Thursday, June 19, 2008
HAPPY MONDAYS, The Rock Garden, London
Melody Maker, May 2nd 1987
by Simon Reynolds
Happy Mondays is where the repetition repetition repetition of post-Velvets jangle-drone meets the repetition repetition repetition of Seventies funk. Imagine a cross between The Blue Orchids and Hamilton Bohannon, The Fall and The Fatback Band, James and JB. The wah-wah on ‘Freaky Dancin'‘ cues memories of both The Stooges' ‘Ann’ and Isaac Hayes' ‘Shaft’ simultaneously. I'd like them to take this hybrid further still, bring in a clavinet and some John Cale viola...
What Happy Mondays do (quite unintentionally, I'm sure) is take the steamy stupor of the dancefloor and, through some cryogenic process of alchemy, create an unearthly frost-funk; a sound that seems newborn and yet ancient as a fossil. With its granite basslines and guitars that twinke like stalactites and icicles, it's a sound that's streaming with glistening rivulets of the stuff we rock critics call ‘magic’, when we're at a loss for words.
Shaun Ryder is like a goblin in the midst of this enchanted ice palace, unsavoury, snarling like a hobo – you can practically see the flecks of spittle in the corners of his mouth.
However, as a good reporter, I feel duty-bound to tell you that this was not, in fact, a great gig. Happy Mondays lumbered when they should have shimmered. The burnished precision of Cale's production was traded in for a coarse and sloppy tumult. The band seemed to apply themselves to the task in hand with an offhand listlessness. The percussionist's spazz dancing was a perfect representation of their stiff untogetherness.
It was not groovy. It was not dreamy. Happy Mondays came across as shabby and awkward, when they should have come across as grave and intense apostles of the cryptic beauty that has somehow come into their possession. Buy the record, and keep your fingers crossed for next time.
Melody Maker, November 1988
by Simon Reynolds
HAPPY MONDAYS, Wembley Arena, London
Melody Maker, April 21st 1990
by Simon Reynolds
A gig at Wembley Arena is generally a hollow demonstration that a band has reached a certain statistical stature. But everything about tonight has been set up to proclaim, loudly, that this is an Event, a crucial benchmark indicating that Happy Mondays are a bona fide "phenomenon", in the ascendant. The tickets and ads enthuse that "the rave is on"; the Arena's stagefront seats have been removed, leaving a giant mong-pit swarming with the herds of expectant ravers and fashion casualties; dry ice pumps out of vents and lazers spell out the bands logo; stars of the lustrous calibre of Boy George, Sonic Boom, Bobby Gillespie and Jona Lewie are to be spotted. And a grizzled, paunchy roadie who looks like Peter Hook's elder brother keeps coming on and brandishing a cardboard cut-out Number One figure at us meaningfully. Presumably this is meant to suggest that if we all went out and bought three copies of "Step On" it might top the charts. Quite why this would be such a triumph, in aday and age when being Number One in the Hit Parade means less than ever (the present occupants are a German rap group) is not made clear.
Finally, after much heralding from Gary Clail and the On U Sound System, and a fanfare of fireworks, Happy Mondays shamble on. Shaun Ryder greets the crowd with the cryptic query "where's me pickled herrings?". It's in this kind of lapse into bathos that Happy Mondays' "significance" has come to reside. They've come to be esteemed merely for unprepossessing details: for Shaun's refusal to trim his untamed nose hairs and bum fluff, for Bez's glazed vacancy. Similarly, the Mondays' gatecrashing of the Top Of The Pops party has been celebrated in
terms suspiciously reminiscent to the approbation meted out to The Wedding Present and The Pogues. The Mondays are reprobates soiling pristine pop with their warts-and-all anti-charisma, making a mess on the carpet and vandalising the fittings.
I say: Happy Mondays the indisputably magnificent underground band, make for a piss-poor pop group. No sex appeal, no style, no melodies, bar the one by the dodgy South African, and the chunk of "Ticket To Ride" in the middle of "Lazy-Itis". At the same time, the crystalline proto-funk of Squirrel And G-Man and Bummed has declined into a right dog's dinner of a quasi-pop sound, a garbled and gurned confusion of pop tinsel, Acid house production and rock grunge, with Ryder's scabby gibberish bobbing about queasily amidships.
