On the eve of releasing the notorious Pills 'n' Thrills and Bellyaches album, Manchester's drugged-up Happy Mondays invaded the USA and created mayhem. Betty Page tagged along to file this report for Vox magazine in October 1990——Barney Hoskyns, Editorial Director, Rock's Backpages
"Get that thing off, man... get that dangerous f***ing motherf***ing thing off!"
Shaun Ryder has just had the tip of my sleek black Olympus microcassette machine thrust into his unsuspecting face. But this face can smile, because he knows it's all his fault. The day before he had been in the bar of the Ommi Park Central hotel in New York showing off the very same toy to me — a deadly miniature bugging device ideal for the clandestine Watergate-style taping of interesting conversations.
For Happy Mondays' frontman and voice has been up to some serious mischief, having managed to record for posterity an entire "bedroom situation" experienced by one of the Mondays' entourage. The victim remains nameless, but as a piece of aural entertainment, Shaun has it rated as "double mega", due to the fact that prior to the achievement of any result, 40 minutes of "bullshit" had been endured by the female party in question.
Shaun never has minded a little sneaky behaviour. "Sneaky thieving" has often been on the Mondays' agenda, but that's now largely a thing of the past.
The Mondays' shoplifting exploits have been well documented, but now that they've earned themselves a bit of cash, they want to spend it. And America provides them with excellent opportunities for conspicuous consumption; Shaun is dead happy that he's just blown a grand on some Armani gear, Bez has been showing off an expensive new Tag watch he bought in Chicago. Let it be said that the Mondays are not the scruffy, spotty, greasy yobs of yore. Nowadays they're smart lads in more ways than one, and they've come to take on the United States; where there's a wad, there's a way.
In the summer of 1990, Happy Mondays are visiting the Big Apple for the third time, their previous forays now being the stuff of legend.
The first came three years ago for three brief but action-packed days. The scruffed-up Salford lads would've done anything to get to New York for the first time, and they thought they knew it all. They arrived on holiday visas, and hired equipment when they arrived on the advice of Factory Records' boss Tony Wilson, who duly booked them into that notorious Bohemian hang-out the Chelsea Hotel (infamous for being the place Sid Vicious allegedly killed Nancy Spungen) in the hope that some kind of scam could be pulled.
They played at the Limelight club, the gig was dreadful, the gear was rubbish, so they duly trashed it after the show. Then, deciding to ignore the fact that drinking alcohol on the street is illegal here, the band ended up having arguments with the police because they didn't see why they couldn't drink their beer like they did at home.
They were young, brash, brattish, looked cheap and behaved even cheaper. Shaun remembers now that "we even had Gazelle trainers on. Wouldn't be seen dead in them now."
Visit number two happened last summer, when the band toured with the Pixies, one of a select few quality bands on independent labels (also including the Sugarcubes) that had been picked up by Elektra Records in America to form a neat package to take full advantage of the US college radio and club circuit.
As soon as they disembarked at JFK, the Mondays went straight up to Harlem to visit the crack houses, and narrowly missed an appointment with a drug dealer's gun barrel, saved only by their complete ignorance of the potential danger they were in. Thinking back now, Shaun can't believe they ever got out alive. This time it's all a bit more relaxed, more mellow, more [gasp] mature. The Mondays are midway through their seven-city Call The Cops American tour, and they're getting 'lockouts' wherever they go — the end result of that slog on tour with the Pixies. Now they have a chance to make a genuine breakthrough into American rock awareness. That is certainly the fervent hope of Factory Records' President Anthony H Wilson, who is here in New York with "his boys" to host a panel at the New Music Seminar which is taking place in the city.
Wilson thoroughly enjoys basking in the reflecting glory/notoriety of the Happy Mondays, even though he has been known to call them "scum". He will always speak dramatically about "his boys" despite the fact that "his boys" think he's a bit of a tosser.
He sees the Mondays as currently experiencing what he would term "a fulcrum moment". He used to see them as the new Sex Pistols, but now he's beginning to formulate a grander vision, on the scale of the Beatles or the Stones.
