In the first instalment in a regular series reappraising the catalogues of artists and producers, I’ve decided to take a trawl through the discography of Sheffield veteran Richard Baratt AKA Crooked Man…
Rather a lot of the new series of Doctor Who has taken place in and around Sheffield, a city whose combination of post-industrial grit, brutal modernist buildings and leafy, tree-lined suburbs makes a perfect backdrop to alien adventures and time travelling shenanigans.
In episode one, ‘The Woman Who Fell To Earth’, one of the characters questions the Doctor’s assertion that the bizarre monster running amok is of extra-terrestrial origins, spluttering the immortal words: “We don’t get many aliens in Sheffield.”
While this may be the case – I certainly can’t recall seeing any Daleks trundling down Fargate on their way to obliterate humanity – it does ignore the city’s electronic heritage, much of which is as alien, otherworldly, bleak and unearthly as they come. Put it this way: spend enough time listening to the more challenging end of Cabaret Voltaire’s early output and eventually you’ll believe that it was created by extra-terrestrials. While I can confirm that “Mal” is regular flesh and blood – he once stayed at my house and there were no telltale signs of alien activity – I’m not so convinced that Richard H Kirk isn’t from another planet.
Later in the same episode, the Doctor and company are seen roaming around the woods and moors of the Peak District (or, as nerds have pointed out, a bit of South Wales that looks like the Peak District). Throughout this scene, I longed for an appearance from a near-mythical, possibly alien figure from Sheffield musical foklore: the Crooked Man.
The artist’s artful biography, as distributed to journalists, sets the scene:
“See that man on a far off hill, working his dog while attempting to find shelter from the howling wind and driving rain? That’s the Crooked Man, the very antithesis of the modern dance music producer.
He lives a simple life, dragging his world‐weary soul across the moors in an endless bid to escape the fallout from 30 years spent at the forefront of Sheffield’s electronic music scene. Once regarded as one of the Steel City’s greatest selectors, he now admits to being gripped by fear at the idea of DJing, and refuses to spend any time in nightclubs.”
The very same artist bio – written, I should admit at this point, by yours truly – goes on to point out that the Crooked Man now resides in Hathersage and claims to hate every single moment of his frequent trips into Sheffield. Then again, the man behind the project, Richard Barratt, is a Sheffield Wednesday supporter and watching “the Owls” hasn’t been fun for a while now.
If Barratt, lurking behind rock formations on the moors in full Crooked Man garb, had been the mastermind behind the monstrous happenings in a Doctor Who episode, it would have been weirdly fitting. During his time working with Richard H Kirk as Sweet Exorcist, Barratt was responsible for some seriously sparse, alien techno records, some of which wouldn’t have sounded out of place on the soundtrack of a certain popular tea-time sci-fi show.
Everyone remembers 1990’s “Testone”, of course – a stripped-back, industrial strength bleep anthem whose futurist groove, earth-shaking bass and simplistic electronic melody remains instantly recognisable to all those of a certain age – but the Sweet Exorcist catalogue contains much more out-there material than that.
Check, for example, the druggy, polyrhythmic madness of “Popcone”, the mind-altering alien techno-funk of “Per Clonk”, the unashamedly out-there dancefloor wonkiness of “Mad Jack” and the panicked percussive paranoia of “Psych Jack”; all sound like they were battered into shape not with drum machines and synthesizers, but some of the vintage steel-working equipment on show at Sheffield’s Kelham Island industrial museum. (Incidentally, if Sweet Exorcist’s short-but-sweet career passed you by, their “Retroactivity” retrospective on Warp Records is worth a listen – you can check my Juno Plus review here)
Much of Barratt’s work as Crooked Man, crafted in collaboration with fellow Sheffield veterans Mick Ward and David Lewin, is similarly inclined. Or at least the tracks that appear on 12” singles are. The project’s 2012 debut, “Preset” and “Scum”, set the tone. While it was the former track that became a DJ favourite, it was the latter – a searing critique of the political class featuring a deliciously vitriolic lyrics, delivered in deadpan style by regular chanteuse Rachel E – that still reverberates.
The following 12”, another double-header, boasted a spine-tingling re-make of Soul Brothers Six’s 1967 song “I’ll Be Loving You” that re-imagined the Northern Soul stomper as a giddy throwback to the bleep era, complete with an exceptional vocal from soul man Pete Simpson. It’s a revolutionary re-imagining, for sure, but also one that works insanely well.
