Somewhere between the Graveyard and the Ballroom, in a place defined by late seventies industrial Manchester and early eighties New York sunsets, at a point between the old and the new, they found their feet. Formed during the ampthetamine-crazed soundwave that was Punk UK 1978, taking in influences from teutonic technotronicers Kraftwerk, powered by Wire and holding court in George Clinton’s Funkadelic house of Parliament, A Certain Ratio took to the stage.
Intense and diverse, and originally drummerless, they released their debut single in 1979 – “All Night Party/The Thin Boys” through Factory Records, a label set up by Rob Gretton, Alan Erasmus, and Anthony (H) Wilson. A highly prophetic choice of title, as this was indeed the beginning of one long all-nighter for both parties. Donald Johnson joined as drummer after its release, completing the original line up with Simon Topping, Jez Kerr, Pete Terrell and Martin Moscrop. The band returned to the studio and completed a series of gigs around the country with labelmates Joy Division during late ’79 and early 1980. Factory released the debut album “The Graveyard and the Ballroom”, a limited edition cassette-only release that contained both studio demos and live tracks.
In late 1980, the story switches from post-punk Manchester to the hustle-bustle of the Big Apple, New York City. Romantic Mancunians love to ponder the similarities between the two cities, the skyline over Hulme, the great canals running through the cities (born from their mutual industrial heritage), the fantastic nightlife. Realistic Mancs know the score – Manchester is fuck-all like New York, but it looks good in print. The band played gigs with local funk-machine ESG, along with a fledgling New Order and a little known support act by the name of Madonna. They filmed the ‘Tribeca’ film with Michael Shamberg, a film featuring a fantastic gig at Hurrah’s, interspersed with footage of the band concocting a percussive beatdown in their loft dwellings. In the middle of this flurry of activity, the band checked into EARS studio, New Jersey, with legendary producer Martin Hannett at the controls. The fruits of these sessions formed ACR’s debut studio album, “To Each…”, an album on which the impact was single-handedly destroyed by “that idiot hippie” – an in-house engineer at the studio who decided to zero all of Hannett’s mix settings before he’d had chance to get the album to tape. The album was eventually remixed and released in January 1981, proceeded by the single, Flight.
Immediately after the release of “To Each…”, the band headed back into the studio to record its follow-up, “Sextet”. This time the choice of studio was less geographically glamorous – Revolution Studios, in Cheadle Hulme. The album was self-produced, and featured vocals from Martha Tilson, as Simon Topping retreated to the background in the band. By the time of its release in January 1982, “Sextet” was receiving ecstatic reviews from the press. Again, the album was preceded by a single, “Waterline”, with the rather dubious catalogue number – Fac 52. Fac 51 was the catalogue number assigned to Factory’s world famous superclub, the Hacienda – constructed in a former yacht showroom!
If “Sextet” pointed to more vocal, almost pop tendencies within the ACR artillery, their subsequent album release “I’d Like To See You Again” saw the band march into much deeper territory, based upon stripped down funk and influenced by a more electronic brand of dance music. The emerging club influence is apparent throughout the album, even on the cover where the band are photographed in the Gay Traitor basement bar of the aforementioned Haç. Martha Tilson had left the band prior to the album’s recording, and this led the band into a more experimental and instrumental approach. The album received mixed reviews, but it fairs well on more recent airings, this adds to the argument that the band often were ahead of themselves – maybe they were just ‘too early’! Pete Terrell, apparently disillusioned by the music industry, left shortly after the albums release. Enter Andy Connell, a mean Rhodes player, whose funky clavi sound would once again lead a change in the sound of the band. A second US tour beckoned during December 1982, on the band’s return they received another bombshell – Simon ‘Dream’ Topping departed, and this was the beginning a dark period for the band.
The band set about writing new material as a quartet, and eventually recruited sax player Tony Quigley as a full-time member (Tony had previously roadied for the band). In June 1985, they returned with their first single in this more permanent line-up, “Wild Party”, signalling a brilliant return to form. They set off to tour the States again, with New Order, and the tapes of these gigs provided the mesmerising “ACR Live In America” album.
After their return from America, the band toured the UK extensively. Meanwhile, Factory released “The Old and the New” to capitalise on this new found success. They disappeared into the studio to record their fourth and final Factory studio LP – “Force”. The album was undeniably their finest recording yet, all the elements had combined perfectly – the ferociously funky rhythm section was tighter and bolder than ever, the effected guitars soared ever higher, Tony’s sax cut like a knife through butter, and the vocals had developed into a real treat – pop melodies backed by additional vocals from Corrine Drewery. ACR had come full-circle, they were a great pop group in the making, and there wasn’t much Factory could do to help them anymore. Written by Phil Birchenall