Happy Mondays: Madchester reunited

12 years after they split, Happy Mondays are back... sort of. Nosheen Iqbal meets an older, wiser, Shaun Ryder and Bez
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The Independent Culture

With four studio albums, a record-label bank-ruptcy and an immeasurable amount of drugs behind them, Shaun Ryder and Mark Berry - better known as Bez - remain the Mancunian musicians you can rely on most for a guaranteed good time. Happy Mondays are back together, two decades after their formation and 12 years after splitting up, for 48 Hour Party People and Get Loaded - their self-styled mini-festival and monthly club night respectively. They even hope to release new material later in the year. The band, in the form of Ryder and Bez, want to cut through the chaos and drama that consistently surround them and remind us that "regardless of money and crap, we wouldn't be doing this if we didn't still believe passionately in what the Mondays have done and what we can still do".

With four studio albums, a record-label bank-ruptcy and an immeasurable amount of drugs behind them, Shaun Ryder and Mark Berry - better known as Bez - remain the Mancunian musicians you can rely on most for a guaranteed good time. Happy Mondays are back together, two decades after their formation and 12 years after splitting up, for 48 Hour Party People and Get Loaded - their self-styled mini-festival and monthly club night respectively. They even hope to release new material later in the year. The band, in the form of Ryder and Bez, want to cut through the chaos and drama that consistently surround them and remind us that "regardless of money and crap, we wouldn't be doing this if we didn't still believe passionately in what the Mondays have done and what we can still do".

Sitting in the sunshine, on a park bench in London, looking for all the world like he just woke up on it, Bez solemnly crosses his heart and says: "In my heart of hearts, I'm inspired by passion and it's that spark that keeps me buzzing, doesn't it? I wouldn't be carrying on with the band if I didn't believe in it."

This is a well-placed, tired cliché and, for any other band, it might have been offensive to say so. Yet the Mondays have a reputable history of living up to textbook rock mythology. Between them, the holy musical trinity of sex, drugs and rock'n'roll has reached tabloid-titillating heights of decadence and debauchery that would give Pete Doherty a run for his money.

That The Libertines and Happy Mondays have both made more column inches for their consumption of illegal substances, rather than for their musical brilliance, does not pass Ryder by. And he is not too bothered. "Yeah, our band was known for drugs and all that, but for us, it helped us sell records. With all the bands like Duran Duran, it was all behind the scenes and it was just about nice boys, nice yachts - things like that. Then we came along." Ryder half-grins and remembers that "by the time we were on Top of the Pops, the press got in on it, and they were like, 'Not only do they take this, that, and the other, but he's a heroin addict,' and all. Now, that would have ruined some bands, but it made us. We went from playing to 1,000 people to putting 10,000 bums on seats overnight, know wharra mean?"

I meet Ryder separately from Bez, two weeks before tonight's gig. Dressed in football shorts and T-shirt despite the near-freezing weather outside, he looks down at his white thighs and mumbles that if we are to take pictures, we "should cover up some of the pale on me legs. Fake computer tan." Due to a delayed flight, he is slightly late for the interview and visibly annoyed by things not running to schedule. He takes a couple of sniffs and apologises again. "I'm not sniffing 'cos I've just done a pile of coke - I've got three different bugs. No allergies, but it's the little one, little Joe. I come home and I end up going away with what he's got 'cos he picks it all up from playschool."

While Ryder is easier to pin down than Bez, he is by no means any less difficult to get talking about the new songs the band are rumoured to be recording, and entertainingly talks around the subject. Ryder has been legally ordered not to talk about anything remotely connected with his income and he does his best, on the record at least, to stick to the judge's orders. Ryder's court battle - all his income from the past eight or so years has been stopped and frozen by the courts while an ex-management team files a lawsuit against him - has already been documented in John Warburton's book, Hallelujah and the award-winning fly-on-the-wall documentary The Agony and the Ecstasy from 2003.

He tells me he's got by only with the help of wealthy friends who have made sure he has "enough to eat, drink and get enough to look after my family". Now living with his girlfriend, Felicia, and their four-year old, Joe, in the Peak District, (naturally, "opposite Bez's gaffe"), it's the third time round on the domestic wheel for Ryder, who has children from each of his three serious relationships.

In a slightly slurred rant, prefacing every other word with obscenities, Ryder says: "I am very happy living in my quaint, little... whatever-you-call-it, in the middle of nowhere. When you start in this business, you don't set out thinking that you're gonna make loads of money, right. You sort of start doing it, because you like doing it, and when you make money, you don't even see it as real. Then you realise you're not 18 anymore and that it's a job. So what am I supposed to do?" Weary but still incensed, he adds: "It's draining, it really is. Why should I stop doing something I enjoy doing and make my living off?" Why, indeed.

