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. (Fuck me, 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.
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.