Madchester was all about two bands, The Stone Roses and Happy Mondays. No disrespect to the others, but those were the two big turkeys, and to hear those that lived it tell the story, you were either on Team Roses or Team Mondays. They were more the same than they were different, what with the fuck-all attitude and willingness to borrow liberally from the past. But there was this sense that the Stone Roses really were the Next Big Thing, as gifted as perhaps The Beatles themselves, while the Mondays didn’t seem to have any musical talent whatsoever. Their most famous members were a singer who couldn’t sing and a dancer who couldn’t dance, becoming heroes to the warblers and shamblers who just wanted to pop pills and ride the vibes.
Hey, it worked out in their favor. Teach a man to play guitar and pretty soon he’ll want to play guitar solos. Teach him to write songs and he’ll think he’s the next McCartney. No thanks. Who knows how many chords Mark “Cow” Day knew or how well Gaz Whelan could keep time. Their priorities were #1: Drugs, #2: Money, #3: Women, #1000: Rehearsing, and #1500: Writing songs. One can imagine the way their brief, pissed-up studio sessions went – Horse find a groove, Cow find some chords you like, Shaun come up with some words, Bez sit in the corner and try not to blow chunks all over the expensive speakers. And if nothing comes out, turn on the radio and look for some “inspiration”. Needless to say this put a lot of pressure on the producers, a different one for each album, because who the hell would want to work with these guys twice?
The band’s first album was produced by John Cale, a man who quite frankly didn’t seem to understand the band at all, a side effect of his newfound sobriety. Enter Martin Hannett, the man who had produced Joy Division, Magazine, and The Psychedelic Furs, an eccentric who could go pill-for-pill with the best of ’em. In other words, a perfect fit. Hannett was known as a control freak – the sort who wouldn’t put his name on the record if the drums didn’t sound just right – but that’s exactly what the Mondays needed. Not a perfectionist, just a dude with a vision, a vision that sometimes only he understood. After all, there’s no one out there who sounds quite like him, even though Joy Division’s style has been imitated a hundred times.
Bummed also sounds like nothing else, though it’s not like anyone’s really tried to imitate it. The producer’s job is to play to the band’s strengths, but what exactly is this band’s strong suit? Hannett’s big decision here is to let Happy Mondays be Happy Mondays; whereas the other producers they would work with tried to clean them up, Hannett lets it all hang out and produces accordingly. His way of covering the band’s mistakes is to pile on the reverb and layer enough parts on top of each other that they sorta average each other out. Compounding all this is the fact that many of these songs have structures that are either loose or nonexistent, sometimes seeming like they were made up on the spot. Often it sounds like half the members of the band are playing a different song than the other half.
Now it might sound like I’m ragging on this album, but let me assure you; I absolutely love this disc. It’s a mess, but it’s a mess in the Trout Mask Replica sense, except you can actually dance to it. I love those repetitive, funky bass lines (was Paul Ryder even in the same room as the rest of these guys?), the garbled up keyboard parts, and the twangy, scratchy guitar bits that are most likely about four different takes overlaid on top of one another. I can’t speak to the drugs these guys were on but I will say that this music sounds like all music does when you’re drunk; particularly the way all the layers blend together in some sort of musical haze. There are plenty of effects added in post-production but they often get buried, as though they’re unsure exactly where they want your attention to go. It’s one of those albums that’s tougher to decipher when you’re actually paying attention to it – most songs have at least one “what the hell is that?” element to them.
That is, if you can really call ’em songs. Not a lot choruses here, just prolonged grooves that stomp and thrash around. “Sad Cunt From Preston (Country Song)”, kicks it off, and no doubt that’s what they were going for. It’s got that country drawl, the barrel-house piano, the twangy guitar…it just sounds all wrong somehow, as though they’ve never played country music before. Hell, maybe they’d never even heard country music before, or perhaps got so stoned that they forgot what it sounded like. But you know what, it works, because there sure as hell ain’t anything else like it out there. Plus, there’s an actual tune there, something that would go missing for a while – “Moving In With” and “Mad Cyril” are so gunked up and dubbed out that you can barely tell where the actual song is. Not a lot of single material there, at least not until the flip side, featuring the 6-minute “Wrote For Luck” which is probably Example 1A of the Mondays just doing their thing. Cascading riffs, a plucky bass line, and some of Ryder’s best lyrics yet. This was the sound of Madchster, predating “Fools Gold” and Screamadelica; even the lyrics nail the scene down (“I don’t read, I just guess”).
Other great tunes – “Do It Better” with its slinky riff and stream-of-consciousness refrain (from memory: “On one/in one/did one/do one/have one/in one/on one/do one/have one/have two/have three/good/good/good/good/double double good!”), and of course “Lazyitis”, an Eastern-flavored rewrite of “Ticket to Ride”, though I prefer this a hundred times to the Beatles version. Both “Lazyitis” and “Wrote For Luck” got released as singles – twice each in fact, the former as a duet with Karl Denver, and the latter in remixed form. They scraped the Top 100, but the band didn’t truly break through until the following year’s Madchester – Rave On EP, featuring “Hallelujah”, the single that finally got them on Top of the Pops.
This whole era is a bit confusing; there are several editions of Bummed with different tracklistings, and the EP wound up getting expanded, re-titled, and reissued shortly after its release. Thankfully the 2007 reissue cleans it all up, featuring the original 10-track version of the album and then an extra 17 tracks worth of bonus tracks and remixes, including the whole Madchester EP, five versions of “Hallelujah” and five extra mixes of “Wrote For Luck”, both of which go from the jagged and hallucinatory Hannett versions to the much cleaner, single-ready mixes that would lead right into the band’s most famous LP, 1990’s Pills n’ Thrills n’ Bellyaches. Up to you which you prefer – “Wrote for Luck (Think About the Future)” is essential, just a straight-up anthem that maybe even bests the album version. The “Lazyitis” duet with Karl Denver is also included, and that’s a must as it introduces some actual country swing into the Mondays’ sound, which turns out to be something very surreal.
Pills n’ Thrills, produced by Paul Oakenfold, was to follow, and by then the Mondays had become international superstars with international superhits. It didn’t last of course; the whole Tony Wilson/Factory Records/Madchester scene was all primed to self-destruct, which it did in spectacular fashion, just a couple years later. And yes, the Happy Mondays were involved. But that’s a story for another day. And as for Mondays vs. Roses, I’d argue that the Mondays had two classic albums while the Roses only had one. Look, I recognize that The Stone Roses is a bona-fide classic, and that the Mondays best albums still had some filler (who can remember a thing about “Fat Lady Wrestlers”, other than the title?), but I just find myself in the mood for the Mondays more often. Bummed is a funny little album (fun fact: the title does not refer to being “bummed out”), but it’s a great one, especially when you want to get fucked up without getting fucked up. Sadly, copious drug use wound up taking its toll; Martin Hannett died of heart failure a couple years later, making Bummed one of the last albums he’d even produce. No idea how Ryder and Bez made it through the decade clear, but somehow, some way, the Mondays are still working, selling out shows and even planning a new album, though they’ve been saying that for several years now. God bless those boys.