Shaun Ryder & Black Grape

Originally published in City Life magazine, issue 280, May 24 – June 8, 1995

City Life issue 280, May 1995

When Happy Mondays finally fell apart in the wake of the critically panned Yes Please! and the demise of Factory, Shaun Ryder was on the ropes, out for the count, punch drunk to the point of inchorence. The rave was off, insults were exchanged, the Mondays’ audacious rock ‘n’ roll swindle was over.

That was February 1993. Soon after, Ryder was in court for drink-driving offences (he’d crashed his girlfriend Trish McNamara’s Lada into a vicar’s car whilst under the influence. He drove off, of course). His court appearance saw him arm in arm with new girlfriend, Oriole Leith, daughter of Donovan. Trish and Ryder’s daughter Jael, it transpired, were living in a Stretford council flat. The Ryder story was looking seedier by the minute.

Weeks later, he was on The Word, almost comatose, talking garbage and dancing with George and Zippy from Rainbow. The street-wise blagging pop star had turned court jester, but no-one was laughing with him; Ryder was quickly becoming a figure of fun.

Since then, stories about his decline, about the drug taking and dealing, about him getting fat and growing a ludicrous moustache, slobbing around in his Didsbury house, have become part of Manchester folklore. When he temporarily staggered back in September ’93, for an Intastella gig during In The City, it only served to prove what everyone already thought. He looked a mess, muttered the lyrics to ‘Can You Fly Like You Mean It’ off a crumpled piece of paper, shambling on and off stage like a worn-out drug casualty.

Strange then, unbelievable even, to see 32-year-old Ryder now, on the verge of a comeback, sitting propped against a piano in Boundary Row Studios, London, joking, cursing, talking lucidly about the past and looking to the future. There is a goatee beard but no moustache, and if the rumours were true he’s obviously been dieting. He seems surprisingly together, casually smart in his Vans trainers, crisp new jeans and Timberland jacket.

The reason he’s talking to the press again is Black Grape, his new band, principally a songwriting partnership between Ryder and Paul Leveridge, better known as Kermit, previously of Hulme’s Ruthless Rap Assassins. Bez, still Ryder’s best mate, is in the band too, and a pool of Mancunian musicians – including percussionist Jed (who played with the Rap Assassins) and ex-Paris Angels guitarist Paul Wagstaff – have been helping out. But really, it is Kermit and Ryder’s band.

“As soon as the Mondays split, me and him was together straight away,” says Ryder, gesturing towards Kermit, “writing stuff in my living room, just me and him. Because we had nothing else to do… and we had no mates.”

The pair are clearly good friends. They originally met in the early ’80s, but it’s over the last three years that they’ve really got to know each other. Both have overcome heroin addictions, although Kermit recently claimed he still “dabbles” occasionally. Ryder, on the other hand, says he’s keeping well clear.

“I don’t want to mess around with smack again, man,” he says, for once sounding serious. “You don’t give a fuck about anything when you’re skagged up, you know what I mean? You don’t have any feelings or a conscience when you’re on smack.”

Like the herion, insists Ryder, the bad times, the bitterness, the back-stabbing are all things of the past. Despite still believing that the Mondays were destroyed by pressure from Factory and the band’s manager to “become the Bay City Rollers, have a hit album, do kids’ TV programmes and really push everything”, he claims he’s finished with slagging people off.

“I’ve just started to calm down now, I feel alright,” he says. “I’ve got no anger against anyone no more, no one at Factory, none of the rest of the band. I’ve done interviews and said I hate this person or whatever, I’ve done all that, got all that out of the way.”

Ryder wasn’t even speaking to his brother Paul (the Mondays’ bass player) for a while after the band split. It was that bad; ten years in a band together and that was the result. But then the rest of the band blamed Shaun and Bez for their fall from grace, beginning with an afternoon’s mouthing off to NME, when they went from Artful Dodgers to modern-day Fagins in a few homophobic quotes. They pushed it too far, let their drug-addled minds get out of control, laying into gays like a pair of pop star bullies, pockets full of money and gobs full of shite. It was the beginning of the end for the Mondays, and the rest of the band didn’t like it one bit.

“All the rock ‘n’ roll cliches that you can think of happened with the Mondays,” says Ryder, half incredulous, half laughing. “You remember in the film Stardust when the rest of the band are throwing darts at pictures of Jim Maclaine? All that tackle happened with us. Secret meetings to get rid of me and Bez: ‘How can we stop their money?’ Stuff like that. Really funny.”

It’s funny now, but back then, with Ryder graduating from smack to crack during the recording of Yes Please! in Barbados, there wasn’t much laughter in the Mondays’ camp. The drug rehab that followed saw Ryder undergoing a methadone programme, moving on to Valium and most recently Prozac, which he took for nearly a year and credits with sorting his post-Mondays head out. And whilst the drug use continued, Black Grape was slowly coming together.

Me and Kermit had been putting the deal together, finding management, doing the music. When the Mondays split, we were left with no equipment, didn’t have any samplers or fuck all, nowhere to rehearse, but we was busy. And trying to get semi-straight.”

Ryder had come out of the Factory collapse with nothing – “I got fuck all, everything got frozen. The lot. Still is. Didn’t get nish”. But when the chance of a deal with EMI was offered to the Mondays, he squandered it by not turning up for the meeting. In retrospect, for once the drugs made him do something sensible. A matter of months later, having secured the services of London-based management team Nick and Gloria Nichols, a deal with US label Radioactive was struck. Yet while all this was going on, the tales of Ryder’s decline continued. Only six months ago – when much of the new LP was being recored at Rockfield Studios, Wales – most people still had him written off as another music biz drug casualty.

