The Charlatans – Mountain Picnic Blues: documentary review
The Charlatans allow fans to go behind the scenes of their classic 1997 album Tellin’ Stories with a revealing making of documentary.
The Charlatans hit their creative peak with the 1997 release of Tellin’ Stories, and this insightful documentary reveals how, despite being shadowed by the most tragic of circumstances, it still saw the light of day.
It was their fifth album, their third number one, and remains their best, featuring “One To Another”, “North Country Boy” and “How High”. As well as focusing on the making of the record, the film also charts the story of the group’s rise to the top and looks at how they refused to give in, no matter what challenges came their way. Even those who are not familiar with The Charlatans’ story will find something in here to cherish.
Jon, Mark, Martin, and Tim are interviewed separately, and there are also contributions and anecdotes from the likes of former manager Jeff Barrett and photographer Tom Sheehan, who recalls a unique photo-shoot featuring a melting pig’s head for the sleeve of “One To Another”, the monolithic first single from the album’s recording sessions at Monnow Valley.
Fresh from the success of their eponymous fourth album, the band went straight back into the studio to begin work on what would become Tellin’ Stories. They were eager and brimming with confidence, knowing how good they were and that the sky was the limit. But it was during these sessions that Rob Collins, their ‘star player’, according to Tim, lost his life in a car accident.
The band open up in-depth about the crash itself and its immediate aftermath, discussing where they were, how they found out, and how they managed to regroup just enough to be able to play their biggest show, supporting Oasis on the era-defining Knebworth concerts, performing what Tim describes as their ‘most ferocious’ performance which allowed them to continue with their career.
The honesty of the band is really something – Burgess has already spoken in his superb autobiography Telling Stories about certain issues that had arisen as a result of Rob’s behaviour within the group, but this is expanded upon, with the band reflecting, with some sadness, that Rob’s time in prison had changed him for good. In the film, Tim and Mark recall the night it happened, after they had spent the evening in a pub and were heading home to the Welsh studio; a place which became their second home for six years while they crafted some of the best songs of the nineties, which still sound fresh and vibrant two decades later.
It is hard to imagine just how much of an impact his death would have had on this tight-knit group which was at the height of its powers back then, but this film, and the willingness of Blunt, Brookes, Burgess and Mark Collins to open up, helps give the viewer a real sense of what they went through. What really stands out is just how talented Rob was, and how much that talent was appreciated by his fellow bandmates.
Primal Scream‘s brilliant keyboardist Martin Duffy, the man who Burgess says ‘stepped in and saved us’, is also interviewed, and talks about how he was drafted in to play with the band on their glorious Knebworth set on August 11, just a couple of weeks after Collins’ tragic death. Martin Blunt explains: “Martin fitted in really well, had a lot of empathy for the sound we wanted. People like Rob Collins don’t grow on trees.”
Of Knebworth, Tim says: “I didn’t know whether we were going to completely crumble on stage or show people that we could survive without our star player, and that’s what we did. I think we went on like wolves and we tore it up.”
I was lucky enough to be there that day and even Oasis, who were arguably at their peak at that stage, could not come close to The Charlatans. The performance was incredible and made you believe in the power of music to overcome anything.
As a long-term Charlatans fan, I must admit to shedding a tear or two while watching the film, particularly when the group talked about discovering studio tapes of what became known as Rob’s Theme, the album’s closer which features snippets of Rob talking as a little boy, which the late keyboardist set to a laid-back instrumental.
Directed and produced by Chris Hall and Mike Kerry, Mountain Picnic Blues is a lovingly crafted, simple and honest tribute to a brilliant album which will always hold a place in the hearts of many a music fan.