Vodka for Breakfast
UNITED, JUNE 2000
Where were you when Manchester United won the Treble?
Shaun William Ryder remembers where he was that starry Nou Camp night. “Er, yeah, well I was in rehab,” he recalls, managing to sound sheepish, vague and bold pretty much simultaneously. “Bez went there in a camper van, me pals and everyone else was there but I was otherwise engaged. I got to see the match on the box though, I was just going mad anyway, y’know what I mean? I got right into it.”
So into it, future Happy Mondays gigs saw crowd favourite ‘Hallelujah’ turned into the syllable-similar ‘Barcelona’. Word got out that the band were covering the song made famous by Freddie Mercury and Montserrat Caballé. They weren’t, but then they did. Or rather Shaun did, with fellow United fan Russell Watson who, according to Ryder, “is the new fucking Pavarotti”.
“He’s not 29 stone, mind,” adds the one-time pride of Madchester. “He’s more the skinny Salford version. But have you heard his voice? It’s amazing.”
Old Trafford regulars may already be aware of that, having heard Watson sing at the home match against Tottenham before the team headed out to Barcelona. The rest of the world should be prepared: Watson plans to bring opera to the masses.
“The problem is,” begins the would-be Pavarotti, “that you flick through the channels on Christmas Day, BBC2 comes on and you see these two big geezers, a soprano and a tenor. You think, ‘Don’t want any of that,’ and switch over to Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. What you need to do is pick the best bits out – the sort of material and repertoire that makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. That’s why I think opera and sport mix well, ’cause I think the classical music and the big roaring orchestra and those big booming notes generate the same sort of passion as say, Beckham putting the ball on the edge of the box and banging it in the top corner.”
In full free-kicking mode, Russell is currently recording an album with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. “Opera with a twist”, he calls it. And for the first single, the twist is Ryder. Which, as twists go, isn’t bad...
“I said I’d do it as long as we could have a laugh with it, take the piss and still sort of like, make it good,” clarifies Shaun.
A few recording sessions later, the opus was complete and all that was left to do was make a video. In Barcelona, naturally. Which is why we find ourselves under the morning sun of Baja beach surrounded by a film crew busy erecting a makeshift goal in the sand. Meanwhile, Shaun and Russell sit under a canopy beside the Hotel Arts, venue of United’s all-night party after their victory in the Nou Camp.
“Want some?” says Shaun, offering me his breakfast: a bottle of Smirnoff.
“Perhaps we could take a few pictures,” suggests Paul our photographer. “Shaun, could you look animated?”
“No problem,” comes the reply, as on cue Ryder launches into a bunch of familiar poses while chanting throughout: “I’ve got a big fish in the microwave, I’ve got a big fish in the microwave...”
It’s 10am and the day has already taken a surreal turn.
Several set ups and a few hours later, we’re in Placa de Santa Maria, a square not far from Las Ramblas, to film some of the more plot-centric moments of the video. The story is that Shaun and Russell are chasing what may be an imaginary girl around the city. Maite, a Barcelona-based model, plays the girl in question, sitting perkily astride a Vespa Typhoon 80 in trousers that look painted on, while the crew try and find Shaun.
Eventually, we’re all encouraged to join in the search. Our party finds him, several streets over, in a local bar, the Can Gusto, where he is knocking back cans of Estrella Dramm with, well, gusto...
“I just like wandering off,” he grins. “Although, to be fair, this shoot isn’t too bad. If you’re filming somewhere like Jamaica you’ve got to get up at half-four in the morning then break from one ‘til about seven. There’s been less hanging around here. The crew have been demon.”
Talk of Jamaica leads, somehow, to a discussion about the Salford Quays, where Ryder recently had his car stolen. “It’s supposed to be nice on the Quays, all dead, like, fairytale land. But some Salford gorillas had me car, me boy-racer-about-town car. And then they robbed Harry Ramsden’s...”
“They got away with ten grand in chips and gravy.”
Ryder’s conversation, like his lyrics, is random, sometimes unintelligible but full of appealing phrases. And, occasionally, just insightful enough to remind you of the strange, vital, spark that lurks in the recesses of his unique mind.
He’s 37 now and, when his mouth’s closed, with no rotting teeth or damaged gums on show, he looks pretty good. Before the crack cocaine and the heroin, the gigs and the lifestyle, he used to be a postman. But he was always a United fan.
“I’ve supported them since I was a kid. I was born a fan, I think. But I’m a bit of an armchair viewer these days because I’m away a lot. I used to go to games. My older cousins or whatever took me or, now and then, me dad. I’ve got a picture from about 1969 with me George Best kit on and a George Best haircut.”
Talk of Best segues into an impromptu review of the recent biopic Best: The Movie.
“Have you seen it?” asks Ryder, shaking his head in sorrow. “You have? Right, well explain this to me. Why is it, that when Hollywood make a film like say Goodfellas, they take the part of Henry Hill – not the best looking geezer in real life, is he? – and give it to Ray Liotta. But with the Best film, the people who’ve made that have done it the other way round. Best was a cool dude. He had the coolest haircut, the best clothes, top side-parting, top beard. Now the guy that played him might have been a good actor but no way was he cool. His haircut was wrong, his beard was wrong. He didn’t have the right clobber on. Do you know what I mean? What the fuck have they done that for?”
He appears genuinely upset about the film’s unsatisfactory aesthetics. Time to steer the conversation in another direction. Music, perhaps. But the former champion of baggy and leader of two of Britain’s’ most chaotic (and at times original) bands – Happy Mondays and Black Grape – seems happier talking about football.
“I don’t know...” he sighs. “I’ve never really been comfortable being a ‘frontman’ or Mr. Magazine Man, you know what I mean? I’d rather get into other aspects of music. I had to sing and be a frontman in a band because that’s how I had to get into the music world but I don’t need the ego, I don’t need all that sort of fanny. I just like making music.”
Frequent legal wrangling and continuous money woes means he needs to keep fronting but his views on the Mondays seem practical rather than affectionate.
“There isn’t a future for the Mondays. I mean, if any gigs come up, and they pay decent money and they say ‘you only have to do half an hour or 45 minutes and we’ll pay you this,’ then I’ll do it. But I can’t see us doing any new albums because I don’t like many of them any more.”
“Them’ includes his own brother Paul, one of the many close friends, family, management and colleagues no longer on the Ryder Christmas Card list. “Life moves on,” he shrugs, nodding acknowledgment at Tony, the video’s director who is indicating it is time for Ryder to take his mark. As he gets up to leave, another George Best thought pops into his head.
“He used to have a boutique on Bridge Street and when I was about ten right, we had to catch a bus right outside his shop. We always looked in the window to see what clothes he’d got in. He was the dude.”
At the memory, his face lights up like the midday sun and, for a moment, he looks almost youthful – his smile reaching his eyes.
Idols can have that effect.