Shaun Ryder: Visits from Future Technology
Producer: Sunny Levine
Out on 20th August
Like the discovery of a time capsule buried below ground for aeons, the Poet Laureate of the Dispossessed, Shaun Ryder, sticks a screwdriver into its stiff, crispy lid and unveils to an increasingly expanding, ever-interested demographic of fans the vast galaxy of experiences contained within – making Visits From Future Technology an essential listen for all.
Shaun Ryder once terrified me.
I mean, he terrified everybody.
Because E stands for Everybody. Which they don’t teach in school, but they should.
‘And now class, the fifth letter in the alphabet is E, it stands for Everybody. You and me, right here and right now, together in the same space. Isn’t that lovely?’
‘What did you learn at school today, Ryan?’
‘Learned about E mum. I want E’.
But he terrified me, positively so, before I realised he was in the Happy Mondays as the smiling piper fronting the band, themselves musically, culturally, leading the charge of frenzied, fashionable, street smart youth culture kicking open the floodgates where oceans of serotonin are waiting to be unleashed. The zeitgeist that appetised thousands located at the Hacienda, the Northern Danceteria, smack bang at the beating heart of all this energy, with Factory as the forefront for its artistic projects and other, musical endeavours along with other main-Fac Mancs, New Order.
He terrified me before I realised he was in Black Grape and before I realised he was this cosmic beam of light from Salford. This comical breath of fresh air was for Wilson what Monroe was to Warhol; a vehicle of provocation, an inescapable photographic silkscreen adorning every front and facet of this great citadel, specifically Princess Street, specifically when Fac220 emblazoned the office walls with the Mondays album, 1988s’ Bummed.
He was the head in Dare, the single by Gorillaz from their album Demon Days in 2005. It was just Ryder’s cybernetically enhanced head, without body, contained within a nightmarish light show of a laboratory, draped in wires and devices, concealed behind a fusuma, only to be exposed when Noodle, the group’s fictitious guitar player, feels the need to twist and twirl around this jerking, animatronic figure in the thick, black sunglasses to a filthy, throbbing, haunted electro-stomper.
Not long after, and a lot like the discovery of Ryder’s brilliant new album, I find It’s Great When You’re Straight…Yeah from ’95 by Black Grape at the house my step-dad is leaving to move in with my mum. It just arrives. It just has to be found.
A smug figure with yellow skin, sunglasses firmly fitted to his face. A face which belongs to an icon, now National Treasure, who has ripped himself from the comic strips of the city streets and explodes into action in the way only a Poet Laureate of his kind of warped, wacky vernacular, can.
Like W.B. Yeats, like Mark. E. Smith, this is Shaun William Ryder’s poetry, his pop art, his soup can, his working, inexorable genius and illustrious vibrancy for the modern age to, once again, realise is a vital substance pumping through the arteries of the modern, music landscape; one increasingly taking itself too seriously as the tyres of the times grind in the mush and sludge of the cultural mud, the heavy, hardening societal cement.
And now this…a new solo album by the anthropomorphic embodiment of a city, Manchester’s mad hatter, the English Lou Reed, who, on his incredible new album, offers up a range of different styles and serves up an array of subject matters that quintessentially twist the melon’s flesh until a melody pops out.
Visits from Future Technology is released on his own SWRX Recordings imprint and produced by Sunny Levine. Started in 2010 in Venice Beach, California, the main single Mumbo Jumbo was pretty much completed during these sessions before Ryder was to partake in I’m A Celebrity.
There’s more than one jungle to consider here. The jungle that should have thrown the twins to the lions in the name of damn good TV, and the metaphorical jungle that Shaun walked out of. A crossing of borders. A totemic walking of that bony, figurative, rickety bridge. A crossing from one world into another.
And he emerged utterly victorious: in sunglasses with spliff and maracas, the televised transmogrification from Pierrot into Apollo.
LTW: “Tell me about the record you’ve got. You know it’s rumoured to be No.1 and sometimes the rumours can be true.”
SR: “(Laughs) Yeah, is that right?”
“It’s fucking amazing and I do mean it.”
“I’m glad you like it. It’s not that new you know? It was originally done and recorded in 2010.”
“This would be in Venice Beach yeah? California?”
