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(Note: I wrote this article in 2007 for a local arts magazine. Given the Beatles-related theme of Night Lights this week, as well as recent, unfounded rumors of a Stone Roses reunion for the 20th anniversary of their landmark debut album, I thought I’d post it here.) (UPDATE 2011: a reunion is happening)
God made us and God destroyed us.—Ian Brown on the Stone Roses.
The idea that a rock band might change the world, or even save it, has been with us ever since the Beatles flew across the ocean in 1964 and captivated an American audience still mourning the death of John F. Kennedy. When John Lennon infamously quipped two years later that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus, he struck a nerve partly because his remark was quite possibly true, at least among his group’s young fans; and the release of the album Sergeant Pepper the following summer vindicated for many the notion that four young men armed with only musical instruments now held an authoritative sway over an entire generation that went far beyond a new aesthetic. Even as the band proved itself more than mortal in the years to come—receiving a critical drubbing for their film Magical Mystery Tour and souring into solipsistic bitterness during the Let It Be sessions—they continued to exert a mystical hold on their followers, inspiring the “Paul is dead” saga as well as a fringe cult of mass murderers, the Manson family.
In the wake of the Fab Four’s 1970 breakup, rock critics and fans kept alive the hope first that the Liverpool icons would reunite (a dream brutally terminated by John Lennon’s murder in 1980) and then that a new, musically almighty band would emerge to supplant them. For years that kiss-of-death phrase “the new Beatles” was hung on everybody from the Bay City Rollers and Duran Duran to the Knack. In terms of global success, the Swedish group Abba came close to a Beatle-like level in the late 1970s, but they made no cultural impact beyond their great run of pop singles. Oasis achieved a phenomenal success in their home country of the United Kingdom in part by shamelessly aping the Beatles, sometimes lifting their hooks wholesale, and even made inroads into America with their song “Wonderwall” (the title taken from a George Harrison LP); but they fell flat with their bloated 1997 CD Be Here Now, and have been content ever since to put out so-so albums every three years and rest on their laurels as the kings of the mid-1990s Britpop scene.
IF THERE WAS EVER a band that seemed poised to equal the Beatles, musically and culturally, it was the Stone Roses in 1989. They came from Manchester, England, the same grimy, depressed city that produced two of the most important groups of the 1980s, Joy Division and the Smiths. While those bands were known for their gloomy outlook on life (the Smiths somewhat unfairly; many overlooked the wry, satirically biting humor in singer Morrissey’s lyrics, and who could be depressed listening to the marvelous, jangling hooks that guitarist Johnny Marr produced?), the Stone Roses took a different tack. They emphasized color and vibrancy; their music was a revelatory and startling brew of Jimi Hendrix, Sly and the Family Stone, and the Byrds, emphasizing flowing, crystalline guitar lines, an infectious dance-house rhythm section, and a pouting pretty-boy singer whose charisma conveyed both sensitivity and bravado, strong enough to overcome his frequent inability to stay in tune.
Their CD covers were splashy, explosive imitations of Jackson Pollock’s artwork, a neat match for the electrifying illumination of their sound. If Pollock’s paintings were energy made visible, then a Stone Roses song like “Waterfall” was a Pollock painting translated into sound, with looping lines of wet, kinetic splendour and a rhythm that suggested an eternally joyous beat. (It was, in fact, “Waterfall” that led Beatle drummer Ringo Starr to champion the band.)
Their debut album, The Stone Roses, came out in the spring of 1989, on the cusp of the revolutions that were beginning to sweep Eastern Europe and resonate around the world. It’s hard enough to be a band that emerges with a powerful, unique look and sound; it’s even harder to somehow be lucky enough to converge with a powerful historical moment. It happened for the Stone Roses, who would release a song later that year with the title “What the World Is Waiting For,” intentionally or unintentionally summing up the feelings of many in England towards the band.
The Manchester scene from which the Roses emerged was often referred to as “Madchester,” and it was saturated in Ecstasy, perhaps the drug of the late 1980s, and one with an uncanny ability to make its user feel, at least temporarily, that he or she had become the person he or she had always wanted to be, and that any foe was now a friend. It easily fostered the potent appeal of rock ‘n roll’s utopian vision, predicated upon illusory premises—that one will be young, or at least feel young, forever. That testing the limits of hedonistic excess will not have any consequences. That inspiration will arrive every album cycle.