The Wilson Plan has the Mondays spearheading another British music revolution in the States which will sweep them to the pinnacle of the charts and bring in their wake a host of newer, younger bands like Northside (curiously, also on Factory).
He will subsequently find himself attempting to explain to an audience full of blank-faced American music business seminar delegates how exactly this Manchester-based beat group revolution is to happen. But he remains convinced that "the culture will sell the band and the band will sell the culture," as he is fond of repeating.
The groundwork for this selling of indie-dance-rock-ecstasy culture to Uncle Sam has been carefully nurtured. The media has been fed what it wants to hear, the word has been spread through American clubs by the United States Of The Hacienda tour, "From Manchester With Love", showcasing the best bands and the best DJs, which culminated with a week's residency at New York's Sound Factory.
After an article in the Los Angeles Times, there came the recently published "Stark Raving Manchester" article in Newsweek magazine, which was laughable in its attempts to translate the scene into bite-sized American pieces. It speaks of kids being "stoned out of their gourds, their Monkees haircuts bobbing... The new music is buoyant, almost goofy... The fashion grafts British football gear onto American hippie glad rags, with a soupcon of Jetsons futurism."
In a cartoon world, all you can expect is Mickey Mouse journalism. We have some way to go before America Understands, for it has yet to wake up...
The Happy Mondays roadshow arrives in New York in time for Northside's first showcase at the Sound Factory, which, with its pillars, comfortingly reminds everyone of the Hacienda, especially since half of Manchester is here anyway. The band wander around looking calm and quite docile, but this could have had something to do with the fact that the venue doesn't have a licence to sell alcohol.
The following day, Shaun is scheduled to take part in a Seminar panel entitled "Stars Of Tomorrow", but nobody has bothered to tell him about it. Manager Nathan McGough (arrogant Scouse son of ex-Scaffolder Roger McGough) does, however, keep his appointment with the panel hosted by Tony Wilson entitled "Wake Up America, You're Dead", a contentious little title if ever there was one. The panel itself turns out to be a fine example of sardonic Northern wit and wind-up in action, but also provides a handy layperson's guide to how the Happy Mondays came to be in their current prominent position.
Wilson and McGough are accompanied by DJ Paul Dennis and comic actor Keith Allen, recently responsible for the lyrics to New Order's England World Cup Squad anthem 'World In Motion', which has led to him being adopted by the Factory crowd as an honorary Mancunian. On the American side of the table are seminal House producers Marshall Jefferson and Derrick May.
Wilson kicks off by using expletives for dramatic effect: "You used to know how to dance here. God knows how you f***ing forgot. In 1964 a couple of little English beat groups, The Stones and The Beatles, came here and said, 'Can we meet our heroes?' and they said, 'Who are your heroes?' and they said, 'The R&B people'. They had to find them working in hamburger bars because America, tragically having created R&B, it took a pile of little English kids to reintroduce them and make America aware of itself. Hopefully a similar project will he happening over the next two years."
Nathan puts in his bid for a place in the history books by contributing to the enduring Mondays myth: "House music became the backdrop for the club culture which then focused and determined the new attitude of British youth which Happy Mondays then took and expressed as a group and through that became the focal point, the anti-heroes of the new youth culture. The raison d'etre of Thatcherism was to do it for yourself, get off your arse, make some money. For people like Shaun and Bez who didn't have the educational privilege or motivation to do a straight job and the thousands like them from British council estates, what developed was a mass criminal youth culture.
"When Ecstasy came along, you could sell it for £20, £30 a tablet. They'd been to Ibiza, met the guys who ran the clubs and were able to get hold of thousands of E. They became the E dealers in Manchester. First it was the drugs, and then through drugs they found music.."
The blank faces get angry. Keith Allen says "all you Americans are embarrassed about drugs" and the whole thing nearly ends in fisticuffs with May and Jefferson walking out.
