Yer Twisting My Melon, Man! Pills ‘n’ Thrills and Bellyaches at 30
On their essential third album, the Happy Mondays set the scene for Madchester’s never-ending rave going into the 90s
Through 1986 into ‘87, writer and Hacienda DJ Dave Haslam shared an office space in central Manchester, England, with Nathan McGough, who had recently taken over as manager for Happy Mondays.
In his memoir, Sonic Youth Slept On My Floor, Haslam recalls how one morning he discovered that someone had broken into their office and stolen the fax machine.
“I then got a call from one of the Mondays telling me the fax machine had been found and one of their mates would bring it in, but he’d need twenty quid for its safe return,” Haslam writes. “Then, on cue, one of their mates turned up, unwrapped the fax machine from a black bin liner, and I gave him twenty quid.” This happened several more times, each incident more ridiculously obvious and for the same modest sum, until Haslam asked McGough if he could just give the band some pocket money out of their own account when they asked for it, instead of continuing this “insanely stupid protection racket” that was costing Haslam £20 a pop.
Happy Mondays were a true one-off, a pure product of their place and time. Hailing from where and when they did, they had almost no chance of success, but they grabbed that “almost” and shook it down for all it was worth. Foolhardy perseverance and a few lucky breaks led them to an opportune position in a Manchester music scene on its way back up in the late 1980s, and from there they summoned an outsized energy that propelled them to its forefront, and the heady peaks of their third album, Pills ‘n’ Thrills and Bellyaches. There won’t be another band quite like them, because there simply can’t be another band quite like them.
The observation has been made that, in the UK, bands from working-class backgrounds in the ‘80s and the ‘90s (Oasis being a prime example) could get a leg up in a way they just can’t today, in part because of rollbacks to public benefits like the dole and free university education. Happy Mondays frontman Shaun Ryder belongs somewhere in that conversation. Ryder dropped out of school in his early teens, and by nineteen he was on his first marriage and had been working at the post office for years. Coming of age in Salford in the 1970s, he wasn’t alone among his peers in growing up fast; in some ways that was just how life went back then. “I was old before my time really…” Ryder writes in his memoir, Twisting My Melon. “When I was fifteen, I was going in working men’s places, drinking beer, seeing comedians, watching strippers and doing little marijuana deals.”
Ryder, at eighteen, cobbled Happy Mondays together in 1980 out of friends, family (his brother, bassist Paul Ryder), and acquaintances whose futures weren’t much more ripe with potential. Guitarist Mark Day, who had also worked at the post office, was the only one in the band who could read music, and that stayed true throughout their career. Happy Mondays carried on practicing and playing occasional gigs for half a decade before they started to attract real attention. Even by then, they were still very rough and influenced by Manchester’s then-recent legacy. “Delightful,” their debut single, fell somewhere between the Smiths and Joy Division, with Ryder still searching for his voice.
Happy Mondays “Delightful”
Musicality was only a piece of the Mondays’ appeal. It never mattered that only half of the group were ever proficient at an instrument. The second most famous member behind Ryder was Mark “Bez” Berry, the human mascot whose sole job it was to bring the vibe, grooving around on stage with maniacally bulging eyes and a pair of maracas in hand. After the band split up in 1992, it was Shaun Ryder and Bez who continued to have high-profile careers in music, forming Black Grape in the mid-’90s.
Happy Mondays’ influence on their hometown went beyond mere music. By way of their connections and predilections, they ended up being some of the first people to introduce Manchester to ecstasy. They weren’t just evangelizing about this new drug, they were peddling it. The story goes that in 1988 the use of ecstasy at the Hacienda gradually spread across the dancefloor from the dark corner under the DJ booth that Happy Mondays claimed as their own, until it had taken over the club.
It was the whole package that made Happy Mondays important to their city, from their genuine rough edges to their role in the youth culture’s chemical transformation. Their music, too, was finally coming together at the right time. The Stone Roses and Happy Mondays shared the throne at the height of Madchester in 1990, but the Mondays fully embodied that scene’s embrace of rock and dance music in a way that the Roses only dabbled with on a few singles. They were also possibly one the best – if also possibly one of the worst – things to ever happen to the city’s most celebrated record label, Factory Records, whose visionary founder Tony Wilson called Ryder “the Johnny Rotten of acid house.”
Bummed, the band’s second album, was a major leap forward, and is what started to earn them comparisons such as “Sly Stone meets the Velvet Underground.” Factory got Martin Hannett to come out of a career lull to produce Bummed, which combined Happy Mondays’ rowdy, cryptic funk with Hannett’s signature cold and spacey sound, fitting the record into the local-hero lineage of Joy Division, A Certain Ratio and others. In that light, Bummed is the most definitively “Manchester” album in the band’s catalog, while its central single, “Wrote For Luck,” is arguably their finest moment.
VIDEO: Happy Mondays “Kinky Afro”
That said, the one-two punch of “Kinky Afro” and “God’s Cop” that Pills ‘n’ Thrills and Bellyaches opens with could just as well be their peak. Right from the intro, “Kinky Afro” signaled how different Pills would be from its predecessor. Having been enamored of Paul Oakenfold’s work on Electra’s “Jibaro,” Shaun Ryder knew well in advance that he wanted the up-and-coming producer to help Happy Mondays broaden their sound and audience. The band went out to Los Angeles to begin work with Oakenfold and co-producer Steve Osborne at Capitol Studios as their popularity was soaring back in Britain. Their Madchester Rave On EP had arrived on the heels of the Second Summer of Love in 1989, making “Hallelujah” their biggest single to date. Where other groups might have been hesitant to imprint a fleeting pop movement like “Madchester” on their catalog, for the Mondays it made sense, as they had done as much to make that movement happen as anyone.
