The Morning After
I guess you had to be there – probably Manchester, definitely England – to understand how the Stone Roses came to matter so much in 1989. In the U.K., “black kids had always had something going,” remembers singer Ian Brown. “1989 was the year the white kids woke up.”
Brown and the Roses are in Los Angeles, halfway through a coast-to-coast promo tour on behalf of their long-awaited sophomore album, Second Coming. Having finally bridged the six-year gap between their celebrated self-titled debut and their new record, they appear to have brought some of that infamous Mancunian weather with them. Outside, it’s pissing down, as L.A. suffers its heaviest daily rainfall in a century.
Manchester’s gray and gloomy image – based partly on the damp north England climate, and partly on the angst-rock legacy of Joy Division and the Smiths – was utterly transformed in 1989. Thanks to rave clubs such as the Hacienda, Manchester became “Madchester,” the mecca for 24-hour party people and smiley-faced hedonists from across the land. House music and ecstasy catalyzed an invincible feeling of change-is-gonna-come positivity. Surfing these energy-currents of idealism and anticipation, the Roses gave the new mood a focus. “In early ’89, when we did gigs, you could just feel the people willing you to go for it,” says Brown.
Why did the Stone Roses become the chosen ones? None of the other “Madchester” bands – Happy Mondays, with their guttersnipe funkadelia and drug-damaged doggerel, or spindly garage-psych revivalists Inspiral Carpets – really fit the bill. But the Stone Roses had the classic four-man Brit-pop formation: sexy, simian frontman Ian Brown, introverted guitar visionary John Squire, scalawag bassist Mani, shit-hot drummer/motormouth Reni. Collectively they exuded a charisma midway between the Beatles and Sex Pistols. They had the tunes, too, the sort of soaring ’60s melodies that will always make young hearts run free. And beneath the neo-psychedelia, they had a rare sense of groove, testifying to their immersion in ’70s funk and ’80s house.
Most crucially, they had the right attitude, alternately lippy and laid-back. “Madchester” replaced the workaholic materialism of the ’80s with a new spirit, encoded in the buzzword “baggy”: loose-fitting clothes (like the infamous flares the band wore), loose-limbed dance rhythms, and a loose-minded optimism. But it was the band’s cockiness that sealed their bond with their following, emblazoned on anthems like “I Wanna Be Adored” and “I Am the Resurrection,” and in choruses like “Kiss me where the sun don’t shine / The past is yours / The future’s mine.”
Manchester became big news worldwide, and such was the Roses’ momentum that they sold 300,000 copies of their self-titled debut LP in America without playing a note here. Everything came to a head in November ’89, when Happy Mondays’ “Hallelujah” and Stone Roses’ hypno-funk epic “Fools Gold” both made the U.K. Top Ten. After this triumph, though, 1990 saw the Roses struggling to articulate the perilously vague creed of “positivity” that Manchester represented; the 30,000-strong outdoor Spike Island party they threw in May 1990 was botched by bad organization, and their next single, “One Love,” was an insipid retread of “Fools Gold.”
Then things really went awry. Frustrated by an invidious contract with their label Silvertone, the Roses went to court and found themselves in legal limbo, unable to record or release a note. The case dragged on until May ’91, when the Roses were freed and immediately signed to Geffen, after which Silvertone appealed the verdict, paralyzing the band for another year.
While the Roses were tangled in litigation, Manchester’s living dream turned to nightmare. Once upon a time, remembers Brown, there was “a feeling of community strength … coming out of a club at the end of the night feeling like you were going to change the world. Then guns come in, and heroin starts being put in ecstasy. It took a lot of the love-vibe out.” Drugs meant money; money meant gang warfare for market control. The Roses actually saw one Mancunian gang-leader get shot at a reggae concert in mid-1990. But it was a series of violent incidents at the Hacienda, Manchester’s rave mecca, that most publicly announced the souring of the “Madchester” party. “Before the Hacienda got gun-detectors on the door, you’d see 16-year-old kids standing at the bar with a gun in a holster, right on view,” grimaces Brown.
The Stone Roses severed themselves from club culture. Mani, for so long “the rogue Rose,” even relocated to a small village in South Wales. Fourteen people he knew died from heroin in one year: “Kids I’d known since I was seven. I’ve seen people I’ve never ever thought would take the drug, fucked. Me, I’ll turn my back on them people, however much it hurts me. That’s why I moved out of Manchester, I don’t wanna be near it.”
Derailed by the court case, cut adrift from the scene that had energized them, the Stone Roses found it hard to get going again. They spent much of 1992-93 traveling in Europe and otherwise enjoying the fruits of their Geffen deal, reputedly worth $20 million over five albums. After a few false starts, they finally commenced work on their second album in the summer of ’93, only to get knocked off course by a series of deaths among people close to them, including their new manager. “It’s been the whole spectrum – birth, death,” Mani grins wryly. For the Roses were also distracted by fatherhood: Reni had two sons (he also has a nine-year-old daughter he met for the first time only two years ago), Squire had a daughter, and Brown a son. Even Mani is now set to be a dad in a few months time.
Problems with producers also delayed them: Their first choice, John Leckie (who’d done their debut) bailed out, unable to cope with the Roses’ lackadaisical attitude toward studio time (one session took six weeks, cost $60,000, and produced one three-minute song). Even after settling down with engineer Simon Dawson at Rockfield Studios in Wales, the pace was steady but agonizingly slow: 347 ten-hour days in the studio to produce 75 minutes of music. “Maybe 50 of them days would just be us getting stoned listening to our favorite records through the studio system,” says Brown, unabashedly, of the extravagance.
