When it comes to movies, there are box office bombs and then there’s Heaven’s Gate.
The 1980 western epic went massively over-budget thanks to a disastrous and well-publicized troubled production and received infamously bad reviews upon release. The film ended up being such a box office bomb that it single-handedly killed director Michael Cimino’s Hollywood career and star Kris Kristofferson’s potential as a leading man (one particularly brutal review from Vincent Canby of The New York Times wondered if Cimino had made a deal with the devil to produce his last movie, Oscar-winning classic The Deer Hunter, and now the bill had come due).
And that was just the beginning. According to the documentary Final Cut: The Making and Unmaking of Heaven’s Gate, the movie may have also killed off United Artists, the studio that produced it. Shortly after writing off the film’s entire $44 million budget (equivalent to nearly $140 million in today’s money), UA was sold to MGM and ceased being an independent studio. The movie may have even killed the era of the all-powerful director, as runaway disasters like Heaven’s Gate, Apocalypse Now, At Long Last Love and others caused studios to step in and start asserting control.
By those standards, Yes Please! by the Happy Mondays is the Heaven’s Gate of albums.
In the late 1980s/early 1990s, Manchester boasted the hottest musical scene in the United Kingdom. Popularly known as “Madchester,” the genre combined alternative rock and 1960s-style psychedelia with house/acid/dance music while adding in the important element of the local club scene. While never quite reaching the same heights as the successor Britpop movement or the Seattle music scene that was unfolding in the U.S. at around the same time, Madchester bands like the Happy Mondays, the Stone Roses, the Inspiral Carpets, the Charlatans and James sold tons of records and even inspired fashion trends. In fact, the Madchester scene famously influenced Bono and the Edge, who pushed to change U2’s sound after a night of clubbing in Manchester in the early 90s, eventually resulting in their classic album Achtung Baby.
Despite its wide-ranging influence, Madchester remained indelibly linked to its namesake city — particularly its club scene. And to paraphrase Stefon, Manchester’s hottest club at the time was the Haçienda, which was co-owned by local indie label Factory Records and their biggest act, New Order. The club had everything, including live performances from popular and up-and-coming acts in the city, copious amounts of MDMA and, later on, connections to organized crime.
The Happy Mondays had been one of the local bands discovered at the Haçienda. They signed with Factory and soon became the label’s second-biggest act after New Order. Their debut album, Squirrel and G-Man Twenty Four Hour Party People Plastic Face Carnt Smile (White Out), was released in 1987 and produced by John Cale of the Velvet Underground, a pretty big name — at least among music snobs. More big name collaborations followed. Joy Division and New Order producer Martin Hannett was at the controls for the band’s influential 1989 EP Madchester Rave On, while Vince Clarke of Depeche Mode and Erasure fame remixed their 1989 single, “W.F.L. (Wrote for Luck).” And perhaps most famously, well-known DJ and producer Paul Oakenfold helmed the band’s breakthrough third album, 1990’s Pills ‘n’ Thrills and Bellyaches, which went platinum, hitting #4 on the UK album charts and spawning two Top 5 UK singles (“Step On” and “Kinky Afro”).
As 1992 hit, the Happy Mondays seemed on the verge of superstardom. Long before Oasis would compare themselves to the Beatles, no less an authority than Sir Paul McCartney would tell the NME that the Mondays “reminded him of the Beatles in their ‘Strawberry Fields’ phase.”
In the meantime, the members of the band had taken advantage of their fame and fortune, living lives of decadence and excess. Lead singer Shaun Ryder, in particular, was notorious for his Caligula-esque antics, such as hosting four-day parties featuring sex shows and dwarfs. Meanwhile, he took so many drugs he made the Gallagher brothers look like teetotalers.
“I’d out-smoked meself, out-e’d meself, out-charlied meself, out-whizzed meself, out-drunk meself,” he told The Mirror in 2020.
Things were spiraling out of control by the time the Mondays began recording what would be their fourth album, 1992’s Yes Please! Indeed, the entire story behind Yes Please! and its aftermath would make for a fascinating documentary – kind of like how Final Cut was more positively received than Heaven’s Gate.
First, they tried to strong-arm Johnny Marr into joining the band. The former Smiths guitarist has never been afraid to join an established band as a hired gun and push their sound to new heights. But even he was wary of the Mondays and their dangerous reputation.
