At 10pm on March 23, 2020, Tim Burgess tweeted: “Ok. Drop the needle on the record/Press play/start streaming. We’re going in…” and an internet phenomenon began. Elsewhere in the news that day: “Britain could face Italian-style lockdown, Boris Johnson warns”; “No 10 denies Dominic Cummings argued for ‘letting old people die'”; “Trump says unproven coronavirus drugs could be ‘gift from God'”; and, “Funeral directors told to make masks out of ‘towels and trash cans’.” Yes, amazingly, the early days of the pandemic were even bleaker than you now remember them.
One bit of help came via Tim’s Twitter Listening Party. The idea belonged to Tim Burgess, singer with the band the Charlatans. As an alternative to the BBC’s nightly horror show News at Ten, Burgess would invite his Twitter followers to play a favorite album and listen together in real time. Someone involved in the record would tweet anecdotes and memories from each track, and sometimes photos. Often that meant the singer, but just as often it meant the drummer, bass player, producer, PR, photographer or any combination of the above. After two and a half years, we are locked out, but the Listening Parties continue. At the time of writing there were 1,183 of them: everyone from heavy metal heavyweights (Iron Maiden) to obscure Irish folk (Mellow Candle). Paul McCartney hosted one, as well as members of the Sex Pistols, the Smiths and David Bowie’s group.
“People come up to me all the time and tell me it’s really helped them,” says Burgess. “I feel amazing about it. I knew music would save people, you know?”
Burgess is speaking from the Charlatans’ studio in Middlewich, Cheshire, in a room full of guitars and vinyl. Also the continuing career of that group, Burgess established himself as an impressive solo artist. His fifth album, Typical Music, is out in September. If the Charlatans excel at big venues – they supported Liam Gallagher at Manchester City’s football ground this summer – then Solo Burgess can be compared to the kind of outlandish pop made by XTC, Sparks or post-Beatles McCartney. In other words, very good pop indeed.
With his Cheshire cat grin and Warhol hair, Burgess is an exuberant presence. His new album is particularly joyful. Coming out of lockdown, Brexit, Boris and the rest, knowingly so. “I tried to make a record to transcend all of that,” he says. “I wanted to build a world that was sealed and protective and colorful. A new world.”
People tricked themselves into doing his Listening Parties because Burgess is as much a music fan as he is a musician. “Tim makes friends with everybody,” Blur drummer Dave Rowntree tells me. “He was at my wedding in the 90s and by the end he knew everyone, he had everyone’s phone number. He built that goodwill over his life. I don’t know if anyone else could have done that. He invented a new way of listening to music that made sense in today’s social media landscape.”
It is what makes his contributors go above and beyond. “It took a week to prepare,” Rowntree says, of his Parklife Listening Party, which saw him post a host of never-before-seen memorabilia. “It was a bunch of stuff in cardboard boxes up in the attic that I was saving for my autobiography that I was never going to write. But we all felt an obligation to do something.”
Other artists found that the format allowed them to be uniquely sincere. Gary Kemp hosted Listening Parties for Spandau Ballet’s 1983 album True and his 1995 solo album Little Bruises, for which he openly discussed his marriage breakdown. “With True I was nervous the response would be lukewarm,” Kemp says. “But Tim gives it added validation and people’s biased, tribal instincts – against the 80s in my case – are pushed aside. [The honesty with] Little Bruises was part of the Covid moment where greater equality was felt and honest openness happened.”
“He did the best one by a long time,” Burgess says. “I never really understood Spandau Ballet. But I listened to it, with the stories, and it was just the most amazing experience.”
Burgess’ magnanimity is all the more impressive because, pandemic aside, the last few years can’t be plain sailing. His father – “My hero… he was the best”, as he wrote on Twitter – died in April 2020. And his relationship with electronic musician Nik Void ended. They have an eight-year-old son together, Morgan. (The tabloids say he’s now in a “secret romance” with actor Sharon Horgan, a longtime friend.)
“I came up with the song Time That We Call Time,” he says. “And that was about wanting to call time on everything. Politically, what happened in the world and many things that happened in my life as well. The starting point was to fall in love with the world again. I’m pretty positive… most of the time. And I think meditation helps with that. I meditate twice a day. But I think that also comes with constantly wanting to move forward. You have to.”
The afternoon we meet, Burgess is due to play Bluedot, the music festival at Jodrell Bank, a 15-minute drive away. He changes into a fetching purple velvet top. “On a cloudy day it can make any stage look bright,” he notes. He plays an eight-song solo set – plus The Only One I Know by the Charlatans – to a capacity crowd, still somehow an indie pin-up at 55. “They went all the way to the back, I couldn’t have been happier,” he says. afterwards.
Elsewhere on Burgess’s CV: running the record label O Genesis, organizing pop-up diner Tim Peaks and having Kellogg’s create a cereal for him, Totes Amazeballs, after he made a joke on – where else? – Twitter. He is now the author of four books, including the 2012 hair memoir, Telling Stories.
