Wrote For Luck: The Rise And Fall Of Happy Mondays

Shaun Ryder reflects...

Shaun Ryder has always had a habit of getting right to the matter, of putting his finger on exactly what needed to be said. “I don’t read, I just guess,” he once sang, but in truth the Happy Mondays frontman has grown to absorb the limits of his experiences, matching gleeful nostalgia to unvarnished truth.

“We was just a band of fuckin’ misfits, really!” he bellows down the phone to Clash.

We’ve been put in touch to discuss a new batch of re-issues, with the Happy Mondays’ imperial run coming to vinyl once more. It’s a heady batch – from the nascent triumph of ‘Squirrel and G-Man’ to the seminal ‘Bummed’, and the commercial breakthrough that was ‘Pills ‘N’ Thrills and Bellyaches’. Tantalisingly, it closes with ‘Yes Please!’ – the record that broke both band and label, helping to usher down the curtain on Happy Mondays and influential Manchester stable Factory Records.

“You know what?” he exclaims, his voice rattling down the telephone. “When I first got asked about these being re-released, I wasn’t too bothered about it. We went on vinyl way too early… basically, because of who we knew, not what we knew. We got hooked up pretty quick, so we made our mistakes on vinyl. Listening back to it is a bit strange – you think, well, we could have done better there!”

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That said, when Happy Mondays found a dysfunctional sense of focus, they helped to define an era, something Shaun Ryder still marvels at. “I hadn’t listened to ‘Bummed’ since we came out of the studio in ‘88. When I listened to it, I thought: you know what lad? It’s alright. Pat yourself on the back, there’s some decent stuff there.”

Not that looking back comes easy to the frontman, for more reasons than a simple adverse to nostalgia. “I was still sort of compos mentes in the 80s,” he insists. “By the time of 1990, the early 90s… the 90s are a blur, y’know? I can remember the 1960s better than the 1990s, and I was seven or eight when they ended!” ‘Squirrel and G-Man…’ was recorded with John Cale at the mixing desk, and it became one of the band’s first recording experiences.

“When we did that, they stuck us in London with 70 quid – which was fuck all then – and lasted us about 10 minutes. They put us in a shared house with a load of builders and electricians, stuck all us lot in one room – all six of us – so that was pretty fucking mad, yeah. But good memories! And then John Cale who produced the first album, just basically hit ‘play’ and ‘record’. On ‘Squirrel and G-Man’ that’s pretty much how we sounded as a live band then. He didn’t do much to it. He just recorded us how we sounded at the time.”

A record that Happy Mondays used as a learning experience, the follow up took them into the path of Martin Hannett, the producer who oversaw Joy Division’s majestic catalogue. “Hannett was great!” the singer exclaims, his laughter running down the telephone line. “He was as fuckin’ mad as we was. He was a very talented fella, but liked to get off his face. So yeah, it was pretty whacky!”

Indeed, so eager were the band to keep Martin Hannett from drinking alcohol that they accepted him into their ecstasy clan – the results mean that ‘Bummed’ is a record practically bathed in E, this nascent sound of Chicago and Detroit bumping into Manchester’s post-punk lineage.

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“Music was really clanny when I was growing up – you were either a punk or a Mod or a rocker or a soul boy or whatever, it was all really clanny. But with us lot, we liked everything and we weren’t afraid to say it. We liked Bowie and Northern Soul and Showaddywaddy and Led Zeppelin – it didn’t really matter, we just liked everything and we stole from everything. We didn’t want a sound… every time we sounded like somebody else we’d scrap it. We just fused a lot of shit together, took the best out of that. And what we going on in our heads was pretty different to what we coming out on record. We’d only just started getting used to going into studios. We just took from everything.”

Sonic thieves, Happy Mondays’ magpie charm arguably reached its zenith across an 18 month period, as one decade bled into another. The ‘Rave On’ EP took them on to Top Of The Pops, while the Paul Oakenfold steered ‘Pills ‘N’ Thrills and Bellyaches’ fully ruptured the mainstream, and spun UK underground culture on its axis.

“That was really about making a pop album,” he insists. “It’s all very well making indie albums and having indie sales… it sounds great, making indie albums, but at the end of the day if you don’t want a job in fucking McDonalds to scrape money together you’ve got to sell some albums. We’re all big fans of pop music, and all those great bands – whether it’s The Kinks or The Beatles or The Stones – they all at the end of the day made pop music. We wanted to change the charts a bit, and be up there with Duran Duran, and try to do something a bit different.”

Looking back, it’s difficult to encapsulate just how much of a risk the album was – Paul Oakenfold was a respected underground DJ, not a Top 40 producer, while Happy Mondays were music press fodder, not MTV darlings.

“At the time, Paul Oakenfold wasn’t the name he is today – if you went to Ibiza or went clubbing in London you knew who he was, but the majority of people didn’t. Tony Wilson didn’t know who he was, and our manager didn’t know who he was. When we told them he was a DJ, and we had an album to make, it was like: woah! They didn’t trust a DJ with an album for Factory. If we’d been on a major it wouldn’t have happened, but Factory let it happen. And it worked really well. We changed pop music for a bit.”

