Madchester – Anything to Answer For?
One thing I’ve pondered on occasion is the vitriol displayed in some quarters for the bands associated with that peculiarly British late 80’s/early 90’s phenomenon that became collectively known as the ‘Madchester’ scene. I’m a bit biased, as it must be said I was a bit of a fan of a lot of the music that appeared under this mantle, mainly because it was more interesting than most of the dreck that was occupying popular music at the time. I still dig out the old Madchester stuff from time to time and a lot of it still sounds pretty good to me – I’m usually quite happy to revisit music from my past and admit with retrospect if it is absolute pish – however with the exception of a few of the hangers-on (Northside, Mock Turtles, MC Tunes, Soup Dragons) I feel that this period in British music is unfairly maligned and actually pre-dated a lot of the dance-rock crossover bands of the early 2000’s and beyond.
Looking back at some of the credentials surrounding the Happy Mondays output, the fine line between what is considered ‘hip’ in alternative music and what is not comes into sharp focus. If you consider that most treasured of Manchester alternative bands, Joy Division, there are several collision points between them and the Mondays but the gulf in respect afforded each is huge. Both were on Factory Records, both had records produced by Martin Hannett, the legendarily oddball and bloody-minded production genius who is afforded so much respect in the alternative music community there are whole albums compiling his work. The first Happy Mondays album, ‘Squirrel and G-Man Twenty Four Hour Party People Plastic Face Carnt Smile (White Out)’, was even produced by John Cale of one of the all-time name-to-drop bands, proto-alternative demi-gods The Velvet Underground (of course he had the good sense to leave the VU after 2 albums, so avoiding the slide into still occasionally listenable but no longer very ground-breaking almost soft-rock). So why are Joy Division permanently canonised whilst the Happy Mondays are something of a joke footnote in British music and particularly the chain of Manchester groups? Joy Division of course were frozen in time with the death of Ian Curtis and so never had the chance to make a shit record, their short history documented by stylish B&W photography and classic design work of Peter Saville, whereas the Mondays were a bunch of shifty looking hooligans who you’d try and give a wide berth to. Their whole image was slightly cartoonish, not helped by the onstage presence of superfluous bug-eyed dancing drug ingester/dealer Bez. The record covers were in their own way quite distinctive, the work of Shaun Ryder’s cousins at Central Station Design. In my mind, their unlikely right time and place success was the death of the Mondays – the earlier albums were pretty much ignored but then the dance music community started to remix Mondays songs and these tempered the rough edges and brought Shaun Ryder’s drug addled and surreal lyrics into focus, whereas before they were buried under the reverb heavy drums of the Hannett production style. 3rd album ‘Pills, Thrills and Bellyaches’ glossier production sheen courtesy of dance producer Paul Oakenfold and also saw them appear on Top of the Pops with the everyman street wear and unkempt locks replaced by sleek shiny haircuts and designer leather jackets. The loss of the rough edges meant the loss of interest for me and that is the one album that I haven’t upgraded to CD or even listened to in some 15 years (I’m not counting final death throe ‘Yes, Please’, I haven’t even heard it, the single was bad enough). The Mondays ended up being a key lesson in the perils of sudden fame and fortune for those probably ill-equipped to deal with it, i.e raging smack heads – access to cash gives greater ability to fuel drug habits and sadly that is pretty much what killed them.