The best rock ‘n roll is an invocation of endless, ecstatic possibility, and that is why it offers us a religious-like reflection of life as an infinite extension. When the Stone Roses sang “Burst into heaven” in the opening line of their song “Elephant Stone,” accompanied by a splash of cymbals, the exuberant weave and wave of Reni’s drums, and the sparkling sense-surround arpeggios of John Squire’s guitar, they manifested that vision; the listener felt they had arrived in heaven simply because they couldn’t help it, that the sheer joy and beauty of their music had lifted them there. Burst indeed…how often does one experience that sensation in modern pop? History, the dread chains of lived experience, dissolved; when Brown sang “the past was yours but the future’s mine” and proclaimed from the stage, “It’s not where you’re from, it’s where you’re at,” it was easy to feel that another prophet had arrived.
This celebratory manifesto of music, this Wordsworthian bliss made sound, seemed especially appropriate in 1989, a year in which unimaginable things were happening in Eastern Europe. In the swoop of just a few months dictatorial regimes fell in a chain effect of peaceful revolutions, and the Berlin Wall, that ugly symbol of human division and alienation, came down in one evening (in fact, I remember hearing the news via a long-distance telephone call from a friend; I was home at the time, listening to the Stone Roses).
There’s much irony here; the regimes that fell were rooted in communism, the political philosophy that had promised paradise on earth. The Roses’ politics were always leftwing and socialistic in nature (their song “Bye Bye Badman” invokes the May 1968 Paris student uprising), and the revolutions of ’89 were against socialism gone wrong. The irony doubled back on itself; in Czechoslovakia, rebels and agents of change such as writer Vaclav Havel were inspired by Western leftwing rock ‘n roll icons such as John Lennon and Lou Reed. When Haclav took over the reins of leadership in Czechoslovakia, he appointed, as his Special Ambassador to the West on Trade, Culture, and Tourism, that beloved conservative scion Frank Zappa. (Bush administration officials pressured Havel to withdraw the appointment, but he still made Zappa an unofficial cultural attaché.)
Around the time that the Berlin Wall was coming down and the Velvet Revolution was sweeping away a government in Czechoslovakia, the Stone Roses capped their incendiary breakthrough year by releasing a new single, “Fool’s Gold.” They had finished their debut album with two anthemic closers, “This Is the One” and the audaciously-titled “I Am the Resurrection”; now they upped the ante with an epic dance track that took their brand of paisley funk to an even higher level. It seemed the Roses could do anything; they were brash, supremely talented, good-looking, and only in their mid-20s. They had been working and practicing together for four years, and they had attained that magical realm where the sum of all the members is far greater than the parts, and where any music the artist touches turns to transcendental splendor. Already, though, something darker had begun to embed itself in this rock ‘n roll poetry of deliverance—in “Fools Gold,” Ian Brown sang, “I’m standing alone/You’re weighing the gold/I’m watching you sinking.” Was he talking about Ecstasy? The folly of rock-star worship? Consumerist culture? (Later, Brown would say that the song had been inspired by the Humphrey Bogart movie The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.)
THERE IS A PASSAGE about halfway through The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, Tom Wolfe’s chronicle of the 1960s adventures of Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters, which describes Kesey and company at a Beatles concert circa 1965, observing the unison hysteria of the teenage crowd as they revel in the rock ‘n roll spectacle of the Fab Four. As Kesey watches, the Beatles send off ripples of energy merely by pointing their instruments in different directions. Wolfe writes, “They have brought this whole mass of human beings to the point where they are one, out of their skulls, one psyche, and they have utter control over them—but they don’t know what the hell to do with it, they haven’t the first idea, and they will lose it. In Kesey the vibration is an awful anticipation of the snap—“
Ultimately, “Fool’s Gold” would prove to be the Roses’ last moment of unadulterated glory. A concert attended by more than 30,000 at Spike Island in May 1990 was marred by terrible sound. The follow-up single to “Fool’s Gold,” “One Love,” featured a chorus with the lyrics, “You can have it all/Easy, easy” suggesting a gesture of (shudder) ersatz ecstasy. (Squire himself later cited “One Love” as another reason for the Roses’ extended creative hiatus, saying, “It was the first time that it felt like we were just hacking it out.”) Legal battles with their label then prevented the group from recording or even writing new music. Promoters in the U.S. were eager to book them, but they balked at the notion of an American tour. They performed in Glasgow in June 1990 and then vanished for the next four years.
