About once every 10 years or so for the past four decades, a different record label has attempted to canonize the work of post-punk ensemble A Certain Ratio. At first, it was the work of Factory Records, the infamous imprint that released the band’s earliest efforts like their steel-toned debut single “All Night Party” and their subsequent albums and EPs that found the Manchester-based group serving up elements of reggae, world beat and early acid house for club play.
ACR continued to release fresh material through a major (A&M) and the indie run by Rob Gretton, the manager of New Order, but other labels kept tying them to their past. Creation Records offshoot Rev-Ola re-released their first four LPs in the ‘90s, and in the ‘00s, Soul Jazz issued a pair of fantastic compilations as well as new pressings of their 1981 debut To Each… and its follow up Sextet from a year later.
Recently, the work of keeping ACR’s music in the public consciousness has been taken on by Mute Records. The already legendary label signed the band and undertook a new reissue campaign of all of the band’s studio albums but they have gone one further by working with the group to compile an impressive volume of singles tracks, demos, remixes and rarities on the recently-released ACR:BOX.
The four-CD/seven-LP set is a fantastic overview of why this band’s work should be delighted in no matter what company’s logo is on the sleeve. It tracks the evolution of a group that started out as Joy Division acolytes (the two groups shared a rehearsal space for a stretch) to finding their literal groove on the horn-flecked “Tumba Rumba,” the tightly wound funk of “Turn Me On” and the fusion jazz-like “Can You Dance.” The collection also pulls in some real gems like two takes on Talking Heads’ “Houses In Motion” that ACR recorded with the intent of having Grace Jones take the vocal hook (she missed the session) and demo versions of the material they would flesh out for their final Factory release Force.
The release of ACR:BOX is also meant to commemorate ACR’s 40th anniversary as a group, a milestone they will be celebrating this summer with various shows throughout the U.K. and Europe. With all this activity, it seemed the perfect time to catch up with a member of the band to talk about its history, the evolution of their sound and putting together this massive document. Paste was able to get some time on the phone with the group’s longtime drummer Donald Johnson to discuss all that and much more.
Paste: How does it feel to be part of a band that is still active and still playing shows after 40 years?
Donald Johnson: You know, it’s a really nice feeling. It’s still fun. For me, personally, I don’t like the traveling. I like to get there, but I don’t like getting to there. But other than that, it’s brilliant. Right now, thinking about this compilation has me thinking about songs we haven’t played in a long, long time. We’ve even forgotten the reasons we don’t play them anymore. Coming back to them, going, “How do we play these songs?” We’ve been playing some really good shows all over the place and getting a lot more confident about who we are and what we do. It’s just great that people all over the world are kind of waking up to it. It’s time in the sense that we’re still here and we’ve kept the same quality criteria. We’ve never dropped that angle.
It’s an interesting point you make about people finally waking up to you guys. It seems like that has been helped along by the reissues of your work that Creation and Soul Jazz did. It must be exciting to see younger audiences finally getting to hear your music.
I think that’s a lot to do with new tech. Now, it’s simple to review something very quickly when you hear it. Someone yesterday showed me this album online that I had never heard of before, and straight away I went and reviewed what it was. It was a Roy Ayers production. An old school classic album released in the ‘70s. The production on it sounded wonderful. It was school day for me because I’m constantly learning. I can go and do that kind of homework before I’d even brushed my teeth.
That is something that really distinguished A Certain Ratio; you guys were always keeping your ears open and letting the sounds of go-go from Washington D.C. and Latin music influence what you were writing. In the early days of the band, were you constantly record shopping and seeking new things out?
Yeah, yeah. A lot of the echoes that you hear are coming from dub records. A lot of things may come from listening to the production on David Bowie’s Low or listening to a Wire album. One of the big things about Ratio was we listened to the whole song and how it was put together. How it was made. What sounds were involved. In our little sphere, we tried to craft our music in the same way. Put little things in that you can find later on.
To look back a little bit, ACR had already released some music and had been playing some shows by the time you were brought on to play drums. What were you doing before you joined up with them?
Nothing. Getting ready to join A Certain Ratio. I was doing the odd radio session here and there with different friends who had their own production companies and they were doing commercials and that kind of thing. I was listening to music like crazy. Storing up things and getting ready. For that time when you find the right kind of people to share that stuff with. Then the guys came along and I was able to download, massively.
