Sunday, May 25, 2008

Happy Mondays

Shaun Ryder, Kim Deal, Bez, Nathan McGough
23rd St, NYC

Tony Wilson was sitting in my office, trying to explain this new 'casual' culture that was all the rage in the UK. According to him, working-class, predominately male yoof would kit up in expensive designer garb, trip out on ecstasy and wave 3 ft. inflatable bananas at the opposition while watching the football at Maine Road. (I didn't get the last bit either...why anyone would want to watch Manchester City was beyond me). Naturally, he had the 'soundtrack' to these activities and he tossed me a DAT of the latest album by his "favourite band". I looked at the label and groaned, "but Tony, we went through this last year with 'Squirrel and G-Man Twenty Four Hour Party People Plastic Face Carnt Smile (White Out)". Well, now he had the second Happy Mondays album and a video to show me. We adjourned to the conference room, as my office was practically - and proudly - the only office at Elektra without a tv in it (I hated videos) and I shoved the videocassette into the player. The music starts and Tony’s already dancing in his chair. His enthusiasm is front and center. On the screen was some single-camera footage of some anonymous people dancing at Manchester’s International nightclub, high as kites, one of whom was (sort of) mouthing the words to a song called 'Wrote For Luck', an infectious dollop of funky rock featuring a gloriously lout-of-tune singer. Tony was eager to explain said chap in the hoodie (known as “X” or Shaun Ryder to the authorities) was "on a trip" and furthermore, with a little help from his friends, was able to finance the band by supplying the North of England and Scotland with ecstasy, bought in Ibiza from funds gained by fencing stolen stereos in Amsterdam! Great. By the end of the song, I’m hooked, but it’s clear it was gonna be tough trying to convince the Kras they would make a good signing. Tony says "play it again", so I rewind and, as it gets to the bit where Shaun’s eyes seem to roll back into his head, the door opens and Elektra boss Bob Krasow walks in, says “hi Tony”, looks at the screen for about 20 seconds - then at me - and says, “talk to Gary, make it happen”, meaning Gary Casson, head of Business Affairs. Bob and Tony talk awhile, and then Bob asks Tony the name of the band and takes his leave. Tony and I look at each other and burst out laughing. So simple!

The Mondays were beginning to make some noise in the UK, so Peter Lubin (a colleague in the A&R Dept.) and I flew to London for their show at at U.L.U. (cap: 800). 'Bummed' had just been released (1989) and reviews had been good. The show was sold out and there was a palpable vibe that the band was on the verge of taking off. Prior to show-time, we hooked up with Tony backstage and he introduced us to the band's manager, Nathan McGough. (Nathan's step-dad used to be in The Scaffold and is esteemed 'Liverpool Poet', Roger McGough, CBE
). As we finished shaking his hand, he said, “Here, have some of this…mandatory!” thrusting paper wrap of damp, chunky, pinkish powder in our direction. Pete and I looked at each other and collectively thought "uh-oh, here we go." Both of us were Ecstasy virgins but supposed if we had to do some, the Mondays might as well supply the soundtrack. Four snorts later, we made our way up to the balcony where we could get a good look at the show and watch the audience reaction. Needless to say, about halfway through, everything seemed quite nice and even the crowd, which consisted mainly of scruffy, wispy-bearded students wearing brown corduroy flares and navy duffle-coats - and those were the girls har har - didn’t seem quite so naff as it had earlier. By the end, the place was grooving mightily, and so were we. The show was a big success and afterwards, we went back to pay our respects and finally meet the band. There, we ran into a sweaty, bug-eyed Bez (who was only interested in keeping the party going) and a beaming Wilson who told us meeting Shaun wouldn’t be possible right now as he was "tripping with Pink Floyd on the headphones and can't be disturbed. Shall we go dancing?" Pete & I (along with Tony, his lovely new g/f and former Miss UK, Yvette Livesey and Bez piled into Tony’s BMW cranked the music and ended up at 'Sin', in the Astoria on Charing Cross Rd. Tony rolled joints on the bar, Bez did his loping, goggle-eyed Bez-dance for the next two hours and Pete and I floated about the place, drinking JD and trying to get to grips with House Music which - at the time - did not seem remotely repetitive or boring.

