Revisiting the classic days of Madchester with the band who crashed genres and helped define an era.
There are in any music lover’s life a handful of moments where hearing something for the first time acts as a kind of epiphany; when a piece of music grabs you, shakes you, shocks you even and nothing in your world of music is ever quite the same again. I can clearly remember the moment when, as a 17 year old working in a shop, the opening chords of a particular song caused me to almost involuntarily stop what I was doing, walk over to the radio and turn it up by which time the opening line “son I’m 30, I only went with your mother ‘cos she’s dirty” was pouring out of the radio and in to my startled ears. I stood utterly still with my head over the radio for the next 3-or-so minutes not knowing who or what this was but sure that I’d never heard anything like it before. The name of the song was ‘Kinky Afro’, the band Happy Mondays and apparently they had a new album out. I needed that album in my life.
And in to my life it came, where it stayed through 1990 and beyond, my cassette copy wearing thin after being played at every opportunity everywhere I went. At the time I had a large group of friends with varied musical tastes. Some were betting in to much of the great house music and other electronic stuff that was happening at the time, including the burgeoning hip-hop scene; some were more in to guitars – indie, rock music, metal even, not to mention bits of reggae, and random stuff from the 60’s and 70’s. In amongst all of that Pills, Thrills & Bellyaches was an album that got a nod of the head from everyone, regardless. At a time when musical boundaries, especially those between rock and dance music were starting to blur a little this was a record that crashed them completely.
Happy Mondays were formed in Manchester sometime in the early 1980’s, signing to Tony Wilson’s (in)famous Factory Records label in 1985. Their first album, 1987’s John Cale-produced Squirrel and G-Man Twenty Four Hour Party People Plastic Face Carnt Smile (White Out) was followed by 1989’s Bummed with both records exhibiting a murky, Mancunian indie-funk sound, with Shaun Ryder’s blunt, working class poetry and delivery front and center and Mark Day’s wonderfully inventive guitar-chops underpinning them. There was undoubtedly a dance element to their music already but on their 3rd lp it would spill into the foreground.
Indeed, by 1990 Britain was in the grip of some kind of dance craze. The Acid House scene had blossomed in to what was now being termed Rave culture, with free ecstacy-fuelled parties in remote fields and abandoned warehouses popping up everywhere, as well as clubs like Manchester’s Hacienda (owned by Wilson) and others where a new generation of DJ’s and producers were coming through. The Happy Mondays threw themselves in to it all, gaining a well-earned reputation for hard partying amd mammoth drug consumption, as well as increasingly bringing elements of the music they were hearing in to their own.
This first manifested itself on the Rave On EP, which featured remixes from DJ Paul Oakenfold and producer Steve Osborne, as well as DJ’s Andrew Weatherall and Terry Farley was a clear indicator of the direction they were heading in. Sufficiently impressed by Oakenfold and Osborne they invited them to produce their new album.
The collaboration would add a much brighter, sunnier element to their music. Oakenfold was by thus time already a veteran of the Ibiza scene whose so-called balaeric beats had wafted towards Britain that summer. Whereas on their previous records the funk of the Mondays rhythm section of Paul Ryder and Gaz James had sounded slightly uptight, rained-on even, here the grooves spread out a bit, relax, and smile a broad sunny smile. On the single ‘Step On’ and tracks like ‘Loose Fit’ and ‘Bob’s Yer Uncle’ this is particularly evident, with the band peddling a louche, low-slung groove. Elsewhere, ‘God’s Cop’ combines Day’s coruscating slide guitar with a skin-tight off beat and Ryder’s memorable couplet “me and the chieves got soul to soul, oh me and the chieves got slowly stoned”; Dennis & Lois glistens and soars, it’s faux-Philly soul edge and ‘ride on, ride on’ chorus like a big E’d up smile at the start of side 2; and the final pairing of ‘Holiday’ and ‘Harmony’ feel like the musical equivalent of watching the sunrise/sunset, young, loved-up and stoned.
As the 80’s tuned in to the 90’s Manchester was the hottest musical city in the UK, and whilst many crowned the Stone Roses kings of the hill, it could be argued that not only were the Mondays their only serious rivals but were in many way more emblematic of the scene dubbed Madchester and also of a time when dance, rock, indie, hip-hop, and countless other elements were fusing and showing us all the way forward. In that context Pills, Thrills & Bellyaches is a pivotal record, one which helped usher in a new era of musical eclecticism and experimentation. Within a few years guitar bands everywhere would be employing dance producers to the dance element that had “always been part of our sound” but rarely would the sound as joyously convincing as this.