Never say dead in the water

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The Independent Culture
It took REM five albums to become big stars. Why not the Charlatans? Emma Forrest on the fourth instalment of a baggy campaign

Judging by the success of this month's "T in the Park" music extravaganza, it seems Glasgow might have a festival to rival Glastonbury. The site was deep green and scattered with trees whose branches curled like clouds. Or it started that way. Three songs into the Charlatans' set, the ground became a dustbowl, as the temperature hit 90F and the crowd whirled like dervishes.

On a bill that boasted Paul Weller, Kylie, the Beautiful South and Elastica, it may surprise you to hear that the Charlatans were the hit of the week. Maybe it's the name, but from the start, the band was accused of jumping on the 1989 Madchester bandwagon, set rolling by the Happy Mondays and the Stone Roses. If the Mondays were the Rolling Stones and the Roses the Beatles, the Charlatans were the Monkees. Frontman, Tim Burgess, was just too floppy-fringed pretty, too Just Seventeen-poster friendly.

They had a clutch of top-20 hits, including "The Only One I Know", "Weirdo" and "Can't Get Out of Bed". But with the demise of Madchester, the snooty music press somehow expected the Charlatans to crawl back to the North, while they gave hysterical front covers to Suede, Elastica and Menswear. Their second album, the strident Between Tenth and Eleventh, was poorly received. The only time they really hit the headlines again was when keyboardist Rob Collins went to jail for four months in November 1993, accused of driving a bank robbers' getaway car.

Burgess sighs. "When you go on tour you just get pampered so much. People pick up all the pieces. If you do a head-roll on the bed in Japan and you kick the hotel wall through, someone will pay for it. If you walk into a bar in America and there's no one there, you start serving yourself, knowing the record company will pick up the tab. One day Rob went out and no one could pick up the pieces."

The Charlatans continued to release a steady stream of swooning guitar anthems, organ power chords, and gloriously cheeky vocals. To mark the release of their last album, Up To Our Hips, they played a one-off gig in Amsterdam, which legions of young British fans attended. And despite being out of style-press favour, their last London dates - two nights at the Astoria theatre - were raucous sell-outs. The flame of baggy has always burned especially bright in Glasgow. Burgess has his theories.

"People here look for something with a bit of heart. Something gritty. Blur and Elastica aren't so big here because they're too shiny. I wanted to call our new album Leg of Lamb because you get blood first, then gristle, then bone. A band with substance."

Back at the Glasgow Hilton, it looks like the entire music industry has been transplanted to Scotland. The reception is a buzz of sweat-drenched musicians, sniffing press officers and girls in short skirts. A nervous- looking Kylie takes the lift to her suite on the 20th floor, while Elastica's Justine Frischmann sits regally on the lobby floor. Robbie Williams, wearing a home-made T-shirt printed with the legend "XTT In The Park", circles the Charlatans' puckish lead singer. "Is that Tim? Can I meet him?"

It brings to mind one of the Charlatans' finest moments: a track from the last album called "Autograph". "Can I have your autograph? It's not for what you are, it's for only what you're not." Tim giggles uncomfortably and retreats to his room with long-term girlfriend Chloe, a tiny Glaswegian with a sweet nature and a foul mouth. On the night table, a cigarette floats in a bottle of Becks next to a well-worn copy of Truman Capote's The Grass Harp. Tim rolls his eyes at the media circus going on downstairs.

"When we first hit, success knocked me sideways. Other people got in the way too much and I'm watching out for that now. Because I reckon that we might get a second chance and they're already swarming back. They were swarming back today. Everyone from glue sniffers to models. Just people who do my head in."

Is this what he expected when he dreamed of pop stardom as a kid? "I didn't expect. At school, our teachers told us we were all going to be on the dole. I believed them for a while. When I was 16 I got a job licking envelopes and I was really happy. Music saved me from everything. You see, where I come from you'd be surprised. People's aspirations are different."

Perhaps the music press turned against Burgess because, in a grunge rock climate, he didn't seem to be suffering enough. Up there on stage, shaking his tambourine, dancing like a superstar simian, incapable of not grinning at the audience, he looked like he was having too good a time.

"I love singing. I love making records. I know Noel Gallagher said that not everybody can be a pop star. Maybe they can't, but it shouldn't stop them trying. My opinions have changed in the past five years. I really thought that a group should only exist for one year and put out one record. I started getting a more historical, classical view of music. It's corny, but I prefer the history thing to the one-hit-wonder thing."

This is abundantly clear in the new album. The Charlatans is far more textured than anything they've done before. The sounds are richer, more at ease with themselves. Songs creep under your fingernails and into your bloodstream, unlike the usual three-minute bursts of fizzy pop doing the "Britpop" rounds. "Here Comes the Soul Saver" is destined to be one of the great album tracks, up there, dare it be said, with "I Wanna Be Adored". The cover shot is even a mock up of the Stones' Out of Our Heads. Like Black Grape, they steal at random from their record collections, but invest the music with so much of their own personalities that it sounds like a drunken night reminiscing with your best mate.

"You go through life and you collect all your little pieces and put them in your backpack. It might be a rock, a hat, or a coat. Then you empty your bag out, and it's your belongings. I've picked up musical influences, but the way we deliver them is totally us." The big music industry buzz this week has been "who will get to number one. Oasis or Blur?". By both deliberately releasing their songs on 14 August, the two most favoured bands in Britain have turned music into a game of hopscotch. The Charlatans also released their marvellously laid-back single "Just When You're Thinkin' Things Over" on the same day. When you consider it took REM five albums before they truly became stars, there's a strong sense that the Charlatans are just about to hit their stride.