'Bummed' was going to be released in the US in a few weeks, so it was time to fly Shaun and Bez in to do some press. Flights and hotels were arranged and just as their plane was halfway across the Atlantic, I got a call from Nathan, who said that they’d need “an ounce of draw, 8 hits of ‘E’ and a couple of grams at the hotel” or he couldn’t guarantee their complete co-operation. Considering they were only going to be at the Berkshire Place Hotel for 2 nights, I thought this was somewhat excessive but Nathan insisted it was “necessary” and he “wasn’t joking”. Ok, so it was just a stroll down the corridor to the ‘artist relations’ department where the drugs cupboard was….kidding. This was far too tall an order to find in-house, so the rest of the day was spent hustling a number of dodgy contacts around town so our guests could feel at home. I managed to come up with half an ounce of weed, 6 tabs of ‘e’ and a couple of grams of coke, which I paid for myself, and had it biked over to the hotel. The plan was to hook up after work and when I met them in their room around 7pm, I was astonished to discover they’d polished off most of the grass and all the ‘e’ and coke. They'd only been there about 3 hours. I suggested we start the evening at Downtown Beirut, a dive in the East Village, and play the rest of the night by ear. That seemed agreeable and soon we were drinking screwdrivers and playing the jukebox. Unfortunately, due to the pair’s thick-as-syrup Mancunian accents and the fact that they seemed to talk in some weird, home-made slang I’d never heard before, much of my evening was spent trying to figure out what, exactly, it was they were talking about. We talked about music, Manchester, their home-lives, petty crime, Italian clothes designers and god knows what else for about 3 hours, at which point I suggested we change venues for a nightcap and some sightseeing. We piled into a taxi and ended up around the corner from my apartment at (the late, lamented) Billy’s Topless on 6th Ave at 24th St, another dive with cheap drinks, free ‘catering’ (remnants of a 6 foot sandwich, or pasta from lunchtime) and the least energetic dancers in the city. Dancers might be the wrong term. Most lay on their backs with their legs in the air trying to suck dollars from the punters sat at the edge of the stage. We'd switched to Jack Daniels and even more slurred, unintelligible conversation ensued at the bar until about 1am, when I thought it best to call it a night. Shaun and Bez wanted to stay, so I wrote the address of their hotel on a napkin and suggested they took a cab back soon, as their first interview was scheduled for 10.30am. They 'borrowed' cab fare ("no dollars, H"), and I taxi’d the 2 blocks home.

The following day at around noon, I got a frantic call from (head of publicity) Sherry Ring’s office asking if I knew where the Mondays were because they hadn’t shown up yet and no one was answering the phone in their hotel room. I said I'd not seen them. At 2.30pm, Shaun and Bez eventually ambled into my office and told me they’d met a recently discharged Marine at Billy’s and, with his money, had bought 6 grams of coke, rented a couple of hookers and taken him back to the hotel for a party. Of course, they hadn’t been to sleep yet and were now beginning to feel “a bit jet-lagged”! Of course, most of the journalists scheduled to interview them had left, and those that hadn’t couldn’t get much in the way of anything comprehensible from our dynamic duo. Even the press department asked if I could 'translate', because they couldn’t understand a word they were saying, either. In the end, I think a journalist from CMJ managed to cobble a short column together and that was about it.

When the band came over to tour with The Pixies in ‘89, at Long Island's Malibu Club, I gave Shaun a metal sign I’d found in a warehouse in Louisville, Kentucky while visiting The Shaking Family, a band from there. On a yellow background in black lettering, the message read: “You are positively forbidden to work with acid without goggles”.

