Music: Pills, thrills and tax bills

The Happy Mondays are back and about to hit the road. A cynical Madchester cash-in? Not at all, says Shaun Ryder, it's just that it's taken everyone else 10 years to catch up with us. (OK, yeah... we need the money.) By Fiona Sturges
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The Independent Culture
The first thing that you notice about Shaun Ryder is how people around him perk up. The rest of the band had been ruefully nursing colds with bottles of beer throughout their rehearsal, but following his entrance they were cackling at one another and planning the evening's entertainment. It is as if the birthday boy has finally arrived at the party.

What's more, he looks distinctly cheerful, bounding into the frame for the first round of photographs and warmly hugging his friends. This is not the snarling villain that I had expected to encounter. This man looks... well, straight.

"I am," he says, beaming. "Look, I can prove it."

Ryder pulls up his shirt and thrusts a great white belly in my direction. "Can you see the marks?" he says, pointing just beneath his bellybutton. Marks? "The marks from my implants." I beg your pardon?

"They put implants in my stomach so that if I have any opiates I get sick. Instant cold turkey," he explains. After a couple of months they wear off so I've had 12 months' worth put in. I don't get a craving or anything. I'm just a pisshead now."

After 15 years of heroin abuse, the frontman of the Happy Mondays has lost count of how many times he has been in rehab, though he insists that his brother, Paul, and drummer Gaz Whelan have suffered most since the Mondays broke up. The younger Ryder has had two nervous breakdowns since 1993 while Whelan has undergone prolonged treatment for "stress-related" complaints.

I approached this interview with some trepidation. The Happy Mondays always knew how to make journalists sweat. They were behaving badly long before style mags made it OK for boys to behave badly. They make the boorish conduct of fellow Mancunians Oasis seem pitifully small beer.

"Usually, we bring the band to London," says their PR. "That way, they are easier to control." This doesn't bode well seeing as I'm interviewing them at their Stockport rehearsal studio. Worse still, their last interview - to which they arrived 24 hours late - saw Ryder in a semi-comatose state and sporadically forgetting his whereabouts.

Today though, Ryder is razor-sharp. In fact, he is unstoppable. "I've written a movie called Molly's Idle Ways which is going into production next month," he boasts, adopting a faux-posh accent. "I'm acting, doing a bit of music and helping with the directing. I'm doing the tour with the Happy Mondays and a column in The Sport. Oh, and I've just got divorced."

Ryder's divorce is crucial to today's assembly of people. That and "a fuckin' great tax bill". A messy split with Oriel Leitch, daughter of Sixties folk veteran Donovan, has left Ryder with no house and thousands of pounds in bills. Then came the tax bill. "It's fuckin' cleaned me out," he cries. Consequently, when "some daft sod" suggested that Ryder start up the Happy Mondays again, it was an offer that he couldn't refuse.

Four of the old members - the Ryder brothers, Whelan, plus their maraca- wielding mascot Bez - are back in the fold, though original guitarist Mark Day and keyboardist Paul Davis are conspicuous absentees. New recruits include Black Grape's Paul Wagstaff, keyboardist Ben Leach (ex-The Farm) and a softly spoken singer known simply as Nuts. Just three weeks away from the beginning of the tour, the band are still trying to track down lost samples, rearrange old tracks and re-learn some of the 15- year-old songs. In short, it's a revival.

We are disrupted by a commotion at the door and Bez's distinctive vowel sounds. "Can anyone give us a tenner for a cab?" The atmosphere in the studio becomes even more excitable as Bez shows off his Adidas-sponsored threads to his pals.

In his teens Bez, aka Mark Berry, says he was "robbing, partying and being a general pain in the arse". It wasn't until he met Ryder in the mid-Eighties that he became Bez and mutated into the hyperactive cartoon dancer whose pendulous elbows, knock knees and boggle eyes became the band's trademark. Bez was also the last to rejoin the band. Word has it that it took over pounds 50,000 to twist his arm. "Jobseeker's Allowance was on me case trying to get me to do some warehouse work," he explains. "Shifting boxes of beans or something, so I thought `I'd better do the Mondays thing instead'."

The Happy Mondays embraced the drug-addled euphoria of the late- Eighties and were the first band to successfully put dance music in the live arena. Their rough-edged funk and infectious house rhythms, at their best on their 1990 album Pills, Thrills and Bellyaches, brought swathes of devout rockers into the rave scene. Tony Wilson, the band's label boss, even claimed that Ryder was the most important poet since Keats. While that point is debatable, it was certainly down to the Happy Mondays that Manchester was baptised "Madchester", with the first of the "superclubs", the Hacienda, becoming their hallowed playground.

They also come equipped with a colourful history. Stories of racketeering, spells in prison and a Herculean drug intake circulated during the band's heyday in the late-Eighties, mostly spread by the members themselves. This is the band that boasted to the press about their gangster connections and bought instruments with money earned from selling drugs.

Why did they start the Mondays in the first place?

"We needed something to do in the afternoon," explains Ryder. "We found an opportunity to get into the music business and it seemed a good way to have a laugh. If we could possibly make a decent tune while we were doing it, then cool."

Even with their debauched lifestyles, the Happy Mondays were hailed as working-class heroes, lovable hooligans who could do no wrong. Their drug habits were seen as essential to their art. It was Bez's ill-judged comments about homosexuality that first turned the tide of public opinion against them, though he cites other causes.

"It became a nasty little business operation, something had to give, somewhere."

Meltdown finally occurred in 1992 with an ill-fated trip to Barbados where the band were recording a new album, Yes Please. Ryder, already battling with his heroin dependency, descended into full-blown crack addiction and took to selling pieces of their recording equipment for instant cash. The subsequent album was received so disastrously that the band's label, Factory Records, filed for bankruptcy. After a similarly catastrophic tour in 1993, the band went their separate ways.

With their legendary status as drug-users, gangsters and all-round bad boys, the Happy Mondays are perhaps the least likely candidates to join the cavalcade of comebacks. So far, revival tours from such Eighties luminaries as Culture Club, ABC, and the Human League were little more than cabaret acts. And even in the age of compulsory retro, we would be hard put to feel nostalgic over a band that still get played on the radio.

"Yeah, but this is different," says Ryder.

Why?

"'Cos we were 10 years ahead of our time. Everyone else is up to speed, now."

He has a point. The Happy Mondays blurred the boundaries between rock and dance long before The Chemical Brothers turned dance tunes into rock anthems. Pills, Thrills and Bellyaches emerged three years before Primal Scream's Screamadelica, often cited as the most important rock-dance album of the Nineties. The Mondays were also one of the first live dance bands to reach Top Of The Tops.

Ryder is keen to point out that they are not just recycling old material. "We're using some of the remixes we did in the late-Eighties, but we are doing lots of new ones. We've got a new single coming out and we've also got Nuts in to do some singing to make it more interesting."

Another album? "If we do another one, there will be a different set of rules, such as everyone gets out of the way and lets me get on with it."

This is the first glimpse that I have had of the old Ryder - stubborn and impossibly egotistical. But these aren't the Happy Mondays that we used to know. These are the rehabilitated, reconstructed version, out to make a fast buck before retiring to nice houses in Manchester's suburbs. This isn't the Happy Mondays, this is a business opportunity. And a sure- fire one at that.

The Happy Mondays play Hereford Leisure Centre on 21 April; Manchester Evening News Arena, 23 April; Glasgow SECC 24, 25 April; Brixton Academy 27, 28, 29 April

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