It has long been rumoured that ‘Step On’ by Happy Mondays was partially inspired by Hollywood icon Steve McQueen. Now, it transpires that this theory is true. McQueen directly influenced the song’s most enduring part, giving the track more density than anybody first thought.
It’s not well-known that the 1990 Madchester staple is a cover of the 1971 hit ‘He’s Gonna Step on You Again’ by South African artist John Kongos, and when you listen to the two songs, the difference in rhythm is stark, regardless of the same lyrics, and chords.
The Happy Mondays’ version, which they retitled ‘Step On’, was originally meant as a contribution to the compilation Rubáiyát: Elektra’s 40th Anniversary for their US label Elektra, but being the Happy Mondays, they decided to keep the song for themselves and release it as a single. In its place, they covered Kongos’s next hit, ‘Tokoloshe Man’, for the album.
Notably, the Happy Mondays version utilised a short sample of three guitar notes from the original, which helped to give it the unmistakable sunny groove that we all know and love so well.
Frontman Shaun Ryder told Uncut: “As soon as we recorded ‘Step On’, Tony said, ‘Fuck it, Elektra can have ‘Tokoloshe Man’. We’ll keep ‘Step On’ as our single.’ And he was fucking right. We didn’t even tell Elektra we’d recorded it. We rush-released it a few weeks after we recorded it. It was just dead easy.”
What a decision it was as the track quickly became the band’s biggest-selling single. However, the most significant talking point of the song was the repeated line, “You’re twisting my melon man / you know you talk so hip man”, which has since become synonymous with the group and Ryder. Showing just how far this relationship extends, the title of Shaun Ryder’s autobiography, Twisting My Melon, lifted the line.
As with many facets of the song, the line wasn’t exactly original. Ryder plucked the lyrics straight from the mouth of the star of The Great Escape and Bullitt, Steve McQueen. Ryder had watched the documentary Steve McQueen: A Man on the Edge, and in it, Norman Jewison, the director of the 1965 McQueen hit, The Cincinnati Kid, recalled an experience of the famous actor.
Jewison said: “He (McQueen) would say, you’re twisting my melon, man, you’re twisting my melon. You’re getting me all mixed up… he used to say to me. He talked so hip I never knew what he was saying half the time.”
The documentary was first broadcast on PBS in the US in 1988, before it was aired in the UK. Of its influence on ‘Step On’, Ryder told Uncut: “Where did ‘twisting my melon’ come from? A Steve McQueen documentary I saw. Apparently, he used to walk into his director’s office and argue. And there was this guy doing an impression of him saying, ‘Oh man, he’s twisting my melon’. So I thought, ‘Oh, I’ll just have that.’ It’s a great phrase, innit?”
An incredible revelation, I wonder what other Happy Mondays songs cherrypicked from popular culture, I bet there’s more. Also, labelling Norman Jewison as simply “this guy”, is just brilliant.
Listen to ‘Step On’ below.