Great Hall, Cardiff University Students Union, Sun 29 Nov
“Son, I’m 30 / I only went with your mother cos she’s dirty”.
That’s the instantly recognisable opening line to Kinky Afro that launches the Happy Mondays’ gig at Cardiff University in suitably sleazy style. Still looking effortlessly cool a quarter of a century after writing those lyrics, Shaun Ryder swaggers onstage with shades, slicked back hair and a black leather jacket. Flanking him is backing singer Rowetta, who seductively swivels a pair of tassels; and the perma-dancing Bez sporting a massive sombrero and shaking maracas within an inch of their lives.
In recent years, the trio have become more familiar to a younger audience as reality TV royalty with Rowetta, Bez and Ryder all faring well respectively on The X Factor, Celebrity Big Brother and I’m A Celebrity… – a fact not lost on Ryder, who cheekily observes, “Were any of you actually alive when this album came out?”
But the majority certainly were alive: fans from back in their early 90s heyday (complete in trademark baggy clobber) turn up in droves to celebrate 25 years of the Mondays’ masterpiece Pills ‘n’ Thrills And Bellyaches. The album hasn’t aged a day, and the atmosphere inside the sweaty, sold-out confines of the Great Hall is absolutely electric. It’s pretty loud, too, the beat reverberating through your entire body as Kinky Afro quickly transcends into God’s Cop.
Signed by the late Factory Records impresario Tony Wilson in Manchester’s legendary Hacienda nightclub in 1985, the Mondays were a thrilling mix of northern soul and funk. Pills…, their third album, remains rightly revered, but it was already establishing itself as an instant classic back in November 1990 when it was first released, peaking at No.4 and spending 31 weeks in the UK charts.
Nostalgic re-runs of 90s albums are in vogue at the moment, with bands like the Manics, Suede, Cast and Ocean Colour Scene all dusting off their back catalogues to varying success. Yet, Pills… certainly merits another trip down memory lane, so to speak. Even Creation Records svengali Alan McGee is here to experience this first hand.
Bez continues to show remarkable stamina cutting shapes despite now being a grandfather, whilst Rowetta demonstrates her amazingly soulful voice hasn’t diminished a bit by belting out backing vocals throughout. Plus, Mark Day proves he’s the most underrated of the magnificent seven onstage with his intricate guitar skills on Loose Fit. The insanely catchy Bob’s Yer Uncle is great too. Yet, unsurprisingly it’s Step On – with its iconic refrain of “You’re twisting my melon, man!” – that’s the undisputed highlight.
With the album in the bag, the band returns for a brief encore of two further hits in Hallelujah and Wrote For Luck. Then as quickly as they arrived, they’re gone in just over an hour (except for Bez, who remains onstage endearing himself to the Cardiff crowd by flouncing around with a Welsh flag). But far from feeling short-changed, the overriding emotion is exhilaration (with ears ringing). This is a truly euphoric moment, unlike their disappointing live returns in 1999 and 2004.
Shaun Ryder once sang with side project Black Grape that “it’s great when you’re straight”, and his voice is noticeably better than the booze-addled croak it’s previously been. The rest of the band is benefitting too by delivering a more polished and professional performance. Now in full charge of their faculties, there are no speedy getaways for a “KFC” (the infamous code-word for an imminent heroin binge).
The Mondays may abstain from the pills these days, but they certainly provide the thrills. Some of the audience members with eyes like ping-pong balls clearly enjoyed both – but bellyaches will be the least of their worries come the morning…
words NEIL COLLINS