When the coronavirus reared its venomous head, Charlatans frontman Tim Burgess believed that he might have been one of the first to get bitten by it. In March of 2020, Burgess happened to be at the center of it all in New York, ostensibly to play four concerts to promote his then-new solo album, I Love the New Sky. Then, virtually overnight, Big Apple venues shut down, local restaurants switched to takeout orders only and the singer started developing a persistent rattling cough on his last day in town. And since testing wasn’t widely available at the time, he had no choice but to suspect the worst.
“I actually think I might have had it,” he reported of possibly catching Covid, phoning a month later last year from his Norfolk country retreat. After flying hastily home, his condition worsened, descending from his throat to his lungs. “I was in bed for about five days, with intense fever, leg pain, chest and kidney pain. But the symptoms passed.” And this co-founder of Britain’s renowned Madchester Scene not only survived, he also landed on his feline feet with a novel online concept he launched from lockdown shortly thereafter—Tim’s Twitter Listening Parties, wherein he and a musical guest would live-stream and discuss one of their catalog favorites over Twitter. It started innocently enough with Burgess parsing his 1990 Charlatans debut Some Friendly, and the next evening Franz Ferdinand’s Alex Kapranos popped up, followed by Blur’s Dave Rowntree on night three, and Oasis guitarist Bonehead on the next broadcast. Almost immediately, the daily concept caught on; Paul Weller agreed to appear, as did George Clinton, and U.K. duo Sleaford Mods commandeered a run of Thursday nights to analyze their entire catalog. Soon, it had become a rite of passage, and Burgess was frantically scrambling to keep up with his phenomenon’s three-per-day schedule, which persists to this day.
Now, 100 of the most fascinating Tim’s Twitter Listening Parties—including hard-to-get stars like Sir Paul McCartney—have been anthologized in book form, via The Listening Party: Artists, Bands, and Fans Reflect on 100 Favorite Albums, a forthcoming book set to be published Dec. 7, with proceeds supporting England’s Music Venue Trust. Simultaneously, Burgess and band are celebrating their 30th anniversary via the new box set A Head Full of Ideas, featuring a 21-cut Best Of collection, a 13-track live disc, another boasting 11 demos and yet another consisting of eight rare remixes; it’s available in CD and cassette editions, as well as on six high-quality vinyl LPs. “And we’ve been talking with our label Beggars Banquet in the U.K. about releasing all the Charlatans stuff, and doing reissues with extra tracks,” adds Burgess in a recent follow-up chat a year and a half after his Covid close call. In 2020, he sounded unsure of exactly what he’d created, and he was still learning the technology a live Twittercast entails. Today, at 54, he is a confident master of his Listening Party domain, and he’s assembled a small but potent team to keep the shows humming. Somehow, he’s also found the time to whip up a new solo set, scheduled for release early next year. He couldn’t have predicted developing such a rapid-fire schedule in a time when many folks around the world were forced to slow down. But he was happy to run down his surprising achievements for Paste.
Paste: Having talked to you last year right after you started this, how do you feel, looking back on the Tim’s Twitter Listening Party craze now?
Tim Burgess: So far, it’s about 970 that I’ve done. 970 Listening Parties.
Paste: And there was no real compensation for you, either, right?
Burgess: No. Apart from the fact that I’ve got this book coming out. But the royalties I’m giving away to the Music Venue Trust, so that’s a way of making sure that everybody felt like they were doing something for a good cause, which is good. So there was no monetary motivation involved, no reason for doing it apart from wanting to do it. And at first I thought it was only going to last for three weeks. But it’s still going on, isn’t it? And I know that we—us English people—can’t come into America at the moment, can they? Keep us away!
Paste: It started out with you requesting the artist’s participation. And then it mushroomed into them asking you to appear, right? It became a 2020 rite of passage for anyone releasing a new album.
Burgess: Yeah. How it happened was, the first week was Bonehead and Dave Rowntree from Blur, and Alex Kapranos from Franz Ferdinand. So there were people that just really wanted to get involved straight away. And I did the first one for Some Friendly, The Charlatans, and that kick-started it all off. And the week after that? I can’t even remember now—it’s so funny, isn’t it? That second week I can’t remember, when I’ve spoken about this so many times. We were just scheduling it the last time we were talking. But then all of a sudden, it was chaos. I had people double-booked and triple-booked. And my calendar skills were terrible, you know? But I had posters everywhere, and everyone wanted to do it. And it became three a day within the third week, Three a day, and then we decided to do a festival, with 10 in one day, and The Breeders did it, and then The Pixies did all of theirs, and then Run the Jewels had to do one. It became just a worldwide thing—it wasn’t just people from Manchester, or people in my phone book.