I saw Happy Mondays' live once before, in '87, when Melody Maker was practically alone in heralding them. They were crap. Nothing has changed, except that they have more technology and more volume at their disposal. The Mondays still can't funk to save their lives, but what they can do is set up a lobotomised groove somewhere between a scuffed and shabby House and the deadbeat stomp of The Fall: a rhythm simple enough for white people to shuffle about to. And shuffle they do, sluggishly and earnestly, willing this to be the Event it's cracked up to be.
What's the Mondays have lost is readily apparent. An early song like "Tart Tart" is still an irrestible surge of glacial trance-rock, somewhere between The Velvet Underground and The Fatback Band. But the new tracks are, at best,an endearing shambles, at worst, a bloody, boring mess. "Hallelujah" remains a real sow's ear of a song. On "He's Gonna Step On You Again", the Mondays guitarist can't manage the moderately sublime, fuzz-boogie riff of the original, so emits a feeble, doodled gesture at same, that's completely lost in the turmoil. For "Lazy-Itis", a silver-haired and bewildered Karl Denver is wheeled on, to duet inaudibly with Ryder. Through it all, Bez who looks like Hugh Laurie after three years in a concentration camp) continues the endless, moronic traipse that is his dance, his feet retracing
the same listless steps as though he's crushing grapes.
Somewhere along the line, a distinction has to be made between the radically mindblowing, and the merely mindless. That's what the Mondays have degenerated into: a massive levelling down of consciousness, a bovine pleasure, pop music to masticate, like chewing gum or cud. Only the closing "Wrote For Luck" lives up to the hype: the tumultuous avalanche of cultural garbage that is the Mondays' sound suddenly escalates to 'white light white heat', and what we have is the "Sister Ray" of Acieeed. By the end, it's reached a transcendent plateau of sheer de-evolution, with Bez and the saucily attired backing singer rolling about like protozoan creatures in the primordial soup. But then it all fizzles out like a damp squib, with the Mondays snubbing the audience's calls for a
second encore, and punters exiting disgruntled.
So wherein lies the Happy Mondays' "significance"? They are significant,
but largely because they've been willed into a phenomenon, pushed from the hip by the Hip. There are other factors, of course: the perennial con of Manchester mystique, plus various sociological vectors. The Mondays have been proclaimed as the first, truly working class band to emerge since punk: real kids in possession of the truth that's "only known by guttersnipes". But it's closer to the truth to call them lumpen-proletarian pop. This was Marx's term for the underclass who've
lapsed from dignified labour into a lifestyle of shifty shiftlessness, petty crime, conniving, and other opportunistic means of survival. Not for nothing did Marx regard the lumpen-proletariat as a counter-revolutionary class, a sewer spawning illiberalism and sometimes support for tinpot dictators. Indeed, a crucial element of the Thatcher programme is the systematic debasement of the proletariat (bound together by solidarity and the discipline of labour) into a lumpen proletariat (indigent and faithless, except to kith'n'kin and mates).
Where Mark E. Smith's lyrics are oblique observations of Northern underclass grotesquerie, Shaun Ryder's drivel is more like the Id of the lumpen-proletariat speaking its bloody mind aloud: discredited knowledges, warped notions, bigotries and balderdash. This is fine up to a point, a sign of the times, a new thing in pop (the revenge of the plebeian upon pop's aristocratic pretensions). But when I listen to Happy Mondays now, I don't think otherworldly like I once did, I think: eating at the Golden Egg, acid casuals, terrace anthems, dog-fights and hunting rats with air rifles, Hofmeister, betting shops, people eating with their mouths open. Pickled herrings. Reality, for sure, nose hairs and all. But who needs it?
