As Hunter S. Thompson once gloriously wrote, “When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.” The Happy Mondays seem to have lived their career by this perfect quote and their current touring machine embraces it with a very pro take on those fantastically weird times when the unlikely lads came out of Salford and changed British pop culture forever.
The band kicked-off the late-eighties culture shift by marrying the dance floor to the guitar and embraced an open-ended, no rules musical vision that could somehow shoehorn Can and Chaka Khan into the same song and must have been the inspiration for their label boss Tony Wilson’s great quote about Manchester kids having the best record collections.
It was a perfect moment. The band stumbled into genius without realising it and Tony Wilson gave them the space to run amok.
They are lining up their bi-annual celebratory tour with a Greatest Hits package that is fair to say soundtracked the wilder excesses of the times and offers a portal into just how glorious and life-affirming great pop music can be.
Like a ragamuffin, dysfunctional version of Robin Hood and his merry men, the Mondays have survived all the rock ‘n’ roll excesses to emerge unrepentant and with a live show that has an added level of professionalism as they celebrate those hits that are now generational signposts and examples of just how gloriously off-kilter British pop can be when it’s left to the mavericks and not the accountants.
In 1989, the Happy Mondays kick-started a musical revolution; they married the dancefloor to the post-punk end of indie rock, they were at the front line of the culture, hanging out in the Hacienda. They were the core of the new ecstasy culture that would change the city forever, with its 21st-century hi-rise confidence and vibrant city centre tracing back to the Happy Mondays’ table in the dark corners of the famous nightclub. They gatecrashed the Top Of The Pops fancy fashion threads with their Salford street smarts and brought a new vernacular into the corridors of pop culture.
They lived fast and they lived hard and their frontline of Shaun and Bez became folk heroes for Generation E. Bez - the deceptively gonzoid dancing bear whose face freeze-framed just what it was like to be high in every rave in the UK, and Shaun, the singer with his poetic leering genius capturing the times in shards and snippets of dark poetry and black comedy snapshots.
They not only wrote the soundtrack but they walked the walk and they talked the talk, and when you look at their history it’s hard to imagine how they not only survived but how they managed to get themselves back together for this live celebration of their classics.
Now 56, Shaun Ryder has not only lived to tell the tale but is doing it better than ever, as he details what fans can expect from the upcoming tour.
“We will still be alive. We will still be breathing. It will be a good show, better than ever really. The sex and drugs have gone and now it’s just the rock ‘n’ roll. We are better than ever live and when I listen to the old records - like when we took Bummed out and I listened to the album for the first time since 1988 - I said to myself: pat yourself on the back, lad.”
The Mondays have survived to put their house in order and deal with a creative burst that started in 1987 with their more experimental debut album ‘Squirrel and G-Man Twenty Four Hour Party People Plastic Face Carnt Smile (White Out)’, which was the coolest album in the city, soundtracking strange late night parties for the then much smaller scene of faces in the city. It bobbed around in the no man’s land of post-punk Manchester after being released on Tony Wilson’s Factory Records, then forging into a new era with New Order as their prime band.
The Mondays may not have fitted in anywhere, and when we used to see them at the Boardwalk rehearsal rooms, kicking a football around whilst getting slowly stoned in the broken back streets of a very different and long-lost Manchester, it was hard to place just what they were.
Tony Wilson was about the only person in town who saw it, as Shaun recognises.
“Tony thought there was an art in the way the band ganged together and the way we huddled when we talked. He could see the art in all that. I could see an art in the way we dressed, how we looked and how we talked to each other, but I would never make a big deal out of that.”
The 1988, follow-up album Bummed was a manifesto release. Produced by Martin Hannett, its spacious sound was modern psychedelia that was drenched in the new drug in town as it rolled around on that very distinctive Motown bass line groove. With Shaun’s brilliant stream of consciousness lyrics and the band riding a perfect rolling groove, it was infectious and brilliantly odd all at the same time. The band’s new trip was about to be copied all over the UK, and as they slowly caught on you could feel a revolution coming to every town.
The next move even caught out their ever-generous boss Wilson, as Shaun went for the dancefloor.
“People don’t know this - and to squash any rumours - when I first went to Tony and Nathan McGough and said I wanted to work with Paul Oakenfold they said, “Who’s he?”. Don’t forget, Oakenfold wasn’t what he is now. He had never ever made an album before, just that Jibaro single which only sold about ten copies. The only people that knew who he was were trendies in London, a few heads in Ibiza and people who read London DJ magazines. I loved that Jibaro single and also loved the way he would mix the indie guitar of The Woodentops into beats when he was DJing. I thought: this is it.
“A mate of mine gave Oaky a grand for his record collection in Ibiza and Oaky thought, “Great! I don’t have to lug it home”. We played all of his collection in the studio and it changed things. Nathan and Tony said, “He’s a DJ, he can’t do an album!” - but they never said no to any wacky ideas we came up with.”
The resulting ‘Madchester Rave On EP’ changed music. The two until then mutually exclusive scenes of indie and dance were merged into a perfect whole.
The Mondays’ third album ‘Pills and Thrills and Bellyaches’ further explored this brilliant new amalgamation - and very few bands in the UK didn’t have a go at the new magic alchemy.
