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Event Spotlight: Happy Mondays talk comeback tours

Friday 24 May 2013

Event Spotlight: Happy Mondays talk comeback tours

The prospect of interviewing Shaun Ryder, lead singer of Happy Mondays and chief hedonist of the late ‘80s/early ‘90s Madchester scene, is a daunting one. A polite note from his people instructs that he will not speak about “controversies from the past”. Anyway, should I broach an unwanted topic of discussion I will surely have in the back of my mind the story of how Ryder once pulled a gun on a journalist who upset him.

The reality is somewhat different. Now 50, Ryder has mellowed with age, is honest about his infamous antics and much more articulate on the changing nature of show business than you’d expect someone with his impressive past record for class A consumption to be.

Ryder is doing his bit to promote the reformation of the original Happy Mondays lineup, 19 years after they disbanded, and their impending tour of Australia. “We’re a lot better now,” says Ryder. “Before, when we were young, it was all about the partying. It was all about the fame, the girls, going to different countries, groupies. The last thing we ever really bothered about was the music.” That may be so, but despite cementing his place in rock folklore for such episodes as walking out of a multi-million dollar contract negotiation with EMI to get KFC (band code for scoring heroin), Ryder is also responsible for some of the most inventive pop music of the time – songs like the ravey Step On (“You’re twistin’ my melon, man”) and the baggy groove of ‘Loose Fit’.

The Mondays have reformed twice before and Ryder has always been frank about the reasons: to pay back vast debts to either the taxman or his former managers. But now he is finally clear of those financial burdens, I ask why he wants to do it all again. Money? Boredom? Unfinished business? “A bit of all of that really. And we got asked whether we’d do it. We’ve never stopped playing gigs in one shape or form – me, Gaz and Bez have always took the Mondays on and when we got asked to do the full lineup it was brill because these are the lads that wrote the stuff – they wrote their own parts.”

Ryder, drummer Gaz (Gary Whelan) and percussionist and ‘freaky dancer’ Bez (Mark Berry) are joined once again by guitarist Mark Day and even Shaun’s younger brother, bassist Paul, who vowed never to have anything more to do with the band after they split for the second time in 2000 – the siblings only began talking to each other again a couple of years ago. (There will actually be one original member missing – although he rejoined for gigs last year, keyboardist Paul Davis, who Ryder recently described as “still fucking raving barmy”, will not be heading Down Under.) The band has been back together touring for a year already and I wonder if it is a struggle to keep the peace. “It’s a totally different world,” says Shaun. “We’re all now in our 40s and 50s – there’s a totally different attitude. All those petty things that people had going are just gone.”

Shaun has spent time in Australia before, under the watchful eyes of 10 million or so British television viewers. In 2010, he was runner-up on I’m A Celebrity... Get Me Out Of Here!, a popular reality show where a dozen celebrities spend time in a bush camp somewhere on the Queensland/New South Wales border and complete challenges to win votes from viewers. Ryder transformed his public perception in a matter of days. To non-Mondays fans he was no longer the druggy who said the F-word on teatime TV in 1997; he became that good-natured bloke who ate a crocodile’s cock. “You don’t really know the perception people have of you when you’re in there. The editors can make someone who’s absolutely fantastic look like a twat and someone who’s a total twat look fantastic.”

In admitting he was aware that the primetime show would take him to a new audience, Ryder reveals a shrewd understanding of the fame game but also a reluctance to play it. “I got asked to do [UK Celebrity] Big Brother a few years before but I turned that down – there was never a reason to do it. This time round I had things to plug. The record company wanted me to go in [the I’m A Celebrity... jungle], the management wanted me to go in, my wife wanted me to go in. I didn’t want to go in there. There’s still an amount of snobbery attached to those sorts of shows but I’m glad I did it.”

As he sees it, Ryder was just moving with the times. He has always maintained that his image, although based on a version of himself, was cultivated. Punters wanted their rock stars to be wild and excessive, so that is what the Happy Mondays became. Now, punters want to know the real person. “You don’t just sing in a band now. If you’re a kid that’s coming along now more than ever you’ve got to do TV ... It is sad that you can’t just be a rock‘n’roll band and put an image out, because to get proper success you have to let people in now.” Ryder uses 24 Hour Party People, a semi-fictional 2002 film about the Mondays’ label Factory Records to explain the chasm between the reality of his alcohol and drug use during the band’s heyday and the part-myth he purposely preserved: “If they wanted an in-depth Shaun Ryder that guy in the movie couldn’t have got out of bed and put his pants on ... That portrayal was a caricature. That’s the Shaun Ryder from the Melody Maker and the NME and drunken stunts on TV pop shows.

“When I started in this game you were rock‘n’roll, Johnny Cash Man In Black or whatever. You had that, that’s it. The game changes – it used to be rock‘n’roll, now it’s showbiz.”

- David Wild