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Listening

The Charlatans, Tellin’ Stories

Rob Collins, 1963–1996. That’s what this album meant to a lot of people. That organ sound, it’s what made The Charlatans at the beginning. It’s the sounds that defined them. That organ. And the death of organist Rob Collins signaled what for the band? They’d obviously moved far, far away from being the flash in the pan many critics deemed them early on. But while all their Madchester peers had fallen surely away—The Stone Roses imploded, the Happy Mondays exploded—The Charlatans were very much showing their dominance and consistency. Beginning with 1994’s brilliant Up to Our Hips, and continuing through 1995’s self-titled knockout punch, the band had a seemingly unstoppable output that left listeners in blissful awe.

Then Rob died. On July 22, 1996, he lost control of his car on the way to finishing up recording on ‘One to Another.’ The band, in shock. The band’s diehard fan base, in shock. The band issued a statement to their fans: ‘We’ve lost our mate. There will be no change. We are Fuckin’ Rock.’

A month later they released the single for ‘One to Another.’ And it was fuckin’ rock. And it was impossible for it not to have a certain bittersweet reception, since it is such an amazing song, and the band had been so horribly hurt. But the sheer optimism in the song, the unabashed swaggering control that leaked from its edges, left everyone dancing, uncontrollably, in tears.

The following April The Charlatans issued their next LP, Tellin’ Stories. With its stark cover showing the remaining band members, in black, in front of a white background, the album seemed almost surely a tribute to their fallen band member. And then it wasn’t. Because the album was pretty much written prior to Rob’s death, there was little mention of it outside the cover and liner notes. It simply wasn’t there, in the music. No tender ballads, mourning his loss? No string-overloaded paeans honoring him? But yet the whole album seemed swathed in his memory. Because it was him, and he was rock, not strings and ballads.

The perfect honor to their friend can be seen in the album’s single finest moment—‘How High.’ Arguably—and it’s a defendable stance—the best rock song ever written, it’s just over three minutes of relentless guitar and vocals. It never lets up in its beeline vocal melody, staying atop the listener, enveloping your senses, bobbing your head for you.

Hang on to your hopes my darlin’
don't let it slip away
and the hand that holds you
keeps you warm
and helps you live today

Love shines a light
and it takes and it hurts
I know I'm right
I can bend ‘til I burst
and love shines a light
and repays you with us
Yeah too right
I'm gonna pledge my time ‘til the day I die
And a song like that, a song that great, is the greatest respect they could have paid him.

biopic

Andrew Womack is a founding editor of The Morning News. He is always working on the next installment of the Albums of the Year series at TMN. More by Andrew Womack

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