The fact is they were not alone. At about the same time Gang of Four came together in 1977, another band with a similar musical outlook, A Certain Ratio (ACR) was being formed in nearby Manchester. With Jez Kerr’s leading vocals, the revolving 5 to 6 member band would create their own version of punk meets funk.
While that famous band from Leeds used funk as an accent around abrasive experimental sound textures, ACR was closer to pure R&B from the beginning or as close as dance rock with a punk infusion could be. The angst and grind of punk was there, but musically it was not restrained by any traditional British aesthetic. ACR was as much influenced by George Clinton as they were Brian Eno and it showed in how they were able to juggle rock and funk influences so deftly. Over time ACR would move ever closer to sounding like a blues/funk rock band – very much the American mode or the Blues Brothers when they wanted to be.
Gang of Four itself would move on to a (more) mainstream sound, but A Certain Ratio would keep and refine their ‘jam band’ approach up to their last and possibly best recording Mind Made Up in 2008.
After having tasted the big time briefly with a contract on a major label, ACR proved to be too much for the nicely formatted rigors of big pop and would end up on a small label owned by a former member of New Order. The move suited their style as rhythm section could sometimes sound like Joy Division or New Order.
With Mind Made Up, ACR would use the soulful vocals of Denise Johnson in much the same way Gang of Four did with Brenda White on Hard. Unlike Hard, the soulful accents on Mind Made Up sounded natural and not over produced. For 2008 many of Mind Made Up’s songs teetered between a classic timeless funk rock to near new wave pop retro. Songs like “Down Down Down” and “Way To Escape” could have been from the ’70s while “Rialto’s” pronounced thumping bass recall the distinct rhythm sections of early ’80s R&B bands.
It’s both tight and relaxed while informally funky. The free-flowing style is unlike many English bands who have a reputation for being stodgy and upright when trying to get down. I don’t know if it’s the right bass pedals or the damp weather, but It’s actually the kind of musicianship that would have made session players of the Barkays or Earth Wind and Fire proud.
Not all of the Mind Made Up is backward looking, although its most progressive songs still have an air of the early ’90s about them. “Teri” may be the albums most conventional modern rock song while “Starlight” is ACR at their late best with a blend of modern and vintage funk with alt rock overtones. Think of it as a funky version of Minus the Bear.
A Certain Ratio might remain in the shadows of the legacy of bands like Gang of Four, but it’s just a matter of time before they get their due (they are still together after a 2009 comeback). The club world knew of them for some time. Hopefully the rest of us will get more opportunities to hear England’s greatest punk/R&B/rock band.