happy mondays shaun ryder on what makes a writer
With his finest works gathered in a new book, Wrote For Luck, we speak to the man Tony Wilson described as “on a par with W. B. Yeats”.
There’s a bit in an old interview with the Happy Mondays, published by i-D sometime during the summer of 1990, where former editor, Matthew Collin, states: “The consequences of what The Happy Mondays have done are far-reaching and have yet to be fully appreciated”.
He’s talking of the band’s impact on British dance culture. The way, as he puts it, they “embraced a new openness where British indie dance links arms with Italian house music on the dancefloor”. But he could also be talking about the writing of the band's lead singer, Shaun Ryder.
Tony Wilson knew. He once described Shaun’s work as “on a par with W. B. Yeats”. And while Tony Wilson was known for the occasional flight of verbose fantasy, he also knew that Shaun’s lyrics -- a sort of comic book strip jigsaw of overheard conversations, TV bulletins, deadbeats and oddballs -- were among the best to have been committed to vinyl record. Even if, as Shaun put it in that same i-D feature, “I sound brainless in a lot of interviews” (a symptom of the music press attempting to imitate the singer’s Manchester accent in print).
The finest of them have been gathered in a new book, Wrote For Luck, published by Faber & Faber. The latest in a series that has previously collected works from Jarvis Cocker, Kate Bush, Scott Walker, Van Morrison and Billy Bragg, it’s a fitting testament to one of pop music’s greatest living poets. Just make sure you don’t call him that to his face.
Hello Shaun! Is it a weird thing to have to do, looking back over your work in this way?
Not as bad as the autobiography. I mean the thing about the words is, I’ve got them on autocue all the fucking time. Three or four years ago we did the Bummed tour. That was the first time I’d heard that album since coming out of the studio. And I was like, fucking hell! Pat yourself on the back, there’s some alright stuff. Because I just always move on to the next thing.
What was your initial reaction when you were asked to do this then?
Fucking hell. I mean, I write songs, I go out and perform and I do a bit of telly. That’s my brainwave. Anything off that it’s like, fuck me, I’ve got to do interviews and press and all that bollocks. I just can’t be arsed. I’m busy enough.
In the book you say you never saw yourself as one of those "tortured artists, pouring his heart out". Do you consider yourself an artist now?
I mean, what it is, it’s default how I got the job as songwriter and frontman. We were all kids, wanting to be in a band, and play instruments. I wanted to be a drummer, but I couldn’t play the drums., And out of all of us, when we started singing, I was the best out of the bunch. So I got the job. We was really lucky, obviously, because we got on vinyl before we should have, because of who we knew. Phil Sachs, who sold us our jeans on his market stall, knew Rob Gretton and Mike Pickering and Tony Wilson. He was friends with them all. So through him we started making a record. We’d only just started playing our instruments. Delightful? It was dreadful! Fucking dreadful! I thought you had to write, “he said, she said, love you said”. Nah, you just fucking write about anything. I used to rhyme the chippy menu and make songs up when I was a kid, making everyone laugh by taking the piss out the teachers, making poems and songs up about them. That was my job and I was the best at it. So when it came to writing songs, a part could be something that Bez has said, something that’s happened. Then there’s something on the news, somebody says something or whatever and makes a big statement. And what I do is I just stick all this shit together, and somehow make it fit all the different parts that I’m tripping out on. I write short comic book stories sort of thing. In my head, I visualise pictures. Every line, I visualise it. So I write for people to get images.
When you talk about your writing you have this tendency to downplay it, somewhat… Is that a northern thing, do you think?
Right, okay. A real artist comes alive when he’s on stage. He’s only that person when he’s on stage and he connects with everything. Then when he walks off… Well me, in front of my mates, I’m the biggest show off, the same mouthy git that I was when I was a kid. But then walk up on a stage and I fucking clam up. I don’t want people looking at me. What’s that about? And that’s how it was until a couple of years ago. I fucking hated going up there. It was like I was naked. So obviously I wasn’t a real artist. Because I didn’t come alive and feel this thing. When I got off stage it was, where’s the party? I’d come alive.
