Classic Album: The Stone Roses – The Stone Roses
Still adored nearly 30 years on, The Stone Roses rescued indie rock from shambling student bands and fired Manchester into a bright new musical future. we chart the making of a one-off album that, according to Noel Gallagher, “opened the door for British guitar music in the 90s”…
No. 1 in the NME’s vote on Best Albums Of The 80s. Top of their Greatest British Albums Ever poll of 2003. It wasn’t just the NME. It also won The Observer’s Greatest British Albums vote the following year. Runner-up in Channel 4’s Music Of The Millennium (!) poll of greatest albums – that was a public vote. The thing about The Stone Roses is, it’s genuinely an album that spans those sometimes overly worthy critics’ polls as well as being in tune with what real people think. Or, at least, people of a certain age…
There’s a heart-warming scene in Shane Meadows’ fan-centric documentary, Made Of Stone, released in 2013.
In it, the four 40-something Stone Roses – John Squire, Ian Brown, Gary ‘Mani’ Mounfield and Alan ‘Reni’ Wray – have announced their reunion and decide to stage a free warm-up show at Warrington’s Parr Hall, capacity 1,100, and all you have to do to get a first-come first-served ticket is turn up at 4pm with a Roses record sleeve, T-shirt or a ticket to their later shows at Manchester’s Heaton Park.
Here they come, in low-key and orderly fashion; teens not even born in ’89, old men, mothers (with bemused toddlers in ‘I Wanna Be Adored’ T-shirts), time-cocooned bowlhead ‘ravers’, office workers, a bloke who’s lied to his boss that his father-in-law’s had a heart attack so he can leave work early. The best one is a too-late, unsuccessful deputy headteacher: “I’ve just seen about three people I know going in…and they know nothing about music. I’m devastated.” He’s offered a job to someone in exchange for their ticket, he’s even offered his car. He won’t go quite as far as his house. Mr Teacher is still smiling, just about. “At least I’m here, I can say I was close to it,” he muses, standing outside.
That says more about The Stones Roses than any critics’ poll. It still causes respected middle-aged professionals to ‘lose their shit’. But why? “You know and I know, but you can’t write it down, can you?” another man says to camera in Made Of Stone. “This lot [gesturing to the queue behind] know. There’s a reason I’ve still got me hair like this 20 years later. There’s a reason I’ve never worn a tie. There’s a reason why I still listen to that album at least once a week…” Let’s not over-analyse, then. You either understand, or you don’t. Here’s how Manchester’s Stone Roses made an album. Or to others: here’s how The Stone Roses made the greatest British album ever.
The Stone Roses is an odd album, in many ways. It was the culmination of five years of relatively low-key work, even if the band were all-that-time circling the big shots of Manchester music. On its release, drummer Reni was the youngest at 25: the others were already 26. In comparison, Johnny Marr had split The Smiths at 23; The Beatles stopped touring in 1966. And it was also the mother of false starts: the Roses hit the buffers not long after.
There’s a rather over-romanticised story about Ian Brown and John Squire’s joint ‘destiny’, having first met as toddlers in a sandpit. The crux is true, though the two weren’t friends until their teens, when music brought them together. Squire had begun playing guitar with some seriousness from around 15, liking The Byrds and The Beatles. Via Brown, who also played rudimentary bass, he got into Clash and Sex Pistols records, and soon learned to play those, too. Brown liked his punk, but also reggae and Northern Soul. Squire and Brown played briefly together in The Patrol, but by the time the Roses were taking shape, Alan ‘Reni’ Wren was different again – a wunderkind drummer who could also sing and play guitar, and whose favourite bands in his teens were Van Halen and Led Zeppelin.
It took a while, but the Roses’ first attempt at recording was in 1985, when they got help from local producer hero Martin Hannett. Back then, the Roses had a second guitarist, Andy Couzens, and Pete Garner on bass, and were still in search of an identity. The harsh sessions with Hannett only amounted to six nights and were hardly a success.
“Martin was giving us what we thought was speed, but they were ‘speedballs’, which is a very different thing – coke and smack. And we were snorting it.” – Andy Couzens
So Young duly came out. It was alright, in a flailing post-punk/Theatre Of Hate sorta way, but ripples extended only through Manchester. By the Roses’ next recording, Manchester was changing, anyway: the city’s most beloved bards of boredom, The Smiths, had split. Hip-hop and early house were beginning to take over, Factory’s Hacienda was actually gathering a crowd, and the overcoat-clad students were fading away.
