Jon Brookes: Powerhouse drummer with The Charlatans
Wednesday 14 August 2013
In his eminently readable and candid memoir, Telling Stories, The Charlatans' charismatic frontman, Tim Burgess, describes drummer Jon Brookes as a "Keith Moon fanatic, phenomenal powerhouse drummer and West Midlands nutcase."
Brookes was a founder member of the group, who, because they relocated to Cheshire, are still routinely described as a "Madchester" band. This was as much due to the way they mixed dance, Sixties psychedelia and indie rock to create the irresistible Nineties singles "The Only One I Know", "Weirdo" and "One to Another" as it was down to their pudding-bowl haircuts and baggy clothes.
Formed after the Stone Roses, Happy Mondays and Inspiral Carpets, The Charlatans eventually eclipsed the baggy trinity from Greater Manchester and became the most consistent act to emerge from that scene. They scored more Top 40 hits than the aforementioned and topped the UK charts with their Some Friendly debut in 1990, as well as with their fourth album, The Charlatans in 1995, and Tellin' Stories, their fifth release, in 1997.
Brookes contributed to the songwriting on their 11 studio albums and was arguably the most level-headed member of the group, whose penchant for cocaine passed into rock lore.
Born in 1968 in Burntwood, Staffordshire, he grew up in Wednesbury, a market town in the Black Country. In 1987, not yet out of his teens, he joined bassist Martin Blunt and organist Fay Hallam, whose Mod band Makin' Time had imploded, and Graham Day, the former frontman of The Prisoners, to form the Gift Horses. They managed one single and a tour of Germany before breaking up.
However, Blunt and Brookes had gelled as a rhythm section and would form the backbone of every subsequent line-up of The Charlatans. Adding the organist Rob Collins, and the guitarist and vocalist Barry Ketley, they began rehearsing a mixed set of covers and originals. They fell in with Northwich record-shop owner Steve Harrison, who became their manager and secured them a few gigs, including a support slot with the Stone Roses in May 1989.
When Ketley quit, they recruited Burgess, the lippy singer with the Electric Crayon Set, along with the guitarist Jon Baker. They composed half a dozen, organ-driven songs, including "Indian Rope", which they issued on Harrison's Dead Dead Good label in January 1990.
Produced by engineer Chris Nagle, who had helped the late Martin Hannett fashion the Factory Sound with Joy Division and New Order, the single was championed by John Robb in Sounds and James Brown in the New Musical Express, topped the indie charts and sold out its 20,000 copies.
The major companies came sniffing around, but the band chose to sign a six-album deal with Beggars Banquet, a British independent with an impressive pedigree (Gary Numan, The Cult, the 4AD offshoot). In July 1990, "The Only One I Know", built around an insistent, haunting keyboard riff, charted, as did the follow-up single, "Then". With Burgess's Jaggeresque pout on the cover of every music magazine, Some Friendly sold 150,000 copies in two days and quickly went gold.
The Charlatans made inroads into Continental Europe, Japan and America. Yet the pressure of their early success took its toll. Baker left and was replaced by Mark Collins, a bona fide Mancunian. When the fickle British music press turned on them and called Between 10th and 11th, their second album, self-indulgent, Blunt, their de facto leader, came close to a nervous breakdown.
In the spring of 1992, they seemed back on track with the success of the luscious "Weirdo". ThatDecember, though, Rob Collins, always a loose cannon, was arrested for giving a lift in his car to a friend who had joked he would attempt to rob an off-licence – and then actually did. Collins spent four months in jail. The group recovered from this setback, and in 1994 issued Up to Our Hips.
Following shenanigans on a Transatlantic flight, their US prospects diminished, though their UK standing was at its highest after they were embraced by the Britpop generation. In July 1996, Rob Collins died in a road accident while driving back from Rockfield studios near Monmouth in Wales, where The Charlatans had been recording.
Brookes proved a rock, simply telling his bandmates that they couldn't split up. With Martin Duffy of Primal Scream on keyboards, they duly supported Oasis a week later at Knebworth, completed Tellin' Stories and decided to go on.
They hired organist Tony Rogers and found a new lease of life, even if the move to a major label in the mid-Nineties didn't deliver the expected dividends internationally. In 1999, though, they discovered that they had been ripped off by their accountant and had to pay £2m in back taxes to the Inland Revenue. Thankfully, they remained in great demand as a live attraction and always delivered a rousing set – as when I last saw them at the Wychwood Festival two years ago.
Back then, Brookes, who had collapsed during a concert in Philadelphia in 2010, and been diagnosed with a brain tumour, seemed to be on the mend. He enthused about the Birmingham band The Carpels whom he had signed to his One Beat Records label. He rejoined The Charlatans at the end of 2010 and participated in the tour to mark the 15th anniversary of Tellin' Stories in 2012. He died of brain cancer.
Jonathan Brookes, musician: born Burntwood, Staffordshire 21 September 1968; married Debbie Hill (three daughters); died Burton-on-Trent 13 August 2013.
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