Do you ever think that the band’s reputation for partying meant that people didn’t always appreciate the lyrics more?
It never bothered me that. We needed the press. That’s why, if someone came from the NME, we’d fucking have a line in front of him. Smoke fucking smack on tinfoil. We didn’t give a fuck. We weren't hiding from anybody. So early doors, it was going to be a little bit in the music papers, next thing it’s a big thing, double page spread, all because you’re smoking weed, partying, and all that lot. That elevated us. So you can’t knock it. There’s loads of bands that came up when we did. They was better than us but where the fuck are they? You’ve got to use what you’ve got. And I understood the power of that. I mean, we was probably the first fucking band who started talking to Piers Morgan. Fucking Piers Morgan from the Sun? We’re not talking to him. It was like, whey, Piers, we’re having a line.
What makes someone a writer?
You just do it, don’t you? It’s like, what makes someone a painter or an artist. You just do it. I mean, I fucked around with words and making songs up, not even knowing what that was. I couldn’t spell, I’m dyslexic. So I was writing in text language in fucking 1971. R U OK? So, it’s just inside you. And I suppose it’s just how you feel. They’re are probably some fantastic writers who are working at Tescos because they don’t believe that they can go out and be a big author. And that sort of mentality holds a lot of people back because they think, oh, I’m just supposed to get this job here and do that. Then they’re working in fucking Greggs and they go home and there’s these fucking masterpieces painted but they just don’t believe what they can do.
How has the way you write changed over the years?
It really hasn’t. The subject matter hasn’t really changed either. I’m still getting my ideas from the world, from the telly, sitting around with me mates, discussing all kinds of bollocks, having a laugh. The same shit.
How do you know when to stop writing?
Well, you know what? I got writer’s block. No matter what I fucking tried, it just didn’t come back. So, yeah, 2005 or 2006 when we did that Monday’s album Uncle Dysfunktional, I was dry as fuck. You’re gonna make an album and I had fucking nothing to say. There was a lot going on as well, that I had to deal with. Twelve fucking years in, what’s it called, receivership, where a 100% of your money gets took off you, so you can work but you don’t get any of the dough. So there was a lot of stuff going on. And I was just fucking dry. If it wasn’t for Sunny Levine and his production on that album. Because Sunny’s brilliant. It’s like every album we’ve done with the Monday’s, we’ve gone a different way with production. So that really fit in with that. But as far as lyrically, I was fucking dry as a bone.
So what happens then?
Well, you try your best. But that thing inside you’s not there. Then it comes back, boom! It’s back.
What does it feel like when it’s back?
Fucking great. Like walking in a fucking comfy, big slipper.
Do you have a lot of unfinished things?
I used to scribble all sorts of shit down. I’d turn up, in the early days, with fucking 18 different beer mats with number one on it, two, three, trying put all this fucking bits together where I’d scribbled shit down. I usually find, right, that the stuff when I sit down and try and write, then I go away and come back to it, I usually find it’s a load of shit. So I just get spontaneous bursts of… For example, “You’re twisting my melon, man, call the cops”. If something comes into my head then that goes down. It’s only at a later date that I start structuring things and putting them together.
Is there a lyric you’re particularly proud of?
I mean, there’s all sorts. I’m sort of proud of them all. I mean, I can laugh at some of them now. When I was learning to write. Learning to write while going out on fucking vinyl. I can laugh at how bad they was. They are! There’s some wacky ones. And the truth is, until I see them on the fucking autocue, I can’t remember half of them. Someone’s got to start me off and then it just fits back in. Give me the first line and I’m off. It’s all still in there.
What advice would you give your younger self?
Oh, just go for it, babe. Everything that’s in there, just let it out.