This is a monthly feature where classic and cult albums are revisited and reassessed for the modern listener. The only rule is that it must be a critically acclaimed or cult record released before 2000.

Happy Mondays – “Thrills, Pills and Bellyaches” (Factory Records, 1990)

Back in March of this year with covered Primal Scream’s “Screamadelica” in this very column as it’s celebrated its 20th anniversary. This month’s selection for Classics Critiqued preceded “Screamadelica” by nearly a year and has many similarities. The Happy Mondays and Primal Scream both belonged to the same baggy/indie-dance scene and were fans of the emerging club scene. The main difference was that the Happy Mondays had always been involved in club culture playing their début gig at the Hacienda club in Manchester in 1983. The album was the bands third following shambolic début album “Squirrel And G-Man Twenty Four Hour Party People Plastic Face Carnt Smile (White Out)” (1987) and the dark cavernous funk of “Bummed” (1988). Throughout 1989 the bands profile had risen with the success of singles ‘Lazyitis (One Armed Boxer)’ and a dance remix of ‘Wrote For Luck’ (from “Bummed”) by DJ Paul Oakenfold. In November 1989 the band make their Top of the Pops début alongside fellow Manchester baggy/indie-dance figureheads The Stone Roses in what would become a watershed moment for both bands and the U.K. music scene. They finished the year in fine style with the “Madchester Rave On – The Remixes” EP featuring remixes by Andrew Weatherall and Paul Oakenfold among others. Suddenly the band was riding a wave of critical acclaim and hype where before they were widely written off or thought as joke.

“Thrills, Pills and Bellyaches” opens with the swaggering ‘Kinky Afro’ one of bands biggest singles, the song uses a snippet of ‘Lady Mamalade’ by LaBelle as its foundation and layers of slinky guitar riffs, disco strings and deep bass all topped off with band leader Shaun Ryder’s lurid tale of a night of the tiles. The “gutter snipe funkadelia” continues on ‘God’s Cop’ Ryder proclaiming “God made easy on me” as he takes a part Manchester police’ lax attitude towards the drug laws they should have been up holding. Elsewhere ‘Loose Fit’ “is a magnificent mirage, its golden riff simmering over sultry, low riding rhythms” and lyrics that celebrate the baggy clothing and loose life style of band and its followers. For the album’s mid section of ‘Dennis & Lois’ and ‘Bob’s Yer Uncle’ the band relaxes the pace and the sound lightens up and a soft focus 70’s vibe takes over temporarily. Then it’s the band’s revamping of obscure 70’s hit single “He’s Gonna Step On You’ by John Kongo the band’s re-titled version ‘Step On’ by the band their version hit No.5 in the charts and cemented their dance music credentials with its house style piano riff. The album finishes with the slide guitar and organ heavy ‘Harmony’ this takes the album out on a laid back but ecstatic note and ends suddenly which seems a deliberate attempt to keep the album to exactly 45 minutes so it fits on one side of a cassette. This was ideal for those who wanted to share music with their friends and may also be another nod to the Ryder and dancer Bez’s past as lawless youths.

The band was always painted as a chaotic mess of sound and that it was their producers that bought out the best in them. Martin Hannett’s production on “Bummed” is often acclaimed, however I feel his heavy use of echo and reverb, particular on the drums, doesn’t suit the Happy Monday’s funk grooves. Oakenfold and Osbourne open the sound out and let the band fly, particular during the first half of the album which fly’s by. On “Thrills, Pills and Bellyaches” it seems as if producers Paul Oakenfold and Steve Osbourne play a key role in the sound, and construction of the songs. It’s not just that they made the link to dance music more explicit they took the band’s strong points and magnified them. Like ‘Screamadelica’ it’s the producers used of samplers and (to a less extent) synths that marks the album out from other similar albums released during the same era. The producers take the best takes and parts of takes and combine them with samples from their own and the Happy Monday’s record collection to literally construct the songs. Oakenfold and Osbourne are even credited as arrangers on the albums sleeve.

Over the years it has always seemed as if the Happy Mondays operated in the shadow of their fellow Mancunian ‘baggy’ figureheads the Stone Roses. While it’s true the Stone Roses exuded charisma, I think it is wrong to say that the Stone Roses always had the best tunes. On “Thrills, Pills and Bellyaches” alone there are ten examples of the Happy Mondays mastery of their genre, add to this ‘Lazyitis’, ‘Wrote For Luck’, ‘Tart Tart’, ‘Stinkin’ Thinkin’’, ‘Hallelujah’ and ‘24 Hour Party People’ and you could argue the bands are at least equal. While it’s true Ryder could rarely hold a vocal melody, Ian Brown’s deliver wasn’t always that much better, though he could rise to the majority of challenges on their début album. I genuinely believe this historical imbalance needs redressing.

Since its release “Thrills, Pills and Bellyaches” has received various accolades including featuring in Q magazine’s 100 Greatest British Albums Ever in 2000, where it reached number 31. Then in 2005 it was voted the 51st greatest album of all time in a Channel 4 poll. In 2007 it was reissued by Rhino Records with extra tracks and a DVD of music videos, in some ways this seems appropriate as in 2007 the UK was on the verge of a financial crisis that has since caused the mass unemployment and lack of jobs that the members of the Happy Mondays had experienced back when they formed in 1981. There are no duff tracks on this glorious rush of an album, just give it a spin!

Listen to “Thrills, Pills and Bellyaches” here:

Happy Mondays – Pills ‘n’ Thrills And Bellyaches

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