“I didn’t vote for Bez’s Reality Party – this was the first time I ever voted in my life so I thought I better not waste my vote!” – Shaun Ryder on the up
Between drugs, reality TV and the lasting cult success of the Happy Mondays, it’s easy to forget that Shaun Ryder’s biggest success as a musician came about in the middle of all that with Black Grape.
The hip hop-heavy electronic act came about when the Happy Mondays unravelled in the mid-nineties and straight away achieved something the Mondays never did – a number one album – with their debut album, It’s Great When You’re Straight… Yeah.
In the midst of all that came Britpop, New Labour and Euro ’96 and, all of a sudden, it was popular to celebrate Britishness and Englishness through music, and Black Grape rode the wave with a hit single, ‘England’s Irie,’ right on the cusp of the football tournament.
As is traditional with Ryder’s music projects, Black Grape burned brightly and quickly before burning out and, within three years, they too split in the wake of in-fighting and ever-escalating drug problems, which years later would see co-founder Kermit on his death bed.
The last couple of years have seen the two main protagonists – Ryder and Kermit, real name Paul Leveridge – re-connect, but it was the 20th anniversary of their first album and a kernel planted by Ryder’s publisher that saw them re-unite for a tour, which takes in three Irish dates, ending at Sea Session in Donegal next weekend.
“The girl who does my publishing reminded me that it was the 20th anniversary of It’s Great When You’re Straight,” Ryder tells Something for the Weekend.
“Really, Black Grape is just me and Kermit – the rest of the guys were just session musicians.
“Me and Kermit did all the writing and all the producing with Danny Saber, who played most of the instruments on the album, and when we took it on tour we just got session guys in.
“Kermit has been getting better and better each time I’ve seen him, and he’s in a really good place, better than I’ve ever seen him for years.
“17 years ago he had to have a priest out for the last rites in the hospital because he was dying. He’s 50 and he looks about 29.”
“I met him a couple of years ago at a Snoop Dogg concert, and I saw him a couple of times after and he got better and better and better.
“It’s great to see him so happy – he’s in a great place. When we did it 20 years ago we were still on that treadmill, that hamster’s wheel of albums, tours, press, having just come out of the Mondays.
“I’m older and wiser now, and it’s better than ever. It’s enjoyable now. I didn’t realise what a great album It’s Great was, and there’s some good stuff on the second album.”
While the Mondays were successful in their own right – Step On remains one of the era’s iconic tracks, and Pills, Thrills and Bellyaches a classic album – but Black Grape had the added advantage of good timing, surfing the crest of the Britpop wave without ever considering themselves part of it.
“We knew we had something really good. At that time, the Britpop thing was just happening.
“I remember somebody playing me the Oasis album that hadn’t come out yet, and it was about to drop, and the whole Britpop thing took off. We weren’t really part of that, but it was a great year for music.
On ‘England’s Irie’ – still one of the best songs in the fairly limited cannon of pop songs about the beautiful game – came about rather more fortuitously, as Ryder proudly declares he has no interest in football.
Rather, it was Keith Allen, father of Lily and later chart-topper with another celebration of football and English cuisine, Vindaloo, who drove the project and the band were happy to bask in the success.
“We were working with Keith Allen at the time, and Keith came in and said we’re going to do this song for the Euros. If you listen to the song he’s singing a lot of it and he’s taking the piss out of the Mancunian accent.
“I know fuck all about football. I was born at the back of Old Trafford and I’m a red by birth, but I don’t do football. I get a lot of pleasure out of saying ‘I’m not a football head.’
“I still think the Manchester United team has Georgie Best, Bobby Charlton, Denis Law and Eric Cantona in it. It means nothing to me.”
Recent years have seen a resurgence in interest in the Mondays, including stints on I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here and Celebrity Big Brother, and the original Happy Mondays recently did a stint in the jungle in central America for the BBC.
“We went to this tribe of percussionists in Panama and made music with them. When the show goes out, you can download the track and the money from that will go to the tribe and allow them to carry on the life they’ve had for thousands of years.”
Ryder also fronted his own History Channel show where he hunted UFOs in South America – he recounts a story to me of his own encounter as a child – and plans to release a solo album early next year, which he recorded with Sunny Levine, grandson of the legendary Quincy Jones.
Bez, meanwhile, though only ever a nominal member of Black Grape, isn’t part of the reunion as he continues to focus on his burgeoning political career, which saw him land 700 votes in the recent general election in Salford.
“Bez thinks he’s going to be Prime Minister some day, he really does. And I’ll be there for him.
I mean, I didn’t vote for Bez’s Reality Party – I’ll be 53 in August and the election we just had was the first time I ever voted in my life, so I thought if I’m going to do something as important as this I better not waste my vote!”
Black Grape play Dublin’s Academy on June 19th and the Sea Sessions festival in Bundoran on June 21st.