“The summer of 1987 is when everything changed,” Happy Mondays’ Shaun Ryder later remembered. “When life suddenly went from black and white to Technicolor. When we first got the E.” The nascent ‘Madchester’ scene (“no one used the term in Manchester, unless they were a prick” – Ryder again) was gelling by the time the Roses cut their second single, Sally Cinnamon. They produced it themselves, with soundman Simon Machan, and while it still sounded rather wiry, it did show a growing savvy for hooks and tight rhythms. The band quickly sold out 1,000 singles in their hometown, and those local ripples were building to a new wave in Manchester.
Couzens and Garner were jettisoned in ’86 and ’87 respectively – Mounfield, who the band had known for years and who’d regularly watch them as a fan – came in on bass. They pushed on, building a loyal fanbase and by their third single, 1988’s Elephant Stone, The Stone Roses had arrived proper. It had the kudos of New Order’s Peter Hook as producer (“I would have done it for free”); Mani and Brown started bombing Manchester with Stone Roses graffiti; Elephant Stone featured Squire’s Pollock-styled art for the first time; they continued their strategy, rave style, of playing warehouses over established venues. They’d turn up in their newly adopted garms, too.
Leo Stanley, owner of Manchester clothes shop Identity, who was then kitting out a lot of the Manchester bands, told The Guardian, “In 1988, Ian Brown asked if we could get any Wrangler flares as they were really hard to get hold of. As soon as Ian walked on stage wearing flares, everyone wanted them.”
“When I heard Sally Cinnamon for the first time, I knew what my destiny was.“The Roses sang in Manchester accents, they wore the same clothes, they went to the same clubs, you could see them down the same shops where you were buying your desert boots and your flared jeans.” – Noel Gallagher
It would be wrong, though, to hail the Roses as forward-thinking messiahs. That early struggle for identity was there – even Gallagher admits “they were probably the last people to dress like that” – and the Roses had their own dancer/‘vibemaster’, Cressa, duplicating the role of Bez in a straight steal from Happy Mondays. He’s on the back cover of The Stone Roses.
Noel Gallagher reckons Oasis wouldn’t even exist without the Roses. Northside (“the Poundland Stone Roses”) and The Mock Turtles coat-tailed their own 15 minutes of fame. And even Blur’s debut hit There’s No Other Way was Roses-lite – their record label EMI demanded it.
“The Mondays and The Stone Roses have the same influences, really,” Brown told the The Face’s Nick Kent around that time, “’cos we’ve been to the same clubs. Blues nights, reggae nights, house nights, a bit of Parliament, a bit of Funkadelic… we’re all takin’ it from the same record collections, just doin’ it up different.” Still, with its breakbeat-like drums from Reni and leaping, Beatle-esque melodies, Elephant Stone nailed their sound.
Love didn’t spread all around. Gob-around-town and svengali Tony Wilson reportedly quipped that if you gave 1,000 monkeys guitars and Jimi Hendrix songbooks, they’d eventually emerge sounding like The Stone Roses. Touché. Though, of course, Wilson was likely just riled that Factory’s Happy Mondays boasted little of the Roses’ purer pop charms. But all these criticisms – late to the party, adopting a ‘scene’, being ‘unadventurous’ – come very much with the benefit of hindsight. To the world outside of Manchester’s melting pot, The Stones Roses in 1988 was all new… or new enough.
In 1987, Squire had talked with some exasperation to a local music magazine of “the amount of songs me and Ian have to reject. We want perfect songs. We’ve got loads that aren’t quite good enough. We want to be like The Beatles… they could change their style as much as they wanted, yet they were still undeniable as their songs were so good.”
But by 1988, they had enough for a solid demo that they were happy with. The Roses’ demo went first to Rough Trade, where label boss Geoff Travis (who’d previously helped steer The Smiths’ career) judged.
