With rave culture icons Happy Mondays back on the road, MALCOLM WYATT talked past, present and future with frontman Shaun Ryder, who told him he’d put the sex and drugs to one side to concentrate on the rock’n’roll
‘Madchester’ legend Shaun Ryder is in a great mood, despite being part-way through a rash of interviews as Happy Mondays gear up for their latest anniversary tour.
If you’re expecting the unpredictable character that left interviewers like The Word presenter Terry Christian sweating on camera in the early ‘90s, you couldn’t be more wrong. Maybe it’s an ‘upper’ hangover from his more indulgent days, or perhaps it’s just … erm, a happy man day. For it appears that the old carousing Shaun Ryder has long since left the building, as he reminds me on the phone from his Salford base.
You see, in more recent years Shaun got something of a chance to start again, and is loving life with his partner and youngest children, while eager to get out there again with the band that took him into the spotlight.
The occasion is the 25th anniversary of Happy Mondays’ best-selling third LP, Pills’n’Thrills and Bellyaches, which sold more than 350,000 copies and spent 31 weeks in the UK chart.
Dad of six Shaun, fellow celebrity TV star (and the band’s hedonistic dancer) Bez, and the rest of the old gang – including Shaun’s younger brother Paul – are celebrating that landmark with 21 UK dates.
In fact, they recently added Thursday, November 19, to a sell-out the following night at Manchester Academy, which is also celebrating a silver anniversary this autumn. So does he recall any memorable shows at this University of Manchester venue over the years?
“Erm … I really don’t know! It was weird with the Mondays, because we did the universities and 300 and 500 capacity venues, but then missed middle-ground places like the Apollo and all those, jumping up to 10,000 capacity gigs like the GMex.”
Yet as a Salford lad, those Manchester gigs are probably as good as you get to a hometown gig.
“Of course, unless we were to play The Dog and Partridge. But I don’t do the pubs, mate. Not anymore.”
It feels like I’ve had an eight-hour kip ... and suddenly I’m 53!
All these years on, there’s clearly still a huge clamour for the band he broke through with, judging by that first sell-out. They must still be doing something right.
“Absolutely, and we’re really lucky, because we’re one of the only bands that go right across the board. Our fanbase goes from seven to 70-odd years old. We’ve got our original NME fanbase, but because of mine and Bez’s stint on reality television, you can look out on one of our shows and see all ages.”
Ah yes, reality TV. Those that might not recall Happy Mondays and splinter-group Black Grape, maybe recall Shaun’s second-place finish on ITV’s 2010 series of I’m a Celebrity … Get Me Out Of Here, or Bez – most recently in the news for anti-fracking campaigning in the region – and his 2005 Channel 4 Celebrity Big Brother victory.
What’s more, the pair remain in the public eye, Happy Mondays soon set to feature on a new satellite TV channel charity venture, Singing in the Rainforest.
But first, a bit about this Salford lad’s preferred North West venues when the Mondays were breaking through.
“We played places like The Boardwalk, a great little venue, originally for around 300 people, then Corbieres, where we had a mad little show for around 100 people.
“To tell you the truth, small venues make for great rock’n’roll shows but terrified me. I can play 10,000 to 20,000 capacity venues and it doesn’t bother me – it’s showbusiness! But when you do the small venues …
“Places like Corbieres, that’s where you got your stripes. There was no stage – you were eye-to-eye with the punters. You’re at your most vulnerable when you’re wiggling your snake hips and someone’s staring right at you, 20 inches away. I remember gigs with 15 people in, and places where we started out when there was no one in except the reviewer!”
A week before the Mondays’ Manchester return, they play Liverpool O2 Academy (Friday, November 13). Did Shaun ever cross over to Merseyside to see bands in the old days?
“When I was a kid, going to Liverpool was really dangerous. If Scousers came to Manchester or Salford, or Mancs went to Liverpool in the ‘70s, you might have people coming at your nuts with Stanley knives!”
Is it odd to see how your old surroundings have changed in recent years, with Media City going up, the BBC relocation, and so on?
“It’s great to see how things have changed. And by the time the ’90s came you could go to Liverpool, the same as people over there could come to the Hacienda. You’d even have Arsenal fans running around the Hacienda, chanting the team’s name … and it was all to do with Ecstasy. Things started to change when people were taking E. All that old terrace bull**** went out of the window, in favour of love and peace again.
“I read an article on the BBC website about how gigs in the ‘70s were male-dominated, dangerous places, especially if you were a skinhead, a casual, a punk, a mod or a rocker. If you saw someone who didn’t fit into your tribe, there would be fights. That’s gone now. It’s family, it’s women, it’s girlfriends. It’s completely changed.”
Where have all those years gone, Shaun? Can it really be 25 years since Pills’n’Thrills and Bellyaches?
