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An album I adore - The Stone Roses debut

Ian Brown wanted to be adored and I'm happy to oblige

 

The Stone Roses eponymous, era defining debut was released in 1989, closer to the Beatles first LP drop than the present day.


Cover art fro Stone Roses debut album

Like The Beatles, they likely would have been successful whenever they appeared; however also like the Fab four they benefited in that they were fortunate in their formative years. The Beatles released the shackles of the Second World War, austerity and rationing with their heady, unbridled, hand-clapping pop. The Stone Roses swaggering debut arrived towards the end of the 80s which had been dominated by a Southern centric, hedonistic, hegemony of slick, stylish synth poppers and pseudo soul boys.


The Beatles went through drug phases – speed in Hamburg, acid on Revolver and Sergeant Peppers, heroin and cannabis on Let It Be. The Roses were defined by ecstasy – and an ecstatic groove – and unleashed a long promised Northern revolution; which as it turned out wasn't smashing the mills but crashing the end of the acid house rave scene. Slowing it down with a jangle of US West Coast psychedelia and setting free a generation of Smiths-fed indie kids into loose limbed freedom.


How did it come to this? Formed in 1983, originally as The Patrol (with 'Funky Si' Wolstencroft on drums who, in a recent podcast, nominated future custodian of the drum stool Alan 'Reni' Wren as his favourite Manchester drummer), they seemed, in the words of their equally mouthy and guitar genius driven Manchester forerunners The Smiths, to be going Nowhere Fast.


If indeed the past is a different country, Manchester in the early 80s was a different planet relative to its modern incarnation. Arguably still closer to its Cottonopolis industrial roots than its Madchester reinvention, which was only a few tantalising years away. The Southern press weren't interested in Northern bands who didn't play in London and besides didn't they already have their Manchester band to fawn over? With the Levenshulme Lieber and Stoller providing a literate, endlessly quotable frontman and a beautiful, chiming anti-rock god, why would they bother with another band of apparent also-rans?


Enter manager Gareth Evans.


Across his many interviews and even via the brilliant Blood On The Turntable documentary (read more here), it cannot be ascertained if he was aware of, or indeed a fan of, Guy DeBord, provocateur exceptional and leader of the Situationist International (SI). We know for sure John Squire was, as his Bye Bye Badman cover for the album references the SI influenced Paris riots of May 1968. More on that later.


In his blog detailing the influence of Guy Debord and the Situationist International on the events of May '68, Andy Merrifield writes: "On the brink of working class and student insurgency came Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle (1967), the radical book of the 1960s, perhaps the most radical radical book ever written. Its 221 strange theses give us stirring crescendos of literary power, compelling evocations of an epoch in which unity spelt division, essence appearance, truth falsity. A topsy-turvy world where everything and everybody partook in a perverse paradox. Debord mocked the reality of this non-reality, an absurd world in which ugliness signified beauty, stupidity intelligence, subjecting it to his own dialectical inversion, his own spirit of negation."


An ex-hairdresser with no prior knowledge of the music industry, his two International clubs literally and metaphorically outside Manchester's Haçienda-hipster inner circle, he created his own topsy-turvy perverse paradox, driven less by politics than his compulsive fantasising.


Yet by removing Peter Garner and Andy Couzens from the band he left space not only for Gary 'Mani' Mountfield to pop his loping basslines into Reni's groove pocket, he also gave John Squire the room to demonstrate his crossroads-like conversion from rock chugger to distiller of potent guitar elixirs.


By allowing the band to practice at his clubs with a full PA, rather than in a cold, cramped rehearsal space, they were able to develop a big-gig ready set.


And then he pulled his ultimate situationist absurdity - booking the 3500 capacity Blackpool Empress Ballroom for a gig to announce them to the World shortly after the album was released and initially sold poorly. Not in London! 10 times bigger than any of their previous gigs! Obviously destined to fail, it was a triumph and by staying in the North it provided the confidence boost which helped to kickstart Madchester.


We'll draw a veil over the business dealings ("I knew the deal with Silvertone was obscene the moment I signed it"). At this point his best work was already behind him and we had heard the majesty of The Stone Roses' debut album.


In some ways it's defined by what's not on it. What indie also-rans of the 90s wouldn't have given their favourite drain pipes for a song as good as Mersey Paradise (B-side of She Bangs The Drums), which didn't make the cut. Similarly the Peter Hook produced Elephant Stone which foreshadows John Squires' supposed Led Zeppelin obsession - but more in the massive Bonhamesque drum sound than anything else. And is there a better depiction of the thrill of nights out and days in with a young love than Going Down?


They had songs easily the equal of these and they were ready to record. Producer John Leckie has commented on how tight they were as they entered London's Battery Studios "They were well rehearsed ... there wasn't any pressure to prove themselves – they knew they were good." (John Leckie learnt his trade at Abbey Road on George Harrison, John Lennon and Pink Floyd albums. If you're in any doubt, this man also produced PiL's first single Public Image, Magazine's Real Life, Radiohead's The Bends, Cast's All Change and three Fall albums. Just saying.)


Trying to be objective after 30 odd years, taking out the drugs and the Manc associations, it’s still a brilliant album. More pop than anything and maybe not hugely original, but it has melody, attitude and groove by the bucket(hat)ful. Squire and Brown wrote the songs but they are powered by Reni and Mani, the Sly and Robbie of Manchester. Although the rhythms seem locked tight, they also appear to be elastic and able to flex as they accommodate Squire's snaking guitar lines. And Brown's lyrics capture the essence of being at the epicentre of a cultural explosion, full of youthful hubris and sense of belonging to a community. From 'I wanna be adored' to 'I am the resurrection' we are not dealing with fey indie kids hiding behind a fringe.


Given that it is over 30 years since its release, I think it's important to add some political context. At the time, Thatcher had been in power for 10 years and was doubling down on her destruction of obvious targets (the unions, manufacturing, working class identity) with more insidious and sinister attacks on society e.g. clause 28 which was effectively an attempt to outlaw homosexuality. You had to pick a side and The Stone Roses were on ours, the right one. Rather than dry, political sloganeering they mixed their socialist zeal with righteous grooves and a refreshing lack of cynicism and irony - the curse of most modern standpoints (you don't like what I'm saying? Oh it was ironic).


Unlike their 90s Britpop descendants, The Roses had some form here - they mixed socialism with their sensuous grooves. Brown and Squire, were members of the Socialist Workers Party and attentive readers of Guy Debord. They first met Mani as part of a group of early 80s Manchester scooter gangs who picketed National Front demonstrations.


Brown's lyrics to Bye Bye Badman reference the 1968 Paris riots - “citrus sucking sunshine” alludes to lemons being used to offset the effect of police tear gas. And hence Squire's chaotic collage of an album cover - lemon slices, Pollock swirls and French flag. Not something you'd see from anyone in the 90s except maybe the Manics.


Commentators who dismiss 'the bucket hat brigade' are missing the point - the hat was the analogue signal of their tribal identity and tribes were what had driven musical culture until that juncture. Yes maybe the scallys didn't all get the rioting references but you knew where you were with them.


Fellow Manc Barry Gibb's lyrics from 11 years earlier could have kicked off a Roses' track -


I solve my problems and I see the light

We gotta plug and think, we gotta feed it right

There ain't no danger we can go too far

We start believing now that we can be who we are


The Stone Roses - they got groove they got meaning.

 

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