Happy Mondays: Excess All Areas is a passable read that offers an interesting glimpse into Manchester’s independent rock boom.
During how many Led Zeppelin rehearsals did Robert Plant refuse to participate? How much crack and heroin did the Rolling Stones consume at their peak? Did members of the Who ever eat their producer’s food out of the garbage because they were starving? Manchester’s Happy Mondays, among the most underappreciated British groups in America, embodied these types of rock ‘n’ roll legends in a much less palatable package than their progenitors, which may explain their narrower appeal. Of all rock bands in history, the Mondays may be the most deranged and explosive, the logical conclusion of a culture that glorifies drug addiction, uninhibited sex and erratic, ego-driven behavior, yet so many fans of the traditions of rock music are so quick to turn their backs on artists who cross the invisible line, and the Mondays walked that line throughout their career. This is the hypocrisy of a rock culture that never seems to know whether to condone or condemn that kind of destructive attitude, even decades afterward.
Simon Spence, who previously wrote a biography on fellow Mancunians the Stone Roses, serves up the lesser known Happy Mondays story with Happy Mondays: Excess All Areas, a book that simultaneously celebrates and condones the behavior of one of the most notoriously volatile rock bands of the era. It’s a book that seems unsure of what it wants to say about the Mondays, whether to vilify or lionize an openly destructive group of young men who happened to make some good records in between drug binges and infighting. Happy Mondays: Excess All Areas unintentionally becomes a perfect example of the way that the music press so predictably latches on to dangerous behavior and celebrates it, selling it as an image and creating unwilling martyrs from those who can’t hack it.
In fairness, Spence dedicates certain passages to mitigating the fantastic myths surrounding the band, but this impulse also manifests itself in him downplaying the band’s sometimes shameless, degenerate behavior, unintentionally propagating the miserably tired “sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll” fantasy for another era. Spence matter-of-factly describes the band and their entourage’s many vices, from shoplifting to brawling to drugs to robbery, often going out of his way to explain how things weren’t nearly as bad as the legends seemed before hilariously characterizing things like frontman Shaun Ryder’s predilection for heroin as, simply, “a drug he’d dabbled with and had a real taste for.” The author is far too reverent at times, building up Ryder as an artistic genius by attributing his behavior to the band’s need for “an image” rather than as the result of serious drug issues and chronic anxiety. This unbalanced portrayal of the band is not only frustrating for the reader, but almost mind-numbingly revisionist. Spence makes the Happy Mondays universally palatable when the brunt of their charm is how impenetrably unpalatable they were and still are (rightfully so) to the majority of people.
This is a problem that rock music history has struggled with for decades. In his unending admiration, Spence canonizes the Happy Mondays legacy in such a way that the book becomes utterly flat, drained of all its off-color flavor and smoothed of all its rough edges in an effort to make it widely digestible and conventional, a simplification process that generations of music press have forced on everyone from the Beatles to Nirvana, eroding the messy complexities of reality in service of a tasteful narrative that fails to portray anything resembling truth. Can a dry and rudimentary telling of the story of a provocative, destructive and wildly unhinged band be of any use to anyone?
For the uninitiated, Happy Mondays: Excess All Areas is a passable read that offers an interesting glimpse into Manchester’s independent rock boom (aided by the Mondays’ label, the infamous Factory Records) and the members of the Mondays themselves, all of whom (not just the notorious Shaun Ryder) provide compelling interviews for the book. That said, readers should be warned that the book is best read in spite of Spence’s perspective on the band rather than because of it. Happy Mondays: Excess All Areas exemplifies so many of the problems that rock criticism still struggles with, particularly the building of a false iconography, that it can become frustrating to sift through all the baggage. Luckily, it’s still possible to ignore those drawbacks and enjoy the book, just as it’s possible to look past their many faults and enjoy the music of Happy Mondays. In criticism, it’s integral that one explores those nuances.