“They were just brilliant, fully formed, great songs…the thing that was really wonderful was that the rhythm section was such an elastic dancing creature, which very few great rock ’n’ roll bands seem able to achieve. That’s always one of the secrets to making a great band. If a rock ’n’ roll band can make you dance, you are in a really good place.” – Geoff Travis, Rough Trade
With their soon-to-be infamous manager, Gareth Evans, the Roses were still blagging somewhat: they didn’t sign long-term with Rough Trade, but instead went to Zomba-offshoot Silvertone. “We wrote most of the first album in a few weeks, because we’d blagged the record company,” Brown told NME in 2009. “We told Silvertone that we had about 30 or 40 songs, but we only had about eight.” But, again, those eight songs were enough. When producer John Leckie was passed their demo by Silvertone, it featured solid run-throughs of Waterfall, She Bangs The Drums, This Is The One and I Am The Resurrection. All that had to be done, really, was deliver it all as well as possible.
The Stone Roses is not a ‘dance’ album: it’s a guitar-rock record. But there is some dance sensibility to it, sure. Battery Studio’s in-house engineer, Paul Schroeder, was perhaps a crucial figure – because he was steeped in mixing dance records, he brought his EQ-ing and tech setup to that process intentionally. Schroeder had only really worked with drum machines before, and he worked closely with Reni and Mani to ensure both had sufficient punch and clarity in the rhythm-section mix.
Personnel: John Squire (guitar), Ian Brown (vocals), Gary Mounfield (bass), Alan ‘Reni’ Wray (drums, backing vocals)
Produced by: John Leckie, engineered by Paul Schroeder
Recorded at: Battery Studios, London; Konk Studios, London; Rockfield, Wales; Abbey Road, London
All songs by: John Squire and Ian Brown
1. I Wanna Be Adored
A perfect, slow-building opener, Mani’s brooding bassline slowly being joined by the rest of the band to build the archetypal Stone Roses sound, falling somewhere between typical Madchester and shoegaze. It’s notably more languid than the first version recorded in ’85, and even the ’89 demo, but Squire’s layered guitars also have more punch. Lyrically, …Adored is little more than a repeated mantra of rock-star mythology: “I don’t need to sell my soul/ He’s already in me.” Speaking to Clash Magazine in 2009, Brown clarified: “I didn’t actually want people to adore me. I was trying to say then, if you want to be adored, it’s like a sin, like lust or gluttony or something like that.” Neo-Biblical themes were to crop up often in Roses lyrics.
2. She Bangs The Drums
The above said, the Roses could more than happily do full-on arrogance. As a lyric of intent, “Kiss me where the sun don’t shine/ The past was yours but the future’s mine/ You’re all out of time” is some flag in the sand. Brown wrote these verses, while Squire wrote the chorus words that are ‘just’ a love song: be it to a partner, the music, the ecstasy of clubbing or whatever you want. What elevates it is the crystalline sonics. The rumbling undercarriage of Mani’s bass, Squire’s flabless guitars and Reni’s whip-cracking drums all rush with a faultless euphoria. The Roses hated being called “60s”, but this is very 60s, and a 101 on how to write a guitar-pop single. Released in July ’89, it was the band’s first Top 40 hit and a
No. 1 single on the Independent chart, with the single editing the hi-hat intro and mixing the guitars louder.
A fan favourite, swirling around a cascading Squire guitar arpeggio and with Reni providing notable shuffling drums and backing vox. It was also a single, but only after The Roses’ fallout with Silvertone, so is often disregarded as a ‘proper’ 7″. Its melody is very folk-esque, and Brown has previously grumbled that John Leckie wanted to turn it into a “Byrds/Simon & Garfunkel thing”, which makes some sense: Squire listened often to The Byrds; Brown didn’t even own a Byrds record. There’s no evidence of rows about it, per se, though.
Brown has said that it’s “about a girl who sees all the bullshit, drops a trip and goes to Dover. She’s tripping, she’s about to get on this boat and she feels free”… See the lyric “to race from this hole she calls home”. All plausible, as Waterfall is full of druggy metaphor, but Squire also wrote parts of Waterfall’s lyrics. The guitarist has never (as far as we know) fully explained, but ‘Madchester’-championing DJ/broadcaster DJ Pete Mitchell reckoned the words were at least partially about Squire’s loathing of the Americanisation of Britain (see “This American satellite’s won”). Proof? Squire’s own oil on canvas Waterfall (1988) meshes the Union Jack and Stars And Stripes flags. So maybe the lyric is about both. Whatever its origins, Brown has said that writing Waterfall in ’88 “was the first time we went ‘Wow, this is it!’”. If you’ve got a Stone Roses/Squire-art Waterfall T-shirt, rest easy that the guitarist actually approves. “One of the two [paintings] I actually like on T-shirts,” Squire told Select in 1997. “They usually look cack. I like this and the Stone Roses album one.” All in, Waterfall sounds like some sort of psychedelic sea shanty: and extra points for the excellent use of “brigantine sails” (a two-masted ship).