It was around eight months after the release of the latter dancefloor killer that I first interviewed Barratt about the Crooked Man project for Juno Plus. As with our previous interviews over the years, he was in particularly good form, emphasising the misery that has long been an integral part of the Sheffield psyche. One city resident once opined to me that in the Steel City, “moaning is a way of life”. In my experience, this is true. There’s nothing us Sheffielders enjoy more than grumbling. It’s not necessarily a good thing – in fact it would be easy to argue that the the insular and morose nature of its residents has long held the city back – but it’s one of the things that defines us. Even so, Barratt has taken moaning and misery to whole new heights, filling his interviews with sardonic commentary, self-deprecating grumbling and hugely entertaining rants about dance music culture.
In that interview, Barratt was particularly critical of his own continued attempts to make a living out of music. “I’m 50 now – it’s fucking horrendous! What happened? Still making pop music at my age is totally sad. When I was a music-obsessed teenager, the idea of a 50 year-old making music was ridiculous. Why would Grandad be hanging around with us youths? I mean, why would you? But what else can I do? I’m unemployable. Who the fuck would give me a job? Tescos or B&Q? Great.”
In the very same interview, Barratt talked at length about his fear of nightclubs and how the idea of returning to DJing – as DJ Parrot, he was one of the resident DJs at legendary Sheffield party Jive Turkey from 1985 to the early 1990s – filled him with “dread”. That he could still make far-sighted, futurist and off-kilter dancefloor records whilst ignoring contemporary dance music was in turns amazing, charming and bizarre. To Barratt, though, what he was doing was making pop music – club-centric pop music, perhaps, but pop music nonetheless. To Barratt, it was the song that mattered.
On the Crooked Man project, Barratt’s use of vocalists like Rachel E, Pete Simpson and later Amy Douglas, often to recite Mick Ward’s unusual or politically charged lyrics, is wholly out of step with prevailing dance music trends. It was this element that made those early Crooked Man club records so magical – that and their sheer wonky heaviness, of course.
In hindsight, that interview is now something of a time capsule, as in it Barratt reveals that a Crooked Man album would be appearing on Ninja Tune in 2014. That never happened, of course, and it would take a further two years for the mooted Crooked Man debut set to hit stores on DFA Records.
Barratt’s original plan, as discussed in the Juno Plus interview, was for the LP to be more akin to one of the dub revisions of electronic pop albums of the 1980s (think Imagination’s “Night Dubbing” or Human League offshoot League Unlimited Orchestra’s 1982 set “Love and Dancing”). In the end, 2016’s Crooked Man album was rather different, instead featuring more accessible revisions of the 12” singles. It was, to all intents and purposes a pop album, albeit one whose backing tracks were informed by three decades spent producing underground club music.
In truth, Barratt has always been exceptionally good at producing music with nagging hooks and strong choruses. This side of his output is less celebrated, but we should always remember he has chalked up some serious hits over the years. It all began in 1988 when he teamed up with pal Carl Munson as the Funky Worm, under the watchful eye of former Chakk man (and future Moloko hit-maker) Mark Brydon. Their sample-heavy “Hustle (To The Music)” became a massive smash around the world and earned them a deal with major label WEA. It also boasted one of the most ridiculous music videos you’ll ever see (it’s definitely worth four minutes of your time to see Munson and Barratt as flowerpot dwellers).
Fast forward to the mid 1990s, post Sweet Exorcist, and Barratt was tearing up the charts once more as part of the All Seeing I, whose debut album “Pickled Eggs and Sherbert” contained contributions from a host of Sheffield musical icons (Human League’s Phil Oakey, Pulp’s Jarvis Cocker and, more bizarrely, Tony Christie). Like the later Crooked Man project, many of the songs on that set were lyrically interesting. “Happy Birthday Nicola”, for example, is about a regretful absent father meeting his daughter for the first time on the occasion of her 16th birthday. Thanks to Cocker’s lyrics and Chridstie’s cabaret singer delivery, it’s pretty creepy. Another track, “No Return”, is a bleak appraisal of a dying relationship (sample lyrics: “insignificant things will make you bite, that’s the first sign; unhappy in love means unhappy homes with no good vibes”), while “First Man In Space” boasted lyrics from Cocker that were every bit as weary and bitter as anything on Pulp’s hard-going but rather fine This Is Hardcore album.
While Barratt appears not to be much of a lyricist himself, he certainly has a hand in picking the subjects and writing the songs. He said as much in another interview we did, this time for IDJ around the time the Crooked Man LP was released:
“We write songs about things that are annoying us, and particularly things that irritate me. Things irritate me, it’s true. Somebody recently asked me of ‘Scum (Always Rises To The Top)’ is about Donald Trump. It was just fortuitous timing.”
