“You know you talk so hip man! You’re twistin’ my melon man!”
Although, of course, they are still well-loved and known as one of the two defining bands (along with The Stone Roses) of the so-called “Madchester” rave era in the UK, for the majority of American rock fans, Happy Mondays are seen more as early 90s British one-hit-wonders for “Step On” and just that. For a brief spell they looked set to breakthrough here, too, with their incredible third album, Pills ‘n’ Thrills and Bellyaches, but that never happened. Today, in the US, Happy Mondays are no better recalled than, say, the Soup Dragons or Jesus Jones, something you might see flipping past Vh1 Classics.
I had the good fortune to see Happy Mondays do one of the greatest live sets, like, fucking ever, at the Sound Factory in New York in 1990. The Sound Factory was a legendary dance club catering mostly to black and Latino gay men. Hallowed House music DJs like Frankie Knuckles and Junior Vasquez spun there and the place was known the world over for having one of the most insanely powerful, bass-heavy sound systems that you could ever possibly experience at top volume while tripping your face off on Ecstasy. It was the sort of place where the bar sold mostly bottled water and the crowd spilled out into the streets as the sun was coming up. Although not generally thought of as a live music venue, the Sound Factory seemed to be THE place where all of the British “Acid House” and rave-related groups wanted to play when they came to New York in the late 1980s/early 1990s.
Dee-lite were the (perfect) opening act and they killed it, as they always did (I saw them dozens of times during that era), leaving the E’d up crowd good and energized for the headliner’s set. The Mondays came out and absolutely blew the roof off the place. From the minute they walked onstage, hundreds of joints were lit up and with that crazy Sound Factory BASS moving the crowd as one, it was a high-energy, you had to be there to believe it experience. It was you might say, a memorable evening of music being made for people on drugs by people who were on drugs themselves. A crazy good time was had by all and this was on a week night!
As far as rock shows go, their druggy, trippy, shamanistic set was a triumph by any standard and the Happy Mondays must’ve felt like they were the kings of New York that night. They were! From low-level Manchester hoodlums and drug dealers to the top of the pops at home and being welcomed as heroes in New York City? What an experience that must have been for them.
But it didn’t last long. Singer/lyricist/ringleader Shaun Ryder—whose surreal wordplay Factory Records boss Tony Wilson compared to W.B. Yeats—was deep into a heroin habit that turned into crack addiction in Barbados as the band recorded Yes, Please! the follow-up to Pills ‘n’ Thrills and Bellyaches with Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth of Talking Heads. The idea was to get Ryder to a place where drugs would be difficult for him to find… like Barbados?
Chris and Tina usually get the blame for Yes, Please! but believe me when I tell you that when I saw Happy Mondays around the time of that album’s release—I think it was at the Manhattan Center that time—they were but a hollowed-out shell of the scrappy, confident to the point of being arrogant group from just a few months prior. In contrast to the Sound Factory gig, this time The Mondays performed what could barely be called a perfunctory set, standing under a large neon sign that said “DRUGS” in chunky letters. To say that they seemed “tired” or “uninspired” would be too kind, they were like burnt-out ghouls. They were fucking horrible! The best thing about the show was that neon sign.
Nevertheless, through tabloid drama, drink, drugs, reality TV, more drink, more drugs and a guest spot on the classic Gorillaz single, “Dare,” Shaun Ryder inexplicably lives on. A few weeks ago it was announced that the band’s original line-up would reform for some UK tour dates in 2012.
For those of you who might’ve missed out on their charms back in the day, here’s a sampling of classic Happy Mondays from, uh… when they were peaking…
The “Step On” promo video directed by Jean-Baptiste Mondino:
A live performance of “Kinky Afro” at the legendary Sound Factory shot around the same time I saw them there. (I don’t think this is the same gig I described above as I don’t recall there being any cameras around, but it might have been). This entire show is available on a DVD titled Happy Mondays: Call the Cops.
A 1989 TOTP performance of “Hallelujah!” with Kirsty MacColl:
A killer “W.F.L.” taped live at The Ritz nightclub in NYC, 1989