It's Tuesday evening at the Omni Park Central and the Happy Mondays are blissfully unaware of the fact that an awful lot of gobshite has been spewed forth today on their behalf. They are busy having a good time at work and at play. Ronnie, alias Gaz Whelan, Mondays' drummer, has just returned from Queens, where he was nearly arrested after an argument with a taxi driver. He's waiting to go and see a baseball game and is moaning about having to share a room with his manager Nathan, who he 'affectionately' describes as a "Scouse knobhead".
Gaz is not pleased to hear that Nathan and Wilson have been raking up the same old drug-dealing stories again. "It's going to get someone into trouble. They don't seem bothered about the consequences," he says, adding that he'd recently taken E for the first time in nearly a year. He's worried that they might encourage a juicy drug bust in order to revel in the publicity it would generate. He'd prefer them both to be more concerned with the fact that 'Step On' is on heavy rotation on the radio, the video is on MTV, but you can't seem to buy the single in the shops.
Shaun takes a break from his role in the filming of a Central TV documentary about the Mondays (for which the band has been given £20,000) to invite us to "check out the jeans, man — Armani...."
Shaun tells how he particularly enjoyed playing to the college crowd in Boston because they were "Armani-d up".
The Mondays don't like playing to dirty greasy rock fans; its a myth that they wear flares now. They wore flares six years ago when they couldn't afford anything else. The Stone Roses and the lnspiral Carpets wear flares, but the Mondays think that both those bands are being manipulated.
They buy Armani because working class lads all want to spend their money on good clothes. They buy the best stuff because they can afford it. Now they have New York street kids staring at them enviously because they wear Travel Fox trainers which cost $200 over here. Shaun looks at a picture of himself taken three years ago and thinks he looks like a schoolboy; now he swaggers like a young Jagger...
We adjourn for a few swift halves in the Irish Pub with Shaun, keyboard player Paul Davis — only his mates call him Knobhead — tour manager Ian and minder/mate/assistant Muzzer; everyone is in relaxed mode and the stories are falling thick and fast. Like how they were offered $60,000 to play one gig in Brazil. How Paul can't remember a thing about playing in Ibiza a few weeks ago. How Bez already has £8000 in his pocket from selling his story to the News Of The World. And about how Shaun hates the Inspiral Carpets...
They were sitting in Manchester's Dry bar when the Inspirals were talking about why keyboard player Clint Boon does all the interviews because they don't want girls hanging around outside their homes bothering them when they're big pop stars. "'They're just knobheads, man, clueless knobheads," says Shaun. "Who wants to be a pop star anyway? We were more clued up when we were 13."
The Mondays have always been strong-willed enough to know what they want, and they don't want to be pop stars. They like the security money gives them, they're happy to do the thing they're best at, and it gives them a good lifestyle. Contrary to popular belief, the hand don't take the piss, take the money and run. They're remarkably honest in many ways, but their ethic is that when you don't have money, you sell drugs or steal — but never from your own kind.
Then there's the drugs. They don't deal any more, they just do stuff for "persie" — personal use only; they now cringe about the drug dealing references because they're now making enough money to buy the things they've always wanted without all that.
Shaun is particularly self-contained and self-aware, and not at all out of his head. Tonight he doesn't appear to be the 24 hour party person of myth and legend. In fact, at the end of the evening's drinking, he and Bez both say they're going straight back to the hotel because they've "got loads of work to do tomorrow."
They are smart enough to realise that what keeps them in expensive clothes/hotels/good lifestyles and being able to afford houses for the first time is hard work. They don't want to sit on their arses doing loads of coke.
"Everyone thinks Bez has about two pounds of coke up his nose all the time and he's on about eight E's," says photographer Kevin Cummins. "Tonight he was just like a relaxed lad on his holidays, but no one tries to see that. Everyone expects them to be this loveable rogue cartoon band who have a great time staying up all night."
Shaun relaxes sufficiently to talk about his family (his father, Derek, is, of course, part of the entourage; it obviously amuses Shaun to see his old boy going even more mental than he does — he says his old girl prays for them every day), and reveals that his girlfriend is pregnant; Shaun Ryder is about to become a dad. Is he ready for such responsibility?
