For sheer scope and ambition, the Inspiral Carpets Greatest Hits collection allows few rivals. While U2 mustered only 14 worthwhile tracks for their Best of 1980-90 set, and barmy prolific Prince managed just 18 selections for The Hits, the Inspiral boys slap us with the full weight of 20 songs, culled mostly from a brief six year period. It begs the lament that had the band only enjoyed a slightly greater longevity, the five-disc box set might now be nestling in our laps.
In fact, all that's missing here is the infamous promotional t-shirt that enjoyed at least as much renown as the music. The shirt design featured a cartoon drawing of a cow's head and the slogan "Moo! Cool as fuck!", but perhaps like the music itself, the shirt is lost to a particular time and place: Manchester, 1990.
The legacy of "Madchester" is far greater when viewed as a whole rather through the individual pieces that conspired to create it. It is an ethos, rather than a distinct group of principles. Madchester was a feeling, a drug, a fashion, and for a while it was a sound that reverberated around the world and then was recognized as something much broader than itself.
The scene's epicenter was a nightclub, the Hacienda, now lost to commercial development, even if its reputation as the seminal club in British pop culture history remains untouchable. Yet of the bands to have emerged from Madchester, only the Stone Roses could truly be considered to have transcended it. The Happy Mondays enjoy a localized legend, the Charlatans were never really from the city, and the likes of the Chemical Brothers came after and through the scene (if one dare characterize them as a band at all).
Behind the Roses and Mondays, Inspiral Carpets were always imagined as the third of a triumvirate, and viewed from this distance their contribution makes the scene appear small. Certainly, the release of a twenty-song collection does more to undermine their strengths than to bolster them, ruthlessly exposing as it does the slimness of their vision. What emerges from this collection is a picture of a hometown band done good, and hopefully the idea of a headline show before 14,000 people (G-Mex, Manchester, 1990) says more about the fervor of a moment than about the desolation that might have inspired it.
Inspiral Carpets appeared on a locally produced music compilation in 1988, back when the Stone Roses were still playing the Boardwalk every week, and the Happy Mondays were appearing stoned at small venues throughout the city, gigs that were either a fiasco or miraculous, and occasionally both. "Joe" was one of the standout tracks on a collection that also offered "Voodoo Ray" from A Guy Called Gerald, which specifically dates it as the moment of impact for a world that essentially began with that song, and with 808 State's "Pacific State".
"Joe" was really no sort of hit at all, though, merely the beginning of a vertiginous climb, and even so, it is possibly the only one of the opening five songs on the Greatest Hits collection that even marginally belongs there.
The collection only gathers momentum with "This Is How It Feels" and "She Comes in the Fall", songs that are both distinctive and specifically northern in flavor. They signal the arrival of the full-fledged Carpets sound, based around Clint Boon's swirling keyboards, and it's worth noting how ubiquitous Hammond-style keyboards became in British music over the next few years -- most notably with Portishead and PJ Harvey.
The sound reached its apogee with the hard-driving rocker "Dragging Me Down", and the band attempted stadium-sized emoting through "Two Worlds Collide", before fading away almost as quickly as they began. Inspiral Carpets released their first official single in 1988, played a hometown mega-gig in 1990, and were creatively exhausted by 1994. It's a quick story, a page or two perhaps from the unwritten history of a vast music city, yet for a half-dozen songs at least, it's a story still capable of raising a psychedelic smile, a recollection of freaky dancing days...