Happy Mondays - Biography
Heathens, thugs, hooligans and ruffians; these are just some of the words that have been used to describe Happy Mondays. With their pastiche of funk, northern soul, house, hip hop and psychedelia they singlehandedly defined the baggy genre. As part of the larger, ecstasy-fuelled Madchester scene, they and other baggies (e.g. Inspiral Carpets, The Charlatans) hip hoppers (e.g. Ruthless Rap Assassins, MC Tunes) and house acts (e.g. 808 State, A Guy Called Gerald) re-cast grim, industrial Manchester in DayGlo colors and fractals. No one epitomized the genre-bending hedonistic spirit of the times more than the Mondays’ leader, Shaun Ryder, whose harsh yet strangely poignant lyrics detailed a nihilistic, drug-loving lifestyle that raised eyebrows. While making album number four, the Mondays requested so much extra time and cash from Factory that they've been widely credited with driving that label to its bankruptcy. The tepid response to ...Yes Please! reflected both the rapid decline of the band as well as the larger Madchester scene they’d helped create.
Happy Mondays began in Salford in 1984, when postmen/brothers Shaun and Paul Ryder formed a six-piece with stolen musical equipment and named themselves Happy Mondays. Their original lineup consisted of Shaun Ryder on vocals, Paul Ryder on bass, Mark “Cow” Day on guitar, Gary Whelan on drums and Paul Davis on keyboards. Unlike your typical aspiring musicians, the Mondays weren’t lovelorn students but rather petty criminals who nonetheless held the unlikely desire to be Salford’s answer to Sly & the Family Stone. To those that knew them, their formation of a band must’ve seemed like the latest in a long line of poor decisions, following selling drugs, stealing and supporting Man United. The incredibly popular Haçienda nightclub, a Factory Records-owned establishment that practically birthed the Madchester craze, played host to a series of Hometown Gigs featuring local bands. After their performance, the club’s DJ/host Mike Pickering took a shine to them and they were signed to Factory in May. Six months later, the Mondays played their first big gig, supporting Factory’s New Order at the Macclesfield Leisure Centre.
There first release, the Forty Five EP (1985 Factory) was originally to have been produced by Durutti Column’s Vini Reilly. However, after two hours with the band he gave up in frustration and Pickering took over. A short time later, Shaun’s drug dealer, Mark “Bez” Berry climbed on stage to dance with them in during a performance. They ended up adding him as a maraca player and mascot. The Bernard Sumner produced “Freaky Dancin’,” the band’s first single, paid tribute to his drugged-out, simian dance style that became emblematic of baggy culture and was widely imitated. Several critics at this point compared the Mondays to a more shambolic brand of post-punk disco to A Certain Ratio. The single did little but the always prescient John Peel invited them to do a session, which they did the following year.
The band were produced by the Velvet Underground bassist and solo artist John Cale on their debut, Squirrel and G-Man Twenty Four Hour Party People Plastic Face Carn’t Smile (White Out) (1987 Factory). Little initially stands out about the band here other than the presence of Ryder. He is certainly a presence, bringing a uniquely gruff and almost sinister attitude to the loosely performed disco-funk, sounding like Fred Schneider's evil, drug-addled twin. But for all his menace, he's just trying to get a party started, or perhaps a riot. After a few hundred pressings, Jacko’s people served the Mondays with a writ and forced them to remove the track “Desmond,” which filched the melody of “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da.” Five months later the album was re-released with the song “24 Hour Party People” (which inspired the Michael Winterbottom 2002 film of the same name) in its place.
It wasn’t until their second album, Bummed (1988 Factory) that the band truly found their own voice. Martin Hannett was an enigmatic and complicated producer who'd become a legend in Manchester thanks to his work with Joy Division and his perplexing lifestyle. He’d also supposedly been the subject of The Mondays’ second single, “Tart Tart.” He was brought in to helm the new Mondays' record, his first partnership with Factory Records since he'd sued the label six years prior. The partnership worked beautifully; that is, it produced an album horrific and ugly in its themes, moods and concepts, but an artistic masterpiece nonetheless. Ryder was coming into his own as a lyricist, giving these often fun, rhythmic tracks a dark side that was haunting, surreal and disturbing that perfectly complimented the musical bricolage. It was difficult to discern whether or not Ryder was being ironic in his glorification of all these seedy aspects of life but between Ryder's barked street poetry and Hannett's suffocating production, this album rose above its ‘60s influences to become something unique and memorable. If acid rock had sought to evoke the experience of an LSD trip, the band and Hannett attempted with Bummed to evoke the effects of Ecstasy with their rolling, buzzing, cavernous dance sound. In fact, “Do it Better” was originally called “E,” because the band claimed it was “in the key of E.”
Their next single, “Lazyitis” was the band’s first to chart. Inspired by acid house raves, it was followed by a version of “Wrote for Luck” called “WFL (Wrote for Luck)” that was remixed by Paul Oakenfold. The Madchester, Rave On EP (1989) came out at the end of the year and gave a name to the growing northern scene. Their first release to make the top 40, songs like the opener “Hallelujah” firmly cemented their ties to the burgeoning rave scene. Soon Ryder deleted it and instead released a three track EP of remixes. The subsequent DJ mixes the band issued only further strengthened their ties to the dance scene.
