Show Hide image

“I look like Uncle Fester”: the second life of Shaun Ryder

His success with the Happy Mondays dissolved into debt, drug addiction and a 12-year battle with lawyers. Then all his hair fell out. But Salford’s great survivor got away with it.

You can’t help but wonder what it says about someone’s psyche when they tell a stranger, within seconds of meeting them, that they currently have no pubes. A month ago Shaun Ryder had his regular testosterone injections for his underactive thyroid, and for some reason all his hair fell out: head, eyebrows, chest and nethers. Ryder isn’t happy with his appearance – a subdued moment in front of the photographer’s canvas attests to that – but he is taking it on the chin. It may, after all, be temporary: his follicles are still there, he just needs injections in his head to make the hair come back.

He was sitting in the bar of the Marriott Hotel, Worsley, for a long time before I knew who he was. Making anxious circles round the venue as the sky began to darken, I saw only a Russian mafia boss in the corner, whiskey in hand, arms elevated by the pressure of a thick leather jacket. When finally the man got up and made his way towards me it was clear that doing so was painful: at 56, Ryder has a new hip in the pipeline “but right now it’s bone on bone”. The vape in his left hand helps with the discomfort – it contains cannabidiol, the cannabis extract – “and you can drive on it.” He looks like Uncle Fester, he points out, to the New Statesman photographer. Or a big toad. Or Nostrils the Vampire. “Getting old is shit.”

For several years Ryder’s father, Derek, was in his band, the Happy Mondays. At first, he was their manager, in the days when they hung around Phil Sachs’s stall in the Arndale Centre waiting for a record contract. Derek had never been out of the country until the Mondays went on tour: when they took off, he drove them to gigs, roadied, engineered the sound, everything. This still seems unusual. But not to Ryder. “You had to give your dad a job,” he blinks, with nothing to add. He was born in 1962 in Little Hulton, a difficult part of Salford. His was a Labour family; the Sun wasn’t allowed in the house. His grandfather worked on the Manchester printing machines, on the Mirror and the Guardian. But while he appreciates Jeremy Corbyn’s “fuckoffishness”, Ryder, an epic battle with the taxmen behind him, sheds light on rock stars who vote Tory. In 2012 he was enlisted as a special adviser on social class by David Cameron, after Pastygate, the unpopular decision by George Osborne to raise VAT on hot snacks. However, as he becomes gripped by one of the plosive little speeches that punctuate our interview – eyes locked with mine, cheeks pinked – it becomes clear that in defending Tory musicians, Ryder is not speaking for Phil Collins.

“I know a lot of people in the music business who came from working-class backgrounds and they vote Tory,” he says. “The only reason is that they grew up with people they fucking despise. It’s tough growing up with that – they’ll rob you, they’ll give you over, they’ll batter you. If you’re not strong enough, they’ll take your car. So they grow up hating these people, and they vote Tory. The only reason I’d have to vote Tory is for the money, ’cause tax is fucking terrible.”

Ryder knows Andy Burnham and thinks he’s done good things as mayor of Greater Manchester. Two years before Burnham took up his post, Ryder’s life-long compadre and freaky-dancin’ Happy Mondays mascot, Bez, ran for MP of Salford and Eccles, with his Reality Party campaign (“free energy, free food and free anything”). Ryder mentions this in the same breath as the time Paul Massey, “the kid who was assassinated”, ran for mayor of Salford in 2012. Massey, who was 55 when he died, was the king of the criminal underworld. “For years Salford’s gangsters have been among Europe’s most committed organised criminals,” the Manchester Evening News wrote after the murder. You get the sense that in Ryder’s Manchester fiefdom, as far as he is concerned, politicians, pop stars and fearsome hard nuts all have a shot at a piece of the pie.


Lewis Khan for New Statesman

For someone whose teeth fell out long ago from crack use, and who claims to remember more of the 1960s than he does of the 1990s, Ryder does not exhibit the blasted synapses that often suggest years of pop star self-abuse: the inability to listen, to really answer a question. He works hard, meeting my words with little metallic interjections – a straight-faced, rising grunt of satisfaction if you find something he’s said particularly funny. His previous interview overran when he found out the young journalist’s mother had died a week earlier: “It is amazing what humans can put up with,” he says, of the boy’s ability to turn up and talk to him. If he doesn’t want to answer something – about his relationships with his three eldest children, for instance, who live with their mothers in various parts of the world – there’s no getting him to: the metallic grunt just hangs in the air on its own. He paints a picture of how his apparently hapless band manipulated the press.

“I grew up reading headlines about the Rolling Stones and the Doors and Janis Joplin,” he says, “all that 1960s shit. And then you get to a stage where that stopped, and rock ‘n’ roll became business, like a never-ending Brotherhood of Man song on a 1976 episode of Top of the Pops. Then it started again with punk – and then it went dead again. We wanted that. There were some miles-better bands than us. We were conscious that we weren’t the best or the smartest, but we certainly knew how to work the press. Melody Maker or NME would come down and they’d be writing a piece about this big [he makes a couple of column inches with his fingers]. But slap a line out on the pool table and roll a joint, and you got a double-page spread.”

