When the U.K. went into lockdown in March 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic started to rage, singer Tim Burgess of the Charlatans devised something that would cheer people up: hosting a Twitter listening party that spotlights a particular rock album past or present. Fans would stream or play the album in real time on their own, while the actual musicians involved in the making of that recording would live tweet stories and anecdotes behind the songs.
“[I] realized that it could be something very helpful to people, “ says the British musician, “knowing that we were going into lockdown. Obviously coronavirus started and people were getting sick and being admitted to hospital, and all the frontline work were under huge stress. I just thought it was a way of helping a little bit—obviously in a very small way—but it seems to have grown and grown, and people seem to love it. It’s been more helpful than I ever thought it could be.”
One year later, there have been over 750 installments of Tim’s Twitter Listening Party, drawing in members of such bands as Iron Maiden, Culture Club, Tears for Fears, Japan, the Smiths, the Go-Go’s and New Order to participate—and fans are invited to follow and share their memories via the hashtag #TimsTwitterListeningParty. The parties have become a hit during a time when live music venues have remained mostly shut down. On their recent Rockonteurs podcast, co-hosts Gary Kemp and Guy Pratt have called Burgess a “superhero of the lockdown period.”
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Burgess had done something similar to the Listening Party prior to the pandemic with the previous Charlatans albums about nine years ago. “I started with Some Friendly by the Charlatans because it felt like a good thing to do. People loved it, and I started doing every Charlatans album and my solo albums. As the Twitter followers grew, I just did it again and again. But when lockdown actually happened on the 23rd of March last year, I decided and worked out about a week before, knowing that we were going into lockdown, that I would start the listening parties.”
The pandemic-era Listening Party started out highlighting one album daily and then morphed into three a day. According to Burgess, the featured albums have been a reflection of his own personal tastes; some of the musicians who took part, such as Paul Arthurs (Oasis), Alex Kapranos (Franz Ferdinand), Wendy Smith (Prefab Sprout) and Dave Rowntree (Blur), were people he already knew. “The whole Listening Party has changed shape over the course of the year,” he says. “I wanted to introduce people to bands and records that I loved. But I also wanted it to be for everybody as well, so there’s an open door policy.”
As the fans play the featured record of the day, an artist associated with that album would simultaneously live tweet stories behind the recording. Guests such as Spandau Ballet’s Gary Kemp and Duran Duran’s Simon Le Bon have joined in the fun. Says Burgess: “Gary did one of the best ones. I didn’t know much about Spandau Ballet. I knew obviously they were massive when I was growing up, but I didn’t really know the backstory. Me and Gary spoke about three or four times before his actual party because he was so meticulous about wanting it to be great. I’ve known Simon throughout the years…He was a definite go-to artist for me.”
The biggest musical guest so far on Tim’s Twitter Listening Party has been Paul McCartney, who at the time released his most recent album last December. “They announced McCartney III on Twitter,” recalls Burgess, “and I grabbed the tweet and said in front of everybody: ‘Wouldn’t it be great if Paul McCartney did a Listening Party?’ It was very cheeky of me. But it got to a place where lots of people were doing it. I thought it was 50-50.
“I picked it up with Stuart Bell, his PR person. We got talking and he said: ‘I really like the listening parties. I’ll put it to Paul and see what he says.’ Six weeks went by, and then all of a sudden I’ve just got a Paul McCartney thumbs-up from his official Twitter. And I thought, ‘Oh my God, breaking news.’ Then I wrote to Stuart and I said, ‘Okay, let’s do it. When’s the day?’ And we arranged the day and that was it. Paul was involved and he loved the experience. Obviously, with the name like that, it just opens up so many more opportunities.”
As for other artists who he would love to get on the Listening Party, Burgess cites two particular American acts from different ends of the musical spectrum. “I always think about RZA doing Wu-Tang Forever. And Debbie Harry doing [Blondie’s] Parallel Lines would be amazing. I’d say Wu-Tang would be something that I would really enjoy.”
Due to the popularity of the events, a web site with the archived parties has been set up so folks who missed out can replay them at their leisure. The positive reception the Listening Party has also spawned an upcoming book due out this fall, with its royalties going to the Music Venue Trust. “Lots of grassroots venues all across Britain—they’re really struggling and have not been open since for a year, maybe more now. So musicians have to help musicians, and that’s what I’m doing. Everybody who’s included in the book—including Paul McCartney, Kylie Minogue, Pulp, Oasis and Blur—are all helping by allowing me to use their tweets. They’re helping keep small venues alive, which is just a great thing.”
Amid hosting the Listening Party, Burgess released his most recent solo studio album, the exquisite I Love the New Sky, last year. Now he’s currently working on the follow-up record. “I think the Listening Party was a reaction because I wasn’t going to be able to play live,” he explains. “Instead of playing live, I’ve just been writing. So I thought I might as well do another album trying to keep my mind occupied. It’s certainly like a 100 miles an hour.”
The baroque-sounding I Love the New Sky contains moments that recall the sounds of the Beatles, the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson, and Pink Floyd’s Syd Barrett—a stylistic departure for the singer whose band the Charlatans came of age during the ’90s Madchester and Britpop scenes. In comparing that album and this new one he is creating at the moment, Burgess says: “There are similarities, but there are certain elements that are being pushed even further into more modern sounds as well. It’s kind of a modern take on a ‘70s sound [with] I Love the New Sky. I think there’s elements of that in the new material, too—but then there’s maybe more modern sounds as well…hip-hop beats and things like that.”
Burgess says he would still like to continue doing the parties even after the proper return of live music. “It’s a monster that I really like. It changes shape all the time, so it’s a beautiful thing. It’s like day after day, it’s something… It’s something new and something that I can get quite excited about. I knew that people liked it when I did it all those years ago [with] the Charlatans [albums]. But no, I couldn’t have expected it to be this huge. For me to be able to now consider Gary Kemp a friend and to have conversations with Paul McCartney and [Iron Maiden’s] Bruce Dickinson—these are all things that I’ll never forget. It’s a wonderful, wonderful thing.”