Old habits die hard. So could Shaun: The lead singer of the Happy Mondays has a legendary appetite for drugs. Now, he tells Karen Pierce, he thinks he understands what makes him so self-destructive

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'I HAVE a recurring nightmare that I am doing good, worthwhile things and everything is going great, when suddenly I get 20 years for something. I'm always walking down that corridor in Strangeways with handcuffs on for doing something really stupid.'

This statement does not come from someone on Interpol's most wanted list. It comes from Shaun William Ryder, lead singer with the Happy Mondays, a band with the same sort of capacity for tabloid-teasing as the Sex Pistols used to have.

When I met him, rumours were abounding that Ryder was sick, very sick. The press delighted in tales of his crack habit, penchant for heroin and taste for Jack Daniels (extremely rock 'n' roll).

So gleeful were the reports that I half expected him to be wheeled in on a stretcher, or a phone call from his management saying 'It's too late, the heroin got to him first.' But suddenly, there he was: in expensive black leather jacket and black designer jeans.

Maybe I had just got him on a good day, but for someone allegedly coming off heroin he did not look too bad, a little dark around the eyes perhaps, his skin grey but clear.

His band, Happy Mondays, have been together for just over 10 years. In 1985 they signed a deal with Factory Records, home of the hugely influential Joy Division and subsequently of New Order - in local music terms akin to signing for Manchester United. They could never be accused of trading on their looks and were never going to compete in the beauty stakes with the likes of George Michael or Michael Hutchence. They would, however, compete with them in the charts. Their debut LP - Squirrel and G- Man - was not an outstanding commercial success but it did whet the appetite of the music press.

After that things began to change. Happy Mondays found themselves riding on the crest of the Ecstasy wave. The band had evolved a new sound - hypnotic, funk-powered music, tailor-made for the burgeoning rave scene, abetted by DJ producers. Their 1988 album Bummed was hailed by Melody Maker as 'a baffling brilliance'. They then went on to record the acclaimed Pills 'N' Thrills and Bellyaches album; it was denied a number one placing in the nation's album chart only by Madonna. Top five singles became a regular occurrence while vast concert venues such as Wembley Arena and the G-Mex Centre in Manchester became virtual second homes.

Ryder is supping a pint of bitter in a corner of a very noisy and equally ordinary Manchester pub across the road from Factory Records. 'I'd sooner do a bank job than go on job club,' he muses as I suggest it may be the end of the road for the Mondays, given his health problems. 'We got to travel the world and get out of the council estates of Little Hulton,' he says in a strong Mancunian drawl without a trace of travel.

Ryder talks about his formative years with relish. 'I didn't spend much time at school, I was a proper little Artful Dodger, getting kickings from Fagin when I did wrong.' He rubs his hands and there is a sparkle in his eyes. When I ask about early jobs he laughs. 'I had a job driving a dumper truck and renovating council houses. It was quicker to just knock the walls down and put a toilet in the corner than do the job properly.' He says he couldn't be prosecuted because he was only 14 at the time.

If he has an Achilles heel, it is his lack of formal education. 'I was in Set 4 at school. Everybody called it the thick set - there was a bit of a stigma attached to it, so I stayed away. I was more interested in wheeling and dealing and wearing nice clothes.' He looks around the room, lights another cigarette, breaks an end, throws it away and reflects: 'Maybe I should have started school when I was 25. I'm not thick, just a slow-learner.

'I especially hate bullies, I was never the one that was bullied or had his dinner money took off him. I was never bullied but I fucking hate them.'

He insists on buying me another drink and offers the same courtesy to the barman. He slides back in his chair, leans over and almost in a whisper declares: 'None of us ever thought we would have come this far or become as businesslike as we have. From 1989 on we spent everything we had: pounds 1,000 jackets, leather Chevron pants, BMWs, wild parties.' He pauses. 'All I've got now is my house and the three grand a month that goes into my bank account.'

For two sensation-filled years, the Happy Mondays were media darlings and could do no wrong. Even when they were interviewed for Penthouse magazine, appearing in a bath with naked models, the press revelled in the idea of these working-class heroes made, if not good, successful. Hedonism was in, and any moral concerns went out the window. Even Ryder's heroin addiction was interpreted as being exciting and necessary for his art. The Happy Mondays were riding high: until one fateful day.

About a year ago I interviewed Ryder for MTV, the pop video channel. When we arrived he was still asleep in the rented flat across the road from the recording studio. We waited for several hours until a very grumpy figure appeared. He did not want to do the interview or be anywhere near television cameras. He was flippant and offhand, a technique he used to employ when bored and reluctant to do things. When I asked him on camera what he had done before joining the band, he said that he had been a rent boy.