Paste: Did you get Noel and Liam Gallagher separately?
Burgess: I haven’t had Noel. And the funny thing was that Bonehead said that Liam wanted to do What’s the Story (Morning Glory)?, and he didn’t show up. And he said he was definitely gonna show up for Be Here Now, and he didn’t show up for that, either. But he had his own album, the live album, and that’s when he made his debut on the Listening Party, and it was fantastic. And since then, we’ve booked Kylie Minogue and Paul McCartney, and we’ve done John Lennon with Yoko and Sean. We’ve got Gilbert O’Sullivan next week, who’s just an amazing ’60s and ’70s songwriter. And we’ve had Mickey Dolenz doing the songs of Mike Nesmith. So we’ve got all of that, and we’ve got new bands, like Chastity Belt and Theophilus London and Shabazz Palaces—we’ve had lots of people that I really love, and lots of people that are on a dream list. We just announced Marianne Faithfull today. Everybody wanted to talk, and everybody was so open, and so open to change, I think now, as well. I think they don’t want to mess around. No more fake stuff. I think people want to talk and do things that are worthwhile and creative and enjoyable. And for me, I just got to do more of what I really love.
Paste: How did you dig up stuff for this box set? There’s a whole live album I’ve never heard.
Burgess: Well, the live album covers from … it’s kind of like early days and later days, so it doesn’t jump around. And there’s an amazing version of “Indian Rope” from Reading in ’92 which I’ve just always wanted to release—it’s just the best version. And there’s a nice version of “Polar Bear,” and a track called “Blind Stagger” from Only that’s pretty standout from a show that we did in Manchester, and that’s really good. And then with the demos, three or four have not been heard before—one track I found at my mom’s house. It was a CD, and I was on this mission to try to find stuff that had not been heard before. So I was at my mom’s house, and there was this CD there, in between ABBA and Queen, and it said “Charlatans—Rough Mixes,” and it had rough mixes of “You’re So Pretty” and other songs that I thought sounded great, but then I hear a track I don’t recognize. And I thought, “Oh, this has got to be an instrumental.” But then the singing started, and I still didn’t recognize it! I guess. It was at the height of … I remember we were doing a lot of absinthe at the time … hence the memory loss. But it sounds like a good thing. It sounds like a single. It’s called “C’mon, C’mon,” and we’re actually shooting a video for it.
Paste: And you’ve stayed busy with a new solo album, too. Any new Charlatans work?
Burgess: Yeah. I have a whole new solo record I’m having mixed at the moment. But no new band recordings at the moment, I’m afraid. They’re so hard to schedule. I mean, there was talk of us all getting together in the summer, but now summer’s over. But it’s gonna be soon, because we’re all chomping at the bit to do something together, and we’ve got ideas, which is great. And we’ve always been friendly to each other, so …
Paste: Who were you locked down with?
Burgess: I have a little boy called Morgan, and I spent a lot of time in Norfolk with him and his mom, Nik. And I wrote a lot. I wrote a lot of material, and getting into a studio is really difficult. The first time I managed to do it last year—obviously after lockdown—it was strange. I mean, we’re the United Kingdom, England, Scotland and Wales, but all of them had different kinds of lockdown and opening back up again. So I went to Wales when they were opened up, and England was still locked down, so it was kind of odd—I had to go to Wales because I was working, and I was working, so I could go to work, since Wales was open. But we had to wear masks, which is weird, recording with masks on. But it was certainly an experience. And we’ve all experienced weird stuff over the past year, haven’t we? But I’ve been in for about six sessions now, and it’s a big record, and Dave Fridmann is doing the mixing, and he’s got a good ear, so I’m in good hands, I think. And for production, I’ve been working with Daniel O’Sullivan again, who did my last album.
Paste: But what do you learn in privileged conversation with, say, Sir Paul McCartney?