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It was this laissez fare attitude from Factory that let Happy Mondays grow into their own wayward yet inspirational form. Shaun agrees: “Factory with all its artists just really left them alone. It was great. Like I say, if we’d have been on a major, they just wouldn’t have had it.”

This freedom came with a price, however, and this price was ‘Yes Please’. Recorded in Barbados during some famously debauched sessions, Shaun Ryder audibly grimaces at the memory, and insists he was using chemicals to block up the unhappiness he was feeling at the band’s path. “I wasn’t unhappy with what was going on in life,” he argues, “I was unhappy with what we was doing in the studio.” 

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With Paul Oakenfold’s profile sky-rocketing – he also worked on U2’s ‘Achtung Baby’ before breaking America under his own steam – the band were forced to find an alternative, plumbing for ex-Talking Heads couple Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth.

“Now, Chris and Tina are amazing musicians and producers but they wasn’t right for us. They went back to the old way of working – not the way we were with Oakenfold – and they really tickled the balls of the rest of the musicians in the band, and made them feel like proper musicians. And I just wasn’t pleased with what was going on, it wasn’t turning me on, and I can’t write to anything if the drum and bass isn’t turning me on. So, I didn’t!”

Famously, when ‘Yes Please’ was initially presented to Factory it had little to no lyrical matter from Shaun Ryder. “When I came back, it was like a job – I had to write lyrics, and since it was like a job it wasn’t the best work I could do… I went at it like a job. And I’ve never been happy with that album.”

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Happy Mondays’ final album for some 15 years, ‘Yes Please’ disrupted the way Shaun Ryder created, working from music he felt passionate about to draw together phrases from his life, from those around him.

“Well, my job as a songwriter it to write songs. And writing songs is writing stories. I write short, comic strip stories,” he insists. “I’ll take a bit that happens in my life, I’ll take a bit that comes from the news, or what someone in the band says, or something that we’ve been up to. It’s pretty much what I still do today. I’m still grabbing from the same old shit, which is everywhere.”

Taking time to dispel old myths, Shaun Ryder admits that one fan story is true: Happy Mondays really did try to recruit Johnny Marr, who would have swapped the teetotal Morrissey for the debauched Factory corps. “The thing was, at the time we asked Johnny, we didn’t really know what a producer did, really. It was like, we’ll get Johnny because we liked the way he played guitar in The Smiths! And he knew that it was completely wrong for us, and we didn’t do it.”

It’s an era of triumphs and regrets, but Shaun Ryder insists that – even at the time – everyone on the ground in Manchester knew something special was happening.

“We knew it was something different going on because basically when ecstasy hit there’d been nothing like that since 1968. And us lot were all in short pants in 1968, so we didn’t get the first Summer Of Love, so the second one where it was replaced with ecstasy instead of LSD… it was groundbreaking. It was something different going on.”

“The only thing that you could compare it to, from when we were around, was when punk exploded. I was at school then – about 14, 15 – but this was definitely… the drug ecstasy did help change everybody’s views and outlook on what they were doing in music. I won’t say everybody’s but certainly the people I was around, it changed a lot of things, a lot of what they listened to.”

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Not that there was a political element to any of this. “I’d never voted,” he insists. “I didn’t vote until I was nearly 50 years old. I didn’t get involved in anything, we was in our own little fucking world, getting stoned and just doing what fucking young lads do, really, just not giving a fuck!”

It all came with a cost, however. Looking back, Shaun Ryder explains those years of excess – from touring to partying to studio life – took their toll.

“It’s like you’re on the treadmill,” he says. “The way I look at things is that as soon as I’ve finished the album it’s gone, I’m on to the next thing, writing that and trying to do something else. When you’re on that treadmill, it’s like no wonder you go fuckin’ nuts because from 1986 from 1988 alls we did was go: album, finish it, tour for two years, make another album, tour that for two years… eventually, you’ve got a fucking load of work there and you’re off your fucking face because you’ve not had five minutes!”

He still drives himself hard, though. There’s a new Black Grape album incoming, while Shaun Ryder also has a solo album ready and raring to go. It taps into the same rock ‘n’ roll ethos that fuelled the Happy Mondays – after all, theirs was a rock identity emblazoned in the mythos of the rave explosion.

“When we was young kids, we started a rock ‘n’ roll band because we wanted rock ‘n’ roll again,” he recalls. “Certainly to me, by the mid 80s it had gotten boring again. We’d had punk but then it got boring. It was like, if someone got caught smoking a joint they’d be sacked from the record label.”

“Go look at some shit week from Top Of The Pops in 1986 – it had all turned to that again. At the time we’d grown up with the Stones and The Doors and The Velvet Underground, so we wanted rock ‘n’ roll back. As 18 year old kids, we sort of did it… in our little world.”

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New vinyl editions of 'Squirrel and G-Man', 'Bummed', 'Pills 'N' Thrills and Bellyaches' and 'Yes Please' are out now.

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