New Statesman, 1990
by Simon Reynolds
In 1990, Happy Mondays were everybody's favourite anti- heroes. The year began with the Mancunian group's first hit, the "Rave On" EP, still lingering in the charts like a stubborn gatecrasher. By mid-Summer, they'd cracked the Top Ten with "Step On You", a revamp of an obscure, early Seventies boogie hit, and packed out Wembley Arena. They end the year with a solidly successful LP Pills 'N' Thrills And Bellyaches. But Happy Mondays have a media profile that's quite out of proportion to this merely respectable commercial showing. Partly that's because their debauched exploits have turned them into the music press' mascot, reassuring proof that rock still has the capacity to scandalise. And partly it's because Happy Mondays are considered, correctly, to be a "phenomenon" - the first group to emerge from the ranks of this country's working class "rave culture".
Happy Mondays and their ilk are Thatcher's illegitimate children. Thatcherism's assault on the defences of the old working class (the unions, Welfare safety nets, etc) was intended to inculcate the middle class values of providence, iniative, deferral of gratification in favour of the long term dividend. But a significant number of working class youth responded to the challenge of "enterprise culture" in a hand-to-mouth way: not by becoming opportunity-conscious but by resorting to all manner of opportunistic means of survival (drug dealing, bootlegging, organising illegal warehouse parties and raves). Not a black economy so much as a blag economy, where success depends on having a eye for the main chance and being a fast talker.
This lumpen milieu has its own nefarious take on the "work hard, play hard" ethos. Its skills are reactive (the sharp quip, the quick killing) and its pleasures short-term and intense (the buzz, the crack). Rave culture's combination of trance dance and hallucinogenics superficially resembled Sixties counter culture. But there was no "politics of ecstasy" here; getting brainblasted and "going mental" was the goal, not opening the doors of perception. It's a culture of consolation, an analgesic/amnesiac respite from the alertness of workaday survivalism. "Skin up and mong out" was the rallying cry.
The story of how Happy Mondays became the figureheads for this scene involves a fair amount of chance and contingency. Until mid-1988, they were a critically-lauded but obscure gang of Mancunian reprobates whose music was a bizarre fusion of rock and funk, somewhere between The Velvet Underground and Funkadelic. Their two albums Squirrel And G-Man... and Bummed were completely at odds with both the pop mainstream and the indie rock state-of- art. But during 1988 and 1989, the Mondays began to pick up a substantial following of Ecstasy-guzzling "love thugs", as much for the fact that the Mondays were big time E-dealers as for their dishevelled dance sound. By mid-1989, Happy Mondays were being pinpointed by the press as prime architects of the "Madchester" scene. And when the "Rave On" EP cracked the charts at Christmas, they were welcomed as a kind of Aciiied Pogues; gutternsipes upsetting the decorum of Top Of The Pops and vandalising the fittings. The Happy Mondays trailblazed the current resurgence of laddish rock bands (e.g. soccer-obsessed, "scally" rockers The Farm, or Flowered Up, London's "answer" to the Mondays) and the reintroduction of the concept of "street credibility" to rock critical parlance.
If the "brains" behind the Mondays is singer Shaun Ryder, in many ways the focal point and font of the group's anti-charisma is a character called Bez. Strictly speaking, his contribution to the group is negligible: he dances onstage, shakes his maraccas desultorily and out-of-time, regularly gets into trouble with the police. But for the Mondays hooligan following, he's clearly their representative: proof that anyone of them could be up there if they'd lucked out, enjoying all the unearned drugs and ardent birds. Bez is their role model, the ultimate chancer. Anthony Wilson - TV presenter, owner of Manchester's Hacienda club, and founder of Factory, the group's record label - claims that Happy Mondays are the "new Sex Pistols". Doubtless Ryder is Rotten, Bez is Vicious, and as for Wilson - he's Malcolm McLaren, doing his best to kickstart a "folk devil/moral panic" furore in the media. At the beginning of the year, Wilson was to be found in The Face opining that he wouldn't be bothered in the slightest if one of the Mondays died as a result of pharmaceutical excess: notoriety never hurt record sales, after all. And throughout the year he's always been on hand to offer credulous journalists his own potted version of the last four years of UK pop history.
