last disc almost as a self-generated and self-contained DJ-Kicks set, and just as the most successful editions of that series manages to establish a through-line of sound with pacing and sequencing, we get an almost perfect tracklist here.
From the opening Gregorian chant of "BTTW 90" we progress seamlessly into a beautiful synthesis of everything that ACR have assimilated and adapted to their sound over their very long career. "Happy Meal" sounds like it could sit easily alongside the best of Electronic's output, or even Moloko's "Sing It Back", in a pinch. It's a gorgeous piece of dancefloor action, perfectly paced, with rich keyboard sounds and charming, unfussy vocals. This is where we see the band graduate to the high-quality kind of funk-soul they seemed to have been aspiring to on the second disc, and they even pull off one last surprising zig-zag with the affecting acoustic comedown of "W.S.L.U", replete with strings, if you please.
If we were nitpicking we might say that ideally this might have been a three-disc set with the first and last discs mostly intact, and a distillation of the best of the second and third discs to round things out, but as it stands this remains a fascinating document of a band who were present at the birth of so many vital and now-canonical subcultures and subgenres. They were nearly a band in the vein of Joy Division and then, quite remarkably, they were also nearly a band in the image of New Order, but in the end, they were always fully A Certain Ratio, a name that perhaps inadvertently but significantly reveals the liminal essence of their identity. This collection is an essential historical artifact at the same time that it is also a vital survey of a thoroughly engaging and often daring series of explorations in dance music.
It is astonishing to realize that one of the final destinations of post-punk might be this glorious flourish of techno and electronic experimentation, but you can trace a direct line from the anxious spiral scratching that characterized the bands listed earlier (notably Wire and PiL) to the rich plasticity that we end up with on acr:box. That is what makes post-punk one of the most gloriously elastic and catholic of subgenres, and a rabbit hole well worth diving into. A Certain Ratio occupy only a tiny part of the vast and intricate warren of the underground system that is post-punk, but even by themselves, they contain multitudes enough to last a lifetime of exploration and appreciation. We are lucky to have them.