Are You Man U, You? - When The Happy Mondays Played Leeds' Elland Road

Manc legends playing on enemy turf.
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Manc legends playing on enemy turf.

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The aggressively probing phrase “Are you Man U, you?” has been uttered countless times round the back of the South Stand, or in the dark and sinister underpasses surrounding Holbeck Moor or even around the train station in central Leeds, as the search goes out for travelling Manchester United fans seeking anonymity.

Only once has it been bellowed in jocular fashion by a zoned-out wind-up merchant of a rock star to 30,000 fans from a stage in the middle of the Elland Road pitch. The Happy Mondays concert held at Elland Road on June 1st 1991 is considered a legendary event, not only in terms of the gig itself, but also as a document of its time with the ‘Madchester’ scene in full swing; a potent cocktail of indie and dance music but also a proudly northern youth fashion movement.

Elland Road as a venue was an interesting choice from the outset, with the band being synonymous with the Manchester musical movement of the time, and also as several band members were sworn Manchester United fans. Not only that, the legions of fans that would travel over from Manchester for the event considered this to be a seminal day, in keeping with the special one-off mega-gigs or ‘occasions’ that fellow Manchester band The Stone Roses occasionally held, in preference to the relentless slog of touring.

To hold such a reverential occasion at the home of Manchester United’s bitter rivals, and quite apart from the football rivalry, to hold it in one of the nearest comparable cities to where the scene was centred upon, was curious to say the least. No strangers to confrontation, the Happy Mondays were notoriously lacking in the pretensions that many comparable groups picked up and they never evolved from their working class roots.

Whilst the drug culture they embraced had a positive and welcoming ethos at its core, at least musically, inevitably that frequently spilled over into hostilities and there must have been fears of that in staging a milestone ‘Manchester’ occasion at the most visible of Leeds landmarks.

Nevertheless, it was a trouble-free and baking hot Saturday as 30,000 ‘baggy’ revellers descended on Elland Road for this unprecedented event, which was billed as the “Match of the Day” on posters and programmes. Given the combination of terrace and fashion cultures that surrounded football at the time, local residents may have noticed no difference on the surrounding streets to a normal Saturday afternoon, that is until the music started, utilising what was claimed to be the biggest PA system of its kind at the time.

The gig’s line-up included some of the biggest names of the baggy movement; The High, Northside, The La’s and The Farm, notwithstanding the Happy Mondays who were at the height of their powers and conquering all before them in their inimitably shambolic fashion.

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Andy Peterson was there that day and has fond memories of what he also recalls as being a brilliant event at a peculiar venue: “It was an event which still even now merits a straight ten on the Scally-ometer, one widely regarded as one of the Madchester era's definitive moments – and it happened at Elland Road. Not long after United had signed off on a remarkable, renaissance-affirming season back in the old First Division, the ground which had proved so truculent and impermeable between August and May opened itself up for the gig of the year, an all-day bill of baggy heaven, topped off by none other than the uber-Mancunian Happy Mondays.

“Up until the summer of 1989,” Andy continues “a concert at the stadium which guaranteed to draw sons and daughters from every village between Carlisle and Coventry would've seemed like a very bad idea, but the second summer of love had, supposedly, blissed out the football hooligan's souls, turning Saturday nights in the provinces in to one big peace-out. OK, so the reality on the ground wasn't quite that but even so the roster of bands – despite lacking Leeds’ own Bridewell Taxis – made attendance compulsory."

"Whilst The High were largely forgettable and Northside were well...Northside, anticipation built as first The La's and then The Farm stoked up the atmosphere, with the latter's front man (and professional Scouser) Peter Hooton quipping ‘I bet this is the biggest crowd youse lot have seen here in years’. Oh, how we laughed.”

The gig was a resounding success and several tales exist of ticketless fans adopting physically challenging techniques to gain entry. ‘Elland Road’ is still considered an “I was there” moment of the Madchester scene, with front man Shaun Ryder, notably not a huge fan of football, famously heckling the crowd from the stage with playful taunts of the sneering goad: “Are you Man U, you?”

Andy Peterson also recalls the gig itself: “The Mondays themselves were on the crest of the wave which had taken their third release Pills, Thrills and Bellyaches to the top of the album charts, and although on closer inspection some of it sounded like echoes of it's far superior predecessor Bummed, their pixilated take on indie rock, funk and sixties day-glo had entranced the nation. This was their night. And yet their thunder was nearly stolen by a anonymous punter who, clearly deciding that his vantage point wasn't good enough, climbed one of the ground's famous floodlight pylons to catch the likes of Loose Fit, Hallelujah, Step On and WFL from a dizzy and dangerous height. My own favourite memory is having retired to the Lowfields seats to watch the show, then inhaling the strong whiff of jazz cigarettes coming up from the throng before watching them suddenly burst into a life-affirming, pogo-tastic melee during Donovan. It was a 24 hour party during which all our petty quarrels were put to one side. Away fans have probably never been so welcome, before or since.”

The event went so well that the Happy Mondays eventually released an official album recording of it via Factory Records, entitled simply “Live”, to counter the plethora of bootleg recordings that were circulating afterwards, one of which was a sly money-making side project by Shaun Ryder himself. The official version is now considered amongst the best live albums ever released, a proud boast from rock music’s sweaty, exhausting and wondrous heritage that I don’t think Old Trafford can claim.

This is an extract from Jon Howe's new book 'The Only Place For Us - An A-Z History Of Elland Road'

Follow Jon @jonhowe1971