Melody Maker, 9th June 1990
When The Stone Roses announced their plans for a gig at Spike Island the concert was eagerly heralded as the event of the year. Everett True joined the 28,000 crowd and witnessed the highs and lows, the baggy bits and the saggy bits.
At the press conference, the day before Spike Island, someone asked Ian Brown what time the concert would be ending. “The police want it to finish by 11.00,” he replied. “We’re just gonna keep going.”
In the event, it was all over by 10.30.
Strictly speaking, Spike Island isn’t an island at all – it’s a peninsula, jutting out into the Mersey near Widnes, bounded on three sides by water, ringed by industrial factories. It’s grim: the oxygen seems to have been choked out of the atmosphere as we trudge our way along roads of grey and past countless security checks, over bridges fording the green slime into the main arena. We could be checking into work at a factory, or characters in a Lowry painting.
As a site, Spike Island is virtually indistinguishable from any other festival setting, a large field, grass turned yellow from the persistent sun and thousands of trainers, unsanitary toilets, countless junk food stalls and crushed Pepsi bottles. No one can be seen selling E, but perhaps the crowd are too young.
The bill is a brave attempt at breaching the barriers that separate a rock concert from a rave by eschewing the traditional “support band” idea and bringing in guest PAs instead. Frankly, it’s misguided. DJs exhort us to “get busy”, dance sounds thunder out non stop, but kids still wander around aimlessly, waiting for their heroes to appear. The organisers forgot one basic rule: no one ever dances before the band plays, the rave starts once the concert has finished.
In typical meaningless DJ-ese, Frankie Knuckles informs us incessantly he is “Frankie Bones and comes from Brooklyn, New York”, and, “Manchester vibes are in the area” (ah, so this is what Manchester is like: a dead-end, no-happening zone). The kids saunter about, looking for a happening, any happening – part of a movement that can’t go anywhere, as it has no idea what it wants beyond a few well-meaning platitudes. “Got any Rizlas, mate?” is the cry of the day. The Stone Roses, sensibly, miss out on all this, arriving by helicopter an hour before show time.
A tee-shirt neatly sums up the smug vacuousness of the day: “And on the seventh day the clubs closed and God stayed cool.”
It is now 8.45 pm, and the sun is setting behind the ICI chemical factory to the right of the stage. The crowd are in anticipatory mood, having been buoyed up by the monster dub of Gary Clail’s mighty On-U Sound System (which includes Jah Wobble on arena-shuddering bass, and African Headcharge) and lovers House re-mixes, courtesy of Paul Oakenfold and the indomitable Mr Bones.
The baggies are out in force – there’s no shortage of floppy Reni hats, Ghandi glasses, newly-pressed flared jeans or Stone Roses tee-shirts on view. There’s also an interminable amount of Inspiral Carpets / Shaun Ryder look-alikes.
Posters can be seen being waved far-off directly in front of the stage, whistles heard shrilling in accordance with the pumping beat, the odd chant starting up. Most though, folk are hushed, earnest now the big moment is so close: the sun and rigours of the afternoon having taken their toll.
The air, so stifling only a few hours before, is chill. Searchlights pick out giant canopies on each side of the stage, purple lights shine on amplifiers. Each dance track played – now three to go, now only one – seems to last an eternity.
The entrance is magnificent (how could it be otherwise?). With red lights beamed on smoke billowing all over the stage, The Stone Roses emerge to their now-familiar theme music, waving their arms like all-conquering champions. The crowd surges forward, Ian kicks a football outward and speaks his first (and last) words of the evening: “The time, the time is now, do it now, do it now…” Do exactly what?
The song is “I Wanna Be Adored, but already its enchanted sound is being marred by an atrocious PA system, Ian’s voice clashing with the sound of the cymbals. You’d think, for a band who have so meticulously worked out every last detail of this show (the order of tonight’s set is precisely the same as Stockholm’s), they’d have sorted out their sound by now.
But Ian’s enjoying himself, crouched down in front of the adoring, raising his hands in mock supplication. He’s dressed casually, in a loose white shirt and black trousers, while the rest are in their favoured semi-Indian style garments.
And we all know the chorus where John Squire’s guitar kicks in, loud and crucial, behind that gorgeous line, “I don’t have to sell my soul / It’s already in me”, so it sounds fine, anyhow.
Elephant Stone comes next, Reni pounding the drums, the sound carried along on eddies of wind, cracking up badly. But the shadowplay of silhouettes of the band being lit up in sharp relief on the backdrop divert our attention.
She Bangs The Drum starts off jubilant, the sequenced guitars powering out, sometimes twice as loud one moment as the next and people are starting to look concerned. Ian’s voice is almost inaudible and as one baggy chap behind me points out to his mate, disgustedly: “This is bollocks. You can’t hear nowt. It’s like being at a fucking Tammy Wynette concert.”
Shoot You Down is plain weird, the massive singalong part in the middle – “I’d like to do it and you know you’ve always had it coming” – a stony silence, with even Ian’s voice lost and people too embarrassed to be heard singing on their own.
It was this number, more than any, which convinced me of The Stone Roses’ greatness when I heard it at the ICA last year. Now, I’m not so sure: the whirligig guitars and oscillating hookline, which once soared so high, now seem almost sullen, sulky at their ability to reach so many people. They shouldn’t attempt concerts on this scale if they’re unable to pull them off. They shouldn’t bother to play live at all if they’re not prepared to work at getting a decent sound. They owe their 28,000 more than this.
