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Don’t Talk to Me About Heroes! - Can, Happy Mondays, and Class War in the International Kosmische Underground

I’m So Green – Do It Better

 

The first time I heard Can was when their extended wigout, Mother Sky, soundtracked a pivotal scene in Jerzy Skolimowski’s 1970 film, Deep End. As John Moulder Brown’s infatuated adolescent Mike stalks Jane Asher’s swinging swimming pool attendant Susan to a Soho nightclub, clips from the track by the German purveyors of inner space give the increasing desperation of Mike’s obsession its pulse. 

 

As Mother Sky plays, Mike moves from the foyer of the club to a hot dog stand to a prostitute’s flat before doing a runner onto the underground with a life-size cut-out of a Susan looky-likey lifted from outside a strip club under his arm. This is accompanied by the track’s screeching guitar frenzy that lends the scene even more urgency, driven even more by the pummelling insistence of bass and drums that go with it.

 

I was twelve when I first saw and heard all this in Skolimowski’s now cult classic, staying up late one Sunday night in the summer of 1977 for the film’s first UK TV screening. Watching on a monster-sized black and white telly, my eyes and ears were opened by what I was being exposed to several times over. 

 

I knew nothing of the band billed in the opening credits as The Can, and at the time was more interested in Cat Stevens’ song, But I Might Die Tonight, which plays over the credits as Mike cycles through grim looking London streets. Thinking about it now, I might have seen Can on Top of the Pops the year before, miming incongruously to I Want More, but couldn’t swear to it. In truth, aged twelve, I was more interested in Jane Asher than anything else in the film’s doomed rites of passage, but the music certainly helped things along.

 

 

The first time I heard Happy Mondays was when the video for their song, Hallelujah, appeared on ITV’s The Chart Show one hungover Saturday morning. I was in my mid twenties, and knew of the group as they were on Factory Records, though I’d never paid them much attention, and the acid house revolution had pretty much passed me by. 

 

Judging by the trippy abandon of both the song and the video for Hallelujah, however, things had changed considerably for a label still defined in my head, at least, by Joy Division, New Order, The Durutti Column and A Certain Ratio. But the serious young men austerity years, it seemed, were over, and had given way to something far more raucous that was being lionised as Madchester.

 

While there were only twelve years between my being exposed to Can and Happy Mondays for the first time, it would be a couple of decades more before I realised what now seems very obvious similarities between the two groups, despite them being worlds apart in other ways. This is clear from listening to Tago Mago, Ege Bam Yasi, and Future Days, the trilogy of Can albums released between 1971 and 1973 featuring vocalist Damo Suzuki. Heard back-to-back alongside Happy Mondays’ groovier moments released a decade and a half later, the template for the sounds produced by Shaun Ryder’s ramshackle gang of merry pranksters isn’t hard to spot. 

 

This is certainly the case on the band’s early singles and first two albums, the heroically named Squirrel and G-Man Twenty Four Hour Party People Plastic Face Carnt Smile (White Out) (1987), and its follow up, Bummed (1988). Lead off singles, 24 Hour Party People, from the former, and Wrote for Luck, from the latter, may have been in full possession of their era’s indie-dance sensibilities, but, beyond the production, they sound infused with Can’s avant-psych-funk spirit.

 

This really comes into the open on Hallelujah. The lead track on the Madchester Rave On EP (1989) sounds like the mad-fer-it bastard offspring of Can’s epic extended workout, Halleluhwah. On Tago Mago’s initial 1971 release as a double vinyl album, the track takes up the whole of its second side. The UK pressing of the record incorrectly named it on both the sleeve and label as Hallelujah. 

 

But no matter. Such flaws make history. And, as Suzuki incants over the impressionistic grooves constructed by guitarist Michael Karoli, keyboardist Irmin Schmidt and the driving rhythmic collision of bassist Holger Czukay and drummer Jaki Liebezeit, the future is being set, not so much in stone, but in constant, fluid motion forwards. 

 

This was clear when Liebezeit’s drum part for the song was sampled on Primal Scream’s 1997 single, Kowalski. Primal Scream had already copped some lyrics for Movin’ on Up (1991) from Yoo Doo Right on Can’s pre Suzuki debut, Monster Movie (1968). Featuring original Can vocalist Malcolm Mooney, the song also sounds like an influence on Stereolab’s own epic, Metronomic Underground, on the groop’s 1996 Emperor Tomato Ketchup album. 

 

More recently, some of Schmidt’s piano part on Halleluhwah was sampled by A Tribe Called Quest on Lost Somebody, a track on the American hip hop group’s 2016 album, We Got it from Here… Thank You 4 Your Service. 

