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.”

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.