Where To Start With... Black Grape
The history of music is littered with examples of both improbable success stories and tales of rock star excess, but it's hard to recall anyone in living memory who has personified both of these things simultaneously in quite the same way as Shaun Ryder. That's not a criticism or a dismissal of his precocious talent; Tony Wilson, the late Factory Records boss who handed Ryder's band Happy Mondays their first recording contract, once famously described him as the most important poet since W.B. Yeats. While that assertion might be a bit of a stretch - Wilson was hardly a man prone to understatement – we wouldn't be the first to suggest that Ryder, with the song 'Kinky Afro', is responsible for one of the greatest opening lyrics of the modern era: “Son, I'm thirty / I only went with your mother 'cause she's dirty”.
Even while Happy Mondays were at the height of their commercial success, releasing a string of hits like 'Step On' and 'Hallelujah', stories of their off-stage antics filled the newspapers. In one particularly memorable incident while in the midst of a UK tour, Ryder awoke in a Newcastle hotel to discover that he'd overslept and that his band, their manager and road crew had already left. Panicked, Ryder quickly dressed himself and hailed a cab to the city's largest venue, running onto the stage just as the band were kicking off their opening number. Unfortunately, the band was Simply Red – it turned out that the Mondays were playing at another venue down the road.
When Happy Mondays finally imploded after the release of their fourth album Yes Please! - the record often credited, perhaps unfairly, with driving Factory to bankruptcy – many thought they'd seen the last of Shaun Ryder. They were wrong.
Within a matter of months, Ryder was back in the studio with his erstwhile bandmate Bez, former Ruthless Rap Assassins members Paul 'Kermit' Leveridge and Ged Lynch, rapper Carl “Psycho” McCarthy, former Paris Angels guitarist Paul Wagstaff and bassist Danny Williams. Naming themselves Black Grape, the group began recording new material even before they'd been offered a record contract, but by 1995 they'd signed to American label Radioactive and released their debut album It's Great When You're Straight...Yeah, which spawned three Top 20 singles and shot straight to the top of the UK Album Chart.
Building on the 'baggy' sound that the Mondays had made their own, Black Grape added a large dose of hip-hop, plenty of tongue-in-cheek biblical references and a generous helping of unbridled chaos. If the album's title was a conscious attempt by Ryder to draw a line between his former life and his new one, the distinction wasn't immediately obvious; Ryder's habit for dropping F-bombs on live television already had the Chris Evans-hosted TFI Friday on a final warning from the show's broadcaster, Channel 4, before Black Grape's expletive-laden cover of The Sex Pistols' 'Pretty Vacant' ensured that the show would henceforth be broadcast on a five-minute time delay.
Although a second album Stupid, Stupid, Stupid arrived in 1998, within months tensions between the band had boiled over. Ryder sacked the rest of the band while they were in the midst of a UK tour – and that, it seemed, was that.
But here we are, 20 years on, and Hell has officially frozen over. After signing with Alan McGee's Creation Management in 2015, Shaun Ryder and Kermit are back once more and their new album, Pop Voodoo, crashes into stores this week. The sound will be familiar to fans of both Black Grape and Happy Mondays Ryder's stream-of-consciousness lyrics take centre stage, and that sense of chaotic abandon remains perfectly intact throughout the new album.
You can find the video for Pop Voodoo's title track below, beneath that we've picked out five of their finest moments as a refresher course for those who spent most of the 1990s too blitzed to remember any of it...
'Reverend Black Grape'
The first single from their 1995 debut opened Black Grape's account in typically controversial style, with its Ryder-penned lyrics taking a swipe at the Catholic church: “Oh Pope he got the Nazis to clean up their messes / In exchange for gold and paintings, he gave them new addresses.” The song also borrows lyrics from the hymn 'O Come, All Ye Faithful' and included a clip of Hitler speaking at a rally. Despite all of this, and the inclusion if the line “put on your Reeboks, man, and go play f***ing tennis”, the song enoyed plenty fo radio airplay and debuted at No.9 in the UK Singles Chart.
'In The Name Of The Father'
Black Grape followed up their debut single with another track laced with biblical references, as well as the immortal line that credits astronaut Neil Armstrong with possessing “balls bigger than King Kong.” Incidentally, Ryder has previously called the film of the same name starring Daniel Day Lewis as one of his all-time favourites, but the song was believed to be inspired by his and Kermit's Catholic upbringings, as unlikely as that might seem.
'Kelly's Heroes' reportedly started life as a straight-up hip-hop tune, which originally featured the chorus lyric 'most of these guys snort cocaine' until they were gently persuaded to change the line to something a bit more radio-friendly. A song lampooning the public's obsession with celebrity culture and hero worship, it was also one of the standout moments on their debut album.
The opening gambit from Black Grape's sophomore album Stupid, Stupid, Stupid kicks off with a cheekily manipulated sample from a TV ad which aired in the 1980s and featured Ronald and Nancy Reagan warning against the use of marijuana as part of the then-President's 'war on drugs'. In Black Grape's version, however, Reagan can be heard saying “despite our best efforts, shortages of marijuana are now being reported.”
'Marbles (Why You Say Yes?)'
Our final pick is another cut from Black Grape's second album, and the last single they would release until this year's comeback (not including the best-forgotten 'unofficial' England Euro 2016 single featuring Keith Allen). Ryder's blast against dishonest politicians turned out to be a parting shot, but sadly it seems every bit as relevant today as it did then.