Monday, 7 April 2014

Happy, stoned and cool as f*ck

For a young, fanatical music nerd like myself, the late 80s and early 90s were wonderfully exciting years. For me in particular, going to college and finding out about whole genres of music I never even knew about – and loving them – was hugely inspiring. As has always been the case, the music press were just itching to latch onto the next big thing, the next fad, the next movement. The dozen-or-so years that spanned these two decades spawned a succession of such scenes. We were fed C86, rave, Riot Grrls and Britpop. All of these had an effect on me one way or another, but in amongst them all were Madchester and Grunge, the two that I particularly immersed myself in.

I’m not a big fan of labelling and categorising music as a rule. Much of the music I listen to tends not to fall neatly into any particular genre. In fact the best stuff defies the whole concept of ‘genre’. For instance, are the White Stripes blues, country, punk, garage, alternative rock, a fusion of all of them, or something else entirely? Lemmy famously refuses to label Motörhead as anything other than “rock and roll” . The other problem is that genres give us an immediate expectation of what something is rather than allow us to make up our own minds. So if something is described a being “jazz-influenced”, I’m likely to dismiss it out of hand as I really am not much of a jazz fan. I gradually came to realise the futility of assigning genres and pigeonholing artists throughout the 90s as the music press invented increasingly rubbish sub-genres of existing rubbish sub-genres. But back in the late 80s, I relied on names of genres as a way of helping me to find out about the sort of music I might like.

Madchester and grunge evolved on different sides of the Atlantic at the same time. Grunge was centred around Seattle, WA. while Madchester, as the name suggests, was rooted in the northern English city of Sheffield. Ha! Only kidding… The press began to realise the stirrings that were happening in Manchester among both the live music scene and the clubs. Indie bands like James, the Stone Roses and the Happy Mondays seemed to be blending more dance-based rhythms and sounds into their music. New Order were drawing more and more on the acid house phenomenon alongside the likes of A Guy Called Gerald who made what is widely believed to be the first UK acid house single (Voodoo Ray) in 1988.

Of course, once the press ‘discovered’ this was all going on (ie: once they found their way out of London onto the M6), it became a viable ‘scene’ and NME, Melody Maker, Sounds, the whole lot of them couldn’t wait to proclaim it the coolest new thing. Meanwhile, I was listening to the Wedding Present, R.E.M. and the Sugarcubes, trying to keep a distance from the hype. You see, I’ve always felt it’s rather uncool to try to be cool. If you jump into something just because someone tells you it’s the cool thing to do, you get found out pretty quickly. So as Madchester brewed away, I sat back cynically and observed from the sidelines.

I did, however, buy a couple of the records that emerged from the fledgling scene. Come Home by James, Find Out Why by the Inspiral Carpets and the record that was to give this scene its name Madchester (Rave On), a four-track EP by the Happy Mondays (actually, I was given a white label 12” promo of that by a local indie record shop. I still have it and am open to sensible bids…) But it was the Stone Roses who everyone seemed to be constantly banging on about and I remained rather cautious about them, refusing to be drawn into the hype machine. Then one day I heard their album and it all changed.

The Stone Roses’ eponymous debut album is often cited in such lists as ‘greatest debut albums of all time’, ‘records that changed the world’, ‘best ever records ever made ever!’, and in all honesty I can’t find myself disputing its eligibility. In spite of my guarded, cynical approach, that record blew me away, and it pretty much still blows me away to this day. While I maintain R.E.M.’s Lifes Rich Pageant[1] has the best opening sequence of songs on an album, without a doubt the best closing sequence occurs on The Stone Roses: Shoot You Down, This Is The One and I Am The Resurrection. Impossible to separate those tracks, in my opinion, they work as one.

The defining moment of the entire Madchester scene occurred in November 1989 when the Stone Roses and the Happy Mondays appeared on the same edition of Top of the Pops[2] (the latter ably assisted by the divine Kirsty MacColl). At that time, if just one indie band appeared on TotP, it was worth tuning in for; so two was an event. From that moment on, Madchester was mainstream. Predictably, its borders opened and Madchester became ‘baggy’. Now nationwide, ‘baggy’ described the clothes the scenesters wore rather then the geographical region the scene was centered.

  “Gotta be loose fit, has to be loose fit…
  Don’t need no skin tights in my wardrobe today
  Fold them all up and put them all away.” – ‘Loose Fit’ by Happy Mondays

The looser and baggier, the better. I myself bought a Joe Bloggs[3] hoodie and wore it with pride a few times before I realised how ridiculous I looked! And yes, I did have the must-have fashion item for Madchester groovers like myself – the obligatory Inspiral Carpets ‘Cool As Fuck’ t-shirt (which I never wore around my nan…). I bought everything the Mondays, the Roses and the Inspirals released, of course, along with the numerous offerings from James and the Charlatans, as well as many of the lesser-known northern bands of the time (Intastella, Top, Paris Angels, World of Twist) and their southern counterparts (Flowered Up, My Jealous God and some long-forgotten outfit called Blur…) I also remember an after-show event at Exeter University (I forget which gig it was) where I danced like an absolute maniac to baggy tune after baggy tune.

