Pills Thrills And Bellyaches: A Track By Track Retrospective With The Happy Mondays

Gary, Paul, Mark and Rowetta take us back to LA 1990,  with the story of how one of Manchester's landmark albums came to be.
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Gary, Paul, Mark and Rowetta take us back to LA 1990,  with the story of how one of Manchester's landmark albums came to be.
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Its now three years since the original line-up of The Happy Mondays made their triumphant return to the live stage, and it looks as if they're going to be around for some time, continuing to sell out venues across the UK and beyond. Their latest tour celebrates 25 years of their most successful album 'Pills, Thrills and Bellyaches', which propelled the band from acid house/indie bad-boys to becoming one of the UK's most exciting rock'n'roll groups ever, period. 

Though the Mondays left the sex, drugs & chaos behind some time ago, it's essentially always about the music. From Paul Ryder's fluid bass lines, the rolling rhythms of Gary Whelan's drums and Mark Day's unforgettable guitar lines, the live sound of The Happy Mondays is with us again.

Here I catch up with Gary Whelan, Paul Ryder, Mark Day and Rowetta as they take us on a 'trip' back to L.A, 1990 and the recording of the album, plus a track by track review from the band themselves and their thoughts on the upcoming Pills,Thrills and Bellyaches tour dates.

What was the frame of mind going into putting Pills, Thrills together?

Gaz - Best time to do an album is at the end of a tour and we'd just had four weeks of madness on the road.

Paul - A successful tour too, we were raring to go and it was one of those moments when the stars aligned. We had Steve Osbourne, Paul Oakenfold, we were playing really tight just coming off tour, we had Manchester behind us and everyone was at the best of their own creativity, really gelling together because there was no pressure from Factory at all, never was...they just let us get on with it and that's why it probably ended up like it did.

Coming from the previous release of Bummed did the band also have a good idea how you wanted Pills, Thrills to sound?

Paul - No, not really though we had a rough idea but that was it.

Mark - We didn't have a clear idea but again it just came together there and then. It was L.A that did it, it was nice and warm and it just had a whole different atmosphere.

Gaz - Yeah, that and the opium (laughs) or that Mexican weed what glowed in the dark. Can you remember that? Someone brought this purple weed into the studio and it was like 'watch this' and you'd turn the lights off and it'd be glowing away in the dark. Crazy.

Mark - I remember it. I was just driving around in a convertible stoned out of my box on the wrong side of the road (laughs).

Gaz - First day in the studio, I remember it was early starts for some reason, around 12-ish we'd start and we'd been in there for about an hour when Bez came in after smashing up his car. He'd hired a car, smashed it up on the free-way, then got into a fight with some geezer over it, drove off and got into a car chase with this guy so came back to the studio hiding his car round the back of the building. And that was the first day of recording.

Mark - Great start hey (laughs)

Paul - The guy found him as well and he had to pay him off in the end, didn't really see him (Bez) much after that.

Gaz - Yeah, Bez was off doing his 'L.A thing', he loved it.

Did LA offer you a lot during the bands down-time?

Gaz - To be honest we were in the studio most of the time really, but yeah we did hang out a bit too.

Paul - Back then Hollywood Boulevard was really shady. There was like a pizza place and one bar which was round the corner from the studio and that was it. Tramps hanging about and that. It's nothing like that now, it's been really cleaned up now. A totally different place to what it was back then.

Track 1 - Kinky Afro

Paul - I remember listening to Hot Chocolate at the time and wanted the song to have the feel of a Hot Chocolate song, which is how I came up with the Kinky Afro bass line. Then we took it to the studio in Stratford, added some drums to it and I think then we took it as a half finished track to L.A.

Gaz- It was actually called 'Groovy Afro' at first but The Farm then came out with 'Groovy Train' so we changed it. But it was only a working title anyway so it wasn't that important.

Mark - It was pretty straight forward really. I just came up with two chords, that's all it was, G minor and E-7th. I realised there was no point in trying to hard with it, just improvised it, you know what I mean...being in LA did that.

Gaz - We'd play the music and Shaun would be sat there on the floor scribbling down his lyrics. After putting down the track I went outside for a smoke and when I came back into the studio that was the first time I heard his opening lyrics: 'Son I'm thirty, I only went with your mother cos she's dirty' ....and thinking 'now that's a line to remember', and this was on the first take and it just sounded amazing.

What an opener to the album, and one of the band's most legendary lyrics as well.

Paul - It was Steve Osborne who picked out the order of the albums track list. We didn't really get involved in that much. I also remember the intro to Kinky Afro at one point was actually in the middle of the song, like a break down section. But he decided to put it at the beginning instead. I'd love to hear that now, be interesting to hear that arrangement again.

