Happy Mondays, the Court Jesters of Madchester

The Happy Mondays were the court jesters of Madchester, infusing the unfettered carnival spirit of rave culture into their own craftily disheveled music, lyrics, and sleeve designs, while simultaneously leading the sweating masses into a new and vibrant artistic renaissance.

Recalling the “peak” of the counter-culture “wave” in San Francisco during the mid-'60s, Hunter S. Thompson mused, “it seems entirely reasonable to think that every now and then the energy of a whole generation comes to a head in a long fine flash” (Thompson, Hunter S. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream. New York: Vintage, 1971, p.67). Twenty years later, on the other side of the Atlantic, a similar wave swept across the UK. In this instance, Manchester served as the subcultural ground zero rather than San Francisco; techno house was the rallying music rather than psychedelic rock; ecstasy was the communal drug of choice rather than LSD; and the Happy Mondays served—like the Grateful Dead once had—as the flagship band around which the myriad energies of a new generation coalesced.

Just as the US counter-culture had its zeitgeist moment in 1967, so the UK enjoyed its own “Summer of Love” in 1988. Like its predecessor, the UK youth uprising was a total experience, its cultural character drawn from manifestations in music, attitude, style, language, dance, and art. As in 1967, too, each of these expressions carried a common aesthetic stamp and distinctive shaping humor. Simon Frith and Howard Horne have highlighted the “ironic hedonism” and “commitment to the weird” that typified the '60s counter-culture in San Francisco (Frith, Simon, and Howard Horne. Art into Pop. New York: Methuen, 1987. p.58), while Dave Haslam has noted the “fanciful dope talk” and “mad ideas bristling with energy” that emanated from late-'80s “Madchester” (Haslam, Dave. Manchester, England. London: Fourth Estate, 2000. p.177). Imaginative, childlike, spontaneous, nonsensical, irreverent, and shocking, the whimsical wit that distinguished both counter-cultures was as ancient and universal as Medieval court jesters and carnivals, yet as modern and local as the respective times and places that hosted these insurgent phenomena.

If the Happy Mondays were the court jesters of Madchester, it was their audiences that made the scene carnivalesque. As Mikhail Bakhtin has historicized through his writings on François Rabelais, the carnival is western culture’s most enduring spectacle of communal subversive humor. Through dance, costume, music, and collective presence, carnival practitioners have used this occasion as a perennial outlet of relief, expressing opposition to social norms of morality and control by (symbolically) inverting those norms.

Defiant and deviant, at the carnival the body trumps the mind and observation yields to participation. Often grotesque, sometimes obscene, it is traditionally a site of excess and disrespect, where the socially alienated are given permission to temporarily laugh in the face of the forces that subordinate them. Such was the scenario in the counter-culture carnivals of the '60s and the '80s, where festivals and raves served as the settings where social restraints were suspended and hedonistic laughter was unleashed. In the UK, whether at an illegal rave or at a Happy Mondays gig, a new world of art was out on public display, as participants—amped up on ecstasy and/or dressed up in B.A.F. (“baggy as fuck”) color-splashed clothes—hurled themselves into a collective Dionysian dance frenzy while the music pulsed through their very pores.

Off the dance floor, too, the communal spirit proceeded unabated, as the Happy Mondays assumed the role of pied pipers, infusing the unfettered carnival spirit of rave culture into their own craftily disheveled music, lyrics, and sleeve designs, while simultaneously leading the sweating masses into a new and vibrant artistic renaissance.

Manchester in the early-'80s was a markedly different cultural habitat from what it became by the close of the decade. Like most British cities reliant upon traditional industries, Manchester was hard-hit by downsizing, technological rationalism, recession, and Thatcherite monetary policies. Coupled with a decaying infrastructure, Manchester’s high unemployment made for an environment that reflected long-standing stereotypes of the city as black-skied and grey-spirited. The multi-colored, hedonistic bombast and carvivalesque humor that the Happy Mondays would soon introduce to the city could neither have been foreseen nor imagined in the down and dour years prior. An antithetical reaction to the recession of the early eighties, Madchester actually drew its foundational and characteristic inspiration from an earlier era.

