Album: Bummed – Happy Mondays
Review: Guardian, 14 December 2007
Author: Alex Petrides
Earlier this year, what’s left of Happy Mondays dutifully went on the road in support of a new album that limped to No 73 in the charts. Shaun Ryder sang the hits slumped on the drum riser, a man doomed to spend the rest of his days on the touring treadmill by the kind of business deals that people on too many drugs tend to make, his glory years a distant memory.
Listening to this expanded reissue of their breakthrough album, it seems remarkable that Happy Mondays had any glory years to start with, at least commercially. Almost 20 years on, Bummed sounds extraordinary, but wildly abstruse. If you were making a list of Happy Mondays’ inspirations, you would start with the clattering, syncopated drums and wayward vocals of Tago Mago-era Can, and the phantasmagorical, chemically altered view of northern working-class life found in the Fall‘s lyrics – to which Ryder added his own distinctive spin, not least an unerring ability to make sexual intercourse sound like the most repellent activity known to man. “Come on in, grease up yer skin, bring a friend,” he leers at one juncture.
Elsewhere, you can hear the damaged sprawl of early 70s Funkadelic, Captain Beefheart‘s angular riffs and jarring slide guitars and, buried deep in the mix, the gauche synthesised stabs of early house music. It’s a bizarre stew of influences that would normally have confined a band to a netherworld of Peel Sessions and tiny gigs. Happy Mondays ended up playing stadiums and Top of the Pops.
That they did may have been testament not merely to the quality of their songs, but to the anything-goes musical climate ushered in by ecstasy use: the album was recorded with the E-fuelled “second summer of love” in full swing. But if Bummed benefited from the summer of love’s open-mindedness, it certainly didn’t share its flower-power idealism.
The album is haunted by Nic Roeg‘s Performance, a film that caught the hippy dream curdling into a crepuscular world of violence and insanity. It’s not even Mick Jagger‘s faded rock star character Turner that the album identifies with, but the psychopathic gangsters who invade his home and murder him: Mad Cyril is named after one of them and samples their boss Harry Flowers, while the track Performance seems to be written through the eyes of Chas, the enforcer played by James Fox, whose psychedelic dabbling doesn’t stem his propensity for violence.
For a band usually depicted as troglodytes rendered mentally subnormal by their drug intake – perhaps a consequence of having a keyboard player called Knobhead – this seems a remarkably sharp and cynical take on the prevalent mood of saucer-eyed euphoria. Perhaps, having made his living dealing ecstasy, Ryder had a rather clearer idea of precisely what lurked further up the chain of supply than, say, the beatific denizens of London acid house club Shoom, who ended their evenings with an unironic singalong to Give Peace a Chance.
The album’s sound perfectly complements the mood. Befitting a man with a reputation as the Phil Spector of Manchester, producer Martin Hannett saturated Bummed in reverb and echo; as with Spector’s wall-of-sound productions, it’s almost impossible to make individual instruments out amid the dense swirl. The sound and the sessions that produced it were the result of the copious intake of ecstasy: Ryder later claimed that supplying the alcoholic producer with the drug was the simplest way to stop him drinking. What it captures, however, is not the hug-a-stranger euphoria of the perfect E experience, but the queasy, disorientating claustrophobia of overindulgence. Coupled with the ever-present sense of menace in the lyrics, it makes for an uneasy, but utterly gripping listen.
Among the extra tracks lurks the baffling Lazyitis (One Armed Boxer) a reworking of Bummed’s closing track featuring yodelling cabaret artist Karl Denver. The combination of his vibrato-heavy club-singer voice and Ryder’s hoarse bark makes for what you might politely call a deeply challenging listen. Those looking for evidence of Factory Records‘ celebrated maverick spirit might note that someone at the label thought this would make a good single.
Then again, the single that finally took Happy Mondays on to Top of the Pops is scarcely more radio-friendly, offering two and a half minutes of thundering Can-inspired drums and squealing guitars, a lead vocal that borders on a hoarse, desperate scream, and a variety of thumpingly unsubtle references to heroin in the lyrics. It’s a miracle that the BBC allowed Hallelujah, and the band who made it, past reception.
What happened when Happy Mondays reached the top was impossibly depressing: hard drugs, homophobia, inexorable decline. But, as Bummed proves in all its dark, weirdly prescient glory, the way they got there was unique and strangely magnificent.
Alexis Petridis has long been a reviewer I’ve admired, not just for his fine taste in music but for the way he writes things up. Bummed wasn’t ecstatically received at the time of its initial release, with far too many in the UK music press keen to sneer at the Happy Mondays and indeed the direction in which Factory Records was heading back in 1988. It wouldn’t take that much longer, however, before everyone was proclaiming Madchester as being the greatest thing since the last musical ‘movement’ to get folk awfully excited.