Happy Mondays, the Court Jesters of Madchester

by Iain Ellis

14 May 2010


Renaissance Artists of Time and Place

If Peter Saville can be accredited with branding post-punk through his designs, CSD’s art—as much as anyone’s—visualized the rave culture of the late-‘80s. Ecstatic art for the ecstasy generation, Dave Haslam highlights CSD’s “bold, head-warping colors” (177), while Matthew Robertson talks of how their “Day-glo palettes” colored the scene (14). The latter saw their work as a direct reaction to the Saville style that had so defined Factory to that point. He explains how CSD’s “loose, humorous, playful, layered, multi-colored constructs confounded those who recognized the label for its austere, minimal and at times self-referential output” (14). 

Not only were CSD incongruous to the established Factory style, either, for their work can also be seen as a rejection of myriad serious-minded designers who had followed Saville’s path during the post-punk era. Just as the ragged grooves of the Happy Mondays arrived as a sarcastic rebuke to the solemn and staid indie rock of the time, so CSD’s work suggested a cocky disdain for the prevailing conventions of art design, both within their own label and beyond.  Their contributions to the youthful irreverence of the next era led Tony Wilson to once proclaim that “the second half of the Factory story is best summed up by the painterly eccentricity of Central Station.”

For Central Station Design, as for the Happy Mondays, it appeared that the only remaining way forward was backwards.

As eccentric as CSD’s work would become by 1987, their early designs reveal little of the trippy whimsy that would be their characteristic patent. Still, the designs for Forty Five E.P. (1985) and Freaky Dancin’ (1986) were hardly conventional. Simple and minimalist in the Factory tradition, they introduced viewers to the “ecstatic” colors that would typify CSD’s work, though here they were presented in a block form that would soon be phased out. Capturing an idyllic nature scene of green hills, blue sky, and birds in flight, Forty Five E.P. established the care-free innocence and childlike escapism associated with the-then burgeoning neo-hippy scene in Manchester, while the writhing (dancing?) insect added to Freaky Dancin’ provided a more abstract note to the similar assault of colors.

The year 1987 saw CSD inch closer in vibe to the disheveled, shifting sounds of their musical cohorts. For the 12-inch cover of Tart Tart (1987) ribbon-like patterns of multiple colors dance, swirl, and marry like so many ravers on a dance-floor. Like the sleeve design for the band’s debut L.P., Squirrel and G-Man Twenty Four Hour Party People Plastic Face Carnt Smile (White Out) (1987)—released contemporaneously—the design team introduce a spot-effects technique into the background, both echoing the work of Ray Lichtenstein while also alluding “pointedly” to the blurred perceptions of the incipient drug culture. 

As the album title might suggest, the Happy Mondays by this point had derailed themselves from any reigns of rationality, venturing head-long into prolonged outbursts of nonsensical verbiage.  Ubiquitous companions, CSD continued to provide the visual accompaniments and equivalents to these drug-addled expressions.  Indeed, when Ned Raggett described the Happy Monday’s music of this period as “inspired nonsense,” “random incomprehensibility,” and a “cluttering mess,” he could just as well have been responding to the records’ art work.

By the “Summer of Love” both band and designers had carved out their own niche of incongruity humor, one subversive by virtue of undermining their respective form’s traditions, formalities, and expectations. Like Madchester as a whole, it appeared that these artists were withdrawing from the world of adult lucidity, setting themselves free to frolic in a parallel id-iot realm of childhood bliss, indulging in what humor scholar Andy Medhurst calls “the playground’s subversive delights” (Medhurst, Andy. A National Joke: Popular Comedy and English Cultural Identities. London: Routledge, 2007. p.17).

Such was Madchester in 1988, and such was the cover for the 12-inch of Wrote For Luck (1988). Flaunting their disregard for all formal graphics, here CSD grab their markers and head to the playground, bludgeoning viewers into submission by filling all 12 square inches with a hand-scrawl of the band’s name. This record was guaranteed, the designers suggested with mock glee, to be spotted by potential buyers from a good fifty yards away.

As if this shock to the senses was not enough, CSD sought to shock in other ways with the design for the band’s sophomore album, Bummed (1988).  A tale of two sleeves, the outer cover offered a zoomed-in and sickly-colored portrait of singer Shaun Ryder, his cropped face a disturbing caricature of drug-afflicted vacancy. A scratched-paint mess of movement in stasis, this shot has become an emblem of the times, the carnival decadence of an era encapsulated in pictorial form. 

