The Stone Roses biography
FORMED: 1985, Manchester, England
DISBANDED: October 1996
REFORMED: 18 October 2011
Slowly came the Roses, very slowly. Edging into a mid eighties Manchester scene dominated by the unholy trinity…The Smiths, New Order …. The Fall and, lurking in the shadows, seemingly endless copycat outfits, relentlessly churning over a drone borrowed from the underbelly of the big three, adding little.
And then, in an instant it seemed, things improved. It was 1985 and new venues opened in the city. ‘The International’, on Anson Road. The Boardwalk, on Little Peter Street, both creating some kind of romance out of overbearing austerity. The seeds of the scene that would eventually, and rather irritatingly, be tagged ‘Madchester’, were sown in August of that year when the cities new batch of elite bands. Simply Red, James, Easterhouse etc. performed at a free festival at Platt Fields park and then a whole clutch of disparate outfits sprinkled across the city.
If it was a scene then The Stone Roses were, resolutely, not part of it. We, the wily gig goers of oily Mancunia, didn’t quite know what to make of them. We liked to think of ourselves as hideously moderne, as we shuddered in the coldness of The Hacienda, listening to Chicago ‘House’ while wearing Doc Martin shoes and second-hand overcoats. Yet here was a band who carried with them a definite…well, a ‘rockist’ tinge. They had, in Pete Garner, a long haired bass player…and that would never do. The singer, lan Brown, was prone to the wearing of leather trousers and, gasp, splashes of ‘Paisley’ had been seen on the shirts of guitarist John Squire. The fact is that we didn’t quite trust them. They seemed so….so un-Manchester! Their past was, to say the least, murky. In various forms they had existed as Altrincham mod band, The Patrol, quite the antithesis of the cool, shambolic funk bands who hovered around the Factory label. Later, emerging as scooter boy loutish brats, The Waterfront – fronted by self confessed soccer hooligan. Kaiser- they flickered briefly before finally regrouping in beery, dopey Stockport practice rooms, taking the name Stone Roses and finally adding the multi talented Reni on drums. Their first gig came in 1984, at The Moonlight Club in Hampstead where, bizarrely, they performed before the enthusiastic and somewhat off putting figure of Pete Townsend, who would, later on jam with the band in a surreal run through of ‘Substitute’ and ‘Pictures of Lily’.
But in Manchester, in ’85, reality dug in. They grasped the services of manager Howard Jones, fresh from his turbulent stint as Hacienda General Manager. To his credit, Jones noticed the comparative advanced musicality of the band. The driving excellence of John Squire…the ferocious attack of Reni, who, he stated, “…played the drums like Hendrix played the guitar.” Although lacking in material and, indeed, material things, Jones, acting on a tip from lan Brown, took the band for a legendary spell in Sweden, where they shivered and drank and squabbled over food while pulling a series of juvenile stunts on their admirably resolute manager.
Back in Manchester, they released their first single for Thin Line, a label run by Jones and idiosyncratic producer, Martin Hannett, both of whom had, rather fittingly, fallen messily out with the elite bods of Factory. It was, however, too soon. The single, ‘So Young b/w ‘Misery Dictionary’ sounded, as lan Brown would later state, “like four lads trying to get out of Manchester.” There was, it is true, desperation in the grooves….but not enough to fire the imagination. The sound in their heads was a wholesome swirling mess of diverse and tasteful influence but, despite Hannett’s bizarre in-studio technique; it failed to fire the music. It was an ordinary record made by a band twisting into the extraordinary. But did the growing swell of fans really notice it at the time, even as they rioted in a gig at Preston Clouds Disco, or staggered drunkenly into the Stone Roses led ‘Warehouse Parties’ – portentous precursors of unofficial raves- that had started to enliven the city? Probably not. The Stone Roses were still another band searching for a definitive sound.