It's a question finally which may get an answer in court soon. Ryder hopes he will be granted access to his fortune - from royalties, gigs, DJ sets, production, his column for the Daily Sport and voice-overs - and the right to earn a living. As he bluntly points out: "It's only fucking right isn't it?"

Despite the fact that a story still always seems to be attached the pair, Ryder and Bez insist time has forced them to live less manically than the Mondays did before. Grinning and twitching, Bez concedes that "being 40 might as well still be 18 in me head but time changes you. There's nothing you can do about it." Ryder, on the other hand, says: "I'm 43 years old now, I'm like a doddery old fart now, right. Unlike Bez, who still, like, is the same as 20 years ago, I'm a bit of a boring sod." It is an unlikely way to imagine the man who wrote and sang "24 Hour Party People", providing the perfect title for Michael Winterbottom's underrated film from 2001.

Ryder says he's never seen 24 Hour Party People as he never reads press coverage, let alone watches anything involving him. "I might watch it when I'm in an old people's home, on me deathbed, and I want a reminder of what went on in me life. I know it's all about Tony [Wilson] rather than the band, but you've got to take your hat off to the man. He deserves all the accolades he gets. He made the Manchester music scene with the Hacienda and Factory and all that. He had real passion." Bez is just as defensive towards Wilson. "I've got a lot of time for Tony, and I'd always defend him against people who'd call him a knobhead."

Bez wondered if he might have been called the same thing for taking part in Celebrity Big Brother. "That was a double-edged blade, man. I'm glad I won it but I wish I never did it in the same breath. What I loved about all me friends though, was that they all said the same thing. I thought I had no chance and they all really thought I would win it."

Earlier, when I met Ryder, he almost spluttered out his beer when I asked him if he had voted for Bez. "Course I fucking did. You don't want the likes of Valerie Singleton or Alan Titmarsh [sic] talking about fucking gardening do you? I hate those shows. I despise them. I can't stand unintellectual people. I can't stand dickheads. I can't stand people just wanting to promote themselves." Opinionated, slightly surly and often very funny: clearly, if he chose to take up any one of the many offers waved under his nose, Ryder on a reality TV show would be a sure-fire ratings winner.

Asked about what new music is getting under his skin, Ryder delivers an acid-tongued monologue on the concept of modern R&B, grabs his crotch, and does a hilarious impression of Usher, before snapping: "Where's the rhythm and where's the blues in that? I want raw hurt and heart." Remembering where we started, he answers: "I listen to the same stuff I always have. Punk, great guitar music, great electronic music, rap and hip-hop, dance, and all that stuff that I still reckon comes under jungle is massive, y'know? It's the same as ever. When me and Bez were young and we were in to The Specials, the Sex Pistols, Frank Zappa and Frank Sinatra, everyone would piss themselves laughing at us. Now, everyone's into everything. It's what the whole ethos behind Get Loaded is about."

Meanwhile, in between throwing about his loose limbs on stage for Happy Mondays, Bez has joined Domino Bones, a band he describes as "me talking on one of my Mancunian rants over heavy dub, reggae basslines and psychedelic guitars. It's stuff you could really nod your head to." He reckons the frontwoman (and his current girlfriend) Monica Ward has the makings of "being the next Janis Joplin" and sees little difference between performing in a tiny room in front of 50 or so people and dancing on stage in front of thousands in an arena. Just as long as he has had an intoxicating kickstart, of course. "I'll do interviews and that sort of thing straight - depending on what you call straight - but performing on stage like that? I'd consider it a crime. It's definitely not my preferred state."

He lets out one of his infectious Bez laughs before lamenting: "Some of the joy's been taken out for me when I'm dancing now though. When I go out, I can't just lose the plot any more. I have to do it in me home. Discos in me living room, first thing in the morning."

When presented with the fuss and drama surrounding the Happy Mondays, it's easy to forget that they were responsible for some of the best music to have left Manchester. Yes Please, Bummed and Pills ' n' Thrills and Bellyaches contain moments that shaped the face of modern British music.

They say nostalgia isn't as good as it used to be, but given the quality of Shaun Ryder's last comeback, with Black Grape - after he was all but written off - it doesn't matter. Once he is legally allowed to record his songs, the Happy Mondays may resurface with some of their best stuff yet. If not, what the hell: at least you know they will always be entertaining.

Happy Mondays play the 48 Hour Party People weekend, Brixton Academy, London SW9, tonight and tomorrow, 'Happy Mondays: Greatest Hits' is out on 4 April on London

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