Kinky_AfroListen to this track by Madchester scene-stealers and dance-indie-psych-rock purveyors Happy Mondays. It’s “Kinky Afro”, their top five UK hit single that would otherwise appear on their landmark 1990 album Pills ‘n’ Thrills And Bellyaches, their third LPThat release would consolidate the band on the scene as being one of the key acts coming out of Manchester by the end of the 1980s and into the 1990s. It would also provide an important template for many bands from similar geographic origins to follow during that decade, including The Charlatans and Oasis.

Along with The Stone Roses, Happy Mondays were among the acts that best helped to represent a few movements during that time period in Greater Manchester. First, their output would re-emphasize something that had been firmly established in the 1960s; that music scenes springing from the provinces in Britain were in many cases just as vital as those centered in London, which was still viewed as the seat of the industry. Second, the sound which the Mondays had developed since their formation in 1980 showed that rock bands still had musical regions to explore that remained largely untapped.

But, what else did Happy Mondays bring to that scene, and what do they deliver on this song? Well, I think it has to do with how rock music needed to develop by that time, and how much a sense of the dark side needed to be re-injected into the mix, too.

The Manchester sound at the end of the eighties stood in defiance to the divisions between genres that were so strict otherwise during that decade. Specifically, this meant an amalgam of Northern Soul, funk, house music, psychedelia, and traditional guitar-bass-drums rock all pushed together and made to play nice together. The walls between these musical forms were begining to falter, with British post-punk and continental European disco and electronica beginning to be found in record collections more and more, with fans and musicians alike seeking a common thread between them. It would be the birth of “baggy”. The result of this helped to feed the vibrant club scene centered in Manchester, more pointedly around The Haçienda club, owned by broadcaster, Factory Records label head, and impressario Tony Wilson, in partnership with New Order and their management, with that band also being a product of an amalgam of dance music and post-punk.

Another characteristic found on that scene was an emphasis on the hedonistic side of human experience, mixed in with a Sex Pistols-inspired punk attitude of the decade before. It was the sound of being inside the club, part of the heaving throng, and being subsumed by the pure physicality of that (possibly chemically-aided) moment. It’s also about something else that has existed in rock music all along; a spirit of rebellion, and an element of disdain for social mores outside of one’s own crowd.  That sounds pretty clinical when spelled out like that. But, that was lead singer and lyricist Shaun Ryder’s genius; being able to express a sort of dingy and rumpled disregard for accepted morality in his writing, embody it on records and in performance in a way that all the best frontmen aspired to do before him, and doing so in a way that really hadn’t ever been done before. After a decade of earnest and politicized rock music in Britain, the Mondays flew the banner of sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll instead.

A big part of that is how he presents himself to his audience, on this single in particular. His delivery is informed by the punk ethos of singing in one’s own voice, with his decidedly Mancunian bark making him a singular vocalist alone. The lyrics too were full of rancor and danger, also very punk rock — “I had to crucify somebody today”. Yet, the refrain from LaBelle’s 1975 funk-soul anthem “Lady Marmalade” is quoted too, making Ryder’s portrait of a swaggering rebel who “only went with your mum ’cause she’s dirty …” fit for the dance floor as well as for the rock club. This was rock music rooted in the latest musical movements, but also hearkened back to a time when dancing to rock music was a matter of course, not something to be embarrassed by. We’d strayed away from that for a while as rock audiences. This song was a herald to a new way to frame how rock bands wrote, arranged, and presented their music to audiences that loved The Sex Pistols and Patti LaBelle at the same time.

After a debacle of a follow-up album in 1992 in Yes Please!, an epic adventure which included lost methadone doses at Manchester Airport, lots of crack cocaine to fill the heroin gap, fruitless recording sessions in Barbados, and even kidnapped master tapes, Happy Mondays broke up, taking Factory Records with them. But, despite all that, the road they helped to pave for the rest of the decade for many Britpop acts, and any rock band to include a soulful groove in with loud guitars is a vital one for the history of pop music, particularly in Britain.

Still, after Ryder and other members of the Mondays formed another band, Black Grape which was also based on a musical amalgam approach, mixing Britpop with hip hop, Happy Mondays has reformed a number of times from the late nineties to the early two-thousand-tens.

Happy Mondays are an active band today with Shaun Ryder, and dancer-percussionist Mark “Bez” Berry, still out front. You can investigate their latest movements at happymondaysonline.com, just in time for the Pills ‘n’ Thrills And Bellyaches 25th anniversary tour.

For more on the history of the Manchester music scene from the late 1970s to the early 1990s, I urge you to watch the film 24 Hour Party People, starring Steve Coogan as Tony Wilson.

Enjoy!

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