Finally, after a year of saving up, I’ve finally been able to get my hands on a copy of The Stone Roses beautiful 20th anniversary box set. It’s become more apparent in recent years just how important The Stone Roses have been in my life. In many ways their debut album symbolises my move into adulthood as much as any other. I was fifteen and in the middle of my final school exams when I got to see them play at Oxford Polytechnic in May 1989, a week or so before their debut album came out. How I managed to sag off school and get to Oxford at that age is beyond me, but somehow I pulled it off. Seeing them was the final nail in the coffin of my education and, for better or worse, part of the inspiration for me to explore the arts. I guess you could call it my first proper gig, as up until that point I’d only seen local bands or stadium rock. So, to see a band who had just recorded one of the best debut albums of all time with the world at their feet is an extraordinary thing and probably something that I didn’t fully appreciate at the time. I thought all bands would be this good… When they played live you had the feeling that the music could fall apart at any moment and that is testimony to the fragility of the music. Sometimes it's only in retrospect when it occurs to you how beautiful it really was.
While The La's re-recorded and re-recorded their album, The Stone Roses appeared on the scene completely usurping them and changing the face of British music for a generation. I always found that a little bit hard to swallow and when The La's record was finally released it felt antiquated in comparison. Even though I loved The Stone Roses dearly I always had this sense that they were taken away from me and were only "my band" for a week or so. I've never read such across-the-board praise for an album in the music press before or since that album was released. My loss had to do with seeing them play on the verge of becoming huge, and with the hoards of fashion kids who adored them. Wearing exactly the clothes as your favourite band always seems like a completely futile gesture to me. I can't count how many bands I saw, most notably The Stone Throwers, wearing flares and floral hoodies and covering their instruments in paint splatters.
I have to admit that I was initially attracted to the pictures of the band that I’d seen in Sounds and the NME. They were one of the few bands since The Who to combine musical and visual imagery with such success. A generation of kids really did learn about Jackson Pollock through The Stone Roses. John Squire’s paintings, often attempts to visualise the sound of The Jesus and Mary Chain’s feedback, became iconic and much-copied. Vandalising their record company's office with tins of paint, as a substitute for baseball bats, is probably one of the best pop-art statements of the decade. And they were just so bizarre looking, and had one of the most charismatic front men for years. Ian Brown was an angelic-looking boy, but there was also something Neanderthal about him...I guess I was kind of fascinated by that.
What strikes me about this album is that every single track is fantastic and it's still one of the most complete records I’ve ever heard. It’s indescribably right for it’s time and place, with one foot in the past and an eye on the future. You can quite easily draw a line from The Smiths, Primal Scream, and the Postcard Records bands to The Stone Roses, but this is really the sound of mopsters letting their hair down, with roots just as firmly planted in Chicago as they are in northern Britain, influenced as much by "Voodoo Ray" as they were by the psychedelic bands of the Sixties. Along with De La Soul’s Three Feet High and Rising, it should be held up as a defining record of the post-cold-war era.
The album has more in common with the euphoria of acid house than it does psychedelia or indie rock. The sense of space in the music is key to its place and time. I never took Ecstasy at the time, but perhaps I should have. God knows how many countryside raves I was dragged along to as a teenager, sitting in the corner listening to crappy house music surrounded by people getting wasted and foaming at the mouth. That and peer pressure were definitely what put me off taking it. I have never listened to music as a means of escapism, but rather as a way of turning myself on to the world around me. This album is definitely a major turn on! Having said that, the opening chords of "Waterfall" are as close to an aural orgasm (ahem) as I’ve experienced. Despite the obvious euphoria of the record, there's a melancholy and eeriness to the music reminsicent of Love's best work, Forever Changes.
There are so many elements that make this record astonishing. I hate the word “chemistry” when applied to bands, but The Stone Roses really did have a perfect mix. Everything is built around the brilliance of the bass and drums, probably best highlighted on "Waterfall", which is about as loose as any British rhythm section ever got. Their philosophy was to separate the kick, snare drum, and hi-hat for the belly, head, and shoulders, respectively. Without question they brought about a new awareness of rhythm, not just in Britain but across the Atlantic, too, where they ended up being sampled by Run DMC.
The cinematic opening sprawl of "I Wanna Be Adored" is the sound of Joy Division’s "Shadowplay" on temazepam. Check it out at 45rpm! But, there’s so much joy in this record, and that is what brings people back to it so oftten. Ian Brown is criminally underrated as a lyricist, too. "Bye Bye Badman" is a song inspired by the Situationists and the Paris riots of 1968. The lemons on the album cover are in homage to the lemons sucked on by rioters to dispel the effects of tear gas. "Elizabeth My Dear" is a cheeky, medieval-sounding anti-monarchy lament to the tune of "Scarborough Fair". "Standing Here" is one of the great modern love songs with the lines “I could park a juggernaut in your mouth. I can feel a hurricane when you shout. I should be safe forever in your arms” in the beautiful second half of the song. Reni’s harmonies really cannot be understated when you listen to The Stone Roses and are a perfect counterpoint to Ian Brown's lead vocals. Hearing the demos for the first time here makes you appreciate just how hard John Leckie must have worked to get Ian Brown to sing in tune! There's something pretty esoteric about Ian Brown which can best be heard on "Fools Gold", a cryptic denouncement of capitalism.
Unfortunately, The Stone Roses legacy is that they were a pre-cursor to Britpop and the nihilistic male posturing that came with it. That totally annoys me and misses the point. Having complete belief in what you do without seeming arrogant being the main difference. I seem to be alone amongst most of my friends in my devotion to The Stone Roses, so it's really something to be able to share these songs with Frances. I have beautiful memories of listening to a cassette copy of the album on our way to the North Carolina coast at night time. As a parallel, it seems that The Stone Roses album was just as forming and important for her as it was for me, and that is testament to the power and grace of this music. Even twenty years on these are still songs to live your life by.