 

Prior to all this, the original incarnation of John Lydon’s post Sex Pistols provocation with guitarist Keith Levene, bassist Jah Wobble and various drummers as Public Image Limited tapped into a Can groove most noticeably on their second album, Metal Box (1979). Wobble went on to collaborate with both Czukay and Liebezeit on the 1982 album, Full Circle, and worked with them both again on Snake Charmer (1983), an EP that also featured U2 guitarist The Edge. 

 

Liebezeit later appeared with Wobble and sound artist Philip Jeck on Live in Leuven (2004), and as part of Wobble-led ‘supergroup’ Solaris, alongside bassist Bill Laswell, pianist Harold Budd and cornet player Graham Haynes. 

 

If one thing set the Brits apart in all this dot to dot of influence and collaboration, it is that, unlike many of their European peers, they were largely self-taught. Significantly too, they were all from working class backgrounds. 

 

 

 

Future Days – Bob’s Yer Uncle

 

Flagging up Can’s effect on British post-punk in particular is hardly a new thing. The importance of the group’s long-term influence is made clear in All Gates Open (2018), Rob Young’s forensic biography of the band, co-authored with Irmin Schmidt, the last surviving member of Can other than Mooney and Suzuki. 

 

I belatedly got round to reading All Gates Open fairly recently. When it talks about Deep End, which was filmed in London and Munich, the book mentions the club and the hot dog stand scenes, though not the one in the prostitute’s flat. It does mention the Diana Dors bathhouse scene, although Mother Sky doesn’t appear in it. Either way, Young and Schmidt’s book is a vital and definitive history of Can. 

 

In terms of those influenced by them, Happy Mondays are fleetingly flagged up in All Gates Open alongside the likes of their Greater Manchester forebears The Fall, and others including Julian Cope, and Talk Talk. Also given an honourable nod are Primal Scream, who Young points out Liebezeit made an uncredited guest appearance with in 2000 on their XTRMNTR album. 

 

Young also refers to space/drone/psych rock band Loop’s explosive cover of Mother Sky on their Black Sun EP, released in 1989. This was the same year Can released their Rite Time album, and Happy Mondays released Hallelujah. Loop closed their set with Mother Sky when they regrouped in 2013 for a tour that took in Edinburgh’s Liquid Room.  

 

As Young suggests, echoes of Can are all over early incarnations of The Fall. The band’s driving force Mark E. Smith even wrote a song called I Am Damo Suzuki, which appeared on his band’s 1985 album, This Nation’s Saving Grace. Musically, the song draws from Bel Air, which takes up the whole of side two on Future Days, as well as Don’t Turn the Light on, Leave Me Alone, from Soundtracks (1970), and Oh Yeah, from Tago Mago. 

 

Lyrically, Smith’s impressionistic homage makes direct references to Suzuki. The line ‘Jehovah’s Witness/ Stands in Cologne Marktplatz’ mashes up history and geography in terms of Suzuki first being spotted by Can while busking in Munich rather than Cologne, as well as his later religious conversion prior to him leaving the band. I Am Damo Suzuki’s lyrics also reference Liebezeit, Stockhausen, and Ege Bam Yasi era song, Vitamin C. The Soundtracks album, which featured Mother Sky, also receives a mention.

 

There was an equally clear influence of Can too on Spectre vs Rector, from The Fall’s second album, Dragnet (1979). Smith’s gothic epic draws from the melody of Mooney’s vocal delivery on The Empress and the Ukraine King, which appeared on Limited Edition (1974). This compilation of hitherto unheard Can material was released the same year as the post Damo follow up to Future Days, Soon Over Babaluma (1974), and was later expanded into a double set as Unlimited Edition (1976). 

 

As already noted, the same year Happy Mondays released Hallelujah, Can put out their first new material in a decade on Rite Time (1989). Recorded in 1986, the new album reunited the band’s core quartet, with Mooney also returning to the fold. 

 

Rite Time revealed a sound rendered smoother by technology, but which, largely through Mooney’s presence, retained a shamanic wildness. There are moments on Hoolah Hoolah and Give the Drummer Some that might well have been inspired by Happy Mondays outtakes. It’s unlikely they were, but synergy and synchronicity move in mysterious ways.

 

Rite Time’s closing track, the tellingly named In the Distance Lies the Future, features Mooney repeating the word’ Distance’ over and over. Mooney’s mantra is not that far removed from Ryder’s twelve-strong repetition of the word ‘Good’ followed by a couple of ‘Double double good’s on Bummed era Happy Mondays, song, Do it Better. If Can’s explorations of inner space pointed the way, the future it laid out, it seems, wasn’t that distant, after all.

 

 

I Want More – Yes, Please!

 

I thought about the umbilical musical links between Can and Happy Mondays recently after going to see the latest iteration of Black Grape play at the Liquid Room in Edinburgh in a show opened by The Wendys. It was seeing this double bill as well that finally prompted me to read All Gates Open.