In other interviews I’ve read with other members of the group, they talked about how ACR benefited from all the attention given to Joy Division and New Order, two bands that you shared a label with and played many shows with over the years.
We’ve always benefited because they’ve always been our friends. We were the only band to have shared a rehearsal space with Joy Division. New Order have always looked after us. They’ve always asked us to play with them. Took us to America for the first time as their support act and paid for it all. But there’s also the other point that when everybody looks at them, they look at you to kind of create the same thing. It’s different now from how it was then. But that was the inference. If you were in Joy Division’s sphere, people would think you were the same thing. We were going in completely different directions and we met up in the middle somewhere.
It also sounded like working with Martin Hannett early on was a blessing and a curse because while the records sound great, it felt like him trying to instill his vision on to your band.
That’s exactly it. That works sometimes. Because there’s an eclectic side of ACR, the kind of cinematic side that that would work perfect for. And even some of the more industrial things would work great. But there was one element that he never really good which was that we were listening to American dance music. Don’t get me wrong; Martin was miles ahead of all that stuff and had listened to all of that before. But we were trying to be fit into this production space that equalled that for Martin whereas we wanted him to do something different with us. That was the bit that didn’t work for A Certain Ratio. Simple things like, even though me and Steve [Morris of Joy Division/New Order] are drummers, Steve plays different than me. His style is more adaptable to Martin’s production style whereas my style never was. Martin tried to get me to fit into that style rather than Martin trying to fit around what I was so that I was able to grow. I needed it to be a little more free. That doesn’t take away from any of his brilliance. I just think we were evolving at different speeds.
Starting with the album Sextet, the band started to produce its own records and have done so ever since. Was that important for ACR to take control of things like that?
Correct, or at least head in that direction. We took guidance from other people and had other people produce with us, but that worked really well. That was really important to us because the sound element of being able to have it discussed and laid out a little bit and then have some room to experiment, rather than the Martin thing, which was a bit of a straitjacket-like. Looking at the evolution of Ratio, Sextet was when we really started to veer up.
ACR went from Factory Records to sign with A&M Records, a much bigger label. While that was a creatively positive period for the band, it seemed like a rough stretch behind the scenes.
That’s very true because we were swimming in a stream with lots of other fish. We only had a couple of people in that big, big record company that really believed in us. It was always very hard to try and break through and be different. I never understood this about record companies. They sign a band based what they heard and liked and as soon as they do sign them, they don’t like it anymore. We did write some great music with A&M. We wrote two great albums, Good Together and acr:mcr, both of which have proved to be really good classics. It was just to big a thing for us to be in without having the right infrastructure behind to play their game. Right now, being on Mute, this is the easiest, simplest, most creative part of our career ever with no issues at all. Mute are the only people that said, three years ago, “This, this, this, and this is going to happen and it’s going to happen at this time.” And it happened exactly as they said. That kind of thing instills lots of confidence in you.
What was it like putting this set together and digging up all the rare material that wound up being included?
Well, again, to go back to Mute, it was really Mute that made us think about it. There’s a lot of stuff that we’ve done that we’ve just forgotten about! Things that are in the ACR stash on a digital tape or an audio tape somewhere. Mute really made us look back. One of things Ratio is not big on is looking back. We’re always heading forward. But the label was saying, “You’ve got to understand that it’s good. You know it’s good but it’s no good sat in a box somewhere. You’ve got to get it out there.” Once we started doing it, that’s when all the ideas came around. That’s why it’s build to a seven-disc, 50-odd tracks set. Not in our wildest dreams would we have ever thought of releasing 50-odd tracks in one swoop. We’re on to the next album or EP.
We found the Grace Jones things, “Houses In Motion.” We found the demoes for the album Force and we’d forgotten that we’d demoed that album. It’s a little gems like that. We used to all kinds of little recordings and stash them away. Thank God for someone like Paul Taylor [art director at Mute] for putting it all together in a beautiful package. It’s a good reference for our 40-year existence.
What comes next then? You do have some shows lined up in the U.K. and Europe this summer but is there more on the horizon?
We’ve been recording for the last year and a bit. But we’re not putting a time limit on it. We’re going to record until we know we’ve got enough and then I’m sure we’ll seek advice and start playing stuff for Mute and we’ll take it from there. The next album is definitely something we’d like to put out on Mute. It could be a couple of years old by that point but it’ll be worth the wait.