A Certain Ratio - The Graveyard and the Ballroom

by Bill Golembeski Rating:8 Release Date:2017-12-08
A Certain Ratio - The Graveyard and the Ballroom
A Certain Ratio - The Graveyard and the Ballroom

Despite the band’s name, this has nothing to do with math rock.

No, these guys were with Manchester’s Factory Records in the 79-80 days of Joy Division and The Durutti Column. This is the real deal from way back then, after the supposed year zero of the Sex Pistols. Of course, it was produced by Martin Hannett.

Now, the album The Graveyard and the Ballroom was issued only on cassette in 1980, and it contained half studio demos (recorded at Graveyard Studio) and half live recording (from a live show at the Electric Ballroom); so, it has never been considered a proper first record. Well, sure, two songs, “Choir” and “Flight” are repeated, but listening, after all these years, it sure does sound like a pretty great bit of Manchester post-punk music. And a half-live recording is hardly unique. Think about Family’s brilliant Anyway, Savoy Brown’s A Step Further second side “Boogie,” or King Crimson’s Starless and Bible Black.

This matches the muster of label mates Joy Division, without some of the claustrophobic doom, although “Crippled Child” does its best to keep Hope hidden in the corner of Pandora’s Box. Simon Topping's vocals mirror the drama of Jim Morrison that was echoed in Ian Curtis, Ian McCulloch, and the ever-loveable and Teardrop Exploding Julian Cope. And, quite frankly, there is a lot of the funky music of The Gang of Four in these grooves.

So where, exactly, does A Certain Ratio (named from a line in Brian Eno’s song “The True Wheel”) fit into the realm of rock ‘n’ roll? My friend, Sally Setter, who wants to organize her music into neat genre categories, has a tough time with ACR. First of all, what the hell are they? Punk, post punk, rock, funk, dub, electronic? And then, where, exactly do they belong—in the A section for “A” or the “C” section for Certain. Let’s face it: As my other friend, Kilda Defnut, often says, ‘Owning a good record collection is an overwhelming responsibility.”

Oddly enough, Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull, suggested the very same thing about God during the second side of the album Thich As a Brick.

I don’t know about any of that, but I do know that many post-Pistols bands felt an overwhelming responsibility to present the bleak state of affairs in the world that was, indeed, in total contrast to Genesis and their singles “Follow You, Follow Me” and “Misunderstanding” that topped the pops of the charts.

It all begins with “Do the Du.” This is the type of funky song that made many of us, who sat so quietly at a serious Gentle Giant concert that a pin drop could be heard to drop, actually contemplate a few dance steps that we secretly knew would never grace any dancefloor. But at least we thought about it. That was a paradigm shift. But lyrically, it’s far from dancefloor friendly: “My heart was just an open sore/Which you picked at ‘till it was raw.” Trust me, there’s no misunderstanding the band’s intent.

“Faceless” has the ACR trademark heavy bass and drumming that replaces any lead guitar. And, at least for this album, the band fits (un)comfortably into Joy Division Factory sound. That would change. Then there is the before-mentioned “Crippled Child”: Yeah, this is bleak stuff that always makes my list, along with “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” on the least likely song to replace “Kumbaya” at campfire sing-a-longs contest. Just so you know, those two songs rate slightly below Richard Thompson’s “End of the Rainbow,” but not by much.

But Then “Choir” is magnificent, and contains everything great about ACR. Funky rock with electronics and a weird guitar solo add to the constant pulsing bass and drums which collide with other worldly voices that hover over a world The Sex Pistols could never inhabit. “Flight,” too, doesn’t sound like anyone else of the time. But the Talking Heads would sound like this in their “Burning Down the House” phase. Then “I Fail” and “Strain” are Rock in Opposition dissidence that thankfully never stop being funky.

The live “Ballroom” is more urgent. The recording is good, with some distortion, muffled vocals, and a few tape problems. But the show is a great document of A Certain Ratio’s fusion of rock, funk, electronics, and whatever. “Oceans” sounds like Joy Division who suddenly decided to have a good time. “The Fox” is filled with weird sounds, lots of space, and Simon Topping's trumpet, something seldom associated with post punk. This was a sign of things to come. By the time “Suspect” erupts, it’s just a night of, to quote the great band Traffic, Rock & Roll Stew. And for the sake of tradition, the live version of “Flight” has the drum drama of The Who’s extended “Won’t Get Fooled Again.” It ends with “Genotype Phenotype,” that, once again, plays the band’s full house of funk, rock, and electronic sounds.

So, this isn’t a proper album. It was never intended to be a finished Factory product. But it stands quite well as an equal testament to the other great music of the time. Yeah, that post-punk stuff was all over the place, and sometimes, it wasn’t even recorded that well. But this music had life. And we wanted that life. It had dance steps. We wanted those dance steps, which, even when they are merely imaged, are better than no dance steps at all.

 

 

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