In the late 80s and early 90s, Manchester’s The Happy Mondays had a reputation as a hedonistic, drug-fuelled hot mess of a band. They’re notorious for bankrupting their label by spending the budget for the flop Yes Please! on good times in Barbados.
95bFM’s Johnny Vahry caught up with guitarist Mark Day from the Happy Mondays ahead of their two Auckland shows.
“It was like a monster, and the more you kept feeding it, the more it went off the rails,” says Happy Mondays guitarist Mark Day.
And yet, that wild train kept on rollin’... until 1993 at least, buoyed by a “desire to get out of Salford” says Mark. “All we wanted to do was be on Top Of The Pops” he adds.
After five years of touring, becoming staples at legendary Manchester club The Hacienda, and being signed to the high-profile Factory Records, they knocked that goal off in November 1989, appearing alongside fellow Manchester band the Stone Roses.
They were then banned for insulting the producer.
“It was like three steps forward, four steps back… It was a rollercoaster ride. I kept thinking ‘it can’t keep going like this!’ but it did! It just kept going.”
The press loved them, and saw them as spearheading a cultural revolution - but as far as Mark Day was concerned, all they were doing was travelling around, playing gigs.
The band had formed in the early 80s as teenagers, practising in Mark’s dad’s garage.
“We all had shit jobs, we all worked at the post office or some menial job, and we just wanted to change our lifestyle by doing something different ... The only reason I wanted to be in a band was to meet girls.”
The Happy Mondays were signed to Factory Records by music impresario Tony Wilson, who'd seen them play in his club - the cavernous, reverberant, Hacienda nightclub.
Wilson and the band New Order opened the club in 1982, and Mark says, in the beginning, there was “nothing happening there” but that it was “the only place you could get a drink.”
That started to change in 1986, with the popularity of The Happy Mondays and the coming of House, Acid House, and the designer drugs that went alongside the music.
“It was the place to be. It was mental. Everywhere you went there was stuff going on. You could get anything you wanted, and you could be anything you wanted. It was a crazy place. And then… it went a bit sour.”
In 1989 a 16-year-old died after taking Ecstacy at the Hacienda, and the police moved in. It shut down for a while, and when it reopened, it was plagued with assaults and shootings, inside and outside the club. Plus, the bar never made any money, because people were not there for the drinks.
“That’s the trouble with success” sighs Mark. “Especially with nightclubs, is there’s always some bad elements that take it over.”
The whole ordeal, the rise and demise of the Manchester scene, of The Hacienda and Factory Records, was dramatised in the 2002 film 24 Hour Party People (named for a Happy Mondays song) which starred Steve Coogan as the beleaguered boss Tony Wilson.
While their notoriously drug-fuelled, label-bankrupting recording sessions in Bermuda would come later, Mark Day recalls his favourite recording was in Los Angeles. That was for the seminal 1990 album Pills 'n' Thrills and Bellyaches, produced by Paul Oakenfold and Steve Osborne.
“I could sense that something was happening, big for us, and things were going to change.”
At the request of Wilson, the band covered the 1971 John Kongos song ‘Step On’ which would become their biggest selling single, which Mark Day still finds hard to believe, since he reduced three entire guitar parts down into a five note riff and a couple of power chords.
Mark had a book that he reckons had 100,000 chords in it. “I used to get a pin and flit through the pages and shut me eyes and put the pin on a page, and go ‘oh that’ll do!’ He prides himself on the random chord configurations that made it into Happy Mondays songs, so ‘Step On’ was a mystery to him.
“At the time, I was like ‘I don’t get it.’ I kept scratching me head. What the fook? I’ve been playing all these jazz chords and I’m trying to get technical with it, and this is a piece a piss!”
“The way people’s brains work, I don’t know. But you just have to simplify yourself and get down to their level.”
The success of the album, and the singles ‘Step On’ and ‘Kinky Afro’ was enough to get them invited back to Top Of The Pops, and for Mark Day to finally quit his job at the Post Office.
“I thought, hold on, this is a proper job, this pop business like. So does this mean I don’t have to get up at four in the morning? And that was the clincher, I could have a lie-in.”
And it was needed, after years holding down the day job alongside the band, whose gigs and rehearsals would often finish up around 3am.
“I spent many a time off me face, delivering mail.”
Happy Mondays - ‘Pills ’n’ Thrills and Bellyaches’ in full
- Wednesday 27th February - The Powerstation, Auckland
- Thursday 28th February - The Powerstation, Auckland (sold out)