A few months ago, Shaun Ryder was pressganged into showing his face at an afterparty for Damon Albarn’s cartoon hip-hop collective Gorillaz, with whom he'd just performed on stage.
‘I had to go to a nightclub,’ he protests. (Actually, he protested slightly more forcefully than that, as his wont, but everything that follows is the safe for work version.) ‘I mean, I hate nightclubs. I used to live there, but now I can’t stand 'em.’
Can this really be the Shaun Ryder we know and love? The roughneck rascal who, as lead singer of the Happy Mondays, became an unlikely poster boy for ‘Madchester’ – that heady blend of chemically-assisted dance beats and indie guitars that emerged from the North West to become the soundtrack to late 80s and early 90s Britain? The same Shaun Ryder whose later descent into chaotic, drug-fuelled hedonism became the stuff of rock and roll legend?
It can. Because, while he’s talking to Weekend to promote the Mondays’ upcoming greatest hits tour – titled Twenty Four Hour Party People in honour of the 30th anniversary of the band’s debut album – these days, it’s fair to say Shaun Ryder is not much of a 24-hour party person. At all. ‘I can manage about an hour, if I have to,’ he laughs. ‘I mean, I enjoyed all that when I was young, I’ve not really got any complaints… Except I can’t really remember the 90s.’
Since reforming the Mondays for the third time – as well as restarting his side project Black Grape for a new album, released last month – Ryder has been enjoying the novelty of doing the pop star thing clean and sober.
‘It’s great,’ he enthuses. ‘If I’d known how easy it was, I’d never have got off my face in the first place.’ Or, as the title of Black Grape’s 1995 debut album put it (somewhat prematurely, as it turned out): It’s great when you’re straight, yeah.
At 54, Ryder isn’t in the best of health: his thyroid has ‘completely disappeared’ and he needs regular injections of testosterone and a thyroid replacement drug. Ironically, none of it is related to his years of excess. ‘My kidneys and liver and all that are great, because I was never much of a boozer,’ he explains. ‘This is hereditary. But now I’ve got my medication levels right, I feel great. And I’ve given up meat – I’m a pescatarian now.’
There were no such things as pescatarians 50 years ago – and if there were, they didn’t live in Salford, where Ryder was born into a working class Irish Catholic family in 1962. As a kid, he was a habitual thief who would ‘rob anything’. What made him do it? ‘Because I liked it,’ he shrugs. ‘I wasn’t good at anything. I didn’t do sports, didn’t do school. But I was good at robbing and acting Charlie Big Potatoes, you know? And that got you the birds.’
He formed the Happy Mondays with his brother Paul in 1980, and managed to capture the attention of Manchester music Svengali and Factory Records boss Tony Wilson by throwing a full pint of beer at him. ‘That’s why I understand kids who do stupid things to get attention,’ he reflects. ‘As a daft kid, I couldn’t go over and talk to him, so I threw a pint pot at him. It was plastic, though,’ he stresses.
Wilson’s club The Hacienda was the epicenter of the northern rave and acid house scene that gave rise to Madchester. The Mondays – now complemented by Mark ‘Bez’ Berry, their resident ‘freaky dancer’ and vibes man – mixed guitars with grooves on groundbreaking hits like Step On, Kinky Afro and Loose Fit, while Ryder’s surrealist lyrics (the full title of that first album was Squirrel and G-Man Twenty Four Hour Party People Plastic Face Carnt Smile (White Out)) led Wilson, with typical understatement, to compare him to WB Yeats. ‘It’s great he thought so highly of me,’ says Ryder, who left school without knowing the alphabet, and didn’t learn to properly read and write until he was 27. ‘Of course, I didn’t know who Yeats was.’
The band already had a reputation as lords of misrule (on one memorable occasion, they tried to kidnap Johnny Marr) when, in 1991, they flew to Barbados to record their fourth album – and quickly succumbed to the island’s crack cocaine epidemic. While Bez broke his arm overturning a hire car, and Ryder looted furniture from Eddy Grant’s studio to trade for drugs, there was little progress in making any actual music. (And that’s only the version we know: ‘The truth is far worse than even the stories,’ says Ryder.)
