Once the high priest of proletarian hedonism, Shaun Ryder has traded in the low-life for a leafy London suburb. It's been a good move. The Happy Mondays are now an unhappy memory, and his new album has gone straight to number one
a clipped Mancunian voice cuts through the babble of a posey Hampstead watering hole, "I don't want any profile shots." Perched uneasily on a seat by the wall, Shaun Ryder takes the photographer on a guided tour of his face. "I'm alright on this side

There was a time when this news would have prompted a wave of estate agent suicides. As lead singer of the Happy Mondays, Ryder was Fagin and the Artful Dodger rolled into one; a walking pharmacy and self-professed magnet for degenerates and low-lifes of all persuasions. It's more than half a decade since this spectacularly lapsed Catholic proclaimed the apotheosis of the Manchester scene with "Hallelujah," and three years since the Happy Mondays broke up in a miasma of addictions and acrimony: the days of "Here comes Shaun Ryder, there goes the neighbourhood" are gone. Property-seekers' adverts might now read "Trim, modest, erstwhile high priest of proletarian hedonism, 33, with two children, Donovan's daughter and a number one album to support."

In this country we traditionally take a sympathetic attitude to those who have brought about their own downfall. So when such people try to come back - whether they be George Best or Shane McGowan - they tend to get indulged. "I was afraid of that at first," Ryder admits. "When people started saying the album was good I thought it might just be because they were expecting a pile of shit and it was actually half alright." In fact, as Ryder now contentedly concedes, It's Great When You're Straight... Yeah! the debut album by his new band Black Grape, which went straight into the charts at number one in mid-August - is more than half alright. Where younger Brit-poppers seem happy to reflect a narrow spread of influences, Black Grape refract an entire musical spectrum - from the Beatles to bhangra, gangsta-rap to Serge Gainsbourg - into vivid new colours.

They might have taken their name from a can of soft drink, but Black Grape have not lost touch with Ryder's scuzz-bag constituency. The night they played their triumphant first London gig at the Hanover Grand in July, the BBC screened a Panorama special on abuse of the tranquiliser Temazepan. Shaun Ryder had got there first with a riotous chemical anthem called "Tramazi Party", and was not afraid to say so. But it is as a wordsmith not documentarist that his talents lie, fashioning inspired pieces of nonsense like this one from Black Grape's first single: "My father's father's father's father, by nature he was bendy. We are the shoe-shine tribe and we are over-friendly."

So what made the Edward Lear of ecstasy culture turn out the way he did? "My mum and dad only had me and my brother," says Ryder affably. "They both came from big families - you know, elevens and nines - but they only had me and our Paul [with whom Shaun formed the Happy Mondays in the early Eighties]" he grins, "The pill generation. But we were always round other people's places - my nan's or my auntie Mary's - where there were 13 kids in the house."

Mrs Ryder worked as a nursery nurse, and her son showed his faith in the idea of extended family by employing his dad on the road "as soon as we were able to pay him what he was earning at the post office". Derek Ryder was no stranger to showbusiness, having done the odd bit of singing and even some stand-up comedy in working men's clubs, but it would be wrong to think performing was in his son's blood. "My dad loves it - being onstage - but I don't." Ryder pauses and his voice hardens, "I don't love it. I don't like being on the front covers of magazines either," he continues, "I just find it embarrassing."

Why did he pick up a microphone with the Happy Mondays in the first place? "There was no one else to do it. We were just a gang of lads playing at being in a band, and I was a better - well, I wouldn't say a writer, because I've never really sat down with a pen and a piece of paper and written a song; I've always been more interested in what comes off the top of my head." What comes off the top of Shaun's head is usually a crafty, intoxicating cocktail of advertising slogans, hymns, slang and overheard conversation. "I always loved messing around with words" he remem-bers, "even from being 10 or 11 I was amazed by the effect the word 'fuck' could have in the middle of a pie shop."

