Friday, May 3, 2013

HAPPY MONDAYS, Wembley Arena, London
Melody Maker, April 21st 1990


by Simon Reynolds

A gig at Wembley Arena is generally a hollow demonstration that a band has reached a certain statistical stature. But everything about tonight has been set up to proclaim, loudly, that this is an Event, a crucial benchmark indicating that Happy Mondays are a bona fide "phenomenon", in the ascendant. The tickets and ads enthuse that "the rave is on"; the Arena's stagefront seats have been removed, leaving a giant mong-pit swarming with the herds of expectant ravers and fashion casualties; dry ice pumps out of vents and lazers spell out the bands logo; stars of the lustrous calibre of Boy George, Sonic Boom, Bobby Gillespie and Jona Lewie are to be spotted. And a grizzled, paunchy roadie who looks like Peter Hook's elder brother keeps coming on and brandishing a cardboard cut-out Number One figure at us meaningfully. Presumably this is meant to suggest that if we all went out and bought three copies of "Step On" it might top the charts. Quite why this would be such a triumph, in aday and age when being Number One in the Hit Parade means less than ever (the present occupants are a German rap group) is not made clear.

Finally, after much heralding from Gary Clail and the On U Sound System, and a fanfare of fireworks, Happy Mondays shamble on. Shaun Ryder greets the crowd with the cryptic query "where's me pickled herrings?". It's in this kind of lapse into bathos that Happy Mondays' "significance" has come to reside. They've come to be esteemed merely for unprepossessing details: for Shaun's refusal to trim his untamed nose hairs and bum fluff, for Bez's glazed vacancy. Similarly, the Mondays' gatecrashing of the Top Of The Pops party has been celebrated in
terms suspiciously reminiscent to the approbation meted out to The Wedding Present and The Pogues. The Mondays are reprobates soiling pristine pop with their warts-and-all anti-charisma, making a mess on the carpet and vandalising the fittings.

I say: Happy Mondays the indisputably magnificent underground band, make for a piss-poor pop group. No sex appeal, no style, no melodies, bar the one by the dodgy South African, and the chunk of "Ticket To Ride" in the middle of "Lazy-Itis". At the same time, the crystalline proto-funk of Squirrel And G-Man and Bummed has declined into a right dog's dinner of a quasi-pop sound, a garbled and gurned confusion of pop tinsel, Acid house production and rock grunge, with Ryder's scabby gibberish bobbing about queasily amidships.

I saw Happy Mondays' once before, in '87, when Melody Maker was practically alone in heralding them. They were crap. Nothing has changed, except that they have more technology and more volume at their disposal. The Mondays still can't funk to save their lives, but what they can do is set up a lobotomised groove somewhere between a scuffed and shabby House and the deadbeat stomp of The Fall: a rhythm simple enough for white people to shuffle about to. And shuffle they do, sluggishly and earnestly, willing this to be the Event it's cracked up to be.

What's the Mondays have lost is readily apparent. An early song like "Tart Tart" is still an irrestible surge of glacial trance-rock, somewhere between The Velvet Underground and The Fatback Band. But the new tracks are, at best,an endearing shambles, at worst, a bloody, boring mess. "Hallelujah" remains a real sow's ear of a song. On "He's Gonna Step On You Again", the Mondays guitarist can't manage the moderately sublime, fuzz-boogie riff of the original, so emits a feeble, doodled gesture at same, that's completely lost in the turmoil. For "Lazy-Itis", a silver-haired and bewildered Karl Denver is wheeled on, to duet inaudibly with Ryder. Through it all, Bez who looks like Hugh Laurie after three years in a concentration camp) continues the endless, moronic traipse that is his dance, his feet retracing
the same listless steps as though he's crushing grapes.

Somewhere along the line, a distinction has to be made between the radically mindblowing, and the merely mindless. That's what the Mondays have degenerated into: a massive levelling down of consciousness, a bovine pleasure, pop music to masticate, like chewing gum or cud. Only the closing "Wrote For Luck" lives up to the hype: the tumultuous avalanche of cultural garbage that is the Mondays' sound suddenly escalates to 'white light white heat', and what we have is the "Sister Ray" of Acieeed. By the end, it's reached a transcendent plateau of sheer de-evolution, with Bez and the saucily attired backing singer rolling about like protozoan creatures in the primordial soup. But then it all fizzles out like a damp squib, with the Mondays snubbing the audience's calls for a
second encore, and punters exiting disgruntled.

So wherein lies the Happy Mondays' "significance"? They are significant,
but largely because they've been willed into a phenomenon, pushed from the hip by the Hip. There are other factors, of course: the perennial con of Manchester mystique, plus various sociological vectors. The Mondays have been proclaimed as the first, truly working class band to emerge since punk: real kids in possession of the truth that's "only known by guttersnipes". But it's closer to the truth to call them lumpen-proletarian pop. This was Marx's term for the underclass who've
lapsed from dignified labour into a lifestyle of shifty shiftlessness, petty crime, conniving, and other opportunistic means of survival. Not for nothing did Marx regard the lumpen-proletariat as a counter-revolutionary class, a sewer spawning illiberalism and sometimes support for tinpot dictators. Indeed, a crucial element of the Thatcher programme is the systematic debasement of the proletariat (bound together by solidarity and the discipline of labour) into a lumpen proletariat (indigent and faithless, except to kith'n'kin and mates).

Where Mark E. Smith's lyrics are oblique observations of Northern underclass grotesquerie, Shaun Ryder's drivel is more like the Id of the lumpen-proletariat speaking its bloody mind aloud: discredited knowledges, warped notions, bigotries and balderdash. This is fine up to a point, a sign of the times, a new thing in pop (the revenge of the plebeian upon pop's aristocratic pretensions). But when I listen to Happy Mondays now, I don't think otherworldly like I once did, I think: eating at the Golden Egg, acid casuals, terrace anthems, dog-fights and hunting rats with air rifles, Hofmeister, betting shops. Pickled herrings. Reality, for sure, nose hairs and all. But who needs it?

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