The MTV piece ran for six days, and on the seventh the News of the World ran a headline branding Shaun Ryder a rent boy. Heterosexual, Northern, working- class mentality aside, he was furious. 'More people have MTV on the council estates in Manchester than all the yuppies put together,' he says. The music business thought Shaun would easily ride out this particular storm, overestimating his ability to charm the media. It was to prove a turning point in their treatment of him.

Nowhere was this more evident than in a subsequent interview given to the NME, a previously faithful ally, in which he was portrayed as a raving homophobe. From that moment he was unable to escape the moral searchlight of a press that had found itself another tune to dance to. 'Nothing has upset me more in the last 10 years than the reaction to that interview. I have a lot of gay friends and they agreed, after that piece in NME, that I'd been stitched up.'

Ryder is now getting hungry. We leave the pub and go in search of pie and chips or a Chinese takeaway. We settle for an old-style pub. He promptly goes to the jukebox and puts on Frank Sinatra's 'Witchcraft'. By now he has moved on to vodka and orange. Looking around the room, he is pleased to see some of the older men singing along to his jukebox selection. And then there is another glimpse of Ryder reflecting on his past, where he is today and whether he actually wants to be there. Apropos of nothing in particular he says: 'I never wanted a house, I never wanted to be tied down anywhere.'

I ask if he still enjoys Manchester. He admits that, because of his drug problem, he has to stay away from the city centre, lest he falls into old, bad habits. 'At one time I thought Manchester was a nice place to be, but now there are too many gangsters, too many guns, and too many drugs. I always wanted to get out of Manchester and in a way I did. But sometimes I think this city owns me.'

And so back to the main reason for our meeting, a new LP entitled Yes Please]. Recorded in a blaze of publicity in Barbados at Eddy Grant's Blue Wave studios, it features Chris Franz and Tina Weymouth, formerly of Talking Heads, as musical producers. It had a difficult birth, amid reports that Shaun was unable to sing or write, and preferred to write off fast cars. The honeymoon was over. No longer the darlings of the press, this time round nobody applauded the Happy Mondays for acting out every rock 'n' roll fantasy in the book.

'We were in the studio for a total of three months. I was supposed to be writing, but instead I got into all the local niceties, like water-skiing and paragliding on crack. I had no idea what I was doing.'

A man with an eye for a bargain, Ryder found that in the West Indies he only had to pay 25p per rock of crack, instead of the UK price of pounds 25. So how much crack was he actually taking? 'I was smoking about 25 rocks a day, that was all before midday.' I thought rock stars didn't get up before 3pm. 'Well, you were up early 'cos it was nice.'

His face screws up as if the light is hurting his eyes and he contemplates the experience. 'It was like being on Blackpool Pleasure Beach for three months. I was there just riding the rollercoaster.'

He describes the trip as one giant holiday for the Happy Mondays - with mothers, fathers, wives, girlfriends, babies and aunts and uncles all in tow. 'Nathan (the band's manager and son of Roger McGough, the Liverpool poet) called it the most expensive indie album ever made. He said that as a joke but the press picked up on it. Well, if you say that of course it's going to get a good slagging.'

The first single from Yes Please], 'Stinking Thinking', left the charts after two weeks, only reaching number 31. Ryder connects this to the NME interview. He believes his 'misunderstood' remarks alienated him from a lot of people, including - crucially - the people who compile the Radio 1 playlist.

'My fucking mouth - it gets me into trouble every time. I talk street language and that sometimes upsets people. I would like to apologise to the people I have upset or hurt by opening my big mouth.

'Sometimes my mouth and brain don't connect - especially when I'm out of it, I say all the wrong things. For the past 15 years I have been trying to work out what it is that makes me so self- destructive.'

At a cost of pounds 10,000, Ryder recently spent six weeks in the London Charter Clinic trying to kick his heroin habit. He has been in rehab before but what makes him think he is going to stay clean this time? 'I've never had psychotherapy before - having group discussions was new to me.' He tells how both staff and patients at the clinic opened his eyes.

'Before, when I was in rehab, I'd have a bit of drink or a joint smuggled in, but this time I played by the rules. Psychotherapy has taught me not to feel guilty. It might sound corny, but we came from fuck all and we've got where we are today.'

Why the rethink now? 'I'm 30 and it's time for a fucking change.'

Of the band's future, Ryder has this to say: 'I want to split the Happy Mondays up for about 18 months after this tour (a tour to promote the new album) - I want a break for a while.'

There is also the influence of his two- year-old daughter. 'Am I going to send my daughter to private school? Too right I am, and private nursery. I want her to get a good education, some people in my class came out very clever, but when you've got 50 people in a class there might be only four people in the front row who can go at the same speed.'

In a recent MTV interview, Ryder spoke of his love of God, again playing his favourite game of toying with the media. I began to wonder if he was stringing me a line, too. 'I'm an actor playing at being a pop star.' That could be the sharpest thing he's said all day.

(Photograph omitted)

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