 

Black Grape is the band originally formed by Shaun Ryder in 1993 after the first collapse of Happy Mondays, and which saw Ryder spar lead vocal lines with Kermit of Ruthless Rap Assassins. The new venture’s debut album, It’s Great When You’re Straight… Yeah (1995), was co-produced by Stephen Lironi, and spawned hit singles, Reverend Black Grape, In the Name of the Father, and Kelly’s Heroes. 

 

The Wendys were signed to Factory Records shortly after supporting Happy Mondays at the Venue in Edinburgh in 1988, and released their under-appreciated  Gobbledygook (1991) album on the label before it imploded. Factory’s demise was largely down to the Mondays’ excesses recording their fourth album, Yes Please! (1992), before they too fell apart.

 

The Liquid Room gig was a hugely entertaining affair, with Ryder, Kermit and band’s semi greatest hits set showing there was a lot more going on in their back catalogue than the ‘avin’ it large clichés of its era might suggest. The Wendys too were a nuanced unit, whose canon deserves much more attention than they received beyond the unfortunate timing of being signed to Factory just as the label was about to go into financial meltdown. This is clear from Gobbledygook, which was recently released on streaming services for the first time since its initial outing thirty years ago.  

 

It was Wendys guitarist Ian White’s playing at the Liquid Room that got me thinking about both Happy Mondays and Can. Cutting through any studio overdubs, White’s scratchy riffs were clearly operating in roughly the same sphere as original Mondays guitarist Mark Day, especially in the period before everything went full-on Baggy. Beyond music paper led movements, both Day and White seemed to draw from Michael Karoli’s own spindly guitar patterns with Can. 

 

The vocal stylings of Shaun Ryder, meanwhile, transposes Suzuki’s hypnotic free-associative mantras to late 1970s Salford. Ryder’s mash-up of lyrical non-sequiturs pulled from daytime TV and everyday jargon prompted Factory mouthpiece Tony Wilson to compare the frontman’s poetics to those of W.B. Yeats.

 

You can hear portents of Happy Mondays too on Can’s hip-wiggling single, Moonshake, taken from Future Days (1973), and the nursery rhyme scat of pre Suzuki vocalist Malcolm Mooney on Little Star of Bethlehem. Mooney’s nonsensical narrative closed the self explanatory named Delay 1968 album, posthumously released in 1981, after Can had split up, just as the Mondays were starting to get their shit together. 

 

As Manchester contemporaries such as The Smiths and James pursued a more literary bent, Happy Mondays were an altogether more unruly proposition. With their scrunched together scraps of everyday phantasmagorias, they possessed a cartoonish gang mentality, like totally wired Bash Street Kids wannabes let loose in a pharmaceuticals factory after ram-raiding the local record shop. 

 

One can picture Ryder, Day, Ryder’s bass playing brother Paul, keyboardist Paul Davis, drummer Gaz Whelan and of course freaky dancer Bez tripping out to Can while hiding out in their mums and dads houses, watching telly with the sound turned down through a fug of dope smoke. Maybe they too stayed up late one Sunday night in 1977 to watch Deep End.

 

Ryder and co might not have had the technical prowess of Czukay, Karoli, Liebezeit and Schmidt, but they possessed a similar hunger to make a noise that was different to the norm. In Ryder, as Wilson proselytised with typically heroic overstatement, they also had a poet whose free associative nursery rhyme rambles were as good as anything by Mooney or Suzuki.

 

For all the hedonistic excesses on the Madchester frontline the Mondays occupied, strip away the nonsense, and there is substance as well as substance abuse in their back catalogue. And, like Can, Happy Mondays wanted more.

 

 

All Gates Open - Hallelujah

 

Can and Happy Mondays might be cross-generational kindred spirits, but history has regarded each group in completely different ways. Much of the differences in perception are down to good old class snobbery. Where Can are quite rightly taken seriously as post hippy pioneers sired in the European avant-garde, and who featured two members who studied under Karlheinz Stockhausen, Happy Mondays are seen as a bunch of scally drug dealers and skag-heads, who caused chaos at home and abroad. 

 

Such a superior sense of dismissal isn’t unusual. While it remains perfectly acceptable for classically trained European musicians to cut and paste sonic collages with free-associative abandon, if a dock clerk from Prestwich does something similar it’s likely as not treated as the deranged ramblings of a back street drunk. 

 

This attitude occupies the same world too where it’s okay for Oxbridge educated arbiters of taste to scoff at artists without an O Level to their name, but who learnt through influences such as Can who showed there was more going on that what they were being offered. A working class autodidact, it seems, is still something to be. For the cultural gatekeepers, however, they remain a terrifying prospect. 