“Yeah, yeah. We did a bit in Manchester. Then went over to Venice to finish it. Then I came back and went straight into the jungle. And when went in I had Elliot Rashman who was Simply Red’s manager, a well-known Manchester-head, who decided to get out of the music business. So when I came out, I had a different manager. The girl who was managing me then wanted me to build up my profile on the telly and forget about the record for a bit, so it was just forgotten about for about 10 or 11 years.”
“I kind of like the idea of you finding a proper golden nugget of a record behind your sofa like you were looking for loose change or something.”
“Well, you can thank John Robb for that.”
“Yeah John came up with that one. I just said I’d go with that mate. So that’s what went out. So thank you, John.”
Mumbo Jumbo, the first single from June, has Ryder exhaling heavily into the mic with that damaged, slanted Manc-rap cadence only he can really execute. It’s classic Ryder, hellraiser and wordsmith, conjuring up magical melodies from the air as though the pop song is a form of sorcery. An attack of that instantly familiar accent breezily bringing the lyrics to life, it prowls and pounces and bounces like some battle between a couple of gunslingers in the middle of a post-apocalyptic spaghetti western sci-fi shoot-out. A jazzy, skanking bass is always on the go.
It quickly crashes into Close The Dam, an absolute album highlight – Massive Attack’s dark, dancefloor equipped mysticism; ominous trip-hop electronics pulsating from within a space where smoke surrounds all and, eventually, consumes. A hole explodes into the floor and Ryder emerges from the earth’s core. Silky, slinky guitars flicker and glisten above odd assortments of feral 808 bleeps and beeps. Jacked Chicago-house sounds erupt into seizures of mechanical laughter.
The coherent and consistent excellence of the tunes is remarkable, impressive even. Lyrically, there’s a lot to take in. As tends to be the case, Ryder is the human sampler; one who keeps delicious turns of phrase and spoonerisms in a white pick ‘n’ mix bag and sprays them onto a canvas as both brutally sincere social commentary and surrealistic experiments with colloquialisms local to Ryder’s encounter with everyday life.
One such example would be Pop Star’s Daughters. ”I’ve dated them, and I’ve got them” Shaun informs me. Part-accent and part-melody, like as a whisper in the ear whilst also leading this euphoric liturgy from Salford to Zion, it’s a tongue-in-cheek homage to his four daughters. But it’s also a clever, comment on the passing of time and a beautiful, symbolic act as Ryder participates in the slow removal of the armour and bears the naked flesh to the world as a mortal man standing on the edge of the earth with his fly open and a black eye. “As you get older, time goes really quick. The five years you spend from the first year to the fifth year in school, seem like a million, now it goes like that (clicks fingers) in the blink of an eye”. His scars still run deep despite the wounds having scabbed and healed over long ago. A man who didn’t ‘arrive on this world with a set of instructions, just a brain that barely functions‘.
“Did it take you a while to adjust to making music again after your time spent in the jungle? From what I understand you got Black Grape back together?”
“Yeah we got Black Grape back together and it didn’t take me a while to adjust, no. God that was 11 years ago, I’ve been in the game for 40 years now, so I’d been in it for about 30 then. I came out and did shows so…it just got really busy with all sorts of different shit. We did also release a couple of tracks on 12-inch vinyl, off the album, but we didn’t do any press on it or anything. Me and Kermit got Black Grape together in 2017, and we did the Pop Voodoo which did well for two old fuckers. We got an amazing no. 17 or 15 chart position out of that, so it must have sold a few million.”
“My introduction to you was through Black Grape. Then I worked backwards into other aspects of your past and facets of your history, it was in reverse.”
“Yeah a lot of people do that. Black Grape actually sold a lot more records than the Mondays. It was a major-based management and record label. There were people who didn’t like the Mondays who got into Black Grape. But now we’re trying to get everybody into everything, now I’m doing them both. I did a gig on Saturday with Black Grape, then on the Sunday I did the Mondays. I think next week or the week after, at 2 o’clock in the afternoon I’m with Black Grape, then I’m headlining the same festival with the Mondays. I’m a greedy fucker man.”
“Who is actually on this record? Am I right in thinking Noel Gallagher or Robbie Williams had some kind of input? Maybe that’s incorrect…”
“On my record? No, no, no. What happened during lockdown was, I decided to do a few tunes. Bez decided to go out drinking with a couple of guys from the NME.”
