Staggeringly beautiful and swaggeringly arrogant, The Stone Roses’ eponymous debut album might be the greatest album ever recorded. We know this to be true because the tunes are so self-assured we are given no reason to believe otherwise.
Since its release in 1989, The Stone Roses has been subject to numerous reissues, remastered versions, and repackaging. There have been additional tracks added, and a general sense of cultification around the tunes. Old fans move higher through the ranks into a kind of wearied euphoria, and new fans dig to the roots of a strange and familiar tree that has offered crazy good fruits. As much discussion can be had about the cultural impact of the album as can be had as the tunes themselves. You may not like, and you may not even know the tunes on this album, but you’ve heard, and you’ve praised its offspring.
The Stones Roses, a mop-haired quartet from Manchester, never really captured the hearts and minds of the US audiences. In America the band remained the preserve of late-night alt-rock radio and secretive, smoky dorm rooms. Superficially, and lazily, they were dismissed as derivative; sounding something like Buffalo Springfield or The Byrds. Ironically, it’s the critics that dismissed them as such who had missed the point, entirely.
The Stone Roses emerged from the grim streets of Manchester, a city whose cultural curses and blessings had previously been portrayed by the likes of art-school favorites, Joy Division and The Smiths. The city (and all of the UK) was floating away with itself, a causality of it’s own party; Rave was drifting without purpose, and Acid Culture was coming down hard. Rock music meandered around the same tired riffs, and dance music was snagged in its own 808 beats. Politically, things were desperate; a right wing government separated kids from their ambitions, unemployment was high and hope for humanity was low. British kids looked outward to America, but nothing of the star-spangled hair metal or shiny pop resonated with any degree of authenticity.
The quartet of Ian Brown, John Squire, Mani and Reni extracted drugs from the acid scene, beats from the dance scene, and swagger from the rock world. Whilst echoing the psychedelic tones of the past The Stone Roses arrived as an album that was urgent, original and like nothing else that had come before. It melded genres and sensibilities, and it spoke to audiences with such a tone of defiance that anarchy and optimism were simultaneously restored into the music scene.
This may have been an album that arose in an atmosphere of working class hedonism, but it was not simply focused on escapism and fantasy, as were so many of it’s contemporaries. Between two massively (beautifully) arrogant tracks–“I Wanna Be Adored”, which opens, and “I Am The Resurrection”, which closes the album–Ian Brown’s self-aggrandizing gives way to more nuanced lyrical play that looks toward political concerns and the world outside the self.
“Bye Bye Badman” lifts it’s title from a Jackson Pollock painting which was a reference to the Paris riots of 1968. John Squire tells how Ian Brown had met a man who had taken part in the civil unrest, and shared a story of how rioters carried lemons in their pockets, using the juice as an antidote to the tear gas of the gendarme. Having seen a documentary on the riots, and a man throwing stones at the police, Ian Brown remarked that he “Really liked his attitude.” The album artwork echoes this story–with a Pollocks’ inspired splash painting and a couple of slices of lemon.
The Stone Roses delivers track after track of flawless victory.
“Elizabeth My Dear” is Ian Brown’s less-than-affectionate address to the British Monarchy. Set to the tune of a 500-year-old English folk tune “Scarborough Fair”. “Tear me apart and boil my bones / I’ll not rest till she’s lost her throne/ My aim is true / my message is clear/ it’s curtains for you / Elizabeth my dear.” With these lines, sung so beautifully, all of the power of the Sex Pistols’ “Anarchy in the UK” returned to the consciousness of the subjugated masses, but with a more credible sadness and a more precise target. Calling the queen out by name, not simply by job title is a brave and deliberate masterstroke.
This is not an album of a singular note–yes, there are political swipes and grandiose posturing–but at its heart there are deeply personable statements of life as an individual, falling in love, falling out of love, and basically being alive. “Waterfall” and “She Bangs The Drums” address broader issues–but they are significantly more personal and vulnerable by comparison to other moments in this sequence.
Silver-stitched through all of these tracks is John Squire’s insane musicianship. Guitar work is looped backwards, hooks are barbed sharper than sharp, and his ability to deploy simple licks or involved finger work is, at times, unequalled in rock music. It’s no overstatement to say that the bridge, and then breakdown of “I Am The Resurrection” is made of pure wonder and has raised the actual dead onto many a dance floor.
In the rhythm section, Reni uses drums to turn straight-rock patterns into paisley grooves; solid colors move the feet, and splashier elements spray through the head. Mani, who would later inject his energy into Primal Scream, brings incredible depth to the bass. It’s the paradoxically restrained showmanship of a track like “I Am The Resurrection” that showcases individual skills as well as band dynamic that’s expertly captured by producer John Leckie. The producer had previously worked on solo projects with John Lennon and George Harrison brings a sense that the studio is nothing less than conduit between the heavens and the earth.
Critics of The Stone Roses often fall more into a critique of the cultural simplicity of the Madchester scene, or they pour academia over process much the same as critics of punk. Brown’s voice is criticized as being ‘not that great’, since he does have a tendency to deliver a few flat lines. And the sloppy assessment that decries a lack of originality gets waved around. The band failed to capture larger markets–though, laughingly Brown tells that Geffen Records handed the band a “…shed load of money to make a great video and break the American market… we ended up making a crap video.” There’s plenty for critics to bite into. Remember Dylan couldn’t sing in the way that convention preferred, and the earliest incarnation of The Beatles ripped off Chuck Berry and Elvis. The Stone Roses simply did what every other artist in history has done–they looked toward tradition – broke it’s limbs and tore out the heart to celebrate defiance and energy. They reclaimed the landscape that they loved and feared was slipping away from them.
Of course this is album has been romanticized and be blown out of proportion, that is the very point.
Of course the story of The Stone Roses fell into myth and legend, as legal wrangling, in-fighting, and all manners of weirdness took a grip of the band, management and label distribution. The story of The Stone Roses is the story of a breaking-off in the evolution of music. Much like Nirvana redefined rock whilst railing against an undefeatable enemy of consumerism and the pulping-up of individualism, so the Stone Roses represented something larger than music and a identity. Struggle, celebration, and determination were the keys that unlocked the center of this album. The bands that followed in the lineage of Ian Brown and friends will stretch on forever–far beyond the installment of English music known as Madchester; Oasis, Kasabian, Blur, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, New Young Pony Club, The Libertines, Primal Scream, The Beta Band … the list goes on and on.
The Stone Roses delivers track after track of flawless victory. Some people will debate the point, and break down worldwide sales figures from the time of release, or question the unique abilities of the band–as if it’s the responsibility of an artist to reinvent art with each dispatch. But here’s the thing; of course this is album has been romanticized and be blown out of proportion, that is the very point. Rock music is here to emote, and to stir up a fuss; it’s not the duty of an album to accurately reflect the stock market, or to present sensible strategic solutions to political issues. Sometimes all we need is to kick over the throne and dance.
IMAGES: Silvertone Records, Paul Slattery