BLACK GRAPE could only have been made in Manchester. The swagger, fun and cryptic humour seem hewn from a city historian AJP Taylor once described as offering an archetypally different way of English urban life to London. Both Shaun Ryder and Paul Leveridge, known as Kermit, came from edgy-but-cool parts of the city. In Shaun’s case Salford, (though I know better than to designate that side of the Irwell as Manchester in certain company) with Kermit originating Moss Side. For those unfamiliar, ‘the Moss’ lay in the shadow of Manchester City’s old stadium at Maine Road, and was one of the first multi-ethnic areas in Manchester. I recall as a youth once going there with a mate to score drugs. This guy had been around, but his customary levity vanished when he warned: “the Moss can get fookin heavy.” We were given the run-around, and eventually the address of this party. So I had gathered that. However, it wasn’t heavy on this particular night as we had terrific fun in the company of a weird and wonderful assortment of friendly strangers. They weren’t hanging back when it came to caning it. It was the type of scene that wouldn’t be unfamiliar to either Shaun or Kermit. (they were probably even there...)
So we have two restlessly creative men, both from the wrong side of the tracks, neither inclined to go to art school or enrol on an MFA programme, yet loaded with street smarts and musical talent, and wanting the world. Good old punk had told every scally they could have it, and a generation of us went for it in our own ways, with varying degrees of success. Shaun’s astonishing rise and fall with the Happy Mondays is the stuff of legend.
Drugs, and smack in particular, are almost custom-designed to ambush such personalities on route, to provide that distracting maze so many of us struggle to navigate our way out of at certain times in our lives. But drugs also brought Shaun and Kermit together. As the friendship developed, so too did a stunning collaboration. It’s Great When You’re Straight...Yeah, the ironically entitled album, which gave a nod to their hook up as drugs buddies around the grizzled fag end of Happy Mondays and Kermit’s band The Ruthless Rap Assassins. It was a storming phoenix rising from the ashes of the other projects that seemed to have run their course.
It’s Great When Your Straight...Yeah was one of my favourite albums of, well I’m calling Shaun from the airport in Milan, and he’s assuring me it was over twenty years ago. Black Grape followed this up with Stupid, Stupid, Stupid, which, while not hitting the giddy heights of its predecessor, had enough moments to cement the band as a fixture. Then...nothing. Till now.
Shaun’s triumphs, struggles and diversions have been well documented. The usual contract and money hassles, a best-selling account of life in the Mondays, a stunning electropunk album from nowhere in Amateur Night in the Big Top, a serious and informative investigation of UFO’s as an author and broadcaster, a reality TV bon vivant and finally, a life as a clean-living family man, which has supplanted his old ways. And of course, there was the reformation of the Happy Mondays.
Years of hard living, however, had taken their toll on Kermit. He would develop septicaemia and needed the transplant of a pig’s valve into his heart. Despite this, he was battling gamely back into music. I was in the video of the England Till I Die song Black Grape recorded for the European nations of 2016, and although I didn’t see Kermit or Shaun at the time of the filming, Andrea Vecchiato, who shot the video, conveyed that the rapper was struggling with health issues. Kermit however, would make a remarkable recovery from this life-threatening condition and operation, and this would be the catalyst for another Black Grape collaboration.
So I’m delighted to report that Black Grape are back on the road, and with new album Pop Voodoo that really does rock the fuck out of the discotheque. It’s a rewind to over twenty years ago and the glory days. Shaun’s word play has never been deployed to such devastating effect, and he scores a bullseye whether he hits the obvious targets (Trump), and the more obscure ones...well, find out for yourself. The world is in a bit of a state right now, and bullshit reigns more than ever, and perversely disguised as candour. We need Manc street sass, intelligence and wit more than ever right now. This album has that in spades.