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Tuesday 12 November 2019

Oh, happy day: Shaun Ryder's redemption

Happy Mondays singer Shaun Ryder tells our reporter about family life, his childhood, his 20 years of abusing heroin and how quitting drugs at 40 left him with post-traumatic stress

Happy Mondays frontman Shaun Ryder
Happy Mondays frontman Shaun Ryder
Barry Egan

Barry Egan

A music business soiree in London, June, 1988: whereupon a chivalrous libertine Shaun Ryder intervenes to stop a well-known industry figure carrying through on his promise to beat me to a pulp after a review in New Musical Express presumably not to his liking.

Coming to the rescue, the legendary frontman of Happy Mondays and a female friend of his whisked me off elsewhere in London for the night. I remember being awoken from my slumber on the couch in a house in Brixton at 7am by the sound of Shaun having breakfast in the kitchen.

It wasn't fancy fresh fruit and organic muesli. The hedonistic anti-hero of his generation was snorting "cheap" amphetamine with the gusto of an aardvark hoovering up termites in sub-Saharan Africa. (The surreality of it all was heightened by the fact that Shaun's face looked like it was painted by Francis Bacon.)

Unsurprisingly, when I spoke to Shaun Ryder last week, almost 30 years on from that night, he "can't remember" his act of chivalry. Shaun Ryder - for whom heroin and crack and every other drug in between were his pick-me-up of choice for many a decade of chemical oblivion - doesn't remember lots of other things, too...

He doesn't remember that when he was recording Happy Mondays' second album Bummed in an army town in 1988 that he and the band sold the soldiers tabs of Ecstasy to calm them down and stop them beating up the group.

Nor does he recall he and his bandmate in Happy Mondays, Bez, being shot at by a Puerto Rican street gang as they left a New York crack den in 1990.

Born on August 23, 1962, in Salford, Greater Manchester, to a postman and a nurse, Shaun William Ryder says he was "anaesthetised by heroin. It anaesthetises you to everything. Drugs shut you down, cut you off emotionally.

"You think being off your head makes life easier, but it's a lot easier when you're not," he says.

He can remember, however, wrestling with Oliver Reed in the mid-1990s in West Cork when Shaun was married to Donovan's daughter Oriole Leitch, and living in Mallow. "F***king hell. That was a long time ago," says Shaun who has a daughter Coco Sian (now an artist) by Oriole.

(Oriole and Shaun's time together appeared to be a mostly unhappy time for her. In a 2004 interview with the Manchester Evening News titled 'Unhappy Mondays', she said Shaun "didn't make the actual birth [of Coco]. His friend had just got out of jail and they'd celebrated the night before. I had to carry Shaun and my bag down the stairs".

Oriole met Shaun after Donovan supported Happy Mondays in the early 1990s and when her sister Astrella was living with Shaun's brother, Paul. "Shaun wasn't very well at the time and I have a tendency to care for stray animals," she recalled in 2004. "I became a caretaker, more than anything else. When I met him, I didn't really know what I was letting myself in for. My parents were very protective of me. We lived in the middle of nowhere, in the desert, or in Ireland.")

"I left Cork in 1997, but I had a great time," Shaun says. "I had Oliver Reed as a neighbour. He was always in the pub and despite his age, he always wanted to wrestle everyone. I thought the people in Cork were lovely. Granted, I spent my time there on a bender!"

You effectively spent 20 years on a heroin bender, I say to him.

"Probably. I did drugs since my teenage years. I eventually stopped everything when I was 40. It left me with a sort of post-traumatic stress. I didn't know who I was. I didn't know myself. I had to find out about myself all over again.

"I knocked it on the head at 40. It took me a couple of years to get myself together. Life is great now. I'm with the missus now for 12, 13 years," Shaun says referring to Joanne, with whom he has two young kids, Pearl and Lulu. In March, 2010, he and Joanne tied the knot at the Court House in Worsley, Salford, after their daughter Lulu's christening at St Charles Catholic Church in nearby Swinton.

The Ryder family were supposed to be at the Ariana Grande show on May 22 at Manchester Arena - the night of the terrorist bombing. "We had tickets," says Shaun. "We'd done [Ariana Grande support act] Little Mix there a couple of months before and my girls were hoping to meet her. But it was a sunny night, we'd been to the ice cream shop and they didn't mention it." So fatefully, the Ryders didn't go.

Shaun, who had Naltrexone stomach implants in 1995 to make him vomit if he took drugs, lives in Salford as a rebooted family man. "I don't drink at home. I don't go to the pub or clubs," says 55-year-old Shaun who has six children by four different women.

In an interview with i-D magazine this year, Shaun was asked the conventional question of what he was like as a 12-year-old. "I was f**king horrible. I wasn't particularly good at anything. But the things that I found myself being good at were getting into trouble, stealing, burglary."

He left school at 15 without the ability to say the alphabet. His lyrics in Happy Mondays, and his other band Black Grape, won him widespread critical acclaim. He was dubbed the Bard of Salford, Britain's unofficial Poet Laureate.

"He's an interesting person with a good soul," said Damon Albarn (who had Shaun collaborate with him on the Gorillaz track Dare in 2005). "I understand his subterranean side."

"There's a piece in The Independent recently about LS Lowry, talking about why he was never taken seriously," Happy Mondays member Gary Whelan told Uncut magazine a few years ago. "It was because he always used to talk himself down, say 'I'm not a f***kin' artist, I'm just doing a bit of a doodle'. It's our insecure, north Mancunian, blue collar rules; you don't admit to it, because if you do, it's over."