At the end of the sessions, Ryder held the master tapes of the album to ransom, forcing Tony Wilson to pay up for recordings that, as it turned out, didn’t feature any vocals at all. In Michael Winterbottom’s film 24 Hour Party People, Ryder (Danny Cunningham) is seen enacting this trade with Wilson (Steve Coogan) by bringing a shooter to a bar – though Ryder disputes that version of events.
‘Winterbottom’s film, right, I like it. It’s a cartoon, comic strip version of what went on. Some of it’s over-exaggerated, some under-exaggerated. There’s elements that are real. But if I was as big a ****head as I’m portrayed in that film, I’d still be in my pyjamas, ’cos I wouldn’t have worked out how to get dressed.’
The resulting album, Yes Please!, was a ruinously expensive flop that split the band and bankrupted Factory. Ryder emerged from the wreckage surprisingly unscathed to find new success with the hip-hop-flavoured Black Grape – though that too soon faltered, while costly litigation with his management left him millions in the red, and in receivership for the next 12 years.
He recalls turning 40 as a low ebb. ‘I was in receivership, 100% of my income was taken off me, and I was living in a terraced place at the back of Bez’s house in Hadfield [the Peak District village that doubled for Royston Vasey in The League of Gentlemen, trivia fans]. ‘When I hit 40, I thought: you’ve got to straighten up. You’re a proper adult now. So I made a conscious decision to stop living how I’d lived as a kid.’
That meant coming off the drugs, which he managed through ‘perseverance – and a lot of cycling. I’d get on my bike early in the morning and get off it late at night. I’d done rehabs before and they hadn’t worked for me. But I’d only ever done it half-heartedly. So I did it myself, on a bike.’
By his own admission, his ‘missus’, Joanne, also ‘put the boot in’. ‘I’d be dead without her,’ he says. ‘She brought me back to life. I didn’t know who I was. I’d forgotten who Shaun Ryder was. You become the caricature. You get off all the drugs, and it’s almost like… It’s almost like post-traumatic stress. I was just a normal kid, and the next thing I’m 40, and it’s all hazy. You’ve blocked everything out, all the feelings. You’ve had people who’ve died in your family and everything else, and you just didn’t feel anything. And suddenly, you straighten up and… boom.’
He married Joanne in 2010, and they now live back in Salford with their daughters Pearl, nine, and Lulu, eight. He has four other kids from two previous marriages, but says this is ‘the first time I’ve been involved in the lot. I’m trying my best and get it right this time. It’s all about the kids these days – Frozen, Hannah Montana, Peppa Pig, the lot.’ (He even had tickets to take the girls to Ariana Grande’s Manchester Arena show on the night of the terrorist attack – but they ‘totally forgot to go, because it was such a nice night, and they just played out’.)
What’s his relationship with his older kids like? ‘Well, you know,’ he says. ‘We’re working on it.’
In 2010, Ryder finished runner-up to Stacey Solomon on ITV’s I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out of Here! Whereas previous appearances on TFI Friday had forced Channel 4 to include a line in its Compliance Manual promising not to let him appear on live TV, this proved a game-changer that helped reinvent his image, and even led to a gig presenting his own show about UFOs – a lifelong pet passion – on The History Channel.
‘I didn’t want to do the jungle,’ he admits. ‘But the record company wanted me to do it, the wife and kids wanted me to do it, and I was the right age. I’m glad they persuaded me, because for the first time, instead of being Shaun Ryder, the mad rock and roller caricature, people saw the real me.’
So, 30 years. Looking back on the scorched landscape of those turbulent decades, does he have any regrets?
‘Not loads and loads’, he says. ‘I’d have done a few things differently. I should have paid them [his ex-management] their 150 grand instead of avoiding it, which turned into a hell of a lot of money, and 12 years of pure madness. So I do have a few regrets. It’s probably a good job I can’t remember half of it, really.’
Published in Waitrose Weekend, August 17, 2017
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