The story of Black Grape

“Every three months I have a shot of testosterone up my backside, and it’s great! It feels like I’m 21 again!”

After addiction to everything from smack to crack to Rennie indigestion tablets, it’s fair to assume there’s not many drugs that Shaun Ryder hasn’t put inside his body over the years, so this must sit firmly the healthier end of the chemical spectrum for him. But going back to being 21? Would that really be so wise?

This is, after all, a man who, at that tender age, was just embarking on a career as singer with the Happy Mondays that became as well known for extra-curricular excess and surreal mischief as it did his inspired, unhinged lyrics and louche charisma, and his band’s warped but wildly original funk-rock racket.

“Well, 21 without all the bullshit that goes with being 21,” he quickly adds.

Not that Shaun Ryder has ever shown any desire to grow up any quicker than is absolutely necessary.

By his early 30s, the Mondays had imploded after recording their hit-and-miss (if often underrated) fourth album Yes Please! in Barbados. While many observers feared he was finished as a creative force, within a couple of years he had suddenly re-emerged in Black Grape, alongside perennial Mondays partner in crime Bez (on maracas and vibes if nothing else immediately detectable) and ex-Ruthless Rap Assassin Paul ‘Kermit’ Leveridge. With the help of American producer and multi-instrumentalist Danny Saber, they made one of the best albums of the ‘90s in the shape of It’s Great When You’re Straight… Yeah.

They may have split only three years later after a disappointing second outing and, in Kermit’s case, a close encounter with the grim reaper, but 20 years on from that iconic October 1995 release, Ryder and Kermit are back, fighting fit and 50-something, with a 20-date UK and Ireland tour.

**The cover of Black Grape’s 1995 album, ‘It’s Great When You’re Straight… Yeah!’ and right, Kermit and Shaun **(Photo: Mike Prior/Redferns)

Shaun is in spritely form when TeamRock calls him at home in Manchester (an improvement on a previous occasion in the late 1990s, when he seemed as hung over as Oliver Reed after rising from the dead, and punctuated every second answer with ‘gorrany coke, dude?’). Maybe he’s had a fresh injection. Which would be entirely right and proper if so, because this time there’s a perfectly good medical reason for his intoxication. “A few years ago when I ballooned in size, I found out I had no testosterone, no thyroid gland, and pneuomonia. WIth the thyroid thing, it’s hereditary, it’s in the family, and if you don’t take your Diotroxin you go into a coma and die – and your testosterone is all connected with that so I have no testosterone. If I didn’t have the injections I wouldn’t be able to get out of bed in the morning.”

Kermit, meanwhile, we’re told, is also in good shape for a man who very nearly passed on from this earthly realm during the latter days of Black Grape.

“Yeah, he’s looking great now. He looks about 28. He’s in a good place – not bad considering how ill he got.”

More of which later, but that predicament had its origins in the lifestyle choices that partly brought Shaun and Kermit together in the first place.

“Me and Kermit was mates on the Manchester smack scene, so when we started making music together we got a lot of people thinking it was gonna lead to disaster. I had a lot of music people in Manchester telling me I should be doing this, I should be grateful for that, you’re doing the wrong thing here… so the best thing was to keep your mouth shut, let all these people tell you what you should be doing and you fucked up, and then come out with a number one album. Which is what we did.”

And what a record it was. The picture of terrorist fugitive Carlos the Jackal on the cover was an apt reflection of Shaun and Bez’s outlaw status by this point, but this was a triumphant return to indie-rock’s top table. The loose-limbed grooves of Reverend Black Grape and Tramazi Party were offset by Shaun and Kermit’s freewheeling tag-team banter that took in Jesus, Batman, psychoactive drugs and the Catholic church sheltering fugitive war criminals – and those were just the bits we understood.

And while you might assume the album’s title was somewhat ironic, it’s not as simple as that, reckons Shaun.

“It should have been called ‘It’s Great When You’re On Prozac’, cos I’d been put on it back then, and it was the big thing – half the population was on it in the mid-90s. So for a while life was great – for 18 months or so anyway, and I did feel straight. But then things creep in again.”

We must, of course, take these accounts with a healthy pinch of salt, because it’s not entirely clear whether he himself knows quite what he got up to during those heady days. “I remember certain bits,” he later admits, “but put it this way – I was seven years old when the 60s ended and I can remember the 60s a lot better than I can the 90s…”

Whatever was going on behind the scenes of Black Grape, by the spring of 1996 it certainly seemed as if some unhealthy old habits had come back to haunt them. Kermit was hospitalised with septicaemia, a form of blood poisoning, the result, according to the band of ‘drinking dirty water’. Media correspondents were warned by associates of the band that any suggestion that his ills could have a different cause would not be looked upon kindly.

I interviewed Shaun at the recording of their unofficial Euro ‘96 song England’s Irie, and Kermit had just come out of hospital, walking with a stick and looking painfully frail – cadaverous in fact, not unlike Michael Jackson after his transformation in the Thriller video. When I mentioned that Keith Richards once claimed to have had his blood changed, Kermit casually remarked, “Oh yeah, I had that – twice.”