“That’s what we let everyone think,” laughs Ryder. “Once there were reports out saying ‘Shaun’s 15 stone, he’s grown a moustache, he’s a fat fucker and all that’, once them sort of things were coming out I was really getting a buzz off it. Once I’d got used to them it was good. It’s good to be slagged, it gets you going. But in that two years, I was probably straighter and happier than for a long time. It was cool.”

Of course, all this would count for little if Black Grape were just an inferior version of the Mondays. But they’re not. Their album – produced by US hip hop/rock head Danny Saber (who also plays bass) and Stephen Lironi, once of Altered Images – is a crazy cacophony of smutty, seedy junk funk tunes, Ryder’s voice bouncing off Kermit’s preacher man rapping like ricocheting bullets. Mad lyrics, mad tunes, a classic album.

“It’s fresh,” says Ryder, waxing lyrical about how much he’s enjoying being in Black Grape. “We’ve only just started shagging each other, we’ve only been doing it for about two years. It’s cool.”

‘Cool’ along with ‘dude’ appears to be one of Ryder’s favourite words right now. It’s the language of the pony-tailed music biz types that he’s been dealing with of late, and rests oddly with his strong Salford accent, the flip-side of cool still being “snide”. To complete the picture of the new Shaun Ryder, he’s currently residing in the upmarket London suburb of Hampstead. And he’s loving it, getting off on Bohemia, hanging out in flashy wine bars and rubbing shoulders with respectable society. So why the move, Shaun?

“Well, I’ve not really moved,” he says with a smirk. “That’s just the impression we were giving out. Manchester’s mad, man. It’s like you’re born there and you get this fucking sticker on your head that somehow says you’ve got to stay there. I’ve still got this big elastic band round me neck that drags me back.”

Still, for now, he’s staying in Hampstead; it’s convenient for ‘work’. And while he’s away he’s developed a theory about his hometown. As you might expect, it’s an odd one.

“Manchester should be made into a big holiday camp,” he cackles, getting off on his own lunacy. “Put a big fence round it and turn it into, you know, that place that fucking Pinocchio fucked off to.”

A few cans of Guinness down his neck and spliff in his lungs, and the new ‘Straight’ Ryder sounds as mad as ever. But, as Black Grape’s LP title boldly states, It’s Great When You’re Straight…. Yeah! Right?

“That was just said as a joke and the management thought it was a great title,” sniggers Kermit.

“We was all straight and we was double bored,” adds Ryder.

What, so it’s not great when you’re straight after all?

“No, no, it is,” says Ryder, leaning forward and looking me in the eye. “It’s wicked, dude.”

Martin Boyce interview

Originally published October 2011, Creative Times

Martin Boyce has work to do. The late September sun may be streaming through the large, south-facing windows of his immaculate third floor studio in Glasgow’s East End, but he’s not about to be tempted outside. He’s got two important exhibitions coming up and there are new pieces to complete for both of them. First it’s the Frieze art fair in London, and then there’s the small matter of the Turner Prize show at BALTIC, Gateshead.

Boyce is probably the best-known artist on this year’s Turner Prize shortlist. Born in 1967, he’s been creating large-scale sculptural installations and moodily atmospheric environments for nearly two decades. In 2009 he represented Scotland at the 53rd Venice Biennale, taking over the 2nd floor of a 15th century palazzo for an exhibition that included concrete stepping stones, brass typography and large, sculptural chandeliers.

That said, he is happy to acknowledge that the Turner Prize represents a shift, not in his work but in how he is perceived. “From now on I’ll always be ‘Turner Prize nominated Martin Boyce’,” he smiles. “You become part of this lineage, part of a group of other artists, and that’s kind of nice, it’s kind of interesting.”

Boyce knows some of that ‘group of artists’ well – 2009 Turner Prize winner Richard Wright has a studio in the same building. He’s part of a generation of artists that, in the last 10-15 years, have helped make Glasgow the UK’s second city for contemporary art. “I think the fact that people like Richard Wright are living and working in the city, it makes a difference,” he says.

Originally from Hamilton, Boyce graduated from Glasgow School of Art’s Environmental Art course in 1990 (other notable alumni include Lambie, Douglas Gordon, David Shrigley and Christine Borland). He completed his MFA, also at GSA, in 1997.

Boyce’s art draws on and obliquely references the moods and forms of modernism. Not, he insists, that he’s in thrall to any particular visual style. “It’s almost like people use the term ‘modernism’ as a description of an aesthetic, which isn’t how I’m interested in it at all,” he says. “Part of the initial interest was that I could identify with it in relation to an ethos, an ideology. The look and presence of these things also had a relationship to politics and economics, and so that felt very complete. There was lot to wrestle with and think about.”

That process of wrestling with ideas and thinking things through is part of what makes Boyce’s work so seductive. There’s a clarity of delivery in his work that reflects the very deliberate way he operates. Often working with fabricators (the same Glasgow-based firm for some 15 years), he remains close to the production process, overseeing and steering it.

Boyce’s ongoing referencing of four modernist concrete trees, designed by Joel and Jan Martel for the 1925 Exposition des Arts Décoratifs in Paris, neatly embodies this thoughtful approach. Such is his interest in the trees, which he describes as “a really strange collapse of materials and ideas”, that he refers to them as a kind of visual language, a lexicon.

“The image [of the trees] had been hanging about the studio for ages,” he explains. “But it wasn’t until 2005, when I was living in Berlin, that I started to use it. There was the best part of six months when I didn’t have any solo shows to do and I could just work in the studio, and I decided to take this tree and started making models, exploring the pattern. I didn’t really know where it was going to lead but it ended up being incredibly fruitful.”

It was during this period that Boyce created a complete alphabet of letters from shapes found within the trees’ structure. “Of course my first reaction was to arrange the letters so that they were the correct way up,” he explains. “But they didn’t quite look right. So I started to put them back where they were found within the pattern, so you have this idea of tumbling letters, some upside down, some on their side – it seemed to make it all the more interesting.”

