Happy Mondays‘ Bummed was something of a slow burner. Released in November ’88, it was arguably a full 12 months before its clattering industrial funk had travelled its own lolloping path from the margins to the mainstream. I picked up on it in the great summer of 1989, my pal and I each buying it from the old Fopp at the top of Renfield Street. Keen to have a proper look at our new records on the train on the way home, we opened up our respective bags, slid the inner sleeve from the pink-faced portrait of Shaun Ryder and very, very quickly returned the pouting, pube-free porno nude back inside again. Who expected that?!? It made for a ton of pink-faced nervous laughing and some strange stares that didn’t stop until long after after Paisley. Even still, by Christmas ’89, with Manchester in the area and an epoch-defining Top of the Pops episode featuring both Stone Roses and Happy Mondays in the bag, it was the follow-up – The Madchester EP, with lead track Hallelujah – that finally elevated the Mondays from cult act to the band that your mum knew. Loads of folk worked backwards from there, Bummed was that Christmas’s most asked-for LP and suddenly, Happy Mondays were everywhere.
Slower coaches who were still to get in on the act did so a few months later when Step On was released, its rinky-dink Italo house intro a call to arms for the loose of limb and slack of jaw in every provincial indie disco in the land. An almost thrown-away track – it was originally recorded as part of a tribute album for Elektra, the band’s American label, and their version of an old, forgotten John Kongos’ track came to define everything about the Happy Mondays of the era. Suddenly, they were no longer the preserve of Factory Records disciples and switched-on fans of left of centre non-chart music. You were as likely to hear your postman whistling Step On‘s intro as you were to see your local fruit ‘n veg assistant hold up a honeydew or a galia and gurn the words that will surely one day appear on Shaun Ryder’s tombstone.
By this point, the band was already well into the recording of their next LP. With a third new producer in as many albums, Pills, Thrills & Bellyaches eschewed the shouty funk of John Cale and the dark embryonic haze of Martin Hannett and, using Step On‘s success as a jumping off point, was buffed to a glossy sheen by dance producers Steve Osborne and Paul Oakenfold. A true marker of where the band now was success-wise, the album was written and recorded at Capitol Studios in L.A. The daily mayhem and freakscene that followed and surrounded the band fed into the music and the lyrics; a lack of E meant the band switched their allegiances to opium; half a dozen or more dealers would be at the studio every day; the lead singer got so into it and so out of it that he took to wearing a ski mask – “it’s the only thing keeping my head together,”- his fried eyes and half-masked hooked nose freaking out the locals in the sizzling Californian heat.
To paraphrase a line in an interview Ryder gave in his Black Grape days, Happy Mondays didn’t get into the music business and discover drugs, they discovered drugs and got into the music business. Being big business in L.A. meant access to better pharmaceuticals and freakier people. The Mondays soaked it all up and spat it back out on a record where influences and subject matter as disparate as Donovan, Bruce Forsyth and intrusive airport searches co-existed within the grooves.
‘I’m here to harass you, I want your pills and your grass you,
You don’t look first class you
Let me look up your ass you
I smell dope, I smell dope, I smell dope, I’m smelling dope.’
(Happy Mondays Holiday)
Despite the distractions, Ryder remained totally focussed during the sessions. The band had rented an apartment in one of L.A.’s more notorious neighbourhoods, sharing ammenities with petty criminals, porn stars and, bizarrely, Mick Hucknall. Mondays’ drummer Gaz Whelan played tennis with his fellow corkscrew-haired Mancunian everyday while the others sat around the pool eyeing up their neighbours and feeding the experience back into song. Ryder kept a notebook close by, scribbling lyrics whenever they came to him, writing and re-writing with an unchracteristic determination and drive. He’d take rough cuts home from the studio and work the lyrics into finished songs while the others partied.
The end result was an album that, from the sleeve on in was day-glo and bright, a beacon of off-it’s-head light in a landscape of floppy fringes, Fenders and fuzzboxes. Scratch a little below the surface though and you’ll soon dig up the dark matter. It’s maybe not my favourite Happy Mondays record, but it’s one of the most interesting.
All compass points lead to the big tracks – Step On, the asthmatic wheeze of God’s Cop, Kinky Afro‘s Labelle-lifting confessional, but let’s shine a light on Loose Fit.
Happy Mondays – Loose Fit
The runt of the litter, Loose Fit was the final single from the album, limping its way to number 17 almost a year after the album was released. By this point in time, Happy Mondays’ stock had fallen to an all-time low. They’d been quoted as saying some unforgiveable homophobic rubbish in the NME, they were happy to pose in a jacuzzi with Penthouse girls for The Sun and were in the middle of unleashing unhappy hell on an unsuspecting Jamaican island where they’d decamped to record what would be their final album. To all intents and purposes, their horse (and Ryder) had bolted.
Out of time and context though, Loose Fit has proven itself to be the ace up Shaun Ryder’s Gio-Goi sleeve. Wafting in on a riff that’s as airy and wide as the 25″ flares it celebrates, its mid-paced groove still delivers. Don’t need no skintights in my wardrobe today, fold them all up and put them all away. As far as songs about fashion go, only ‘she wears denim wherever she goes, says she’s gonna get some records by the Status Quo‘ is better. You knew that already though.
Notice that slow exhale of breathe at the beginning as Ryder wakes up from his opiate slumber and stretches himself yawning into the verse; voice whispered, eyes hooded, goofy stoned immaculate. Backed by the ever-present Rowetta, they make for an unlikely double act, yet it works.
Happy Mondays – Loose Fix
It turns out that exhale of breathe was something else entirely. The less than subtly-titled Loose Fix version tells you all you need to know. Light up, lean in, far out. There’s a guitar line that predates Flowered Up’s Weekender by a good year, some processed beats that Gillespie and co would cop for their own experiment in dance a few months later and a production that keeps the whole thing riding the zeitgeist of turn-of-the-decade indie dance.
Sounds good to me, as someone once sang.