Happy Mondays were now rock stars and drugs became more and more prominent in the lives of Ryder and his bandmates. Such a lifestyle had the power to give the band a severe case of “lazyitis” (if not kill them) and delay their third album for years. Given that fact, it’s impressive that it only took them a year and a half to release a new album, let alone one that was another masterpiece. Pills 'n' Thrills and Bellyaches (Elektra) was released in April, 1990. The newly crisp sound was largely courtesy of producers Paul Oakenfold and Steve Osbourne who added a commercial sheen that had previously been absent. They also had a new member, Rowetta Satchell, who increased their soulful edge with her prominent vocal contributions. Widely seen as the band's masterwork and a defining moment in Madchester, the album's ten songs take the listener on a journey through the recesses of Ryder's warped conscious. With Ryder's heroin abuse now public knowledge, many listeners believed that he was simply being himself, rather than creating characters in his songs. Musically, the album combines dance, funk, psychedelia, hip-hop and classic pop to make something that is occasionally bewildering but an amazing portrait of the era with songs like “Loose Fit” and “Kinky Afro” explicitly celebrating baggy culture. Those songs and “Step On” were massive hits and “Step On” even cracked the US top 100 (the album peaked at number 89).
Next came the inevitable live album. It’s only natural to approach the idea of a Happy Mondays live album with caution. Already famously chaotic, it was anyone’s guess what they’d sound like on stage. The results, Live (1991 Elektra), were taken from a performance at the Elland Road Football Stadium in Leeds the previous summer are actually pretty good. Sure, Shaun Ryder sounds like Grandpa Simpson on E but the band ably perform a collection of both hits and more obscure songs that restored some of the band’s looseness obscured by the polished Pills 'n' Thrills and Bellyaches. The band next undertook a second US tour during which Shaun and Bez found the time to appear in the pages of Penthouse.
Drugs became even more abundant as the band were now at the height of their popularity. Everything unraveled very quickly. Tony Wilson, the head of Factory Records, wanted the Mondays to record album number four in a heroin-free environment, hoping that Ryder would get clean. He sent them to the Caribbean where they worked in a studio owned by Eddy Grant. Overseen by producers/babysitters Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz (once the rhythm section of both the Talking Heads and the Tom Tom Club), Happy Mondays spent too much time and too much of the label’s money. The stories reaching Factory’s ears weren’t good. The band had discovered a new drug, crack, and had stripped the studio and their clothes to sell hoping to obtain more. Not that it would likely affect the music, but a cracked out Bez had also crashed a jeep and broken his arm. On returning to England, Ryder even shot a gun in the Factory-owned Dry Bar in order to scare Wilson into giving him more drug money in exchange for the masters. When Wilson agreed, the resulting album he was presented with, ...Yes Please! (1992 Elektra), proved to be a colossal critical and commercial disappointment. Its high cost and lack of success led Factory to declare bankruptcy. A couple of songs - album opener “Stinkin Thinkin” and the highly rhythmic “Sunshine and Love” - bore the mark of Happy Mondays' former creativity, but mostly this album was lackluster, occasionally sounding like it was made by crack heads but more often suggesting some dated, faceless codswallop-Caribbean synthpop crafted by the producers while the band were out getting geeked. Melody Maker summed up most people’s thoughts with their two word review, “No thanks.”
It didn't help that the record-buying public had completely lost interest in the Madchester scene overnight. By 1992, Madchester had imploded in drugs and ensuing gang violence. The glam revival, shoegazer and grunge were all competing for the attention of the music fan. Happy Mondays didn't break up as much as they dissolved over the next few months. EMI entered into talks with Factory and the band in November of ‘92 but Ryder famously walked out of the proceedings to “get some KFC,” which turned out to mean, “go shoot some dope and disappear.” In the spring of 1993, the Mondays went their separate ways.
Ryder reappeared in the mid-‘90s with the band Black Grape, which featured his faithful sidekick Bez, rapper Kermit and drummer Ged Lynch (both ex-Ruthless Rap Assassins) as well as Paul “Wags” Wagstaff of underrated baggy also-rans, Paris Angels. This time around, Ryder claimed to be off hard drugs and sticking to weed and Guiness — he certainly looked it. A critically acclaimed debut, It's Great When You're Straight...Yeah was issued in 1995. In 1996, Bez surprised some by leaving over “artistic differences.” That same year, Ryder contributed to The Heads’ No Talking, Just Head. Joined by another rapper, Psycho, Black Grape’s follow-up, Stupid, Stupid, Stupid came out in 1997 and was less successful and the band broke up in 1998, the same year Ryder made his acting debut as a gangster named Donovan in the best forgotten film, The Avengers.
Shortly after claiming he’d never reform the Mondays, an offer from a promoter, a divorce settlement with Donovan’s daughter and high taxes led him to change his mind. In 1999, Happy Mondays reformed without Day or Davis plus Wags and Ken Leach, another baggy veteran, keyboardist and programmer from The Farm. A wretched cover of “The Boys Are Back in Town” performed poorly on the charts and the band broke-up again in 2000 following a tour supporting Oasis which reintroduced the band to excesses. As a result, Paul Ryder swore he’d never play with his brother again. In August, Rowetta left after an argument with Shaun Ryder and they broke-up again. That same year, Ryder was awarded a Godlike Genius award.
In 2003, Shaun Ryder recorded a solo record, Amateur Night in the Big Top. The following year, he reformed the Mondays for a third time. By now it’s increasingly apparent that Happy Mondays are Shaun and supporting musicians. Version 3.0 included Ryder, Whelan and Bez joined by the band Sonic Audio in live settings. The same year, Ryder was also the subject of a documentary Shaun Ryder: the Ecstasy and the Agony and acted in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. In 2005, he provided vocals to Gorillaz’s “DARE.” The Mondays released their second live record, Step on - Live in Barcelona (2005 Snapper Music). The following year, the band provided “Playground Superstar” for the Goal! Soundtrack. Bez, meanwhile, starred in and won Celebrity Big Brother and had his car “pimped” on Pimp My Ride. After many years, the latest version of Happy Mondays finally followed up …Yes Please! with Uncle Dysfunktional (2007 Sequel), produced by Sunny Levine and Howie B. Ryder has promised it won’t be the last.