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Tuesday 6 December 2016

Music... Easy Ryder: made in Madchester

Published 07/06/2015 | 02:30

Mad for it: Shaun Ryder will be touring Happy Mondays album Pills 'n' Thrills and Bellyaches later this year
Mad for it: Shaun Ryder will be touring Happy Mondays album Pills 'n' Thrills and Bellyaches later this year

It doesn't take much to set Shaun Ryder off on a big, wheezy laugh, but mention the irony of the title of Black Grape's first album and you might have trouble getting him to focus on the rest of the interview. "It's Great When You're Straight," he chuckles. "I was straight for about five minutes back then." And lest there be any confusion, the 'straight' has nothing to do with sexual orientation and everything to do with being off drugs.

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"I don't do any of that stuff now," the Happy Mondays and Black Grape founder says. "I couldn't be drugging in my 50s - I see people my own age now doing that kind of stuff and I think it's sad."

But anti-drugs campaigners keen to get Ryder on board might have to look elsewhere. "There's no question but it had a positive impact on the music," he says. He recorded some fantastically exciting tunes under the influence of a myriad illicit substances and the titles of the second and third Happy Mondays albums do little to suggest otherwise (Bummed and Pills 'n' Thrills and Bellyaches.)

"I listened to Bummed a while back for the first time in 25 years and it was so much better than I remembered it. At the time of release, I thought it was only okay, there were lots of things I was unhappy with, but I'm really proud of it now."

But it's the album that provoked his laughter earlier that's occupying his mind at present - It's Great When You're Straight...Yeah, to give it it's full, grammatically correct title. Ryder and Black Grape co-founder Paul 'Kermit' Leveridge are taking the album on the road at present and are calling to Dublin's Academy on June 19.

"It's going to be good to experience touring the album and playing that music, because that period of my life [1994/95] was such a blur. I don't remember much about making it but I do remember the music press predicting it would be a car crash because they saw me as a washed-up smack-head. I was very happy when it topped the chart and I could stick two fingers up to everyone who had written me off."

The album was critically acclaimed too - one of a host of strong British records, including Radiohead's The Bends, Tricky's Maxinquaye and Pulp's Different Class, that helped make 1995 a vintage year in music.

Ryder was in his early 30s when that album came out and, by his own admission, his subsequent work has struggled to enjoy such an impact. It's been eight years since the last Happy Mondays album (the so-so Uncle Dysfunktional), and a dozen since his one and only solo outing (the forgettable Amateur Night in the Big Top). He is promising a new solo (but with lots of help) album next year and says the bulk of it is complete.

Touring Black Grape's first album will help bring the cash in and he'll be busy on the nostalgia circuit later in the year when, in Happy Mondays-mode, he will be touring Pills 'n' Thrills and Bellyaches. The Mondays are set to play Dublin's Vicar Street on December 10. While it's easy to sneer at musicians like Ryder ransacking their back catalogue in order to make a living, such album tours do shed light on work that continues to stand the test of time.

Of all of Ryder's achievements, it's that druggy Mondays album from 1990 that stands tallest and remains an emblematic album from the so-called Madchester movement. Ryder bristles at that M-word and he's not happy being called a Mancunian either. "I'm a proud Salfordian, mate," he says of the city in the borough of Greater Manchester. "Salford has its own identity - people from outside of here don't seem to realise that."

Despite this distinction, the Happy Mondays will forever be thrown in with a Manchester scene that was, for several years towards the end of the 1980s, the nerve-centre of the music universe. Besides Ryder's crew, there was The Stone Roses and New Order and a host of lesser bands like Inspiral Carpets.

"I never felt any rivalry with other bands," he says. "I was just proud of the fact that we were all from the same part of the world, just like I'd been proud when The Smiths put the place on the map a few years before."

Ryder is at a loss when asked to explain what it was about Manchester in the 1980s that led to such an explosion of exciting music. "Who knows, mate? It was the same for Merseyside in the 1960s. Maybe it was to do with people seeing one local band doing well and that inspiring them to do better themselves."

He has no doubt that the city's fabled club, The Hacienda, had a huge role to play in the growth of Manchester's dance-oriented bands. "It opened when I was 20 and I was in there all the time. It felt like the future, in a strange way. It made people think about music differently and I supposed its early years coincided with some very creative-minded people."

The era is captured entertainingly in the Michael Winterbottom film 24 Hour Party People, which took its name from a Happy Mondays song. Revolving around impresario Tony Wilson, the film featured many of the key figures of the time, including Shaun Ryder, with actor Danny Cunningham capturing his foibles well.

"I lived for it back then, but I missed out on a lot - like the childhoods of my oldest children. I'm around my youngest children a lot more now."

One of his older kids, daughter Coco, has spoken publicly about the difficulties of having a father struggling with fame and a dependence on heroin.

While Ryder's place in the British music canon is assured, there is a cohort of people who only know him as the runner-up in the 2010 series of I'm A Celebrity... Get Me Out of Here!

"If you'd asked me to do it years ago, I would have gone, 'Are you kidding? I'm in a band. This isn't what bands do.' But the music industry has changed so much so I had people say to me, 'You should do it - get your name out there again.'

"Do I regret it? Nah, it was a great laugh."

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