“Which is always dangerous work…”
“Yeah…so the story gets mixed up. During lockdown I ended up doing a bit of stuff from home. I did a tune with Lee Scratch Perry, one with Tricky, one with Robbie, one with Noel. Nothing to do with my album. It’s their stuff. The Noel one is a standalone track so…on my album is Sunny Levine, the producer, who’s my pal – he’s really from musical royalty. His dad is Stuart Levine, who has done every sort of major, fantastic record that’s ever been done in the 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s, and his grandad is Quincy Jones. So Sunny has a lot of family which are very musical. He doesn’t want to say who’s on the record because we’re not using it that way – it’s a few friends, and family, that Sunny knows who are on the record.”
“How does it work in the studio then?”
“Sunny has a load of beats and tracks and stuff. My opinion is either ‘yeah, that’s great let’s work with that’, or ‘I don’t know if that works’, and I just write. The last time we worked together was on the 2007 Uncle Dysfunctional Monday’s album, and we just became good pals from there. He’s my mate, and I think he’s the best producer going. When we first let people hear that album, we got loads of people saying stuff like it was under-produced, especially with the production, but we wanted it to sound different. I find it easy to work with Sunny and I’m planning a doing another record with him.”
“For this record, I listened to the music and then the press release as I didn’t want myself to expect anything other than content. The idea of this one sounding underproduced never crossed my mind, it sounds colourful and vibrant and interesting and detailed…”
“That’s what I thought. But I tell you what…we didn’t get one fucking playlist. It’s getting played by various people on 6music, Radio 2, or whatever, but we didn’t get one playlist which tells me there’s something a bit fucking corrupt going on there…”
“Let’s talk about this then. By playlist do you mean something published on Spotify or a streaming service?”
“No, what I mean is, when a radio station gets a record, Coldplay or whoever gets included in a playlist so it has to be played on the breakfast show, and when the breakfast show has finished, it has to be played on the next show, and then all the shows up until you get to 9 o’clock at night – later on anyway. That’s what a radio playlist is. I thought we had an original piece of work there, that didn’t sound like anything else, and ,yeah, we got Chris Morris and Chris Evans playing it and Mark Radcliffe and other people, all playing that, but to me, it didn’t get any of the playlists where it had to be played.”
“Right so the requirement to play the new record was excluded when it got sent off…”
“It’s all the same thing that makes them! You guarantee Coldplay will get on it, or something from an older artist, especially older artists. Alright, if me getting on it a playlist would stop some younger artist getting on it then I might leave me out of it, but I was just wondering why it didn’t make it.”
I wonder why it didn’t make it either.
Maybe there’s some kind of unspoken force of hostility working against Shaun to let him have fun but not too much fun – not when dealing with geography teachers as big as Coldplay or safe, staple radio menus from a crass cast of Next models ranging from Kaiser Chiefs, Killers, Keane, etc…
However, the contribution of such royalty from Levine is detectable from the off; the raw, yet equally rich work itself not needing any external input, the honesty and opinion of both Ryder and Levine, bouncing back and forth between each other. As is the case with killer tunes such as Honey Put the Kettle On or Crazy Bitches.
The former shoots fast in a blast of mangled electronic experiments, and burns below a snappy, simplistic ballad of melancholic acoustic guitar and two-piece drum kit action. It’s psychoactive melodrama conflated to lovely, lamenting, poetic anecdotes from the humorous half of the darkness where Mike Leigh hopelessly pours his heart onto the typewriter.
On the latter, hot blobs of buoyant bass dart in and out of view but leave an irreplaceable presence lingering in the mind; the flesh on the fingertips kissing the strings with tough, funk edges dunked in a pot of dayglow paint.
”Well, I mean…the celebrity thing is becoming all-entertainment – like Dean and Frank, you’ve got to sing, dance, make movies, make records, do shows, so it’s all-round entertainment. I got asked to go into the jungle at 50 years old. If I’d have been asked at 21 to go into the jungle, I don’t know if I’d have done it”.
A fact perhaps overlooked about Shaun is that he’s more television personality than a pop star now. But those things are essentially the same thing now, operating concurrently in today’s frenzied media-arenas which Shaun is perfectly fine playing in, understanding it to be executed in the spirit of being a good sport, but who plays by his own rules, and on his own terms, with something to say that others don’t, won’t and can’t.
Because they’re not from Manchester.
He also goes into detail about the fortuituous nature of the time he walked from one life and into another, a much-needed means of revitalizing his career and reinforcing his potency as a highly-revered musical figure with his wits about him, but also his demons, as demonstrated predominately on the in-depth Agony And The Ecstacy BBC documentary from 2004, but also, Inside And Beyond With Alan McGee, a new man, the frontman on and off stage.
