Rewind: Bill Brewster on “Sextet”

Posted: September 28th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Features | Tags: , , , , | 1 Comment »

In discussion with Bill Brewster on “Sextet” by A Certain Ratio (1982).

What is your personal history with this particular album? How and when was your first encounter with it?

I bought it the week it came out. I had just moved back to Grimsby (my hometown) after working in London and Switzerland as a chef for five years. I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life but I knew I didn’t want to spend the rest of it sweating in a kitchen. I’d met some new people who were trying to do cool stuff with music. We’d all been punks in 1976 and 1977 but got bored of how musically limited it all was. We were searching for something new. We had a musical mentor, a guy who ran a musical instrument shop with a few boxes of records in the back, called Roy Bainton. He was 15 years older than us and knew loads about music, everything from Mike Westbrook and Carla Bley to Graham Central Station and, in particular, the blues. We were listening to all this brilliant old stuff that was new to us and also discovering bands like A Certain Ratio and 23 Skidoo who, like us, were also groping towards something different. We were in the process of forming a band when this album came out.

What made you decide for „Sextet“ instead of other of their albums?

They toured to promote this album and we went to see them at this bizarre wine bar in Leeds. I went with all the guys who were in my band. The venue was brightly lit, chrome-plated, horrible. And it was nearly empty, but they didn’t give a fuck: they were astonishing, really tight (helped somewhat by Donald Johnson’s prowess behind the traps). I suppose what “„Sextet“” represents to me is a crossroads of where I had arrived and where they were headed; a sort of Robert Johnson involving trams, drizzle and Northern misery. What is interesting about „Sextet“, listening back now, is that they’d reached a certain competence on their instruments but they still had a thirst for wayward and interesting song ideas and arrangements. Later on, when they were recording stuff like “Don’t You Worry Bout A Thing”, they ended up sounding like those pale Britfunk imitations of the real deal, whereas what makes „Sextet“ endearing is that they sound like nothing and no-one else. The world they inhabited then, it seemed to me, was hermetically sealed from outside influences. I imagined them living together in a big house in Whalley Range, a bit like the Monkees, except with acid and analogue instruments.

What might have influenced the sound of „Sextet“?

I’m not sure. I remember reading an interview in the NME where they namechecked Spunk and Cameo (I then went out to Leeds market and bought some Cameo and Spunk 45s!) and when I spoke to Martin Moscrop a few years ago he said they were buying imports in Manchester and I know they were hanging out in Legends and places like that. We didn’t have a clue about any of that at the time, though. We didn’t know where it came from but we knew we wanted it.

The album has a “live” feel, and there are many reports on their credentials as a live act. Did you have the chance to see them in action?

I saw them a few times. First time I saw them perform was at the Lyceum in London in about 1979 when they were going through their ‘It Ain’t Half Hot Mum’ period. They were all dressed in baggy army surplus khakis shorts (they might even have been wearing pith helmets). They looked fucking cool. They weren’t as tight then as they later became, the guitars were more jagged and raggy and the sound was thinner but I still really liked them. It was when they were promoting “Shack Up” (Didn’t even realise it was a cover version at the time). Then I saw them in Leeds and, later on, at the Haçienda (possibly the most overrated venue of all time).

The band did a different version of “Knife Slits Water” on the 12″ version. How would you compare it with the album version?

I really like them both. I think the version on the album really works perfectly on the album, but I also love the 12-inch version, it was obviously geared more for clubplay, it has a drawn out groove and is a bit heavier on the bottom end.

The preceding 12″ “Waterline” had the catalogue number FAC 52, following the seminal Hacienda club’s FAC 51. Were A Certain Ratio the band in mind for the initial musical concept of the club?

I don’t think so. I think the concept for the Haçienda was stuff like the Mudd Club, Danceteria, Paradise Garage in New York. Those Factory bands were playing over there at these clubs. There was a huge gap back then between the quality of clubs in the UK compared to the USA. Until the arrival of a club called the Warehouse in Leeds, northern English clubs were unbelievably bad. It’s hard to describe exactly how bad now we have a strong club culture in this country, but they were frequently held in the back of pubs, or in working men’s clubs, which were real spit-and-sawdust establishments with walls decorated in nicotine stains and cigarette marks. So the arrival of the Haçienda was an event, though I have to say the mythology of the Haçienda now has overtaken its reality by some distance. I know for a period in the late eighties it was an amazing place (sadly, I never went there during this time), but until that point it was actually a pretty bad place to go. Although it was beautifully designed, it was actually badly designed for the purpose of club/live music. I saw a few gigs there and the sound was really shocking, the space was cavernous and unwelcoming and it was often half-empty.

It is difficult to place the album apart from the label it was released on. How would you define A Certain Ratio’s role in the roster of Factory Records? Are they typical for the label?