Those tumbling letters and other shapes derived from the trees featured heavily in the exhibition that earnt Boyce his Turner Prize nomination – A Library of Leaves (2010) at Galerie Eva Presenhuber, Zurich. For his show at BALTIC, he’s presenting a combination of existing pieces and new work. “There’s no pressure to produce anything new – quite the opposite – but that’s just the way I work,” he says. “For me, it’s very much about considering the space and responding to it, trying to create a certain kind of atmosphere.”

The BALTIC show sees the nominated artists – Boyce plus George Shaw, Karla Black and Hilary Lloyd – sharing one floor of the vast former flour mill, requiring the creation of four separate spaces. “The conversation [about spaces] was a bit like a full-size game of Tetris or something, trying to fit everyone in,” says Boyce. “Some of the rooms have pillars which can be covered up, but I decided to expose them. It gives me something to play off and react to, which in turn made me want to make a ceiling piece.”

Boyce is happy to dig out examples of the work he’s talking about, at one point tracing out shapes with a black felt-tip pen to reveal how he created his tumbling letters. He shows me a drawing for the piece that will hover above the BALTIC space – it consists of over 500 aluminium fins that will hang from a purpose-built structure. Again, the shape of the fins is derived from those long-since demolished concrete trees.

“The choices I make with the sculptural works and exhibitions, they’re always quite conscious and deliberate – for example, the idea of using a library table [in A Library of Leaves] in relation to typography and language, it makes sense. But equally, just the physical presence of the object, how it’s placed in the room, what it does to the room, all that’s really important.”

For Frieze, Boyce has created a piece consisting of smaller versions of the delicate, perforated steel lanterns featured in a recent show at The Modern Institute, the Glasgow gallery he’s represented by. A few of the lanterns are dotted about his studio; one hangs to the right of his desk. “The pressures of the market aren’t as great in Glasgow, you’re not swimming around in it all the time,” he says in reference Frieze and art fairs generally. “In London and New York you’re very much reacting to it or against it.”

It’s hard to imagine Boyce being swayed too much by the concerns of the art market wherever he was based, such is the single-mindedness of his art. Or, for that matter, by the attention afforded him from being ‘Turner Prize-nominated Martin Boyce’. And winning?

“Once I’d made the decision to accept the nomination, I just wanted to focus on and enjoy the celebratory aspect of it, both for me and contemporary art generally,” he says. “And then concentrate on trying to put on as good a show as I can.”

New Order interview, 1998

Originally published July 1998, City Life magazine

Waiting in New Order’s management office above the Haçienda, surrounded by old posters for gigs, framed record covers and gold discs – including one for ‘Blue Monday’, covered in dust and propped in a corner – it’s tempting to draw an analogy between the former club and the group that, through its manager Rob Gretton, created it. So, in 1998, more than 20 years after the seeds of New Order were sown with the Macclesfield-meets-Salford axis of Joy Division, is New Order merely an empty vessel, a confused bundle of memories, so much pop nostalgia with no contemporary relevance?

I’m clocking all this New Order history while I wait for bassist Peter ‘Hooky’ Hook to arrive. The plan is to interview all four members of the band but, as befits a group that hasn’t worked together for five years, it’s proving difficult to get them all in one place at the same time. So, today it’s Hook’s turn, tomorrow it’s Gillian Gilbert and Stephen Morris. And singer Bernard Sumner? For the moment he doesn’t want to talk. (Eventually, he makes the time and we talk at length on the telephone.)

So, after five years of no New Order, Manchester’s most important pop group of the ‘80s and, maybe, the early ‘90s – remember the official 1990 England World Cup song, ‘World in Motion’? Remember the bruised pop beauty of ’93’s ‘Regret’? – are back together again. Did they ever split up? Well, no, not really. At least when they stepped off the stage after their triumphant Reading Festival gig in August ’93, that wasn’t the intention. Or was it? It’s a question to which all four members give anything but clear-cut answers.

Hooky: “I don’t think even we knew.”
Gillian: “There was always talk of another album.”
Stephen: “The longer it went on the more you felt, ‘Oh well, we must have split up then.”
Bernard: “I didn’t think it was the end of New Order, but I wanted to get away from the situation, the business pressures were so great. It was like, ‘This hurts and I don’t want it to hurt.’”

Pop music’s grip on our lives is a strange and wonderful thing, but few bands have such a strange and wonderful life story as New Order. A product of the infamous Sex Pistols gig at the Lesser Free Trade Hall in 1976 which effectively brought punk to Manchester, ex-Salford Grammar boys Peter Hook and Bernard Sumner were inspired enough by the spirit of the Pistols to start a band, Hooky plumping for bass because Bernard already had a guitar. They recruited a drummer from Macclesfield (Morris) and Ian Curtis as singer, from the same town. Joy Division was born and, after ex-insurance clerk turned DJ Rob Gretton became their manager and Tony Wilson’s Factory records their label, they were on the way to cult status.

The suicide of Curtis in 1980, on the eve of Joy Division’s first American tour, changed all that. Yet in turn it set the wheels of New Order’s success in motion. Gillian (Stephen’s girlfriend) was brought it at the suggestion of Gretton (she’d played guitar for Joy Division before) and, after a tricky start, the band began to evolve into a thoroughly intriguing pop phenomenon: a dance band with a rock dynamic, a rock band with a love of pop melodies, a chart act with cult appeal, a successful live act with an aversion to touring, an album band that sold millions of singles.

Which brings us to a certain advert for a certain credit card and a song that did more than any other to take New Order out of the shadow of Joy Division. The song is ‘Blue Monday’, currently in heavy rotation on the country’s commercial TV channels, advertising the American Express Blue card. Fifteen years after the record was released, Sumner finds the scenario amusing. “I guess we are getting paid rather a lot of money for them using it, so it does kind of colour my judgement.” He laughs mischievously. “It’s a great credit card, you know. It’s got a great APR!”