According to Wilson, white working class youth discovered Ecstasy and Chicago house music in Ibiza, the Meditteranean holiday spot. E loosened up British bodily uptightness and taught white people how to dance for the first time*. Eventually groups like Happy Mondays and Stone Roses started to emerge from the hitherto DJ-based scene, rock groups who had incorporated a house feel into their sound. And the next development (and here Wilson's distorted history turns to wishful thinking) must surely be the exporting back to America by British groups of a dance sound originally invented by Black Americans (the obvious parallel being the way The Stones and Beatles sold R&B back to white America). At a music industry seminar in New York this summer, Wilson lambasted representatives of the American record business for failing to notice the "revolutionary" music on their own doorstep, in a talk entitled "Wake Up America, You're Dead".
But despite the crude shock tactics and cynical hype of Wilson, despite the vortex of voyeurism and vicarious fascination spun around them by music press and fans alike, Happy Mondays have somehow managed to avoid being simplified and classified. They are simply too wayward, unruly and incorrigible to "represent" an ideology, stance or even a constituency. No one really has a grip on what Happy Mondays are "about". Shaun Ryder's lyrics are like the Id of the lumpen-proletariat speaking its bloody mind aloud, an E-addled stream of semi-consciousness. And the group's sound is a lumpy slurry of motley influences and plagiarised pop memories, a regurgitation of all the junk culture that's been shoved down their throats. Unfathomable, instinctively post-modern, committed to nothing but the pursuit of pleasure, Happy Mondays were what pop was all about in 1990. But with the waning of the Thatcher era, could it be that the Mondays' "pills 'n' thrills and bellyaches" worldview is already beginning to look a little dated?
HAPPY MONDAYS / JANE'S ADDICTION, Madison Square Garden, New York
Melody Maker, May 11th 1991
by Simon Reynolds
It must have seemed an inspired notion to pair these unabashed champions of drug culture, but inside sources tell me that it's turned out to be a marriage made in hell. Happy Mondays stroll casually onstage half an hour late (a misdemeanour for which Jane's Addiction's manager exacts hefty financial revenge), Ryder exhaling huge clouds of wacky tobaccy, Bez loping back and forth across the stage like a Gumby, his face contorted by a stark staring grimace of brain-blitzed glee. I expected a culture clash, bemused and derisive silence from the arena horde, but, happily, droves of college radio Manc wannabees have turned up. Having studiously learnt their raver moves from seeing the Mondays videos on MTV's "alternative" show 120 Minutes, these kids bob and lurch in feigned E-blasted gormlessness, but rather touchingly get it ever so slightly wrong.
The Mondays' sound is a slick shambles, an immaculate hotch-potch that sounds remarkably close to the records, suggesting – knock me down with a feather – a substantial reliance on tapes. But who cares, when they sound this good? "Loose Fit" is a magnificent mirage, its golden riff shimmering forebodingly over sultry, low riding rhythms. A new song is in the same Seventies vein; synths that spume and froth as obscenely as World Of Twist's Moog ejaculations, bubbling swamp-funk pulsations, boogie guitar. It's like the primordial soup from which terrestrial life emerged. Then, like William Hurt in Altered States, the Mondays regress still further, beyond the protozoan to the sub-atomic "white light" state of pre-consciousness, with 'Wrote For Luck': a raga-house mantra for a state of mindlessness, like 'Sister Ray' crossed with 'I Feel Love'. The band exit one by one, as the beat slows down in sync with a strobe, and isolated pockets of jeers and boos are drowned out by a thoroughly merited ovation.
Jane's Addiction are another twist to the rock/dance collusion, but their thing is fission/fusion rather than the Mondays' pilfered pick 'n' mix, hacking freneticism rather than groovy brain-death. The sheer funk of Jane's Addiction's sound is startling. Perry Farrell jerks and spasms like he's the human fuse wire in Patti Smith's equation "art + electricity = rock 'n' roll". His helium-high peal of petulance careens across Navarro's cascades like a surfer riding the Mother Of All Waves. One side of Jane's Addiction is all about back-to-nature primitivism (the rhythm section is as tumultuously tribal as Bow Wow Wow, my absolute favourite group of 1981), but they have an equally powerful drive to revolt against nature, weird out. Where Happy Mondays are degenerate, Janes Addiction are decadent – a sublime fusion of excess and elegance, not a wallow in stupefaction. Although Farrell gives us the pagan blessing "good sex", and declares that "God is in your scrotum," most of the songs aren't about carnality but transcendence; the refusal of limits and the aspiration to god-head (the grandeur-lust of 'Wish I Was Ocean Size'). This self-aggrandisement/self-annihilation complex is the thread that connects rock shamanism with Farrell's other great releases, heroin and surfing.
