IIf you were asked, back in 1986 which of the year’s indie bands would become huge mainstream stars – and in the process would have such a dramatic and lasting impact that they would fill arena-sized venues 35 years later – you would have gotten a very good chance of it being Happy Mondays.
If the group was considered by the music press, it was as another example of Factory Records’ bizarre attitude towards A&R; their willingness to spend the money earned by New Order on peculiarly named Manchester bands that were clearly not going to replicate their success: Red Turns To…, Biting Tongues, Stockholm Monsters.
Happy Mondays didn’t look like what an indie band was supposed to look like in 1986, a time when a charity shop took over the mid-60s and sartorially dominated British alternative rock. Their London press officer was so taken aback by their appearance as they arrived in the capital – a riot of shaved heads, flared jeans and utilitarian anoraks – that he insisted on a photo of them even before they got out of their public transport van.
And their debut album, Squirrel and G Man Twenty Four Hour Party People Plastic Face Carnt Smile (White Out), didn’t sound like an indie band was supposed to sound in 1986 either. illustrated by the Housemartins. , or low-rent recreations of the Byrds or Buzzcocks. Frontman Shaun Ryder memorably described their sound as “giant sandwich eaten funkadelic…northern soul…punk rock…Hendrix…damn Captain Beefheart, and a load of drugs to boot” . You could reasonably have added the krautrock of experimental rock band Can to this list of influences. To top it off, Ryder bellowed speechless lyrics that, on the rare occasions when you could figure out what they meant, seemed to be about a life on the fringes of society, filled with drugs and petty crime: “Everything the world in this stagecoach likes to steal and denigrate… Smoking miles and miles of hash is nice,” the song says Olive Oil.
That Happy Mondays were oddly funky at a time when most UK indie bands drew their influences from white rock was largely down to the bass playing of Ryder’s brother Paul, a fan of Bootsy Collins and the legendary Motown bassist. , James Jamerson. It was Paul who named the band Happy Mondays – apparently after the day their unemployment benefit checks came in, “the day you got rid of your face” as he put it – and the bass of Paul who kept the Happy Mondays sound together.
As resolutely hedonistic as his everyday bandmates, yet there was something solid about his playing. In an outfit whose musicality was sometimes questioned – Shaun claimed former Smiths bassist Andy Rourke tried to form a band with Mondays keyboardist Paul Davis, giving up when he realized “that boy can’t play a note” – Paul’s bass provided an anchor, something the listener could hold on to amid the confusion.
On their second and best album, the sound of Bummed, 1988’s Happy Mondays was transformed into an extraordinary, murky, resonant whirlwind by producer Martin Hannett. It seems to replicate the nasty feeling of having overdone everything to the point where you are seeing double and minutes from passing out. It’s often hard to tell what’s going on between the thunderous din of Gary Wheelan’s drums and Shaun Ryder’s vocals – everything sounds indistinct, Hannett’s guitars, keyboards and studio gimmicks blending together – but the bass of Paul is still there. Listen to the breathy, octave-hopping pattern he plays on Moving In With, or his descending notes on Brain Dead. Hallelujah, produced by Paul Oakenfold and subsequently Andrew Weatherall – the lead track from the Madchester Rave On EP – cleared away at least some of the sonic haze, fully revealing just how Ryder’s bass drove the Happy Mondays.
At the time Madchester Rave On was released, Happy Mondays were, incredibly, stars. As brilliant and original as Bummed was, it didn’t quite seem like a recipe for commercial success. But in this case, it corresponded to the moments that the extracurricular activities of Happy Mondays helped to create. Supplementing their meager income from music by dealing drugs, Shaun Ryder and the band’s on-stage dancer Bez had played a significant role in bringing ecstasy to Manchester, helping to fuel the rise of the acid house. Happy Mondays certainly didn’t do house music, but they got it. In a move not unlike the reggae-obsessed Clash who tapped Lee “Scratch” Perry to contribute to punk single Complete Control, Mondays were smart enough to work with key producers and DJs associated with acid house. Paul Oakenfold and Steve Osbourne honed their sound on 1990s Pills ‘n’ Thrills and Bellyaches. It went platinum in the UK, its success capping a period in which Happy Mondays had effectively spawned their own subgenre musical, baggy, which was full of bands trying to emulate their sound or that of the more musically traditional, but still acid house. -adjacent, Stone Roses.
One story has Paul Ryder so nonchalant in his approach during the album’s sessions that he let Osbourne play bass for him, but his fingerprints were all over the album’s best-known tracks. Kinky Afro’s saga of family dysfunction was inspired by his love of Hot Chocolate’s 1974 single Brother Louie, and Loose Fit was born out of a jam between Ryder and Oakenfold.
It was their commercial zenith. Their unrepentant hedonism had helped propel Happy Mondays to fame, but it was also to be their undoing. Paul Ryder was among the band members who succumbed to heroin addiction, while sessions for the 1992 album Yes Please! were marred by his brother’s increasing crack addiction. The album was a commercial and artistic disappointment, and the band broke up soon after.
A much better epitaph for their career is the Bee Gees’ incredible cover of Stayin’ Alive which they recorded for Malcolm McLaren’s TV special The Ghosts of Oxford Street, which delved into the often overlooked sadness of the song – ‘I’ve been kicked since I was born’ – and which they performed in the show dressed as 17th century criminals en route to the gallows at Tyburn.
Beginning in 1999, various line-ups toured and recorded intermittently as reformed Happy Mondays. A nostalgia-hungry audience didn’t seem bothered by who was in the group as long as Shaun Ryder and Bez were visible on the front of the stage. But the reality was less simple. If you want the clearest evidence of Paul Ryder’s contribution, you’d be advised to play Unkle Dysfunctional, the coldly received album they made without him and guitarist Mark Day in 2007. It’s not a terrible record, but it doesn’t sound like Happy. Mondays.