It’s oddly fortuitous that ‘Blue Monday’ is currently enjoying a new lease of life – no doubt New Order’s record label London, who they moved to after the collapse of Factory in November ’92, will be re-releasing it (again) soon. Along with the World Cup’s revival of ‘World in Motion’ and the frequency with which ‘Regret’ crops up as a TV soundtrack, New Order are once again snuggling up to the fickle bosom of pop culture. And, nearly five years after their last gig, they are about to play live again. So, why now?

“Well, I suppose the answer would have to be, ‘Why not?’” responds Hooky, munching crisps and a ham salad and supping a pint of lager in the beer garden of the Britons Protection pub, round the corner from the Haçienda. “With Factory breaking up and Republic being so difficult, it’s just one of those things: you needed a change. And once you’ve had your change, it makes sense to reconsider it.”

Hooky is by far the most approachable, the most chatty, the most ‘bloke next door’ member of New Order. Newly married after a high-profile divorce from comedian Caroline Aherne, he says he’s the the happiest he’s ever been.

“I found it difficult to listen to New Order for a long time,” he continues. “It was too close. I think you get to a point where you spend so much time with people that you don’t really talk. It’s like a stale relationship and there’s loads of problems which just fester and you never sort them out. But it isn’t like we’re putting ourselves through all that again, because the air has been cleared. It’s nice. It doesn’t feel difficult, it doesn’t feel hard, and I think that’s because everyone feels better in themselves. They wouldn’t be doing it if they didn’t feel good about it.”

“Erm, I guess because the time was right to get back together,” is Bernard Sumner’s faltering response to the ‘Why now?’ question. Bernard, who a few years ago broke that legendary New Order veneer of secrecy by appearing in a TV programme about the treatment of depression with Prozac, claims to be “very stressed at the moment”. He’s working three days a week mixing the third Electronic album in London, and two days rehearsing old New Order songs in Manchester. There’s a quiver of fatigue in his voice and a nasty cough due to a recent bout of bronchitis, but otherwise he’s in high, if not healthy, spirits.

“Obviously we got a very lucrative gig offer,” he laughs, “but we’ve had them before… I don’t know. We’d spent all this time writing these songs, and we’d been through so much together, you know we’d been through a death – two deaths if you count Martin Hannett – a nervous breakdown, the end of Factory. It just seems that to go through all that and then just split up at the end of it… If Ian’s death didn’t crack us up then we shouldn’t let inter-band politics or the fact that we weren’t getting on because we were squeezed together on a tour for so long.”

Bernard and Hooky have known each other for over 30 years (“Bernard’s the same guy that I used to meet off the bus to school and we’d go kicking satchels and slapping the swots’ heads as we walked into Salford Grammar,” says Hooky). Yet while Hooky is prone to dismiss anything that smacks of analysis and is keen to project an ‘up’ persona, Bernard has a tendency to suddenly go deep on you – then cover his tracks with a flippant aside. A little like his lyrics, he can be both poignant and throwaway at the same time.

“I’m a great believer in content over style,” he says when quizzed on his approach to being a singer. “I believe that what I do has a content to it. It’s idiosyncratic and not quite professional, which I really like. I’ve always liked that. I hate stuff that’s dead professional. Why? Because I like people for their imperfections, I think that’s what makes people attractive. Anybody who tries to tell you they’re perfect or tries to be perfect is hiding something.”

The character collision between Hooky and Bernard may be clear, yet it’s nothing when compared with New Order’s self-proclaimed ‘Other Two’ (also the name of their band outside New Order). Now married with a two-year-old baby girl, they are the most unlikely of pop stars. Stephen collects military vehicles and likes making models. They live on a farm in the rugged countryside on the outskirts of Macclesfield. They rarely venture into Manchester. They have been known to drive a Volvo estate. And they are without doubt an integral and vital part of what makes New Order so different to either Hooky’s band Monaco, Electronic, or for that matter The Other Two.

“We hadn’t spoke to Barney or Hooky for about four years before last February,” says Gillian inbetween seemingly uncontrollable giggles. “I was quite excited when we decided that we were going to do something again. I was looking forward to seeing everyone and actually doing something together. Because as times goes by you start thinking, ‘Was I really in New Order? What happened?’ I missed it really.”

Interviewed separately – my suggestion, not theirs – in contrast to Gillian’s homely, pleasant and generally at ease nature, Stephen is edgy, a deeply pessimistic chain smoker. Somehow, the scars of life in New Order, of the tensions that reached boiling point prior to the band going their separate ways after Republic, are more pronounced. His wife’s excitement following the phone call suggesting they get back together to play Phoenix Festival was tempered by his own feelings – and it was Stephen who picked up the phone. “I’m naturally pessimistic, so I was a little bit reluctant. It’s a pretty ridiculous thing really… We just needed some reason to get back together and getting offered a gig – which then got cancelled – seemed to be it.”

Only a few months prior to that out of the blue call, Stephen says he’d been thinking about New Order and had decided that “we’d never get back together again. I felt sad,” he says, “we’d been through so much together and to just leave a vacuum… Maybe if there’d been an end, but we never really technically split up. I had that feeling of ‘What am I going to do with my life now?’”

It is, however, a very different New Order that is now back up and running. Although the band have been with London Records for nearly six years, they have never actually made a record for them (Republic was all recorded as Factory collapsed around the band). The old Factory way of doing things, which in turn seemed so much a part of the whole New Order mystique, is long gone. And whereas the band previously owned the copyright on their recorded songs, that now rests with London.

“I think with hindsight I prefer the way it was with Factory,” says Stephen. “It was doing something different and it was genuinely independent and had an image of its own, independent of the records it put out. Which I think was unique.”

