Excess All AreasAugust 19, 2012
Fritter about on the margins of success. Get signed. Release a hit single. Release a hit album. Tour bigger venues. Release a small run of future classic singles with killer b-sides. Release further singles and albums with ever-decreasing returns. Implode around 5th/6th LP when key member leaves or dies. A year or so down the line, entice same member back (unless dead) for one last hurrah and pay-day, but by then the magic is gone. All this is of course played out to a backdrop of drink and drugs and guns and girls and boys and Bentleys and bad and/or bent management. The trick for all bands is to make the upward trajectory as quick as possible, plateau for as long as everyone can stand you then make the downward trajectory as smooth and pain-free (and lucrative) as you can. (cf. most of your favourite bands, even that Stone Roses lot, – they all fit the model to some degree or other, but you knew that already).
Happy Mondays were well into the downward trajectory of their life when they decamped, in part to escape the Manchester drug scene, to Barbados to record …Yes Please!, the album that proved to be their last. Unable to secure the services of Paul Oakenfold, the uber producer who’d sprinkled their previous work with hit-making fairy dust, the band instead chose to work with Talking Heads’ rhythm section, Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth. On paper this sounds great – a decade earlier, Weymouth’s Tom Tom Club had taken the Talking Heads scratchy funk/punk blueprint and created proper full-on dance records, of their time, yet simultaneously ahead of the game, and Happy Mondays, via Oakenfold’s magic touch, had taken their clattering industrial funk and propelled it into the charts, the mainstream and the collective minds of most of the under 25s in the UK. In practice, however, things were not so great. Never has an album been more aptly named. Paul Ryder and his brother Shaun (suffering heroin withdrawal when he left Manchester), a pair of walking, talking Scarface caricatures who at the best of times could make any substance shoved under their noses disappear in Dyson-quick doubletime, arrived in a Barbados that was buckling under the weight of a crack epidemic. Want some? Yes, please. The cost of funding this adventure eventually broke Factory Records and Shaun spent so much time building crack dens out of sun loungers beside the studio pool, that he forgot to write a single lyric for the album, a fact only discovered back in the UK when Tony Wilson was forced to pay £50 ransom to Ryder for the return of the studio mastertapes.
When it eventually materialised, …Yes Please! took a bit of a kicking. Melody Maker posted a lazy, half-arsed review that simply said, “No thanks.” Nirvana and their ilk were in full flow and for the first time ever, Happy Mondays seemed antiquated and irrelevant. It’s right there on the shelf behind me, but I can’t even remember buying it. Like many bands once they reach a certain point in their life, I bought it out of blind loyalty rather than musical merit. However….
…listening to it again recently had me doing some sort of mini re-appraisal. First single Stinkin ‘Thinkin’, with its ringing guitars and stoned, whispered vocal still stands up to repeated listens. The very antithesis of twistin melons, callin’ the cops and all that jazz, it’s downbeat, reflective and unlike anything Happy Mondays had done before or since. Drug confessional Angel is another that still cuts the mustard. “When did the Simpsons begin?” slurs Shaun, eyelids heavy with the fug of the night before. Although spoiled somewhat by foghorn-voiced Rowetta, the big haired, big mouthed wannabe rock chick the ill-advised Mondays brought into the fold for their later stuff, it‘s still a cracker. Currently appearing in pantomime at a medium-sized arena somewhere near you, Happy Mondays seem certain to eke out a living, Drifters style, from now on in. Stinkin’, yes. But not really thinkin’. Stop! Now!
Anyway, whether he’d ever acknowledge it or not, those two Happy Mondays tracks above were a definite influence on Damon Albarn when he wrote the tracks for Blur‘s final LP, Think Tank. I’ve been playing Think Tank a lot lately, what with the Blur reunion (of sorts) and the excellent No Distance Left To Run documentary on the TV the other night. The dark horse in the Blur catalogue, Think Tank is famous for being an almost Coxon-free zone, the guitarist contributing to the woozy, wobbly Battery In Your Leg before having left after being increasingly frustrated at the (sigh) direction the band’s music was going in. Recorded in Morocco, there’s a noticeable space between the grooves that allows the album to pop open the top button of its trousers and, like, breathe. (Sadly) it’s not tied up in any of those jerky, spasticated 2 minute shouty freakouts that Coxon does so well. (Thankfully) there’s none of those terrible bleep/bang/bleep/scree tune-free bits or free-form atonal rackets best saved for b-sides or solo LPs. Think Tank as a whole is dubby, spacey and tinged with African bangs ‘n beats. Now that I think about it, it’s basically a precursor to Gorillaz, without the big-name special guests. Best track by a country mile is Brothers And Sisters, a track so clearly in debt to those two Happy Mondays tracks that Shaun Ryder would indeed call the cops if he was ever sober enough to listen to it properly. Built on a bed of elastic band bass, Albarn’s loose, stoned, vocals practically stage whisper, “Tonight Matthew, I’m going to be Shaun Ryder!” Caffeine. Codeine. Cocaine. White doves. He reels off a tick-list Paul and Shaun would’ve had no bother putting away before breakfast.
Think Tank is also notable for featuring Me, White Noise, a hidden track you can find by rewinding from the start of the first track. With a backing track sounding like a fly trapped in a bass bin, Phil Daniels mutters and mumbles and shouts and swears his way through almost 7 minutes of thrilling stuff. “Fack orff!” he snarls. “I’ve got a gun, y’know…and I’d use it!” Thanks to this and Brothers And Sisters fore-mentioned prescription list, Think Tank got one of those stupid Parental Advisory stickers.
My parental advice? Split up when you’re at your peak. Leave them wanting more. Don’t reform. Ever. You’ll come back looking like this:
You might even become a respectable, bespectacled married member of society…
Although a Coxon-free zone by the end of the LP, Blur as a 4-piece recorded tracks during the Think Tank sessions that were never quite finished due to the guitarist walking out. Here’s a couple of Coxon-enhanced crackers that turned up on future b-sides.
This half-considered Damon nicking off the Happy Mondays theory of mine may have legs. On the b-side of Happy Monday’s 24 Hour Party People single, you’ll find a track called Wah-Wah (Think Tank) Call The Cops!
Why could he not have walked out instead?