Thursday, 28 April 2016

Happy Mondays - Pills 'n' Thrills and Bellyaches (1990)

Sarah and I were walking along a road somewhere in Manchester on the way to some pub or other. Sarah had been my first girlfriend some ten or fifteen years earlier. It hadn't lasted long, but at least it had ended sort of amicably, and now the only thing which remained puzzling is how she had picked up such a thick Manchester accent in the time since. It sounded affected to my ears, but then it had been a while since we spoke to each other. Crossing to take some side street, we encountered a young man with a slightly vacant expression.

'A'right, our Liam,' said Sarah, and I'm going to assume his name was Liam, because it was something like that.

'A'right, Sarah,' he said, and the words slipped from his mouth as though deposited, sluggish and unengaged. His accent was almost impenetrable to my ears, and it sounded like he had a good pint of snot up there somewhere. 'I just been mugged.'


'I just been mugged, like.'

'What happened?'

He explained how some person had approached him with a knife and asked for his wallet. He'd given the person his wallet, and now here we were.

'Are you okay?'

'Yeah. Bit pissed off, like.' He shrugged.

He'd been mugged at knife point and was describing the encounter like it had been some stranger cadging cigarettes. Are you even fucking alive in there? I wanted to ask but didn't, instead making noises like I understood because it's happened to all of us. Were this London, I thought to myself, someone would have had their legs broken by this point.

The encounter seemed to epitomise some kind of Mancunian experience, one I've never understood and would never want to understand - a dopey quality which cannot logically apply to every single person living in that city, but which I tend to notice because it irritates the living shit out of me. Possibly it's the drug thing. I've never understood how mere love of ganja so often equates to character for certain people, or how some can spend an entire fucking day just lighting one up, over and over. I've always found drug people a massive bore, or specifically I've found their drug talk a massive bore because it mostly seems to entail sitting around reminiscing over previous occasions of weed inhalation expressed as statements of the fucking obvious, and how side-splitting it was when we put some blims in that ham sandwich and then the dog ate it blah blah blah...

It was a while before I actually heard their music, but prior to that point Happy Mondays seemed like a band assembled specifically for the purpose of getting on my tits - an indeterminate quota of generic scallies stood around staring into fucking space with their mouths open, one of them possibly shoving a magic marker up his hooter and proclaiming himself mad for it every once in a while; and the whole bleeding world seemed to love them.

A friend from school - one of those who says hey, we really must keep in touch every single time you speak to him, with intervals never shorter than a year apart - seemingly phoned me up to go on about the Happy Mondays. 'New Musical Express is an anagram of Manchester Evening Post,' he quipped with the cadence of this being a joke he'd taken pleasure in cracking on a daily basis. Unfortunately it was lost on me as I didn't read the music papers at the time and had no idea what he was talking about. Then there was the fucking awful upper class Bohemian girl at some shitty party, trying hard to cop off with my friend Alan whilst clearly resenting my lemonesque presence, her every other sentence a weirdly lascivious reference to Shaun Ryder, with a little smile because we all know what he's like!

Yeah - that guy! What a rogue, and just everyone's talking about him! What a rogue he is stood there scratching his arse in his trackie bottoms and dealing crack or cake or mong or whatever it is that constitutes his muse, this week. He's just so real, you know?

So, to finally get to the point of all this bollocks, even without mentioning that there's always been a dance element to our music, man, the Mondays - as those self-consciously in the know referred to them - may as well have been put together by my worst enemy in an effort to induce me to a coronary by way of some sort of loathing overload. This in itself seemed to render them perversely fascinating to my point of view, and it was a major surprise when I heard Wrote For Luck and realised that I liked it. I later found out that what I actually liked was a radically different remix of the song by the plinky-plonky bloke out of Depeche Mode, but it provided an in-road; then Step On actually sounded all right, so good in fact that I didn't mind all the monkeys jumping around on the climbing frame in the background. Next thing I knew I was in WHSmiths in Lewisham buying this album because why the fuck not?

Do one thing every day that scares you, said Eleanor Roosevelt, although she probably didn't have a Happy Mondays record in mind.

I still don't buy that they were ever so revolutionary as was claimed, and as is still claimed in certain circles. For starters, dance music already existed back at the beginning of the nineties and had been doing just fine without the help of turdy guitar bands beloved of the NME, and secondly, Happy Mondays were pretty much a karaoke version of Can in so much as that their entire back catalogue bears a striking resemblance to Can's somewhat familiarly titled Hallelujah. That said, I've never really warmed to Can, which I suppose makes it all the more puzzling that Pills 'n' Thrills and Bellyaches should sound so good to me.

In addition to the Can thing, Happy Mondays also seemed to be the heavier, sweatier end of seventies disco filtered through some vaguely post-punk sensibility or at least with that same spikey edge - PIL's Metal Box drinking something with a pineapple floating in it whilst drunkenly staggering towards a series of Motown or Stax covers. Of course, Manchester had something of a tradition of funky behaviour, mostly white blokes in vests frowning and playing the bongos with excerpts from Battleship Potemkin projected onto the backdrop. Happy Mondays might have been an outgrowth of that, except they mixed up the formula, keeping a tight underpinning as contrast with much looser embellishments and the fairly strong suggestion that at least half of the people on stage were almost certainly off their tits; and I suppose you could say they had the common touch in that they seemed accessible to their audience both as people and in terms of subject, just like someone you probably knew at work - obviously full of shit but not necessarily a bad person; and because of this, no matter how far they may sink into the realms of substances you snort up your nose with a rolled up copy of Readers' Wives, there's a joyous, uplifting quality to the Happy Mondays - something of such generous spirit that you don't mind the smell.

I am aware of my own tendency to sneer and how it informs at least the first two thirds of this review; but it should probably be remembered here that I'm expressing an opinion, and not one with which I necessarily expect the reader to agree. Weirdly, I suppose this is what I take from the disparity between my initial reaction to Happy Mondays and how much I ended up playing this album. Sometimes it's refreshing to know you were wrong, or even that your being right about something doesn't matter because it should always be possible to find something good in an unexpected place.

Oasis were fucking shite though.

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