Shaun Ryder is being uncharacteristically quiet. That’s because he has mistakenly stuck himself on mute and can’t work out how to turn on the microphone of the computer he’s on. We spend a rather amusing (and awkward) five minutes mouthing silently at each other, pointing fingers and shrugging shoulders, while Ryder wrestles with his device, occasionally spinning it around so that he appears upside down. Eventually, though, an unmistakable accent comes crackling through my speakers: “Can ya hear me now?”
Loud and clear, Shaun, which is good, because I've got a burning question that demands answering. Earlier this year, Ryder contracted Covid-19, along with his entire household. (Ryder lives with his second wife, Joanne, and their two daughters.) He was sick for three weeks, with bouts of fatigue that dragged on after that. But, according to his best pal Bez – his partner in crime through the hedonistic days of Happy Mondays and Black Grape, and currently appearing with Ryder in the more family-friendly TV show Celebrity Gogglebox – the virus had a very unusual side effect: it caused the hair Ryder had lost through alopecia to grow back. We've learned to be endlessly surprised by this virus, but is this really true?
I was a heroin addict for 20-odd years, but there's been no damage off that. Yes, my teeth went from the crystal meth and crack cocaine. But apart from cold turkeys, I've never had anything wrong with me until I was 5
“Nooo,” he says, pointing at his head. “That’s skin pigmentation! Basically, it’s tattooed hair and tattooed eyebrows.” He chuckles. “That’s me now. Fake head of hair, fake eyebrows, fake teeth, fake hip. I’m the biggest f***ing fake going!”
Ryder had taken to calling himself “Uncle Fester” after alopecia struck a couple of years ago. He says it happened because he was forced to stop using the testosterone gel prescribed for his underactive thyroid.
“My blood cells were all turning white or turning red or whatever,” he says, with perhaps not 100% medical authority. “I think the specialist must have panicked, because she didn’t want the stroke of a celebrity on her hands. So they stopped it, and within a week I had no beard, no hair, no hair on my body, the lot! But now the testosterone is back at the normal level, and I’m getting these long wiry hairs that I have to shave every three weeks. But that’s from the testosterone, not Covid. Or it could be the fruit.”
The fruit? “Yeah, when I had Covid all I could eat was fruit. Big bags of pears every day. So maybe it was that? Who knows?”
Ryder’s health is not what it was. Aside from the thyroid trouble, the 58-year-old’s new hip is giving him problems, which has left him struggling to walk, let alone cycle – he once credited “pedalling from 8am until 11pm” with helping him shake his addiction to heroin and crack cocaine. Is a lifetime of excess finally catching up with him?
“Nooo!” he says. “I’ve got hereditary thyroid problems, and once that goes, it controls everything. The hip is the same – my mum has two fake hips. I was a heroin addict for 20-odd years, but there’s been no damage off that. Yes, my teeth went from the crystal meth and crack cocaine. But apart from cold turkeys, I’ve never had anything wrong with me until I was 53, when all this shit started.”
To be fair, Ryder seems extremely happy, despite the health woes – of all the musicians I’ve spoken to entering old age, he could be the most content. He even admits to having enjoyed the pandemic year: more time with the kids, mainly. He has six in total but lives with his youngest daughters, who are 13 and 12, and has loved the enforced time at home.
There has also been a steady stream of collaborators visiting the studio at the bottom of his garden: Robbie Williams, Tricky, Lee "Scratch" Perry and Noel Gallagher have all popped around. Bez suggested to the press that these were all guests on Ryder's forthcoming new solo album, but actually he's been the one guesting on their records. "Do I spend my life correcting things Bez says?" he says with a sigh. "It can take up a lot of time, yeah."
'All my kids grew up around showbiz, so they know it's just a job. To them I'm Dad, and I'm a knobhead.' His older children have been through the party years, whereas his younger two know more about the dangers of drugs and partying
But there is a new album: Visits from Future Technology will be Ryder’s first solo effort since 2003’s Amateur Night in the Big Top. It was actually recorded back in 2010, just before he went on I’m A Celebrity … Get Me Out of Here!, where he finished runner-up to that year’s winner, Stacey Solomon. His management team weren’t interested in putting out an album then; they told him to go on TV and build his profile instead.
A decade on, though, he’s teamed up with Alan McGee, formerly boss of Oasis’s old record label, and, after sprucing up the album over lockdown, it is ready to be released. It is unmistakably Ryder: scraps of surrealist poetry pasted together into amusing, semi-coherent cartoon tales.
