The passing of time has probably been kinder to Happy Mondays more than most of their peers from the much-lauded golden age of Manchester. While Morrissey continues to alienate anyone with a conscience, and The Stone Roses finally call it a day (again), Salford’s most notable musical exports are still selling out venues up and down the land. Admittedly in the name of nostalgia, but with a back catalogue containing some of the most innovative and era defining records of their generation, it’s no surprise the market is still there.
Drug addictions, celebrity marriages, reality TV show appearances, family disputes, bankruptcy and four reformations. The Happy Mondays story could have been dramatised several times over, although the 2002 comedy biopic Twenty Four Hour People did a pretty good job. Nevertheless, it’s the music that’s kept people coming back for over three decades. The genre confounding fusion of funk, punk, hip hop, rock, folk and everything else in between that’s made Happy Mondays a musical institution in their own right.
So, while 1990’s breakthrough single ‘Step On’ arguably represents their most recognisable four and a half minutes, not to mention the album it preceded ‘Thrills ’N’ Pills And Bellyaches’ attaining platinum status in its wake. The records that came beforehand opened people’s ears to a band whose sound was among the most experimental to emerge from the 1980s, yet also unmistakeably their own to boot.
Rewind a decade to the band’s humble beginnings as a five-piece – live dancer and eventual focal point Mark “Bez” Berry came on board a short while after – and it’s clear they had ideas well above everybody else’s stations from the outset. While New Order and The Smiths influences can be heard in patches, particularly in some of Paul Ryder’s basslines and Mark Day’s casual guitar twangs, the lesser known likes of A Certain Ratio and Section 25 had just as big an impact on the fledgling Happy Mondays sound as their more highly feted compatriots.
By the time their first release the Forty Five EP appeared in the autumn of 1985 it sounded like nothing else out there at the time. While the upbeat lead track ‘Delightful’ and Smithsian ‘This Feeling’ dropped subtle hints of the band’s Mancunian lineage, the spacious psychedelia of ‘Oasis’ provided more than a telling glimpse as to where they might be headed next. Eventually re-recorded for their John Cale produced debut album Squirrel And G-Man Twenty Four Party People Plastic Face Carnt Smile (White Out) two years later. It’s still regarded by many as being among their finest compositions to date.
By the time follow-up Freaky Dancin emerged a few months later they’d developed considerably enough to have the confidence to put both a studio and far superior live recordings of the title track on the single. The latter displaying loose passages of improvised funk stylings that would characterise the band’s sound for years to come. However, as with its predecessor, another b-side ‘The Egg (Mix)’ would go on to be remembered more fondly. Again displaying an other worldliness completely out of kilter with the musical offerings of the day, both in the mainstream and underground.
By now session regulars on the late, great John Peel show and with the album finished, two more singles came from that same period. Both released in 1987 to coincide with the debut, ‘Tart Tart’ and ’24 Hour Party People’ introduced them to an even wider audience. Both became staples at the higher end of the independent singles chart with commercial success just around the corner. While none of the three b-sides here match up to the title tracks or indeed any of their predecessors, it’s clear the Mondays were saving the best cuts for their long player.
Already harnessing a reputation for his poetic lyrics and ability to orate so intently about the characters and chancers encountered around his native Manchester. Shaun William Ryder would quite rightly go onto become a household name, and while that journey has been widely documented ever since. Here’s where it all began. Compiled together (as a coloured vinyl box set no less) for the first time and an essential addition to anyone’s record collection whatever their musical tastes may be.
The Early EPs is out now via London Records.
Photo: Kevin Cummins