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Happy Mondays - Interview with Shaun Ryder

  by Richard Lewis

published: 6 / 8 / 2019

Happy Mondays - Interview with Shaun Ryder


With festival dates over the Summer and a Winter Tour due in December, Richard Lewis talks to Happy Mondays frontman Shaun Ryder about the group’s formative early years and future plans.

Set to hit the road later this year with an October to December tour that is fast becoming a must-see annual tradition, Salford iconoclasts Happy Mondays show no sign of slowing down. Fully settled in their third incarnation with almost their full complement of original members, the outfit’s live commitments recently included a score of dates in Australia. With a slew of festival shows due over the Summer, the band are keeping up an impressive itinerary as they head into their next decade. With the thirty fifth anniversary of their first appearance on vinyl approaching, the Mondays’ inspired early material is well overdue re-investigating. Pulling together the threads that made them into a cult sensation and a genuine pop success not long after, the sextet’s embryonic tracks filed away on B-sides and EPs tends to be neglected. Possessing a shared fascination with Parliament/Funkadelic, Can and 60's pop and soul music, their initial output sounds even more unique at several decades' remove. Driven by Paul Ryder’s superlative Northern Soul inspired bass rushes, Mark Day’s brilliantly off-beam guitar work, Gaz Whelan’s hip-hop influenced beats and Paul Davis’ abstract keyboard patterns, lead singer Shaun Ryder’s instantly recognisible vocals were the idiosyncratic focus of their sound. His lyrics veering between surreal stream of conscious and caustic observational wit, the group staked out their own territory from the start. With such a rich seam of work going neglected is there any chance the Mondays’ early material will appear as part of a box set? “Oh God yeah, they’ve got some idea about putting that out” Shaun replies on the phone from his base near Manchester. “I’ve said yeah, they can do it. They are bringing some sort of really, really old shit out. There’s stuff due because I’ve just agreed to do the interviews and press for it.” “It’s me learning to write, basically, ” Shaun says of the group’s early manoeuveres in 1985-7. “We really got on vinyl too early as well,” the singer says modestly. “Because of who we knew and because we got (first manager) Phil Saxe who was great friends with (New Order manager) Rob Gretton and all that lot, including (future M-People mainman) Mike Pickering before we knew it we were making records. I’d only just started writing. I’m learning as I’m making fucking records! Like I say, I got the job writing because I was the best of the bunch. So, all that early stuff, your mistakes are on record, all that stuff’s there. It’s like having everyone look at your homework! It’s learning isn’t it?” he reasons. “At first with songwriting I’m thinking you have to sort of write songs that say ‘I love you’ and ‘You do this’ and all that lot. And it was like, ‘Hang on a minute, I can write about fucking anything.’ You know what I mean? So, it was all work in progress”. The Mondays’ debut release, the ‘Forty-Five’ EP released in September 1985, was produced by the aforementioned Pickering. A real curio in the band’s catalogue, opening track ‘Delightful’, was reportedly sped up from its initial version into a Smiths-esque jangle pop track. Shaun’s vocals meanwhile indicate the influence of one of the Mondays’ biggest early influences, Joy Division. Perfectly palatable and a cut above the indie pop of the time, it gives little indication of what was to follow. An interesting comparison is the version of ‘Oasis’ on the EP, named after the famed Manchester trainer emporium that appears in a re-recorded take for the band’s 1987 debut LP ‘Squirrel & G-Man’. Given the geography and Mondays’ fondness for Joy Division/New Order, the connection leads through to the band’s next release, woozy 1986 debut single, double A-side ‘Freaky Dancin’’ b/w ‘The Egg’, which was produced by Bernard Sumner. While the former is well known as a spot-on description of the terpsichorean talents of Mondays’ dancer Bez, the latter is a hugely underrated gem. Powered by Paul Ryder’s foundation bassline and Mark Day’s eerie slide guitar work, the track is one of the most atmospheric in the band’s catalogue, its title derived from the band’s motor at the time. “It was a car of our kid’s and a bright yellow Mark II fucking Ford Escort,” Shaun recalls. “We had no ignition in it. It was just the wires and it ran on fucking water. I don't know how we got about because we never put petrol in it! It went though, you know what I mean? It fucking went anywhere. How we never got nicked right, like six of us, crammed in that, all smoking bongs, skinning up driving at twenty miles an hour because we’re all laughing our bollocks off. We just never got pulled! This was before we’d even started really doing any shows, this”. Other early Mondays’ songs include ‘Boom’, the rarely heard B-side to the epochal ‘Wrote For Luck’ and ‘Wah Wah (Think Tank)’. The former stands out for its vaguely menacing lyrics that seem to involve dodging a cab fare. “A lot of them I had working titles for and they got changed and so I don’t even fucking remember them until I either hear them or read it and then I’ll call it by the working title,” Shaun explains (viz. ‘Country Song’ had the original moniker of ‘Some Cunt From Preston’) “Wah Wah’ was named after the guitar pedal obviously (1989 cut ‘Rave On’ refers to ‘Needing a Mesa Boogie’, referring to Paul’s bass amp). A lot of that stuff that was going on, the sort of shit that was happening was around, I can’t fucking remember, I really can’t,” Shaun says, the band’s much reported on chemical pursuits clouding events in the late 1980s. Other tracks that have surfaced on YouTube that were never formerly released include excellent, fully formed demo ‘On Your Own' and the curiously titled ‘You And I Indiffer’, (“God, I dunno about that one, fuck me!” Shaun remarks). Elsewhere, from the 12” of ’24 Hour Party People’, ‘Yahoo’ which recounts the tale of a character called Anxious Bill points the way forwards to the band’s next LP, genre-melding indie rock/Acid House hybrid ‘Bummed’ (1988). With people’s names a common feature amongst the band’s song titles, ‘Enery’, ‘Olive Oil’, ‘Little Matchstick Owen’, ‘Donovan’, ‘Cowboy Dave’, ‘Russell’ from ‘Squirrel and G-Man’ has one of the best backstories. Is it true that the words were inspired by a Russell Grant astrology book? “Oh yeah, yeah”, Shaun replies, reciting the lyrics, “Hold onto your hats/This is the book/That you've been waiting for/One Hand tells you everything/You need to know/To help you understand/Oh the one you love/But yourself too’. It’s the full blurb off the back of Russell Grant’s ‘Your Star Signs’. I see Russell now quite a bit, I worked with him on a TV show not long ago (ITVs Celebrity Detox-style prog ‘10 Years Younger in 21 Days’ last year). I told him and I said ‘You’re not coming after me for royalties, are you? I didn’t even buy the book and all, I robbed it from WH Smiths”. Did you tell him that bit of the story? “Yeah, heh heh!” Incredibly, despite forming part of the title to groundbreaking debut LP, 1987's John Cale produced ‘Squirrel and G-Man Twenty Four Hour Party People Plastic Face Carnt Smile (White Out)’. ‘24 Hour Party People’ wasn’t included on the original pressing. One of the band’s most beloved tracks, that effectively sums up their ethos, the original version of the alum featured a seldom-heard track titled ‘Desmond’. Huge Beatles’ fans the song made reference to ‘Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da’, much like how later single ‘Lazyitis’ featured a melody line from ‘Ticket to Ride’. With Michael Jackson having recently acquired the rights to the Beatles’ Northern Songs catalogue, ‘Desmond’ fell foul of nervous record company lawyers, a situation that revived following the landmark legal case against the makers of 2013 mega hit ‘Blurred Lines’. “That went to the Beatles, their publishing,” Shaun recalls. “It’s not even a music sample or anything. It’s just a vocal lick, words sung in a similar tune to that. I think it was at the time sampling was a free for all, you know like in the rap game at first? It was around the time that sampling was getting sorted out. Whoever was looking after us ended up giving away all sorts of shit”. The publication of ‘Wrote For Luck: Selected Lyrics’ earlier this year set in print definitive versions of the words to Mondays’ songs, showcasing their inspired wordplay. The volume goes some way to clarifying some of their most off the wall lines such as ‘Moving In With’: "He's got two bent pigs in the crack downstairs below /Stewing at the door I said, 'Why you so slow?'/Got a schizophrenic acquaintance patient no place to go/Stuck with his dick to my window." In transpires the verse details two impatient coppers who came round to score drugs from the group along with “a couple of people from out of the local looney bin” Shaun explains. A highly valuable if unconventional promotion opportunity arose around the release of ‘Bummed’ in 1988. Aided by Factory Records co-founder Tony Wilson’s day job as a news reader on Granada TV, the band found themselves subject of ITV Schools programme, ‘Information Technology’. Helmed at The Slaughterhouse, Driffield in Yorkshire, the show features ultra-rare footage of fabled Joy Division, New Order, Magazine producer Martin Hannett behind the recording console. With full access to the recordings and affable motormouth/passionate Mondays’ Wilson as guide, the documentary doubles up as making of documentary. “That was funny as hell that, making a fucking kid’s programme, that was Tony’s idea” Shaun states. The group’s recollections of their time in the studio are, it’s fair to say, hazy. With the extracurricular activity that was going on (the band prevented Hannett’s growing alcoholism by ensuring everyone in the studio was dosed up on Ecstasy), the schools programme was understandably far from VH1s sex n’ drugs n’ rehab ‘Behind the Music’ strand. “Oh God, yeah, there would’ve been all sorts filmed there!” Shaun replies. “My pal Tom Bruggen (Too Nice Tom) filmed the end of the Mondays and then the whole of everthing that happened in Black Grape and he’s got fucking loads and loads of stuff. And one of the things it’s all on different formats but I mean he’s fucking got all sorts. We’ll put together another ‘Grape Tapes’ one day”, referring to the band’s chaotic 1995-6 tour diary. On the subject of sampling being a something that was widely adopted in 1987-88, the Mondays were one of the first groups to have their songs remixed by third party producers. Following in the wake ‘Wrote For Luck’ in 1988, by Erasure’s Vince Clark and