The lead single, Mumbo Jumbo, deals with the vapidity of modern life and the indignity of receiving “meaningless texts about bullshit from people with the brains of jellyfish”. Popstars’ Daughters, meanwhile, contains the unique advice: “Even though I’ve got four of my own/ I’d advise you leave well alone … don’t marry popstars’ daughters.”
It’s based on personal experience: Ryder had a rocky marriage – and a daughter, Coco – with Oriole Leitch, the daughter of the 1960s star Donovan, which ended in divorce. He has also seen things from the other side: around the time he wrote the album one of his elder daughters had just arrived from the United States to live with him. “At the time she was 19 and doing what 19-year-olds do – getting drunk and thinking that because she was coming to live with her dad she could get off her tits.”
It must be tough having to set boundaries as a father when your reputation throughout the 1990s was as Britain’s chief hedonist. In Ryder’s autobiography he talks about taking microdots of LSD with Bez every day for a year, washing down ecstasy with his breakfast and preparing for a Glastonbury set by locking himself in the luggage hold of his tourbus and smoking heroin for 48 hours.
But Ryder is relaxed about such parental conflicts. “All my kids grew up around showbiz, so they know it’s just a job,” he says. “To them I’m Dad, and I’m a knobhead.” He says his older children have been through the party years, whereas his younger two know more about the dangers of drugs and partying.
“They’ve grown up differently to me, anyway: private education, middle-class children.” Actually, he notes, his youngest daughter came out of private school recently. “She said to me, ‘Dad, I’m not a snob, I’m a chav, and I don’t wanna go to that school any more.’ So we put her into a Salford comprehensive and she loves it. She’s on to her fifth fight already!”
Ryder has admitted to his failures as a father in the past; he was “just a kid having kids” back in the day, more interested in partying than parenthood. But now that he’s clean and settled with Joanne, whom he wed in 2010, he loves being a hands-on dad. Thinking about his daughters’ future has even got him interested in politics for the first time: “This lot in charge are totally out of touch,” he says. “So I’m Labour, although I couldn’t vote for Corbyn – he’d have taken too much money off me!”
This ADHD thing explains a lot: the impulsive behaviour, the drugs from a young age, not learning the alphabet until I was 28. Education is about remembering stuff, and I could never remember anything, so I didn't get an education
Marriage isn’t the only thing that’s given Ryder stability. Last year, he was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Three of his daughters have it, too, apparently, and so they traced it back to him. Having this diagnosis has led him to reflect on his unruly past, and a lot of things have started to make sense. “Now I understand why my bedroom as a 10-year-old became the metaphor for my life: a f***ing mess,” he says. “So this ADHD thing explains a lot: the impulsive behaviour, the drugs from a young age, not learning the alphabet until I was 28. Education is about remembering stuff, and I could never remember anything, so I didn’t get an education.”
Shaun William George Ryder was born in Salford in 1962. His family was a loving one, although they'd never say that to one another. "Noooooo!" he says when I ask. (Ryder has a great way of letting you know if you're barking up the wrong tree.) "There was none of that! We say it to the kids all the time now, though, and it's hilarious, because they'll give my mam a kiss and hug her and she'll go like this…" He sits upright, frozen rigid, eyes wide with terror.
On top of the ADHD, Ryder is dyslexic, and his teachers forced him to write with his weaker right hand. It is no surprise that by 13 he was skipping school and taking on work ripping seats out of cinemas. He always knew how to make a few quid to tide him over, even if that usually meant “robbing things from people’s back gardens”. At 19, he was sacked from his post-office job for stealing parcels, but, by that point, the Happy Mondays had formed and were on their way to getting signed by Manchester’s most influential label, Factory Records.
The band were a musical oddity: a ramshackle mix of influences and street slang, inspired by the various music collections of Ryder’s huge extended family – “from Captain Beefheart to northern soul to Elton John”. While many guitar bands of the era drew solely on stiflingly white influences, the Happy Mondays embraced elements of funk, soul and hip hop. When Ryder’s mate brought the first ecstasy into Manchester (in a tube of toothpaste, so the story goes) he found himself personally tasked with spreading it through the city, mainly at Factory’s Hacienda nightclub, although the band would give it to their football-hooligan mates, too: “Just to watch them put their Stanley knives away and dance,” he says now.