Ironically, Farrell looks set to spurn the real power that's now his for the grasping. The fervour of the 14,000-strong coalition of subcultures here tonight underlines the impression that Jane's Addiction have become the focus for the disparate disaffected. The group's upcoming Lollapalooza tour of the USA, a kind of mobile rock festival, looks set to resurrect the idea of counter culture. Farrell could actually turn the twenty something generation's "those were the days" defeatism into "these are the days" pride. But apparently he's already decided to end Jane's Addiction. If he does, it'll be an act of sheer willfulness comparable with Big Black's premature hari-kiri, except that so much more is at stake. I hope he changes his mind, but I'll admire the heroic perversity if he does pull the plug.
Melody Maker, September 1992
by Simon Reynolds
God, doesn't Madchester seem an aeon ago? When Ian Brown comes back, is he still going to be doing all those baggy body-moves? And right now, here's Happy Mondays, two years after the heyday, and provoking similar curiosity and concern about the Moment having passed. I've no particularly axe to grind: I loved the Mondays' first two magical LP's, detested their brief stint as pop stars, was won over again by the brooding shimmer of "Loose Fit". Basically, I'd be glad if Yes, Please was a great album.
It's actually pretty good**, but it has this strange air of irrelevance to what's goin' on. The UK is ruled by the two hardcores: American(ophile) slacker grunge, and the techno/hip hop mutant known as 'ardkore. Compared with these two scenes, Yes, Please lacks urgency, menace and above all, resonance. The Mondays, when they mattered, derived their rhythm and resonance from rave culture. By defacing and disfiguring rave music, they provided the scene with Faces and Figureheads; they rockified house with their rough guitars and ruffian anti-charisma. But since 1990, the Mondays have disconnected from the ever-evolving dancefloor. Obviously, they aspire to be a Great Band with their own self-sufficient aesthetic impervious to trends. But do they have enough stuff to sustain them?
Well, Happy Mondays were never gonna be the new Beatles (no great melodies). The Stones analogy was closer (black rhythm, orgiastic drug abuse, bad boy allure), but the Mondays' hedonism has never had a spiritual dimension like the Stones. They don't have it in them to write Nineties equivalents to "Gimme Shelter"; good as it was, "Loose Fit" was no "Let It Loose". The Mondays share rave culture's boorish celebration and excessive lust for kicks, but their music doesn't deal with the comedown and complications of the crash-and-burn lifestyle.
Like Pills N' Thrills, the title Yes, Please captures perfectly their gimme-gimme-gimme, "more E, Vicar?" attitude. The conditions surrounding the making of Yes, Please were bacchanalian; Shaun Ryder developed a serious crack problem, spending days in Barbados drug dens where hyped-up natives played reggae at an insane 78 rpm. If only some of that mania and derangement could made it into the Mondays music. Instead, Yes, Please has the Caribbean stamped all over it. At best, we're talking about the oceanic funk of late, late Can or John Martyn's One World; at worst, a typically tropical soundtrack to the Mondays' expensive vacation. The album's sun-baked mellow-yellow vibe is a culmination of the Mondays fantasy of life as an endless holiday, an eternal Ibiza. But most people have to come back to grim workaday reality, which is what gives the weekender lifestyle its special intensity and poignancy. Happy Mondays can now live the life of Riley in perpetuity, which makes it a bit meaningless. And that's where The Stones comparison really connects, as in the late Stones and the dull sterility of being no-work-and-all-playboys.