The other main Madchester band were of course the Stone Roses, similarly vilified in the cooler-than-thou alternative circles but also the source of arguably the finest British debut album ever. Seriously. The Smiths are afforded far more kudos but their debut album is far less satisfying than their subsequent couple of efforts. Christ, the off-takes collection ‘Hatful of Hollow’ is better. If it wasn’t for the one track I’ve never really liked, backwards monstrosity ‘Don’t Stop’, ‘The Stone Roses’ would be pretty much a perfect listening experience. The Roses also blew it of course, taking 5 years to deliver a follow up album that saw them emerge too much expectation but little in the way of satisfaction. ‘The Second Coming’ had a typically grandiose title but the content just wasn’t there. Lead single ‘Love Spreads’ was a misleading indicator, far different to the first album’s take on classic guitar rock and even stop-gap indie dance milestone ‘Fool’s Gold’ (blunted now by over-familiarity but at the time pretty unique), all classic guitar jamming style and actually a pretty great song. Sadly the rest of the album was full of slightly less satisfying variations of the same formula. I don’t rate it as the complete failure that some do, but it wasn’t a great follow up and the band imploded amongst alleged heroin addictions and John Squire’s desire to be an official British guitar God. Pity he forgot that this would necessitate some good songs to go alongside the interminable guitar solos. I saw his subsequent band, The Seahorses, at T in the Park one year and it was painful. A couple of OK songs in their set but these were easy to forget as John licked his own love pump. At least Ian Brown just got on with doing what he is best at over the course of an unexpected solo career that has yielded 6 solo albums so far – being a gobshite of questionable vocal talent but possessing an unwavering self-belief and ability to come up with memorable tunes – ‘My Star’, ‘Dolphins Were Monkeys’, ‘F.E.A.R.’, ‘Time is My Everything’ amongst others – mixed in with some bizarre theories and conspiracies to inform his worldview and make for an entertaining interview. Or maybe he just smokes too much weed. Jammy twat gets loads of free Bathing Ape clothes I know that much.
Lately I’ve also been revisiting another forgotten Madchester act, Inspiral Carpets, who probably sold more merchandise than records, courtesy of their cow-in-shades ‘Cool as Fuck’ T shirts. I’d actually forgotten this lot were on the Mute label, another generally well regarded home of Nick Cave amongst others. Their most well known song is probably ‘This Is How It Feels’ one of those social commentary with a catchy chorus type of songs (see also ‘Nothing Ever Happens’ by Del Amitri and ‘Altogether Now’ by The Farm) that finds it’s way into the mainstream at times, but musically they were more generally a combination of The Stranglers thuggish take on punk and The Teardrop Explodes, all swirling Farfisa organs and monotone vocals. They even roped in Mark E. Smith along the way to participate in a dual vocal on ‘I Want You’, singer Tom Hingley providing the more melodic counterpart to Smith’s typically surly rendition of the lyrics. It’s actually probably the best thing Smith had done since the mid-90’s and the best song he contributed to up until ‘Sparta FC’.
Probably my most listened to band of that time is New Fast Automatic Daffodils, who possessed a name that pretty much instantly turned off many listeners but who actually pre-dated bands such as The Rapture and Radio 4 by ten years or so, all clanking cow bell percussion, twisting funky basslines and jagged Gang of Four guitars. Their debut album ‘Pigeonhole’ is still a fantastic album, as is follow up ‘Body Exit Mind’. There’s even been rumours of reformation. I went to see The Charlatans at Edinburgh Playhouse way back then and the folk I was with insisted we hang about in the pub for an age. I was mightily pissed off when the support band turned out to be the New FADs and I only saw about 2 and a half songs.
So where have I got to? No resolution really. I don’t really know why this period of British music is so hated. Personally I think it paved the way for a lot of what was to come in the alternative dance-rock crossover and was similar to the mid-70’s appearance of the original swathe of British punk bands. It was one of the intermittent truly unique British moments in music that we should treasure. After all what have we come up with since? We are usually trying to compete with something American and failing miserably. Britpop only existed as an antidote to Nirvana. Didn’t quite prove a point there. The Strokes? Oh, we have The Libertines. Some OK songs but also gave us the lasting legacy of the existence of professional irritant Pete Doherty. And as for the last few years, while I’m sure there are some great bands bubbling away in the indie hinterlands, Britain seems to be happy to fall into the world of the talent show winners. And losers. And just plain oddballs. I mean, I’m sure Subo is a lovely lady and all but what the fuck?