LP / CD / DL
Acclaimed first four Happy Mondays studio albums get the remastered and reissued treatment. Simon Tucker zones in on the music instead of the myths.
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We all love a good ol’ fashioned rock ‘n’ roll story. Burnout, destruction, acclaim and notoriety are all part of the fabric of our musical heritage. It has been this way since the earliest recordings of humans pouring heart into art. The problem with this is that often the stories overshadow the music. Would Nirvana be as revered as they rightly are if they were just a plodding guitar band fronted by a mediocre lyricist who just so happened to be an addict and who ended their own life in horrible violent way? Would Joy Division? Would Jimi Hendrix??? no, the reason these artists become icons is not just the way they lived and died but the music they produced being so bloody good. The work is the most important aspect. With this in mind, if you have come here for yet another retelling of the Mondays’ myths and escapades then I suggest you log off and go read any of the number of books that are out there on the subject. This review is about the music this band of waifs and street urchins created during their first initial lifespan. Now remastered and reissued lets dive in and start from the beginning….
Squirrel And G-Man
So to the debut. Squirrel and G-Man (you should know the full title by now) is the sound of sunshine breaking through closed curtains in dingy post-club flats. You can smell the weed and booze. As debut albums go this is one of those ones you would classify as “showing potential”. The magic that would bring more and more people into the bands orbit is there but it is not quite fully formed or realised just yet. There are still moments where you can hear influences forcing their way in to the bands sound. Like the rolling Movement-era New Order drums on Russell or the jingle jangle guitars on Weekend S which ties the band in to an “indie” movement that wasn’t really where they belonged..and somewhere where they won’t stay for long.
Yet, Squirrel and G-Man has enough quality on display to make it worth revisiting especially with these remastered versions where the sound has been made fuller helping us zone in on Paul Ryder’s wonderful basslines and Garry ‘Gaz’ Whelan’s street funk rhythms. There’s also the not-so-small factor of Shaun Ryder’s lyrics. Ryder’s vocals may struggle every now and then (Little Matchstick Owen can be a tough listen) but his lyrical prowess is obvious from the off. Ryder’s lyrics here do what every great lyricist does on a debut release and that is make you want to discover what they actually mean. Squirrel is full of street slang and in-jokes making you crave to be in on the action with them. You can pour over them repeatedly and still not fully understand what Ryder is singing about and that is a wonderful gift. The lyrics here are funny, dark, nonsensical and profound full of the arrogance of youth. Ryder’s lyrics also help to elevate this album out of the post-punk gloom that was surrounding Manchester and the guitar band scene. Here was colour and spice. Illicit thrills which we wanted to be a part of.
Squirrel was famously produced by John Cale and whilst he served the songs well you can definitely tell the difference between his original production and the remastered version. You get a sense that sonically he may not have added that much yet by bringing him in Tony Wilson was instantly making the Mondays part of that avant-garde and influential lineage of the Velvet Underground, The Stooges and Patti Smith which knowing what we know about Wilson was probably more important than how the album would end up sounding.
Here is a debut album that feels one step ahead of the times and even the band themselves. The signs of what was about to unfold are there in the shape of the absolute classics Kuff Dam and Tart Tart which sound like the E was starting to seep in to the bloodstream. Happy Mondays would catch up with their own ideas and push them further forward on their next album and with the help of Martin Hannett and Ecstacy they were about to release their first seminal album….
Things move swiftly when you’re young and hungry and Happy Mondays were certainly both these things. Two years after recording Squirrel and G-Man the band teamed up with Joy Division / New Order producer Martin Hannett, discovered a new drug that was soon to sweep the nation and ended up recording the first full dance-indie crossover.. Screamadelica may get the plaudits with its overt E DNA but it is Bummed where guitar bands really started to loosen up and infuse their music with the lolloping and shuffling found wrapped in a tracksuit on a dancefloor or field. Bummed uses Tart Tart and Kuff Dam as its base ingredients and throws in extra groove, samples and bag loads of charisma. If you are a fan of music you always love that moment when a band truly realises its potential and listening to Bummed again brings home to you how vital this band were and what an important album this is. From the bad-trip coloured cover to the nude photos on the inlay, Bummed is the sound of renegades and rule breakers. Steal, absorb, evolve.
Bummed is everything the Mondays musical legacy resides on and it is easy to see why when listening again. Shaun Ryder’s lyrics are even more snotty, obtuse and hilarious. His slang and cut/paste style ties him in to Gysin and Burroughs, Bowie and Bukowski. Scattered throughout the album are lyrics that make you laugh, make you cringe and also make you once again pore through them trying to decipher their meaning. Nadsat for the acid-house generation.
Bummed doesn’t solely belong to Shaun Ryder though. Far from it in fact. Bummed is the sound of a band solidifying their ideals and outlooks to create something they know is “them” and no one else. The rythymn section is once again on point only this time there is an extra swing in Whelan’s drum playing and fluidity in Paul Ryder’s bass riffs. Just listen to the pair of them firing on Wrote For Luck (a strong contender for the best thing the band have ever done). Then you have the guitars of Mark Day which chime when they need to and stab when necessary adding colours and textures. No old guard lead riffing or guitar theatrics. Here was a fan of classic rock music taking what he had learned and adapting it to the here and now and in doing so creating a new path for others to follow. Finally you get Paul Davis’ keyboards that link the albums sound to the blossoming dance craze. Davis’ keyboards are also important in the way that they, like Day’s guitar, do not demand the listener’s ear instead they flesh out melody and accentuate percussive elements. This was the sound of band tapping in to the 60’s and making it sound like the late 80’s whilst signposting the 90’s. A sonic hat-trick and a pivotal moment in UK musical culture….
