By Conor O’Neill
Richard Houghton’s music credentials cannot be questioned. From his first gig to his stint as a punk. He’s written over 15 ‘fanthologies’ and in this interview, Richard tells Culture Crush NI everything from his first musical memories to how he became such a prolific writer.
There’s a tiny bit of a backstory here: About a year ago I posted a somewhat innocuous reply to a Facebook discussion on a Shaun Ryder fan page. A few days later Richard contacted me by DM to see if I would like to elaborate on my post. My few paragraphs of my memories of seeing Black Grape made it to the recently published book.
You’ve written books on everyone from the Rolling Stones, to Rush, Cream, Black Sabbath, The Beatles, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, The Smiths, and now Shaun Ryder; music obviously plays a huge part of your life; what is your first music related memory?
“My first musical memory is a bit of an odd one. I’m 61-years-old and my mother who is a big music fan took me to see The Beatles at the Hammersmith Odeon during their Christmas run in late 1964/65. We went down as a family, my mum and dad, my little sister. My little sister had a strop and ended up sitting with my dad in the car. I can’t really remember any of the show but it’s now part of the family lore. My first real music memory is T-Rex performing Hot Love on Top Of The Pops in 1970. When I was younger, I wasn’t well so they sent me off to a residential hospital for asthmatic children and I remember all the kids sat around in the TV room when Marc Bolan came on with glitter on his face. That song I think was number one for six weeks in 1970 and was all over the radio and on TOTP, so that’s my first real music memory.”
Did you ever pick up an instrument or were ever in a a band?
“When punk came along in 1976 I was 16. I was in a band that never performed called The Depraved. We had the art work, we had the logo and we couldn’t play the instruments. I became a punk singer for the sixth form school show. I was interviewed by someone pretending to be Michael Parkinson. I was called Terry Tampax and the band’s name was Terry Tampax and the Sanitary Towels. Again I wouldn’t bother looking on Amazon for our records because we never got around to recording anything.
When did you get around to writing about music, and do you think it’s a case that ‘those can, can and those who can’t teach or write about it?
“I’ve always wanted to be a writer. I was always writing short stories as a child and when I finished university I thought I wanted to be a journalist but things didn’t happen that way and I ended up working in local government. Retirement was approaching a few years ago and I thought I should get a book finished. I’ve started hundreds, if not thousands of books over the years, whether they be a few paragraphs or a chapter but I just never got anything finished. It used to be really difficult to get a book published, but now with Amazon and Kindle it is so much easier. I thought if I’m ever going to do a book I should do it now or I’m always going to regret it.
“I decided to write a book on the Rolling Stones. I went to a Stones gig in 2014, they were playing a European tour. I went to see them with my son and it occurred to me when Mick Jagger was on stage, he was 71 that year, so I thought ‘there must be people who had saw them 50 years ago, because here we are tonight in this arena, people a filming them on their phones and by the time I get home all these songs will be on Facebook or Instagram etc. because that what happens these days, people record things on their phones and share it with the world.
“50 years ago if you went to a gig with a friend you could only talk about it down the pub but they couldn’t see the footage. So it occurred to me that all those people who had saw The Stones all those years ago, they must have memories that would be really good to capture. These people a probably in their 70s now and they’re not going to be around for ever and it would be nice to capture their memories while they’re still around. That’s what prompted me to write my first book. It’s on the Rolling Stones from 1962 to 1969 when Brian Jones, their original guitarist and leader of the band.
“It’s all just went from there. All the books are done in the same style. They’re all fan histories of the bands and that’s what the publisher was interested in when it came to the book about Shaun Ryder.”
You call your books fanthologies so you’re obviously invested in which ever band you’re writing about. Mumbo Jumbo was a commissioned book, does a commission impede or inspire? Do you have full editorial control?
“That’s a good question. I did a book on OMD – Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark – they shouted for stories on social media and I got some really interesting stories about the band, when they were starting, people who knew them when they were playing for three people, who roadied for them for nothing, stories from mates of the band and there are some interesting insights which are different from stories about them when they got famous, before it was all about backstage passes, meet and greets etc. To me there’s not many exciting stories for me there.”
But I’m asking about editorial control for Mumbo Jumbo?
“Yeah, with OMD I did. Their lead singer, Andy McCluskey wanted me to amend one or two stories, but people said, ‘come on ,Andy, these are memories. People remember things differently. If someone went to a show and they remember you wearing a green shirt and you say you were wearing a white one, well, that’s their memory.”
But with Mumbo Jumbo was there any pressure to spin it this way or that?
“I wrote it as people told it. Some of the celebrities I interviewed asked, ‘Is this to portray Shaun in a particular light or is this a warts-and-all story?’ because Shaun has had a particularly colourful career I was told, ‘No, no, don’t censor it. People want to talk about drug use or whatever, that’s fine. I interviewed Peter Hook of Joy Division and New Order fame and he gave me quite a few stories which didn’t appear in the book because Shaun didn’t want them in, but other than that, it’s really how it was told to me. Don Letts, the DJ, told me a story about Shaun doing crack when they were doing a video for Black Grape in Jamaica where Shaun and Kermit weren’t meant to be taking it, but they were both taking it in turns to come into Don’s room to smoke a couple of rocks without the other knowing, apparently.”
