Shaun Ryder: ‘This is the album that took us from NME to the masses’

Happy Mondays
Happy Mondays
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I keep saying I can remember the ’60s better than I remember the ’90s, and I was seven when the ’60s ended.’

So says Shaun Ryder when asked how much he recalls of the crazy decade when the bands he fronted, Happy Mondays and then Black Grape, swaggered out of Manchester, made their way to the top of the charts with their blend of rock and dance music, stuck two fingers up at everyone, and took an awful lot of drugs in the process.

But despite several fallings out and some serious health problems along the way, both bands have endured into 2015. And Happy Mondays are marking 25 years since their third album Pills’n’Thrills and Bellyaches was released – the album that catapulted them into the mainstream.

‘Twenty-five years of Pills’n’Thrills and Bellyaches,’ sighs Shaun, ‘and it’s gone pretty damn quick. It has to me anyway, it seems like I had an eight-hour kip, got up, and it’s over.’

The band were signed to the trendsetting Factory Records label, and the label’s head, Tony Wilson, was notoriously willing to indulge his rising stars in the name of artistic freedom, allowing them to go to LA and record at Capitol studios.

‘We’d been over The States a few times before – LA, New York, San Francisco, but that was our first time staying over in LA for a few months, which we thought was very rock’n’roll, we stayed in these apartments, we had our own swimming pool, we had jacuzzis and these Mexicans brought in all our furniture, our TVs and all that, set it up in five minutes.

We’re still talking about this 25 years later so we must have done something right

Shaun Ryder

‘There was lots of people there making porno movies and all these people in other bands hanging around. Looking back now it was like a glorified Butlins, but back then, we thought it was (he affects a Hollywood voiceover tone): The Big Time.’

As part of the Madchester scene that also included the likes of The Stone Roses and The Inspiral Carpets, the band had up until 1990 only achieved cult success.

‘(Second album) Bummed was the album that first got us on Top of the Pops, but it didn’t give us that our major pop album,’ says Shaun. ‘Pills ‘n’ Thrills took us from indie stars to pop stars – and that’s when it all goes crazy, which is as it should be for any young lad in a pop band.’

Featuring the hit singles Step On, Kinky Afro and Loose Fit, the album went straight in to the charts at number one on its release in November 1990 and would eventually go platinum.

The recording of the album also marked the first time Ryder paid proper attention to the production process. They’d previously worked with ex-Velvet Underground member John Cale and Factory’s studio guru Martin Hannett, but for Pills they worked with a pair of young, rising DJs and producers, Paul Oakenfold and Steve Osborne.

Shaun recalls how for the first two albums they’d gone into the studio with plenty of songs, but this album was different: ‘By the time Pills’n’Thrills came about we’d gone over to LA, and we had Kinky Afro and Twisting My Melon, Man (a line from Step On), as that was already out, and that was all we had, right.’

However, this cavalier approach paid off, giving the band their best-selling album.

And the Mondays had little truck with the indie-elitism of the previous generation – they embraced the prospect of fame, indeed, they would do whatever it took to get it, and the cash that came with it.

‘It took us from the NME to the interest of the red-top newspapers and it took it to the masses, It did exactly what we wanted it to do.

‘It was that sort of punk attitude, from these middle-class punk bands, with that (puts on pompous voice): “We’re not letting our song go on an advert for bleach, we’re not going on Top of the Pops and miming”.

‘Whereas we were like: “Get lost! You can put our record on bleach or plastic dog pooh, give me the money and you can put it on there”.

‘You want us to go on Top of the Pops to sell more records? I’ll mime out me backside, mate.

‘We wanted to make money, we didn’t just want to be: “Oh, let’s just be rebels, and poor artists struggling”. Screw that. All that comes with success and that’s what we wanted.’

The band have been notorious for their drug consumption – which peaked later in the ’90s with heroin and crack addiction, but Shaun insists they only indulged ‘in moderation’ during the Pills era: ‘When we did Bummed we were doing loads of E, we was eating it like toffee. By the time Pills came around we only popped the odd E – we smoked a lot of opium, bits and bats of all sorts.’

If you reel back the years a little further to the origins of the Mondays, then Shaun is off: ‘We started the band in 1980-81, and by 1984 the music business and the state of music had got like a never-ending 1976 episode of Top of the Pops. It was terrible.

‘And us as kids, we were growing up with The Beatles, The Stones, The Doors, The Velvet Underground who were not just making great music, but they had these wild lifestyles, that’s what we wanted – all of that - you got the NME at the time and it was talking about some bloke’s Vox amp. We’re not worried about that – I want to read about mad stories and driving cars into swimming pools.

‘I wanted to bring back rock’n’roll: I’m a young lad, I’m in a band, I want to make rock’n’roll stories, and I also want to make mad music, and if you can combine all of that, then do it.

‘And we’re still talking about it 25 years later, so we must have done something right.’

As to new music, Shaun gave a couple of new solo tracks a low-key release earlier this year, with plans to release a full album in the new year before a Black Grape album, and then ‘at the end of 2016, (former Creation Records boss) Alan McGee wants a new Mondays album so what Alan wants, Alan usually gets.’

Regarding the interband strife that tore them apart, all hatchets have long since been buried, and the band are having fun – they recently went into the jungle to record a song with an indigenous tribe for a reality TV show

As Shaun says of the arguments: ‘That’s all a long, long time ago. Even Black Grape was 20 years ago.

‘We was young boys, we’re in our 50s now and stuff that means a lot to young lads doesn’t mean the same to a 53-year-old man. You realise you’re arguing over absolutely nothing.

‘Sex and drugs go, but there’s still the rock’n’roll.’

Shaun on...

...being a TV ‘talking head’

I do about five of them a week. I did one last week for Channel4 in a golf buggy on the ’90s, and that Story of Indie for the BBC.

..Happy Mondays dancer/band mascot, Bez

Bez? Bez is Bez - he’s Bez till the day he dies, he’s very healthy he looks fantastic. I acknowledge I’m 53 and I live like I’m 53, but Bez, he’s still the same as he was when he was 21, and that’s the way he rolls and he loves it.

...old label-mates New Order

I bump into everyone from New Order – I was asked to write a nice little piece for launching the album new, those guys are great. Terry Hall and them were the first people that ever gave us gigs.

The Happy Mondays, Pills, Thrills and Bellyaches 25th Anniversary Tour is at the O2 Guildhall, Southampton on Thursday, November 5. Doors 7pm. Tickets £33. Go to