Shaun Ryder: The hilarious life lessons of a cultural hero

Shaun Ryder: The hilarious life lessons of a cultural hero

Pills, thrills and bellyaches — As the face of ‘Madchester’, Shaun Ryder had it all, lost it all, then repeated the cycle just for fun. But after getting clean and mending some wounds, he’s ready to take another crack at cementing his legacy.

The moment Shaun Ryder picks up the phone, it sounds like an impersonator. All the singer’s most distinctive traits have been ramped up: he’s foulmouthed, straight-talking and full of effervescent humour. “Dead fucking right, mate! Heh heh heh…”

There’s just one major difference, though: the partying is long over. Too many burnouts, too many mistakes. “There are people who think I am just at it, going to nightclubs all the time,” he says. “I’m always getting stopped. ‘Do you want a line? Do you want an E?’ I mean c’mon, fella! I’m 55 years old. But knock yourself out, by all means.”

Shaun Ryder shot to fame as the surrealist street poet behind two seminal groups, Happy Mondays and Black Grape, which blew pop music apart in the 1990s. But growing up in Salford, few thought he’d amount to much. Shaun left school at 15, without knowing the alphabet, before drifting along as a postal worker who had a gift for thievery.

Then he started a band with his brother, Paul, and a handful of mates. Despite not having any musical equipment or experience, Happy Mondays ploughed along until getting signed to Factory Records.

Their unique hybrid of house and hip hop, flecked with funk and rock, felt like the musical equivalent of a never-ending party – a sound that coincided perfectly with the UK’s embrace of ecstasy in 1987. Suddenly a bunch of working-class scallies from Salford, dressed in baggy clothes and prone to mischief, became pop superstars.

But as the band’s stature grew, so did their drug use. Tensions came to a head during the recording of fourth album Yes Please! in 1992. Factory sent the Mondays to Barbados, thinking it’d keep them out of trouble, without realising that an ounce of crack costs less than a quid there.

Shaun subsequently wrote off seven cars, squared up to a baboon nicknamed ‘Jack the Ripper’ and even sold his clothes to buy more drugs. He also didn’t record a single vocal take in six weeks. Soon after, the record bombed, the label collapsed and the band splintered.

Determined to carry on, Shaun teamed up with rapper Paul ‘Kermit’ Leveridge to form a new group, Black Grape. Despite the second stab at success, Black Grape crumbled and Shaun sacked his management, leading to a court case that put him in receivership and crippled his career.

But today he’s in the midst of another comeback. Happy Mondays have reformed, having put aside their differences, as have Black Grape, who have just released Pop Voodoo – their first album in 20 years.

What parts of your life do you wish you could remember better?
Well, the entire 1990s are a blur. I can remember the 1960s better and I was only eight years old when that decade ended, so that says it all. When I was doing my book, people had to tell me things to trigger a certain memory. I’d be like, ‘Oh, that sounds vaguely familiar’ – then it keeps coming back, bit by bit.

Do you think there’s a link between drugs and creativity?
When I was young and innocent, I smoked weed and it opened my ears. I never learned anything at school. It wasn’t until I took LSD as an 18-year-old kid that I wanted to learn something. It gave me a push. That’s just my personal experience. It’s what comes later that matters, though. It can all turn into mush if you’re not careful.

You’ve said that people didn’t understand the Mondays at first and thought you were from another world. Is that just because you were ordinary lads and not typical pop stars?
Well, yeah! A lot people ask me if I feel the press focused too much on the drugs and gave us a hard time. I always say no! We worked the press. You’ve got to use what you’ve got. Whenever journalists would come up to interview us, we’d skin up a joint or put a line out on the pool table. The next thing you know, it had gone from a little piece to a centre-spread about how these lads are rock’n’roll. We just thought, ‘You know what? Let’s use this.’ And we did! That’s how we became bigger.

Did Bez ever feel less involved because he isn’t strictly a musician?
No, absolutely not. Even to this day, if the bass player or drummer is different, no one [in the audience] really notices. But if Bez doesn’t turn up on stage, questions will be asked! Imagine how that makes other band members feel! It wouldn’t bother me because we work as a team. But back in the day, that used to cause a lot of jealously.

It’s not like Bez doesn’t have a musical bone in his body because he’s really knowledgeable. One of the things that brought us together as friends is that we listened to all different types of music, as well as smoking marijuana. There are quite a few songs on Bummed, the first album, that Bez inspired.

What did you learn from mixing business with family and friends?
Well, it ruined my relationship with my dad for a long time. I’m sure there are successful cases, like Paul Weller and his father, but when your dad becomes just one of the boys… it’s hard. My dad walked on stage in front of 12,000 people at Wembley and smacked me right in the nose. [laughs] He was supposed to be controlling the on-stage sound and I was telling him to fuck off. ‘Don’t you speak to me like that!’ Smack! Then there’s my brother… I mean families go through these things anyway but when you’ve got to work together, it puts a strain on things.

When you started out, did you think of yourself as a rapper? At the time the idea of a white guy rapping wasn’t an accepted thing…
Oh yeah, it absolutely was not accepted… because it just wasn’t really done. We had the Beastie Boys but that was about it. I didn’t think of myself as a rapper, though. It was more like, ‘Just be yourself. Do what sounds great.’ And I didn’t need to be an amazing singer for that.