Madchester/baggy – whatever you want to call it – really captured my imagination and it was the first real scene/movement – whatever you want to call it – that I felt a part of. It was a very difficult time of my life, what with mum being ill and passing away, but Madchester offered me an escape and the chance to ‘belong’ to something. It was a ‘working class’ scene too. Today’s middle-class hipsters couldn’t be further removed from the likes of Shaun Ryder, Ian Brown et al and those of us in our ‘Cool As Fuck’ t-shirts. During the Thatcher era, we needed something to belong to because (much like in 2014) the working class were being beaten down, trampled on and generally made to feel completely worthless. The youth of that generation saw little future for themselves and a period of partying and hedonism not only emerged, but became the mainstream. It was a rebellion of sorts. We’re lacking such a scene in 2014 when we so badly need one. I mean, who the fuck are Mumford & Sons speaking to exactly?  The cast of Made in fucking Chelsea, that’s who! The hipster ‘scene’ is as rock ‘n’ roll as a Tory Party Conference!

Bizarrely, thanks to Madchester, two previously disparate groups – the indie kids and the ravers – came together as one. In 1992, I was in the crowd as Primal Scream headlined Glastonbury. Just two years before, I had bought Ivy Ivy Ivy, a hard rock single by the Scream. Now I was in a field as they played a set powered on electronic beats. The long hair and baggy hoodies of the indie kids and the white gloves and whistles of the ravers mingled as this one-time C86 jangly indie band summed up once and for all what the last three years had been all about.

Then, a couple of months later in a different field, I saw Nirvana...


As a side note, here's a Happy Mondays-related piece of news some of you may have missed. Fracking hilarious!

[1] As previously discussed here.
[2] Watch the Mondays with Kirsty here (she's probably the only one not completely off her tits...); and the Roses here.
[3] The baggies' label of choice
[4] Possibly my favourite remix of all time. The b-side, Oakenfold's remix of Bob's Yer Uncle is a very close second!


  1. Thank you for sharing your story. Sorry to hear about your mum. Glad you found refuge in the music. I especially appreciate your story as I kept hearing myself in your words. I was in the US having a similar time. A wonderful read.

    1. Thanks. The US 'scene' (Seattle, etc) is coming up...

  2. Wonderful post on an era close to my heart. I was 21 when the Stone Roses dropped, and at the peak of my clubbing days, near Toronto Canada; what a fantastic town for seeing gigs back then, from '89 until about '92 or '93, everybody came through town: Mondays, PWEI (not baggy, still great), Primal Scream, Carpets. Funny, back then I always thought of The Charlatans as also rans, but I have to admit some of their albums sound pretty terrific even today. Can't beat that SR debut, though, although Pills, Thrills...comes pretty damn close!

    1. Thought the Charlatans, like the Inspirals, were a great singles band, but their albums were patchy. It was only when they put out 'Wonderland' that I really enjoyed a full album without skipping tracks. But by then Madchester was long gone, and even Britpop was a memory.

  3. I have been saying it for years, there has been no music scene for years. What have we to look forward to musically? Not much, I'd say. The female singer songwriter?? Yawn!! Even if you go to a music festival nowadays, could could end up seeing Beyonce, Eminem and Arcade Fire on the same stage!!! How confusing is that to the punter? No great bands out there, so we will just get Dolly Parton in for the laugh!! Is it just me or am I just getting old and saying things like, "It was better in the olden days!!"
    I'm just glad I was around for the late 80s and 90s as the standard of music was a lot better. Some of it didn't date well but on the whole most of it stands the test of time. Most albums these days have 4 or 5 good tracks and the rest are fillers!! My daughter will grow up and ask me, "What's a single dad?!!" or "What's a B-Side dad?!!" A B-Side these days is a crappy remix! And that's another thing!! The days when the extended remix was a thing of joy! Come on people! Get it together!!! Rant over. The Band of Skulls new album ain't so bad!

    1. Wow, what a great rant! Love it. This is exactly the kind of thing I'm on about - PASSION; there's so little of it in music these days. You and I grew up in tough times, we had something to rebel against and as I said above, these conditions often inspire and dictate the music, literature, art that comes out of it. I'm all for eclecticism, but as you said there's nothing you can 'belong' to at the mo. Unless you grow a fucking BEARD and wear low-crotch skinny-fit jeans. "Got to be loose fit......"

      Just don't go dissin' Dolly! That woman has more talent in a single false eyelash than the rest of the entire Glastonbury billing put together. And no - that's not irony you detect!

      Not over-enamoured by Band of Skulls, but the new Gallon Drunk is a BEAST!

    2. Ok, I'll take the Dolly rant back!! but I think you know what I was getting at! Far too often they bring in these artists on their zimmer frames because there is nobody else big enough to fill the stage. This wouldn't of happened in the 90s.
      Another good reason Madchester took off is the Mancunian attitude which added a bit of spice. You don't hear much of it these days. They are all too nice!! Gallon Drunk ehhh!! Looking forward to The Strypes tomorrow.