Geek obsession: Madchester
Why it’s daunting: Earlier this year, The Stone Roses announced they were reuniting after a 15-year breakup. It took a long time, but it was a no-brainer that it would happen sooner or later; after all, The Stone Roses are one of the few truly timeless bands to come out of England in the fertile period of late ’80s and early ’90s. But the group was most closely associated with a trend that wasn’t quite so timeless: Madchester. The clunkily titled movement originated in Manchester in the wake of the city’s early-’80s scene, one that produced dance-oriented outfits such as New Order and A Certain Ratio. But where its predecessors harbored a starker post-punk vibe, The Stone Roses and other Madchester bands were warm, loose-grooved, and flush with sunny psychedelia. The drugs helped; popularized by the rave scene that was emerging parallel to Madchester, ecstasy helped fuel some of the more colorful and feel-good music to emerge from the scene. But as dramatized in the 2002 film 24 Hour Party People—titled after a song by the definitive Madchester outfit, Happy Mondays—there was a dark side to Madchester’s sudden ascendance (and underground yet widespread appeal in the U.S.): The bands just couldn’t keep up. To this day, a good percentage of the few who even know what Madchester means are quick to downplay it. There is, after all, that horribly stupid name. And clothes. And haircuts. But the music, while not universally ageless, still has plenty of joys to offer.
Possible gateway: The Stone Roses, The Stone Roses
Why: When it comes to The Stone Roses, it may be tempting to start with a greatest hits or singles collection. But don’t. By any metric, the group’s self-titled debut from 1989 is its crowning achievement. While it might not include some of the band’s more dance-floor-friendly material, The Stone Roses remains a nearly flawless record, one that showcases just how broad of a range the band had. From the keening, dreamy self-mythology of “I Wanna Be Adored” to the epically funky “Fools Gold,” the album set the stage for ’90s Britpop—but its tradition-celebrating traces of Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, and British folk placed it above and beyond the Madchester pigeonhole.
Next steps: A veteran of Manchester’s flagship indie label, Factory Records, since 1985, Happy Mondays are the second essential Madchester band. But unlike The Stone Roses, no single studio album strongly represents the outfit. In fact, all of the group’s full-lengths abound with various amounts of filler. Of the four Happy Mondays collections, Greatest Hits is the only one covers all the bases: the bubbly delirium of “Step On,” the loping disco of “Kinky Afro,” and the infectious “W.F.L.,” which features frontman Shaun Ryder’s shambolic, Mark E. Smith-on-’shrooms delivery. Happy Mondays were also the Madchester band that used remixes to the best advantage, and Greatest Hits smartly includes the club mix of the soaring “Hallelujah” by the up-and-coming Paul Oakenfold and Andrew Weatherall—the latter soon to make his first big mark on Primal Scream’s Screamadelica.
Like Happy Mondays, James joined the Factory roster in the early ’80s, but the Smiths-sounding group jumped ship in 1986. So when James suddenly latched onto the Madchester sound with 1990’s Gold Mother, it seemed a little opportunistic. The quality of the album, however, outweighs any issues of authenticity. Led by the supple, sugary voice of Tim Booth, Gold Mother became the launch pad for a decade’s worth of increasingly excellent and idiosyncratic James albums. It may not be entirely fair to call it a Madchester record, but the shoe fits.
When Madchester was in full bloom in 1990, The Charlatans (known in the U.S. as Charlatans U.K.) were based 30 miles away from Manchester in Northwich. But Madchester rubbed off on the group in a major way; its full-length debut, Some Friendly, is strongly derivative of The Stone Roses. (It didn’t help that singer Tim Burgess bore an uncanny resemblance at the time to The Stone Roses’ Ian Brown.) Burgess and company, though, put their own tight, propulsive spin on trippy dance-rock. Like James, The Charlatans would evolve into a successful and respectable band in the ’90s. But the relentless, organ-drenched trance of tracks like “The Only One I Know” crystallized the Madchester sound.
The biggest Manchester band of the ’90s is, of course, Oasis. Although the Madchester scene was long dead by the time Oasis struck it big in 1994, Noel Gallagher had gotten a taste of semi-stardom as a roadie for the Madchester outfit Inspiral Carpets. On the surface, the Carpets’ 1990 debut, Life, is a caricature of the flowery, funky Madchester sound—but in many ways, the disc goes deeper into that sound than any of its peers. In particular, the single “Commercial Reign” is an uncut dose of hallucinatory, organ-slathered dementia.
Where not to start: As if Madchester wasn’t a bad enough name, the movement spun off its own derogative derivative: baggy. Used to demarcate the existing groups and startups that jumped on the Madchester bandwagon, baggy was a trend-within-a-trend that encompassed everything from The Farm’s “Groovy Train” to The Soup Dragon’s bastardized version of The Rolling Stones’ “I’m Free.” For the most part, baggy was as limp and insipid as its unfortunate handle—but there are bright spots, like Blur’s fizzy “There’s No Other Way” and Northside’s mindlessly hip-shaking “Take 5.” The latter is no “I Wanna Be Adored,” but at least Northside was actually from Manchester.
Manchester-based electronic outfits like 808 State are often lumped in with Madchester. They definitely influenced its rhythms and repetition, but Madchester was always more of a guys-with-guitars kind of thing. That said, 808 State’s 1989 album, the aptly titled Ninety, imagines what Happy Mondays might have sounded like with drum machines, sequencers, and a larger reservoir of acid. It’s probably a better entrée to house music, though, than to Madchester.
Of the ’80s Manchester bands that laid the groundwork for Madchester, A Certain Ratio is the most directly influential. Granted, the group’s slinky, arty funk had more in common with, say, Gang Of Four—but there’s no doubt young Madchester groups like Happy Mondays were paying special attention to ACR’s pulsing, organic grooves and hazy aura. ACR isn’t a Madchester band by any definition, but it’s a great example of the breaking point where post-punk began to thaw and turn elastic.