With the band on the ascent, the recording of Pills was reportedly a smooth and enjoyable process, which comes across in the flow of the album’s ten tracks. The sessions with Oakenfold and Osborne weren’t bent by the strange occurrences that came with Bummed via an unfortunately deteriorating Martin Hannett, nor were they marred by the descent into serious drug abuse that sabotaged the infamous Barbados sessions with Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth for their then-final album, Yes Please!. On Pills they were golden. The upward arc of the previous three years had put them in a collective headspace where fate was on their side and instinct could hardly do them wrong.
VIDEO: Happy Mondays “Loose Fit”
The Ibiza-inspired Balearic vibe for which Ryder had sought out Oakenfold fit well with the songs Happy Mondays were writing. The band had the majority written in some form before heading to LA, but others, including one of Pills’ signature tunes, “Loose Fit,” were birthed in the studio over Oakenfold beats. What the production lacks in the sheer size of Bummed’s wall of echo it more than makes up for in the details, the color and warmth. An album made in Los Angeles in 1990 could have succumbed to some of the pervasive studio techniques of the day which haven’t aged well, but Pills managed to dodge those bullets. Thirty years later, it can still bring on a good buzz.
Lyrically, Shaun Ryder was in sharp form, and Pills kicks off with one of his most memorable lines. “Son, I’m thirty/I only went with your mother ’cause she’s dirty/And I don’t have a decent bone in me/What you get is just what you see, yeah.” “Kinky Afro” fashions inimitable cool from degenerate dispatches, and the rest of Pills follows suit. Happy Mondays had a way with profound nonsense that was hard to match, but which clearly rubbed off on the generation behind them, including an aspiring Noel Gallagher.
Riding a raw Mark Day riff, “God’s Cop” offered another revelation; the Mondays were discovering choruses. Though they still prioritized a steady, danceable groove ahead of hitting chord changes, the band are clearly thinking in more pop terms on Pills ‘n’ Thrills and Bellyaches. The title “God’s Cop” referred to then-chief constable of the Greater Manchester police, James Anderton, who made public declarations that God spoke directly to him, but, as in many a Happy Mondays song, it’s a pointed but abstract dig that isn’t solely about one thing.
Similarly, “Loose Fit” isn’t all about wearing baggy clothing, but there’s no way it has nothing to do with it, given that flared jeans and oversized T-shirts were the scene’s signature fashion statement (the “indie rock + funky drummer” style was also known as “baggy” in honor of the clubbers’ clothes). The Mondays didn’t demure from the spotlight, but they still offered shelter to the fringe characters, like “Dennis and Lois.” The joyous jam has nothing to do with the curious Anglophile fixtures of the New York City concert scene since the late ‘70s, but the titular nod to Dennis and Lois (who finally got their own documentary in 2018) gave a kind of validation to all the inside-outsiders out there.
There is one song on Pills, however, that means pretty much exactly what it says, and that’s “Holiday.” “Now here’s another song that I didn’t write,” Ryder told the London audience at a Happy Mondays reunion show in 2012, which was released as Live at the Brixton Academy 10.5.12. “Manchester Airport customs wrote this one, word for word….” One of Ryder’s long time lyrical habits had been to absorb bits of film dialogue, lines from other artists’ songs, and snatches of real life conversations he had or overheard. “Holiday” comes from Ryder’s experiences being judged on his appearance as a drug mule by airport security, and taken away to be searched. The track is buoyant and the spirit is more mock laughter than indignation, as Ryder knows better than to play righteous.
Before the wind-up-wind-down of “Holiday” and the closing “Harmony” comes “Step On,” the closest thing Happy Mondays had to a well known song in the US. The band’s record label in the States, Elektra, had obligated them to contribute an in-house cover for an anniversary compilation. They chose the first song on the tape they were sent, John Kongos’ “He’s Gonna Step On You Again,” so they didn’t have to listen any further. Fittingly, a lazy pilfer became a triumph for the unlikely lads, their first Top 5 single in the UK. “Step On” is still the tune many know Happy Mondays best for.
VIDEO: Happy Mondays “Step On”
Raves, ecstasy, and rock guitars with dance beats behind them would all make inroads into American pop culture as the ‘90s wore on, but the Mondays couldn’t keep it together long enough after Pills to make another push. It’s fair to say that America didn’t really get it at the time: Britain offered the Stone Roses and Happy Mondays, and the U.S. bought Jesus Jones and EMF. Never invest in true genius when an instant smash will do was how our mainstream reacted to baggy. The Stone Roses captured a decent following here in the ‘90s and their reputation has grown enough over time that they were able to play Madison Square Garden a few years ago, but Happy Mondays never got that traction. The band’s influence in this era has been tangible but scattered, from bands like Jagwar Ma in Australia to the Seattle indie group Spesh.
Between the accents, the slang, and the elevation of questionably talented working class misfits to folk heroes, Happy Mondays might have just required too much translation. U2, Duran Duran and Def Leppard never required such interpretation, nor did they show up for TV interviews clearly tripping off their heads. Pills ‘n’ Thrills and Bellyaches was their best foot forward, a nearly perfect album, aside from the somewhat underwhelming “Grandbag’s Funeral” and half-cooked sex jam “Bob’s Yer Uncle,” and even then they had to settle for conquering their homeland. One suspects, however, that they didn’t care all that much. “…[T]hey embodied true rock and roll,” wrote Peter Hook in his memoir about the Hacienda. “Like Iggy Pop, Nick Cave and other people I admired, they didn’t give a fuck what anybody thought.”
Those who were tuned in knew the score. Those who missed out, it was their loss.
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