The new fan-based oral history of Madchester’s leading figure is a mix of hero-worship, nostalgia and self-aggrandisement.
For a brief period of time, the Happy Mondays were the most exciting band in the world, an indefinable collision of indie, dance and sludgy incoherence that somehow or other came together into an unlikely whole that clearly wouldn’t last. They sat at the centre of a Madchester scene that, in retrospect, never really existed beyond the fevered desperation of music journalists who wanted to lump a whole bunch of bands together that had little in common – opportunists like the image-fixated Stone Roses who dropped their shoe-gazing style (but not really the sound) the moment that the fashionable winds began to change, and others who came along either as Mondays imitators or simply hitched their wagon to a scene based on geography. Every one of them feels a bit of a fraud when looked at now – apart from the Mondays, who were always authentically themselves. It all fizzled out in a mess of drugs, overly-polished dance remixes, dodgy hangers-on and fashion-hungry fans and trend-chasers who expressed their individuality by looking exactly like each other, but for a while – up to the triumphant 1990 G-Mex show that felt at the time like a triumphant celebration but now seems like a peak that could only be followed by decline – there was something extraordinarily exciting about that whole time and place. For a year or so, Manchester really was the coolest place on earth.
The fact that Shaun Ryder is still alive is often seen as miraculous – but even in those early days in the late 1980s, it felt as though he was one of those rock stars who would be indestructible, and so it was. While the idea of people as ‘national treasures’ feels somewhat repulsive and contrived, if anyone deserves the label then surely it is Ryder, who is never less than entertaining. In a world of studied image, Ryder always seems to be without any sort of guile – and whether he’s being ‘pushed off a chair by a ghost’ in a ludicrous ghost-hunting show, searching for UFOs or simply swearing his way through TV shows with comedy partner Bez, it’s hard not to be entertained by him.
The Shaun Ryder story has, of course, been told several times in various ways. It’s a compulsively grotesque tale, a cautionary tale of rock ‘n’ roll excess run rampant. Unsurprisingly, lots of people have entertaining anecdotes about their dealings with him and the rest of the band. Equally unsurprisingly, lots more people have remarkably boring anecdotes about going to gigs that are probably only interesting to the person telling the story and fleshing it out with ‘I was mad, I was’ exaggerations and boasts. Shaun Ryder’s Book of Mumbo Jumbo is somewhat unbalanced with the latter.
I’ll confess – the title Shaun Ryder’s Book of Mumbo Jumbo implied either a stream of consciousness from the man himself or, perhaps even more excitingly, Ryder investigating oddball belief – both of which seem exciting propositions. What we get in Richard Houghton’s book is something rather different.
Oral histories are – at their best – fascinating tales where the passing of time has allowed tongues to loosen, and where the truth can be uncovered through multiple recollections – where one person’s story is self-aggrandising, another’s might pull the rug from under their ego. But these oral histories work best when they are told by people who are directly involved. When you start to pull fan recollections into the equation, the story becomes diluted through a combination of rose-tinted memories and pathetic boasts about how many drugs the mid-teen fan had taken before going to the gig – possibly given to them by the band – and how absolutely mad it all was. There’s a whiff of bullshit about some of the stories in this book – a desperate attempt by people at the wrong end of middle age pretending that they were rebellious scallies and twenty-four-hour party people rather than the very, very ordinary teenage trend followers that they really were. The bigger the boast, the less likely I am to believe it – but then, I’m just a cynic. And frankly, even if these stories are all true, there’s certainly an element of ‘who cares?’ because invariably, the band are little more than bit-part players in some juvenile boast about gobbling bucketloads of drugs and being a bit of a geezer from anonymous people who you suspect have never done actually done anything exciting in their lives.
Still, we can allow a bit of artistic licence when it comes to memory. The real problem is that if you solicit fan memories, you’ll probably only get the positive ones. No one is going to hold enough of a grudge about a shitty gig from 1987 to want to write about it a quarter of a decade later, and even the sloppiest show will be reimagined as a great show – “the band turned up two hours late, Shaun forgot all the words, they walked off after three songs and it was brilliant”. The reluctance to say the unsayable – that your favourite band were an embarrassment to themselves when you saw them – is understandable, as is the desire to reinvent a terrible show as somehow brilliant because Shaun’s a rebel, man. But it doesn’t make for a very convincing history. The worst biographies are little more than hagiographies, and that’s often what we end up with when fans tell the story.
This, and a curious preponderance of “I walked past Shaun on the street but didn’t say anything” memories that pop up later on rather threaten to sink this book. Luckily, there are also memories from people who know Ryder and worked with him – and while many of these are also a bit forelock-tugging, they at least seem relevant, and much of it is full of undiminished astonishment at just how chaotic the Mondays were. Only Manchester DJ and Factory PR man Tony Michaelides is openly critical of the band’s behaviour and so stands out here – unfairly, I think – as a bit of a prig; but the book probably needed more of this sort of thing for balance.
Of course, I fully admit that I am missing the point of this book. It’s clearly a ‘by the fans, for the fans’ affair, a celebration of Ryder rather than a standard biography. In that sense, it does what it is supposed to. It’s a fan memoir more than anything, and as such, will no doubt appeal to other fans of a certain age eager to relive their brief moments of teenage rebellion. This extends to the illustrations, which include some rare memorabilia but also include lots of photos of fans – some from the time, some modern. And the soundbite nature of the book means that, at most, a story will run for three or four pages, and many are just a few lines long. It’s very much a bathroom book in that sense, the sort of thing you can dip in and out of – and in truth, it does exactly what it sets out to do, and any criticism I might have should be mitigated by that fact. It’s not the book for me, but then it isn’t aimed at me.
Ultimately, this is a souvenir for the committed rather than a thorough history – if you are not a fan, this is not the book to convert you. If you are a fan, you might well appreciate and relate to these fan stories – and will probably be in the market for the limited edition package that comes complete with a seven-inch single of unreleased track Old Boy (not, perhaps, Ryder’s finest moment but a welcome addition nevertheless), a signed photo, a wrist band, rolling papers, facsimile tickets and passes and exclusive art prints. You can buy it here: https://thisdayinmusicbooks.com/product/shaun-ryders-book-of-mumbo-jumbo/
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