The Charlatans’ Tim Burgess on the Alchemy of ‘The Listening Party’

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

“The great thing for me about this album is that I didn’t really know I was making an album,” said Paul McCartney.

It’s December 21, 2020, and like many artists, McCartney has released an album—McCartney III, a 40-year follow up to II and 50 years since he released the first part, his solo debut—while in the depths of a global pandemic with nowhere to play. Live on Twitter, McCartney connected to thousands of fans in real-time, not performing another livestream but listening to each track and sharing his own annotations of each song. McCartney was part of a collective gathering started by The Charlatans’ frontman Tim Burgess, a musical fix offering a sense of connectedness during one of the most solitary of times with The Listening Party.

In 2011, when Burgess first dipped his toes into The Listening Party, Twitter was still a fairly new phenomenon. Urged on after catching British actor and rapper Riz Ahmed share his own commentary on the 2010 film, which he starred in, Four Lions, live on Twitter, the lightbulb switched on: the same could be done with music. The DVD world wasn’t the only medium worthy of such explications. Burgess wanted to bring another dimension to albums people have always loved, or introduce them to artists they never knew they liked, by presenting the people behind the music in real-time, listening and tweeting along.

Within five days, Burgess set up his first Listening Party on Twitter and continued with The Charlatans music, including a 2015 Party around the 25th anniversary of the band’s debut Some Friendly, and delving into some of his own solo material. Centered solely around his work at first, The Listening Party expanded in March 2020. Coming full circle, Burgess returned with another edition of The Listening Party for the 30th anniversary of Some Friendly when Franz Ferdinand singer, Alex Kapranos, reached out to tell Burgess what the album meant to his 17-year-old self when he first bought it. Shortly after, Kapranos and bassist Bob Hardy joined Burgess for their very own Listening Party of Franz Ferdinand’s 2004 self-titled debut.

Perhaps a prophetic phenomenon, Tim’s Listening Party blew up right in the middle of a global pandemic, connecting fans with artists who felt detached from the normal state of affairs (live music), offering a new platform where they could listen to an album—in some cases a record the band themselves hadn’t listened to in ages—while sharing anecdotes, never-before-seen pictures, and memories around the making of it all.

“I think people were confused when lockdown started,” says Burgess. “Everyone thought this was gonna last a few weeks, then it became more serious over days and days, and people needed something to do. The Listening Parties provided something: listening to a record that you liked with other people who also liked it, with a member of the band who you were familiar with but didn’t know their story entirely, or maybe you knew them inside and out.”

Tim’s Twitter Listening Party snowballed from there. Founding Oasis guitarist Paul “Bonehead” Arthurs revealed that the melody for “Shakermaker,” off the band’s 1994 debut Definitely Maybe, was actually pulled from a Coca-Cola ad or how the band recorded the closing track “Married with Children” in the bedroom of album producer Mark Coyle.

On and on, more was unearthed during the Parties. Duran Duran’s Simon Le Bon on keyboardist Nick Rhodes then girlfriend’s giggle at the top of “Hungry Like a Wolf” and how “Save a Prayer” came together off the band’s 1982 album Rio. Dexy’s Midnight Runners having an unexpected reunion around their 1980 debut Searching for the Young Soul Rebels, while Bowie pianist Mike Garson talked about how he barely listened to the title track of David Bowie’s 1973 Aladdin Sane for years after it was recorded. “It’s only history,” tweeted Garson during The Listening Party for the 1973 album. “That’s told me it was substantial but at the time of recording it, I didn’t have that reality.”

Regardless of label loyalty, whether friend or foe—some band members connecting for the first time with one another after years over commentary—dozens of artists joined, from Blur on Parklife, Peter Hook tweeting around New Order’s Technique and Joy Division’s Closer, Kylie Minoque with her new album Disco, along with a collective of artists from Run The Jewels, Siouxsie and the Banshees, The Cure, Foals, The Chemical Brothers, Adam and the Ants, The Specials, Lloyd Cole, Madness, Midlake UNKLE, and more.

The Listening Party was a saving grace for Burgess, artists who were off tour indefinitely, and fans who needed the connection outside of superfluous live streams during the lockdown.

“It was definitely a savior,” says Burgess of The Listening Party. “Just hearing people say how much they were getting from it made me feel good. It was helpful to me that people enjoyed it.”

To date, Tim’s Listening Party has pulled in more than a million replays since March 2020, and in October 2020, Burgess was approached to publish a collection of more than 100 recent Parties, featuring captures of tweets during each session with a foreword by Oasis’ Bonehead and introduction by UK music journalist Pete Paphides, and supporting Music Venue Trust, a charitable organization benefitting music venues and their community.

The Listening Party helped Burgess re-connect to albums he always loved and for listeners, it was a chance to hear the album from a new perspective, from sequencing through the origin of each individual track.

“Sometimes the listener doesn’t know how important it is, but the actual artistry of making that record and thinking about it as a 10-track thing with instrumentals is something artists think about,” says Burgess, who adds that oftentimes a record isn’t necessarily made by the front person or the main writer. “Maybe it was the drummer, so you’re getting their version of events,” he says. “People felt even more connected by the music and by an important member of the band, their photographer or whoever because that person was talking them through the album, while we all listened.”

Likening The Listening Party to his own meditations, which he does daily, Burgess says there’s something powerful in the communal gathering around music. “I’ve done it [meditated] with 10 people and with 100 people, and it’s the most powerful thing,” he says. “That’s how I felt when thousands of people were listening to ‘Technique’ by New Order with Stephen [Morris] tweeting pictures of Gillian [Gilbert] writing a song while the rest of the band were out getting drunk somewhere.”

Marking the 30th anniversary of The Charlatans’ debut, the band recently released a box set, A Head Full of Ideas, spanning five albums (in blue vinyl), previously unheard demos, live performances, and other rarities, and a 14th album in the works.

“We didn’t do anything five years,” says Burgess of the band’s break between 2010 release Who We Touch and return in 2015 with Modern Nature and most recent Different Days in 2017.

“There was quite just a burst of energy, and then we stopped for a little, but I think there’s something starting again,” shares Burgess. “The box set was us clearing out the cupboard and finding stuff we didn’t know existed, and it has been a really good way for us to be able to work. There’s no standing on each other’s back, waiting for someone to come up with an idea. It’s just a nice way of working together with something that wasn’t there before.”

Also set to release his sixth solo record in 2022, Burgess is still fully invested with daily sessions of The Listening Party.

“It’s all evolved from when I started 10 years earlier with just The Charlatans and my solo stuff, and it was fantastic, but it was very limited,” says Burgess. “Now I have PR asking if their bands can be included. I’m open to anybody who wants to do it, as long as they’ve got a good story.”

Photos: Courtesy of Vicious Kid PR

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