As Hunter S Thompson once gloriously wrote: ‘When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.’
The Happy Mondays seem to have lived their career by this perfect quote and their current touring machine embraces it with a very pro take on those fantastically weird times when the unlikely lads came out of Salford and changed British pop culture for ever.
The band kicked-off the late-eighties culture shift by marrying the dance floor to the guitar and embraced an open-ended, no rules musical vision that could somehow shoehorn Can and Chaka Khan into the same song.
They are lining up a Greatest Hits tour packed with songs that it is fair to say soundtracked the wilder excesses of the times and offers a portal into just how glorious and life-affirming great pop music can be.
They lived fast and they lived hard and their frontline of Shaun and Bez became folk heroes for Generation E. Bez – the deceptively gonzoid dancing bear whose face freeze-framed just what is was like to be high in every rave in the UK, and Shaun, the singer with his poetic leering genius capturing the times in shards and snippets of dark poetry and black comedy snapshots.
Now 56, Shaun Ryder has not only lived to tell the tale but is doing it better than ever.
‘We will still be alive. We will still be breathing. It will be a good show, better than ever really. The sex and drugs have gone and now it’s just the rock ’n’ roll. We are better than ever live and when I listen to the old records – like when we took Bummed out and I listened to the album for the first time since 1988 – I said to myself: “Pat yourself on the back, lad.”’
After their first two albums, the next move even caught out their ever-generous label boss Tony Wilson, as Shaun went for the dance floor.
‘People don’t know this – and to squash any rumours – when I first went to Tony and Nathan McGough and said I wanted to work with Paul Oakenfeld they said “Who’s he?” Don’t forget, Oakenfeld wasn’t what he is now. He had never ever made an album before, just that Jibaro single which only sold about 10 copies. The only people that knew who he was were trendies in London, a few heads in Ibiza and people who read London DJ magazines. I loved that Jibaro single and also loved the way he would mix the indie guitar of The Woodentops into beats when he was DJing. I thought: this is it.
‘A mate of mine gave Oaky a grand for his record collection in Ibiza and Oaky thought, “Great! I don’t have to lug it home”. We played all of his collection in the studio and it changed things. Nathan and Tony said, “He’s a DJ, he can’t do an album!” But they never said no to any wacky ideas we came up with.’
The resulting Madchester Rave On EP merged indie and dance into a perfect whole.
The Mondays’ subsequent third album Pills and Thrills and Bellyaches further explored this brilliant new amalgamation. That glory period was punctuated with proper hits and it all felt so effortless. The Mondays were the perfect band of the moment as rave culture permeated the UK.
The music was a perfect mix of inspired genius and perfect steals. The Mondays always instinctively understood pop music.
‘When we first started, the band A Certain Ratio worked across the way and I would go across and write with them and say “what you need is a big pop hit so you can carry on with what you are doing”. And we would come up with something and then I would be out of the room for 15 minutes. I would come back and they had put all the weird stuff on it, which was too much for a pop song. Somehow, with the Mondays, we were always working in pop, from the Motown bass lines onwards.’
This brilliant zigzag career is perfectly underlined by their live shows.
‘Between me and you, the Mondays onstage now are better than ever. We are adults now and everyone can see the truth. We worked out how to be a band. We all get to the gig differently and show each other respect… and it doesn’t hurt that the songs are brilliant!
‘I’m not an artist and I don’t say I come alive on stage. When I walk on stage I feel naked and I feel like I’m dying. I’m not a proper artist. I come alive when I come off stage and I’m with normal people and I can be Shaun. I don’t have to be off my nut any more. I’m happy with who I am. I know from doing TV that I can just go and act, play the part.’
Are you a disciplined person? ‘I can be. When it goes off is when I get bored. I have a short attention span and if I get bored the trouble starts. But I’m an old man now and I read the papers now. I’ve got a solid foundation at home with Joanne and my little kids and I like getting back to that.
‘I don’t go to the pub any more. People expect me to do that, especially if I’m somewhere that Bez was the week before – birds full of cocaine turn up because they think I’m like Bez! He still lives the life on his hippie commune. He likes to do what he does. He’s older but he still likes it out there.’
Somehow, in all that beautiful madness, there they are: Shaun and Bez – the folk heroes whose very existence reminds a generation of a time when everything was possible.
The Happy Mondays Greatest Hits Tour is at The Pyramids, Southsea, on Saturday, November 9. Doors 7.30pm. Tickets £37. Go to pyramids-live.co.uk.