"I'm 27 years old and our kid [younger brother Paul] has had kids for years, so if I'm not ready now I never will be. But its gonna be an Aries, and I didn't want an Aries cos I know loads of 'em and they're all f***ing mad."
The next record out of the Mondays' stable is due to be a cover version Shaun is doing of Donovan's 'Colours'. A backing track has been completed, but now they're waiting for Johnny Marr to do a guitar part. They want it to be a summer record — the mellowest record in the third summer of love — and hope to get it finished in LA when the Mondays go out there to start recording their next album with producer/DJ/remixer Paul Oakenfold.
Shaun recounts with amusement how the band recently went to Colne, Lancashire to see Donovan play at a club full of people who looked like they taught at Tech college. Shaun said to him, "What you doing man, you could be playing the Haccie." They wanted to take him down to The Hacienda to show him how great it would've been to have 1500 people mellowing out listening to Donovan play an acoustic set. Shaun says "He's still a cool guy, still smokes a bit of weed..."
Wednesday July 18: Happy Mondays headline the last night of the Hacienda tour at the Sound Factory. A Guy Called Gerald and Adamski are billed to play, but blow the show. Only 808 State remain on the bill with them.
At the soundcheck, the troops are getting restless waiting for Shaun and Nathan to arrive. A full-scale water pistol war is breaking out between Bez, Gaz and a couple of Northsiders. Mark "Cow" Day relates how he thought he nearly got electrocuted onstage the other day but it was only his guitar string breaking.
They are all determined to arrive at the gig tonight in a limo. But not any ordinary limo. Only a limo with a jacuzzi will do.
Shaun finally turns up with a further clothing purchase in a smart designer store bag. "Top shirt. Not bad, only $50, alright for onstage." Not bothered that he has held up the soundcheck to buy a new polo shirt, he assures us of his priorities: "When the going gets tough, the tough go shopping."
Back at the Irish Pub before the show, Shaun is wearing his new shirt. Someone complains about the fact that Sound Factory can't sell any drink; Shaun says there may be no alcohol, but there will be 25 Es in the fruit punch...
Their limo (without jacuzzi, unfortunately) awaits to whisk them downtown. Bez and Muzzer have already had a trial run and it looks like they've had everything from the bar. By the time we get in with manager Nathan and attendant female acquaintances, there's only the napkins left.
Our ostentatious arrival at the venue is met by the gratifying sight of a queue right round the block. Hundreds of people end up being turned away at the door; it's another lockout.
In the hastily curtained off backstage area at Sound Factory, the party is well underway. Just about everybody here seems to be well on one, or certainly on fruit punch. The security is heavy, and they're panicking about the backstage crush. A bouncer spots Bez dancing on top of a seating area, moves over, lifts him up and puts him on the floor. Muzzer has to make him aware that Bez is, actually, in the band...
The Mondays hit the stage and the audience are going mental. The Mondays are positively throbbing tonight, with a stupendous version of 'Wrote For Luck' and stomping 'Step On'.
Keith Allen is lying prostrate on some flight cases, dead to the world. Just before the encore, he springs up, smiling insanely, definitely not on a natural high. He leaps straight onstage with the band as if it's the most natural thing to do, casually out-Bezzing Bez. The party carries on, and on, and on, after the show, which everyone agrees has been a really good one. New York has, perhaps, finally woken up to what's happening.
Thursday July 19: 2.30pm. The band has an hour to catch their flight to Los Angeles and their next gig. None of the band get back to the hotel before midday. Eyes are decidedly red and vacant; Armani jeans have not been properly buttoned. Nobody knows where Nathan is. But the bikini world of California beckons.
The band leave in an assortment of cabs, cars and spacemobiles and we are instructed to wait for Nathan in case he doesn't have enough for his cab fare. He appears two minutes later as if nothing is out of the ordinary. He is a happy man. New York loved the show. They'd never seen anything like it. Awesome, those Mondays — people dancing all the time. Just awesome. Maybe America had forgotten how to dance, but the Happy Mondays are helping it to remember.
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