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The Charlatans, Still Tellin’ Stories 25 Years Later

The Charlatans have always been my band. You know, that one band that resonates with you more than any other. To be honest, I have a few ‘my band ‘ bands, but The Charlatans inspire in me a dedication and love that few others do. It’s with Tellin’ Stories release in 1997 that I learned some early lessons about life and loss and, more importantly, triumph in the face of adversity.

Any exploration of Tellin’ Stories has to begin in the summer of 1996. Specifically, the events leading up to the band’s appearance on the support card for Oasis’ sold out gigs at Knebworth. The band themselves have explored this period of their history far better than I ever could. However, the facts (as I know them) are: Rob Collins, the bands mercurial organ/keyboard player, died in a car accident on 22nd July 1996. The accident happened not far from the studio that the band had been recording Tellin’ Stories at and the sessions were nearing completion. He was 33.

Looking back now, it genuinely was one of my first experiences of ‘loss’. I don’t know the band. I have never met them and yet, listening to the news on Radio 1 and then reading about it that Wednesday in the NME, I felt it as keenly as if it had been a member of my own family.

Rob Collins death hit me hard. The only comparison about how I felt is with the death of Kurt Cobain. Looking back, there’s a certain morbid inevitability to Cobain’s passing. Whereas the death of Rob was all the more shocking to teenage me. When news of Kurt Cobain’s passing spread, there was a level of international sadness. Fandom across the world united in grief at the loss of a musical icon. Rob Collins is no less a musical icon to me, and was harder to process. There wasn’t that shared grief. I have friends who shared my passion for the band but it was hard for others to understand. I was also frustrated that the world didn’t share my grief. Outside of the music press and fans, there was little acknowledgement that the world had lost a genius.

It feels like yesterday, that slow walk back home in the summer sunshine. Having just picked up the weekly music magazines and reading those words, pouring over what little new information the NME had. It felt incomprehensible. It couldn’t have happened this year. This was the year of optimism: The England Football team had just given the country its most successful tournament in 1996; A strong Government Opposition was finally looking like it would end years of hardship in England. Teenagers like me were looking to the future and we were doing it to the soundtrack of a thousand great bands, spearheaded by the aforementioned Oasis but ably supported by the likes The Charlatans. A band who had worked hard for years and, thanks to the Britpop party, were finally getting some sustained mainstream success. Rob Collins’ death looked like it might end all that for the band before it had even begun.

But this is The Charlatans and they are not like other bands.

First of all, the small matter of Knebworth. How do you deal with the devastating loss of, not just a band member, but a best friend? Firstly, you draft in Martin Duffy of Primal Scream to help you through the most emotionally charged gig of your life.

Then, you do it by releasing ‘One to Another.’ Four minutes and 32 seconds of adrenaline pounding, life affirming, stadium filling groove. Its embedded in this article and there might be a temptation to click and have a listen. Don’t. Buy it. On CD or vinyl. Then put it on or in the player and Turn. It. Up. It’s Dance. It’s Rock. It’s lightning in a bottle. Untouched by time, this track more than any other transcends the everyday and truly makes you feel that anything is possible. 25 years later, I still feel exactly the same about it.

Only The Charlatans could face tragedy head on, refuse to be overwhelmed and then make you, the fan, feel better. Never before or since has my connection to any band been as strong as it was listening to that single over and over in the summer of ’96. What ‘One to Another’ did for me in that summer, Tellin’ Stories’ has done for me ever since. Music fans the world over, I feel, will attribute songs or albums to different events or times in their life, even if the connection is disparate. Snatches of lyrics, melodies or a guitar riff can have an almost symbiotic relationship with your emotions. Instantly transporting you to a different time or place. I don’t imagine much, if any, of Tellin’ Stories was intended to be a testament to coping with loss, but that’s how I, as fan, identified with it when I first put the cassette into the player, and I feel much the same now as I drop the needle onto the record.

Looking back now, time has been kind to The Charlatans’ Tellin’ Stories. The aforementioned emotional circumstances did not make them immune to accusations of what you might call, Britpopism. The idea of lads, beer and guitars, ably perpetuated by some of their peers and their records, is too reductive for Tellin’ Stories. On reflection, time has shown the LP to be far more complex and beautiful than the the ’90s allowed for.

The music scene image of the mid 1990s in Britain demanded simple, uncomplicated feelings. Going out, having a drink and good time and not worrying about tomorrow. The come down for Britpop was coming, but back then 1996/97, the good times seemed never ending. There didn’t seem to be any room for guitar music with soul and heart. But that’s what The Charlatans provided. Sure, tracks like ‘How High’ might reflect the Britpop sound. However, anyone who’d been paying attention would know that this was a natural development for the band. Previous album B-sides like ‘Green Flashing Eyes’ and ‘Back Room Window’ had already suggested that The Charlatans might be moving away from the groove heavy sound of their previous LP and were ready to unleash the guitars. The truth is, on Tellin’ Stories, us fans got Groove and Guitar.

