Happy Mondays, the Court Jesters of Madchester

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.

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).