Happy Mondays are still a ways from that, but Yes, Please is really more of the same only better-produced (and at half-a-million quid, so it should be). The emphasis is on groove, hardly surpising since producers Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz (ex-Talking Heads/Tom Tom Club) were, in their day, one of the best rhythm sections in the white world. The album kicks off well with "Stinkin' Thinkin'", all bubbling bass, spindly rhythm guitar and squelch-amatic keyboards, with Ryder cast as the irresistible rogue; "kiss me for making you wait/kiss me for screwing everything in sight/kiss me for never getting it right". "Monkey In The Family" is pretty fab too: reggaematic techno-funk that packs a fair old wallop, spangly, bubblegum sitar-rock and tingling tablas filling up the Sly & Robbie chasms between the beat. The doubtless drug problem inspired lyric is one of the few times Ryder acknowledges the costs of excessive hedonism.
Thereafter, Side One degenerates into bumptious jubilation. "Sunshine & Love" is brisk, amiable, tuneful, and turns me off like only happy-go-lucky music can. I'd venture that no great art has come out of pure affirmation or unproblematic joy, unless it's joy so convulsive it's close to madness (which is where Happy Mondays lose out to the manic rush of 'ardkore). "Dustman" has boogie guitar, simmering, summery percussion, and that's about the size of it. "Angel" is almost ominous, a tensile throwback to the early Eighties (ESG meets "Walking On Sunshine"), with another addiction and/or rehab blues lyric: "when did the pain start?/When did the symptoms begin?" (slurred so it sounds like "The Simpsons begin").
Side Two resumes the sunny side upful vibe, with the sweltering, horn-powered, vaguely Latinate "Cut 'Em Loose Bruce". The near-instrumental "Theme From Netto" is, on a purely musical level, the best track on the album: sublime flecked rhythm guitar, succulent bass, brimming keyboards - gorgeous, the Barbados Tourist Board should employ it in their ad campaigns. "Love Child" is good fun too, a Seventies disco up-and-down-the-scale bassline, a raunchy riff, and a dub-spacious production -the first time Weymouth & Frantz really let rip on the console. It's striking that for all their huge intake of psycho-active substances, the Mondays music rarely sounds druggy, never simulates or induces disorientation, delirium, or a hyper-real kinetic feeling, rather sounds a bit stoned, to say the most. Thereafter, Yes, Please tails off with "Total Ringo" and "Cowboy Dave": apart from Ryder's drivel, these could be Island Records jet-set funk-rock a la Steve Winwood or Robert Palmer. Yuk-ola.
So. Yes, Please is baggy growing up a bit, but not really evolving. It's hard to fault, it's as good as Happy Mondays get, but perhaps not good enough to matter. To recoup a half a million quid outlay a record has to be laden with potential hit singles or to strike some kind of chord with a sizeable faction of the populace. Yes, Please, unless I'm very much mistaken, will fail on either count. In the end, Happy Mondays are too self-absorbed and un-driven to create anything that really resonates. They're having fun, living it up, but whereas in 1989/90 that was the whole point (they represented a lumpen underclass of chancers, were Thatcher's illegitimate children, etc), in 1992 - who cares?
* possibly the most egregious myth peddled by Wilson, Factory (Steve Morris: "it takes Ecstasy to make a white man dance") and many others involved in Madchester (Mani: "Whitey could dance, with a pill in 'im"). What's most amazing is that many of the Mancs peddling this myth that no white people danced before MDMA/house were either aware of or actually involved in.... NORTHERN SOUL, ferchrissakes. But what about the Southern jazz-funk scene with its rave-like all dayers and soul weekends, what about the warehouse funk culture of Eighties London and the many flavours of metropolitan club cutlure? What about 2-Tone, whose ska-sploitation movie was called Dance Crazy? What about postpunk's ideas of "dangerous disco"? What about the original Sixties mods, the R&B obsessed precursors to the Northern soulies? What about trad jazz, which was all about reviving the pre-WW2 function of jazz as a dance music, music to get drunk and go wild to, and a scene where the word "raver" even had some currency? True, house/E brought in a different kind of dancing, more fluid, ecstatic and tranced out; with different kind of body-moves and a tribal-vibal synergy that was new (if prefigured in gay club culture and the original 70s disco). But what they're really talking about, if anything at all, is that a bunch of indie-dance types who'd never been into dancing (at least to dance music) got turned on to it.
* * I was way too kind to this bland-beyond-belief album, wasn't I?