Shaun's biggest champion was Anthony Wilson, who signed Happy Mondays to Factory Records in 1985. "I loved Tony," says Shaun. "The first time I met Tony, I threw a plastic pint pot of beer at him at a Buzzcocks concert in Manchester because I wanted to get his attention. I didn't think I could just go over and say hello."

Fellow Salfordian Wilson - who died of cancer in 2007 - once compared Shaun's mean streets poetry to that of William Butler Yeats. Shaun admits that he "hadn't a clue who Yeats was when Tony said that. I do now. I'd never read a book when I was young. All I was interested in as a young lad was drinking and f***ing girls, clothes and music. I took acid in my late teens. I got into music.

"Ecstasy made me friendly, chatty. With cocaine, you are up your own arse. With Ecstasy, you could talk to football hooligans who were all on it too."

He says Happy Mondays - the band, along with The Stone Roses that came to personify Ecstasy culture - nearly didn't happen because of Ecstasy. James Anderton, the former chief constable of Greater Manchester Police, "was giving out mad sentences for possession of Ecstasy in the 1980s", Shaun says.

"Eight years for possession of two Es! A police officer took me to a post office that had been robbed because I fitted the description of the robber. They said it wasn't me and I had a chance to throw away the eight Es I had on me at the time. I could have got a mad jail sentence and that would have been it for Happy Mondays," he says.

How does he feel going onstage 'straight' with his once infamously debauched band Happy Mondays? "I still have a gin and tonic or a whiskey before I go onstage," he says. "The sex and drugs have gone with the Mondays. It's now really about the music. We play better, we sound better and we get on better now, because we are middle-aged men now!" he laughs.

One of Shaun's more memorable lyrics was found on the 1990 hit Kinky Afro: 'Son, I'm 30/ I only went with your mother 'cause she's dirty.'

"I was 28 when I wrote that. I wasn't even a dad," he says. "It's a long time ago."

Is it true that when his teeth fell out because of his over-use of crack, a Happy Mondays fan who had become a dentist replaced them all for free?

"That's a long time ago, too," says Shaun (his pal Mani of the Stone Roses described the first time he saw Shaun with the new teeth as looking like "the mysterious seventh Osmond brother"). "I don't remember," says Shaun with a laugh.

His short-term memory is apparently just as bad as his long-term memory. Before a Happy Mondays show in Newcastle many crazy moons ago, Shaun went out to refresh himself. When he returned to the venue, suitably refreshed, Shaun found that the band were already onstage. Rushing on, he found that it was in fact Simply Red who were playing; Happy Mondays were appearing down the road.

Does he have regrets? "Not many. Spending over 12 years in receivership is one regret. I went to court and I lost the case [with his former management team, William and Gloria Nicholl]. I refused to pay the 130 grand. That turned into millions, because 100pc of my income was taken off me for 12 years. I should have just paid the f***ers!" says Shaun, who was on I'm A Celebrity... Get Me Out Of Here! in 2010.

The recording of the band's 1992 album Yes Please! was so notorious that it has long since passed into legend. "The guy who had the car hire place in Barbados, he had 16 cars, and we left him with no cars - we crashed them all," Shaun says.

"We wanted to record the album in the Bee Gees' studio in Miami," says Shaun now. "Our record company wanted us to record it in Eddy Grant's studio in Barbados because there was no heroin in the Barbados."

There might not have been heroin in Barbados in the early 1990s but there was ultra-cheap crack cocaine which Shaun found in abundance. Legend has it that when the money ran out, Shaun sold the studio furniture to buy more drugs. (This thievery fits in with the apocryphal tale, put about by Shaun himself, that Happy Mondays' first instruments were "stolen from schools".)

Was heroin ever part of the creativity of Happy Mondays? "Not at all. I'd never say that," he says.

"People still come up to me and say, 'Do you feel lucky that you're still alive?' So begins Shaun's 2011 autobiography, Twisting My Melon. It is a question that many people have wondered themselves about the ne'er-do-well scrote/flawed genius who formed Happy Mondays in 1980 with his younger brother Paul and a bunch of pals from Manchester.

Before hitting the drugs on the head, Shaun looked like the walking dead in a hipster tracksuit and hip hop runners. The frontman of the mad, bad and dangerous-to-know band of the E Generation was in a very bad way.

His mentor Tony Wilson said of Shaun's sobering physical state: "I always claimed, when did you last see such an awful white pallor and that viscous, white liquid on top of the skin? And the answer is: Elvis Presley, the last two years. But I've learned never to underestimate Shaun."

Or his self-control - now 15 years off the drug that nearly killed him. He has a somewhat unique sense of humour (in 2009, when he appeared on ITV ghost-hunting show Most Haunted, and a terrifying scream could be heard, a decidedly un-terrified Ryder told TV viewers thus: "That sounds like my next-door neighbour being shagged on a Friday night.")

Shaun Ryder is perhaps not your ordinary pop star. He saw his first UFO in 1978. "There's a whole world going on that we don't know about," says Shaun, whose 1987 debut album with Happy Mondays had a title that sounded like it came from the brain of a man abducted by aliens: Squirrel and G-Man Twenty Four Hour Party People Plastic Face Carnt Smile (White Out.)

"I wouldn't want to be 20 again," he says, smiling through blindingly white teeth. "I'm happier now."

Happy Mondays headline Bulmers Live at Leopardstown on August 17.

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