Being honest, I can admit to myself that I was disappointed with opener ‘With No Shoes’. 25 years later, the bass is stunning, the drums loose, and singer Tim Burgess’ vocals reaching for the higher notes amazing. Back then? Teenage me rather selfishly wanted 10 tracks that just sounded like ‘One To Another’. I also know my feelings changed, so that by the time life had taken me to University a few months later, I was swaggering round to ‘With No Shoes’ like I’d written it myself.

Follow up track ‘North Country Boy’ held no such disappointments. The kind of track that has you shouting the words into your best friends’ faces all over town after being out all day. The kind of track that you all think has honestly been written about you. And listening now? Just listen to that slide guitar and again that bass. All underpinned by the whirl of Rob Collins’ Hammond Organ. Even now, after all this time has passed, I still hear something different when I put the record on. This time? The beauty of the chugging organ as the song fades out. Next time? Who knows.

Track 3, ‘Tellin’ Stories’. If memory serves this was the fourth and, as was tradition at the time, final single from the album. What stays with me now is that, even though Rob played on a significant amount of the album, lyrics and tunes developed different meanings to us fans. References in the lyrics to finding a ‘brighter guide’ and ‘leaves fall to the ground, turn to brown’ were painful reminders of the circumstances around the loss of Rob. Burgess addresses the fans, telling us that he ‘sees our heart is empty’ but he has the solution to our sorrow as ‘I’ve got plenty’ he tells us. Were these the original intentions of the lyrics? Doubtful. But they were a comfort.

‘One to Another’. Just listen to it. It stands untouched by time. What made it so powerful then, makes it so now. It saved me in (or so it felt) in 1996 and has saved me countless times since. At my wedding, in the summer (always summer with this track) before the pandemic would take hold, it filled the dance floor. It’s been a constant in my life for over 25 years and I am as much in love with it now as I was then.

After Side A high of ‘One to Another’, the LP wrong foots you slightly with the final track on this side. I have absolutely no idea now, like I didn’t then, what ‘You’re a Big Girl Now’ is about. I know I love it, I know it has a beauty that I can’t quite articulate. I know its a little Beatles and a little Dylan and a lot The Charlatans. This track, more than any other, seems to point the direction the follow up LP Us and Us Only would take. Then and now, I just know it is the perfect come down melancholia after the euphoric high of ‘One to Another’.

Side B

Even now, turning the LP over gives me goosebumps; equal parts dread and anticipation. Anticipation because Side B is just as good, if not better, than Side A. Dread because ‘How Can You Leave Us’ hits far too close to home and far too hard. I’ve never really investigated whether it’s about Rob Collins, if I knew whether it was or wasn’t, I’ve forgotten and I’m glad I have. Mainly because, for me, it is about Rob. It’s hard to quote lyrics or words even now without feeling incredibly emotional. But that’s the beauty of The Charlatans, like I say, they are my band. And as hard as ‘How Can You Leave Us’ be to listen to, I love listening to it.

Less difficult to listen to but also conjuring images of Rob Collins, is ‘Area 51’. Previously released as a B-side (North Country Boy I think), this instrumental is a sonic assault. Every musical element that makes the band as good as they are is here and its the only instrumental I’ve heard that you can feel the singers presence without there being any words. It seems only natural that the wordless ‘Area 51’ should be followed by the vocal tour de force that is ‘How High’. Tim Burgess’ voice seemingly stretched to breaking point in places. The song was perfectly placed to fill both a million dance floors in the UK and a million under confident teenagers hearts with the swagger and poise of Burgess and the band.

How do you top the bombast and euphoria of ‘How High’? The solution seems to be, don’t try. ‘Only Teethin’ is my favorite track from the LP. It hasn’t always been and, in 25 years, I suspect it’ll be something else. There’s a 1970s cool to the tune that I haven’t always appreciated. The organ and bass driving the track along and the confident and heart felt delivery of ‘you don’t have to say good luck ‘cos I don’t need it’ once again feels like the band articulating complex feelings about the future in once chorus line.

Sort of closer ‘Get on It’ is the perfect ‘last’ tune. Eschewing the by now traditional (in the Britpop era) Big Finish, Tellin’ Stories is, for the most part a really intimate, warm tune that, as it breaks down finishes with Burgess declaring ‘aint nobody listening to you, I’ll be your eyes and ears get on it’. The line delivered, to my ears, with more emotion than any other line on the album. They are also the last words on the album and they provide me with some comfort that The Charlatans are, in some way, always there for me. They were there for me in 1996 when I was a shocked and saddened teenager, and they are there for me now.

I say ‘sort of closer’ as final track ‘Rob’s Theme’ is a collection samples, shuffling drums and staccato organ and guitar. Trust The Charlatans to turn away from the grand gesture to avoid writing a ‘tribute’ song and just let Rob and the music do the talking. It feels like a fitting tribute by a band who have always done things their way.

I’ll never not listen to Tellin’ Stories. I can’t wait to share the experience with my kids as they grow up and, when they begin to experience loss in their life, I hope they have a band like The Charlatans to see them through the darker times like I did. After all, that’s what musics really all about isn’t it?

Written by Matthew Campbell

One Comment

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  1. Great article. Your love for the band shines through. Only music can do this. Remembered The Charlatans of course but this sent me on a trip of rediscovery.

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