The melody is still gorgeous, however, and the song is purest pop, in the style of their mentors, Primal Scream. Indeed, The Stone Roses are at their best tonight when they sound their closest to Primal Scream and let those bittersweet choruses and heart-stopping guitars linger to become poignantly lost in the night air. The sound is too lucklustre to allow any monster groove work-outs like Fools Gold or Something’s Burning (the next B-side) to succeed.
A girl next to me asks if she can clamber onto my shoulders to get a better view: I acquiesce. What are festivals for, if not sharing, anyhow?
The band seem bored as they broach the groove to One Love, the new single. Where is the much-vaunted charisma? It could be bloody anyone up there – no wonder they don’t play live much. Anyhow, far be it from me to disagree with ace Roses’ guru, Bob Stanley, but, to my ears, One Love has no discernable hooks whatsoever, and is merely another excuse for John Squire to show off his (very able) Hendrix infatuations. Mind you, the complete lack of vocals over on our side of the stage might account for some of this.
Sally Cinnamon, of course, glows golden, with its wonderfully swaggering melody and torching guitar line – Reni’s pretty much stopped jiving now, and Ian cuts a forlorn figure on stage as he halfheartedly goes through his Jagger-isms. I’m getting bored about telling you how bad the sound is, so I’ll stop, but the bit about “Sent to her from heaven / Sally Cinnamon, you’re her world” still makes me catch my breath every time I hear it.
Standing Here, with its banks of guitars wailing as if the world is on fire, continues the resurgence but, by now, John and Ian and the whole damn band sound suspiciously out of tune, and no one lifts a finger to stop the rot. Still, the duelling Sixties fretwork and purest pop hook must gladden the heart of all but the most cynical of critics.
Fools Gold you all know. Personally I find its feedback-twisted guitar rather endearing, but the lolloping dance groove is rather too messy and grating, even with the additional special effect of searchlights flashing over the audience, and Squire’s paintings lighted up, massive behind the band. Ian semi-whirls his mike above his head, and the multi-coloured lights go wild, as they move on up into a Sly And The Family Stone groove, full of peek-a-boo bass riffs and madcap drumming.
Frankly, I could do without it – the sound is so weedy as to make any attempts at funking out totally pointless – and as it segues (or not) into Where Angels Play with Ian’s voice totally fucked-up and unrecognisable on its “Ba-ba-ba-ba’s”, it’s obvious the band could too. The song collapses in confusion and the crowd falls silent for a few minutes as the band lamely attempt to sort out the mess.
Waterfall next, as lights cascade over the sides like a fountain of stars free-falling over the audience’s bewildered heads, now purple, now red. Then it’s straight into the swirling Don’t Stop with its full quotient of strangely phased guitars and backwards effects. The visual effect is quite mesmerising – banks of multi-coloured lights full-flood in our faces – even if the aural effect isn’t. Something’s Burning has some nicely understated menacing guitar work from John, a hook similar to Shoot You Down and an overall pacing reminiscent of Loaded. The bass scrawls a patchwork of old Seventies funk riffs, and, taken in all, it’s quite sweet, really.
At last, the crowd is beginning to show signs of real animation, and, as the opening tumultuous chords to “Made Of Stone” rush out, Ian’s voice is lost underneath what sounds like the distant roar of waves – the 28,000 people singing in sympathy. A helicopter’s blades whirl overhead, adding another dimension to one of last year’s finest pop moments, as does its lacklustre interpretation.
And now, the timeless chords to Elizabeth My Dear, the Roses’ sweet-as-arsenic anti-Royalist song, ring out, to be led neatly into that ultimate end-piece, Resurrection. The sound is still crap, but the light system has gone crazy in a Close Encounters-stylee, and Ian’s voice is lost under a groundswell of emotion. And my, is the air rent with a frenzied punching of fists (mine included).
As the song finishes, on the furious dance freakout of John Squire’s guitar pyrotechnics, there are some further pyrotechnics in the shape of fireworks, let off behind the stage. These bring the crowd to a fever pitch of excitement previously not managed, and end the show very effectively, quashing demands for an encore.
The walk back, to coaches, and cars, and Manchester, is strangely silent – herded like sheep in virtual darkness along unfamiliar paths, no one seems in much of a mood to discuss the day’s glories or lack of them.
By the standards The Stone Roses had demanded of themselves by playing Spike Island, today was a failure. The sound was atrocious, the tuning off-key, the crowd and band strangely subdued. But, it’s not important.
None of these milestones being strewn in the path of the Stone Roses’ career (Blackpool, Alexandra Palace, Spike Island, America) matter. What matters is that everyone knows The Stone Roses have tackled them, been there, done that. It doesn’t matter in the slightest how they performed at the time.
If Alexandra Palace was an ignominious failure, good intentions blown away on a sea of bad sound, Spike Island was even more so. The grander the scale, the harder they fall. But, the band simply didn’t seem to care. It was as if, having achieved the incredible – dragging 28,000 kids into the middle of nowhere for a Bank Holiday Sunday – they perversely decided to say “Fuck you” to all their fans who had so simply and blindly venerated them as gods merely because it was time to have gods again. It was almost as if they want to see how much they can get away with. Sycophantic, uncritical press coverage doesn’t help, either.
So today’s show – and it’s plusses an minuses – doesn’t matter. It’ll have been enough for The Stone Roses to have said they played in front of 28,000 people, it’ll be enough for the faithful to be able to wear their “Spike Island: 1990” tee-shirts and announce, “I was there when Manchester vibes were full on in the area”. Spike Island was an event, and events, even if they are disasters at the time, are what count.
It seems a funny kind of way to measure achievement.