the then little-known DJ Paul Oakenfold, it became near-ubiquitous for indie bands to have redux versions of their by DJs. “Originally I wanted Oakenfold to be the name on the tune, his version of 'Wrote For Luck,'” Shaun explains. “Vince is brilliant but at the time he had fucking ten records in the Top 10. It was all vintage production/ I mean he’s brilliant. Because he wasn’t a name Oakenfold, he was a DJ only a few people in London knew who he was. I’m trying to convince Tony Wilson to produce an album (1990 magnum opus ‘Pills N’ Thrills and Bellyaches’) and he just wasn’t having it. He started off on the B-side then the DJs started turning it over and playing the Oakenfold record, so by the time the album was due to come out he’d got the job.” “We started working in different ways. The tunes in the early days really did come from the basslines,” Shaun says of songwriting in the group. “I would write to basslines and then Mark would put guitar to it and Gaz would do drumbeats to it. The thing about making ‘Pills N’ Thrills’, it’s good making these indie records y’know but you’re not gonna fucking be able to make a living. You’ve got to have a big pop album and that’s what ‘Pills N’ Thrills’ is about. When we made it Oakenfold turned up with a load of beats and basically he had a beat for all those tunes. In fact we probably only went in with three not completed songs to make that album. Oakenfold had all these beats and he’d lay them down one after another. We’d put guitar to it, put bass to it whatever and that’s how it was done. We worked really quickly.” The flipside to the hedonism of ‘Pills N’ Thrills’, 1992 LP ‘Yes Please!’ found the band and particularly Shaun contemplating the end of the party. Tracked in Barbados by Talking Heads/Tom Tom Club members Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth, the band and the producers found it difficult to gel. “I mean I write to the music and I just couldn’t get anything there, so I just ended up getting off my tits,” Shaun explains, with the singer and brother Paul developing addictions to crack cocaine that was in abundant supply on the island. “And when I came back I went in the studio and wrote the lyrics. I was basically touching writer’s block. That’s when it started then, so I did the best that I could.” Out of the to put it mildly trying circumstances, the resultant album was far from the disaster some later considered it. Featuring Ryder’s best lyrics, the LP’s ruefully regretful lead single ‘Stinkin’ Thinkin’’ ("Kiss me for screwing everything in site/Kiss me for never getting it right") showcased a different side to the singer. “'Stinkin’ Thinkin’ basically came from the fucking psychiatrist when I was in rehab in Chelsea,” Shaun remembers. “They brought an American guy in who was doing all the American spiel, and it was ‘Stinking Thinkin’, "Why not think positive?" and all that sort of thing. I was just taking anything from anywhere in order to get lyrics.”. Looking to the future, given how well the group’s tours have gone in recent years, is there any chance of new material? “I mean (band manager) Alan McGee didn’t want an album, then he did want one. Then the promoters were like ‘We don’t want a new album. We’re happy with these tours where you doing this greatest hits set so it doesn’t really make any sense.’ I mean it’s on and off. You never say never. We can still fucking write. I think we’re better than ever at the moment. I always used to think once you’d hit forty you were finished. When I was in my twenties, I’d look at guys who were in brilliant bands and brilliant musicians and then as they got later in life I’d think, ‘Nah, they’re losing it’, so I’m glad I proved myself wrong with the Black Grape album” (2017’s excellent return ‘Pop Voodoo’). With their gigs showcasing the band in rude health, venturing into the recording studio remains a possibility. “With the Mondays you’ve got like fucking five different heads all saying this and doing things so it’s difficult to get things together,” Shaun says of the band’s democratic decision making. “But yeah, I’m never going to say no about doing another Mondays album.” Tickets for the Happy Mondays Greatest Hits tour are on sale now, available from https://www.alttickets.com/happy-mondays-tickets”

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Happy Mondays - Interview with Shaun Ryder

Happy Mondays - Interview with Shaun Ryder

Happy Mondays - Interview with Shaun Ryder

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Interview with Shaun Ryder (2015)
Happy Mondays - Interview with Shaun Ryder
Richard Lewis chats to Happy Mondays’ lead singer/lyricist Shaun Ryder about the making of the band’s groundbreaking 1990 album ‘Pills 'n' Thrills and Bellyaches’ which the band are set to play in its entirety on tour this winter

live reviews

Mountford Hall, University of Liverpool, Liverpool, 6/12/2019
Happy Mondays - Mountford Hall, University of Liverpool, Liverpool, 6/12/2019
Richard Lewis enjoys a set of classic hits and more obscure early tracks from the Happy Mondays at the Liverpool date on what might be their last full-scale tour for a while.
Roundhouse, London, 16/11/2017
Olympia, Liverpool, 1/12/2017
O2 Academy, Liverpool, 13/11/20115


Photoscapes (2024)
Happy Mondays - Photoscapes
Andrew Twambley takes photos of Happy Mondays at a homecoming gig at the 02 Victoria Warehouse in Manchester.

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