The challenge for New Order now is whether they can retain their stubborn independence, their warped integrity, their knack for riding the pop zeitgeist, whilst in the midst of an industry that has once again swept aside the independent ethic, confining it to quaint and unimportant NME bands that few people will ever really care about. Because, unless they all fall out again, New Order are back together again – not just for a couple of gigs but to begin writing and recording new songs, with a seventh album the long-term aim.

Hooky: “The talk is to carry on writing together one day a week after the gigs and see what happens. I hope it happens because I think it will have an optimism and enjoyment which Republic didn’t have.”
Gillian: “I’d rather write new songs than just do a load of gigs playing old material. Getting back together just to do old stuff doesn’t really appeal.”
Stephen: “You’ve got to see it as us getting back together and writing new stuff, otherwise it’s just a couple of gigs and for what? You’ve got to start working together properly again or it’s just some kind of hobby.”
Bernard: “The priorities are to get our other bands out of the way first – Steve and Gillian have just finished the second Other Two album, Hooky’s just finishing a Monoco album, I’m mixing an Electronic album – but I think we’re definitely going to write something in the future.”

But before the writing there’s the gigs. Talking to the band a couple of weeks before their Manchester date – initially intended as warm up to Phoenix and now a month and a half before their Reading Festival show – it becomes clear that at this point they’ve only rehearsed seven songs, less than half the set. Not that anyone seems particularly concerned. “The best way to deal with tricky situations is not to think about them,” says Bernard, flying in the face of all accepted wisdom on such matters. It seems that, while the new New Order is an older, wiser, mellower proposition, that rare essence that set them apart from the rest of the pop milieu is as sweet and vital as ever.

Tony Wilson remembered

Originally published 13 August 2007, metro.co.uk

Tony Wilson was as good at making enemies as he was making friends. It’s a mark of this brave, foolhardy, passionate and inspirational man’s character; he drew the battle lines and got on with waging the war for what he believed was the best in pop culture. And most of the time he was right.

He will of course be best remembered for Factory records, for Joy Division/New Order and Happy Mondays and his pivotal role in the rise and fall of the Haçienda nightclub.

He embraced the unusual, the maverick outsider, from Ian Curtis to producer Martin Hannett; Shaun Ryder to designer Peter Saville.

In an industry of release dates and deadlines, a lesser, more conventional label boss would have despaired at Saville’s habit of delivering artwork late.

Wilson instead gave him free rein and in the process helped create a visual aesthetic for Factory that has shaped a whole generation’s view of what is good and bad design. Hopeless business man perhaps, but a true visionary.

Like pretty much anyone involved in the creative industries in Manchester at any time over the last 30 years, I came to know Tony Wilson as more than just the iconic founder of Factory.

In the mid-1990s I worked for him writing copy for his In The City music conference. He would pop in the office full of chat, his energy levels putting the rest of us, 20 years his junior, to shame. He’d roll a joint and regale us with stories about touring with New Order. He was good company.

Wilson was a punk at heart; he knew that the next big thing always comes from the nobodies.

After all, while some saw druggy Salford scallies, Wilson saw poetry in Shaun Ryder’s lyrics and a new kind of rock ‘n’ roll in Happy Mondays’ music.

In 1994 when The Stone Roses finally returned with ‘Love Spreads’ I found myself being interviewed alongside Wilson for Radio 5.

I was in the Roses corner, lauding a triumphant return (I’d yet to hear Second Coming). Wilson was arguing the case that Happy Mondays were the true innovators of the Madchester period, Shaun Ryder the finest lyricist of a generation. I stood my ground, he stood his.

At the time the tide had turned against the Mondays and they were being widely ridiculed, Ryder seemingly a washed-up hasbeen. But despite that band’s appetite for drugs and destruction being partly responsible for the collapse of his beloved Factory, Wilson kept the faith.

Despite his status as Mr Manchester and, in later life, his easy access to the city’s decision makers, Wilson always seemed to have the time for any idea that interested him, no matter who it came from.

I remember an evening meeting over a curry in central Manchester with a friend and Wilson. It was to talk about a new venture to set up a Manchester debating society, which was to discuss contemporary topics affecting the city.

I was there as editor of a Manchester magazine that was lending its support. Wilson arrived late, looking an odd shade of pink, the features of his face curiously defined.

He’d just dashed over from Granada, a five minute walk away, where he’d been filming, and was still wearing his TV make-up. He didn’t have any cash on him, so he wrote an IOU for his curry.

The last time I bumped into Wilson was a few years ago, after I’d left Manchester. As he so often seemed to do, he made his presence felt in the room, said a few hellos and swept out again.

It made my evening.

Before coming to Manchester in 1986 I’d quietly worshipped Factory from afar, then as a student his black and white portrait stared down on us all from the Haçienda box office like some benevolent pop culture guru, as we paid to go to the Temperance Club and Hot night. So many people will have similar memories. Friends and enemies alike will miss him.

Anthony Howard Wilson, 20 February 1950 – 10 August 2007

Peter Hook’s Haçienda book

Originally published November 2009

Peter Hook’s How Not To Run A Nightclub is a great knockabout history of the Haçienda. He tells it like he saw it (mostly through a haze of booze and drugs), charting the highs and the dark and dangerous lows of the infamous Manchester club’s 15 years of fame. It’s a roll call of Mancunian rogues, misfits and mavericks, by turns funny, sad, inspiring and downright scary.

Michael Winterbottom’s film about Tony Wilson and Factory records, 24 Hour Party People, may have played fast and loose with the facts, but there’s plenty in Hooky’s book that really is stranger than fiction: the New Order bassist pissing in a Hellmann’s mayonnaise bucket kept in the Haç’s kitchen rather than using the toilets (long queues and, when the gangs moved in, too much violence); a bin bag full of £40K in cash delivered to New Order manager and Hacienda co-owner Rob Gretton by a Salford gangster (who was also running the door at the club); the member of staff who gave the tax man the wrong books (the ones with all the cash-in-hand payments rather than the ‘official’ version).

