Way back in the hazy winter of the late ’80s, the northern English city of Manchester became known as a debauched clubland for the disenfranchised Thatcher generation, famed for baggy rhythms and endless Ecstasy. Coming from a working class universe of soft prospects, hard chemicals and even harder house beats, Happy Mondays became the kingpins of the scene dubbed “Madchester.” Led by onetime heroin addict and all-around felonious sort Shaun Ryder, this gang of hooligans defined the low-rent highlife with notoriously over-the-top hijinks and, more important, an addictive cocktail of northern soul, Detroit acid house, football chants and trad British pop. With his cortex-addled chronicles of Mancunian thug life, Ryder was a rapping gangsta long before there was a name for it. And the Mondays’ ranks included the one and only Bez (Mark Berry), an utterly deranged friend of the band whose sole role was to supply the spastic fantastic dancing that remains the scene’s most enduring image.
To call the Mondays one of the most significant and influential rock groups to emerge in England since the Smiths would not be an indulgence in hyperbole. The Mondays’ carefully evolved sound — an odd, trancelike hybrid of ’60s flower-power rock, cheesy ’70s R&B and ’80s acid house, accompanied by Ryder’s straining, stream-of-unconsciousness words — became the blueprint for numerous local (later global) imitators. The sextet became favorites of the British tabloids, which made much of the members’ controlled-substance exploits and generally daft behavior.
Those searching for the key to the Mondays’ success won’t find it on the debut album. The inexplicably titled Squirrel and G-Man Twenty Four Hour Party People Plastic Face Carnt Smile (White Out) includes its first hit, the swinging “24 HR Party People.” For the most part, though, the album is unimaginative — often unlistenable — acid funk, produced with no apparent flourishes by John Cale. Over such transparent and repetitive backing, it’s hard not to notice how off-key Ryder’s vocals are. Although “Oasis” and “Kuff Dam” are designed to reflect/support the burgeoning dance phenomenon, the record is no timeless pop classic. One surprise: the gloomy Cure-like intro to “Cob 20.”
Producer Martin Hannett (the Factory legend, thanks to his work with Joy Division, who died of a heart attack in 1991) was brought in to spin the dials on the livelier Bummed, where the Mondays’ lysergic electro-funk began to resemble the residual vibrations of a painfully bad trip. Over liquid, hypnotic grooves supplied by what had become an extremely competent band, Ryder spouts frequently unintelligible lyrics that, by his own admission, don’t mean anything but lend the songs a quirky character. A dark mélange of trippy soul, dancefloor groove and edgy rock, Bummed features the first truly great Happy Mondays tunes: “Mad Cyril,” “Lazy Itis” and the anthemic dynamite of “Wrote for Luck.” (Also available in DAT.)
A Vince Clarke remix of Bummed‘s “Wrote for Luck” appended to the album’s CD edition spelled out the discofied direction the band was to take on its next British release, the Madchester, Rave On EP, lengthened and issued in the US as Hallelujah. Employing no less than four remixers, the seven-track, five-song American edition is a great dance record. Whether it rewards casual listening depends on one’s tolerance for lysergically loosened music that quite noticeably, and successfully, sounds a bit off.
Having made a sizable commercial impression in Great Britain, the Mondays then released their bid for world domination. Pills’n Thrills and Bellyaches stands as the Mondays’ high water mark, the definitive baggy record, all loping, rollicking rhythms and daft psychoactive imagery. It’s a luscious hodgepodge of the dodgiest of post- punk influences — a Labelle quote on “Kinky Afro,” the Salsoul string sound on “Dennis and Lois,” the “Sweet Jane” references on “Harmony.” Producers Steve Osborne and Manc club DJ Paul Oakenfold cast some dusty sunshine into the Mondays’ previously bleak sound, moving the group even further from the difficult death disco of Bummed. The accepted picture of Ryder as a drooling hoodlum also disappeared, as he suddenly became a gifted satirist whose gruff singing accentuated his wonderful comic voice. Ryder spins stories of a picaresque Manchester where “God rains his E’s down on me,” an opiated dream world reeking of “fine smelling” dope, populated by evangelical hypocrites (“God’s Cop”), wacked-out family members (“Grandbag’s Funeral”) and Ecstatic orgy participants (“Bob’s Yer Uncle”). In addition, “Holiday” is a mordantly funny memoir of the Mondays’ adventures (“I’m here to harass you/I want your pills and your grass you/You don’t look first class you/Let me look up your ass you”), not to mention a hilarious riff on the importance of oversize trousers (“Loose Fit”). Not just the most masterful document of Madchester, Pills’n Thrills and Bellyaches is a terrific record of delightfully intoxicating charms.