The inner sleeve is even more jolting, its portrait of a naked middle-aged woman in repose strikingly inappropriate and beyond any possible expectation. Still regarded as one of the most controversial covers in British rock history, this inner sleeve has elicited all manner of responses. Stephen Thomas Erlewine sees “some kind of harlot put out to pasture”, while Matthew Robertson suggests it was “designed for humor’s sake rather than shock value” (145). 

Other critics have been less forgiving, charging the band with pandering to the prevailing “lad” sexism of the times, or worse, to misogyny. US distributors were clearly not amused, either, returning the 10,000 copies of the album that had been shipped to them.  Whatever one’s reaction, few would quibble with Tony Wilson’s assessment that Bummed boasts “one of the most profoundly disturbing inner sleeves in record history” (Qtd. in Robertson 145).

Subsequent Happy Mondays artwork would never reach the controversial peaks of Bummed’s provocations; nevertheless, CSD continued to develop their craft in tandem with the band’s rambling sonic adventures.  The Lazyitis (1989) 12-inch was as much a malapropism in typography as it was in title, while the casual hand-drawn writing of Wrote for Luck (1989) suggested self-parody, the pop art lettering degenerating into a drunken scrawl exaggerated by random splashes of color. 

Uncontained, undisciplined, and devoid of structure, these were perfect painterly descriptions of the Happy Mondays’ music, capturing their messy excesses and “slurred speech” (Robertson 155). The Madchester Rave On (1989) E.P., conversely, featured a return to a lucid logo, though childlike whimsy was still maintained via its graphic allusion to Batman-like super-hero animation.  A simple signifier of the rave revolution, this “Madchester” logo inferred through proclamation that the Happy Mondays were the heralded leaders of the new baggy crusaders.

Entering the ‘90s, CSD entered a new era of collage design, while maintaining their methods of mayhem and infantile play. After try-outs on the 12-inch releases, Step On (1990) and Kinky Afro (1990), this patchwork period reached its pinnacle with the ambitious cover for the Pills ‘N’ Thrills and Bellyaches (1990) L.P.  Like a Warhol for the drug generation, CSD here pilfer from the pop culture of the U.S. and U.K., mixing the products of candy stores into a mighty montage of sticky wrappers. 

For some, this ode to the munchies referred back to one of Shawn Ryder’s more infamous early interview/photo sessions, where he had posed for the camera holding KitKat wrappers in a thinly-veiled reference to their alternative use as drug paraphernalia.  With the Judge Fudge (1991) 12-inch, CSD again parodied their own ventures, here appropriating toys rather than confections, and creating a merge rather than a montage by melting the accumulated items into each other, creating a warped, drugged dissolution of letters and objects.  Again, cultural observers could be forgiven for interpreting such a design as an emblem of the E-inspired dance floors of then-raving Madchester.   

The Happy Monday’s final releases—in 1992—arrived as grunge was in the ascendancy and the band’s creativity was in decline. Melody Maker’s two word review of the group’s last album release Yes Please! stated a simple “No thanks!” and this sentiment was indicative of the ensuing critical backlash from which neither the boys nor Madchester would recover. CSD’s design work, likewise, though consistent with the wit and wackiness of their previous work, lacked the spark that might ignite a new chapter of graphic excitement. It is perhaps telling that their cover for the final Sunshine and Love (1992) 12-inch revealed a return to the waves of bright block colors that had distinguished their most early work with the band. For CSD, as for the Happy Monday, it appeared that the only remaining way forward was backwards.

While enjoying periodic post-1992 after-lives, the Happy Mondays and Central Station Design were clearly artists of time and place. Indeed, the music and art they produced, respectively, remain as the principle iconic symbols of the Madchester uprising. According to Matthew Robertson, though, their legacy reaches way further. He sees the fruits of CSD’s designs in the subsequent “Cool Britannia” renaissance in fashion, advertising, art, and even architecture. Moreover, by defying expectations through their uproarious design gestures, by gathering the E culture around the whimsy of illogic and nonsense, and by embracing the childlike fun tenor of the times, CSD—like their musical mentors—encapsulated and embodied a now-mythic epoch, one in which, as Robertson concludes, their “humor pervade[d] the story” (15).

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