Secret Meeting score: 85
by Chris Hatch
After the success of 1988 album, Bummed, Happy Mondays returned with what would be the album that defined a genre.
The album was released in the summer of 1990, at a time when the Manchester band were riding the crest of the acid house/baggy wave. Legendary nightclub the Hacienda had yet to be completely taken over by local drug gangs, ecstasy was still widespread, and mainstream media had only just started to label Manchester (or Madchester) as the cultural centre of the universe. After trips to Ibiza, and immersing themselves in rave culture, the band were in the white heat of their creativity, but in true Happy Mondays style they barely even realised it – stumbling into different genres, borrowing from their favourite artists, and stealing any shiny new sound they could get their hands on with magpie-like glee. If they liked the sound of it, it went in, without any kind of cynical overthought. And so, having been together as a band for a decade, and with Factory Records giving them free reign to do as they pleased, the foundations for a kaleidoscopic mish mash of an album were laid.
With studio time booked in LA, the band invited Steve Osbourne and now legendary dance DJ/producer Paul Oakenfold to steer the ship after being impressed by the duo’s recent remixes. It was an inspired choice – the duo added a Balearic shimmer to the album’s sound, and pulled together some of the bands more fragmented ideas into coherent songs.
First track, Kinky Afro, opens with acoustic guitars and lush synth strings, and immediately sets itself apart from the ramshackle production of previous album Bummed. However, it isn’t long before the rhythm section crashes in and frontman Shaun Ryder drawls the line “Son I am thirty, I only went with your mother cos she’s dirty/And I don’t have a decent bone in me, what you see is just what you get” – a scuzzy opening statement that shows that the Happy Mondays still have those rough edges. The fact that such an iconic lyric was written in the studio when the rest of the band were on a cigarette break demonstrates that Ryder had the same don’t-overthink-it mentality as a lot of his Factory Records cohorts. Indeed, the rest of the song is littered with brilliant throwaway quips – “Dad you’re a shabby/You run around and groove like a baggy“. A pared down bass line from Paul Ryder (brother to frontman Shaun, who claims that this was his attempt to sound like Hot Chocolate) adds a trademark groove to the song, while Shaun commits the first musical robbery of the album – the chorus line of “yippee yippee aye aye aye aye yay” being nicked from Labelle’s Lady Marmalade. If Step On is the most iconic song the band have recorded, then surely Kinky Afro is the best they’ve written – the album opener setting the hedonistic, sun bleached tone for the rest of the record.
God’s Cop bursts into life with an insane, police-siren, slide guitar that gives way to a swaggering bass line and drum beat that sounds more dancey than the previous track. The first real signs of Osbourne and Oakenfold’s production come into view with the subtle blips of a programmed synth accompanying Paul Davis’ underlying keyboard parts. The song title is a sardonic sideswipe at hardline police constable, James Anderton, who at the time took a tough stance on rave culture and drug use, and at one point claimed to have a ‘direct line to God’. Ryder mockingly sings about an alternate reality where “Me and the chief got soul to soul/Me and the chief got slowly stoned“, and couple this with the chorus of “God laid his Es all on me“, and it’s not hard to imagine Ryder himself having a MDMA-fuelled ‘direct line to God’ at 2am in the Hacienda.
Donovan comes next, and is the song that best defines how eclectic Happy Mondays were when it came to songwriting – a bossa-nova style groove, complete with Latin percussion, held together with a slow funk bass line, forms the spine from which Paul Davis’ keyboard loop can hang. A few bars in an accordion hook weaves its way into the song. Effortlessly done, this is a band who are happy taking elements from all the songs they love and throwing them into the mix; Osbourne and Oakenfold again managing to tease it into a coherent whole. One of the main lyrics takes is cue from 60s psychedelic song Sunshine Superman, whose refrain of “Sunshine shone brightly through my window today” ends up being replaced by “Sunshine shone brightly though my asshole today”, in a song where the lyrics seem to be taking a sly dig at someone who thinks they may be better than they are. The song is bookended by another shoplifted lyric, light-fingered Ryder this time nicking from Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel, and singing “Come up and see me, and make me smile”. On the face of it Donovan could seem like one long lazy piece of plagiarism, but instead it comes across more like an homage to some of the band’s favourite genres and artists.