Happy Mondays management tried sacking Derek once, when an argument led to Ryder snr walking onstage at Wembley and punching his son. 'Right in the f***ing nose, blood everywhere … but you can only sack your dad for a day'
Ecstasy also bled into the band’s music: their 1990 album, Pills ’n’ Thrills and Bellyaches, and its iconic single Step On, perfectly captured the indie/dance zeitgeist. The band toured the world, headlined stadiums and hoovered up every substance going. But by the time of their next album, the disappointing Yes Please, they were mired in addiction. Factory flew them to Barbados to record it (on the understanding there was no heroin on the island), only for Ryder to end up quite literally selling the Hugo Boss shirt off his back to stock up with the plentiful supply of local crack.
Shortly after its release Factory folded and the band split, although Ryder would make the first of many comebacks not long after, with Black Grape, in which the rapper (and fellow heroin addict) Kermit was enlisted to help forge an even looser, more debauched-sounding gospel and funk-addled party music.
Onboard throughout this journey was Ryder’s dad, Derek, who worked as a roadie and sound technician. That must have been interesting.
“It ruined our relationship for a long time,” admits Ryder, “because I was the boss and my dad didn’t like that.”
Did his dad witness all the band’s bad behaviour?
“Witness it? My dad joined in! We smoked crack together, we shared bongs … that just became normal behaviour from 18 onwards.”
Happy Mondays management tried sacking Derek once, when an argument over the sound led to Ryder snr walking onstage at Wembley and punching his son in front of 10,000 people. “Right in the f***ing nose, blood everywhere … but you can only sack your dad for a day.”
His dad might not have minded, but the band’s lairy tales of groupies and excess would surely be looked at through a different lens now.
“Oh, you couldn’t do it now!” he says. Then again, he’s not sure you could really do it then; most of their freedom was down to Factory not putting any constraints on them. “Labels always want the ‘real deal’, but when they discover them, and have to deal with where they come from, and their environments, it frightens them to death,” he says. “So they go out and find a band that look and sound like them instead – who they can control and make big.”
Ryder patched up his relationship with his father before his death, in 2018. And he has stayed great friends with Bez. The pair have become unlikely British national treasures in recent years, with a flair for reality TV: Bez won Celebrity Big Brother in 2005 and Ryder, ever savvy, says he realised such shows were where they needed to be in order to extend their careers. “That’s how you bring the fans in now. A kid sees us on TV, and the next minute he’s pressed his thumb and downloaded all the back catalogue and is looking at photos of when you was 18.”
Ryder is also old friends with Ian Brown, the Stone Roses singer – the pair used to meet up at the local drive-through McDonald's when their bands were taking off. I wonder what he makes of Brown's recent anti-vaccine and anti-mask statements. "Oh, that's just typical f***ing Ian," he snorts. "He can go dead Orson Welles, can Ian, thinking he's really intelligent."
Ryder, you sense, thinks there’s nothing more ridiculous than taking the pronouncements of a rock star seriously. “Ian’s just another of them pseudo intellectuals,” he says, before adding, as if there could be nothing more demonstrable of pseudo-intellectualism: “He was one of them guys who was 21 years old and didn’t even look at porn mags because it was detrimental to women!”
He is similarly unconcerned by recent comments from another local icon, Morrissey, including flirtation with far-right politicians: “Oh that’s just Morrissey being Morrissey. What do you expect?” Not that Ryder’s worried about falling out of public favour himself. “I’m not secretly a horrible nasty bastard. I’ve got nowt to tuck away.”
In fact, he looks back on much of the trouble he did get into and wonders if any of it could have been avoided if he’d known about his ADHD diagnosis. During the mid-1990s he was the only person to be officially banned from appearing live on Channel 4 after swearing during an appearance on TFI Friday, Chris Evans’s early-evening series. “But I didn’t go on that show thinking: ‘I’m going to swear and do all this.’ I’ve got ADHD, and so when I get caught up in exciting moments the Salford street urchin can come right out of me. But if I’d understood my ADHD diagnosis I probably wouldn’t have done it.”
Ryder is as keen as he has ever been for his album to do well; he says he never wants to stop making music. “When the Mondays split up I looked at the others who’d rather sign on the dole than work with me and Bez, and thought: Whoa, you’re going to throw this opportunity away and maybe never work in music again? There was no way we were doing that.”
Ryder says he always envisaged himself still making music at 60 if he could. What has surprised him, though, is how much more he enjoys it now. “I’m more happy with myself inside, more secure. People always ask if I miss the drugs and the partying. I’m a 58-year-old man – no, I don’t! It was great when I was 18, but things are f***ing great now. They’re better now.”
It seems a fitting way to sign off our chat. “Now I’ve just got to work out how to turn this thing off,” he says, grinning, as the screen spins upside down one last time. – Guardian
Visits from Future Technology is available to order here