Tim Burgess: The Charlatans frontman on his listening parties and landing a slot with Sir Paul McCartney

The Charlatans frontman talks about how his listening parties became a lifeline and how he landed a slot with Sir Paul McCartney. Naomi Clarke reports.

Sir Paul McCartney, Liam Gallagher and Joy Division – not a bad line-up to rally together for one’s project. And these are only but a few of the gargantuan talents Charlatans frontman Tim Burgess turned to when the world needed to be reminded of the power of connection through music more than ever.

Rewind to March 2020, fear of an emerging virus and a national lockdown is rife, and, like most of us, Burgess wanted to help elevate the strain in whatever way he could. And so, his listening parties were born. He would invite the internet to collectively tune in to an album as the band or artist would share insights and stories about the music through his then-Twitter page.

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It soon became an online sensation, attracting names from across an eclectic mix of genres and eras from heavy metal band Iron Maiden to Australian pop star Kylie Minogue. But one of Burgess’ biggest coups came from believing in the classic saying – if you don’t ask, you don’t get.

Tim Burgess performs with The Charlatans at the Glastonbury Festival. Credit: Ben Birchall.Tim Burgess performs with The Charlatans at the Glastonbury Festival. Credit: Ben Birchall.
Tim Burgess performs with The Charlatans at the Glastonbury Festival. Credit: Ben Birchall.

“That was amazing,” he says with a grin as he reflects on landing Beatles star Sir Paul. “I cheekily asked if he’d want to do a listening party and usually people would get back within a few hours at the most, and six weeks later I just got a McCartney thumbs-up emoji, which is very nice…

“That was one of the best ones really because we put a lot of effort into it.

“That was the main blueprint for a good listening party, the fact that people really wanted to do it.”

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The listening party dedicated to the Plastic Ono Band, the rock band formed by the late John Lennon and Yoko Ono, also features among Burgess’ highlights as Ono, her son Sean, the George Harrison estate and Sir Ringo Starr were all involved.

Tim Burgess. Picture: Ian West.Tim Burgess. Picture: Ian West.
Tim Burgess. Picture: Ian West.

During its more than three-year run on Twitter, the listening parties dived into over 1,300 albums and brought music fans from across the world together.

“I meditate on my own every day,” Burgess tells me over a video call. “I’ve meditated with a group of people and it’s more powerful, I’ve meditated with 100 people and it’s beyond – it’s like cosmic explosions going on everywhere. And that’s how it felt with the listening parties, there’s 1000s of people listening all over the world, focusing on one record.”

The format was later adapted into a podcast series for Absolute Radio in 2023.

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The singer admits the scale of the project, which required an intense level of organisation from Burgess, did take a toll on him but he feels that ultimately “a lot of good came out of it”.

“I think it culturally impacted in ways that I have no clue about,” he says. “I hate it coming out of my mouth but some of the comments I’ve had are that ‘it saved my life during Covid’ or ‘it was the best thing that happened during Covid’. All these comments are just way beyond what I could have ever imagined it being.

“I’m really thankful for people letting me know that because it actually really helped me too to get through it, because it gave me a huge sense of purpose, and music is obviously a huge thing for me too.”

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As the fourth anniversary rolls around of when Tim’s Listening Party began, the singer is releasing a compilation album which brings together highlights from the project.

The album will be available as a 62-track four CD package and also as a 24-track two CD deal, with a plethora of bands and artists featured including Sir Paul and Lennon as well as Gallagher, The Libertines, MGMT, The Specials and Belle & Sebastian.

While the listening parties attracted many high-profile artists, Burgess notes that an important aspect of the project was also designating a regular slot for up-and-coming bands to provide them with a platform to reach new listeners when the typical avenues were restricted during lockdown.

“There was so many publications that had limited staff and people were releasing records, and nobody was writing about them, so that became a really important thing,” he explained.

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“Some bands could pull their releases because they had the power, but loads of the bands couldn’t, so therefore it gave him a bit of a platform, which was better than nothing for sure.”

Born in Lancashire, Burgess joined rock band The Charlatans in the late 1980s and they soon shot on to the scene after their 1990 debut studio album Some Friendly went to number one.

The group – which currently consists of guitarist Mark Collins, bassist Martin Blunt, keyboardist Tony Rogers and singer Burgess – went on to produce a string of hit albums including their 1995 eponymous album and 1997’s Tellin’ Stories – which were both chart-toppers.

“With The Charlatans, it was all about demo tapes, being able to play live and trying to get a deal,” Burgess recalls about their early days starting out.

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“And if you didn’t get a deal straight off, which we didn’t, we managed to persuade somebody’s sister to put up the money and we’d pay it back when we did get a deal, which is what happened.”

Just as the listening parties provided a space for these emerging artists, grassroot music venues have been growing young talent for decades. However, a report by the charity Music Venue Trust released in January showed these venues experienced their “worst year” for closures in a decade during 2023.

Burgess thinks it is important for grassroot venues to be supported as he notes you “can’t just become Coldplay overnight, you have to start somewhere”.

“I’ve put my money where my mouth is and helped save a few places”, he adds. “I guess more people in bands need to do that.”

Tim Burgess compilation album Tim’s Listening Party is out March 15.

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