It’s four songs into the album before the band slip into their old style, with Grandbag’s Funeral sounding the most like previous Mondays albums. The rhythm section pounds out a fairly uninteresting backing to a wandering, woozy guitar line. Ryder’s vocals are at their most stretched, and there is is very little in the way of synths, keys, or backing vocals to soften the sound – a slightly manic, almost fairground-like Hammond organ being the only real accompaniment to the bass/drum/guitar combo. This unpolished, visceral sound speaks more of The Clash than Madchester and acid house (think early Libertines for the guitar line), but with the lyrics being personal to Ryder, it may be that this song had been kicking around for a while before it was recorded.
Loose Fit is the band’s love letter to the Madchester scene. A slow, downtempo backbone underpins a polished sounding guitar that chimes away like the synthesisers in some of the softer-edged tunes played at local raves. “Gotta be loose fit” whispers Ryder, in what would become an anthem for a movement – a movement where the uniform consisted of floppy fringes, loose fitting tie dyed t-shirts, and baggy jeans. The old ways of new wave and punk had gone: no more extra small Fred Perrys, bovver boots, and hooliganism – “Don’t need no skin tights in my wardrobe today/Fold them all up and put them all away” sings Ryder in hushed tones. But Ryder was singing about more than clothes. He was singing about being yourself, none more so than in a chorus which was given a gospel-like quality by guest vocalist, Rowetta – “Do what you’re doin’/Say what you’re sayin’/Go where you’re goin’/Think what you’re thinkin’/Sounds good to me” – a liberal, carefree attitude that echoed the loved up vibe that was around at the time, but that was at the same time irresponsible, bordering on cocky, and would eventually contribute to the downfall of the scene. There was more than a nod to the fact that ravers were slowly taking over the country, illegal raves popping up in abandoned aircraft hangars all over Britain “Gonna buy an airforce base/Gonna wipe out your race/Get stoned in a different place“. With a cocktail of naivety, optimism, and confidence, it is isn’t hard to forgive Madchester for jumping onboard and thinking that the party would never end.
Although the record was recorded in L.A, it was two inhabitants of New York that were to inspire the title of the next song- the eponymous Dennis and Lois are a couple who oddly became well known in the Madchester scene, with an almost cult-like following. With a love for British bands, they took the Mondays under their wing on their US tours, and the friendship grew from there. Whilst the lyrics aren’t directly about the pair, it is no coincidence that The Mondays decided to name their most poppy, and uplifting sounding song after them. A sun-drenched blast of shiny guitars, and bright piano keys, all wrapped up in a euphoric, Balearic haze – it’s only Ryder’s Northern lilt that tethers the song back to Manchester.
Bob’s Yer Uncle sounds like Shaun Ryder channelling Barry White, and is a song that has the hushed vocals of Loose Fit, along with a similar feel musically to Kinky Afro – rich sounding acoustic guitars, and Latin percussion. Oakenfold and Osbourne’s fingerprints can once again be found, with the kind of saxophone riff you’d find on a house record being worked into the verse. “What do you want to hear when we’re making love?” murmurs Ryder, with tongue firmly in cheek. Whilst the lyrics may be half-joking and sung with a knowing wink (vocalist Rowetta made the moans and groans that supplemented the chorus, much to amusement of the rest of the band in the studio at the time), the song is one of the strongest musically on the album, and continues a run of songs that shows the Happy Mondays at their peak.
