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The 18 months when Madchester ruled the world

When four DJs set off on their holidays to Ibiza, it was the catalyst for an era-defining genre of music from the north of England that spawned ‘baggy’ fashion and the likes of the Happy Mondays and Stone Roses


‘You’re twisting my melon man’: Bez and Shaun Ryder of the Happy Mondays in concert in 1989

‘You’re twisting my melon man’: Bez and Shaun Ryder of the Happy Mondays in concert in 1989

‘You’re twisting my melon man’: Bez and Shaun Ryder of the Happy Mondays in concert in 1989

It was June 1987 and a bunch of friends from England decided to go on holiday for a week in Ibiza. One of them was turning 24 and he wanted a sun break with three of his pals to mark the occasion. The four who journeyed to the Balearic island that summer weren’t to know it at the time, but it would not just change their lives, but also alter British music forever.

The birthday boy was Paul Oakenfold. His friends were Danny Rampling, Nicky Holloway and Johnny Walker. Those names hardly need an introduction to dance lovers now, but when they boarded that Ibiza-bound flight, they were little-known DJs manning the decks in clubs around London.

But while they were in Ibiza, they were bowled over by the all-night club sets from an Argentinian DJ, Alfredo Fiorito. He had been a newspaper journalist, but had left home during the military dictatorship and wound up in Ibiza after a stint in Paris. His sets at Amnesia, an open-air club that had been a farmhouse in a previous life, had become the stuff of legend — as did his euphoric genre-hopping music that was heavily indebted to acid house. And, by 1987, a new recreational drug had arrived to make DJ Alfredo’s music sound even more compelling: ecstasy. It was everywhere in Ibiza that year and Oakenfold and friends would drop their first E on that holiday.

When they returned, they tried to replicate what they had experienced in the clubs of London. Rampling opened a club, Shoom, that became an instant success. Even the flyers were distinctive, and featured the soon-to-be ubiquitous yellow smiley face logo.

Within a year, each of the quartet had become celebrated on dance floors everywhere, especially Oakenfold, and any discussion of the emergence of rave culture in the UK has to include him. If the scene was growing rapidly in the southern half of the country, it would soon become a sensation in the north, especially in Manchester. The Hacienda has now become such a part of the city’s music lore that it’s easy to forget that in the first five years of its existence, it was just another loss-making club in the city — albeit part of the hip Factory Records stable.

But acid house, ecstasy and the emergence of a gifted young generation of musicians would ensure that dance music would blossom in Manchester like nowhere else. Just as the Smiths were drawing to a close, bands like the Happy Mondays, the Stone Roses and Inspiral Carpets were getting seen and heard.


The Stone Roses epitomised the huge leap in the fortunes of Madchester bands

The Stone Roses epitomised the huge leap in the fortunes of Madchester bands

The Stone Roses epitomised the huge leap in the fortunes of Madchester bands

The Happy Mondays will be forever associated with Madchester, a sobriquet coined by mercurial frontman Shaun Ryder. Although they had been together since 1980, they wouldn’t make much impression until former Velvet Underground member John Cale produced their debut album, released by Factory, in 1987. The unwieldily titled Squirrel and G-Man Twenty Four Hour Party People Plastic Face Carnt Smile (White Out) saw the beginnings of the indie-dance crossover that would become so emblematic of Manchester bands of the era.

They would attain nationwide acclaim the following year with second album, Bummed, which was produced by one of the city’s most revered studio mavens, Martin Hannett. He had made his name a decade earlier as the producer who shaped Joy Division’s sound in studio, and here he was, assisting with the making of an album that was the diametric opposite to either of that band’s albums. The Bummed sessions were characterised by copious quantities of ecstasy being consumed by both the band and Hannett and the resulting album would have certainly sounded different had it been made under the influence of a different stimulant.

Like many musical moments that would go on to be highly influential, Madchester lasted for only a handful of years either side of 1990. The peak of its impact can roughly be traced from the release of the first — and extraordinary — Stone Roses album in May 1989 to November 1990 when the third and most commercially successful Happy Mondays album, Pills ‘n’ Thrills and Bellyaches, came out.

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It was an 18-month period in which Manchester was the centre of the music world and when a staggering number of bands swept all before them. And it wasn’t just the clubby brand of indie that was being ushered in, but a distinctive fashion too. The UK music press, with calling-a-spade-a-spade reasoning, dubbed those music makers with their loose, shapeless T-shirts, trackie bottoms and bowl-cuts ‘baggy’. The name stuck.

The Stone Roses epitomised the huge leap in the fortunes of Madchester bands. At the beginning of 1989, they were playing to 30 people in their home town. By the end of the year, they had sold out the 8,000 capacity Alexandra Palace in London. Songs like Fools Gold demonstrated how thrillingly dance music had infiltrated indie. It was little surprise that both the clubbing fanatics and old-school guitar band aficionados had much to savour.

In November 1989, even casual music lovers would have sensed that Manc music had truly arrived. Both the Stone Roses and Happy Mondays appeared on the same edition of Top of the Pops and the year was ending with big hits for Manchester acts A Guy Called Gerald and 808 State.

In hindsight, it’s easy to assume that everyone was fixated by such bands, but a perusal of the UK number ones for the year reminds us of the awful Jive Bunny — a father-and-son novelty act from Sheffield — who scored three chart-toppers thanks to their retro rock mash-up covers. By 1990, however, Madchester truly was inescapable. James and Inspiral Carpets released popular albums, New Order — Mancunian elder statesmen almost — had a huge hit with the World Cup song World in Motion, the Mock Turtles (with Steve Coogan’s older brother Martin on vocals) were ubiquitous with the insanely catchy Can You Dig It and in November, the Happy Mondays would deliver their masterpiece.

In a neat symmetry with the birth of rave from a British perspective, Pills ‘n’ Thrills and Bellyaches was produced by Paul Oakenfold. Thirty years on, it is the album that captures the druggy, free-love vibes of the era better than any other, even if some of the songs, including Holiday, feature lyrics to make a modern day listener wince: “Slow down bitch/ Oh bitch, slow down.”

Ryder and his merry band of eccentrics tended to be haphazard in concert — they were out of it most of the time, after all — but Oakenfold managed to both harness that scattergun energy in studio and deliver plenty of gold dust too. The masterful single Step On is a case in point: over the course of five minutes, the Mondays and their southern producer delivered an era-defining anthem that still sounds sensational today.

Madchester faded almost as quickly as it arrived. By late 1991, it was all about grunge and an incendiary Nirvana debut on Channel 4’s The Word that transfixed a new generation of music lovers. Ryder and friends would return during the Britpop years with another project, Black Grape, but it felt like a pale facsimile of what they had done before. As did the long-delayed Second Coming, the Stone Roses’ sophomore album which finally arrived in 1994.

Much of the glory of Manchester’s music scene at the time — and the importance of Factory Records to the story — would be told in Michael Winterbottom’s 2002 film 24 Hour Party People. Named after a Happy Mondays song, it featured the aforementioned Steve Coogan as Factory impresario Tony Wilson.

Ultimately, though, the era lives on in the great tunes that have stood the test of time. One wonders, however, just what sort of music might have emerged had Paul Oakenfold and friends opted for a completely different holiday destination all those years ago.

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