A stronger batch of songs guided them back into Stockport’s Strawberry Studios where, through a bewildering mess of stolen sessions and ‘dead time’ owed to the increasingly detached Hannett, they recorded what could so easily have become their debut album. The fact that these songs, latterly released on the ‘Garage Flowers’ album, are little more than an unfocused dilution of the classic album you are now holding in your hands is further proof of rock’s fickle muse! Either the songs flow, the musicianship gels, or they are squeezed through a painful mass of unfocused rehearsals, and they gather messily in album form. The Stone Roses needed some kind of catalyst. Hannett, and his equally creative engineer, Chris Nagle, just hadn’t managed to catch that special fire.
It would be too simplistic, and certainly grossly unfair to Howard Jones, to suggest that the band’s next manager, Gareth Evans, just by being himself- i.e. a loose cannon of the bombastic variety, prone to extraordinary scams which zip, this way and that, from a central work ethic- did supply that essential missing element. But, whether coincidence or chemistry, things changed the moment The Stone Roses wandered into Gareth’s venue, The International, and fell under his managerial spell. In terms of logistics, Gareth solved a lot of immediate problems. The International became their natural daytime practice room and night time venue. Gigs would be arranged and Evans would use his underworld influence to decorate the entire city centre with promotional posters. He attacked the local press with unnerving vigor. He talked a big band and, within months. The International, probably the finest venue Manchester ever produced, swelled with a new rock audience, an audience wearying of the pretentious Smiths, an audience desiring a band who played to their level. They had, it seemed, got the band they had always wanted. Right there in the heat and sweat of The International.
The first true recorded indication of the genius – I do not use the word lightly – of this band came in the form of their next single, ‘Sally Cinnamon’, a little gem, a captivating, spiralling utterly ‘pop’ single, doomed to ultimate failure because of being tied to an unworkable deal with a small record company but, nevertheless, the song that, in 1987, enriched a million indie discos, softened a thousand cynics. In Manchester, I can personally recall, the Evans promotional machine was, at once, invigorating and infuriating. At the time I was working as rock critic for the Manchester Evening News. The Evans method wasn’t to post a record and follow up with the obligatory phone call. It was to turn up at my flat at 10 pm, burst flamboyantly into the room and hurtle, arms flailing dangerously, into an absurd diatribe about the traumas of The Roses before herding the band into the same room, where they sat, silent, open mouthed, politely allowing the Gareth show to climb to a climactic flourish. And all this for a few lines in the local press.
In truth, Gareth was one of a number of intriguing characters who helped guide The Stone Roses, from the unfashionable sidelines of Manchester, to the making of this extraordinary album. Directly …. literally, in Gareth’s shadows could be found his enigmatic and often silent partner, Mathew Cummings, whose fiscal brain kept a sharp reign over Gareth’s wildly swaying scams. Within the same managerial team, too, the studied and intelligent rock business brain of Lyndsey Reade, beautiful ex-wife of Factory boss Tony Wilson. And into this curious circle came the ferocious enthusiasm of A & R man Roddy McKenna, a Glaswegian immersed in the Manchester music scene since his days working in the city as researcher for the BBC television programme, The Oxford Road Show. McKenna, who witnessed a particularly powerful Roses show at The International, was convinced that he had found the perfect band to launch the new rock label attached to the Jive / Zomba organisation, a label named Silvertone.
On the International stage, whether in practice or in performance, the transformation was nothing less than staggering. Following a near violent altercation between Evans and Roses guitarist Andy Couzens, and following a tip from Inspiral Carpets mainman Clint Boon, in came bassist Gary ‘Mani’ Mounfield. Another catalyst? Possibly … whatever. Things were now flowing sweetly. John Squire’s expanding virtuosity had attained the point where he could lead the band into a new dimension without falling right over that precarious edge, into introspection, into pretension. With Reni, arguably the band’s most complete musician, able to catch Squire’s direction and punch it into shape while Mani’s bass lines were like little gold droplets, falling from the songs with nerve tingling effect. And Brown’s delicious half sung non voice, pinning the whole thing down, making it seem real … adding heart! You think I’m exaggerating? You should have been standing there, that Tuesday afternoon, in the dank, dark, aromatic hell of The International, waiting, for some dubious reason, for Gareth and casting a journalistic ear towards the eerie sound emitting from the practice session. It was, I think … can’t be sure … ‘Made Of Stone’. It just sounded so numbingly beautiful. And my ears, I must explain, were as cynical and jaded as rock affected ears could possibly be. But I was astounded by the apparent transformation here. Once we had a white rock act, full of ideas, fuelled by ambition, arrogant as hell but still, somehow … rather empty. And now! Well, they had attained a blackness? A darkness? A strange echo. Can’t think quite what it was … but it suddenly seemed to mean a whole lot more. I couldn’t believe that Gareth knew quite what he had here.
