By Stephen Tudor
‘There will always be a need for new, white bands and cool singers with cool haircuts’ – Mick Jagger
Tucked away amidst a labyrinth of factories and gasworks on the Wirral estuary, a grassy site known as Spike Island was a strange location to stage The Stone Roses’ most important concert to date. The ‘event’ encompassing nearly thirty thousand flare-clad revellers included many influential journalists witnessing the phenomenon for the first time. The tabloids meanwhile clumsily conjured up echoes of Woodstock. As usual they didn’t get it. The past was theirs. The future ours.
However, a chequered performance, not helped by a bloated support listing and a truly terrible sound system, left the propelling of the Roses to legendary status to be put on temporary hold. Disillusioned reviews were dished out by the press who genuinely wanted the band to succeed, to continue enjoying the adventure in their slipstream. The fans generally accepted the poor showing, already used to being let down and knowledgeable of the fact that to achieve greatness mistakes were to be made along the way. Unfortunately the mistakes escalated. Inept management and courtroom battles diminished the magic to a dwindling shine. Worse still inactivity set in as the Roses concentrated their attentions on contractual disputes, seemingly abandoning their quest for world acclaim. Instead of American awakenings and a sister to their astonishing first album came…nothing.
As the silence lengthened the culture to which the music so perfectly sound tracked fell apart under the increasing influence of a more violent mindset and, some might say, reality. The so-called summer of love proved to be a false dawn as Madchester metamorphosised back into Manchester. The hedonistic feel of togetherness dissolved and the collective connections being made were slowly severed by time, mistrust, and ill-feeling.
It is easy to forget now, in an era of Coldplay and X-Factor, brands and blands, but for a while back then something – nobody really knows what – was possible.
Music in the eighties had lost its way. Unable to remove the nail varnish stains of the New Romantics the charts were filled with sanitised pop sang with chirpy insincerity deriving almost entirely from the Stock, Aitken and Waterman stable. Safe, diluted acts were recruited en masse, then polished and packaged into a media-friendly box. Artists such as Phil Collins dominated the airwaves like never before and the independent music scene was all but dead, no longer arming the kids with songs and bands that actually mattered, that meant a million times more than a whistle to a tune from a car radio. Of course there were exceptions; groups who swam in deeper waters, the sharp glory of The Smiths being one of a few. But in the main the creative wonders of The Beatles, the rawness of punk and the cock-sure splendour of bands such as T-Rex and the Stones had all been consigned to the past.
Rock and roll was extinct, pop was bland, soul had become soulless and reggae was UB40.
Then, at the tail-end of the decade, the city of Manchester, so often the source of musical genius, shared the secret of their spoils. Bands such as the Roses, the Happy Mondays, and the Inspiral Carpets had already enjoyed a fair amount of success locally. Soon word began to spread, into the shires and reaching London town, and the accolades bestowed upon each band eventually mushroomed into hyperbolic proportions. Having songs of the calibre of Sally Cinnamon and Elephant Stone established the Roses as the forerunners of the new scene eagerly being created by the press and public alike. Yet there was no sudden explosion of awareness to report.
These things took time.
The classic Stone Roses line-up had grown from a pretty extensive family tree. Previously titled The Patrol and briefly as English Rose the only continual presences during the changes were childhood friends Ian Brown and John Squire.
Amongst the many alterations in personnel was the early recruitment of talented, local drummer Alan ‘Reni’ Wren, crucial to the band’s developing style. When Gary Mountfield (better known as Mani) slotted into the vacant bass player position the Roses slowly set about finding their distinctive sound.
After a couple of naïve efforts Brown’s vocals were softened and the raw, rockier output was replaced by a more melodic groove to the tunes that followed their debut single ‘So Young’.
Released on a small-budget label ‘So Young’ was a disappointment to the Roses who had expected a bigger response to the minor ripples it caused.
However with Sally Cinnamon they truly found their feet. Though still a little unrefined the song represented a complete change of tack, the looser feel to the music complimenting Brown’s voice perfectly. The critics instantly cited sixties band The Byrds as a major influence but this proved to be a flawed comparison. In Elephant Stone the Roses unleashed a much more vibrant, funky bombast that brought up excitable parallels to Sly and the Family Stone. Yet with dreamy lyrics like, ‘Burst into heaven, kissing the cotton clouds’ the Byrds linkage remained.
The song ends with the line, ‘Seems like there’s a hole in my dreams, or so it seems, yet nothing means anything anymore.’ The cynical twist in the tail, of combining joy with despondency, quickly became a leitmotif from a band determined not to be pinned down.
In the early material Reni’s unique style of drumming was restrained of its delicious groove, now it flourished. With Mani underpinning each song with a funky discipline it enabled John Squire to sour into complex Hendrix-like solos.
Squire’s technique was to spend hour after hour perfecting a riff only to then purposely mess it up, scratching around with the chords until it resembled very little of its original sound. The diverseness this created was perhaps why so many influences were already being attached to such a young band.
Brown’s hushed voice was stripped of its previous scally twang and duly heightened the drama of each word, whispering sweet and sour lyrics in a coolness personified manner.
