Review: Happy Mondays – Excess All Areas – by Simon Spence
This is the third Simon Spence book that I have read. He is a very talented music journalist from Manchester with a taste for documenting, wild, stylish cultural movements that have emerged from the Madchester craziness. Excess All Areas covers perhaps the most successful and innovative band to have ridden the early acid house craze that swept the nation in the mate 1980s. With the charismatic Shaun Ryder heading up the band, a true hedonist, a notorious substance abuser, it was always difficult for the true Happy Mondays to translate through the myriad web of journalists who tried to document them. Ryder, much to the annoyance of most of the musical backdrop of the band, Paul Ryder (Bass), Gary Whelan (Drums), Paul Davis (keyboard), Mark Day (Guitar), Mark ‘Bez’ Berry (dancer), got into a habit of blagging the press and feeding them over the top exaggerations of the band’s history and exploits. In hindsight, this was pure marketing genius and led to much of the mystery and notoriety that paved the way for success. However, it sifting all the bullshit, has made the writing of this book that much more difficult for Simon Spence. The early days of a relatively privileged middle class upbringing contrasts with the bunch of Manchester council estate ‘scallies’ they tried to portray themselves as. Sure there was petty crime and shopflifting etc. but nothing serious, although perhaps the addition of Bez to the group was actually verging on real true life crime as he obviously was up to the neck in it as a youngster and quite obviously expanded his mini empire quite a lot under the guise of being part of the band…. Manchester Giants, Factory Records and Tony Wilson picked up the band and signed them which paved their way to success following the ilk of luminaries Joy Division and New Order and allowing them direct access to one of the UK’s most influential music venues, the Haçienda. It all happened at just the right time for this band, as the cultural rebellion against failed Thatcherism took hold of the UK’s disillusioned youth masses and expressed itself in the ‘Acid House’ movement. Ecstasy-fuelled, fashion shifts, mass movement and gathering of people in raves, parties and festivals, vast increase in polydrug clubbing and mainstream ending of anti-drug taboos. A lot of this movement was driven by DJs and the Mondays’ uniqueness was that they became one of the first genuine rock/dance crossover groups, who embraced the lifestyle and tried their best to incorporate the new music technology into traditional guitar-based rock. They were definitely pioneers in this sense and for me their link up with Spectrum’s Paul Oakenfold and his studio partner Steve Osbourne, was absolutely critical. Early days there was a struggle for financial success and Factory mismanagement of funds and artistic decadence led to much poverty. Heavy use of narcotics: cocaine, crack, heroin and ecstasy, was where a lot of the cash ended up. Bez and Shaun often boasted of being ecstasy dealers and there presence in the Hacienda’s E corner was much felt. The struggles of professional music led to relationship breakdowns and the loneliness of single life manifested in some serious drug addictions, mainly Shaun’s heroin addiction. This was all brutal and eyeopening to read. You always felt a little sorry for the band and as you read want to really have been giving them all a big cuddle, but maybe that’s just the ‘E’ talking…. Success eventually came with four critically acclaimed studio albums. They threatened a US breakthrough but never managed to follow the likes of Depeche Mode in emulating this, often short, late bands sets and excessive tour partying contributed to this failure. However, in the UK they were a huge band and record sales were good. The music press looked after them very well. Melody Maker, NME et al supporting most of the early stuff and shooting them on many front covers. At one stage, after Princess Diana, Shaun Ryder was the second most publicised celebrity in the UK. The legendary Barbados crack cocaine binge / studio session is covered although I wanted to hear a more complete tale of the actual detailed goings on of this debacle. Ultimately the band fell apart due to the multitudinous variety of industry pressures. However, the positive note is that they continued to rock on and as I write this my tickets have just arrived for their Nov 29th gig on their latest Greatest hits tour, where they will be doing an event at my Student Union at Cardiff University. Can’t wait for that, nor to get to grips with Simon Spence’s next offering.