Clearly, he was not in a good way.

Later, during an all-night recording session, Shaun offered me a little pick-me-up. Judging by its squidgy green consistency, it wasn’t Prozac.

“It’s good shit, man,” he assured me. “Swiss army use it to keep em goin’ overnight’”

Although I had previously lived my life by a rough rule of thumb that told me never to imbibe anything that Shaun Ryder regarded as ‘good shit’, I gave into temptation. The next thing I remember was shivering uncontrollably and licking a radiator several hours later.

No wonder we hear so little of the Swiss army’s great military victories.

On that basis, we can perhaps conclude that our hero wasn’t quite living as sensible a life as his doctor might have prescribed.

At first, this didn’t seem to have too negative an effect on the band. In Kermit’s enforced absence from the band, his friend Carl ‘Psycho’ McCarthy joined, and stayed on after their ailing comrade returned to the fold. Black Grape’s second album Stupid Stupid Stupid proved a disappointment, despite its best moments, Get Higher and Marbles, sounding pretty tidy when you play them back now. “I still think there’s some good stuff on that record,” Shaun insists, but it didn’t quite have the same joyous fizz and riotous invention oozing from its grooves, and that might be because all was not well within the camp even when health issues were put to one side. Kermit and Carl had already formed their own short-lived hip-hop side project, Manmade, who released their sole single Patches around the same time as Stupid Stupid Stupid came out.

“There was egos involved as well as the drugs thing,” says Shaun. “Carl and Kermit thought they was gonna be the next Biggie and Tupac. They hadn’t been on Top of the Pops and in the tabloid press before, so it affected them more, you know? Meanwhile I’d been on that hamster’s wheel for 10 years, doing albums, tours, press, and I was exhausted. I ended up with writer’s block, and it all went tits up.”

Ryder ended up firing the whole band, and within a year was back touring with the reformed Happy Mondays. Meanwhile, Kermit’s problems with Septicaemia still weren’t over.

“He got seriously ill again,” says Shaun, “to the point where he was at death’s door in around 1998. They actually gave him the last rites in Monsall hospital.”

Thankfully, he recovered once more, and 17 years on, he and Ryder are ready to relive the glory days of one of the Britpop era’s most mercurial, if oft-forgotten outfits.

Ryder himself has been through the mill a fair bit since, with a legal dispute meaning he had to pay former managers Nick and Gloria Nicholls his entire earnings for 12 years up until 2010, and struggles with various drugs left him with chronic heartburn, which he self-medicated by guzzling Rennie indigestion pills, with the result that he often frothed at the mouth, and people assumed it was due to more toxic substances he’d been taking.

But he’s adamant now that those troubles are behind him.

“I’m 53 in August, and age comes with all sorts of shit, so since my girls were born (he has daughters age six and seven, to add to four other children from previous relationships) I haven’t relapsed anything. I’ve been lucky to become an older parent, because the first time round I was making a career so I was never there – those kids are in their 20s now and I don’t know ‘em. It’s good to have another chance to be a proper dad.”

And what of Shaun’s perennial partner in crime, Bez? At one point in the early 2000s, in a surreal, sitcom-style scenario, the pair were living in neighbouring flats in Hadfield-in-the-High-Peak, the town where TV comedy series The League of Gentlemen was filmed.

Bez in 1995, and right, the cover art for Happy Mondays’ 1990 album, ‘Pills ‘n’ Thrills and Bellyaches’ Photo: Hayley Madden/Redferns

“Bez isn’t an official member of Black Grape this time round,” Shaun explains. “He was in the videos and some of the press shots, and he played with us recently because our first gig was doing a gig for his Reality Party – but he won’t be doing the tour.

“We’re still mates though – it’s like a sexless marriage. We’ve been together over 30 years, and at the end of this Black Grape tour I’ll go and do a tour to celebrate 25 years of Pills ’N’ Thrills with him and the rest of the Mondays.”

He’s also enthused about doing justice to Black Grape’s music with the new shows – which may yet be followed by a new album.

“It sounds great,” he says. In rehearsals, me and Kermit have still got it and we’ve bonded really well again on and off stage, and as writing partners. It’s better than ever, actually, because we’re actually compos mentis this time, and enjoying it for what it is.”

So any regrets about all those years that have slipped out of the memory bank?

“Nah, not really. I would say to anyone, you’ll go to bed one day when you’re 18 and you’ll wake up and you’re 53 – so go and enjoy it.”

Black Grape are on tour now. For full details, visit their official website.

Johnny Sharp

Johnny is a regular contributor to Prog and Classic Rock magazines, both online and in print. Johnny is a highly experienced and versatile music writer whose tastes range from prog and hard rock to R’n’B, funk, folk and blues. He has written about music professionally for 30 years, surviving the Britpop wars at the NME in the 90s (under the hard-to-shake teenage nickname Johnny Cigarettes) before branching out to newspapers such as The Guardian and The Independent and magazines such as Uncut, Record Collector and, of course, Prog and Classic Rock