A Certain Ratio - Islington Assembly Hall, London - Gigs - Reviews - Soundblab

A Certain Ratio - Islington Assembly Hall, London

by charles filtness Rating: Release Date:

2019 sees A Certain Ratio celebrating their 40th anniversary. Tonight’s London show is the start of a series of UK dates throughout the year celebrating this milestone and follows a recent reissue campaign of all of their albums.  But this is no comeback, there is no reunion fanfare for these genre-spanning pioneers. They have just never really been away.  For many, they are perhaps one of the great overlooked bands of recent times. Never gaining much if any recognition from the mainstream but hugely influential all the same.

Out of Manchester in the late 1970s and with Martin Hannett as producer on their earliest releases it is no surprise that they initially embodied a sound more associated with their Factory Records labelmates Joy Division.  That industrial/Gothic inspired post-punk gloom remains an enthralling prospect. Through the 80s they released a slew of classic albums and singles on Factory. Their sound evolved from the post-punk beginnings to embrace funk, electro, jazz, and Latin whilst arriving at a style that was entirely their own.  With the early 1980s self-produced albums, it is easy to see where the punk-funk tag came from. 'Sextet' is perhaps their most revered release from those days with its memorable bass funk workouts.  After various line-up changes the core band of Jez Kerr, Martin Moscrop, Donald Johnson and Tony Quigley were cemented from around '83 onwards.  Everything they released on Factory is essential, 1986's 'Force' with an eye perhaps towards a more chart-friendly sound and production was another triumph still.  That release contained the Hacienda classic 'Mickey Way' which has lost nothing of its impact in the 30 some years since it first filled dance floors.  From the late 80s onwards their sound continued to evolve.  The more soulful 'Good Together' contained a number of singles that remain fan favourites.  'ACR:MCR' from 1990 had a more electronic edge as did the subsequent releases through the 1990s and 2000s. Even as the frequency of releases dipped in those later years the standard absolutely did not.  


Last year’s 'ACR:SET' compilation illustrates the diversity of their career and also included two new songs.  Whereas once this could have been seen as a marketing ploy to boost sales; in these current times this is clearly not so.  Streaming is now the norm and despite the apparent vinyl resurgence, physical sales are still a fraction of what they once were.  In fact, the two new additions are up there with some of their best work, absolutely worthy of inclusion and a welcome return to releasing new music after a gap of some ten years.  A recent ACR remix of a Barry Adamson song 'I Got Clothes' was even playlisted by 6 Music.  A collaborative radio hit if you will, with another hugely prolific and influential Manchester musician probably most famous as being a member of the band Magazine and later the Bad Seeds.

So how does this diversity of sound and style translate on stage in 2019?   Well, tonight's gig will unfold as one of the most invigorating and joyful in some time.  And make no mistake they do not look like they've been around for 40 years, admittedly now having Denise Johnson in the band helps lower the average age but to see and hear them play is sensational. Modern sound systems and lighting set aside I seriously doubt they've ever looked or sounded better.


 The set broadly speaking follows the chronology of their releases. The opening songs are more in the vein of atmospheric indie, albeit with those signature basslines up front. Opening song 'All Night Party' is dedicated to Rob Gretton who died almost 20 years ago.  The band had a long association with him through Factory, and his subsequent label Robs Records.  ‘Do the Du’ starts to get people moving, the tempo gradually building from the outset of the show.  Denise joins the stage for Wild Party, dueting with frontman and bass player Jez Kerr, with Tony Quigley now also joining the stage on saxophone.  Flight is followed by a rendition of their recently uncovered version of the Talking Heads track 'Houses in Motion', apparently recorded and forgotten about after some abandoned sessions with Grace Jones in the 1980s.  ACR are said to have been a big influence on how Talking Heads would evolve after supporting them on tour in the late 70s, not many can make claim to that.  James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem is another fan; apparently playing the song ‘Do The Du’ to potential recruits to his band as an example of how he wanted things to sound.


 On ‘Lucinda’ Donald Johnson swaps his drums for bass and Martin Moscrop puts down his guitar (and trumpet) to pick up the sticks. It’s a mighty tune; Johnson's slap-bass style playing is spine shuddering in all the right ways. ‘Be What You Wanna Be’ is a bit of a turning point, from here the beats and electronica come to the fore and I realise I'm probably surrounded by a fair number of old ravers.  ACR had worked out long ago that combining funk, jazz and electronica was a winning formula, long before the next generation had been inspired, never mind conscious of the kids coming up from behind.  

 ‘27 Forever’ is electric. Denise Johnson's vocal is up there with any of the great soul singers, cowbells and whistles on stage getting everyone going. A girl behind me leaves the guy she is with and moves to the front to spend the rest of the night dancing about and wolf whistling along, some things just have to be done.  Another highlight comes with ‘Good Together’, the climax of bass heavy electro and saxophone is as exhilarating as anything I've seen live from some of the more recent and critically acclaimed bands that also combine jazz and electronica to great effect. 

acrbtmThe level is never allowed to drop, this is where others can often falter. But not tonight, once you're up they keep you there. There are no mid set lulls or disappointing changes in pace, they just build and build and keep delivering what you crave.  Barry Adamson makes a surprise appearance and joins them for two of their new songs towards the end of the set.  'Dirty Boy' is a funky electro master cut, ‘I Got Clothes’, another gem.  They close with early single ‘Shack Up’ but they are not gone for long.  Returning to play ‘Knife Slits Water’, again with Donald out front playing bass even more energetically than before. The crowd love it, nights like this you just dont want to end.  They finish with customary ‘Si Firmi O Grido’ which sees everyone back on stage playing whatever percussion and drums they can find; ending like some sort of world music street party with half of the band and their instruments in the crowd.   

A friend joined me on the night, she's into music and going to gigs but not obsessively so.  She didn't know anything of ACR, only listening to their top 10 on Spotify the day before the gig.  She messaged me the following day "I had a bit of a spiritual experience - I felt so free. It’s exactly what I needed".  I think therein lies the measure of how great this band are: an enviable back catalogue waiting to be discovered and enthused over for those so minded, and also capable of giving a live performance so enrapturing that the yet to be initiated still have a memorable, uplifting experience.

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