For ‘Rubaiyat’ (Elektra’s 40th anniversary project) Bob Krasnow, wanted our current artist roster to cover the songs that made the label famous. (A couple of examples: The Gipsy Kings did a pretty funny, phonetic version of The Eagles’ ‘Hotel California’, John Zorn did a manic take on The Stooges ‘TV Eye’ and The Cure did 2 versions of The Doors' 'Hello I Love You', (A short, mid-tempo take was used instead of an infinitely better long, slow, psychedelic reading). I called Tony to invite the Mondays to be part of the project and he agreed. The band had just broken in the UK with their ‘Madchester Rave On’ EP and the lead cut ‘Hallelujah’ had scraped into the top 20. Tony suggested I speak to Nathan McGough to get it sorted. Elektra had released 'He's Gonna Step On You Again' by John Kongos in America in the early 70s and, it being a favourite single of mine, I really wanted someone to cover the song. So I threw some tunes and another Kongos UK hit, 'Tokoloshe Man', on a cassette and sent it to Nathan. A week or so later, he called to say the band are going with 'He’s Gonna...etc.' and Paul Oakenfold and Steve Osbourne were lined up to produce it, along with the new album. Once recorded, it didn’t take a genius to realize (the now re-titled) 'Step On' had ‘smash’ written all over it and it wasn’t long before Wilson called to say, “Sorry, H, we’re keeping the song for the album and a single over here. How about we give you something else instead?” A feeble version of Tokoloshe Man was quickly recorded and stuck on ‘Rubaiyat’, only to be ignored by everyone. Factory Records scheduled 'Step On' as the first single from 'Pills ‘n’ Thrills & Bellyaches' and it ended up reaching # 5 in the UK, their biggest single ever. Shows at Wembley Arena and Manchester’s G-Mex Center were certified thrillers and, for the briefest of moments, it looked like there was actually going to be no stopping them. Both 'Step On' and 'Kinky Afro' became huge hits on CMJ’s Alternative and Billboard’s Modern Rock charts when we released the album in America.

Here's the first couple of paras from The Face (Jan 1990):
After a year of underground success, Stone Roses and Happy Mondays crowd into a Top Of The Pops dressing room to celebrate their entry into the national charts. With Britain at their feet, the world will surely follow, and if you're looking for the sound of the nineties, these are the Mancunian candidates.
"Last night his bed caught fire 'cos o' smoking that. There were flames comin' up from 'is pillow. He didn't know owt about it tho'. He were fookin' comatose!"

The Happy Mondays' infamous dancer, Bez, whose bed it was, holds aloft a pellet-sized lump of hashish the colour of wan excrement towards the gaze of the Stone Roses' drummer, Remi (sic), then flashes him a good conspiratorial 'mad' look before stating, without any intended irony: "Aye, when your bed's on fire, you know you're dealin' with top fookin' draw!"

In April ’91 the Mondays were invited to open for Jane’s Addiction at Madison Square Garden. This was to be their biggest gig in the US but they got to the venue 20 minutes after they were due onstage because some of the band had gone uptown looking to buy drugs. They were allowed to play for 25 minutes and were just warming up when they were forced leave the stage. Try explaining that to all the gathered Elektra department heads, some seeing the band for the first time. Backstage was never so frazzled.

The following year, Factory booked the band into Eddy Grant’s studio in Barbados to record the follow-up to Pills etc. Chris Franz and Tina Weymouth from The Talking Heads were in the production seat(s). Periodically, I’d call Nathan to see how things were going, angling for an invite out to the island. Usually, he’d say things were proceeding nicely, but after they’d been in Barbados for nearly 3 months and we hadn't heard anything, I thought it was time to pay a visit. Upon arriving at the studio, I ran into Bez who had his right arm in a sling. He told me he was leaving for the UK the following day to get some 'proper' treatment. I asked what had happened and he told me that, in crashing and rolling his jeep early in their visit, he’d broken his arm. Good thing he's the dancer, not the drummer, right? What I found out later was four weeks after the initial break, he’d gone jet-ski-ing against doctor’s orders and broken it again. (Later, we learned that Bez’s arm, at that point, was gangrenous and extensive surgery was required. He ended up with a four-pronged, external metal brace bolted into his arm to hold the bone together.)

