WHAT a joy, glittering among the dull glut of vacuous self-obsessed celebrity autobiographies, is Shaun Ryder’s Twisting My Melon. Anyone who danced in the 1990s knows the Happy Mondays, with their trippy fusion of house, funk and soul, served up by northern geezers on drugs who epitomised the Madchester scene. No other rave-era group is as synonymous with drugs as the Happy Mondays, and Shaun Ryder was their main man; his is quite a story. And he tells it with great candour.
You always hear about how musicians get into drugs. With Ryder, it was about a druggie who got into music; Ryder had been using crack and heroin long before ecstasy came along. When he finally stopped using drugs decades later, a medical test revealed he had been walking around for years with no thyroid, depleted testosterone levels, and pneumonia. He’d been wondering why he felt so tired.
Born in Salford in 1962, Shaun and his younger brother Paul grew up in a hard working class world. When he left school at 15, he had no skills, and didn’t know the alphabet. But he knew his music, and formed the Happy Mondays with his brother and their mates even though none of them had a clue about the technicalities of musicianship. Ryder’s dad was their roadie.
Before the band took off, Ryder worked as a postman. He used to take acid before he went on his rounds, to make things more interesting, and used to steal many of the packages he was meant to be delivering. He was finally sacked when a dog on his postal round tried to bite him, and he retaliated by picking it up and biting it back. “I was tripping my box off,” he writes, by way of explanation. He and his friend Bez used to take black microdots — very strong acid — every single day for over a year around 1986, but unlike, say, Syd Barrett, they managed to keep hold of the plot.
The Happy Mondays released their first album — surreally titled Squirrel and G-Man Twenty Four Hour Party People Plastic Face Carnt Smile (White Out) — after being taken on by the late Tony Wilson at Factory Records. By now non-musician Bez had been invited to join the band, because Ryder didn’t like being centre of attention, and he didn’t like dancing. Bez’s freaky dancing took the spotlight off Ryder, which he preferred. On their first ever trip to New York in 1987 to promote the first album, they almost got murdered by crack dealers. Not that it put them off. “We didn’t really do any sightseeing,” he writes. “Looking for crack cocaine was the only sightseeing me and Bez wanted to do.”
The summer of 1987 — the second summer of love — was when the whole Madchester scene exploded, with its headquarters being Factory Record’s nightclub, the Hacienda. Ecstasy had arrived and radically changed everything. “There was all this bad press about E, but if you were right in the middle of it you could see all the football violence stopping,” he writes. “You could see everyone really loved up.” The first pills arrived in the city from a friend of Ryder’s in Amsterdam, smuggled in a toothpaste container. “One tube of fucking Colgate changed everything,” he remembers.
Actually, Ryder doesn’t remember very much at all. Despite releasing two high selling albums — Bummed and Pills, Thrills & Bellyaches — his recall of events is hazy. While the first part of his story is a rollercoaster of debauched scallywaggery, the reality is that what began as a pivotal moment in musical history — the birth of rave — with him at its centre (they were fairly serious E dealers who happened to make music), ended for him in chronic addiction. What went up had to come down.
Ryder became a bone fide smackhead. Sent to Barbados to record their third album because there was no heroin there, he quickly discovered the island awash with crack. Soon he was smoking 50 rocks a day, and not doing any recording. The cost of making this (rubbish) third album was intrinsic in the bankrupting of Factory Records.
This would be the part in most people’s stories where they go to rehab, find God, and take up gardening. Instead Ryder got stomach implants that would make him sick if he took drugs, got clean, then relapsed. But rather than fade away after the Mondays’ acrimonious split, he formed Black Grape with some other heroin addicts and in 1995 had a number one album, ironically titled It’s Great When You’re Straight, Yeah! (They weren’t). All of this might sound grim, but Ryder is not one for self pity. Twisting My Melon (a line taken from a Steve McQueen movie) is full of great stories. Like when he was confronted in Barbados by a wild monkey nicknamed ‘Jack the Ripper’ because it was reputed to have ripped a family to shreds. Ryder went into baboon mode himself and scared it off. “That’s not the sort of thing you want really, when you’re walking along the beach off your head on crack — a great big baboon dropping out of a tree and wanting to start a fight with you,” he writes. “But things like that would always happen to me.”
The band even managed to get thrown out of the Glastonbury Festival the year they were headlining. That takes some doing.
Ryder did eventually recover from his drug habits. After a 12-year legal battle with former management which meant that he was not allowed to legally keep any earnings, he finally emerged legally free and drug-free to participate in the 2010 series of I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here. His new persona, he says, is one which his manager calls “Showbiz Shaun”, where he is on his best behaviour. (He is the only performer ever formally banned in the Channel 4 staff handbook from appearing on the station, because of his inability to not swear on live television.)
The jungle proved a positive experience, despite the presence of celebrity nutritionist Gillian McKeith — he says eating kangaroo testicles was less challenging than spending time in her company. He finished runner up.
The thing is, Shaun Ryder is something of a national treasure in Britain. It’s not just that everyone loves the Happy Mondays’ music — good music alone does not make you treasured. The ongoing public affection for Ryder is that he is the genuine article. This article may have been a thieving, drug dealing, scamming scally, but he never fell into the showbiz trap of falling in love with himself. Even when he was selling out arenas, he would be outside the main entrance flogging dodgy tickets before the gig, and creaming off profits from bootleg merchandise.
In the mid-1990s Ryder spent time living near Mallow, Co Cork, when he was married to Oriole Leitch, daughter of folk legend Donovan. The couple had one daughter Coco Sian, but have since divorce.
These days Ryder lives back in Salford with his new wife, Joanne — they got married earlier this year — and their children. He no longer does drugs.
“I was anaesthetised by heroin,” he writes. “I didn’t really have many deep emotions for two decades, so when I finally came off the gear I felt like a ball in a pinball machine, being bounced all over the place.”
Joanne was intrinsic in his recovery — the book is dedicated to her. He even got a whole new set of teeth, wrecked from crack, for free — his dentist was a Mondays’ fan.
Musically, it’s all still going on. In 2005, he performed on a Gorillaz track which topped the charts, and released an album with the Mondays in 2007. He has a solo album coming out next year.
“I feel pretty lucky,” he writes. “I feel all right. In fact, I feel better than I have for years. I feel alive.”