You were written off after Happy Mondays… What did it feel like to achieve immediate success with Black Grape?
Oh, it was brilliant. I mean me and Kermit were smack buddies. When we got together to work on lyrics, we’d been written off by people who knew us well. But we just stayed quiet, got on with what we were doing and came back with a number one album. It doesn’t get much better than that.

The Grape Tapes is a notoriously messy account of that time. How would you feel watching it back now?
There are still hundreds of hours of footage from the ’90s that someone is sifting through to maybe do a Grape Tapes 2. I’ve heard there’s some hilarious stuff on it. I’ve not watched the Grapes Tapes for a few years but you know what? I can laugh at it. I wouldn’t care. We were young and in the rock’n’roll business. I mean I’ve got some regrets, but not many.

How similar was the end of Happy Mondays to Black Grape?
Well, pretty much the same – we fell out. Kermit had been one of the Rap Assassins. Black Grape had been his first taste of success in the mainstream charts, seeing himself in magazines. Quickly he had a lot of people around telling him that he was fantastic and that he should be going it alone; that he’d be the next Tupac. So he sort of went for that and it didn’t work out. I’d had enough at that point anyway.

Do you think it took time for people in both bands to really appreciate your role?
Ehh… ooh… ah… yes… well… it’s a weird thing. If you’re talking about when the Mondays went tits-up, I was being told what an idiot I was.

But they were also talking about getting rid of you and replacing you with Everton, one of the road managers.
Oh, yeah! [laughs] Bringing Everton in! It’s amazing what drugs do to people. At least Bez and me knew we were off our tits! The rest of them were doing exactly the same but trying to pretend that they wasn’t – making ridiculous decisions and mistakes. Thankfully we’ve all grown up now – and I’m not just saying that because I’m back working the Mondays as well as Black Grape.

The Mondays are better than ever. We can go on stage and the songs can actually be appreciated. Before, both the Mondays and Black Grape were on a treadmill: album, press, tour, album, press, tour… You’re just going through the motions and not enjoying it, taking a lot of things for granted.

When you and Kermit decided to reunite for Black Grape, what kind of conversation needed to be had?
I’d always wanted to take it further but Kermit wasn’t there. The manager I had at the time wasn’t really bothered about that side of things anyway. Then, when I was reminded that it had been 20 years since It’s Great When You’re Straight… Yeah, I got in touch with Kermit again. He’d had a new valve fitted in his heart and was in a much better place, so we were on it.

One thing I did realise was that I spent all this time in the music business off my tits because I thought it would be easier… but it isn’t! It’s so much easier not being off your head, drunk and stoned. I’m able to do much more now that I ever did before; I’m able to fit everything in because I live a normal life. We’re older and wiser.

You’ve said that anyone who doesn’t believe that extraterrestrial life exists will end up looking as ignorant as people who used to think the earth was flat. We’ve got cameras everywhere now… so why hasn’t there been a piece of evidence credible enough to convinces the masses?
Oh, there’s a few! Obviously you’re not lookin’ properly, mate. There’s a lot of evidence out there. I can’t understand when people claim otherwise, especially having experienced it myself.

I saw something in the ’70s and recognised it years later from stuff I’d seen on YouTube, so I know it’s not fake because it’s exactly the same thing that I experienced. All these lights were going over me in the sky, really slowly. They tried to pass it off as the lights of Salford Rugby Club. Eh, I don’t think so!

As for what I said about people looking ignorant, everyone on this planet will probably be dead before that point gets proved.

How did your wife Joanne react when you first told her about the UFO experiences?
Joanne is an open-minded person. She never thought, ‘Oooh, hang on!’

When you clean up, is there a lot of catching up to do in terms of development as a person?
Oh, absolutely. I was emotional. There had been many deaths in the family I hadn’t dealt with. All sorts of stuff. When you’re getting high, you’re keeping certain things at bay. I was a teenager when I started [taking drugs]. By the time I hit 40, I didn’t know who I was or what I was. You’re stunted, really. Going from a normal kid to someone in the public eye, it’s like [developing] post-traumatic stress disorder.

I had to rediscover myself. I knew I couldn’t carry on the way I was, living life like that. I didn’t even celebrate my 40th birthday because I was a bit pissed off from realising where I was in life. I was a kid having kids.

I owe Joanne everything. I first met her when she was 17. We went on a double-date together and she blew me out. She’s no mug: she could see what I was going through, with the band taking off, and told me to fuck off. But her best mate ended up marrying my best mate so our paths would cross over the years because of all our [mutual] friends. We got together when I was finally ready to grow up.

How were you able to survive during the receivership?
Ohhhhhh, dude! You lose everything. One hundred percent of your income is taken off you. I started off owing £120,000 and then it just escalated into the millions. That’s a business for the receivers and they’re not going to let that go. It took me 12 years to get out of it and I dealt with that by staying off me tits.

What bad experiences do you think have actually turned out to be valuable lessons?
A few! I choose not to give myself a hard time about certain stuff. I can accept my past and even laugh at it. But learning from your mistakes is what it’s all about, really. In the end, that’s what makes you.

Pop Voodoo is out via UMC.

This article appears in Huck 61 – The No Regrets Issue. Buy it in the Huck Shop or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.

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