(photo courtesy Stinking Thinking CD single, photographer not listed)

Chris and Tina brought me into the studio, where I was expecting to hear some mixes. They told me that all the tracks were done but they were waiting for Shaun to finish the lyrics and do his vocals. They said they'd got a couple of vocals down but they wouldn't play them. "Not good enough...unfinished". Unfortunately, he’d gotten deeply into smoking crack and was, essentially, dysfunctional. His couldn’t write and his voice was shot. Furthermore, I was told he’d been selling furniture from the studio and was now nickin' items and food from the studio's kitchen to fund his habit. The band’s parts were done and they were fed up with waiting around for him to get it together. Chris & Tina played me four or five instrumental tracks which sounded pretty good, though not quite what I was expecting, and suggested I spend some time with Shaun so I could see for myself the extent of the problem. The vibe at dinner was fragile. The band mainly kept to themselves and Shaun, who'd been sleeping all day, didn’t even show up. Bez was preoccupied with packing, so I got to know Chris and Tina a little. I told them we’d met briefly before in Lyons, France when the Talking Heads' were on tour with The Ramones and Eddie And The Hot Rods. (That particular occasion was marked for me by the Hot Rods’ guitarist, Dave Higgs, getting turned in by the hotel's concierge to the local gendarmes for removing a hotel door and only a hefty payoff by Meaty, their tour manager saved him from a stint in jail. Plus, the Hot Rods told me the Ramones weren't interested in partying and were in bed by ten). Shaun finally surfaced and he and I made plans to drive into Bridgetown, the island's capital, and shop for some reggae. Shaun's been over to my place, with Bez, a couple of times. He's always thoroughly good value and a fun hang with a sharp northern wit. So I was looking forward to our expedition and the following day, I picked him up at noon and we set off, with him navigating. About 10 minutes in, he said "Make a right, H...we need to stop in here, get some smoke for the drive. You want some smoke for the drive, don’t ya?" pointing to a dirt track in a field that would eventually lead to a dilapidated wooden, two-room shack inhabited by a couple of Rastafarians. I got introduced, and we made a deal for $20 worth of the sweet weed. Now, these guys were Shaun’s buddies (so to speak) so we had to stay and share a joint or it wouldn’t have been polite - etiquette, ya know - so spliffs were rolled, passed and smoked and it's not long before the room begins to spin. I go outside to get some air. I guess I'm lucky, because it doesn’t take much to get me high - two or three puffs on a joint will set me up for hours. Also, I can take it, or leave it. That goes for anything that might be addictive. I rarely smoke in public because then usually I find everything hilarious. So now I’m higher than I’d ever been before - in my life - and Shaun and the guys are grooving to The Congos, a righteous roots band once produced by NoFoSound fave, Lee “Scratch” Perry. Another 20 minutes go by and I remind Shaun we had an appointment in town so we bade the guys farewell and set off again. Normally, I wouldn’t drive in an impaired condition, but my co-pilot wasn’t going to, so I concentrated as hard as I could and tried to erase the visions of the imaginary Daily Mirror headline “Mondays’ Singer Killed In Caribbean Car Crash” that was currently spinning through my mind. I opened the window for a cooling breeze, anything to keep me focused on driving but that earned an "H, shut the fookin window, willya, I’m trying to smoke ‘ere". I wind up the window and look over to my left (the steering wheel was on the right) and see he’s only trying to inhale smoke through an empty ball point pen casingfrom something burning on a piece of silver paper .
"Shaun, what the fuck are you doing?"

