When mentioning Hammond organ players, names that roll off the tongue as being in the legendary category might include Booker T Jones, Ian McLagan and Jimmy Smith, to name but a few in a long line who have taken up the white and black whirling keys. However, there is one name that might not feature in many peoples lists that is all too easily forgotten but has provided a definitive soundtrack to a generation of teenagers in the early 90’s plus I’m sure new fans are constantly finding his timelessly created music.
That name is Rob Collins, a key player and keyboard player in the 5 headed beast that is The Charlatans, the band formed in the late 80’s and have gone onto phenomenal success around the world. But that success would not have been as evident would it not have been for the seriously talented Collins. Heralding from the small town of Rowley Regis in Staffordshire, Collins was not your typical pop/rock star, he showed total commitment to his instrument and was vital to the success of The Charlatans between 1990 up until Collins untimely death on 22 July 1996 where songs like The Only One I Know, Then, I Can’t Even be Bothered, Weirdo, Just lookin’, One To Another and North Country Boy propelled the band to lofty chart heights and festival headlining status.
A close friend of Rob’s, who wishes to remain anonymous, once said about his playing ‘It’s that total abandonment, just losing himself in it, that sense of being in the moment, anything could happen, he’s completely emotionally naked, putting himself out there.’ That was it completely about Rob, forget the time in prison, you can read that story elsewhere, he lived in the moment whether it be in the studio or on stage, it was total devotion to his craft that made him stand out. A clear and stark example of this is the performance of Indian Rope from Reading Festival 1991. There are a multitude of performances I could have picked, but this is a pinnacle. You can just feel in the character of his playing that Collins is searching, probing for that deep sound from the organ, there’s no substitute for pure, unadulterated passion and Collins gave that in droves.
I had the pleasure of speaking to a couple of people who knew the great man, Jon Baker, original guitarist with The Charlatans and former manager of The Charlatans plus the man who signed The Charlatans to his Dead Dead Good label Steve Harrison. I hope you enjoy these recollections as this month marks the 25th Anniversary of Rob’s tragic passing.
Do you remember the first time you saw Rob?
Steve Harrison: Not specifically, but I do recall him have a moustache, which really did take me back. It wasn’t a particularly good look back in the day!
Jon Baker: Whilst I was doing the rounds playing with various 60s garage bands our paths would cross at local Indie nights around the Midlands so we were aware of each other and our bands. Yes, we saw each other’s bands, By design and accident.
Did you see Rob before you knew him?
SH: No he was introduced to me by Martin Blunt, who I had previously met at a gig of The Prisoners.
What was Rob like as a person when you first met him?
SH: Polite. Very quiet. He listened a lot, absorbed a great deal, and gave it all due consideration. Very bright.
JB: I would say quite reserved. At first. When we got to know each other, it became apparent the we both like a giggle and got into various scraps and trouble together.
Had you played with a Hammond organ player before Rob?
JB: Yes, due to the 60s inspired garage bands. They were all over the place in the midlands garage scene.
What was it that struck you about Rob’s playing?
SH: His aggression. A defined style inspired by the likes of Jon Lord, Brian Auger and Ian McLagan. He also liked the Stranglers and obviously their keyboard player Dave Greenfield
Essentially Rob was an out and out Hammond Organ player, and I remember well when he progressed from his first Hammond X5 which was almost practical and portable to his first B3… then he truly began to shine, and we also needed a roadie!
JB: The fact that he knew his instrument well and how to use it. When to push it in the right places and when to back off.
Was he fun to be around?
JB: Simple, yes. Always a laugh and up for being naughty.
SH: Yes. Rob was one of the funniest people that I have ever known. He was brutally fun, and enjoyed compromising individuals through his banter. I can see him now, knowingly creating havoc, and indeed intimidating certain individuals as his reputation grew. He had a bunch of ‘Rob’ catch-phrases, and an incredible ‘naughty schoolboy’ mentality, and was the ultimate wind-up merchant. That said he selected who was in his circle.
Was he a private man around his personal life?