Even more so as someone who has undertaken the task of watching the celebrity stakes change, watching a new species of shark invade new, watery territories tainted with fresh blood. Shaun as a singer on the stage, and an orator on the screen, there from the start as stardom was planted into the masses, and observing its evolution from what America’s enormous, hallowed warzone of amusements was soon to throw into the face, and shove down the throat of, UK audiences waiting to watch people eat, sleep, shit, etc. ”At the time, I’d had years and years of being the mad, rock ‘n’ roll dude, gets off you’re a nut, got that whole image going on, and it probably wouldn’t have been right for me. But at certainly at the time I went in, nearly 50, it was right for me and my career at that time. I mean now it’s a different ballgame”.
Despite being busy to these extremes, Ryder doesn’t find it easy collaborating with people. So it’s less a process of elimination and selecting what member of the litter is fittest, but more an act of refusal, an ability to ignore the scores of artists who knock on Ryder’s door almost every day to get some kind of project underway with a scythe in one hand and a dotted line in the other.
People spread themselves too thin sometimes. They work with everybody, on everything, and eventually, their face becomes painful and they take every opportunity that suddenly becomes available and it turns into a piece of shit. ”I get asked every day of the week to do a collaboration, and I just don’t do them. If I do them, it’s because I think it’s a good idea. I really do stay away from collaboration unless it’s something that I fancy doing.’‘
Pals such as Gallagher, Williams, Tricky, Lee Perry aside, another addition to the enviable list of people involved with Shaun’s corner is Martin Glover, or Youth to most. ”Another guy I find it easy to work with was Youth, on the Black Grape album, Pop Voodoo. We got good results. I think what we did on Pop Voodoo was as good as what we did on the first album”.
Electric Scales hits like slick, primitive UK glam guitars, all fizzles of glitter as a peacock sachets along a catwalk. Sticky bass limbs emerge from the bubbling jaws of a swamp, shuffling and strutting along a stretch of the street still boiling hot from being freshly tarmacked. Baggy, bluesy chord progressions are considered criminally insane and given electroshock therapy. And although Youth didn’t contribute to this album, the song’s scale soon transforms from Stones to Beatles, by way of otherworldly Orb-tronics and inflatable, radioactive melodies, most likely imaginary but introduce new tastes to the tongue that is utterly alluring.
“Did you realise you had something really precious and golden here, not just in the songs, but in that it’s now lyrically relevant after all this time has passed, like you said, in the blink of an eye; it’s quite poignant and pertinent…”
“Me and Sunny did, we thought it was fucking great. We’d get all this, ‘oh it’s under-produced or ‘you need to go in and get another producer to do this’ or ‘oh, let’s remix that’, and we were thinking ‘what the fuck!?’ We knew. Mumbo Jumbo should have been out years ago. But you know what, it fits now. It couldn’t be made now. I’m still writing about the same shit. I’d never change what I write about, which is anything.”
One such ‘anything’ would be Clubbing Rabbits, which concludes the album. ‘With that, there’s a bit of a metaphor going on there. All my songs have got metaphors going on. The thing is I forget what the fucking metaphor is”.
Shaun outlines the narrative of the song as from the perspective of a ”hamster wheel, robbing off that person, smoking that drug, then robbing off that person, then fucking up and doing the exact same in life, never breaking the circle, you keep making the same mistakes all the time”.
Shaun is no stranger to the continuous, endless cyclical twists and turns of the industry conveyor belt and all that comes with its ebbs and flows, its ups and downs, its peaks and pits. ”Someone is given a fresh start, and six months later, they’re repeating the exact same thing through bad habits, or whatever, or robbing, or whatever. So it’s sort of all that shit going on. Personally giving a dig at someone”.
Maybe the someone is Shaun himself. Maybe it’s the people, once a firm feature of his everyday existence, but now he is able to rejoice at relinquishing them from his vision.
And he’s all the better for it.
