It was the comeback nobody thought possible; after sinking Factory Records with the Happy Mondays’ lacklustre swansong Yes Please! – a record so remarkably unremarkable that Melody Maker famously gifted it the scathing two-word review “no thanks” – many in the music business assumed that Shaun Ryder was doomed to either slink off into has-been obscurity at best, or become a casualty of his legendary rock ‘n’ roll excesses at worst.
Instead, Ryder baffled fans and critics alike when he re-emerged in 1995 – the height of the Britpop era – with his new project Black Grape, having kicked his myriad of substance habits and more motivated to than ever to finish what he started. With trusty sidekick and maraca enthusiast Bez at his side once more and rapper Paul ‘Kermit’ Leveridge joining the fold, the resulting album, It’s Great When You’re Straight… Yeah, is a life-affirming ode to rebirth; a giddy, eclectic melting pot of styles – rap, house, indie rock, soul, funk – unlike anything heard before or since, and that two decades on continues to be the high water mark of Ryder’s long and curious career.
Lead single and album opener ‘Reverend Black Grape’ remains, for many, the band’s signature song: bursting out of the speakers with Kermit issuing a call to arms over its famous harmonica line (that sounds a little bit like ‘Love Me Do’ on ecstasy) the track then explodes into a propulsive, rowdy party anthem full of whooping-and-hollering backing vocals and wah-wah guitars. The track’s true genius, though, is how Ryder manages to sound – as the chorus goes – “joyful and triumphant” whilst waxing lyrical about corruption in the Catholic Church. “The Pope, he got the Nazis/to clean up their messes,” Ryder bleats, his voice as endearingly rough and wheezy as ever, “and in exchange for gold and paintings/he gave them new addresses”. The second track, the more hip hop-leaning and sitar-heavy ‘In the Name of the Father’ also touches upon the same subject, though the heavy themes never take centre stage in either case: they’re brought into discussion, with a knowing wink, and fingers get pointed, but it’s all tongue in cheek – for the entirety of its forty-five minute running time, hedonism is this album’s one and only true mission.
‘Tramazi Party’, a tribute to the prescription medication-turned party favourite temazepam that had to be retitled for legal reasons, is another early highlight; a sunny, mid-tempo number, with a brass section that meshes seamlessly with its bendy, off-kilter guitar riff whilst Ryder and Kermit trade stories of tripping balls on the drug in question. “Welcome to your nightmare,” the chorus goes, though its nevertheless delivered with a level of conviction and reckless abandon that almost makes you think “fuck it, why not?” and want to get involved. yourself Even the record’s now-iconic pop art album cover, a mugshot of infamous Venezuelan criminal Carlos the Jackal given a wacky, primary colour Andy Warhol makeover, matches the dark, irreverent humour and don’t-give-a-toss attitude displayed throughout its ten tracks. Elsewhere, ‘Yeah Yeah Brother’ grooves along on a bubbling bassline and Nile Rodgers-inspired guitars, and ‘Submarine’ sounds like a 60s girl-group ran through a filter of Madchester psychedelia.
Later on, whilst the slinky, extra-sleazy ‘Shake Your Money’ and the trippy, swaggering ‘Shake Well Before Opening’ more than hold their own against its mission statement first half, It’s Great… can seem a little frontloaded on first inspection; like so many albums of its era, it makes a barnstorming entrance, where all three singles – ‘Reverend Black Grape’, ‘In the Name of the Father’ and ‘Kelly’s Heroes’, the latter of which contains the immortal lines “Jesus was a black man/Jesus was Batman/no, that was Bruce Wayne” – have come and gone within its first four tracks, leaving the back end seeming like an afterthought in places. Still, its kaleidoscopic and loose, stream-of-consciousness nature make for a cohesive listening experience, even when the quality temporarily drops below “inspired” for a few brief minutes, as on the frustratingly repetitive ‘A Big Day In The North’.
In honour of the album’s 21st anniversary, the album has been given the obligatory remaster and reissue treatment, with the deluxe edition boasting a second disc of rarities and a DVD compilation of music videos and live appearances (largely culled from Top of the Tops and Jools Holland). Given the lack of truly “new” goodies on the bonus disc – no rare demos or undiscovered gems, just live versions and inessential remixes – it’s a box set strictly for completists, but those who have yet to hear the album proper should take this opportunity to jump on the bandwagon and give the original a listen.
Wacky, fiercely original and bursting at the seams with “it’s good to be alive” energy, It’s Great When You’re Straight… Yeah is a British 90s classic.
It’s Great When You’re Straight… Yeah will be re-issued on 4th November on Universal Music
This Black Grape article was written by Dan Whiteley, a GIGsoup contributor. Photo credit : Karin Albinsson