Several lengthy magazine articles have detailed how the Stone Roses “blew it” during those lost years. After winning the dispute with their label, they signed a multi-million dollar contract with Geffen Records and apparently descended into isolated, self-destructive behaviors of one sort or another. Finally, at the end of 1994, they emerged with their long-awaited follow-up, the aptly-titled Second Coming. The intro was magnificent, and as John Squire’s guitar broke through the primordial clouds around the four-minute mark, it was easy to believe that their melodic majesty would reign again. The Roses were attempting to forge something akin to an early-1970s outlaw sound—harder, darker, drawing heavily on Led Zeppelin. Whereas the ecstatic opening of “Elephant Stone” cried out “Burst into heaven,” the first song on Second Coming spoke of breaking into heaven. Ease had become effort. The frenzied thrash of “Begging You” suggested a new dancefloor sound for the band, while the sneering kiss of “How Do You Sleep?” delivered via sweet vintage hooks recalled the melodic triumphs of the past.
It went downhill from there, with only a few magical swoops up to the aesthetic heights the Roses had once commanded with such grace. Although Second Coming is better than generally credited, the musical influences are less digested and more overt than on the first album; John Squire, reportedly in the depths of heavy cocaine usage while making the record, loses himself all too frequently in Jimmy Page wannabe displays of guitar wankery. Several songs are mediocre and derivative, not even rising to the level of passable B-sides. This was what the world had waited for for five years? The rock press savaged the record, and its sales fell far short of expectations.
The outlines of Second Coming’s ambitions were clear; with its shadowed overtones and premonitions of mortality, a better-written and recorded version might have been the perfect capper to a year that had seen the springtime suicide of grunge icon Kurt Cobain. Instead, Oasis stole a march on them and reinvented the myth of rock-star herodom with the album Definitely Maybe. That was what the world was waiting for in late 1994. (When Oasis foundered nearly three years later with their own ultrahype album, Be Here Now, it seemed to confirm the following formula: great success + heightened expectations + copious amounts of cocaine= long, wankerous guitar solos.)
Even more disastrously, Reni, the brilliant drummer who had also lent many of the Roses’ songs a jubilant vocal harmony, left the group shortly after the album’s release. It was the beginning of the end; a year later John Squire also departed, and the Roses disbanded after an embarrassing gig at England’s Reading Festival in August 1996. Squire formed another band, the Seahorses, which broke up after one poorly-received record; Mani, the group’s bassist, joined Primal Scream; and Ian Brown managed to establish a fairly successful solo career, impeded temporarily by a jail sentence for air rage. Reni went into seclusion and has been heard from only rarely since. The other three give occasional interviews, and Brown and Squire are infamous for sniping at each other through the media. Though the band’s been offered excessively large sums of money to reunite (the Resurrection Tour, anybody?), so far they’ve refused. The aura of past glory still clings to them, even if they now seem mired in the muck of everyday life like the rest of us.
We live in an age when the thought of revolution seems like a distant dream, with an awareness of how past ones have often turned into nightmares. 1989’s promise of global peace has been waylaid by new ideological conflicts. Still, it is the fuel of utopian vision that fires the most exquisite beauty in our lives and in our art. “It was just about freedom,” Ian Brown said several years ago. “A celebration of freedom and what was possible, what you might achieve.” Until failure—ultimate, inevitable in its chilly cloak—descends, miracles may pass. Afterwards, one may be put in mind of the mournfully impassioned chant that ends The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test:
“WE BLEW IT!”
“…it was perfect, so what do you do?…”
“WE BLEW IT!”
“WE BLEW IT!”
…leaving us with only the music of fierce ecstasies once known.