“One of the interesting things is that what you talk about, your special, specific subject matters which remain constant, runs parallel to a very wide spectrum of audience members that know you from various points in time and musical history. You’re attracted by and appeal to, an immense amount of people, which is wonderful for one subject matter I suppose…”
“That’s a lot do to with…if you look at other bands from our era, and you see us at festivals and shows, especially when they let in family audiences, they go from seven to 80, and we picked up a lot of that from reality television. I did the jungle, Bez did Big Brother five years before me, and we saw the fanbase change then. Now you get kids watching all these shows, the one where they have to go and bust into lockers and get fridges out and tractors, Storage Wars and stuff that…any of those shows that you do, you’ve got some young’un there sat there watching it and saying ‘oh right, he was in a band’. By the time the TV show’s over they’ve downloaded your back catalogue. So that’s what we started doing really.”
In the same way as this album proclaims in the visitations from the future in a technological sense (crate-digging replaced by downloading), Ryder and his old Mondays mate Bez were the mediators between the preliminary traces of celebrity culture and music in a psychological sense too; Shaun in Series 10 of I’m A Celebrity, in which he was the runner-up, and Bez, who won Big Brother, Series 3, in 2005.
It makes sense to view them as prophets for the atrocities that were to suck us into the television, revolutionised overnight in the shape of X-Factor, Big Brother, I’m A Celebrity and other experiments with spectacle – a spectacle we cannot help but gravitate towards as addicts of the next best series, the next best celebrity, their rise and fall, their ascent and inevitable crash as the wax below the artificial wings melts away in the spotlight; all swallowing us whole, chewing us up, and spitting us out as something a little different like Phineas Gage for the modern age – the remote control in lieu of the iron bar.
But Ryder is no fool. He knows how it works. He knows ”it’s what you’ve got to do now”, and no fucker can fault the man for enjoying it, for accepting the fact that Lazyitis is the symptom of a devil who cannot allocate work to idle hands. Shaun is a cognisant, vicarious acknowledgment of what upkeeps the celeb machine. A sprawl of poles and spokes, the bolts and the belts, the grease and the wheels, the cogs, and clocks, whilst also involved in their wholly positive accessibility to audiences, on BBC Breakfast shows or documentaries on UFOs, who perhaps only have a brief conception about who he is, of what The Mondays were, about where Manchester is sat on the map.
”I know that when Bez went into Big Brother, which was…back in 2005 or something like that, it still wasn’t accepted over here. It was like ‘hey, we’re musicians, we’re in a band, we don’t do that sort of stuff, but then you’d look to America and you could see what was coming.”
Audience is a good work to use when coming to the likes of Shaun and Mondays and the entirety of Manchester for that matter. The Mondays at the peak of their powers and beyond have had the luxury, as well as Black Grape’s entourage, as a more successful band as having a fiercely-dedicated fanbase for decades which is on par with Morrissey’s or the Roses’ or the Fall’s.
It’s not just about reputation anymore. It’s about how much you care about surviving in times predicated on, and pivoted by, your ability to surpass certain thresholds. The ratio of pleasure and pain, constantly oscillating in their influence, in their give and take.
In a society swimming in images, television is a treacherous, tumultuous territory throught which to find yourself walking. As more and more programmes are arranged to occupy the brain, to stimulate all senses by multiple channels, manifold choices, rather than just the three, content has become an endless advert and medium is all message, baby. ”There’s no Top of the Pops, no night-time television, for artists of all ages and everything, so how do you get fans like that now where the songs aren’t shown on MTV or whatever? But now, you’re expected to do the Full-Monty, singing and dancing, be a star again, just like Elvis. You’re on social media all the time…”
“It goes to show how much of a leap we have from what, if you look at the Mondays, was required for audiences to get into groups. The Mondays was a completely organic thing really, people just got swept along and sucked into it, without the hovering, heavy influence of social media.”
“Or a constant source or bottomless reserve of reality TV shows left, right and centre…”
“Just ecstasy…which made all that kickoff. That might have been our social media. E.”
Social media is this the modern E. Everyone takes them. No wonder the current climate feels like a comedown.
Main image and image 2 © Paul Husband
Image 1 © Elspeth Moore
Images 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 © Naomi Dryden-Smith
Black Grape Tour Dates September 2021:
3RD – MANCHESTER – O2 RITZ
10TH – HOLMFIRTH – PICTUREDROME
11TH – NEWCASTLE – NUSU VENUE
16TH – CARDIFF – TRAMSHED
17TH – LONDON – O2 ACADEMY ISLINGTON
18TH – BIRMINGHAM – THE MILL
24TH – LEEDS – WAREHOUSE
25TH – EDINBURGH – LIQUID ROOMS
Ryan Walker is a writer from Bolton. He writes for Louder Than War. His online archive can be found here.