The musical dynamic of The Stone Roses had grown increasingly complex, lan Brown and Mani were strongly drawn towards reggae and dub, preferably from Augustus Pablo to Sly and Robbie, the duo latter mooted as possible producers for the forthcoming album. These two also favoured hip hop and underground house music. John Squire, by stark contrast, still showed the influence of his Mancunian trenchcoat past and, rather than visiting the sharpest clubs, preferred to lock himself in a room with a guitar and a reefer. Like Squire, Reni, perhaps the most intriguing of the four, wasn’t naturally drawn towards dance music, his CD collection sharply conveying a gloriously unfashionable heavy rock bias. It was a musical juxtaposition that desired the most careful handling and, as such, the choice of album producer would, to say the least, be precarious. In the wrong hands, these avenues of influence would converge to a crushingly dull mush. If the producer proved too strong, the band too timid in the studio, then the very character that made the band special in the first place would be smoothed away. Conversely, if left largely to their own devices, then the diversity could be swamped by the strongest musician which, to some extent, is what took place in the elongated run up to their comparatively disappointing second album.
The choice of John Leckie, as producer, came from McKenna, as he notes, “John Leckie was a Godfather in the studio…but he wasn’t the kind of person who would swamp a young band with his ego.”
True enough. Leckie, whose reputation had been initially forged at Abbey Road, where he had learned his craft under the steadying guidance of George Martin and, to a lesser extent, the more idiosyncratic Phil Spector. His stylish hand had been cast over the innovative recordings of Be Bop Deluxe, XTC, The Fall, The Skids, Simple Minds. The fear that Leckie wasn’t particularly in tune with the rock and dance trends of the day was alleviated by the addition of hip, young engineer, Paul Schroeder. In theory, and here, now, in retrospect, this seems like a simple and heavenly marriage, especially as the band had surged through a period rich in songwriting…rich in confidence too, following a string of wildly successful gigs. Evans, for all his faults, worked tirelessly, allowing the band to relax into rehearsal. Eventually they decamped to Zomba’s Battery Studios, housed in the parent company’s elegant little North London complex. Silvertone were based in the front room of an adjacent terrace while the band, based in a rented house in Kensal Rise for the duration of the recording, remained firmly upbeat.
By this point Leckie had little doubt about the enormous potential of the Roses. Within days of entering the studio, four songs were nearing completion. ‘I Wanna Be Adored’, ‘Made Of Stone’, ‘She Bangs The Drums’ and ‘Waterfall’, all slammed down with seemingly effortless precision. As Leckie would later state to Select Magazine. “They seemed to think they were going to make the best record ever. I’ve never been with a band who had so much confidence before. They didn’t drink, either, which was unusual. I mean, I drank more than any of them. They just had a bit of wine with a meal and lan didn’t touch beer at all, which was a revelation.”