How did such a bunch of incompetent dreamers keep the club going for so long? It’s a question that’s never fully answered in the book, and that’s hardly surprising. Because much like Factory records and New Order – who of course bankrolled the club as it haemorrhaged money – the Haçienda was a beautiful mistake; not so much a club as an art manifesto that went wrong.

Anyone who was going to clubs in Manchester from 1982 to 1997 will have stories about the Haçienda. You only had to go there once for it to leave its mark; it was that kind of place. And although fashioned out of New Order and most importantly Rob Gretton’s experience of early Eighties New York nightclubs, it was never a copy of anything.

The combination of Ben Kelly’s design and the eccentric way in which it was run (both good and bad) made sure that it was always out on its own, even when it became hugely fashionable as acid house swept Britain’s clubs in 1988.

I was a student in Manchester when the Haçienda became the most talked about club in the world. I moved to the city in 1986, a Factory records fan in love with the Peter Saville aesthetic and the eclectic, contradictory and often awkward music of the label. The Haçienda was like a Factory release in 3D. Kelly’s playful and uncompromising industrial design meant that it always felt like you were walking into a special place; to borrow from Le Corbusier, it was like a machine for dancing in. The black and white portrait of Tony Wilson smiling down on you as you paid added to the sense of occasion. The fact that it was at most half-full for the first few years that I went was a good thing; it made you appreciate the space even more.

I can vividly recall when everything changed and the influence of ecstasy and Ibiza took hold. It was the summer of ’88 and I was a regular at Wednesday’s Zumbar night, a ridiculously camp combination of catwalk-style fashion/dance routines and live PAs (I remember cheesy Eighties pop duo Dollar in particular. I seem to recall people throwing Sapporo cans at them. Which was quite something, as the Haçienda was the only place you could get this designer Japanese lager at the time). It was all presided over by a master of ceremonies with a dodgy moustache. It was great fun and there was always plenty of room at the bar.

Then Zumbar became Hot. I turned up with friends expecting Zumbar’s camp theatrics and was profoundly shocked. It was wall-to-wall acid house and I didn’t get it. I made my excuses and was on the bus home by midnight. Of course the following week I was back and it started to make more sense. Within a few weeks I was dancing on the podiums. And no, I wasn’t on ecstasy, just a few cans of strong lager.

Hooky’s book does a great job of capturing how quickly the euphoria of acid house went sour, and how success turned to disaster as the Haçienda began to creak under the weight of its popularity. By then I was a music journalist and still loved going to the club; it helped that I could now get on the guest list.

Of course things lurched from bad to worse from the early to mid-‘90s. By the time the Haçienda closed in 1997 the sadness at its demise was tempered by a huge sigh of relief. It was time to admit defeat and let Manchester clubland move on. Which of course it did.

Now that Hooky has told his side of this great, crazy story, let’s hope he can do the same.

 

Malcolm McLaren remembered

Originally published 13 April, 2010

I’d never really thought about Malcolm McLaren dieing; he always seemed so full of life, and himself, as to somehow transcend the messy business of death. So the news that he had passed away provoked both shock and sadness.

I still remember the first time I saw a picture of him. It was in an Observer magazine article on the Sex Pistols, probably late 1976 or early 1977. I was far too young to be a punk, but I recall thinking that this was a man with mischief on his mind. I was fascinated.

The nearest I ever came to meeting McLaren was when he appeared at In The City, the annual music business conference organized by the late Anthony Wilson. As presenter of Granada’s So It Goes music programme, Wilson had given the Sex Pistols their first TV appearance. McLaren was on top form at Manchester’s Midland Hotel. Hugely entertaining, he talked at great length about the music industry and the shenanigans he’d got up to over the years. He was obviously relishing the opportunity to tell his stories to a reverential audience; loving it so much that the fact that much of what he was saying was blatantly untrue seemed barely relevant.

So when he got to the bit about wiping the blood off the knife that Sid Vicious used to kill Nancy Spungen, I, like the rest of the audience I’m sure, just took it for granted that this was another bit of fanciful McLaren myth making, a great tale but about as factual as The Great Rock’n’roll Swindle.

The police didn’t seem to take it so lightly. After it was widely reported in the press, it was intimated that they’d like to talk to Mr McLaren. He sensibly retracted the statement.

More recently, I commissioned an interview with McLaren for the Scottish edition of Metro newspaper. He was coming to last year’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe to do a show called History Is For Pissing On. The show was a collection of tall tales and long stories and, talking on the phone from New York, that was precisely what he gave the journalist who interviewed him. He talked for well over an hour, effectively testing out his show on her. It made great copy – but then when didn’t he? “I was born a punk, really,” he said. “The machinations, the Faginesque and Artful Dodger characters; I was searching for a 20th century icon of unhappiness. Sid Vicious was the apogee of that.”

McLaren wasn’t really in the music business, he was in the business of ideas. New York Dolls, Sex Pistols, Bow Wow Wow – to McLaren these weren’t musicians so much as his ideas made flesh, living art projects. But this was art as pop rather than the other way round – exciting, fun, stupid, anarchic, clever, chaotic. It wasn’t queen or country or government that was the enemy, it was boredom, stasis, lack of imagination. No wonder he and John Lydon clashed so violently – they were both too thinking, too clever, too strong minded to ever get on. McLaren needed his pop musicians to be more malleable. Sid Vicious was happy to be Malcolm’s conduit, Lydon was not.

