If you had been asked, in 1986, which of the year’s crop of indie bands would become huge mainstream stars – and in the process make such a dramatic and lasting impact that they would fill arena-sized venues 35 years later – you would have got very long odds on it being Happy Mondays.
If the band was considered by the music press at all, it was as another example of Factory Records’ bizarre attitude to A&R; their willingness to spend money made by New Order on peculiarly named Manchester bands that clearly weren’t going to replicate their success: Red Turns To…, Biting Tongues, Stockholm Monsters.
Happy Mondays didn’t look the way an indie band was supposed to look in 1986, an era when a charity shop take on the mid-60s held sartorial sway over British alternative rock. Their London press officer was so startled by their appearance on arrival in the capital – a riot of shaved heads, flared jeans and utilitarian anoraks – that he insisted on a photo of them before they’d even got out of their transit van.
And nor did their debut album, Squirrel and G Man Twenty Four Hour Party People Plastic Face Carnt Smile (White Out), sound like an indie band were supposed to sound in 1986. The prevalent trends variously involved the earnest left-wing politicking exemplified by the Housemartins, or low-rent recreations of the Byrds or the Buzzcocks. Frontman Shaun Ryder memorably described their sound as “funkadelic being eaten by a giant sandwich … northern soul … punk rock … Hendrix … fuckin’ Captain Beefheart, and a load of drugs on top of that”. You might reasonably have added the krautrock of experimental rock band Can into that list of influences. Over the top of it all, Ryder tunelessly bellowed lyrics that, on the rare occasions you could work what they meant, seemed to speak of a life on society’s margins, filled with drugs and petty crime: “Everyone on this stagecoach likes robbing and bashing … smoking miles and miles of hash, that’s sweet,” goes the song Olive Oil.
That Happy Mondays were weirdly funky at a time when most British indie bands drew their influences from white rock was largely down to the bass playing of Ryder’s brother Paul, a fan of Bootsy Collins and legendary Motown bassist James Jamerson. It was Paul who named the band Happy Mondays – apparently after the day their unemployment benefit cheques arrived, “the day for getting off your face” as he put it – and Paul’s bass that held the Happy Mondays’ sound together.
As determinedly hedonistic as his bandmates in daily life, there was nevertheless something solid about his playing. In a outfit whose musicianship was occasionally called into question – Shaun claimed that former Smiths bassist Andy Rourke had attempted to form a band with the Mondays’ keyboard player Paul Davis, giving up when he realised “that lad can’t play a note” – Paul’s bass provided an anchor, something the listener could latch on to amid the confusion.
On their second and best album, 1988’s Bummed, Happy Mondays’ sound has been turned into an extraordinary, murky, echoing swirl by producer Martin Hannett. It seems to replicate the queasy sensation of having overindulged in everything to the point where you’re seeing double and minutes away from passing out. It’s often hard to make out what is going on between the thunderous din of Gary Wheelan’s drums and Shaun Ryder’s voice – everything sounds indistinct, the guitars, keyboards and Hannett’s studio trickery blurring into one – but Paul’s bass is always there. Listen to the heaving, octave-leaping pattern he plays on Moving In With, or his descending notes on Brain Dead. The subsequent Paul Oakenfold and Andrew Weatherall-produced Hallelujah – the lead track from EP Madchester Rave On – cleared away at least some of the sonic fog, fully revealing the extent to which Ryder’s bass drove the Happy Mondays along.
By the time of Madchester Rave On’s release, Happy Mondays were, incredibly, stars. As brilliant and original as Bummed was, it hadn’t seemed much like a recipe for commercial success. But in the event, it chimed with the times the Happy Mondays’ extracurricular activities helped create. Supplementing their meagre income from music by dealing drugs, Shaun Ryder and the band’s onstage dancer Bez had played a significant role in bringing ecstasy to Manchester, helping fuel the rise of acid house in the process. Happy Mondays certainly didn’t make house music, but they understood it. In a move not unlike the reggae-obsessed Lee “Scratch” Perry’s contribution on punk single Complete Control, the Mondays were smart enough to work with leading producers and DJs associated with acid house. Paul Oakenfold and Steve Osbourne polished their sound further on 1990’s Pills ‘n’ Thrills and Bellyaches. It went platinum in the UK, its success crowning a period in which Happy Mondays had effectively spawned their own musical sub-genre, baggy, that was packed with bands trying to imitate their sound or that of the more musically traditional, but still acid house-adjacent, Stone Roses.
One story has Paul Ryder so lackadaisical in his approach during the album sessions that he let Osbourne play bass instead of him, but his fingerprints were all over the album’s best known tracks. Kinky Afro’s saga of familial dysfunction was inspired by his love of Hot Chocolate’s 1974 single Brother Louie, and Loose Fit emerged from a jam between Ryder and Oakenfold.
It was their commercial zenith. Their unrepentant hedonism had helped buoy the Happy Mondays to fame, but it was also to be their undoing. Paul Ryder was among the band’s members who succumbed to heroin addiction, while the sessions for 1992’s album Yes Please! were blighted by his brother’s increasing dependence on crack. The album was a commercial and artistic disappointment, and the band split shortly afterwards.
A far better epitaph for their career is the incredible cover of the Bee Gees’ Stayin’ Alive they recorded for Malcolm McLaren’s TV special The Ghosts of Oxford Street, which dug into the song’s oft-overlooked grimness – “I’ve been kicked around since I was born” – and which they performed in the show dressed as 17th-century criminals en route to the gallows at Tyburn.
From 1999 onwards, various line-ups intermittently toured and recorded as a reformed Happy Mondays. A nostalgia-hungry audience seemed unbothered by who was in the band as long as Shaun Ryder and Bez were visible at the front of the stage. But the reality was less straightforward. If you want the clearest evidence of Paul Ryder’s contribution, you would be advised to play Unkle Dysfunctional, the coolly received album they made without him and guitarist Mark Day in 2007. It’s not a terrible record, but it somehow doesn’t sound like Happy Mondays.
July 16, 2022 at 04:51PM Alexis Petridis