“Then they started to play me the rehearsals and they hadn’t done much work. I mean, by the time the record was finished, they still hadn’t done very much work,” Marr recalled. “I could tell they weren’t going to take no for an answer, but the idea of going to Barbados at the time with the Happy Mondays for 8, 10, 12 weeks was just absolutely terrifying.”
Why were the Mondays going to Barbados? According to The Mirror, it was because the island nation was a heroin-free zone at the time and the label spent big money to send the band there, hoping it would force addicts Shaun Ryder and brother and bassist Paul to dry up.
Instead, all it did was encourage the Ryders and their bandmates to get creative. Unfortunately, what happened next was, arguably, the only creative thing they did during their entire time in Barbados. Since the island was undergoing a crack epidemic at the time, the band decided to see what that was about. Pretty soon, Shaun was smoking up to 50 rocks a day (in other interviews, he says he smoked 25 a day — I can see why he’d be fuzzy on the details) and the band turned their workspace at Eddy Grant’s home studio into a makeshift crack den. At one point, they even sold some of Grant’s furniture for drug money, although Shaun denied it, only to admit later on that it had actually been a sunlounger.
Also having a wild time was backup dancer/hype man/maraca player Mark “Bez” Berry, who did lots of drugs and broke his arm three times (car crash, boating accident, girlfriend sitting on it by accident). At least he didn’t have a bizarre gardening accident, nor did he choke on someone’s vomit.
Luckily for the band, Bez was about as necessary to the recording process as other band dancers like Paul Rutherford (Frankie Goes to Hollywood), Jerome Benton (The Time) and the two guys from Milli Vanilli.
Then again, he could have been the second coming of Brian Wilson or Max Martin and it wouldn’t have made a difference. Because Oakenfold wasn’t available, the band hired Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz of Talking Heads, and the results were disastrous. Shaun Ryder wrote a grand total of zero lyrics while in Barbados, blaming Weymouth’s and Frantz’s production techniques and not his 25-50 rock-a-day habit for his lack of output.
“Now, Chris and Tina are amazing musicians and producers but they wasn’t right for us. They went back to the old way of working – not the way we were with Oakenfold – and they really tickled the balls of the rest of the musicians in the band, and made them feel like proper musicians. And I just wasn’t pleased with what was going on, it wasn’t turning me on, and I can’t write to anything if the drum and bass isn’t turning me on. So, I didn’t,” Ryder told Clash Music. Eventually, Ryder came up with nine songs-worth of lyrics after returning home and undergoing rehab. For the tenth song, they went with an instrumental, which might be fine for a progressive rock group but smacked of a band that simply decided “screw it.”
Heck, “Screw It” might have been a better title for this album. Yes Please! sounds like a dated, generic overproduced dance record with some Caribbean beats and New Wave-style synth melodies thrown in, resulting in a record that sounded nothing like the Happy Mondays and more like Weymouth’s and Frantz’s side project, Tom Tom Club. It might not seem fair to put it all on the producers — after all, the band still has final say over their songs. But considering how cracked out the Mondays were at the time, it seems logical to assume that Weymouth and Frantz ended up having to take a heavier hand out of necessity.
“I’ve seen a lot of people who live life on the edge, but I’ve never before seen a group of people who had no idea where the edge is,” Weymouth recalled.
That probably explains why it was a much darker and more somber album compared to the upbeat and carefree Pills ‘n’ Thrills and Bellyaches or the euphoric Madchester Rave On EP. Clearly, they knew the party was coming to an end and the hangover was about to hit them like a locomotive. “Kiss me for old times sake/ Kiss me for making you wait/ Kiss me for screwing everything in sight/ Kiss me for never getting it right,” Ryder sings on the seductive and silky lead single “Stinkin’ Thinkin,’” which is one of the few highlights on the album.
Otherwise, Ryder’s lyrics are fairy uneven throughout the album and border on the confusing. In “Monkey in the Family,” he sings: “Stay away from the peppermint twist/ Where the Humpty Humpers meet.” Maybe he heard “The Humpty Dance” a few too many times in rehab and decided to use it for this song. On “Total Ringo,” most of the lines just sound like a bunch of non-sequiturs: “This mild and meek I could launch it with a poker,” “No joker for a weekday/ Bing bong the weekday,” “What sleeps in your bed/ Is got to be a Greek ted,” and “How do you make a bulldog think?” Maybe they’re all well-known Manc phrases or something, but it sounds like jibberish to me. And that’s coming from someone who watches a lot of Manchester United fan videos.