Live, the stopgap souvenir of the Pills’n Thrills tour, was recorded on the pitch at Leeds’ United Football Ground — and sounds it. For their next real record, the Mondays were sent to Barbados with producers Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz. While the island sessions were designed to keep Shaun and Bez away from the demon dope, they made a new friend there in crack. As a result, Ryder’s lyrics on Yes, Please! are garbled, free-form and just plain nutty (“Digger’s mother switch on the cooker/Get the hillbillies down/Set out to bugger/Sweet freak/Pen and ink/How do you make a bulldog think?,” from “Total Ringo”). Ironically, this improvisational breakthrough accompanied the Mondays’ further dip into the musical mainstream, as the album turns the arsequake pop of Pills’n Thrills into a generic tropicalismo funk- lite. Because of the growing separation between Ryder and the rest of the Mondays, the record often feels like a document of a band at odds with itself — the sprightly dance tracks clash with Shaun’s deeply bent mindfuck wordiness. Yes, Please! has been unjustly vilified as a full-on disaster, but fans will be rewarded by the reams of Ryder’s fascinating nervous breakdown verse as well as the handful of fine, if lightweight, songs (“Stinkin Thinkin,” “Sunshine & Love,” the crack- wracked “Angel”).
It came as no surprise when, following the dismal commercial/critical response to Yes, Please!, Happy Mondays called it quits. Megastardom had hit the Manchester bands hard, and this particular group had taken full advantage of the situation. While Stone Roses were busy flinging paint on record company walls and preparing for a five-year hibernation, the Mondays were out spewing racist, homophobic nonsense in the press and pissing away hundreds of thousands of Factory Records’ pounds. In short, they had become the archetypal rock’n’roll ruffians with money to burn. The rise and fall of the Mondays mirrored the success and collapse of the smiley-face scene. A number of E- related deaths and rampant criminal activity befell Manchester, and the city became known more for its violence than its vibes. A contract-filler released after the bust- up, the handy Double Easy compilation proves just how swell the Happy Mondays really were, with a bevy of hits, remixes and bonus tracks — like the delicious version of John Kongos’ “Tokoloshe Man” recorded for Elektra’s Rubáiyát 40th anniversary collection.
The Mondays’ catalogue includes a pair of Peel Session EPs. The first, recorded in 1989, contains “Tart Tart,” “Mad Cyril” and “Do It Better.” The second to be released actually dates from 1986 and includes “Kuff Dam,” “Freaky Dancin’,” “Olive Oil” and “Cob 20.”
Despite a short-lived collaboration with the experimental dance-pop collective Interstella, Ryder was written off as a casualty of the Madchester mentality. But as Mondays-influenced bands like Oasis were busting out all over, Shaun and Bez returned in league with Brit-hop rapper Kermit (late of Ruthless Rap Assassins) as Black Grape. It’s hard to tell whether the “Yeah” of the album title is meant as emphasis or sarcasm, though one would have to assume the latter, for the Grape are in no way the picture of sobriety. The UK’s first real answer to the Beastie Boys, Black Grape pumps out heavy whiteboy hip-hop infused with a dizzying array of rhythm-heavy musics — dub, jungle, techno, ragamuffin — armed with hard-enough swagger and multitudinous pop culture references (among those namechecked are Bruce Wayne, Neil Armstrong, Planet Reebok, Dirty Harry and “the great smell of Brut”). Sonically masterminded by producers Danny Saber and Stephen Lironi (a onetime guitarist in Altered Images!), It’s Great When You’re Straight packs a big-time wallop, a tumultuous soundscape fraught with sirens, church bells and careening, blast-off sound F/X. As for Ryder, he’s in fine form, dueling his sacrilegious raps (“Reverend Black Grape,” “In the Name of the Father”) with Kermit’s aggro- toasting. Between the blunt beats and dangerous demeanor, Black Grape is a broken bottle in the face of jangly Britpopmania, not to mention a surprisingly valid vehicle for Ryder’s unexpected resurrection.
After Black Grape’s success, Factory attempted to cash in their chips (and maybe make back some of the moolah spent on Yes, Please!) with Loads, a pretty basic Mondays primer, the first ten-thousand copies of which appended the remix compilation companion, Loads More.