Though a regular church-goer till the age of 10, Ryder's deliquent profile was established early on. His dominant memory of his Manchester schooldays is "Picking up rubbish out of grids. If you messed about in lessons they'd send you outside to clear up, so me and my team of handpicked idiots spent all day picking up crisp-packets. I thought it was great because I could smoke and go out for my dinner." He left school at "just 15", and the Happy Mondays grew out of the same heritage of petty criminal entrepreneurship that produced the Sex Pistols. "Our instruments were either stolen from schools or we'd swap them," Ryder recalls, "A quarter of can-nabis for a Rickenbacker Expensive."

The Happy Mondays' willingness to talk openly about such transactions endeared them greatly to the British music press, which has always loved to dine out on the misdemeanours of others. For a while around the turn of the decade it seemed that the worse they behaved the better everybody liked it. "I don't know why we said half the stuff that we did to journalists," Ryder admits. "It was almost as if we didn't think they were going to print it."

The Mondays' media bandwagon was finally derailed when their dancer/ mascot Bez made homophobic remarks to an interviewer who was not (as others undoubtedly would have and had been) prepared to overlook them. There was more than a whiff of hypo-crisy about the way the band were subsequently turned upon - it had long been clear that Bez was not someone the world ought to be looking to for moral leadership - but Ryder does not harbour any regrets about the Happy Mondays' subsequent collapse. He now refers to them as "a bunch of talentless arseholes from Salford".

His new band, on the other hand, are "well capable". Fellow Black Grape mainstay, Paul "Kermit" Leveridge, formerly of Mancunian hip-hop troupe the Ruthless Rap Assassins, was living in Ryder's house when the Happy Mondays split in early 1993. "We just enjoyed making music together" Shaun says happily. "If there was nothing on telly after Coronation Street and The Bill finished, that was it, we'd be off." Most of the equipment had gone, but they still had a sampler and drum machine, and friends such as former-Smiths man Craig Gannon were happy to drop by to "do some guitaring" as the occasion demanded.

For Ryder, Kermit is more prince than frog. "It's great having a writing partner" he smiles, "I've never had one before." They sort the tunes out first and then chat away to each other over the top for anything up to an hour. Then they'll play back a recording and pick out the best bits, such as the Socratic dialogue at the heart of "Kelly's Heroes" ("Jesus was a black man, no, Jesus was Batman, no no no that was Bruce Wayne"). Ryder enthuses about their collaboration: "It's almost like one of those drawings where you draw a head and fold it over, then someone else draws a body and passes it back."

Perhaps not surprisingly, given Shaun and Kermit's public image as serious drug casualties, early attempts to get their music released were fraught with difficulty. "When we went to people in England it was all wagging fingers and 'ha ha ha, told you so laddie' " Ryder remembers. "We had to cross the Atlantic to get taken seriously." Ironically, just about the only territory that had refused to be dazzled by the hoodlum glitz of the Happy Mondays gave Ryder a break when he really needed it: supplying not just management and a record deal, but also the producer - Cypress Hill veteran Danny Saber - who helped give Black Grape's music its distinctive fizz.

The band's American connection was responsible for their album's rather question-begging title too. "We were all sat in the studio one day" Ryder remembers. "We weren't making music, we had no beer and nothing to smoke and I said (assumes sarcastic tone) 'It's great when you're straight' and the manager said 'Great title, I love it'." The band pointed out that everyone would think they were "having a go at gay people" but the manager insisted ("One thing I've learnt now," Shaun says wryly, "is never to crack jokes in front of music business people"), and somehow they got away with it.

Maybe it was an advantage in this respect that everyone knew what a junkie and a crack-head Shaun Ryder used to be. Was straightening himself out as bad as it looks in films? "It's much worse. In all the movies I've watched there's probably one realistic cold turkey... they always make it look so quick and easy. I could handle the twitches and pains in my legs and my arms, the puking and the shitting and everything else, what I couldn't handle was what was going on in my head."

Perhaps the joyful pop storm that Ryder is now whipping up is the flipside of that ugly chaos. Either way, straight was the gate he passed through to get to it.

8 Black Grape play Nottingham Rock City, 01159 483456, tonight and tour until 14 October

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