With Oasis and Black Grape albums nominated for the Mercury Music Prize, the Manches-ter scene of the early Nineties seems to have finally attained a degree of respectability for its hooligan tendency. Rob Collins, who died in a road accident while driving back from Rockfield studios near Monmouth, was a seminal figure of the Manchester phenomenon, his trade-mark Hammond organ propelling the Charlatans to the high reaches of the British charts several times over the last six years.
He was an accomplished musician but also a rather morose character who was imprisoned for four months after being an unwitting accomplice in an off-licence robbery at a time when the band were very much in the public eye.
Ironically, given his group's association with the likes of Happy Mondays, Stone Roses and Inspiral Carpets (who once employed Noel Gallagher, later of Oasis, as their roadie), Rob Collins hailed from the West Midlands. Having played piano as a child, he bought a cheap Hammond organ in the mid-Eighties and formed the Charlatans with Martin Blunt on bass, Jon Brookes on drums as well as singer and guitarist Barry Ketley. When the latter left in early 1989, the others remembered Tim Burgess, the lippy, charismatic singer with the Electric Crayons who had supported them in Northwich. They recruited him along with Jon Baker as guitarist and, as manager, Steve Harrison, a Cheshire record-shop owner.
Gigging all over the north-west of England, the Charlatans built up a strong live following and were spotted by sound engineer Chris Nagle, who had helped the late Martin Hannett fashion the Factory sound (Joy Division, New Order). With Nagle, the band recorded Indian Rope, which came out in January 1990 on their own Dead Dead Good Records label, sold out its 20,000 copies and became a collector's item.
The major labels were already sniffing around the band who eventually signed a deal with Beggars Banquet, a major independent label with a great pedigree (Gary Numan, The Cult, the 4AD offshoot). July 1990 saw the release of "The Only One I Know", a groovy single built around an insistent, haunting keyboard riff. With their fresh neo-psychedelic sound and Tim Burgess's Jaggeresque pout on every music magazine cover, the Charlatans reached the British Top Ten with that track and with the follow-up single, "Then". When Some Friendly, their debut album, appeared in October 1990, it sold 150,000 copies in two days and became a No 1 record.
The band made serious inroads into Europe, Japan and America but the pressure of this early success got to them. In the States, they had to change their names to Charlatans UK to avoid a lawsuit from the Californian Sixties band the Charlatans (led by Mike Wilhelm of Flamin' Groovies fame). Ian Baker left and was replaced on guitar by Mark Collins (no relation but this bona fide Mancunian even went to school with Oasis guitarist Bonehead). Bass-player Martin B1unt had a near nervous breakdown. Their next single, "Overrising", only made the Top 20. At the tail end of 1991, when the group went all self-indulgent with the help of producer Flood (U2, Depeche Mode) on Between 10th and 11th, their second album, the notoriously fickle music press turned on them.
In December 1992, after the redeeming success of the luscious "Weirdo" single, events took an even weirder turn. Just back from a tour of Japan, Collins hooked up with an old friend in the Black Country. As they were driving between pubs, they stopped at an off-licence and his mate went in, half- jokingly saying he could rob the place. When he came out with a loud bang, Collins stupidly picked him up. The police arrested the pair the next day and charged them both with attemp-ted robbery and possession of a firearm (it was a replica gun).
Despite an intelligent lawyer pointing out to the judge that a successful rock musician was hardly likely to commit a robbery using his own car, Collins didn't get the expected suspended sentence; instead, he served half his eight months' term (his friend, the main if not the only culprit, got four years) in Shrewsbury and Redditch jails and wrote the track "Inside Look-ing Out" about his time there.
However, Collins had used his time on bail before the trial to lay down tracks for the Up To Our Hips album produced by Steve Hillage (ex-Gong, now in System 7). When the organist came out of prison, the band released the "Can't Get Out of Bed" and "Jesus Hairdo" singles and collaborated with the Chemical Brothers.
Keen to make up for lost time, the group played both the Phoenix and Glastonbury festivals last year and, helped by the catchy "Just When You're Thinking Things Over" single, their fourth album, simply called The Charlatans, reached the No 1 slot in the UK.
Following a sell-out British tour, the Charlatans were back on stage and in the charts. Unfortunately, their laddish behaviour on a transatlantic flight (Collins and three other members had to be handcuffed to their seats after threatening other passengers) saw them once again attracting unwanted headlines and the attention of American police and the FBI.
The group had recently put the finishing touches to its fifth album and was due to appear as special guests of Oasis at Loch Lomond, Cork and Knebworth. The other members feel the "One To Another" single should come out as a tribute to Rob Collins.
The Hammond organ has too often been used to fill in a group's sound and cover up other players' mistakes. Rob Collins was one of the few instrumentalists (Booker T, Steve Winwood, Procol Harum's Matthew Fisher) who managed to turn it into a lead instrument. That, rather than his wild-boy image, should remain his lasting achievement.
Robert Collins, keyboard player, singer, songwriter: born Sedgeley 23 February 1963; married (one daughter); died Monmouth 22 July 1996.
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