Dark nights of debauchery led Black Grape to all new funk glory

Black Grape  PA/Steve PykeBlack Grape  PA/Steve Pyke
Black Grape PA/Steve Pyke
would have been easy to write Shaun Ryder off after Happy Mondays split in the early-Nineties - but some '˜growing up' and then a stint in the celebrity jungle transformed everything. As Black Grape's hit debut album is re-released, the frontman tells ANDY WELCH why he believes people really can change

Remember when Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas was released in 2004, and when the central character got entangled with Maccer?

He was a Salford-born musician lost in the fictionalised California desert, not sure of his band’s whereabouts but planning a comeback in the not too distant future - if only he could kick his gargantuan, destructive drug habit.

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Maccer was voiced by Shaun Ryder, himself a Salford-born musician at various times adrift, thanks to his infamous chemical abuse.

San Andreas finishes before Maccer’s story could unfold any further, but if events followed those of his real-life counterpart, he’d go on to get clean, be involved in decade-long legal battles with former management, and eventually become something of an unorthodox national treasure thanks to reality TV.

Ryder’s now 54, although the way he lived from his late-teens for almost 20 years - immersed in heroin addiction, a rumoured 30-rock-a-day crack cocaine habit - it’s surprising he’s made it this far.

Today, he’s looking trim, and brandishing big pearly white teeth he says he paid £25,000 for in 2010 after his stint on I’m A Celebrity... Get Me Out Of Here! He finished second, behind Stacey Solomon, but appearing on the popular series also gave him the chance to show the world there’s more to him than the foul drug addict he’d once been depicted as.

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“Once I hit 40, I started to change,” he says. “Until then I was still about 15 in my head. I grew up, basically. It comes to us all. And also I got comfortable with myself. I wasn’t comfortable with myself for so many years; I wasn’t as a kid, and that’s where drugs come in, that’s why so many people start taking them.”

Now, Ryder has replaced the vices - aside from his beloved Guinness - with work.

He currently has three projects ticking over. By this time next year, he wants to have released his second solo album, plus a new album by his reformed Happy Mondays. There’ll also be a third Black Grape album, hopefully released in spring.

“We’ve just finished that one and I’m over the moon. It’s sounding brilliant. We did it in Spain, in Youth’s studio there,” he says, referring to the former Killing Joke member-turned-producer. “It’s far superior to the last Black Grape album. I’m not just saying that. Two old codgers like us in our 50s, it’s surprising. It’s blown the other two out of the water.”

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In fairness, he and fellow Black Grape member Paul “Kermit” Leveridge wouldn’t have to go too far to top the band’s second album, 1997’s widely panned - but aptly-named - Stupid Stupid Stupid.

Black Grape’s debut, It’s Great When You’re Straight... Yeah, is another story.

It’s been re-released to mark its 21st anniversary, and was a big surprise back in 1995, when the world thought Ryder was done and dusted after Happy Mondays imploded during the disastrous recording of Yes Please!, their fifth and final album.

But instead, and against the advice of those around him, he recruited Kermit from Manchester’s Ruthless Rap Assassins and a band of musicians, and set about recording an album of indie-dance anthems that still sounds like no one else.

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The band are just about to head out on a UK tour celebrating the record and its hit singles: Reverend Black Grape, In The Name Of The Father and Kelly’s Heroes.

Returning to the record, which spent a week at the top of the album chart upon release in 1995, has made Ryder appreciate how good it is all over again.

“It’s really enjoyable, and it’s still fresh and new,” he says. “We’ve got to rehearse, so we’ll stick with the first album, and in any case, it goes down so well. It’s so much better than first time around, it really is.

“We’re older and wiser, and we haven’t got drug habits hanging round our necks,” he says. “That’s the main thing. I can fit it all in. I wish I could’ve realised how easy it could be 20-odd years ago.”

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He says, despite being so busy with various projects, he has much more time to enjoy himself these days.

“When we started, I had just come out of the Mondays, and we’d done album after album, tour, tour, tour, then with Black Grape we got straight into it. It was like being on a hamster wheel. I was just writing and touring, with no time to enjoy it. It would’ve been easier without the drug habit, but that’s the benefit of being young isn’t it, not knowing any better.

“Do I regret anything? One or two things I regret, but not much. On the whole, I wouldn’t swap a lot of those times for where I am. And we’ve arrived here.”

One thing many believed would stop Black Grape reforming was that Ryder and Kermit had fallen out so bitterly. But they managed to mend the rift, and now get on better than ever.

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“There was so much bullsh*t, that’s why we fell out,” says Ryder. “He hadn’t tasted success before, it was the first time for everything with him, Top Of The Pops, having a successful album, all of that, all the first time.

“You learn by your mistakes, and I think he listened to a lot of the wrong people. Trying to get someone to listen to the right people is really hard work sometimes. But after a few meetings a couple of years ago, we got it all sorted.

“I used to believe no one changed, but the older I’ve got, I now know that people do change. Myself included. I was so strong in that belief, but I was wrong.”

With I’m A Celebrity... currently back on screens, Ryder says he likes to tune in when he can, but doesn’t think he’ll see much of this series as he’ll be on the road. He readily admits appearing on the reality show was responsible for resurrecting his career, though, and boosting sales of a Happy Mondays greatest hits released around the same time.

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“I really enjoy the TV stuff I’ve done. I love it. When I got offered Celebrity Big Brother, I turned it down and gave it to Bez because I was being a purist, I thought I was an artist and artists don’t do that sort of thing. But it brings in loads of new people and that’s why it’s a good idea,” says Ryder.

“I was being a snob before going in the jungle as well, I’m an artist, I kept saying. My record label, my missus and kids all wanted me to go in, so I did, and it was great, and it couldn’t have worked better. Best thing I’ve ever done.”

The reissued version of It’s Great When You’re Straight... Yeah by Black Grape is out now. For UK tour dates, visit www.blackgrapeofficial.com.

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