Mark - I've probably got it in my loft, on some old cassette some where.

Rowetta - If you remember the second time you played it live it still wasn't actually finished. Its all on line. From the 'Call The Cops' video because not all the lyrics were written at that stage.

Track 2 - Gods Cop

Gods Cop was the Mondays on their political tip wasn't it? Shaun's comment on Manchester's former dictatorial chief constable James Anderton

Gaz - Yeah I suppose, though we never really knew what Shaun was going to write about until he actually put his vocals down. We never knew what he was going to do but what ever he came up with was always good. Initially I though it was just the slide guitar which we had for Gods Cop, then I remember Oakenfold taking me, and you (Paul), separately into another room to play us all these old soul records. He speeded the guitar up and then put these beats down we did from the soul records and a bass line and it went from there.

Paul - I came up with that title, we'd just use working titles for the songs we came up with and sometimes they'd end up as the actual name of the song. With Oakenfold being a DJ he'd receive new records everyday as well, and go through them, set some speakers up in the vocal booth and play them to us. He'd be playing different records to us and If I heard something I liked, you know like sampling but with out the sampler, I'd take that little piece and play it over and over on the bass. Which was how I got the bass line for the song.

Track 3 - Donovan

Gaz - I think Donovan started out as an acoustic song and we scrapped that and made it electronic. It was going to be an acoustic song but with a dance like rhythm to it. PD (Keyboards Paul Davis) had that keyboard melody too didn't he which I think the track grew out of.

Paul - He was always doing that, coming up with hooks and key melodies for loads of songs.

Gaz - He'd always stay in the studio longer than us to turn them up on the record as well (laughs)

Track 4 - Grandbags Funeral

Paul - I'd say Grandbag's Funeral was probably about something personal to him (Shaun), you know. In fact I know it was.

Did you ever actually sit down all together and talk to him about his lyrics?

Gaz - No, we were far too northern for that (laughs)

Paul - There's actually loads of little jibs at me in many of the songs.

Mark - That's why you were better off not knowing (laughs) because you didn't want it playing on your mind. It was like ' I just don't want to know'' kinda mentality. It was more about how they came across and they always sounded great.

Paul - But then that was his poetic licence to do so wasn't it? He's allowed to do that, you know, as a song writer, and he did do it.

Back in the day Shaun would sometimes read from his written out lyrics on bits of paper, which in a way became part of his live performance in the end. does he still use the odd bit of paper to read from?

Paul - No, Shaun's happy with his auto-cue but he's also done really well going through the albums lyrics again. Surprised me because some of these songs like 'Harmony' haven't been played for a long time, but he's been really on it.

It was only when I saw live Happy Monday videos that I'd actually realise he used to read from his written lyrics and bits of paper

Paul - Yeah, he used too, in fact it was my dad who used to write them all out for him then sellotape them to the floor near his micro phone on the stage. And Shaun would go along reading them.

Shaun's also prone to a bit of ad libbing now and again, I'm sure I've heard live recordings where he'd sort of play-about or change the lyrics here and there?

Mark - Oh yeah, he does it all the time, I'd be there playing and be thinking 'where the hell that's come from'

Paul - He does it in practise too, and its really funny sometimes.

Track 5 - Loose Fit

Mark - I wish I could remember half of this. I can hardly remember how it came together now, can't even remember L.A come to think of it (laughs)

Gaz - I remember, we were playing 'Just Be Good To Me' by The SOS Band, playing that progression part its got. We were playing it for hours and you had just got a new bass guitar and was getting fed up with us just playing that tune over and over. So you kept on playing this really mad stuff over the top and we were all saying to you "play something simple" but you wouldn't do it. Then you plugged in your new guitar, started to tune up and then just came out with that bass line for it, and we were all like "yeah...that's it, that's the one" but you were like "nah...fuck that, I'm not playing that". But we just kept saying "no, play it, play it again, it sounds great". Then Mark did that guitar lick and we were off.

Track 6 - Dennis and Lois

It was only when I came across Dennis and Lois on Facebook when I actually realised who they were. A real friendly and dedicated couple of uber music fans from the U.S, who've been around since the early 70's. And they're still big fans of many British groups today, even putting some of the upcoming groups up at their home when ever they'd be over there playing in NY

Mark - Yeah...they were great, and for us at that time they were also a really good distraction from the band and the music. I remember going over to their house in New York and it was like, a bit weird (laughs), like they had tables set up with plastic plates with pieces of rubber bacon. And toys in boxes all over the walls, they had no where to live themselves for all the memorabilia, records, hundreds of tapes, everything you could think of. All the toys were in the boxes so they were basically collectors of all types of stuff, like a museum. And I'm thinking "Has someone spiked me with some acid of something", it was all quite surreal really. It was like that in all of their rooms, and I've been back since not long ago and they've actually extended the house.