 

To be fair, in terms of projecting an image, Happy Mondays could be their own worst enemies. While Can’s progressive dissections of rock’s rich tapestry appealed to intellectuals and student heads sitting cross-legged on the floor, Happy Mondays’ gang mentality initially at least courted a hooligan like following more familiar on the football terraces than in hip emporiums such as the Hacienda. 

 

It was the draughty confines of what initially looked like Factory Records’ greatest folly, however, that Happy Mondays made their own, as their rude and ramshackle take on Can democratised the dancefloor and helped kickstart a musical and social revolution. Until, that is, the revolution took an ugly turn. The title of the third Happy Mondays album, – Pills ‘n’ Thrills and Bellyaches (1990) -  didn’t quite say it all. Guns, gangs and record company bankruptcy could easily have been added to the mix.

 

Despite their differences, Can and Happy Mondays have much in common. Squirrel and G-Man Twenty Four Hour Party People Plastic Face Carnt Smile (White Out) was produced by John Cale, the former Velvet Underground viola player and composer who carved out a career as a solo artist and producer after leaving the band following their second album, White Light White Heat. 

 

Cale grew up in a working class mining village in Wales, a scholarship boy who was classically trained at Goldsmiths College at the University of London, before moving to New York. Here, he worked with John Cage and La Monte Young prior to joining forces with Lou Reed and co for the ultimate art/rock happening.

 

It was Schmidt’s 1960s sojourn to New York and exposure to the Velvets that prompted his desire to make music beyond his own classical schooling. This influence was arguably most apparent on Monster Movie, where Can’s more out there leanings were tempered in what now sounds relatively conventional compared to what they did later. By the time Cale got to Happy Mondays, the 1960s New York avant-garde and the 1970s German underground appeared to have begat something more streetsmart, and which absorbed influences as hungrily as a club kid snorting a line. 

 

Beyond mere music, Happy Mondays’ image of comic lairiness made them fodder both for the tabloids and the music press, who set them up in compromising photoshoots while simultaneously tut-tutting at such loutish behaviour. 

 

For all their perceived seriousness, Can liked to goof off as much as the next band. Which was probably Faust. Early Can single, Turtles Have Short Legs (1971), which featured an edit of Halleluhwah on the flip. borders on sing-along novelty. This was even more the case on Can-Can (1978), a cheesy sounding in-joke version of Jacques Offenbach’s Galop Infernal from his operetta, Orpheus in the Underworld (1858), best known for accompanying the high-kicking chorus line at the Moulin Rouge.

 

Despite such levity, likely as not it was uptight Brit audiences who took their Can straight rather than home crowds. This was on a par with British theatre in the 1970s, which preferred to do plays by German radical Bertolt Brecht with a po-faced ideological earnestness that monumentally failed to see the funny side.

 

Drugs, you say? A generation coming of age in Germany during the late 1960s and early 1970s wanted to shake off the baggage of the country’s Nazi past in a way that made the country one of the centres of radical opposition. At a time when narcotics were a key accessory to counter-cultural thought, soft drugs, at least, will have invariably been around Can’s world.

 

With the German counter-culture largely made up of the disaffected sons and daughters of the bourgeoisie, no one seemed to make too much of a fuss. A decade or so on, a bunch of tearaways passing round weed had to contend with Greater Manchester Police, then in the grip of born again Chief Constable James Anderton, star of Pills ‘n’ Thrills and Bellyaches era song, God’s Cop.

 

Tony Wilson’s comparison between Ryder and Yeats may have been headline-grabbing hyperbole, but his tribute was sincere. It recognised that Happy Mondays should be taken as seriously as any university educated auteurs, especially those who came through the late twentieth century avant-garde, in Germany or anywhere else. 

 

Happy Mondays may have been patronised as savants, but their status as student union dancefloor favourites is an irony that belongs in the same milieu as Pulp’s class war anthem, Common People. As Ryder sang in Wrote for Luck, ‘You used to speak the truth, but now you’re clever’. 

 

Can and Happy Mondays, then, represent two sides of the same Euro. On the one hand, Can’s desire to build something new from the debris of post World War Two Germany resulted in a series of thrilling records that had rhythm at their heart. On the other, northern England’s wasted youth crawled from the rubble of bombed out terraces to absorb those grooves with the same enthusiasm they’d suck on a bong, before blowing it back out in their own messy, skagged-up image. 

 

The legacy of both Can and Happy Mondays is a delirious mash up of several generations of hallucinogenic dance music. Just as Deep End was filmed between London and Munich, the sounds of both bands were instinctively sired in a musical crosswind somewhere between Cologne and Salford, with melons magically twisted en route. Sing Hallelujah, and indeed Halleluhwah, to that.



First published in FRETS litzine at The Creeping Bent Organisation's Patreon page, www.patreon.com/creepingbent, November 2021.

 

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