Even though electronic music and synthesisers were becoming more popular throughout the 1980s, there was still a healthy guitar-based strain of alternative-rock music on both sides of the Atlantic. If punk was the 1970s reaction to the complicated and self-indulgent musical virtuosity of progressive rock, then the alternative scene that took root in the latter half of the decade was a reaction to overblown hair metal or the shiny yacht-rock of Duran Duran and Toto.
Bands like Talking Heads and Blondie spearheaded the early ‘80s post-punk scene in the U.S., while Joy Division and The Smiths did the same in the U.K. Common to all of these groups was an emphasis on blending guitar-based music with nascent electronic technology—such as the AMS Digital Delay (see Joy Division’s ‘cold’ drum sound) or the guitar-driven reverb on the Passions’ I’m in Love with a German Film Star.
The Stone Roses and Happy Mondays were a part of a new evolution of post-punk music from the Pennines: Madchester. The focal point for the scene was the Hacienda nightclub; opened in 1982 and given the catalogue number of FAC51, it was financed through Factory Records itself and New Order (especially on the strength of Blue Monday). The club’s hallowed dance floor soon hosted acts as divergent as The Smiths and Madonna.
So let’s take a tour of this magical moment in the not-too-distant past and discover how the sounds of Madchester came to be.
Madchester broke free from the darkness of northern England’s industrial past, creating an almighty sound that still ripples through music today.
Ready to rock
From a technical point of view, Madchester artists borrowed heavily from their forebears but utilised the cheap, readily available instruments from Yamaha, Roland and KORG to help them find their own sound. The Hacienda gave them a place to experiment: developed from post-punk, but with a brighter, more danceable electronic style, laced with the effects of the drug culture.
The Stone Roses were the first band born from the Madchester scene; the Martin Hannett-produced single So Young/Tell Me was released in September 1985. The EP’s title track features lead singer, Ian Brown, singing a discordant melody, with drums that sound natural—not at all like Hannett’s experiments with Joy Division—and guitars that are reminiscent of the noise-rock tones of their contemporaries The Jesus and Mary Chain. The Stone Roses’ first LP would not be released until 1989, and the differences between the first EP and this are stark, to say the least.
The eponymous LP was released on Silvertone Records in 1989 and represents a markedly different sound from the original EP. It includes songs such as I Wanna Be Adored, Fools Gold and She Bangs The Drums. The album was recorded between June 1988 and February 1989 between Stockport’s Coconut Grove Studios, two recording studios in London, and one in Wales. Tapped to produce was John Leckie, who in the previous decade worked with the likes of John Lennon and Pink Floyd. Reflecting on the recording process with Clash, Leckie says:
“They were open to any ideas. They weren’t sure – they were confident, but they weren’t sure. They were always open to new ways of doing things, and getting the best sounds – the drums and guitar sound, and the vocals as well; a lot of work on the vocal sound.”
Another band that helped define the Madchester sound was Happy Mondays. Formed in 1980 in Salford, the band went on to have four albums before splitting for the first time in 1993; Squirrel and G-Man Twenty Four Hour Party People Plastic Face Carnt Smile (White Out), Bummed (With Martin Hannett as producer), Pills, Thrills and Bellyaches (which features Step On — the Mondays’ most recognizable song) and Yes Please!.
Their first album, the aforementioned Squirrel and G-Man was produced with the help of former Velvet Underground member John Cale. The band’s discovery came courtesy of a 1983 ‘Battle of the Bands’ at the Hacienda, where they came last (something which is dramatized, along with the band’s whole career, in the 2002 film, 24 Hour Party People).
Their second album, Bummed, was released in 1988. Releasing the sophomore album again on Factory, this time veteran producer Martin Hannett was brought in to produce the album at the Slaughterhouse studio in Driffield, Yorkshire.
Despite Hannett’s eccentricities in the studio, his vision for the album was clear and could be seen as a reincarnation of the sessions with Joy Division some nine years prior. Recording engineer John Spence recalled some of his techniques in an interview with The Quietus.
According to Spence, Hannett’s obsession with digital delays caused him “to patch three of these machines together to create a ‘space’ in the recordings […] he set up some microphones to record the ambience of the room, he used a configuration called M-S (mid-side) which wasn’t something I came across before, but gives a particularly wide stereo image.”
Considered to be a rave album and part of the score to the Second Summer of Love in the latter half of the 80s, the wobbly tones, wide stereo image and delay effects are complemented with Shaun Ryder’s bizarre approach to lyricism. This is most evident on the album’s most well-known cuts like Mad Cyril and Wrote for Luck—the latter was released as a single in late 1988.
Mad Cyril is characterised by a wall-of-sound which blends guitar, drums, bass and synth-stabs into a reverb-heavy melange. The instruments are mixed in a way that presents no obvious hierarchy of sounds and the psychedelic treatment of the instruments and Ryder’s lyrics mark Mad Cyril as a drug-fuelled ‘80s paean to ‘60s psychedelia and northern soul music.
Wrote for Luck, meanwhile has inflections of dance music: pulsating drums and built around a bed of spiky, reverberant guitars. Listening to it closely, one can hear the influences of Martin Hannett’s work with Joy Division, but the muted and claustrophobic mood of Unknown Pleasures is supplanted by the Mondays’ technicolour sound world.
Welcome to the Hacienda
Of course, the Madchester scene might have been primarily about guys with guitars creating jangly pop, clouded with introspection and bizarre psychedelic funk, but the club scene centred around the Hacienda played a significant role in the creative output of the latter half of the ‘80s. One of these was house music. In fact, the Happy Mondays’ third album Pills, Thrills and Bellyaches is heavily influenced by this new style.
The link between rave culture and the Madchester scene was exemplified by Hallelujah—specifically the Paul Oakenfold and Andy Wetherall mix. The record offers itself as a tantalising bridge between electronic music and rock, with a prominent chant in the background, along with the bass being pushed to the front of the mix—to the point where it is clearly heard alongside a staple of house productions: the KORG M1 piano preset.
While the Stone Roses and the Happy Mondays are widely considered to be the two leading lights in the Madchester genre, it wouldn’t have been possible without the access to electronic instruments and the willingness to experiment, whether it was with music or drugs. By definition, it was an alternative scene, but one which had been moulded in Manchester’s and the North’s own image as a post-industrial musical hotbed.
By the early 1990s, however, it all started to unravel. Peter Hook spoke of Factory’s demise in 1992:
“Factory went to the wall. There had been costly album projects, such as New Order’s recording trip to Ibiza and the Happy Mondays’ infamous recording trip to Barbados. Bankrolling all of the above brought the company to its knees.”
Along with the drug issues (which affected both the artists themselves and the Hacienda’s patrons) and the Hacienda succumbing to a combination of gang warfare and a decline in profits, the musical pioneers of Madchester receded as quickly as they had arrived. Happy Mondays disbanded in 1993, and The Stone Roses released their last album at the end of 1994.
Madchester’s contributions would not be in vain, however, as London clubs such as the Ministry of Sound continued the musical legacy of acid house. Meanwhile, the biggest contribution of the 1990s—Britpop—can be traced back to Madchester, as the Gallagher brothers formed a group called Oasis. This Second Summer of Love—just like the first one—has left a mighty legacy of freedom and experimental music.