OF all the amazing bands to emerge from Greater Manchester in the 1980s, The Smiths were the most influential, The Stone Roses the most critically acclaimed, but the Happy Mondays were the one the British public took to their hearts.
They were unpretentious, wore their heart on their sleeve and liked to party – especially frontman Shaun Ryder, who seemed to hoover up all the drugs in Western Europe, and dancer/maraca shaker Bez – a sort of ecstasy-loving court jester who became a cult figure in the UK. In 1990 the band released their breakthrough album Pills ‘n’ Thrills and Bellyaches, a genre-bending mix of house, indie guitar and psychedelia that included hit singles Step On, Kinky Afro and Loose Fit.
International success and lots of drugs followed, before the band recorded their chaotic follow-up Yes Please! and imploded in a supernova of crack cocaine.
Ryder and Bez went on to enjoy success with Black Grape, before sporadically reforming the Happy Mondays over the years.
Now the band are coming Down Under – playing shows across Australia and New Zealand in October as part of their Greatest Hits tour. Once famous for their Herculean drug intake, what is touring like these days? And does Bez, 59, need fish oil capsules before going on stage?
“He’s on the same f*ckin’ capsules he was on back in the 80s,” Ryder laughs.
“After a gig I’m back in the hotel room at 11 watching the news, but Bez is out partying like he’s 21.
“He’s the party representative for the band now.”
Despite a case of the lurgy, which Ryder puts down to his kids going back to school after the UK summer holidays – “I feel like something has crawled up mee arse and died” – the Salford larrikin was in good spirits when the Chook rang for a chinwag.
In recent years, Bez and Ryder have carved out an unlikely career as a dysfunctional, comedy double act – Madchester’s Laurel and Hardy – appearing on family-friendly TV shows like Celebrity Gogglebox.
Ryder says it’s introduced the Happy Mondays to a new generation of fans, something he witnessed when playing the UK festival circuit this summer.
“Festivals are great because there are no age restrictions,” he says. “The Mondays’ audience now goes from about 7 to 77 – it’s all over the shot because of all the TV work me and Bez do.
“We are playing better than ever and to bigger audiences than we’ve ever done. The Mondays have become iconic, because we’ve been at it for so long.”
Ryder concedes there was a time when he was “pissed off” playing the band’s biggest hit Step On, but he’s now “enjoying it more than ever” and is at peace with the band’s iconic status and legacy. He says he keeps things fresh by doing other projects.
“In 2024 I’ll put the Mondays to one side and do an album with Mantra of the Cosmos [a supergroup featuring former members of Oasis, Ride and the Happy Mondays] and I’ve got the new Black Grape album as well,” he says. “Then I’ll come back to the Mondays revitalised.”
Recently one of Ryder’s peers – ex-Stone Roses frontman Ian Brown – went on tour with no band and sang along to a backing track, polarising critics and fans.
Brown and Ryder are old mates, but even he is a bit baffled by the glorified karaoke.
“It’s either very brave of Ian or he just doesn’t want to pay the band,” Ryder quips.
“I’ve not spoken to him to see what his game plan is – not to pay the musicians or if he’s trying to become Bob Dylan.”
The Happy Mondays have always been a bit of a family affair with Ryder’s brother Paul the founding bassist and their late dad Derek a sound tech for the band during their heyday.
Tragedy struck in July 2022 when Paul suddenly died aged 58, just hours before the Mondays were due to play at Kubix Festival in Sunderland. Ryder says he hasn’t fully processed his brother’s death.
“When my father died it took me three years to come to terms what that and then it suddenly hit me,” he says.
“I’ve got a weird emotional response to things and it can take time for things to really sink in.”
“It’s been a year since our kid [Paul Ryder] went and some days it will just come over me.”
Ryder, 61, has had his fair share of health problems in recent years – thyroid trouble, ADHD, alopecia, covid and a new hip. Ironically, most of them started in his early 50s, years after he kicked hard drugs, but the frontman says he is looking forward to the Mondays’ shows in Australia – their first in the country since 2019.
“We always have a great time out there and the band are firing on all cylinders after playing dates in the UK,” Ryder says. “We must have done alright last time in Australia, because they asked us back!”
The Happy Mondays will play The Metropolis in Fremantle on October Wednesday 25 as part of their Twenty Four Hour Party People – Greatest Hits Tour. Tix at premier.ticketek.com.au.
by STEPHEN POLLOCK