It’s for the Sex Pistols and all that punk did to shift the cultural ground beneath our feet that Malcolm McLaren will be most remembered for. But he was more than a one-card trick. And rather than the sneering rock of God Save The Queen, the thing currently buzzing around my brain is the sound of McLaren excitably doing the Double Dutch in that sing-song, talky voice of his: “They might break and they might fall/ But the gals in New York city don’t/ They just start again, start again/ Hey, ebo, ebonettes…”


Malcolm McLaren, 22 January 1946 – 8 April 2010 

 

Manchester on my mind

Originally published in issue 3 of Belle Vue magazine, 2010

It’s April 1995 and Shaun Ryder, previously of Happy Mondays and now of Black Grape, is holding court in a London recording studio. Recently relocated to the capital and – am I imagining this? – living with Donovan’s daughter, he has a can of Guinness in one hand, a spliff in the other and, despite the odds, is talking a lot of sense. I ask him about Manchester: “Manchester? It’s like I’ve got a big fucking elastic band around my neck that keeps pulling me back to the place.”

Fifteen years on, I think I finally understand what he meant. Let me explain. I lived in Manchester for 16 years. It’s a familiar story: moved to the city as a student, decided to stay. It was 1989 when I graduated and I wanted to write about music. There wasn’t a better place to be.

So I wrote about music and doors started to open. I got on the Haçienda guest list and met my heroes (New Order, Rob Gretton, Tony Wilson, Les Dawson); became editor of City Life magazine and four years later was marched out of the MEN building after accepting a job on a rival paper; had a blast in a ‘mine’s bigger than your’s’ newspaper war. Manchester was good to me and I like to think I returned the love.

I live in Glasgow now, another great city (I grew up near Wolverhampton; next stop Reykjavik). I left Manchester in 2003, and although friends and work continued to take me back frequently, the city started to feel like a memory, my past rather than present. When Tony Wilson died in 2007 it was as if a door had been closed.

But I didn’t figure on that elastic band.

Recently it’s been pulling me back. I’m self-employed now and working with some great Manchester characters again. I’m in the city most weeks and when I am I keep bumping into people that I haven’t seen for years, reacquainting myself with old friends and colleagues. What was it that Tony said about Manchester being a village?

So much has changed in Manchester since I left yet so much has stayed the same; that’s what cities do, isn’t it? It’s as if I’m getting to know the place I used to call home all over again, and it’s a good feeling.

I get a knot of excitement in my stomach every time the train from Glasgow reaches Salford Crescent and I glimpse Ian Simpson’s ridiculously audacious skyscraper and think about the who, what and why of living in one of those apartments above the Hilton; when I pass Castlefield basin and take in the historical mash-up of old and new and spot the back windows of the flat I used to live in; when I step out of Oxford Road Station and turn round to view the 1960s splendour of a building that always makes me think of a particularly chic ski chalet in the Swiss Alps, even though I’ve never been to such a place.

I don’t feel like a tourist, but I do find myself acting like one; I’m taking in the sites. Britons Protection; the Deaf Institute; John Rylands Library; Rochdale Canal; the CIS Building; the mess that is Piccadilly Gardens (how I groan at every bit of rotten wood, muddy grass and badly weathered concrete); that lovely curved passageway between the Town Hall extension and Central Library; the top end of King Street; the Civil Justice Centre at Spinningfield; Piccadilly Hotel, which like the new courts, still looks to me as if it’s descended from the set of Battlestar Galactica (an entirely good thing, I think).

This rekindling of my Manchester gene has made me think about my new home too. These tough, history-drenched cities have a lot in common, from the banal (yes, it rains even more in Glasgow) to the more edifying (a rich seam of creative talent and an eye on the future).

But it’s what’s different about each city that most excites; there’s not much joy to be had in sameness. I love the sheer muscular physicality of Glasgow city centre’s grid system of main streets and service alleys – Manchester feels rather laissez-faire in comparison; I get a kick out of the undulating landscape, the way buildings cling to the sides of steep hills and the feeling of openness this gives – Glasgow is a city with a view, whereas Manchester can feel closed off, hemmed in.

And then there’s the bridges. The Clyde’s added a couple since I’ve been in Glasgow (and why not? You can never have too many in my view). Pedestrian, rail, road, they go from the thoughtfully ornate to the brutally functional. They do more than just span the Clyde; they’re a constant reminder of the river’s role in shaping the city.

Of course it’s people that make cities not bricks and steel and glass (or rivers, for that matter). But buildings record and recount people’s stories in both their presence and absence. They’re like those time capsules that get buried every so often for future generations to find, except of course they’re not at all because, above ground, nothing gets preserved, time doesn’t stop.

So, here I am with Manchester on my mind again, attempting to decipher its many signposts to the past and future. That’s what I get from the city every time I’m pulled back here. The elastic band may get stretched over time, but I don’t believe it will ever be broken.

 

Noel Gallagher interview, 1995

Originally published in City Life magazine, issue 293, Nov 22–Dec 7, 1995

It just wouldn’t happen with any other band, let alone one of the stature of Oasis. Half an hour after speaking to their record company about organising an interview, Noel Gallagher is on the phone. It is early October and the band are in the middle of a mini UK tour, rescheduled after the temporary departure of bass player Paul McGuigan (now back in the band). Having played Stoke the night before, the rest of the band are in Bournemouth, enjoying a rare day off. But Noel is back in London in his manager’s office: there’s work to be done.

“I get bored, you know what I mean?” he says, explaining why he’s opted to talk to a journalist rather than rest up for the day. “I just got back to London from Stoke last night and a phone call came through from the record company about this interview, and it was like, ‘but it’s your day off isn’t i?’ But if I’d gone home I’d just be bored anyway, I’d just sit around the house and start writing songs again and watch the telly , and probably end up going to the pub. So I might as well do some work: it’s what I’m good at.”