"Just smokin’, H. Don’t’s only the rock".
"The rock? What the fuck is that?"
"Crack, H. Me, I’m up to 35 rocks a day. It's ok...I can handle it".
Jeez. I realized he must have made a separate deal with the Rastas back in the shack while I was outside. I pulled myself together as best I could and we talked about the 'situation' until we got to the record shop. He told me he'd dropped (and broken) the bottle that held his Methadone at Manchester Airport just as they were departing the UK, leaving him with nothing to see him through his time in Barbados. And the only drugs available on Barbados were ganja and crack, so he’d managed to acquire a debilitating (and expensive) habit. He'd spent all his per diems and had to find alternative ways to pay his bills. But right now, he felt good, so we spent the next hour and a half listening to dancehall reggae 45s. Shaun had told me he was really into a Barrington Levy song called ‘Love The Life You Live’, but the shop had sold out. I 'expensed' our purchases and we headed back to the studio. On the way, he suggested we stop off at a roadside bar he knew about for Red Stripes and rum drinks and I took some 3-D photos of Shaun, outside. Looking back, I don't feel proud of enabling Shaun but I'm pretty sure it wouldn't have been much different, had I not been there. He'd given me a glimpse of his world and I found it both exhilarating and scary at the same time. Finally, we made it back and I dropped him at his room back at the studio. I tracked down Chris & Tina. We talked and decided it would be best to send everyone home, for Shaun to go into rehab and then finish the album when he was better. They told me I should call the UK to fill them in. I got the feeling they’d already alerted management and the record company about the situation but had been told to finish the album or they wouldn't get paid. I called Nathan, who told me he had his own problems involving custody of his child and wasn’t able to focus on anything else. Told me to call call Wilson. I informed Tony that Shaun was in pretty bad shape and we should get him into rehab because, at this rate, something very bad might happen. He might lose a singer permanently, and the band itself was so demoralized, it wouldn't have surprised me if they called it a day. In all my dealings with Tony, this was the first, and only, time I ever knew him to be unable to make a decision. That was odd. He suggested I call his partner at Factory. I think I spoke to Alan Erasmus, but whoever it was, that person wasn’t too thrilled to hear what I was saying. I didn't know it then, but Factory was going through some dire financial straits, largely brought on by the costs of these sessions. He told me to do what I thought best and that gave me the green light to shut things down. The band were relieved they could finally go home. I'm sure Chris & Tina must have been wondering if the last 3 months had been worth it. Someone told me that Shaun was met at Heathrow with a couple of grams of heroin and checked himself straight into rehab. I don't know if that's true. Eventually, work resumed on the album and he completed his parts at Comfort's Farm Studios in the not so sunny climes of Surrey. "Yes, Please" was released, got savaged in the press, the Mondays broke up, Factory declared bankruptcy and Roger Ames' London Records scooped up New Order.

Shaun and Bez went on to form Reverend Black Grape. The last time I saw Shaun was at an
in-store at a Virgin Records, Times Square in 1995, signing copies of their fine debut, "It’s Great When You’re Straight…Yeah!" He was genuinely pleased to see me, gave me a cd signed "To H from X" and invited me to the band's NYC debut at Irving Plaza later that night. I was allowed to watch the performance from the side of the stage. No one but crew, friends and family got that privilege.

One thing I'll say about Shaun Ryder, he's never disappointed me. He's always been a stand up guy. Loyal, funny, sharp and, well...more talented than he's ever been given credit for. He's got a way with words, has Shaun. Not to mention a style that's one in a million. I think he's one of the best people I've had the privilege of working with. A double-top man.

(Shaun & Bez slideshow here)

1 comment:

x~ray said...

Amazing insight into the enigma that is the Happy Mondays. And with Shaun's recent star performance on the UK TV show I'm a Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here, you can understand why he did so well, nothing seemed to phase him. Bummed is a piece of work that fit the times but was also way out of step with them!