Elephant Stone was a first for the Roses in many ways, it being their debut for Silvertone and the first sighting of Squire’s Pollock-inspired artworks that adorned every following record. When asked what the song was about he explained helpfully, “Love and death, war and peace, Morecombe and Wise”.
There was never a simple answer with the Roses, no easy packaging. Although Ian Brown denied trying to make puzzles it was apparent that here was a band refusing to play the game and take the orthodox route to stardom. This was best emphasised by their early decision to play sporadic one-off events and warehouse parties (often giving notice at the very last minute) instead of walking the familiar touring treadmill. The mythical aura and intrigue created by the Roses and their enterprising – and later maligned – manager Gareth Evans was starting to materialise. The student fraternity of Manchester had long been aware of the band’s brilliance, now others were beginning to catch up.
In March 1989 ‘Made of Stone’, the third single and best to date, dented the top forty. Chief interrogators of their attitude were no longer the Manchester Evening News but Melody Maker and the now defunct Sounds. The NME voted the song their single of the week and the Roses’ first live television appearance show-cased it on BBC2’s Late Show. Forty-five seconds in and a power failure caused a potential embarrassment to the band, rescued by Brown shouting over the squirming presenter, “Amateurs. We’re wasting our time here lads. The BBC are amateurs”.
It served as a timely warning of the thin line between necessary promotion and loss of dignity from which lessons were quickly learnt. Public access to the phenomenon was kept to a minimum and the Roses were soon turning down key performances on Wogan (‘too shit’) and the Jonathan Ross show. They sensibly let others do the talking for them, the press frenziedly whipping up the hype. The Stone Roses coolly stood still and waited for everything to grow around them.
Reni’s ubiquitous sun hat and the manic flares that the group wore were copied, integrating themselves into the style pages of The Face magazine and eventually spawning one of the most unusual fashion trends since the safety pins of punk. Companies such as Joe Bloggs exploited the available market, producing thousands upon thousands of flares, baggy tops, anything loose and causal. Helped significantly by the emergence of Ecstasy people’s attitudes matched the clothing. With the Mondays swaggering a similar path a glint of change was emerging in Britain’s youth culture.
The infamous Blackburn raves and the more dance-friendly Hacienda prompted revivalists to bond the modern with the past, constructing over-sentimental alliances between the flower-clad hippies of the King’s Road, Chelsea and the acid-house delinquents of Manchester. Journalists had difficulty in taking control because for once this was not a man-made, organised delirium but a real life ‘happening’.
However, once they finally wrestled the scene down into media-friendly sound-bites the healthy, cynical aspect to the Madchester explosion was tossed away, fearing it to be too incomprehensible to the average Joe Bloggs-wearing Joe Bloggs.
From there on in Madchester resembled a rather sad and battered beast.
But back in 1989 nobody could predict where this thing was heading, and although the momentum was strong, it was apparent that something very special was required to push it through the final frontiers; into the nation’s consciousness and onto everyone’s CD trays. It arrived in the form of the Stone Roses debut album; eleven songs that harnessed the potential already shown and taken to another place entirely.
Book-ended by songs declaring ambition and intent with ‘I Wanna Be Adored’ and ‘I Am The Resurrection’ (the latter extending into a groove-laden jam-out) the album ignited the slow-burning oils and sent the Roses orbiting amongst supposed brighter stars. Their contemporaries now included the mainstream icons, the household celebrities. Though this meant little to the band, referring to such acts as Kylie Minogue, Brown said “There’s no point moaning about them. You’ve got to get in there and stamp them out, because I believe that we have more worth”.
Cementing this statement came the news that the band had turned down a support slot to the Rolling Stones with the quire reasonable assumption that, “they should be supporting us”.
Having a fledgling album of such quality bolstered their arrogance and gave credibility to their ambitious claims of world domination. The laudatory reviews that followed were relatively tame compared to later praise. A year after its release the NME made it their ‘Album of the Decade’.
The LP contained many biblical references, using the most dramatic images available to get their message across. In songs such as Elizabeth My Dear (aiming their venom on the monarchy) and Bye Bye Badman (about the Paris riots of ’68) the Roses blended a contradictory fusion of political insurrection and scatheless, jangly music that worked perfectly. Social commentary was subtle, ironic, or devastatingly brutal as in the dour dreamscape of ‘Made of Stone’.
“Don’t these times fill your eyes? When the streets are cold and lonely and the cars they burn below me”
Most of the songs however dealt with more personal matters, their aesthetic worshipping of womankind or the bitter realisation of unrequited love. Empathy and devotion were sang with poetic ease and always with utter sincerity, Brown riding the waves of Squire’s guitar, the undercarriage of Reni’s constant groove keeping the songs alive.
Word of mouth and sterling recommendations propelled the album to a status only previously afforded to such works as Sgt Pepper and Dark Side of the Moon, an indispensible classic above and beyond just being the latest bible for bedsit dwellers.