Noel has a reputation for being one of the hardest working musicians around, and his band – and it still is very much his band, despite the fact that brother Liam has been rather more forthcoming with the press of late – are equally hard working. No wonder McGuigan bowed out for a few months due to that music-biz catch-all, ‘nervous exhaustion’: sex and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll are all well and good, but too much fun can wear a man down.

“The reason why we never stop is because we don’t want to,” is Noel’s simple explanation for the band’s constant touring and record releases (eight four-track singles and two albums in just over a year and a half). “There’s no-one saying ‘you must do this’ or ‘you must do that’, we’re all in charge of our own destinies. But everyone’s having too good a time to be bothered going on holiday for six months, that’s boring man. Sit on a beach with your girlfriend rubbing suntan on you, how boring’s that?”

The Oasis rollercoaster is unstoppable at the moment, and no wonder; Noel and his cohort have no time for the aloofness of band like The Stone Roses or the petulant tantrums of less successful British prima donnas ‘suffering’ for their art. Oasis don’t suffer, they endure and enjoy. It’s only rock ‘n’ roll after all.

“For a long time bands have got to a certain level and taken two years off, and then think they can waltz back in again and pick up where they started,” says Noel. “But music moves so fast these days you can’t afford to even have six months off, because you come back and someone’s invented another scene, and suddenly you’re old hat. So I think while you’re on a roll you’ve gotta keep doing it, you’ll only regret it in the end if you don’t.”

Noel is surprisingly candid and matter-of-fact about the vagaries of being in a band, about the whims of fashion, about the transient nature of pop culture. It’s the voice of a fan talking, a 28-year-old who has consumed with a passion pop music’s ebbs and flows, highs and lows. Despite accusations from Liam that his brother is something of a muso bore, the truth is rather different.

I remember interviewing Noel backstage at a gig in June ’94, just before the band’s second single, ‘Shakermaker’, was due out. Oasis had sold out the 700 capacity Manchester University Students’ Union (small beer compared to the 17,000 capacity NYNEX Arena) and then, as now, Noel was eager to talk. We got on to the subject of The Beatles – it was impossible to avoid it – and I rather coyly admitted that my impression of the Fab Four was almost entirely based on listening to their famous (and recently reissued) red and blue compilation LPs, the only Beatles’ records my parents had. I expected Noel to point out what I was missing out on, but he didn’t. “That’s all you need to have heard, man,” he blurted. “That’s what I was brought up on – it’s all the best stuff all together.”

Of course since then Noel’s met Paul McCartney – played on a record with him, no less – yet despite also becoming pals with Paul Weller, jamming with Crazy Horse and being lauded by just about every hoary old rocker and music biz old-timer going, he still displays a startlingly practical attitude. It’s the kind of thing you just don’t associate with the cocaine breakfasts, champagne suppers and non-stop backslapping that is the cosseted, unreal world of a successful, touring band. And unlike guitarist Bonehead and Liam, he moved to London as soon as Oasis began to make waves.

“People have got this thing about me being anti-Manchester,” says Noel defensively. “But I don’t know where that one came from. I go back to Manchester a lot, it’s just that I don’t go to Dry Bar or the Haçienda or try to get into clubs on the guest list. I go and see my mom, stay at some hotel and then go back to London.”

Noel’s passion for Manchester City is also undiminished, putting his ambition to “play at Maine Road” on equal footing with “to write the perfect song and make the perfect LP”. He also jokes about his own designs on the struggling club. “I hope they get relegated to the third division and I can buy the club for 25 quid. I’ll install myself as a centre forward and I’ll also be the manager, so I can pick myself even though I’ll be shit. It’ll be great.”

Such ambitions aside, Noel says he’s content with being in Oasis but also well aware of the fickle nature of the pop world. “It’s good at the moment because everything we touch turns to gold. Like we put a gig on and it’s sold out before you can say ‘what time’s the box office open?’ But if there’s one reason why we carry on doing these things it’s because one day everything we touch is going to turn to dog shite, and we’re not going to be able to do these massive gigs, so we might as well enjoy it while it’s here. Look at bands like the Inspirals: they play G-Mex twice, thought that was it, and where are they now? It can all change very quickly. It can’t last forever.”

This no-messing honesty goes some way to explaining the success of Oasis. Upfront and uncomplicated, both the music and the message is an irony-free, take it or leave it celebration of ordinariness, of our everyday fumbling inadequacies. A line from the current single, ‘Wonderwall’, seems to sum up the band’s simplistic agenda: ‘There are many things I would like to say to you,’ croons Liam, ‘but I don’t know how.’

“It’s just simple music with simple words delivered simply so people can understand it,” says Noel. “I’m not saying it’s music for simple people or anything , but obviously people understand what we do.”

Of course the only possible thing to understand with Oasis is that life is pretty un-understandable. Noel describe’s Blur’s music, with fake Cockney Damon Albarn’s ironic references to Balzac, Prozac and the like, as “spotty student music”. “They don’t really speak to people or say anything. It’s all about people living in big houses in the country, which none of us do.”

Such a literal interpretation from the man who penned the line ‘Walking slowly down the hall, faster than a cannon ball’ (‘Champagne Supernova’) may seem a bit rich. But for better or worse, the gloves are still off in the Blur/Oasis prize fight, a fight which quite clearly draws a cultural and ideological line across Britain: are you on the side of the cynical voyeurs and chroniclers of British life, Blur, or the mad-for-it doers, Oasis, who philosophise on their feet?

The Oasis conclusion? That the riddle of life is a tough one to crack, so you may as well just make the best of it. “I’m still trying to find out what it is people are into us for,” says Noel. “But who wouldn’t want to do this, go play in front of 20,000 people, it’s just the best buzz in the world. And then on top of all that you do it in different countries, and on top of all that you do it with your best mates. It’s a dream come true. Well it is for me, anyway.”