Finally, the LP was released in December of last year, titled – with characteristic immodesty – Second Coming. There are few precedents for a five-and-a-half year gap between debut and sequel. A year is a long, long time in U.K. pop; despite, or perhaps because of this, Second Coming was greeted with huge curiosity. In addition to concern over its reputedly Zeppy contents, everyone wondered if the album could possibly matter like its predecessor.
The band members themselves seem pretty nonchalant. “Our momentum was definitely stopped,” says Brown. “But I don’t think anybody’s took it off us. Suede or Blur aren’t anywhere near where we were in 1990. I thought that after house music things would leap forward. But they went back to the ’70s – Bowie impersonators, drama students.”
Five years on, the Roses seem barely to have aged. Apart from a pronounced diminishment in the width of their flares, they could have stepped out of a time capsule. They’re still sharp dressers (Brown, for instance, sports a natty deerstalker, originally acquired to shield his skull when he shaved his hair off after a disastrous stab at self-coiffure), and they’re as sharp-witted as ever. In stark contrast to their public image (vacant, party-minded, working-class lads), the Roses aren’t just smart, they’re positively learned – discoursing at length on topics such as the origins of mankind, crimes committed by the British empire, the way runaway slaves in the American South often joined Indian tribes, and so on. If they weren’t so colloquial and salt-of-the-earthy, I’d almost dub them “politically correct.”
Take their reverential attitude to women, as exemplified by the single “Love Spreads,” a paean to matriarchy whose chorus goes, “The messiah is my sister / Ain’t no king, man, she’s my queen.” Elsewhere on the album, “Daybreak” is an anti-Eurocentric homage to Africa as the cradle of human civilization. And Second Coming’s catchiest tune is “How Do You Sleep,” a jaunty vial of vitriol targeted, says Squire, at “the people who make decisions that are guaranteed to cost lives, like sending troops into battle.”
If Second Coming is anybody’s record, it’s Squire’s. Where the debut was a Squire/Brown affair, this time Squire wrote all but three of the songs; his pyrotechnic solos and swaggering riffs dominate. He describes the album as an exercise in “neo-classical homoerotic eclecticism,” an exploration of rock’s most masculine aspects – speed and noise, machinery and explosions.
Despite the late ’60s influences in which his playing is steeped, Squire is, at 32, one of the last of the original generation inspired by punk to pick up an instrument. Hearing the Sex Pistols’ “God Save The Queen” was a revelation: “It became my mission in life to try to create something with that power, just the noise of that guitar.” Before that, it had been the Beach Boys’ 20 Golden Greats and “me mum’s Beatles LPs.” This Pistols/Beatles blend is redolent of Kurt Cobain, and like Cobain, Squire is a classic female-identified man who nonetheless has a “warrior male” inside struggling to get out. One minute he’s explaining how “Love Spreads” was inspired by Rosalind Miles’ The Women’s History of the World, an elegy for the lost utopia that existed before patriarchy; the next he’ll talk about watching “Apocalypse Now for the 15th time,” then realizing “that’s like looking at hard-core porn and masturbating.”
Squire’s erstwhile creative partner, Brown, is a bit of a dreamer; his idea of utopia is “living outside with nature, getting down to the Great Spirit, full community, like the Red Indians.” It’s Squire’s cynical streak that gives the Roses their edge. “On the first album, if ever a lyric was getting too slushy I’d give it a sick twist. I didn’t have to try for this one.” He cites the devotional ballad “Your Star Will Shine,” an idyllic reverie about watching his daughter sleep whose last lines catch you off-guard: “Your distant sun / Will shine like the gun / That’s trained right between your Daddy’s eyes.” That jolting image comes from guilt-pangs inspired by his premonition that he wasn’t going to be the perfect dad, that rock’n’roll was going to drag him away from his family. That predicament isn’t likely to improve: the Roses’ recent choice of Doug Goldstein (who handles Guns N’ Roses) as their new manager, plus talk of the band doing Lollapalooza, reveal a serious intention to finally crack America.
Back in Britain, Second Coming got a mixed reception, seemingly less to do with the record (which most reviewers concede is excellent, bar the odd misguided stab at pure blues) and more to do with the resentment that the Roses, divorced from the cultural moment that gave them meaning, were now just another band. Wryly noting the schoolmasterly tone of the reviews – “you’ve been very very naughty, you’ve been away too long and this isn’t good enough to buy back our affections” – Squire complains: “It’s like we’d signed some kind of unoffical agreement!”
But that’s exactly how it works with the bands that count (as opposed to those who merely put out good records). Everything about the Stone Roses – the songs, the look, the ‘tude – crystallized a sense of possibility. The Roses represented the brief return – just after the Smiths’ miserabilism, just before grunge’s gloom – of a long-lost and nearly unthinkable ’60s notion: that being young could be fun, a real cool time. “We were supposed to be the hedonistic playboys of that era,” muses Squire. “That was easier then, there was more money around in the late ’80s. Maybe that’s all we were, a reflection of that.”
Now all the spaces of possibility are closed off. In Britain, the dole culture that originally allowed childhood chums Brown and Squire to avoid deciding what to do with their lives for several years has been extinguished. The idea that a way of life beyond 9-to-5 drudgery is possible is fading fast. Now the only flight paths for glory-hungry, working-class jack-the-lads are the traditional escape routes (soccer, pop stardom). Take Oasis, the band who ripped off the Roses’ nothing-can-stop-us arrogance and ambition shtick wholesale. The difference between Oasis and the Roses is that the latter always represented a shared sense of “going somewhere,” a collective hope. There was something generous and noble about their narcissism. Now hope (like everything else in Britain) has been privatized. And the Stone Roses are just another band.