With a book of his lyrics just published and a busy touring schedule, Happy Mondays lead singer Shaun Ryder speaks to Richard Blackledge.
Shaun Ryder is on the move – in a car en route to Heathrow for a flight to Australia where Happy Mondays, the band he fronts, are booked for a tour.
“It’s a sunny day and I’m breathing,” he says when asked how he’s feeling, sounding chipper but with a Salford accent rough as sandpaper. The dates Down Under don’t scratch the surface of Ryder’s packed diary for 2019. He is gigging with his other group, Black Grape, this year and esteemed book company Faber have just published a collection of his lyrics.
Audiences in Yorkshire, meanwhile, will have five chances to see him in the coming months – he has several dates with Black Grape and Happy Mondays lined up in the region.
“I’m probably busier now than back in the day. But it seems a lot easier now because, you know, I’m not off my t**s,” he observes, laughing. His early escapades in music were intertwined with drugs. Happy Mondays sprang from – and, in the late 1980s, massively popularised – the rave-influenced ‘Madchester’ scene that was propelled by copious quantities of Ecstasy.
As their singer and lyricist, Ryder’s wayward vocals added surreal phrases such as ‘You’re twistin’ my melon, man’ to the group’s pioneering fusion of dance and indie rock, scoring hits like Kinky Afro and Loose Fit. When the Mondays fell apart, he teamed up with rapper Kermit and resurfaced with Black Grape.Sobriety has its benefits, he says.
“Look, when we were kids, young men, it was brilliant. I enjoyed those years – 18, starting a band, went through my 20s and 30s rocking and rolling. Forties – I decided to stop rocking and rolling as much, knocking it on the head a bit, grow up. And now, in my 50s, I appreciate it more than ever. It’s almost as enjoyable as it was when I first started doing it.”
Music impresario Tony Wilson, who died in 2007, once declared Ryder’s lyrics ‘on a par with WB Yeats’ and would no doubt have been very enthused by the Faber book, called Wrote For Luck after a Mondays song. It follows similar collections of the words of Kate Bush, Jarvis Cocker and Neil Tennant and was, Ryder explains, the idea of writer Luke Bainbridge. “He said ‘Obviously you’re going to get paid’ and I said ‘Right, well that makes a big difference’. Luke chose all the songs in it.” His own lyrics, he claims, work well on the printed page. “They’re interesting, they’re schizophrenic. I’ll find a way of putting it all together and making a story. These are lines in your head that have nothing to do with each other, but as a writer you join the dots. I always want to plant visuals in people’s heads. For example, ‘You’re twistin’ my melon, man– call the cops’.”
Ryder left school by 13 and went to work on a building site. As a teenager he couldn’t have envisaged authoring a book.
“I didn’t learn the alphabet until I was 24 or 26. I was taught by a girlfriend who got me singing it. Within five minutes I’d got it.”
Black Grape are at Plug, Sheffield, tonight. Happy Mondays play Tramlines, Sheffield, July 21, O2 Academy Sheffield, November 22, O2 Academy Leeds, December 7. Wrote For Luck is published by Faber & Faber, priced £14.99.