Prompted by the emergence of punk rock and the Sex Pistols’ infamous visit to Manchester’s Lesser Free Trade Hall, the city’s youth underground responded to this upstart genre, to its sardonic humor, to its independent do-it-yourself spirit, and to its irreverent postures. Paving the way, The Buzzcocks and The Fall introduced a distinctively Mancunian accent and attitude to punk, while local journalist-turned-impresario Tony Wilson pooled his resources with a couple of colleagues to form Factory Records; this label would soon bring about transformations, not only in the nature of alternative rock, but in the nation’s art and design aesthetics, too.

For Factory, record sleeves became more than just packaging; they became art works and portals into intimate communication between producers, artists, and consumers. Some, like ZG’s Alan Joyce, regarded such strategies of interaction as subversive gestures. He explained: “Each Factory product is in some way attempting to shake the consumers’ “passive” relationship with the object of consumption by creating a situation within the actual moment of consumption in which the consumer comes to question the nature of the product itself; and through this initial “awakening” to eventually question his place within the cycles of consumption/production work/leisure, that form his everyday life in the spectacular world” (Joyce, Alan. “Factory Records”, ZG 1. p.15).

Wilson envisaged his company as providing an umbrella under which many artistic forces could be instrumental in constructing the final product. Instead of dividing and demarcating its departments, Factory put its designers and record producers on an equal footing with the musicians, highlighting their contributions to the common project. To that end, little expense was spared in the designs for Factory record sleeves, and the designers were given free reign—usually in tandem with the bands—to let their creativity flourish. The result was a broad catalogue of some of most beautifully striking and provocative designs in the history of rock music. “Does the Catholic Church pour its wine into moldy earthenware pots? I think not,” Wilson once quipped (Qtd. in Robertson, Matthew. Factory Records: The Complete Graphic Album. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2007. p.9).

The label’s premier designer, Peter Saville, was as responsible as anyone for making Factory a design center. His minimalist but iconic designs for Joy Division and New Order were a revelation in the early years. Glossy, high quality, and artistically provocative, Saville brought a mystique to Factory bands and an aura of mystery through which consumers could participate with their own imaginations and interpretations. Thanks to Saville, Factory record buying became a cerebral exercise, the whole rock consumption experience much richer and more inviting than it had been before. Not since the psychedelic sleeves of the late-'60s had buyers been so actively engaged and intrigued, nor felt so initiated and included in the subcultural in-crowd.

Saville’s often gloomy, European art-inspired images soon became synonymous with the comparably bleak musical output of Joy Division and early New Order, defining a notably house style for the label. Other designers soon adopted or adapted to this style, as Wilson united each with like-minded bands on the label, aware that design could forge an identity for an act as much as the music could. However, the pervasive severity and cheerlessness of the overall mood of both the music and art soon elicited a backlash, as Factory were seen by some as cold and pretentious, or worse, as insensitively exploiting the city’s real industrial decay by romanticizing such imagery. Even Morrissey, the city’s most renowned miserable-ist, found Factory’s grim demeanor to be overly self-indulgent; he (ironically) attempted to usher in a counter-mood by strewing the stages of his concerts with showers of brightly colored flowers.

Just as it appeared that Factory was inevitably bound for a cul-de-sac of its own making, a new band and posse of designers arrived to usher in a new revolution in British rock music and musical art. As the Happy Mondays emerged as the sound of Madchester, their sleeve designers, Central Station Design (CSD), provided the scene’s visual correlative.

In contrast to Peter Saville’s neo-classical imagistic brooding, CSD’s designs echoed from the dry wit of pop art, the hippy whimsy of '60s psychedelia, and the unrestrained mayhem of their principle employers and inspiration, the Happy Mondays. Furthermore, the close association and like-minded strategies of CSD and the Happy Mondays were rooted in their common locality, as well as in their common family. Two of the three members of the design company, Matt and Paul Carroll, were cousins of the band’s Ryder brothers, Shaun and Paul; and not only had they all grown up together, but they did so in the midst of a Manchester music scene where the celebratory dance music of northern soul, New Order-inspired electronica, Chicago house, and Detroit techno dominated club culture.

Both the Carroll and Ryder brothers were drawn to the carnivalesque hedonism of this environment, such that they were on the same page and dancing to the same beat when it came to artistically representing the next Manchester dance generation. From their first release, Forty Five E.P. (1985), to their last (subsequent thwarted reunions aside), Sunshine and Love (1992), CSD designed all of the Happy Mondays’ record covers, while always closely following the germination of each release from infancy to completion in order to fully engage themselves with the artistic impulses and spirit of each song.

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