Desert Island Disc #5 – The Charlatans ‘The Only One I Know’

The Charalatans - The Only One I Know

Since the glory days of the 1960s, pure pop perfection has come in many forms:

  • There’s the futuristic electronic sound of ‘I Feel Love’
  • The gospel influenced ‘Like A Prayer’
  • The sample heavy ‘Crazy in Love’
  • The 80s synth throwback of ‘Can’t Get You Out of My Head’

Therefore you’d be forgiven for thinking that five lads from Northwich who clearly wore their influences on their sleeves became unlikely popstars one hot summer.

In those days The Charlatans were considered bandwagon jumpers by many as reaping the rewards of the success of The Stone Roses, Inspiral Carpets and Happy Mondays. However their second single is pure pop perfection that few have matched in the last forty odd years.

A record that is so obviously influenced by the 1960s with psychedelic hammond organs would seem like an unlikely chart hit but back in that hot summer of 1990 it all made sense. Even the sleeve was deliberaratly tailored to look like this was a record straight out of the 60s, which was how I first stumbled across the band several months earlier. The week their debut single was released I was looking in Hummingbird Records in Folkestone and their ‘Indian Rope’ 12″ stuck out like a sore thumb. That alone made me buy the thing.

The Charlatans roots are in the 80s mod revival, bass player Martin Blunt had been in Makin’ Time, lead singer Tim Burgess was a big Creation Records fan listening to the likes of The Weather Prophets and Felt. Combine these influences with the Madchester beat and it all seemed so easy….

I remember going to mainstream clubs occasionally during this era and between Blackbox and Kylie there would be the obligatory four indie tunes played for the lads at some point during the night. It was always ‘Step On’, ‘Fools Gold’ and ‘I’m Free’ alongside The Charlatans big hit, The Stone Roses tune was more of a dance track and the other two were baggy cover versions making The Charlatans success seem even more of an achievement.

However, writing a song as great as ‘The Only One I Know’ produces two major problems for a band:
1, It gets totally overplayed and everyone ends up being sick of it.
2, The band are unable to follow its success.

Most bands would have given up a year or two after, however The Charlatans are made of stronger stuff and it took five years for the band to scale such heights again. The band eclipsed their 1990 success during the Britpop years when reaching the Top 10 seemed perfectly normal. Between 1994 and 2001 the band had a run of Top 10 albums and singles finally putting behind them their initial flirtation with stardom. Their 1995 self-titled album remains their best album for me.

Going back to 1990 and sadly the success of ‘The Only One I know’ meant their debut album, despite going to No.1, got lost musically. Many of the songs were over produced and the album generally lacked real direction. A few months before releasing their second single, The Charlatans recorded a session for John Peel, alongside their big hit this included in my opinion their best recorded work. ‘Always On My Mind’ and ‘Polar Bear’ are still two of the best tracks by the band, sadly the former was left off the album and the latter track was so over produced it completely lost all magic of the live version.

You can compare the two versions of ‘Polar Bear’ below.

Peel Session Version

The finished version

One thing I always respected the band for was refusing to cancel small gigs to play Top of The Pops during the summer of 1990. They also stayed with an independent not moving across to Island for nearly another decade.

The band followed up their big hit with another track from that Peel Session, ‘Then’ again seemed to have added synths and lost a little of the vibe on the BBC recording.

Below is their performance from The Word of that single. The night before this performance I got a call from Channel 4 asking if I wanted to go on a new TV show called The Word, I’d bought a t-shirt from the band and they handed all the peoples names on their mailing list to the show. Sadly the girl I spoke said I’d need to dance on TV!!! Having never seen the show at the time (it was only the 2nd ever episode) I laughed and said “no thanks”. “DANCE ON TV!!! ME???” Watching the show the following night on TV I clearly regretting my decision, if she’d said I needed to swagger on TV it would have been closer to the mark.

I’m pleased The Charlatans are still going. I just wish they’d make a Northern Soul album, its the one style I think would really suit their sound….