Happy Mondays and James
Step on, sit down
This article is from 2007.
Happy Mondays and James hailed from very different sides of the Manchester musical fence. As the two bands get set for T on the Fringe, Paul Morley says hallelujah to the returning heroes and considers their legacy
Now that the men who put the mad, the menace, the stupidity, the baggy-battered surrealism, the dunce dance, the crazy gang and the pigeon poisoning into Manchester are back, along with just about everyone and everything else in rock, what are crackpot rogues Happy Mondays helping us to remember?
Happy Mondays, as discourteous jesters and hedonistic anti-heroes, paved the way, or dug the hole, or popped the pills, or stole the rhythms, or drank the beer, or broke into the house, or crashed the party, or raided Manchester’s Hacienda, that led to the famous rave of Madchester. They were the second biggest band in the Manchester of 1990 after the Stone Roses, who were busy lazily giving birth to some kind of British music revival. For a day or two this meant the Mondays were the second biggest band in the world. The Mondays’ music was destined to instantly sound dated, but that wasn’t the point at the time. Then, it was so numbingly now it just didn’t matter that it was only going to last for an ecstatic moment. Now, it sounds so then, but that’s part of its charm. Right now, lots of people love then. Right now, lots of people love to party like it’s 1990, either because they were there at the time, or because they weren’t.
Happy Mondays have ended up a grafting nostalgia band featuring a harebrained winner of Celebrity Big Brother and a grandly defective frontman, remembering their amorphous glory days with more than a hint of melancholy. What we are remembering with Happy Mondays is that they were, temporarily, amazing, stupid and ungovernable. Lanky maraca shaker and forager Bez turned that into conked-out dance, and that was his job, and the prowling, bashed-up Shaun Ryder developed a bullshitting northwest mumbo jumbo that made him a kind of groggy Salford mix of Dr John and Ogden Nash.
Happy Mondays were the ugliest, unruliest and most unreliable of Manchester groups, the last idealistic gasp of the Factory Records that gave us the dream gloom of Joy Division and the electronic high of New Order. They were the most obviously patched together and manufactured from Factory boss Tony Wilson’s naughty, city funk boy bands; they were the group that couldn’t musically move without producers, remixers, covers, fixers and minders; and they were the next step on from Durutti Column and A Certain Ratio, his first conceptualised boy bands.
Wilson spotted the Mondays coming last somewhere between clueless and classic in a local talent competition in the mid 80s. As soon as he saw that the nonchalant mess they made was inspired, he knew that with a bit of help from the Factory factory they could be exactly the Manc group he had long dreamed of. A mental, dirty-faced, filthy-minded group with monstrous, addictive appetites and careless, bandit energy that reflected the harder, hooligan side of the city, backsliding bad boys that cut northern life up into a crooked series of elated bad trips. Factory made them sound like they knew exactly how to mix up their stumped, shuffled nonsense with grazed psychedelic rock, placid house, cut-price gospel, knocked-off hip hop and looted northern soul, giving infectious shape to the incoherent and indistinct.
As soon as everyone at Factory and in the group perfected the formula, around about the high and slight 1990 Pills, Thrills and Bellyache album, they forgot it, and the nation just as quickly forgot why they loved them. And we remember Happy Mondays now not so much for what they did or didn’t do as musicians, party animals and underdog outlaws. But because slurring, swearing Shaun and baffled, battling Bez survived a series of challenges, addictions, failures, TV shows, breakdowns, comebacks and sundry catastrophes that we barely kept track of. Here they are, somehow remembering to keep going, somehow remembering enough to make a new album, so that we might remember when they were most wanted.
Why are we remembering James, the least well-known, the most luckless, the most lacking in legend, of those successful Manchester bands? In some ways they were a post-punk version of the kind of Manchester group that existed before punk, before The Fall, The Buzzcocks, Joy Division and Magazine; the kind of steady, conversational rock group that could have come from anywhere in the world, the kind of group that for all their vision and technique followed on from the Hollies and Barclay James Harvest rather than The Fall and The Smiths.
Simply Red suffer from this view as well, a vague sense of unease with their name, and their lack of identity, something singer Tim Booth would put down to the fact that James were never darlings of the music press, and made it to stadium status without ever attracting firm, defining critical belief. James have got back together again after a five-year break perhaps because they need to remind us that there are reasons to remember them, that they want another go at trying to avoid being always described as ‘best known for their anthemic single “Sit Down”’, and that Tim Booth is a mesmerising, eroticised mystic.
Many would not have noticed they’d been away, having not noticed they were around in the first place. Their story, though filled with incident, argument and experimental tendencies, is not as soapy and sensational as the Mondays. They always slipped down the back of cool. Even though they were on Factory in the early 1980s, found a supporter then in Morrissey, were supported on tours by not only the Mondays and the Roses but groups such as Nirvana, Radiohead, Supergrass and Coldplay, were festival regulars and were produced by the discriminating and demanding Brian Eno, they never seemed the raging innovators, the original stylists, the distinct representatives of a genre. They were never quite post-punk, baggy, or Britpop, and were indie about 15 years before that became a commercially viable label, all of which should be a virtue but somehow meant they were always just off the beat, always out of focus. They fell foul of the general obsession with the latest trend, cursed not crowned by their gutsy longevity.
They released one of their best albums, Goldmother, in 1990, the year of the Roses and the Mondays, which blanked them out, and their jangled, jingly ‘Sit Down’ hit made them more of a slogging novelty than their work and ambition deserved. The albums Seven and the Eno-guided Laid followed within two years, but there was a sinking feeling that they were chasing the stirred, eclectic magnificence of Simple Minds and U2 a long time after the vibrant fact.
Have we got enough space and time in our hearts to rewrite history, and give James some kind of cultural promotion, just because, more or less, like everyone else, they’ve turned up once more to claim their place in the canon and, on the side, improve their financial status? If, making up history, we have to choose between the Happy Mondays, representing the vulgarity of fashion, the tyranny of arbitrarily-applied cool, these berserk entertainers stuck in the black-out groove of their own haphazard making, and James, representing moderation and trustworthiness, delivering sober persistence and strong songs with a clear-sighted moral message, we choose the Mondays. We choose the car crash band, for giving us exhilaration and a weird kind of hope, rather than the sensible drivers, making the ride seem smooth and scenic but a little dull.
T on the Fringe, James, 10 Aug, 7.30pm, £28.50; Happy Mondays, 24 Aug, 7.30pm, £25; both gigs at Corn Exchange, Newmarket Road, Slateford, 0870 169 0100. tonthefringe.com