25 Years On: Happy Mondays’ Yes Please! Revisited

Yes Please! is the runt of the Happy Mondays’ litter, an album more likely to turn up on lists of career-ending releases and studio disasters than on playlists and radio. But as Yes Please! approaches its 25th anniversary, could this least redeemable of albums be due a critical re-think? Ben Cardew pushes for a place in history for this unique work of ageing, regret and disaster

Happy Mondays started 1992 in a very dark place and things only got darker as the year progressed. Their stand alone single, ‘Judge Fudge’, had only made an unimpressive 24 in the UK charts at the end of 1991, and a shockingly homophobic interview with the NME at the start of the year left an enduringly nasty impression of a band once seen as the popular heroes of rave.

By the end of 1992 the band’s label, iconic Manchester imprint Factory, had gone into administration, leaving the band unloved and out of pocket, while Shaun Ryder struggled with his various addictions. Karen Pierce, who interviewed Shaun for The Independent in October 1992, mentioned rumours that he was “sick, very sick”, adding that she half expected a call from his management saying, “It’s too late, the heroin got to him first.”

Between those two points came Yes Please!, the Happy Mondays’ fourth studio album. It has entered into popular legend as the record that killed both band and label, a critical flop reviewed, somewhat inevitably, by Melody Maker with two words: “No thanks”, and a nailed-to-the-shelves commercial disaster that briefly limped to number 14 in the UK charts then sunk like a stone. It is a record that has been subsumed by the tales of its creation, from Shaun Ryder’s improvised poolside crack dens to Bez’s multiple car crashes, whose musical make up is rarely mentioned. And it remains far from critical rehabilitation: Yes Please! celebrates its 25 anniversary this month and there will be no deluxe edition nor anniversary tour nor BBC4 documentary.

And yet Yes Please! is the Happy Mondays’ album I find myself coming back to most often as the years pile on. Yes Please! is an album steeped in age and regret, haunted by a 30-year-old Shaun Ryder who surveys the wreckage of his life and doesn’t like what he sees. That makes it is an eminently relatable album, one that ages with you, regretfully. I’m lucky enough never to have experienced the pain of addiction that fed into Yes Please! but lines like “Kiss me for old times sake/ Kiss me for making a big mistake/ Kiss me for always being late/ Kiss me for making you wait” (from ‘Stinkin’ Thinkin’’) will surely resonate with anyone who has reached maturity and realises that their road to adulthood has been littered with fuck ups and a need for apology (i.e. everyone).

In the face of stiff competition, Yes Please! is probably the bleakest album in my collection, establishing a doomed parallel with Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures, the record that made Factory records tied like an unwilling hostage to the album that broke the label. Unknown Pleasures, make no mistake about it, is bleak, from Ian Curtis’ doomed baritone to the sound of shattering glass at the end of ‘I Remember Nothing’, via songs about epileptic seizures (‘She’s Lost Control’) and suicide (‘New Dawn Fades’). The big difference between the two albums, however, is that Unknown Pleasures, mirrors its lyrical despair in its musical backing, all doom-laden descending bass lines, skeletal guitar runs and drums that thud like shovels packing dirt on a freshly-laid coffin. Yes Please!, by contrast, pairs words of weary disgust with music that forces the Caribbean surroundings in which the album was recorded through a Manchester funk filter, all wrapped up in the ultra clean production of Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth. The effect is like sunlight striking a stinking crack den or getting dumped at your birthday party, an element of musical sunshine amplifying the record’s sheer lyrical disgust ad infinitum. In the end it was bleak music that made Factory Records and bleak music that destroyed it and it is tempting (although probably unfair) to see Yes Please! as Factory’s pigeons coming home to roost, the sombre aesthetic that made the label hard-wiring self destruction into its DNA.