He made no money off the Happy Mondays’s first two albums, he claims – he continued to deal ecstasy for years. Around the time of Pills ’n’ Thrills and Bellyaches (1990), which included their big hit “Step On”, a cover of a 1971 hit by the South African singer John Kongos, the cash started coming in. He was ambitious: “I wanted to go from indie to pop to keep up with Duran Duran and U2 and the other shit,” he says, which is hard to believe. The Happy Mondays were set against the Stone Roses as the twin sources of Madchester music: Ryder would nod to Ian Brown in the UK’s first drive-through McDonald’s in Fallowfield. But with their samples and funk and comedic words, they sounded little like them.

Hits came, as did the press, but so did the slow sacrifice of the human body as the caricature took hold. In 1995 (Ryder counts from his birth year, to work out how old he was: “1962 to 72, 72 to 82, 82 to 92 – I was 33”) he had Naltrexone implants – opiate blockers – inserted into his stomach to get him off heroin. The operation was preceded by standard cold-turkey, some of it sedated, which for him was particularly bad – “five or six of them holding me down”. Like his previous attempts at rehab, it didn’t work “because I didn’t want it to”. I ask him if he couldn’t quit the drugs because his public image required them, and he repeats, almost word for word, the story about the Happy Mondays’ relationship with the press, apparently unaware that he told it to me 15 minutes earlier. This time, the line of coke on the pool table results not just in “a double-page spread” but “colour photos and tales of whacky-whacky goings on”. Perhaps the synapses are not as intact as they seemed.

No wonder the band imploded. As legend goes, the Happy Mondays were on the cusp of signing a deal with EMI, after the demise of Factory Records, when Ryder went out for a KFC and never came back. Bez was never an addict, Ryder says: he is more of a human dustbin. Bez now lives in Wales but they talk all the time. “He is still in me life, still in me life,” says Ryder. (Both men have used reality TV to pay their tax bills.)

Despite the fact that he’s fallen out with so many people – including his father and brother, for many years – he and his freaky dancer have never, he claims, had a mad, kicking-off argument. Here is his description of how their relationship works: “We are like a married couple that don’t have sex. He is like a bad dog, Bez. We lived together in a flat and if you didn’t get up before him, he would get up and he would take your clothes. And when he did come back with them, there would be fucking joint burns all over them.

“And he would eat all the food. And because we was on giros, we got them at different times. We would get mine first and we lived off that one. Then when that was finished, and you’re hustling about doing other things, the next one in was his. But he would go and get his giro and just fuck off. Then come back two days later with nothing. But because he’s Bez, and a piss-taking bastard, he’s like that dog that chews up your best Gucci slippers. The dog has hammered it, and whether you shout at it or punch it or what, two hours later the dog doesn’t know what it’s done. It’s just a dog being a dog. Bez is a dog being a dog.”

For a time, Ryder lived in Ireland, like many other tax exiles, though he had another excuse: “Me father-in-law at the time was Donovan, and he lived there,” he says. When he split up with Donovan’s daughter Oriole, mother of his daughter Coco, he joined Bez in the Derbyshire town of Hadfield, best known as the location for the filming of The League of Gentlemen.

Before his Royston Vasey years, in the mid 1990s, things had gone very right for Shaun Ryder, for a time. Those of a certain age will remember, in the year that gave rise to Oasis’s “Some Might Say” and Blur’s “Country House”, a different kind of band appearing on Top of the Pops: a shuffling, chaotic consort of rappers (“Kermit” Leveridge and “Psycho” McCarthy), ocinara players (“Dirtycash” Dillon), guitars and beats – plus a potato-headed Ryder and lumbering Bez.

Black Grape songs, for no particular reason, all seemed to be about the church (“Reverend Black Grape”, “In the Name of the Father”) or car-crash celebrities (“Kelly’s Heroes”) and drug crazes (“Tramazi Parti”). Ryder created the band to draw a line under the Happy Mondays and – while he did end up firing all the other members, eventually – it was his musical second wind, with all the cross-pollination of his former band: the funk so at odds with the rest of Britpop, the rapping, and song titles, such as “Kinky Afro”, that would not happen now.



24 Hour Party People: Ryder and Bez of the Happy Mondays in Paris in the early 1990s. Dalle/retna/photoshot 

Ryder grew up with 11 cousins. His musical youth, filtered through younger and older kids, encompassed Parliament and Frank Zappa, Showaddywaddy and David Bowie. He did not consider himself tribal: “You’re just you, aren’t you?” He always wanted rap in the Mondays, “but white guys didn’t rap. It just didn’t happen. Ten years later and it was different. In the 1990s you were allowed to. That’s gone now.”

He can’t decide between Chuck D, Scarface, 2Pac and Eminem as the world’s best rapper. He moans about Lord Jamar’s dissing of the former Marshall Mathers: “The guys that have got it – your 50 Cents – really talk sense. That c*** [Jamar] just don’t like white people,” he alleges.