Arguably, the only members of the band who bothered showing up for Yes Please! were guitarist Mark Day and backup singer Rowetta. Day, who nearly lost his job to the aforementioned Marr, does an admirable job navigating several different and unfamiliar genres. His guitar riffs are quite catchy and memorable — too bad the subpar lyrics and production drag them down. As for Rowetta, she’s always had a great voice and had long been the band’s not-so-secret weapon (particularly on songs like “Hallelujah” and “Kinky Afro”). Like Day, she does her best on this record, providing soaring background vocals that contrast well with Ryder’s seemingly disinterested leads.
She especially shines on second single “Sunshine and Love,” which otherwise sounds like a bad Duran Duran rip-off and even contains these self-referential lines: “Ooh, we’d like to take credit for this/ We’d love to thank ourselves for this.” No idea if they were being ironic or sarcastic (it was the 90’s after all). But it does make you wonder whether they knew this album was going to bad — and if they even cared at that point. If you watch an MTV News feature from that time, it certainly looks like they don’t.
Or at the very least, their main priority was no longer music. To wit, when they finished with the Barbados sessions, Shaun Ryder tried to extort Factory for more money and refused to hand over the master tapes. Whether he was still jonesing for crack or he felt like he had the suddenly cash-strapped Factory over a barrel, Ryder seemed intent on maximizing whatever leverage he had. Ultimately, he settled for a life-changing, eye-watering amount of … £50 (approximately £104.26 in 2019 pounds). I’d recommend that he find a nice offshore bank to take care of that money and shield it from taxation, but, let’s be honest, he probably just smoked it up.
Even then, £50 was still too high a price to pay. The finished product is so bad, one can only wonder just how much worse the Barbados tapes could have been. Simply put, this album is terrible and its legacy as a disastrous, career-destroying bomb is fully justified. The album did manage to hit #14 on the UK charts, but sold a fraction compared to its predecessor, Pills ‘n’ Thrills and Bellyaches. Melody Maker infamously gave Yes Please! the Spinal Tap treatment, publishing a two-word review that simply read: “No thanks.” AllMusic expanded on that a bit, saying that the “group’s music loses much of its distinctive, thuggish edginess, as well as its reliance on current dance trends, becoming faceless, undistinguished dance-pop sludge.”
The Happy Mondays would break up right after Yes Please!, with Shaun Ryder and Bez, going on to form the acclaimed group Black Grape. Timing wise, the Mondays’ breakup came at the right time. Madchester was dying and changing musical tastes in the UK would soon see the rise of Blur and Oasis and the Britpop scene.
As for Yes Please!, time has not been good to this album — especially within the band, itself. The Mondays have reunited a few times over the years but rarely play anything off this album. While they did see fit to include “Stinkin’ Thinkin'” on their greatest hits album, they omitted the song (and “Sunshine and Love,” which hit #62 in the UK) from their setlists for their “Greatest Hits” tour last year. Nevertheless, Ryder who says he’s been sober for 13 years now, claims he can appreciate Yes Please! — to an extent. “I mean, now I’ll walk into somewhere and it’s on or I’ll come across a track playing and it’s alright,” he told Penny Black Music in 2015. “I’m not as hard on it as I was.”
And that ended up being a much happier ending than the one that befell Factory. Already stretched, financially, by the burden of running the Haçienda, the label compounded things by spending a ton of money to send the Mondays to Barbados. As such, Factory desperately needed Yes Please! to be a monster hit in order to recoup anything close to what it had already spent. When that didn’t happen, the label looked to its other cash cow, hoping New Order’s upcoming album, Republic, would be the blockbuster it needed to stay afloat. New Order did its part, recording an album that hit #1 in the UK and went gold in the U.S. off the strength of a trio of hit singles: “Regret,” “World” and “Ruined in a Day.” Unfortunately for Factory, the band hadn’t finished recording in time to help the label stave off its creditors. Factory declared bankruptcy at the end of 1992, which resulted in New Order going over to London Records and giving them their hit album.
Hopefully, in a few years, we’ll get MDMAnchester: The Rise and Fall of the Happy Mondays, Madchester, and Factory Records. I’d watch the hell out of that. As for listening to this record again, I’ll go with what Melody Maker said so succinctly: “No thanks.”