The Happy Mondays were the best, though, and their natural aptitude to a lollopping groove was underlined by the new E-drenched dance floors. Can there ever have been a more perfect moment than ‘Hallelujah’? A song so perfectly wonky and yet danceable - both perfect pop and plain odd - that listening to it to this day takes you back to that magical moment when it all fitted together.
That glory period was punctuated with proper hits and it all felt so effortless. The Mondays were the perfect band of the moment as rave culture permeated the UK in the biggest music revolution since the Sex Pistols swore at Bill Grundy on TV. Pop culture had shifted on its axis and the lads from Salford had kick-started something.
Moments like this are not made to be replicated. In pop culture, when things move on, even the innovators and the masters of the form can be caught out.
“With the next Mondays album, ‘Yes Please’, Oaky was busy with U2, who were working with him because everyone wanted a piece of what we had. I said just wait and we will get him after, but everyone else wanted to record at that moment and we got in Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz, which should have been good because I loved Talking Heads and the Tom Tom Club, but somehow it didn’t work.
It all got too much and I didn’t like the music. I got bored, and when I get bored I go to the drugs, which this time was crack.”
Ironic in that you had initially taken drugs to escape the terror of being stage.
“Yes, of course, but they make your life worse eventually. Don’t forget, I also had a fucking smack habit early doors, before the Mondays, and I got off that when Ecstasy came along. I had that terror of going on stage and playing universities when we got bigger, and all those clever people there. That used to affect me, but I’ve got past that now.”
Ironically, they are now studying your lyrics on courses. Tony Wilson was right about you being the best lyricist since Bob Dylan!
“As a songwriter, my job is to write songs and tell stories from phrases that pop up, like ‘twisting my melon man’, or Bez will say something like ‘I’m proper wankered, I’m having a spam snack.’ I grab these phrases and it’s then a question of how do I turn that into a story? In a song, with each line, I want to send a picture into someone's head. I can see this picture with every line I do and I want the listeners to get the pictures as well from what is a lot of different things that are not connected and make them fit into a story.”
The music was the same - a perfect mix of inspired genius and perfect steals. The Mondays always instinctively understood pop music.
“When we first started, the band A Certain Ratio worked across the way and I would go across and write with them and say “what you need is a big pop hit so you can carry on with what you are doing”. And we would come up with something and then I would be out of the room for 15 minutes. I would come back and they had put all the weird stuff on it, which was too much for a pop song. Somehow, with the Mondays, we were always working in pop, from the Motown bass lines onwards.”
This brilliant zigzag career is perfectly underlined by the bi-annual tour. On top of their game, the band are doing a great service to the anthems of a wild time when everything was possible and you felt like you would be young and wild forever and the rising dawn was an eternal horizon.
“Between me and you, the Mondays onstage now are better than ever. We are adults now and everyone can see the truth. We worked out how to be a band. We all get to the gig differently and show each other respect…and it doesn’t hurt that the songs are brilliant!
“I’m not an artist and I don’t say I come alive on stage. When I walk on stage I feel naked and I feel like I’m dying. I’m not a proper artist. I come alive when I come off stage and I’m with normal people and I can be Shaun. I don’t have to be off my nut any more. I’m happy with who I am. I know from doing TV that I can just go and act, play the part.’
Is looking back on that period where you broke through all fuzzy?
“Fuzzy didn’t start until the nineties. I can actually remember the sixties and listening to the Tony Blackburn show and walking to school in the dark. In the nineties, we were a bunch of young men immersed in the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle like we wanted. It’s weird when people say it had dark moments. They don't know how bad it is on the streets. The music business is a bubble where you wake up. Out there in the real world I’ve had friends die or end up in jail. I had my drug life in a bubble, there was always a way out. It was like a video game with a secret door and it’s dead easy.”
Are you a disciplined person?
“I can be. When it goes off is when I get bored. I have a short attention span and if I get bored the trouble starts. But I’m an old man now and I read the papers now. I’ve got a solid foundation at home with Joanne and my little kids and I like getting back to that.
“I don’t go to the pub any more. People expect me to do that, especially if I’m somewhere that Bez was the week before - birds full of cocaine turn up because they think I’m like Bez! He still lives the life on his hippie commune. He likes to do what he does. He’s older but he still likes it out there.”
Somehow, in all that beautiful madness, there they are Shaun and Bez - the folk heroes whose very existence reminds a generation of a time when everything was possible.
The fact they survived and came to terms with their beautiful madness is inspirational - the fact that they can do this with the Happy Mondays’ tour and its perfect soundtrack, perfectly executed, is a cause of wonder.
The full list of tour dates is as follows:
Wed 4th Dec Belfast Limelight 1
Fri 06 Dec Liverpool Mountford Hall
Sat 07 Dec Leeds O2 Academy Leeds
Thu 12 Dec Norwich UEA
Fri 13 Dec Northampton Roadmenders
Sat 14 Dec Birmingham O2 Institute
Wed 18 Dec Frome Cheese & Grain
Thu 19 Dec Bournemouth O2 Academy Bournemouth
Fri 20 Dec Guildford G Live
Sat 21 Dec Lincoln Engine Shed
The Happy Mondays Greatest Hits Tour comes to Belfast Limelight 1 on Wednesday 4th Dec 2019. For tickets and more information visit: https://www.alttickets.com/happy-mondays-tickets