In short it was studied professionalism that naturally segued into fun. Effortless fun. Five years of stockpiled ideas flowed across the mixing desk with Squire plucking exotic guitar tricks straight out of nowhere. It was as if every second of their struggle had funnelled down to sessions that would cement the heart of the album. The enthusiasm was unstoppable: they recorded through the night, jumping into a taxi at 7am to rush back for a day’s sleep at Kensal Rise. Each band member was allotted £10 per day for food which, although rather stingy by nineties standards, was enough to provide them with a feeling of security. A second session was recorded at Konk Studios and a third at Rockfield, in Wales, where they sampled their first taste of a successful rock lifestyle. Rockfield came complete with an in-house cook, the proverbial bag of dubious substances…and recording, recording, recording …. through the night. So sexy! So utterly perfect.
It is not my job, here, now, to pick through the individual glories of this album. They will, I strongly sense, be fondly lodged in the murky nostalgia of most people who own this anniversary special edition. It has, after all, emerged as the defining album of its era, and has subsequently, in repeated polls, found itself nestling alongside ‘Revolver’, ‘Sgt Pepper’ and ‘Dark Side Of The Moon!” And quite right, too although, it surely must be admitted, we didn’t…we couldn’t possibly understand just how special the record was at the time. When it was released, in April 1989, amid the daft frenzy of ‘Madchester’, it received reviews that were, at best, mixed, and nobody was particularly surprised. We defended it rigorously, of course, and to most people who spent that summer drifting through the haze of dance and rave, it always returns, in the memory, as fiercely hot, steamy, evocative although the Met Office statistics tell otherwise- forever linking such evocative times with this record as the central soundtrack. But, for a long while, that would become exactly the problem. As Madchester, as ‘baggy’, as rave culture was slowly, firmly eclipsed by the mixed bag of beat and emotions that made the nineties such a confusing and disparate decade, it did seem that the album might lie there, in its place, in its little era, amid flares and floppy hats and all that.
But great music, always, seeps through the holes of such nostalgic prejudice. In the same way that, say, ‘I am the Walrus’ will sound utterly contemporary if punched through the speakers at a designer clothes shop in some late nineties shopping mall, ‘The Stone Roses’ album seems to stretch across the decades to a timeless conclusion. Indeed, now that it has finally been freed from that Madchester context, now that ten years separates it from that particular climate, the music seems to have, strangely … broadened! To those not around in 1989, this music evokes no particular time at all. No era. No genre. No fad. Which is so strange as in 1989 / 90 it seemed utterly of the moment.
Sadly perhaps, we now realise that, following the recording of ‘The Stone Roses’, the sorry tale immediately tipped onto the downward trajectory. Despite the occurrence of three defining Roses gigs- Blackpool Empress Ballroom, Alexandra Palace and, most spectacular of all, Spike Island near Widnes where 35,500 people gathered to witness a band who had drifted away from their pulsebeat – the appalling sight of a band slowly .. ever so slowly disintegrating haunted the music press for the next half decade. The decline is too complex to relate here, although if you gather together the usual suspects – too much money, too little money, too much success, apathy, clashing musical direction, egotism, drugs, farms, jealousy, spite, nonchalance, failing confidence, laziness…all that stuff- you’ll know the general drift. By the time we eventually reached the release date of their second album, five years later, the cohesion had withered. It wasn’t a bad album …. but it wasn’t ‘The Stone Roses’.
It has been claimed, although I don’t necessarily concur, that The Stone Roses – the band, the album, provided the blueprint for Oasis. Well maybe. Maybe not. There is a gruesome simplicity to Oasis that is practically the antithesis of The Stone Roses, who were always a complex blend …. a blend of exquisite tastes. Hear, in these grooves, distant echoes of George Clinton, Gram Parsons, Augustus Pablo, John Mayall, Slaughter and the Dogs, The Clash, The Seeds, Simon and Garfunkel and lots of other wonderful things … Well I can hear them!
So here it is. Yes! Yes! Yes! The best rock album since Revolver? Definitely. Maybe. You don’t have to believe that. Just play it from time to time. It gets better and better. Rave on!
Mick Middles. August 1999.
When Ian Brown & John Squire started playing cover versions in a post-school band called The Patrol, no one would have imagined that they were destined to form the biggest band in the country. From Sounds November 1990, John Robb traces the history of The Stone Roses.