Standing in the pre-soundcheck emptiness of New York City’s Mercury Lounge, without even my first drink in hand, setting up an amplifier and trying to gauge necessary volume, I first encountered Dennis and Lois. They’re about what you’d imagine from the legend: Not, to be generous, a particularly attractive past-middle-aged Brooklynite couple, complete with thick accents and somewhat vacant if lovable smiles.
“Shaun called us from the studio,” says Dennis, “and says ‘hey, we’re naming a song for you guys on the album!’ We couldn’t believe it.”
“Oh, yeah,” added a motherly Lois. “They’re such good boys.”
They had me transfixed enough to miss that the first time. Good boys? GOOD boys? This isn’t the Partridge Family, ya know. This is Shaun Ryder and the Happy Mondays, the most notorious group of rock hedonists to ever crawl out of the gutters of an English industrial shithole (Manchester) known for its rock—and for its hedonists. But I guess that’s why Dennis and Lois got picked to forever become, to obsessive fans like me, “Dennis and Lois”—one of the bizarre and obscure drug-addled songs on Pills ‘n’ Thrills and Bellyaches, Happy Mondays’—and the entire late-‘90s “Madchester” phenomenon’s—finest achievement.
The first time a hippie friend conned me into smoking bong hits—broad daylight, front porch—I dashed for my Pills tape. One early ‘90s legendary night, when the 412 area code was flooded by decent acid, an entire city avoiding mirrors and sucking on vitamin C: I couldn’t leave home with it. Whenever I need a shot of inappropriate confidence, less appropriate cockiness, non-artsy-fartsy twisted inspiration, or nostalgia for a future that’s still yet to come, Pills ‘n’ Thrills and Bellyaches makes its reappearance.
There are other albums I possibly like as much or better: Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks for sheer genius and beauty; Tom Waits’ Rain Dogs or Small Change for Beatnik American pride; Prince Buster’s Big Five and Wreck a Pum Pum for bootstrap mentality and dancehall vice. But Happy Mondays’ masterpiece lives outside of good and bad, it goes beyond any affiliations with my own past or present, and exists beyond the borders of my own reality. It’s the Ulysses of modern rock music—the rock album that didn’t just question what rock music is, but ignored what rock music is; ignored what was seen as “dance” or “rock”, “good” or “bad”, “sampling” or “stealing”. The Mondays used whatever they could nick from their surroundings: Hippie imagery and soccer-thug mentality, Donovan and disco, dance-club rhythms and pop-star posturing, the bits they liked from reggae, punk, new wave, poetry, hip-hop. Even more so than even the Fall’s cover of R. Dean Taylor’s “Ghost in My House”, the Mondays were the collision of northern soul and Mark E. Smith. Britain’s proto-acid-house version of the Butthole Surfers.
If they liked a bit of a song, like John Kongos’ “He’s Gonna Step on You Again” or LaBelle’s “Lady Marmalade”, they just took it. (“Step On” and “Kinky Afro”, respectively.) If they liked the way some words sounded together, there they went—of course, more often than not, the result was brilliant and actually meaningful, certainly to me. “Yippee-ippee-ey-ey-ay-yey-yey / I had to crucify somebody today / And I don’t dig what you gotta say / So come on and say it.” Words to live by, friend.
Maybe it’s not good that a grown man still looks to a thuggish drug dealer like circa-1990 Shaun Ryder for inspiration—maybe it’s irresponsible to posit that some good could come out of emulating a washed-up cretin like Ryder and his, shall we say, “casual” acquaintances. But something about that past era, the one summed up by “Step On” and “Kinky Afro”, remains an important part of our own musical present. Pop music genre lines are defined by those whose lack of inspiration relies on those definitions to act as a crutch—the true pop audience doesn’t give a fuck, maaan, and it just happens that sometimes that discerning pop audience is comprised of the drug dealers in the corner of the club. Pills is a reminder that sometimes synthesis is a greater tool than genesis, and that irreverence can be pop’s greatest aphrodisiac; its most honest homage.
Happy Mondays imploded just about exactly as we expected them to, along with the momentary Madchester phase that went with them. But like all truly great pop phenomena, the Mondays left us better off by making us worse. They remind me that a band that can reach brilliant heights as well as plummet to ridiculous depths is better than one that’s “always pretty darned good”. And more importantly that, in pop music, what you steal is more important than what you own.