The charlatans immediately succeeded. Their debut album entered at number 1 in October 1990, its lead single put them on Top of the Pops. Bass player Martin Blunt memorably described their original sound as “the Spencer Davis Group on E”. However, you’d have long odds that they’d be the one “Britpop band” playing football stadiums three decades later. Partly that’s because they kept moving. Later albums used the influences of everyone from Bob Dylan to Bob Marley.
“Once you break up, you can’t get back together,” says Burgess. “We’re trying to dismantle the sound and rebuild it again. Because starting from nothing is an interesting way to make music.” At some points this must have been born out of necessity. They raced to finish their third album, 1994’s Up To Our Hips, as keyboardist Rob Collins was about to be sent to prison for armed robbery. He later died in a car accident. In 2010, drummer Jon Brookes collapsed on stage and was diagnosed with a brain tumor. He died three years later. As it happens, we’re talking about the anniversary of Collins’ death, with Burgess issuing tributes on social media.
“He was the one who really wanted me in the band,” he says. “He was the oldest and definitely the most naturally gifted. We wrote a lot of tunes together. We used to watch Beatles documentaries all at the same time. It was great hanging out with him.”
For a time the Charlatans were labeled The Unluckiest Band in the World, something Burgess summarizes in Telling Stories. “People should think about the things we’ve gone through: getting out of our comfort zone… surely the unluckiest band in the world is the one you’ve never heard of.” However, they’ve had quite a run of it. Their 2001 LA-recorded album Wonderland was released in America on 9/11. “The fall tour has been canceled,” Burgess writes.
“You couldn’t… plan that,” he smiles today. “I enjoyed our story. It is a unique story that is yet to be made. I’m glad about that more than anything. Obviously losing Jon and Rob is tragic. But I think our best album is yet to come.”
Then there were the drugs. It seems like every band in the 90s was off their heads, but Burgess really went for it. He was into solvents at high school – “Glue/gasoline/Gen-Xene, Evo-Stik remover,” as his book details. In the mid-90s he made a “24/7” coke. “I lived in LA but I mostly worked in Manchester, so with time differences and drinking on planes it was just always time to waste,” he says. “I would always be working, always drinking and always jetlagged. Whenever I woke up, there was a bottle of wine by my head, so I just started. I was drinking all the time. Vodka for breakfast. All clichés really. And I never liked the idea of being cliche. I’d only have a good two hours in me every day.”
There’s nothing worse than a celebrity giving it the retrospective My Drugs Shame/My Booze Hell sob story. Burgess is not one of them. “I did enjoy being on stage on E,” he roots. “I thought it was great.” But it was enough. He got clean in 2006. “I had to lock myself up in the K West Hotel in Shepherd’s Bush. I was there for 10 days and went to a doctor who gave me a lot of vitamins. And on the way back, the first two people I saw in the hotel bar were Shaun and Bez [from the Happy Mondays]. I thought, ‘If I can just get to my room, I think I’ve got this…'”
The afternoon after the Bluedot festival, Burgess sits on the floor of his two-bedroom house in Norfolk, playing Lego with Morgan. Jurassic Park, but never Star Wars – Morgan deeming that franchise “for dinosaurs”, ironically. All young children are subsumed by their parents’ jobs, which is as it should be. Burgess Jr is no exception. “I took him to Glastonbury in 2019 and he watched most of [indie singer] Mac DeMarco,” says dad. “When the Charlatans played, he watched one song and went backstage for the doughnuts.” However, perhaps he is more impressed than he lets on. “Sometimes he’ll be playing a video game or something, and he’ll open his headphones and say, ‘Dad, tell my friend you’re a singer,’ and I’ll say, ‘Oh hello, who am I talking to? ? Yes, I’m a singer.’ And then he’ll just hang up on me.”
“There’s no other pop star who comes close to the ambassadorial role he’s taken on as a celebrator of music and the people who make it,” says Pete Paphides, the writer and broadcaster whose hit memoir Broken Greek spawned his own Listen. “It’s not that he’s not cynical – it’s more than that. Cynicism really upsets him.”
It is certainly a key to his longevity.
“It’s extraordinary the degree to which he’s committed to the Listening Parties. He’s there for every one of them. Apart from being in the Charlatans and making solo records and being a hands-on dad, that’s amazing.”
“Being sober really helps, and I can say that from experience,” says Simon Raymonde, who runs Burgess’ record label Bella Union. “When you’ve gotten over all the excesses of youth and you’re looking for some sort of peace, it’s serenity. Working hard comes naturally to him. He’s a committed, passionate musician, and there aren’t that many of those around anymore.”
Before joining the Charlatans, Burgess says, in Telling Stories, he always had himself down as a frontman. What does he like about it? “Everything!” he howls. “My favorite part of my job, if it’s a job, is making something out of nothing. I love being able to sing the songs. I like to really work the stage. If there’s someone in the back who might not be looking, I really like to try to get them. I think people need to come out of their shells a little bit. I really like bringing everyone together.”
Typical Music, the new album by Tim Burgess, is released on 23 September via Bella Union. The book The Listening Party Volume 2 is published on November 3