“That seems to have just turned into five minutes. It feels like I’ve had an eight-hour kip and suddenly I’m 53 years old. It’s all gone, and so quick.”
You joke about this time having a chance to savour it all, as opposed to being ‘off your face’ the first time.
“Here’s the thing, right. When we were doing it first time round, I was too busy building my career and too busy being on the hamster wheel.
“You’re promoting it then playing it, and don’t really get the chance to enjoy it. The day I came out of the studio with Bummed and Pills’n’Thrills was the last time I listened to those albums, until 20-odd years later.
“But I was listening to this album when we were rehearsing it and thought there was some really good stuff there, patting myself on the back.
“And now, more than ever, because the sex and drugs has gone and it’s just rock’n’roll for this bunch of old blokes, we’re enjoying it.”
I was wondering about that. Despite a few well-documented financial problems and legal wrangles over the years, it can’t just be about the money, can it?
“Happy Mondays is certainly a labour of love, after all we’ve been through for it. It’s great. And years ago you didn’t really make money doing live gigs.
“You went out to promote albums and made money off the merchandise. At least now you make money from concerts, although the record sales have gone. My lad laughs at me because I download from iTunes, get music or movies and stream it through the right channels, while they get everything for free. But there’s one thing for which they do expect to pay, and that’s watching live gigs.”
Has family life helped straighten you out after all those wild days?
“First time around, I was a kid having kids, building a career, so I was never home. Now I’m an actual adult having children, and get to do it right this time. I’ve been lucky enough to start again and have a seven-year-old and a six-year-old, and the chance to be at home for them.”
There certainly seems to be a little more wisdom on offer from this 53-year-old.
“Ooh – a lot more wisdom! Absolutely, it’s great! It’s the best!”
Away from the Mondays and Black Grape, Shaun has a new solo project on its way, too.
“At the end of the year or the beginning of next year a new solo album will come out. I’m really proud of that.
“First time I did a solo album it was very experimental. This time it’s totally structured and I’ve spent a lot of time writing songs. It could be ground-breaking.”
Shaun’s always had his champions as a songwriter, and late Factory Records founder Tony Wilson – whose biopic was titled 24 Hour Party People – once compared him to WB Yeats.
“Oh yeah – Tony said some very nice things … some of which I didn’t quite understand! He gave me some of the best advice and some of the worst advice.”
The line goes quiet for a while, and I have to prompt him. He can’t just leave it there – give us an example.
“The worst thing he ever said to me was, ‘Look, what you should do is share everything equally with the band, because that will cut out all the crap and arguments’.
“So I gave everyone a cut of my songwriting royalties, but it didn’t stop all the crap, and it didn’t stop all the arguing!”
There have been plenty of TV shows featuring Shaun down the years, not least a cameo on cult drama Shameless. There’s also word of a screenplay of his autobiography, Twisting Your Melon.
“I really wanted it to go on to television, and Granada bought it. I’ve just signed a deal two days ago, giving it to the people that made Control and the John Lennon film, Nowhere Boy.”
Who does he see most of these days from his band days – Bez, Gaz Whelan, Kermit, or Rowetta perhaps?
“We’ve just done the Black Grape tour with Kermit, but I see Bez a lot more than anyone else. We’re always bumping into each other. We had the premiere of the latest TV show out this month, Singing in the Rainforest, so we were in London plugging that the other night.”
That sounds like one to watch, following musicians living alongside remote tribes, Happy Mondays’ contribution involving a week with the Embera Drua people of the Upper Chagres River in Panama, profits from a resultant single with their hosts going to the tribe. From their Forty Five EP debut for Factory 30 years ago this month to that latest charity stint in Central America, there have been many memorable moments and as many highs as wrong turns for Shaun and Happy Mondays.
I have to ask though – when he sees himself and Bez in those early interviews, like on The Word in the early ‘90s, does he wonder, ‘How are we still here?’
“Not really, because people really bought into what we did, and that’s the good thing about it. I knew from day one we would still be doing this 20-odd years later. It’s just that we grew up in front of the press and the TV cameras.”
There have been some unexpected Shaun Ryder collaborations over the years, from a Talking Heads link to a Russell Watson duet, work with Gorillaz, a Peter Kay video and even a TV series about his interest in UFOs. What’s he going to surprise us with next?
“I really want to tell you, and there’s a couple of TV things I’m on with. But I can’t, although I really want to … especially if you’re a big fan of kids’ television.”
I make encouraging noises, but he’s not for saying anything more.
“What can I say? You know what, you’ve just got to get the mix right, between all that TV stuff and releasing records.”
n For dates and ticket details for the tour, go to http://www.happymondaysonline.com/, visit www.Ticketweb.co.uk / 0844 477 2000.