So you've kept in contact down the years then?

Mark - Oh yeah, In fact they come over here to the UK sometimes and we'll go out with them for a meal. And any English band over there playing New York they'll go and watch. They knew all the Manchester artists and groups and people like Frank Sidebottom back then. They're holiday was actually coming over to Salford and visiting everyone.

Rowetta - When ever we were over there, there was always other groups there too like The Doves or Elbow.

Gaz - They even knew the likes of Andy Warhol and that back in the day. They're actually in an Elbow music video too a aren't they, forgot which one it is but in it they're driving down a street in the video, its great.

Paul - They started off when the Ramones started their career by selling the bands merchandise. They've been around New York's music scene since the mid 70's.

Sounds like they made an impression on you and the band.

Paul - I just thought they were super weird.

Mark - They really were, and still are a fascinating couple, he was actually a Vietnam veteran as a cook in the US army. In fact they're being filmed at the moment for a documentary. But I think the idea for the song really came from Shaun noticing that they'd always be turning up at our gigs, you know.

Gaz - I do know they didn't believe that they were named as one of the tracks on the album until some one actually showed them.

Track 7 - Bob's Yer Uncle

Rowetta - I had fun making 'Bob's Yer Uncle' because some of the band were trying to turn me on through the glass. Not just Shaun but Nathan too and I can't remember what they were doing exactly but they were trying to make me laugh, playing with themselves or something (laughs) because I had to do these moans in the song. So they were trying to get me to moan but it made the opposite effect and just made laugh.

Track 8 - Step On

Gaz - The John Congo tune which Tony Wilson gave us, I remember P.D (Paul Davies/Keyboards) coming up with that key part which opened up the song. Putting it together in parts. In fact we all rewrote that song, we only listened to it once.

Paul - His keys came towards the end of putting the song together I think.

Mark - I went home, listened to it and thought I'd do it with just one riff. Because there's 3 guitars on there but I just stripped it down to its bare essentials, which was a 'D'.

Paul - I remember when Mark came up with that intro and just thought 'fuckin hell, the man's a genius' but he didn't realise what he'd just done which was well funny.

Gaz - Yeah, that was in Chiswick that, we were in the control room and Mark was playing it and were like 'that's amazing, he's a genius' and then straight after he played it he walks into the control room and just says "I need a shit, where's the toilet" and we were just pissing our selves (everyone laughs). And me and Paul looked at each other and said 'maybe not' (laughs).

Mark - Yeah, because I was locked in that booth so long, I had a new amp and turned it up to 11 and just kept going through those chords.

Paul - Yeah, that's right because when he came up with those power chords the hairs on the back of my neck just stood up. It was another one of those moments when it just came together. We knew it was going to be a good song.

A big part of the Mondays' sound was your guitar playing Mark, possessing a quite distinctive style which was integral to what the Mondays did musically.

Mark - I can't get rid of it, I've been trying though (laughs). I just learnt as I went along really, as I wanted to play. I didn't want to copy any one else's style, I just wanted to do something different. But it wasn't really intentionally, it just came through. I didn't realise I was doing it at the time but I'd play something and everybody would be like " That's it, that sounds great" and I'd be thinking it sounds like a piece of piss that, like nothing special...you know what I mean. Like it was too easy for me, I wanted it to be more complicated and would try and shove a jazz chord in or something, something they wouldn't notice (laughs).

Track 9 - Holiday

Paul - That was inspired by a song from a band called Change called 'Lover's Holiday'. I wanted the sample that vocal 'Holiday', and it was that which the whole track was built around. A brilliant tune.

Track 10 - Harmony

Gaz - 'Harmony' originally started out as us doing a cover of Harry Nilsson's 'Everybody's Talking'.

Paul - Then I started listening to 'Sweet Jane'.

Gaz - Yeah, it has a Sweet Jane bass line.

Paul - ha ha, yeah

Gaz - That was the opium again wasn't it! Because what happened was we'd been on the road for 4 weeks touring the states smoking weed then some one said they could get us some resin, which we thought was just stringy resin. But after about 10 days smoking it we were actually told it was opium (laughs). So when we went to do 'Everybody's Talking' it just sort of turned into 'Harmony'

Paul - While rehearsing it for the tour we were like 'this song is fuckin mental'...and no wonder because we were all on opium when we made it.

Mark - We actually thought we were playing 'Everybody's Talking', but ended up jamming to it.

Gaz- It's like opium flashbacks now when ever we play it.