SH: Rob had an incredibly ordinary background. He was already getting married when the line-up was changing. I think Tim Burgess was a really late guest at the wedding and I virtually dragged him along, completely unprepared whilst we were otherwise suited and booted.
The two lifestyles appeared increasingly incompatible and the day following his death was the day that his divorce would have been settled. He was excited about his new life with his new girl.
JB: I would probably say yes, but that could apply to anyone in a band. When you’re working you are on it full time, so when home you switch off for a few days. Keep a bit to yourself.
Was he good at constructing songs? Do you have any specific songs that you can pinpoint where Rob helped to construct a song?
SH: Rob was the craftsman in The Charlatans, he was also the catalyst. Rob was at the core of the band, and his early contributions are a testament to the staying power of the band… without whom and all that.
Martin Blunt was the style guru and the one alongside me who put the band together. Whilst Martin made references to a very cool albeit limited platter. ‘Hush’… ‘The Only One I Know’. ‘Indian Rope Man’… ‘Indian Rope’, then Rob would deliver the song. Sproston Green was written with me playing drums in Wednesbury with my hands, as it was easier than using sticks. I vividly remember him pulling together the likes of ‘Easy Life’, and ‘One To Another’.
Rob was the inspiration to most of the big songs of the Charlatans as I recall. The circle was completed by a pop star in waiting in Tim Burgess.
JB: Yes, but to pinpoint…. quite a few years ago. I think in the early days, 5 young men in a room, making magic happen. Just letting a vibe run and see where it ended up.
He would play like he meant it didn’t he?
JB: Like I say earlier, he knew how to use his instrument and he became one with it.
SH: Yup, and on his terms.
He wasn’t a rock star so to speak, he was more concerned with the sound he would get from his instruments?
JB: No not a rock star. Yes, concerned about his sound but also the band sound as a whole.
SH: He was a reluctant Rock Star. I would spend significant time with Rob on our own. Quiet time going for walks, whilst on tour. Enjoying Chips, Peas and Curry sauce at the Castle Hill Chippy in Northwich. He had dark times. We talked a lot. He found it difficult to come to terms with being a Rock n Roll star. I don’t particularly think it was on his list of jobs as a youngster. He found it hard to reconcile why people were interested in his opinions, and he was less than inclined to share them. Being in a band is what he did, and he recognised that he had a gift for playing the Hammond Organ really well, writing songs, writing melodies, eventually looking the part… he looked like Jimmy Page. I had to work hard to get the best out of the Stuart Maconie piece for Select Magazine following him coming out of prison. On reflection Rob did really well. We got him in the right zone.
Do you have any favourite memories of Rob in a concert setting?
JB: No particular memory, it was long time ago, but remember looking over to him when we played the Royal Albert Hall and he had a big stupid grin on his face. Happy boy.
No, but conversely my abiding memory was a sense of overwhelming loss when the band played at the Manchester Evening News Arena. I was inconsolable, and I believe it was either Rob Ballentine or Andy Redhead of SJM Concerts that stayed with me at this time, until I got my shit together.
How about in the studio, any stand out memories you can elaborate on?
SH: Steve Hillage getting sacked whilst working on the 4th album, but I think as Hooky keeps telling me… keep some stories for this long-awaited book of mine.
What is your abiding memory of Rob?
JB: Well, I think we only had about 3/4 years together but, in that time, when you spend 24/7 together you get to know everyone in the band pretty well.
Rob was conscientious, intelligent, knew what he wanted, how to play but above all that, he was a great person who was always up for some fun and never take life to serious and anyone who was lucky enough to spend time with him would have seen that.
SH: He was kind. He cared. He was Dangerous. He was Funny. Rob was a good friend to me and my family. We never once had a crossed word. His Dad once told me that I was the only person that could raise my voice to Robert, without him flying off the handle I was on his passport as first contact. I got the calls.
I consider him and his approach about stuff lots, and I find myself smiling a great deal. One of my finest achievements in life would be as manager and friend of Robert James Collins.
Steve is presently finishing his long awaited book “Here Are The Young Men… a life in Music” published by Pomona in 2022
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