Most bands would be happy with one genre-defining track in their career, some might get two, but The Happy Monday’s managed to squeeze three into a single album. Step On joins Kinky Afro and Loose Fit as the Holy Trinity of tracks that define the baggy scene, and is a staple of the Madchester sound. It’s opening piano riff has become aural shorthand for 90s indie music as a whole, and opening ad-lib “You’re twisting my melon man” must have adorned many an indie disco promo poster. There’s an amazing simplicity to how the recording came to be – the track started out as an early 70s recording by Christos Demetriou and John Kongos, at some point Tony Wilson (Factory Records boss) passed the record on to the band who decided to cover it for the album. Having listened to it only a handful of times the band pretty much rewrote the song and gave it its trademark sound. Davis’ worked on a simple piano refrain, while guitarist Mark Day set about trying to make the original three guitar parts more manageable – in doing so he came up with a riff that was genius in its simplicity. All the elements are there; the Italian/Latin house piano keys, the swaggering bass line, a simple guitar hook that sang with clarity, and Shaun Ryder’s unmistakable Salford twang, fortified by Rowetta’s soulful backing vocals – this is everything that the Happy Mondays did best.
The last two tracks of the album are a brilliantly fitting end. Holiday is a joyous song that starts with a shimmering funk riff, that gives way to a brilliant gospel choir refrain (a sample from Lover’s Holiday by Change). A song about being stopped at customs and searched for drugs (“you don’t look first class, let me look up your ass“) has never sounded so positive, in fact the lyric “I smell dope, I smell dope, I smell dope” could easily be sung by an excited Shaun Ryder, or a suspicious Customs official. The second half of the song rides out to a brilliant funk/disco backing, before the roaring sound of a jet plane taking off eventually segues into album closer, Harmony. A laid back vibe surrounds the whole song – a floaty, off-kilter slide guitar is joined by a dreamy vocal repeating the word Harmony. It has an end-of-the-night feel that is similar to Screamdelica-era Primal Scream, where things are still slightly out-of-focus enough for you to throw your arms around a stranger. Borrowed lyrics (from The New Seekers) “I’d like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony/Cut it up in little tiny bits, and give it all away for free” speak for a generation of music fans, club-dwellers, and ecstasy users who had rediscovered the hippy ideals of love and togetherness that had been forgotten in the 80s.
Much like the final track of Pill ‘n’ Thrills And Bellyaches, the party WAS about to come to an end for the Happy Mondays, as well as for the Madchester scene. As the drug supply line became run by armed gangs, police cracked down on illegal raves, and landmark club the Hacienda fell on hard times it was clear that the good times wouldn’t quite last. The early beginnings of trance began to ebb into clubs, and the opening bars of many a Britpop hit were being written in bedrooms up and down the country. In 1992 the band released infamous album Yes Please (an album whose recording and release was a major player in Factory Records downfall, and whose story warrants an entirely different article) and received a widespread critical slamming. In hindsight the album was maybe harshly judged by some reviewers, however, times had changed, the public’s tastes had changed, and the party lifestyle had clearly affected some members of the band, as it was disbanded in 1993. They would only return after the turn of the millennium, failing to reach the successes of their past. While the band’s nuclear success may have been short lived, the fallout from the mushroom cloud they followed ended up paving the way for a generation of bands – everyone from Oasis to The Rapture, The Sunshine Underground to Kasabian, and including the superstar DJ phenomenon that swept the late nineties, the seeds that the Happy Mondays had sown came to bear fruit.
It only seems right to end this retrospective review with another of the album’s borrowed lyrics, indeed the last verse from the last song on the album – taken from a 1969 song by Blue Mink, with Ryder editing the lyric to suit what he wanted to say – “What we need is a big big cooking pot/Big enough to cook every wonderful, beautiful, trustworthy, lovely idea we’ve got“. Whether it was through the burgeoning rave scene and the Hacienda, the creative freedom given by Factory Records, the producing prowess of Osbourne and Oakenfold, or the sunny climes of L.A and Ibiza, the band certainly found a big enough cooking pot, big enough for all their tastes and influences, and the result was like nothing that has been heard before or since.