You interviewed over 300 fans for the book, is there one or two recollections that really stood out?
“Shaun is an interesting character, as in a sort of car crash lifestyle, which he admitted to in our interview. He’s had drug issues, he’s not got the best relationships with many of his family members, including his brother who is in the band, yet underneath it all I really think he’s a nice guy. I think he’s portrayed in the media as a bit of a clown, but when interviewing him a more human side of him that comes across. Beneath the bravado he’s a really nice bloke. He’s a considerate dad but that doesn’t make the headlines. People who have actually met him when he wasn’t trying to be the star all say he’s a nice bloke.”
What was Shaun like to work with? I’m talking time keeping etc.?
“I did one interview with him for the book and that was prearranged time and I was allotted an hour with him. What stories came out of the book, and again this is a constant theme, is that the band would soundcheck and Shaun usually wouldn’t be there and would arrive at the gig a few minutes before they were about to go on. There’s that one famous story where he and his tour manager Muzzer arrived at a gig in Newcastle to perform with the Mondays. They arrived at the venue and turned up at Simply Red’s gig. The Mondays were playing a different venue across the city. Shaun walked onto the stage and saw a saxophonist and realised he was in the wrong place. They left the place in a hurry and hurried across and made it to the Mondays gig.”
What do you think stands out about Shaun, The Happy Monday, Black Grape fans that’s different from the fans of other fanthologies you’ve done?
“I think that Shaun is just a really normal bloke who just happens to be really talented, writes fantastic lyrics and great songs. People stand in the crowd and think, ‘There’s no airs or graces about him’. I think people see Shaun and think, ‘That could be me’, or, ‘I could sit with him down the pub’. He doesn’t go about in a Rolls Royce or dress in the finest of clothes or act like he’s better than us. He’s just a dead normal bloke, I think that’s part of his appeal. I think Happy Mondays and Black Grape fans are generally ordinary working people and they see in Shaun having a good time and they’re having a good time too. That’s what really came across in the fan stories in the book.”
I agree. When I unwittingly saw Black Grape for the first time I was massively into REM, Nirvana etc. All my musical heroes were so far removed from my normal existence and after seeing Black Grape, I started realising that the UK had some real talent. Did you find that when researching Mumbo Jumbo?
“That’s why they broke through when they did. They were a real antidote to what was going on in the music industry generally. As we both know pop music can be great one week or month and then after a while it’s gone off the boil. Two or three acts come through and they’re doing something different and then the recording industry pile in with other acts just copying those things which are big and you suddenly find a music scene is awash with similar kind of music. I think the Happy Mondays weren’t copying anyone else. They might have borrowed bits here and there but they were producing was entirely their own, and I think that is what came to the surface and people realised they were different and Shaun being being a bit of an anti-hero because he wasn’t into the ‘I’m better than you’ attitude really ticked the box with people.
Did Shaun give you any indication of what he’s up to next?
“He’s had a busy year. Obviously Covid has messed with a lot of bands’ touring plans but Black Grape are going to be touring and have a few gigs left this year and a full schedule next year. Shaun’s solo album has just came out, he’s got two or three singles coming out over the next few months, he’s busier than ever I would say. He’s got TV appearances on things like Celebrity Goggle Box which he’s contracted to do with Bez and if you look at his social media profile he’s always got something going on. Shaun’s always got something new he’s promoting, and of course there’s this book to promote.”
And what’s next for you then, Richard?
“I’ve got two or three projects on the go. I’ve been commissioned to do a book on Jethro Tull by the band. I cannot imagine a more different band than the Happy Mondays to Jethro Tull. For those who maybe don’t know, Jethro Tull are an early 1970s prog-rock band famous for long hair and tracks that that take up one side of an LP. They’ve been going 50 years and have something like 1.3 million followers on Facebook. Obviously people don’t follow a band for 50 years unless there’s something they like. Their lead singer Ian Anderson is interesting who a lot of people might know for his long hair, flute playing and standing on one leg. And they’re still performing, I think he’s the grand old age of 73.”
You love to write about bands with a big back catalogue and longevity, what do you think about modern, contemporary music?
“I’m a fan of bands with a guitar or two in the line up rather than people who are just playing on a beat box in their bedrooms, but people make music whichever way they choose to these days. In the same way that I can sit in my room and work on a book and send it off to the publisher electronically and get it published who am I to say music has to be four guys thrashing out a song in a rehearsal room when it can be done in your bedroom on a computer and you can do it all yourself. If that’s what people enjoy doing and other enjoy listening, more power to their elbow.”
To buy the book, which to my mind will make for a perfect sunshine holiday or slumped out festive read follow the following link: https://thisdayinmusicbooks.com/product/shaun-ryders-book-of-mumbo-jumbo/
I’ve just ordered mine and cannot wait. The review will follow soon.
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