Burgess: What was incredible about that was that, the more Listening Parties that went on, the more I felt I could ask … the ridiculous, okay? So when he announced that his album was coming out, I said, “Well, how about a Listening Party?” And then obviously, I got no answer. And then six weeks later I got the McCartney thumbs-up—an emoji with a bit of his song. And I just thought, “It’s happening! But what happens now?” Because all of a sudden, it goes into meetings, Zooms, how to do this, and all of that—is he gonna take part? Or is it just gonna be one of his people? And they said, “Oh, no—Paul’s definitely gonna take part! He loves it!” And I was just like, “This is brilliant! Just brilliant!” Him passing on personal messages, sending me a signed record. And I thought, after speaking to talents like Gary Kemp and Ian Astbury in one day, I felt like a teenager all over again, like, “How is this happening?” But then getting McCartney to sign records and get involved with something that he really likes, something that I created? I just thought it was brilliant.
Paste: And then you were compelled to put this book together, too, with a hundred of your favorite Twittercasts?
Burgess: Well, obviously, it’s a book, so it’s condensed. And I really wanted Paul McCartney to be in there, I really wanted Liam, and I really wanted Kylie, and they all said yes. Because I think they all feel like their work, or their involvement, is going to a greater good, which is keeping music venues supported, through the Trust. And McCartney, within an hour or two, said yes. Run the Jewels, too, and even The Cocteau Twins. It’s just a beautiful, beautiful thing. And Stephen Morris from New Order—fantastic photographs of New Order that I’ve never seen before, and he revealed them all on the Listening Party. And it’s a drummer’s dream, the Listening Party. And Bonehead was amazing. And I’m sure so many interviewers were always just asking Liam and Noel questions about Oasis. But these other musicians have the great perspective, like Stephen, or Dave Rowntree, just sitting at the back, watching it all. It’s amazing.
Paste: What album did you learn to have a whole new appreciation for in the process?
Burgess: That’s easy. I had no understanding or appreciation of—and I just didn’t even acknowledge it, in a way, even though it was a #1 album—True by Spandau Ballet. And I talked to Gary [Kemp], and he wrote it when he was 21 years old, in his mom’s council house in London, and his only audience was his brother and his mom. And learning stuff like that when you’ve got these songs that I’ve heard all my life was great. Because really, at first I didn’t even want to listen to the album because it was so huge, you know? And when you focus on “Gold” and “True” and all these songs that are so well-known, you can overlook the album. But when I finally listened to it, I just thought, “This is fucking amazing!”
Paste: How did you spend your birthday in May this year? Better than last year, I would imagine.
Burgess: Well, my 54th birthday party was spent with my little boy and [Burgess’ friend] Nick, and we went to an indoor motorized go-karts place. And my son had a camera on his head, so I pretended it was his birthday. I mean, he knew it was my birthday, but I made it so it would be like what I would do for his birthday, and he was so excited. And I was more than happy enough.
Paste: One question I had to ask, though—is there anybody you had to regretfully turn down for a Twitter Listening Party? Like, “I’m sorry, Robert Plant—I just don’t have time!”
Burgess: No, I’ll make time. I’ll make time for everybody. And to be honest, at the very beginning, I wanted to make sure it was a very solid thing, because it was difficult to get the timing and the calendar and all that right, and I found it really stressful at the beginning. But now I like the way it is, and I love the way it’s developed on its own. It’s its own natural thing, and now lots of PR people get in touch with me all the time, because they’re looking to get a Top 10 debut in the charts, so for them a Listening Party would really be great. So it’s been that kind of a thing, and I love that. I love how it’s turning into something like that. So I don’t turn anyone down, but at the beginning, I I wanted to make sure that it was great ones. Really great ones. So some people have had to wait. And I’m not being judgmental at all about anyone’s music, but when it came to, say, adding Oasis first? It was just about … hey, join the queue. Join the queue, mate! So any huge star is never out of the question. But I don’t really chase anybody, either. Although I must say, the only people I’m still chasing are Debbie [Harry] and Chris [Stein, of Blondie]. Parallel Lines is just classic, and I want to hear “Hanging On the Telephone” just blasting while they discuss it. It would just be so great! I mean, we’ve done The Ramones. We’ve done Talking Heads. Now we’ve got to get Chris and Debbie!
Revisit Tim Burgess’ Paste Studio NYC session below. You can purchase The Listening Partyhere.