Simon Spence’s Biography of the Happy Mondays Is ‘All Excess’

This is an excellent biography of the defining band of the ‘chemical generation’.

“You’re twisting my melon, man!”

This is the story of the best band in Manchester. Well, the best band in Manchester in the early ’90s, at least. The Happy Mondays belong to a line of bad boy bands in British popular culture that begins with the Rolling Stones and currently ends with the Libertines.

The band’s original line-up was Shaun Ryder on lead vocals, his brother Paul Ryder on bass, lead guitarist Mark Day, keyboardist Paul Davis, and drummer Gary Whelan. Mark ‘Bez’ Berry later joined the band onstage during a live performance and served as a dancer/percussionist. Rowetta Satchell joined the band to provide backing vocals (and some glamour) in the early ’90s. This is their story.

Rather than work through the entire narrative of this delightful biography, I want to mention two important instances described that clearly illustrate the two different sides of the musical phenomenon that is Madchester’s the Happy Mondays.

In February 1990, the president of Elektra Records, Bob Krasnow, was putting together an album to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the label. The idea was that artists on the Elektra roster of the time would cover some of the songs that had made the label famous. The Happy Mondays, who had had some moderate US success at the time, were invited to cover ‘He’s Gonna Step on You Again’, a song by South African artist John Kongos, which was a minor hit in the USA in 1971. The section of the book in which Simon Spence describes the process of producing the track is a perfectly judged description of the moment when all the best musical elements of the Happy Mondays finally came together. That first visible moment of real catharsis.

The place is Eden studios in London. Paul Oakenfold and Steve Osborne were producers. The band had been out in London the night before and arrived at the studios with a bunch of their pals. They hadn’t taken this recording session very seriously; they seldom took any recording session very seriously. Mark Day, the guitarist, had spent two weeks working on the guitar parts, but Gary Whelan had laid down drums for a different song (Tokoloshe Man).

Later in the day Tony Wilson, the famous founder of Factory Records, hears Day walking around the studio playing the guitar work he had devised for ‘He’s Gonna Step on You’ and asks that this song get recorded, as well.

Whelan laid down drums based on an old Northern Soul song he liked. Paul recorded the bass and Osborne started to notice something special was happening. “There was a line of blokes on the back wall of the studio all dancing to the drums and bass – it was just a really great feel.” Mark laid down his guitar part and Davis added a sparkling piano part. And then Ryder’s turn came and it’s “You’re twisting my melon man.” Like a dam burst of novelty and a seminal lyric. A little later and Oakenfold and Osborne tracked down session singer Rowetta Satchell who added her soaring voice to the mix and the Happy Mondays sound was reborn with the magnificient song, ‘Step On’.

This story comes about half way through this well researched, elegantly written history of the Mancunian band, and it’s typical of the style and substance of the writing. Spence doesn’t do hyperbole, he doesn’t indulge his deep enthusiasm for the Mondays, but presents their story without needless embellishment. The Happy Mondays have made five serious studio albums; Bummed (1988) and Pills n’ Thrills and Bellyaches (1990), are two of the best British Alternative rock albums ever made. The Mondays learned how to combine a mixture of rock, R&B, dance and northern soul better than any of their contemporaries.

Yet the band’s drug taking has also been legendary for some time and Spence does not spare us from at least an outline of the continuous substance abuse. So later in the book comes the diptych, the story that reflects the other side of the band, the moment when the band realises that it’s all over or close to being nearly all over.

With their original label, Factory, facing financial ruin, a possible deal with EMI emerges. EMI records are contemplating taking over the Happy Mondays from the Factory roster and offering them the down payment on a new album. A&R man Clive Black persuaded his superiors at EMI to offer the Happy Mondays £175,000 to make the album. Black travelled up to Manchester from London to both seal the deal and also to discern from the Monday’s manager, Nathan McGough, and Ryder himself, the extent of his addiction and whether he was in control or not. The band was warned that the meeting had to go well, yet when Black arrived Ryder told him that he was going out for Kentucky (KFC).

Five hours later, Ryder had not returned. Black left, although McGough negotiated a last chance meeting in London for 48 hours later. Ryder didn’t make that meeting, either. And the story of the Happy Mondays is at least partially ended.

The book dispels many of the myths surrounding the Happy Mondays, myths that have mainly been created by Ryder himself about his misspent youth and his delinquent behaviour as one of Manchester’s ‘Perry Boys’. Much of it never happened. His drug use, however did. And as Spence concludes, Ryder saw drugs as the key to the band’s success. For Ryder, when the band was under the influence they sounded at their best, and their fans connected with them because of their bad boy image and their drug use. Indeed, it was the band’s attitude toward drugs that had seen them become the defining band of the ‘chemical generation’.

Can we say, as Ryder did, that the source of the Happy Mondays’ brilliance would also be the source of their downfall? read Excess All Areas and find out if that future has already happened.

Marcus Smith, MA (Popular Culture), Open University, writes about film, music, video and digital culture on an occasional basis.

RATING 8 / 10