Accompanying the album was ‘She Bangs The Drums’ the catchiest song in the Roses artillery and the most potent if their threat to stamp out the crass acts from the pop charts was to be achieved. Two months later the band took a six thousand strong army to Blackpool, filling the Empress Ballroom for their biggest gathering so far. A resounding success there was vital to the group’s continued rise. When Brown strolled onto the stage to the simmering intro to ‘I Wanna Be Adored’, nonchalantly lilting a luminous yo-yo the result was never in doubt.
In November 1989 they unleashed ‘Fool’s Gold’, a dancey ode to hallucinatory hedonism. The lolloping hypnotic tune captivated and entranced a wider audience, excelling all previous efforts to bind a mesmerising backdrop of beats with Squire’s hooks and Brown’s haunting vocals. To celebrate their wondrous creation the Roses made their one and only Top of the Pops appearance, appearing alongside their vibe compatriots the Happy Mondays.
That evening the nation watched through rose-tinted glass.
All they had set out to conquer was now within their grasp. The Roses were primed to dethrone stale institutions and become genuine symbols of meaningful change.
Inexplicably they choose this time to free-wheel through most of the following year, over-scrutinising their next single ‘One Love’ and planning what was hoped to be one of the most astounding events for decades. On the 27th May 1990 the supposed Woodstock for the baggy generation took place. The date is burned to memory because the ticket is framed on my desk beside me. It arrived on my fifteenth birthday. Soon after ‘One Love’ was finally released, reaching number four in the charts.
It was then that even the free-wheeling stopped and the Roses applied the brakes.
Frustrated with the absence of new material the media set about trying to smoke the band out of their recording studios with a succession of rumours regarding the members’ possible drug habits. All were left unchallenged retaining the mystique. But with so little to go on the press soon tired of solving the puzzles and switched their attentions elsewhere. New bands were discovered, nurtured and lavished with praise. Attempts were made to mould fresh ‘scenes’, most notably the bizarre ‘shoegazing’ era made up of such dizzying talents as Kingmaker and Swervedriver. Dance music mutated into many wonderful forms of such variety (house, hip-hop, jungle) that it now appealed to almost any taste. Grunge shuffled into the reckoning and blew out a generation’s hopes with a single shot above a garage in Seattle.
With the passing of time, and enhanced by the fickleness of the music industry, the immediate influence and bearing of the Stone Roses waned, becoming more of a memory with every year and sidling into the realms of legend.
In 1994 another band from Manchester made their bid for international acclaim. Blessed with more universally snaring songs and a broader appeal Oasis grabbed the pot of gold that was once rightfully reserved for the Roses.
Finally, in the time it took to settle a world war, The Stone Roses rid themselves of the shackles of newly found parental responsibilities, record company and management strife, and the lead weight of expectation to produce a cracking LP. Titled, cheekily and entirely within character, as the ‘Second Coming’ it contained several tracks that rekindled the emotive flame, namely Ten Storey Long Song, a sweeping, swirling gem of a song, Tears and Begging You. It received mediocre reviews, inevitable considering the sheer imposing scale of the pedestal the first eponymous album was placed upon. Like a son attempting to follow his hugely successful father in a chosen field it was fated to be second best even before its inception.
The mortality previously hidden behind the boastful arrogance was suddenly very evident. Receiving unheard of indifference to their work the group’s glorious aloofness receded further into moody silences. The gang mentality that drives any band had now gone, the lengthy absence encouraging individual lifestyles and opinions to flourish. It became clear that a certain amount of disenchantment had infiltrated the group’s armour. The sardonic manner the band carried with them, refreshingly sneering at the trivialities of fame, now imploded into in-house bickering.
Many reasons could be given for the Roses eventual demise, most of which remain unconfirmed rumours to this day, but what is certain is that during the long recording hiatus the four friends grew apart as people. Maturing in different directions the unison and camaraderie of the original sugar-spun musketeers weakened. That the music played little part in their split made it all the sadder.
Ian Brown commented just after the Second Coming’s arrival, “I always thought that us and the Mondays would make things more real, but – and I don’t know why it happens – it all peters out and goes wrong”.
So now comes the reunion. A surreal sight that many thought they would never see whilst other never wanted to. The love we had for them wasn’t projected, it was invested and in a very real sense it won’t just be four middle-aged men taking to the stage and risking it all; in part it will be our innocence, our youthful souls.
All personal doubts however were allayed just minutes into last week’s press conference.
‘How much new stuff can we expect?’
‘Seventy new stuffs’
‘Ben Todd from the Daily Mail, a quick one…’
‘A quick one for you, what does it feel like to represent a newspaper that used to support Adolf Hitler?’
God I’ve missed them. The Roses were once what the world was waiting for. In a country of Cameron, riots and a voiceless populace in many ways that remains the case.
I keep thinking ahead to next summer and the opening strains of Adored. Ian sauntering on brandishing a deflated globe, blowing it up while the song ever-so-slowly picks up pace then triumphantly holding it aloft in one hand whilst doing his lazy shuffle at the exact point Squire’s guitar soars. A 37-year old man who once spectacularly lost his way like they did suddenly feeling fifteen again, experiencing the same shivery goose-bumps and ethereal, euphoric feeling that he had on that godforsaken industrial wasteland near Widnes.
Seeing them again won’t feel like selling my soul. They’ve always been in me.