Don’t be fooled by the Happy Mondays.
Behind a very carefully contrived image of slack and dissolute, behind album titles like Squirrel and G-Man Twenty Four Hour Party People Plastic Face Carnt Smile (White Out), behind the edifice of a shambolic live show that wants you to believe it barely holds itself together, is a very sharp band.
Playing the second Auckland date of their down-under tour to showcase their 1990 album Pills ‘n’ Thrills And Bellyaches and which featured all of the record, the Mondays came on stage at a packed Powerstation — the show sold out so fast a second date, which they played the night before, was added a just a couple of days before the first was announced — surprisingly on time. An instrumental jam under blue lights was led by Rowetta, the only non-Salford-lad member of the band, flailing her whips and demonstrating quite ably how she managed to blag her way into the Mondays, with Paul Ryder and Mark Day joining her to warm the crowd up.
It was a crowd I felt quite at home in — Mondays and James and sundry other Manchester t-shirts dotted throughout, one grey-haired chap even wearing one from Cities In The Park, a festival I went to Heaton Park for to see The Wonder Stuff in 1991.
It was a short show. It was billed as a revisit of Pills ‘n’ Thrills, and that was their main set, all ten songs, banged out with an energy that belies the band’s age. Well, this was certainly true of Bez, dancing, in the wonderful, indescribable, “I simply don’t care; I’m having fun and I can barely believe my luck” way that only Bez can dance. And it was true of Rowetta, her voice as strong on Step On as ever it was. It was less true of the Ryder boys. Shaun moved little; perhaps, on a stage as small as the Powerstation’s, shared with Bez, this is wise. Paul moved less. And Day pulled a couple of guitar-hero shapes during God’s Cop, but otherwise he stayed mostly in his spot, stage left. It was a shorter show than expected, too — while Hallelujah and Twenty Four Hour Party People got an airing during the encore, Wrote For Luck, which was on the setlist, didn’t.
It hardly mattered. Day and Paul Ryder are still talented musicians, Ryder finding grooves on his bass for Day to slither in and out of with his guitar, while Rowetta’s vocals, the strongest musical contribution of the evening, filled the room. Shaun Ryder remains the hardest thing in the Mondays’ lineup to pin down. Bez is, clearly, there for pure entertainment and not a whole lot else; on that level, he’s very good value. Paul and Mark Day pull the band’s sound together and keep it tight. But Shaun is the frontman, and it’s not always easy to fathom him. He’s got some of the swagger of an Ian Brown, but he also has, sadly, even less singing talent than Brown. Like Liam Gallagher, he’s largely inert on stage. But they’re Mancs. Ryder’s a Salford lad, and that means a different kind of cockiness, a very slightly awestruck bravado with a huge amount of “right, I’m ‘avin’ fun tonight.”
I struggled — I struggled and I’m from Salford — to follow all of what Ryder said to Bez between songs. To be fair, I spoke to Bez on the phone a couple of months ago, and struggled to follow much of what he said then, too. But when Ryder started to sing — where, let’s be fair, we use the word as generously as possible — it’s clear that under the Little Hulton exterior, the zipped-up jacket and trucker cap and sunglasses and throughly ill-advised shorts, there is a talented and sharp performer. Ryder knows exactly what his audience want. They’re not there for the close harmonies — they could have got that a couple of nights ago when The Eagles were at Spark Arena. They want to hear Ryder snarl his way through God’s Cop, or chant-sing Dennis and Lois, they want him sing Grandbag’s Funeral with Rowetta, they want it to be 1990 again and they want it to the the eighth day, the day God created Madchester. And that’s precisely what Shaun Ryder and the rest of the Happy Mondays provide.
No, don’t be fooled by the Happy Mondays. There’s a reason why they’re still selling out decades after their baggy heyday. Despite a very carefully contrived image, they’re a superbly tight and talented band.
Except Bez. He’s just barking.