Pills ‘n’ Thrills and Bellyaches
The greatest opening line to an album ever?? Has to be a contender. So here we come to the “classic”. The Mondays album which always gets cited in lists and music publications. This was the moment that Madchester took over the UK for a brief spell. The band were now linked with fellow Mancunians The Stone Roses and they had moved away from Hannett and into the studio with electronic producer and superstar DJ Paul Oakenfold and Steve Osborne. Here was the band and Factory Records explicitly connecting them in with the chems and dance world. Those that knew spotted it on Bummed but with Pills the band were not being subtle anymore. From the kaleidoscopic cover to the title itself here were Happy Mondays coming for the dance crowd…and they got them.
Musically Pills is another leap forward and the idea of getting Osbourne and Oakenfold to produce is an inspired one as it removes the Mondays away from their Factory label mates New Order and all that baggage and it takes out the murkier elements of the bands sound replaced instead with a clarity and punch not heard on any of their previous albums helping to make this album a huge crossover success. There is of course another key element to what makes Pills stand loud and proud in the canon of great guitar albums and that is the inclusion of Rowetta on guest vocals.
Rowetta’s powerhouse vocal performances on the album elevate the bands sound even further in the way she brings in an erotic gospel aspect which makes the bands sound feel again like a relative of the vocal driven House music that was popular at the time whilst also connecting them with the soul and funk bands that their sound is so obviously inspired by. Shaun Ryder’s vocals playing in and around Rowetta’s is a thrilling blend. There’s a sensuality to them singing together (most obvious on Bob’s Yer Uncle) and even though Rowetta brings an added femininity to the Mondays’ sound she never once feels like window dressing. In fact it is Rowetta’s famed “Yippee Yippee” on Kinky Afro is often the first sound you think of when thinking of Happy Mondays’ music. Rowetta adds sex, spirituality, power and harmony…wonder what Bummed would have sounded like with her on it????
Pills ‘n’ Thrills is where the bands legacy is cemented in stone thanks to the clutch of singles that were pulled from the album. Kinky Afro, Loose Fit and Step On are songs whose power still isn’t diminished no matter how many times you’ve heard them in a shitty indie disco. Mark Day and Paul Davis’ have their finest moment on the bands inspired cover of John Kongo’s ‘He’s Gonna Step On You Again’ and on these remastered versions you can clearly hone in on the individual elements to admire them in greater detail or you can just lean back and let the whole sound lift up your spirits, put a swing in your step and enjoy some aural Vitamin D.
And now to the final album of this initial Mondays lifespan. Here is truly where the stories and myths take over so again of you want to know about Barbados, crack, crashing jeeps then may I suggest Bez’s Freaky Dancing or Shaun Ryder’s Twisting My Melon books. It’s all in there. Musically, …Yes Please! is where the wheels supposedly fell off. Where the ups became the downs and the magic left a band exhausted and strung out..uninspired. Listening back now you do notice that there is a slight downturn in quality when spread out over the whole album but the album is far from the disaster that it has been painted as. Much like the debut, there is certainly enough here to warrant repeated listens though would definitely be served better as an EP instead of a full-length album.
The changes begin with the producers as out goes Osbourne and Oakenfold (Factory unwilling to wait for the duo’s schedule to clear to work with them again. This was driven by the labels need for product from the band due to ever worsening financial difficulties.) and in come Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth from Talking Heads / Tom Tom Club fame. Now even though the bands preferred choices for producers were unable, the teaming of Happy Mondays and Frantz/Weymouth is actually a dream combo on paper. Both producers and band share a love of funk, rhythm and clipped guitar music and everyone involved loves a certain balance between progression and lineage. Just listen to Dustman and you can hear how close the band and producers came to a truly wonderful hybrid of Tom Tom Club and Happy Mondays..close but not quite getting there.
…Yes Please! suffers with an understandable lack of consistency but as mentioned before there are songs here that stand shoulder to shoulder with the bands more celebrated works. Opener Stinkin Thinkin feels like a comedown to Pills highs, Monkey In The Family is full of ugly electronics that add a warped sensation and is one of the ugliest songs the band have ever done and then you come to Angel. Angel is the highlight of …Yes Please! and is even a band favourite (Gaz Whelan told me as much recently on Twitter). Angel takes the groundwork laid down by Pills, adds the murky nature of Bummed, throws in more African rhythms, lets Rowetta unleash one of her finest ever vocals and allows Shaun Ryder to narrate us through his recent stint in rehab to devastating effect. Throughout the album, Shaun’s lyrics may not be as inspired or mischievous and his vocals are now drenched in pipe croak and desperation but on Angel he is on top form doing what he does best..and what no one has managed to imitate successfully since.
…Yes Please! may have a lot not to like on it but it definitely has enough quality to keep it an interesting listen and it is certainly worth your while revisiting it once in a while. What goes up must come down…
Four albums. Three you could call classic and one near miss. It’s odd as there is a weird symmetry between Happy Mondays and their fellow lauded Mancs The Smiths when it comes to their recorded output. You have the promising debut, the leap-forward cult classic follow up, the celebrated third and the could-have-been-great fourth. Yet you only seem to see think pieces or coloumn inches covering Moz and co with not as much coverage on the Mondays’ first life which is a shame as personally I feel the Mondays are more vital in understanding our recent past and especially our present where club culture is massive and dance music has become the biggest form of music there is.
Happy Mondays are always worth listening to and now they sound even better so devote a few hours to their swagger and slang and enjoy feeling part of one of our finest band of outlaws.