Judge Dave Ryan wrote for luck, but they sent you.
You're twistin' my melon, man.
In the late 1980s, a handful of bands and club DJs in Manchester, UK, developed a unique new musical genre, blending elements of acid house and deep house with more traditional Britpop guitar work. The Madchester sound, as it came to be known, never made much of an impact outside the UK—but within the UK music scene, it has proven to be one of the most influential movements of that time period, inspiring a number of major British bands, including the dominant Britpop band of the Nineties, Manchester's own Oasis. The beating heart of the Madchester scene was the Hacienda nightclub, founded by Factory Records head Tony Wilson (a former TV host for Granada Television) and co-owned by members of New Order. At the Hacienda, the house mixmen—now-famous names like Paul Oakenfold and the Chemical Brothers—would spin the Madchester groove while packed-in fans raved the night away while high on Ecstasy. For a couple of years, Manchester was the new center of English music. And the main ambassadors of the Madchester sound was a rough and tumble bunch of Mancunians who called themselves Happy Mondays.
The Mondays were built around brothers Shaun (vocals) and Paul (bass) Ryder, with Mark "Cowhead" Day on lead guitar, Paul "PD" Davis on keyboards, and Gary Whelan on drums. Later on, vocalist Rowetta would also join the band, with the enigmatic Bez rounding out the lineup as a dancer/percussionist/consumer of mass quantities of drugs. Mondays shows were experiences, not just "concerts" per se. Whether the band was higher than the audience, or vice versa, was irrelevant—so long as the beats were loud, the guitars rhythmic, and the sound Madchester, everyone went home happy.
After the Mondays' third album, Pills 'n' Thrills 'n' Bellyaches, made a small dent in the American charts, the band's management decided to send them on a short tour of America in 1990. Vignettes from the tour were filmed, then wrapped around shots of the band's the New York City performance to produce Call the Cops, a glimpse at one of the most important Madchester bands at the height of their popularity. Now, nearly two decades later, Eagle Vision has released the film in a barebones package, Happy Mondays: Call the Cops.
It's impossible to fully capture the feel of a Madchester rave on film, although Michael Winterbottom came very close in his outstanding 24 Hour Party People (which is, in part, the story of Happy Mondays). This film is no different. The grainy and poor quality of the film is actually appropriate—Happy Mondays isn't a band meant to be viewed in pristine HD—but the stereo audio isn't very immersive, and although it's competent (save for the inexplicably poor sound on the band's lone "hit," a cover of John Kongos' "He's Gonna Step On You Again" entitled "Step On"), you never get the "I feel like I'm actually there" vibe. For a band that's as immersive and experiential as Happy Mondays, this is a disappointment.
Still, the film does capture a little of the Madchester feel. The best example comes with the third song on the disc, a version of the band's biggest UK hit, "Kinky Afro." It starts with Whelan's foundational drum track. Paul Ryder kicks in with a funk-inspired bass line; something that's right out of the Bernard Edwards playbook. Eventually (after some Bez dancing, of course) Cowhead's insistent guitar line—a simple arpeggio repeated over and over again—leads in to Shaun Ryder's vocals, a spitting tone poem with a "borrowed" chorus from Patti LaBelle's "Lady Marmalade." The frenetic camerawork, the droning guitars, and Ryder's sneering vocals blend into a hallucinogenic storm unique to the Mondays. It's beyond drugs, beyond dance music, beyond house—it's a beast unto itself.
The interstitial filler—various hotel and tour bus candids—doesn't really tell us much about the band that we didn't already know. Yes, they were crazy bastards tripping their way through life. In that sense, this is far from a definitive and in-depth telling of the Happy Mondays story. On the other hand, this is probably the only telling we're ever going to see. The Mondays were critically popular, and achieved a decent level of chart success by independent label standards. But they never broke in the US, and their rampant drug use (combined with the collapse of Factory) led to a breakup in 1992. (The band has reformed since then—multiple times—but never with the precise lineup from their heyday. Today, brothers Shaun and Paul are on the outs, and refuse to perform together.) There simply wasn't any building momentum after this US tour that would justify any further documentary filmmaking about the band. They're an influential but obscure band, and much like other influential but obscure acts—e.g. Big Star, Mission of Burma, or the Buzzcocks—there's not a big enough level of interest to commercially justify any substantive explorations. Or, to put it another way, you're never going to see Martin Scorsese's No Direction Home II: Happy Mondays.
Therefore, we have to be appreciative that Eagle Vision would actually issue
something as "niche" as this disc. But for them, we'd probably never
be able to see this film, unless VH1 decided to air it at 4:15 a.m. on New
Year's Eve or something. Warts and all, it's probably the only classic-era Happy
Mondays disc we'll ever see. But that "niche" status should not
diminish the importance, or the quality, of this one-of-a-kind band.
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