I think they are typical in as much as there’s a lot on the label that is untypical. To be honest a lot of the Factory output at the time sounded like really shit Joy Division/New Order copyists (things like Crispy Ambulance for instance, who I like a lot more than I did back then). Let’s face it, anyone doing anything half-decent in Manchester back then had a fighting chance of ending up on Factory. Again, I don’t want to bad-mouth Factory because it was unquestionably a massively influential label, but for a number of years in the eighties they were releasing a lot of second-rate stuff and when a genuine revolution in Manchester arrived in 1988, they were signing Northside! (I remember Mike Pickering telling me that him and Rob Gretton tried to persuade Tony Wilson to start a dance subsidiary and he was convinced dance music would not take off. Mike ended up working at Deconstruction and signing Black Box, Felix and others. They could have had A Guy Called Gerald and 808 State.)

Would New Order even exist without what A Certain Ratio did?

Yes they would. I think both existed in their own little Mancunian orbits, really. I don’t think you could say New Order or A Certain Ratio would have been significantly different without the other existing.

It is tempting to compare this album with music from New York’s Post Punk of the same era. What is distinctive or genuine about „Sextet“, or even specifically British?

There is a difference, I think, between the British sound of that time and the New York bands. The British sound, I think, is more claustrophobic, enclosed and, arguably, more introverted. I think you might find the same comparisons between British and American literature, too. Theirs always seems more expansive, widescreen, whereas ours always seems to be concentrated on a more tightly focused area. It might be to do with the geography of American compared to Britain. And the fact we only ever see the sun in travel brochures.

There were quite a few Factory bands that got to play seminal New York clubs, and vice versa. Why was there such an exchange of the New York and Manchester scenes?

Initially probably a coincidence, but as the Manc bands were playing over in New York a lot, I guess some sort of exchange began to happen, especially once they had the Haçienda as a venue to invite bands over to. I know that they ‘discovered’ ESG when they were over in New York (“You’re So Good” was produced by Martin Hannett after they’d found them).

What do you think made so many Post Punk bands use Funk, Dub, Jazz and Disco elements in the first place? Was it an attempt to make Punk more danceable? And was Disco not the arch nemesis shortly before?

I think they were bored with the limitations of punk. The dub influence is an obvious one in British culture, with the presence of so many West Indians, especially in Manchester, Bristol and London, where a lot of the music was coming from. I’m also not convinced by the disco versus punk stuff, either. I never noticed it. There were certainly some close-minded people (the types who like dross like the Exploited) who probably did hate disco, but then none of the original punks had mohicans or any of the stuff that later became the punk ‘uniform’. I remember a lot of black music and electronic stuff and bands like Can getting played between bands at punk gigs in 1977 and 78. In fact, Krautrock was an undoubted influence on some of the groups. You can really hear it in PIL and the first Fall album and This Heat.

When Post Punk became an issue again a few years ago, A Certain Ratio was one of the bands receiving the full retrospective treatment. Why are they still important? How would you describe the legacy of A Certain Ratio?

I think they are important because their music was different to most of the stuff happening at the time. That period was probably the last era of rock music where white rock and pop bands actively aspired to ‘sound’ black. British pop is at its most interesting when it’s obsessing over some black musical cult, whether it’s the blues, soul, funk or house music. It throws up all these strange and compelling anomalies and A Certain Ratio were undoubtedly one of them. That’s why I find modern rock music so limited now, save for a few notable exceptions.

What do think made that Post Punk revival happen in the first place? Was it just another past scene ripe for further exploration, or exploitation even?

Anything that has music merit will inevitably get re-assessed at some time. Same with progressive rock, I think that’s had a terrible press (some of it merited, I hasten to add) because of the influence and impact of punk. Personally, I think I’d rather listen to prog rock now than punk.

Are there any contemporary bands obviously influenced by the sound of A Certain Ratio that are worth listening to?

I’m not sure you could say they influence a particular band specifically so much as the era and the attitude of those early 80s bands. The obvious candidate is LCD Soundsystem, who I think stand head and shoulders above the rest. But there are others I like such as The Invisible (I liked Gramme, too, who split up before anything ever happened for them).

A Certain Ratio made a comeback with the album “Mind Made Up” last year. Did you like it?

I must confess I haven’t heard it. Maybe I should rectify that.

Sounds Like Me 09/09

One Comment on “Rewind: Bill Brewster on “Sextet””

  1. 1 DJ History Podcast #200 | billbrewster said at 6:52 pm on March 19th, 2013:

    […] A CERTAIN RATIO – Lucinda I’d already seen ACR play live at the Lyceum Ballroom, when they were going through their It Ain’t Half Hot Mum fashion phase. But the next time I saw them at Rockafellas in Leeds they were promoting Sextet. The venue was almost empty, but they didn’t seem to give a shit and they tore the place up. We formed a band within a fortnight of seeing them. You can read more about the impact this record had on me here >> […]

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