The importance of musical contrast on Yes Please! means that Shaun Ryder’s lyrics, melodies and vocal performances are vital to the feel of album. While the musical backing for Yes Please! was recorded at Eddie Grant’s Blue Wave studio in Barbados, Shaun’s desperate state (he dropped his supply of methadone at Manchester airport before leaving for Barbados and ended up smoking 25 rocks of crack a day during the recording period) meant that his vocals were recorded back in England after a stint in rehab.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the lyrics that Ryder eventually wrote for Yes Please! ended up a mix of gibberish (“Stay away from the peppermint twist/ Where the Humpty Humpers meet” from ‘Monkey in the Family’), regret (“You’re not shown how to move like a worm/ That’s a life you won’t let yourself learn” from ‘Sunshine And Love’) and blackened imagery (“Smiley bug eyed mung worm at the bottom of the bottle/ Lay of its back on the bottom of the bottle” from ‘Dustman’), while Ryder’s delivery alternates between that of a man on dazed autopilot and someone singing from the shattered bottom of their soul. Backing vocalist Rowetta, always a hugely integral part of the Happy Mondays set up, really comes into her own, giving an inappropriately soulful buffing to lines like “Where did the pain start / Where did the symptoms begin?” (on ‘Angel’), the uneasy harmony between her professional sheen and Ryder’s wounded whisper seemingly mocking and supporting Ryder’s desperate cause.

As a rule, then, when Ryder is absent (as on the largely instrumental ‘Theme from Netto’) or on autopilot (takes your pick from ‘Lovechild’, ‘Total Ringo’ and ‘Cowboy Dave’) Yes Please! stinks the place out, amply justifying its position on those tiresome worst album of the 90s lists. That’s not to criticise bassist Paul Ryder, guitar player Mark Day, Paul Davis on keyboards or drummer Gary Whelan, all of whom played a vital role in establishing the Mondays’ sleazy cubist funk and who have the chutzpah and musical open-mindedness to apply their magpie eye to genres like soca and calypso on Yes Please!. But here, more than ever, their music needs Ryder’s grit to toughen up its sunshine smooth edges.

‘Monkey In The Family’, ’Dustman’ and ‘Angel’, a triptych of such acute despair as is probably unrivalled in modern music, are the epitome of this aesthetic of darkening light. ‘Angel’, a genuinely astounding song, tells you all you need to know about Happy Mondays circa 1992, a despairing whisper of a vocal – the sound of someone who has pretty much given up – coming up against growling, angry guitar chords and a backing that seems to take its percussive cues from the Little Mermaid.

‘Monkey In The Family’ features another great guitar line from Mark Day, the musician who emerges from Yes Please! with most credit. His scuzzy, disgusted riffing is allied to the kind of plinky plonk synth line favoured by EMF and Jesus Jones and a chorus that might be anthemic, where it nor for Ryder’s nauseated tone dragging it back into the gutter. Three and a half minutes in the song takes an unlikely twist with the introduction of what sounds like sitar and tabla drums, a move that underlines the Mondays’ musical eclecticism without necessarily adding or detracting to the song.

‘Dustman’ features one of Shaun Ryder’s most astonishing vocal performances, his voice on the verses displaying the kind of anguished scream that Kurt Cobain later nailed on In Utero, another album that proves that a pop star lifestyle won’t help you escape the gnawing bleakness of life. The song’s backing, meanwhile, sees the Mondays cooks up a vaguely Caribbean stew of bongos, scratch guitar and hammond organ that you could fit in with the work of an adventurous cruise ship band.

These three tracks aren’t just bleak in themselves, they cover all around them in a layer of tarry despair. As a result ‘Stinkin’ Thinkin’’ and ‘Sunshine & Love’, the album’s two singles, separated on Yes Please! by ‘Monkey In the Family’ and followed by ‘Dustman’ and ‘Angel’, are dragged down into a pit of anguish that alone they might not merit. ‘Stinkin’ Thinkin’, in particular, comes across as more wistful than distressed when removed from the context of Yes Please!, Ryder’s hangdog vocal style and brilliantly earnest melody suggesting that redemption may, after all, be possible. The song is notable, too, for featuring an artfully restrained musical performance from the Mondays – restraint not being one of their common features – composed of brushed drums, wandering bass, dabs of organ and a softly melodic guitar line. This backing perfectly chimes with Ryder’s tales of redemption and regret but doesn’t exactly explode off the radio, which may help to explain the song’s UK chart peak of 31.

