The Stone Roses: Back in bloom?
The Stone Roses continue their comeback at T in the Park this weekend. Another cash-in? Or is something culturally significant going on, asks David Pollock
‘Here we are. Here it is.” Even as Ian Brown swaggered onstage at Manchester’s Heaton Park on Friday and announced his band’s return in a voice tingling with nervous excitement, The Stone Roses’ reunion could still have gone either way. Seventy-five thousand fans had gathered for the first of three nights in the band’s spiritual home city for what was being touted as their triumphant live comeback after 16 years away.
The facts of that statement don’t quite stack up, given that they played a low-key debut reunion show in Brown’s hometown of Warrington a few weeks previously and a subsequent European tour, and the band who finally crumbled after years of erosion at the Reading Festival in 1996 were only half of the original quartet, Brown and bassist Gary “Mani” Mounfield having outlasted guitarist John Squire and drummer Alan “Reni” Wren. In fact, the latter’s departure – following the recording of 1994’s second and final album Second Coming but prior to its live tour – meant the original four members hadn’t actually played in public together since a date on Glasgow Green in June 1990.
And triumphant? The jury was very much out until after the fact. There are two significant reasons why The Stone Roses get compared to The Beatles: they’ve done more than any British group since 1970 to have thoroughly earned the title “generation-defining”, and their split and the years since also saw the breezy, optimistic certainty of their finest recordings give way to a bitter and acrimonious feud played out like the devil’s own game of tennis with depressing regularity in the press.
For years childhood friends Brown and Squire would snipe at each other from afar, but it was actually Reni whom the singer targeted with a much-blogged onstage speech at a recent show in Amsterdam where he called the drummer “a c***” for leaving the venue before the encore.
There are many reasons why these shows, and the band’s date at T in the Park this weekend, were anticipated with an almost religious fervour during the years of separation, and why the streets of Manchester resembled nothing short of a pilgrimage site last weekend. Yet even now, after the event, no-one seems to be able to articulate precisely what these reasons are.
A sense of nostalgia, certainly, but if reliving the good old days was all it was about, then how come the Happy Mondays’ revival earlier this year didn’t see the movement of almost a quarter of a million people towards their home city? Why doesn’t each new show by the Charlatans or Inspiral Carpets fill football fields and stadia? Despite all the crushing hyperbole that’s been churned out as their legend has developed, there is indeed something very special about The Stone Roses.
To completely understand it, judging by the make-up of the Heaton Park crowd (mostly men, mostly aged between 30 and 45), you have to have lived it. Compared to the dourness of most icons of 1980s indie music in the UK – The Smiths, Joy Division – The Stone Roses were a group who had a transformative effect on a generation’s idea of what it was to be young, socially disadvantaged and, yes, male in the late 80s.
In place of social exclusion, there was the communal euphoria of Made of Stone. In place of a hopeless future came the beatific glow of Mersey Paradise, a sunny childhood bank holiday away with the family set to music. Instead of frustrated aggression, the emotional honesty of I Wanna Be Adored and the naked tenderness of Standing Here (the B-side of She Bangs the Drums). As the decade seeped away and Thatcher’s era came to an end, Fool’s Gold, I Am the Resurrection and the anti-monarchist Elizabeth My Dear (dedicated with enduring, contrary principle by Brown to “the parasite down the road” at Heaton Park) affirmed an anti-authoritarianism which was non-confrontational but utterly dedicated to a firm stand for one’s beliefs.
They were rarely an overtly political band, but The Stone Roses’ music and often amusing public persona set a blueprint for their audience to live their lives with openness and positivity. They would talk in interviews of fighting back against racist thugs in the street as teens, and Brown would demand that the Queen turn over all her property for use as homeless shelters. Rather than give in to despondency as young men on the dole, Brown and Squire hitch-hiked around Europe, Brown using his experiences in Paris to inform the lyrics of Bye Bye Badman, its reference to “citrus-sucking sunshine” recalling how protesters in the Mai ’68 movement would use lemon juice to counteract the effects of tear gas.
In their sound, too, this sense that there was a world beyond the mundane and everyday persisted. Much of the music might have echoed the West Coast style of the late 1960s drawn through the raw filter of Manchester’s recent musical history, but Brown’s often unashamedly biblical lyrics and the swaggering physical confidence of his stride – much imitated by everyone since, from Liam Gallagher to Kasabian’s Tom Meighan – had their roots in his musical heroes, a litany of black music’s greats like Bob Marley, Michael Jackson, Marvin Gaye and Public Enemy.
In this context, “alternative” music made by white, male Britons has regressed in the decades since, with no-one – including, for example, their fellow headliners at T – willing to wear their heart on their sleeve as The Stone Roses once did. We can blame Oasis for that, a group many considered to be The Stone Roses’ spiritual descendants, but whose overriding lyrical position seemed to be that personal acquisition is a good thing (see: Cigarettes and Alcohol). Brown, Squire et al would not, it’s certain, have ever accepted an invite to 10 Downing Street or spoken with approval of Margaret Thatcher as Noel Gallagher did.
In a world where Gary Barlow is a political pop musician, then, it’s both the right time for The Stone Roses to come back and cause for real excitement that Heaton Park was such a triumph, the mass singalong of Made of Stone’s central lyric “don’t these times / fill your eyes?” being the kind of transcendent experience which causes you to look into the eyes of those around you to see whether they feel it too.
Amidst the music, however, there was another moment which brought a tear to the eye. Spotting a crush developing at the front of the stage, Brown paused until all those involved were able to right themselves. “If you see anyone fall down, pick ’em up,” he implored. “That’s what we do here.” In case his band need to reaffirm their mission statement after all these years, there it is.
• The Stone Roses headline T in the Park on Saturday night.
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