Sunday, September 7, 2014
Track of the Week: The Charlatans "The Only One I Know"
Sometime around 1989-1990 I started gaining a more sophisticated understanding of pop music. Instead of listening to top 40 radio and the oldies station, I started buying tapes (then CDs) and hearing things through word of mouth or from less mainstream sources. 120 Minutes and Yo! MTV Raps were my conduits to something more interesting than Whitesnake and Poison. In those days before grunge there was a lot of challenging stuff happening in the underground of independent rock music, but it was so far underground that I was not hearing it. Instead, I was pretty open to the sounds coming out of the UK at the time.
There is a long history of great British bands with followings and hits in the home isles that for inexplicable reasons don't seem able to break into the charts stateside. The cool older kids at my high school that I knew through band and debate were into this stuff, as was my friend's hip older sister. That's how I learned about Depeche Mode, The Sundays, The Smiths, Teenage Fanclub, etc. One particular sub genre of British rock music of the time especially intrigued me: Madchester.
This was the term for a style of rock music out of Manchester (natch) influenced by electronic dance rhythms and hip-hop beats, and for a brief, blessed time brought a little danceability to a genre sorely lacking in that essential quality. Until I saw the film 24 Hour Party People based on the Manchester scene of the 1970s and 80s, I had no clue just what a huge cultural phenomenon this had been in Britain. Since this music was underground in America, my young mind had assumed that it was out of the mainstream in Britain, too.
As innovative and popular has Madchester was in its moment, it was a short moment, partially due to the implosion of its two biggest bands: The Stone Roses and The Happy Mondays. There was another fine group less heralded than them, The Charlatans, who somehow managed to adapt their music over years and survive into the next decade. They have never produced a great album, but they did put together something more important: a great pop single.
"The Only One I Know" still gets me today, almost a quarter century later. Hearing it recently in the movie The World's End had me calling it up on Spotify during my morning commute each day this week. It has a unique element I am very partial to: lead organ. While the beginning guitar figure sets a suitably funky course, the swirling organ gets in your head and never leaves. It gives the song a spooky, moody feel despite the propulsive dance rhythm. It's as if the Charlatans decided to distill the elements that were actually good about the Rolling Stones' psychedelic phase, then jack up the tempo and modernize the beat in a Madchester blender. It's striking some times how fast music trends can come and go, but some, like Madchester, are worth returning to.