‘Sunshine & Love’, the last record released by Factory, fared even worse. Despite the single package featuring remixes from Lionrock and M-People, as well as the Mondays’ cover of ‘Staying Alive’, it limped to 62 in the UK charts, a dismal performance that suggested the gig was pretty much up for Mondays and Factory alike. Away from this infamy, though, and its position third song in on Yes Please!, ‘Sunshine & Love’ is actually a rather sweet love song (albeit one tinged with regret), featuring a joyous ear-worm chorus from Rowetta. Insert ‘Sunshine & Love’ onto Pills ‘n’ Thrills And Bellyaches, the Happy Mondays’ third, hit album, and it would fit perfectly. Similarly, take ‘Kinky Afro’ from Pills…, stick it onto Yes Please! and lines like “Son, I’m 30 / I only went with your mother ’cause she’s dirty / And I don’t have a decent bone in me” would sound far less carefree and fun. That’s not to say that ‘Stinkin’ Thinkin’’ and ‘Sunshine & Love’ don’t work on Yes Please! – they do, brilliantly, providing rare moments of melodic tranquility in the album’s desolate first half – but their low standing among the listening public is almost certainly warped by the general disgust that surrounds Yes Please!.

‘Sunshine & Love’ is also notable for its layers of rattling live percussion, a sound that was pushed to the front of the mix on Yes Please!, with Bruce Martin, a member of Tom Tom Club, featuring on additional percussion. This not only helps to lend the album its Caribbean edge but also displays an interesting new angle on the Happy Mondays’ sound that other – perhaps more habitual – producers would probably not have found. ‘Cut ‘Em Loose Bruce’ is the epitome of this, a song that combines a propulsive soca beat with an orgy of shakers, scrapers and congas, synthesised horns and a menacing vocal which makes the chorus’ call of “I’m coming home” sound more like a threat than a promise. Listen to a live version of Tom Tom Club’s classic ‘Wordy Rappinghood’ and you can see what Frantz, Weymouth and Martin brought to Yes Please!. ‘Cut ‘Em Loose Bruce’ also features a contribution from rapper Kermit, who would go on to form Black Grape with Shaun Ryder after the Mondays split. That makes the track an interesting clue as to where Ryder would go next and I can’t be alone in thinking that Black Grape’s percussive power owes at least a small debt to the sound of Yes Please!.

Yes Please!, then, may go largely uncelebrated as it passes its 25th anniversary. But its mixture of warm Caribbean sun and hard Manchester rain, sleek production sheen and lyrical despair, makes the album brilliantly unique, a weird combination of Eddy Grant, Joy Division, Tom Tom Club and one of the best lyricists in British history straining at the very end of his patience. Forget the four lousy songs that end Yes Please!, stop worrying about the demise of Factory and you can appreciate the first six songs on the album for their raw emotional power.

Shaun Ryder himself has started to come round to the album of late, telling Penny Black Music in 2015 that hindsight has enable him to see Yes Please! for what it is, rather than for what it isn’t. "The reason I was sort of hard on that album is that I didn’t want to change from Oakenfold and Osborne [who produced 1990’s Pills ‘n’ Thrills and Bellyaches],” he said. “Chris and Tina are great producers, great people. I just hadn’t had time to accept they were doing the album… I mean, now I’ll walk into somewhere and it’s on or I’ll come across a track playing and it’s alright. I’m not as hard on it as I was.”

Maybe this is a lesson for us all. We should see Yes Please! as the start of something, be it Black Grape, Shaun Ryder’s eventual rehabilitation or even the post-baggy era, rather than the herald of Happy Mondays’ and Factory’s ultimate decline. Yes Please! wasn’t the new Pills ‘n’ Thrills and Bellyaches in the same way that 1992 wasn’t the new 1990; Madchester couldn’t keep Raving On forever, the Happy Mondays wouldn’t save Factory and even the Haçienda had to close eventually.

But don’t take this disappointment out on Yes Please!, an album that remains a semi-coherent masterpiece of frazzled intuition, an album of ageing, regret and disaster, buffed and shone to within an inch of its life like a weird piece of performance art, a work of genius at the end of its tether and stretching fit to burst, like Goya’s Black Paintings airbrushed and transposed onto a can of Lilt. Unique, harrowing, flawed and brilliant.

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