The Charlatans’ Tim Burgess on marking 31 years, his famous Twitter listening parties, and finding lost songs at his mum’s

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When The Charlatans frontman Tim Burgess was spending time looking through the band’s back catalogue for ideas to mark their 30th anniversary, a gem was unearthed in the unlikely setting of his mum’s CD collection.

Sandwiched somewhere between Queen’s A Kind Of Magic and Abba’s Arrival, Burgess found a long-forgotten Charlatans demo, created around the time of seventh album Wonderland in 2001, which had sat gathering dust for the best part of two decades. The CD contained some rough mixes of some familiar songs and then a track Burgess didn’t recognise.

“I thought, okay, well, it’s going to be an instrumental, but that’s still a great find,” he tells Sky News. And then he heard his own vocals kick in. “I started singing [on the demo] and I thought, I don’t even remember doing this. It’s kind of like, so long ago and probably at a period where we were quite frantic and frazzled as well,”

The Charlatans

The song is C’mon C’mon, a once lost track that has been included in a special vinyl album boxset, the band’s “archival restoration project”, which has been released to mark 30 years since debut album, Some Friendly. Or rather, 31 years now, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic delaying the celebrations. As well as the greatest hits, it includes live performances, unheard demos, remixes from the likes of The Chemical Brothers, Norman Cook and Sleaford Mods, and previously unseen photographs. There will also be a tour, with the band visiting 18 cities across the UK and Ireland in November and December.

“Many people over the last year or so, they’ve celebrated [special occasions] over Zoom,” says Burgess. “So we had a Charlatans 30th anniversary party on Zoom. [We’re] super excited about doing the shows coming up in November and December, on the 31st anniversary. It’s very Charlatans to do something a little bit odd, you know. The 31st kind of has a better ring to it with our band.”

C’mon C’mon was one of a few “‘why did we not release this as a single?’ moments”, Burgess says the band had as they sifted through the archives. “It was quite a find but had been there, you know, since probably 2001. When you’re making an album, say you put 10 songs out, you normally write at least 16 and then some songs, you know, might sound a little bit like something else and you have to decide on the spot which is your favourite, or in some cases we haven’t finished off a track in time for an album, but yet made it one of the best B-sides that we’ve ever done. But in this case with C’mon C’mon, we just, no one… I don’t remember it at all.”

The boxset, titled A Head Full Of Ideas, is a career-spanning collection that sums up The Charlatans’ journey from young indie hopefuls to a veteran band that has released 13 top 40 albums, three of them chart-toppers, still going strong after more than 30 years. But The Charlatans could so easily have become yet another of rock’s casualties, with the band facing near bankruptcy in the early days and indulging in the typical drink and drugs excesses of rock ‘n’ roll life. They have also lived through tragedy; keyboard player Rob Collins was killed in a car crash in 1996, drummer Jon Brookes died of a brain tumour in 2013. Both were founding members, who brought Burgess into the band.

“We always have memories,” says the singer. Looking back over 30 years has brought them to the fore. “Tracks from Modern Nature [the band’s 12th album, released in 2015], which fill up the kind of latter half of the greatest hits element of the boxset release… you know, John died just before making that but we always felt that he was a big part of that record. That even though he’d died, he was still, I don’t know, talking to us from another realm. And with Rob, we talk about him every day, still, you know.”

Burgess remembers his first rehearsal after joining the band in 1989. “They had three songs that were instrumentals and I just thought they were the best sounding things I’d ever heard,” he says. “I just wanted to be involved straight away. And, you know, within six months we were playing our first shows. The music scene in the UK was just amazing [at that time], probably the best it’s ever been.”

Singer Tim Burgess of The Charlatans performs at Glastonbury Festival on 26 June 2015. Pic: Jim Ross/Invision/AP

The singer was living for the moment. “I was kind of in it just thinking it was the right thing to be doing at that time,” he says. “Obviously I was a massive music fan and it was what I really wanted to be doing. But I had no clue [how long it would last]. I didn’t really think it would last for longer than a year, maybe. Maybe we could do one album. And I had no real idea what to do after that… But it just felt so great. We’d all been in bands before and we just all knew that we had a chemistry, something that was unexplained and something that we all believed in.”

While only Burgess and bassist Martin Blunt remain from the original Some Friendly line-up, the Charlatans sound – signature Hammond organ combined with the Northern Soul and house-influenced rhythms – is still instantly recognisable. They are older but “certainly not any wiser”, Burgess jokes. “Well, I’ve grown up a little bit.”

As well as The Charlatans – and releasing a solo album – Burgess has been spending a lot of time on Twitter over the past 18 months. Tim’s Twitter Listening Parties, something he had previously done with Charlatans albums, became something of a social media phenomenon during the first lockdown in March 2020.

The idea was for fans to play an album, all starting at the same time, with the artist or significant people behind said album offering commentary and answering questions on Twitter. Such was the response that soon listening parties were being organised for Blur, Oasis and New Order albums, and eventually megastars such as Paul McCartney and Kylie Minogue.

By the end of the month, Burgess will have organised listening party number 1,000 – with Blondie’s Debbie Harry and Chris Stein looking back at the 1978 album Parallel Lines. At a time when people across the world were isolated from friends and family, it was a force for good in a little corner of the internet. “Together, apart,” as Burgess put it.

“It became a kind of sharing community between lots of people who really needed something during lockdown,” he says. “I had no idea how big it would be but I think it’s just an amazing thing that people can all listen to an album together with a major player in the making of those records.”

Burgess cites receiving a simple thumbs up emoji from McCartney in response to his invite to take part as one of his highlights. “But there are just so many… Iron Maiden – amazing! Spandau Ballet – amazing! All of the New Orders ones, the Kylie one… all of them.” And if Kate Bush or Peter Gabriel would like to do one, he adds, “that would be amazing”.

And when it comes to Charlatans highlights? After more than 30 years, there have been many of those, too. Most recently, the band playing a storming set at the last Glastonbury festival in 2019, after being brought in at the 11th hour, is up there.

“We were stepping in for Snow Patrol at the last minute,” says Burgess. “We only knew we were playing like a day before and I think we smashed it. I think that is very telling of the band I’m in, really.” He laughs. “We’re like The A-Team.”

The Charlatans’ boxset A Head Full Of Ideas is out now and the band’s UK and Ireland tour starts in Belfast on 22 November

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