Alongside greedy bankers and corrupt politicians, the eponymous Crooked Man album also includes a weary, resigned commentary on poverty and austerity (‘Fools and Fanatics’, where Pete Simpson utters the following: “Every day I hear the news, why do the poor always lose and the winners are the few? They always get to choose”), the pressures of modern life (“Coming Up For Air”), technology (“This Machine Kills Me”) and our penchant for rose-tinted nostalgia (“Happiness”, whose piano house groove is notably cheerier than its wistful lyrics).
You’ll find some of the same lyrical sharpness on Barratt and company’s latest Crooked Man album. Like its predecessor, “Crooked House” includes reworks of some of the project’s previous 12” singles. So, the Bitter End released tech-house epic “Take It All Away” – one of the most hypnotic and hard-hitting Crooked Man club tracks to date– reappears as a jaunty disco-house number complete with Nile Rodgers style guitars – while the angst-ridden “Here on Earth” (“Is ignorance a blessing or a curse? It’s just another day here on Earth”) is neatly cut-down to radio-friendly size whilst retaining it’s core 6/8 “glam” rhythm and inherent wonkiness. There’s also a suitably woozy and hypnotic take on previous single “Echo Loves Narcissus”, a four-part instrumental suite of tracks that’s been edited into one headline-grabbing six-minute workout.
Crucially, “Crooked House” is topped and tailed by two stunning moments of electronic pop melancholy, both of which are entirely in keeping with Barratt, Ward and Lewin’s desire to offer up songs that cast their net wide for lyrical inspiration. Opener “Every Killer Needs a Friend”, another shuffler in 6/8 time, is particularly unusual in that it appears to take aim at the desire of mass murderers to become infamous, enabled by media reporting of their atrocities. I may have misinterpreted it, of course; regardless, it offers an impactful beginning to the album.
The album is closed by another beauty, “Robots”, whose combination of thought-provoking lyrics on the rise of automation (“Robots are taking our jobs. If that’s not enough, we’re all living longer with more time to squander. What are we going to do?”) and wilfully blissful, melancholic music lingers in the memory far longer than any of the rest of the LP. The downbeat nature of the album’s closing moments is no doubt deliberate; as much as “Crooked House” contains more upbeat moments than its predecessor, Barratt’s exasperation at the world around him will always rise to the fore.
If the mythical Crooked Man had been roaming the moors during that episode of Doctor Who, he’d probably have told the Doctor’s would-be companions to jump at the first opportunity to exit Planet Earth. Barratt may not want to leave this planet just yet, but he’s making a strong case for us to track down the TARDIS and scarper.
On the floor with Barratt, Ward and Lewin
Al Gobi – Halfway House (Crooked Man “Halfway Crooked” Remix)
12 minutes of raw, analogue dancefloor filth – sparse, wonky and deliciously heavy. Released in 2012 during the first flush of Crooked Man hype, Barratt and Lewin’s remix inhibits similar sonic territory to early cuts such as “Preset” and “Scum (Always Rises To The Top)”.
Amy Douglas – Never Saw It Coming (Crooked Man Dub)
Released earlier this year on DFA Records, this sees Barratt and company re-imagining chanteuse Amy Douglas’s disco-fired anthem as a suitably wonky, down-low chunk of analogue chug.
Crooked Man – Skink
Taken from the 2014 “Unidigitize Me EP” on Optimo Trax, this is a mind-altering workout rich in distorted drums, raw electronics and trippy, delay-laden vocals from regular singer Rachel E.
Crooked Man – Take It All Away (Original Bitter End Version)
Un-credited when it launched the Bitter End Records series in 2013, it was later confirmed that “Take It All Away” was indeed an inspired Crooked Man jam. Funk-fuelled hypnotism with a haunting and mind-altering vocal from Pete Simpson, it remains one of Barratt and company’s best club jams.
Crooked Man – Echo Loves Narcissus (Part 1)
Simultaneously sludgy and dreamy, this largely instrumental number offers a brilliant balance of bass-heavy throb and blissful, spacey musicality. On its initial Bitter End release it was named “Single of the Year 2017” by Piccadilly Records in Manchester, before being expanded into a four-track suite for a DFA release earlier this year. I challenge you not to hum along with Rachel E’s improvised, scat style vocal.
Tooth Faeries – Dust & Ashes (Crooked Ashes…)
Barratt has joined forces with his old pal Mark Brydon a couple of times as Tooth Faeries. While it’s the Shabby Doll released heaviness of “The Sound” that’s arguably best known, I have a soft spot for the Crooked Man revisions of “Dust & Ashes” that came out on Classic in 2013. The “Crooked Ashes” version, in which Carrmen Squire’s poignant vocal seemingly drifts over a bed of hypnotic, tech-tinged drums and melancholic, delay-laden piano chords, is particularly beguiling.