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Straight Outta Salford: The Non-Poetry Of Shaun Ryder
Jason Watkins , February 17th, 2019 10:41

A new book collects the lyrics of the Happy Mondays and Black Grape, reconextualising Shaun Ryder’s gritty urban realism – just don’t call it poetry

Photo by Elspeth Moore

Is Shaun Ryder a poet? In Wrote for Luck, a selection of his lyrics for songs by Happy Mondays and Black Grape, Ryder and his editor Luke Bainbridge go to great lengths to discourage this as indulgent, middle-class journalese. The point is made clear: Ryder’s lyrics are reportage, the songs are broadcasts from the frontline of underclass life, NOT poetry. The received wisdom (that Ryder himself has posited for thirty years and is reiterated throughout Wrote for Luck) is that the sociological content of his writing outweighs any artistry. He is just telling it like it is and the people that compare him to Bob Dylan or WB Yeats need to get a grip.

Ryder has often claimed his public image is a caricature, a heightened, exaggerated version of himself for the media to latch onto and something for him to hide behind, and it’s this strategy that makes any serious discussion of his work problematic. A key example is in The Dark Stuff, a collection of articles by legendary music journalist Nick Kent. The Dark Stuff is a rock ’n’ roll pantheon of the mad, the doomed, and the elegantly wasted but uncomfortably nestled amongst Kent’s dissipated heroes is a hatchet job on The Stone Roses and Happy Mondays, then in their late eighties pomp.

In the piece Kent focuses on Shaun Ryder and despite the hedonism and excessive lifestyle the singer shared with Kent’s touchstones (Lou, Iggy, Keith) he is dismissed as a “terminally sarky Notherner”. To labour the point Ryder’s words are reprinted verbatim ("fookin’" "owt" "y’knowwharramean?"), cementing the image of him as provincial, inarticulate, lumpen. Via reality TV, Ryder has reinvented himself as a national treasure and loveable rogue but this concept of him as guttersnipe non-artist remains, and his command of language (as witnessed in his actual songwriting) is rarely acknowledged or taken seriously.

Ryder always understood that to present himself or his work with any kind of mystique would be inauthentic, and it’s this schtick, of being ‘real’, that resists the pigeonhole and the embarrassment of being called an artist or a poet. Distraction and deprecation is key to Ryder’s processes – it’s why he roped his best friend Bez into Happy Mondays as their dancer. Here was a totemic figure for the band’s lifestyle and someone to take the attention away from Ryder himself. An unusual strategy for a lead singer but an indication of someone keen to play down their own significance whilst holding centre stage.

Being of and from the streets was his distinctive selling point but Ryder’s genius was to amplify this, render it carnivalesque and ultimately poetic. His best work summons a Mancunian social surrealism, where a simple put down becomes a torrent of mesmeric grotesquery:

“You’ve been with fat lady wrestlers And Germans in trenches, And teachers who speak to themself, Snide sneak corner, and baby beat a pauper, Peasants who eat from the road”.

In appreciating Ryder’s lyrics, a poignancy emerges that is usually absent in other chroniclers of urban reality. Songs are laden with references from obscure films, famous songs, and long forgotten nursery rhymes. This indicates a magpie mind alert to the overlooked musicality and yes, the poetry of everyday words, but in Wrote for Luck Ryder categorically denies being an “anguished wordsmith”. He makes clear that his lyrics are never tortured or self-reflective and his editor goes further and calls Ryder’s lyrics “psychedelic ethnography”. Ryder’s notes in Wrote for Luck refer directly to lived experiences and today his lyrics seem more obviously linked to the emergent hip hop, gangsta sensibility of the time. Bummed, the breakthrough album reproduced in its entirety in Wrote for Luck, was released the same year as N.W.A.’s Straight Outta Compton, and has a shared milieu of sex, drugs and crime.

Bummed reads as first hand tales from a side of life rarely exposed in pop songs and never portrayed with such vibrancy in British music before. No protest songs or love ballads, Ryder’s stock in trade was the portrayal of black market criminality, of relationships and friendships skewed by the drug experience, but his unique phraseology rendered this world colourful and phantasmagorical. With Bummed, Ryder painted underworld scenes that were simultaneously grimy and day-glo, and like Straight Outta Compton this was an unapologetic depiction of the lowlife as illegal and fun.

Shaun Ryder emerged as a new, vital voice at a time when British alternative music had become moribund and stale. In the late eighties, the promise and possibility of post-punk had ossified into indie, a byword for anything vague, nebulous, and loosely 60s influenced. The heroes of this culture hid behind long fringes and stared at the floor. Ryder’s words and Happy Mondays’ murky grooves were revelatory. They spoke of other worlds, far removed from the experience of most indie kids. Thirty years on, Wrote for Luck is a reminder of Shaun Ryder’s singular talent, his ability to turn life on the margins into chart success and – despite his protestations – the depth and breadth of his dark poetic vision.

Shaun Ryder, Wrote for Luck is published by Faber on 7 March