“I wrote for luck. They sent me you.”
Happy Mondays erupted out of a Manchester that was somehow entirely different than Morrissey and Marr’s town, twisting The Smiths’ wry wit by the ear.
They bore nothing at all in common with other greats from their city who came before them: Joy Division, New Order, James; except that they were also singular and also great.
Even twenty odd years on since Pills, Thrills and Bellyaches, it’s astounding and ever thrilling to hear the cocktail of sex, drugs, debauchery, profanity, humour, satire and weirdness that falls out of Shaun Ryder’s stream of consciousness lyrics which are actually often quite pointed and full of cultural criticism, beautifully uncensored and unfiltered, unfettered. They shimmer with true freedom as so many great, at times opium fueled poets of ages past would have loved to be. These words and intonations were carried on a sketchy breeze of cool, unfussy rebellion, of the sound of Baggy itself, of a shrugging toughness that could never be faked. Whispered in the ear, mumbled, or barked lyrics travelled round the world and made kids everywhere want to be part of one local scene that existed too briefly in one Northern English city, and the larger unknown culture that formed it, as we nodded if not knowingly, than wishfully, that we could get even a tenth of the inside references. A lifetime mission to penetrate this dialect was born in suburban hearts everywhere.
For to learn the slang of the gang was as worthwhile a pursuit as any we could think of from miles and miles away. Shaun Ryder, the unpredictable bard, made “twistin’ my melon” sound needlessly dirty, naturally, while “four, four in a bed. Three giving head. One getting wet ” came out sounding, oddly, rather romantic and sweet. The bite of anger in “Wrote for Luck” was mitigated by the naturally funny and freeing lift of Ryder’s offbeat moments, like a long yell in the middle of the song that seemed to say as much about what it felt like to be young in 1990, in northern towns, far from the centre, in faded empires, under grey skies as it seemed to maybe just say, “eh, fuck you”. And today, the same howl and stomping cool of this anthem offers commuter relief in its forever unpackaged originality. Try it on a loop, it’ll change everything on the coach.
They were Bummed. They were Happy. They said Yes Please while picking your pocket, because singing about the travails of a Mondays’ “Holiday” involving “one small sneak” is just too damned funny to be any kind of crime, no matter what the contraband. They were unabashedly street. And they were smart. They reminded us that “Stinkin’ Thinkin’ gets you nowhere (but comes from somewhere).”
“Kiss me for screwing everything in sight. Kiss me for never getting it right. Kiss me goodnight. Kiss me for old time’s sake. Kiss me for making a big mistake.” How could anyone resist?
Have the Mondays ever received their due? In spite of the question that lingers like smoke for this band and so many others who burned so bright in the early 90’s, The Mondays are bigger than petty concerns or a waste of time jostling for cred, as ever. Instead, as if summoned by the endless dreams and devotion of global fans, The Mondays are on a major anniversary lap this past year, a high point of which is undoubtedly headlining the unusually cohesive line up for November’s Shiiine On Weekender. This festival boasts a roster of the top albums of 1990-91 (and beyond) from across Indie, Dance, Ambient, and Manchester bands and offers a full weekend of music, films, DJ sets and pool parties, including one hosted by Bez himself. Pinch me.
And here we are, 15 years into this goddawful new millennium, when the jetpacks we were promised are still backordered, seeing The Clone Roses. Yes, please. We’ll take two: seeing the great Peter Fij (Adorable, Polak) for the first time ever. Oh and that’s just my personal favourites there’s The Wonder Stuff, Inspiral Carpets, Northside, Peter Hook and the Light, Stereo MCs, The Farm, The Orb, The Real People, Thousand Yard Stare…It’s a month away, and already historic for the happiness its triggered in anticipation.
But back to The Mondays. We’ve waited years for this band’s compositions and Shaun Ryder’s lyrics to receive the acclaim they deserve. True to form, cool resists such things and the body of work has instead gone on to be something better: an inside joke and a secret handshake understood by a select number of global insiders, a knowing head bob, and an appreciation that defies definition. “Show you what the cat’s been doing, and how he gets around” is no less funny if it’s a reference to good ol’ “Grandbag” shortly before his anticipated death, or an image of a family standing around watching and discussing the antics of the family pet (the true meaning of the line holds a decadent amount of air time at Step On Mag HQ of late; we suspect it’s the former, but we are endlessly entertained by the notion of the latter.)
In the intervening years when we all, unfortunately had to grow up (and before the welcome resurgence of our top 90’s bands now that our lot has the keys and can fill the roster like good Indie kids) The Mondays stayed on rotation through the LP, CD, and iPod years. We may never have dabbled in anything stronger than the evil, legal alcohol, but Pills, Thrills and Bellyaches has, through some strange northern magic, served as effective holistic medicine for what ails on that morning after commute. Somehow that Chill Out Room of a brilliant record (and it works best if played end to end) covers the hungover listener in a blanket of comfort that keeps subway rage to a minimum, and its smooth rhythms are a tried and true balm for the self-inflicted wounds of the drinker – a remedy we’ve prescribed to anyone who’ll listen for two decades. This band is not shambolic, you see. Rather, they were and are ingeniously tight and comfortable together, honed over many years before their breakthrough; as well as their outside projects, their real lives and their individual survival. Back in 1990, their musical looseness, captured rather perfectly on their records along with Ryder’s off-the-cuff ramblings, gave us all something that sounds ridiculously fresh and spontaneous. And free. And offers a different kind of happiness: the darker, weird and authentic kind that we know is all. And Shaun Ryder’s singing is still one of the most original, fearless and cool in all of music history. His rhymes and left turns contain multitudes that hold up ridiculously well alongside the greats of the English canon:
“We all learned to box at the Midget Club
Where we punched with love and did someone good
It’s good to see ya, to see you nice
If you do me once, well, we’ll do it twice
We’re twice as likely we’re twice as right
You say it’s wrong but we know it’s right
Ride on, right on”
Northern Soul is alive and well and will be celebrated in fine form down south at the seaside for one big weekend beginning one month from today. It might be time to pack up the skin tights and put on the Loose Fits again (Hallelujah!). The original and definitive Happy Mondays line up, with, of course, the inimitable and essential Queen Rowetta, will headline. And will always shiiine on.
All lyrics c. The Happy Mondays (Ryder, Paul Anthony/ Whelan, Gary Kenneth/Day, Mark Phillip/Davis, Paul Richard/Ryder, Shaun William) Warner/Chappell Music Inc., Universial Music Publishing Group.
By Jacqueline Howell