Today, his Amazon shuffle veers between Scarface and Andy Williams, “because I’m 56”. He also loves Jessie Reyez, a Colombian-Canadian singer “like Amy Winehouse, but not”. He gets disproportionately heated when talking about brand promotion in rap: “Gucci Gucci Gucci, where’s the fucking writing? You’d think the kids would have something to say with all the shit going on in the world. All they’re interested in is the dough.”

Ryder’s inclination towards rap was a natural result of the way words came to him. When he started out aged 24, signed to Factory with no discernible skills, he tried to force himself to write bleeding-heart love songs: “I even wrote something about fucking Vietnam.” When that failed he returned to his freestyling roots, remembering the words he wrote as the class clown, as a child, riffing on the teachers, “or down the chip shop, rhyming the food on the board”.

“When I started to write like I did when I was a kid, everything came out,” he says. “I write black comic strip stories. I only want to send images to people. I am the walrus, that kind of thing.” On the table between us is the reason Ryder is doing interviews, a nicely packaged volume of his lyrics, called Wrote for Luck. It’s the first time he’s seen a finished copy and he turns it over in his hand, rather impressed: some of the words look better written down than sung, he suggests. Tony Wilson of Factory once compared Ryder to WB Yeats – but Tony said a lot of things, “and I was like a dog that wanted its belly scratched. Throw them on me Tony, I’ll take em.”

So Ryder is now, officially, a Faber poet, just as TS Eliot was. A left-hander, at school he was forced to write with his right and his handwriting ended up in circles. He quit at 13: “mad learning difficulties” – whatever it was he had, it was never diagnosed. “I was writing in text speak long before there was mobile phones.”

He put his two youngest children into a local Catholic primary state school a few years ago. His wife Joanne got involved with fundraising and they even went to church to secure the children a place. Now they’re in prep school, and shortly they’ll be off to a private Catholic secondary – “because I don’t want to put them in a fucking crowd control jungle”.

He has known Joanne since she was 17, but back then, when his band was beginning, “she was having none of it”. Around the age of 40, he says, “she sort of wheeled me in”. He came off the heroin for good in 2002, cycling for hours a day. But the pestilence was not yet over for Shaun Ryder. And at the point at which he seemed to be able to settle into his family role, he became entangled in a legal wrangling that took up – you picture him counting it off in his head – a quarter of his life.

The exact details of the stand-off, which lasted from 1998 to 2010, will probably never be known. But the way Ryder tells it he executed a feat of acrobatics, balancing for 12 years on a very fine line between refusing to earn any money – because any money he did earn would go to receivers – and refusing to go bankrupt, because then they’d come for his publishing rights. “They” – he paints a picture of them hammering at his door, demanding to know how he still had electricity to light the house – were an older husband-and-wife management team, William and Gloria Nicholl: “Real bastards, these are. Real arseholes.”

In 1993, the Nicholls had drawn up a contract binding Ryder to them and setting out details of the commission they’d make from his releases with Black Grape. Ryder did not bother to read those details because they “did his nut in”. When he later realised how much money he’d lose in commission, he sacked the pair – and they sued him for £160,000. For years, every penny of his £30,000 a year Daily Sport column, ghosted by John Warburton, went to the receivers, along with anything else he made. There were tax lawyers to pay, too, and “a shit-load of child maintenance, and every time they write you a letter there is interest on the letter! Madness, it really is!” Going into the jungle – by which he means his 2010 stint on I’m A Celebrity… Get Me Out Of Here! came at just the right time, and when he got out there was a £130,000 book deal.

As for William and Gloria Nicholl, he is pleased to say that no one will touch them now. For a time, Gloria worked as House of Commons assistant for Ann Widdecombe and then – honest to God, he claims, eyes bulging, brief suck on the vape – she ended up at Tescos, on the conveyors.

****

A few years ago, Ryder described himself as an entertainer rather than a musician. His life will always be measured in scrapes, and as he gets further from the real-life misdemeanours the stories will only get more inflated, less tethered to place and time. In truth, the worst thing about coming off heroin was that having spent his entire adult life cocooned in a chemical bubble he was, at 40, hit by the full onslaught of his feelings.

“It’s a bit like being kicked in the bollocks and battered with a truncheon in the kidneys,” he says helpfully. “Family members dying, carrying the coffins – nothing can get to you when you’re on heroin. Then suddenly you feel it all.”

He made peace with his father, who died at Christmas from “one of those Stephen Hawking diseases”. He says mother is only just learning to hug, and shows me how stiff she goes when you try, arms at her sides. “You just did not do that,” he says. “Tell someone you loved them? What?”

He had a double whiskey before our interview, the only assistance he has before he goes on stage these days. Afterwards, though he only lives five minutes away, he hangs around for another, stepping into the hotel courtyard to vape and talking on his mobile phone, looking once again like the Russian mafia boss, calling to check that the job has been done. 

“Wrote For Luck” is published by Faber & Faber

Kate Mossman is the New Statesman's features editor. 

This article appears in the 18 April 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Spring special