4. Don’t Stop
The music is, of course, the whole of Waterfall flipped backwards, on the basic Fostex 16-track recorder on which Squire/Brown recorded demos, with overdubs and vocals added later, and credited on the album as Another Schroeder/Garage Flower Production. The Roses had done this before, with Made Of Stone and its reversing for 12” B-side Guernica. More nautical-themed lyrics abound, and the way Brown intones “Isn’t it funny how you shiiiiiine?” manages to invent Liam Gallagher at the drop of an anchor. Trivia? It’s The Charlatans’ Tim Burgess’s favourite Stone Roses track. Don’t Stop is also played live (with ‘forward’ instruments) and is still very strong in its own right, with Reni again outstanding on drums and backing vocals – though it’s probably easier to point out when Reni’s not being brilliant on this album.
5. Bye Bye Badman
Positively bouncy compared to the shuffling swagger of much of the album, with Squire’s guitars chiming like bells. The band only began work on it because they couldn’t complete a satisfactory recording of (future B-side) Where Angels Play, but finished …Badman in just a few hours. Squire overdubbed his counter-lead guitar lines (through a rotating Leslie speaker) that run an alternative melody throughout, in 30 minutes. It’s easy to dismiss Bye Bye Badman as ‘lightweight’ – true, it doesn’t really explode and the last minute is mainly a showcase for Squire’s quicksilver Johnny Marr-esque guitar – but its lyrics are anything but. It’s openly inspired by the riots in France of May 1968, as Ian Brown had met a Frenchman who’d been in the riots while the singer was hitching around Europe, and both Brown and Squire also admitted being “inspired” by a Channel 4 documentary on the 20th anniversary of the era, broadcast in spring 1988, called Revolution Revisited. It was a short hop to lyrics of: “I’m throwing stones at you man/ I want you black and blue and/ I’m gonna make you bleed/ Gonna bring you down to your knees” and “These stones I throw/ Oh these French kisses/ Are the only way I found” et cetera. Another reference to the riots (“The citrus sucking sunshine”) is echoed in Squire’s album-cover art, also called Bye Bye Badman. Anti-American imperialism was a cited driver of the riots, a theme clearly on Squire’s mind. For its lyrics, Bye Bye Badman could perhaps have been called I Am The Insurrection… if it didn’t sound so damn blissful.
6. Elizabeth My Dear
Side 2, in vinyl currency, and another nod to Simon & Garfunkel in that the music is Scarborough Fair, a traditional English folk melody dating back to the 14th century, though made most famous in pop by S&G’s soundtrack to The Graduate in 1968. The song is just 54 seconds, but gave Brown a springboard from which to vent. In various early interviews, he said: “I’d like to shoot Prince Charles” and added there would never be a revolution unless someone “put a bag over the Queen Mother’s head”. The frontman was slightly more measured for a major Melody Maker cover story (1989), saying: “We’re all anti-royalist, anti-patriarch. ’Cos it’s 1989. Time to get real. When the ravens leave the Tower, England shall fall, they say. We want to be there shooting the ravens.” They won’t be getting OBEs, then.
7. (Song For My) Sugar Spun Sister
If there is a dip in The Stone Roses, it’s arguably here. There’s plenty of rock classicism in its chords and straightforward arrangement, sumptuous though it is, at various times recalling The Byrds, The Smiths, REM or Lennon and McCartney (basically, choose your own favourite jangle-pop reference point). Its swift melodic punch made it a firm live favourite nonetheless, even if it’s more Herman’s Hermits than The Beatles. Still, it’s hard not to love a song that shoehorns “every member of Parliament trips on glue” into its chorus, no?
8. Made Of Stone
There are some distinct echoes of Primal Scream’s Velocity Girl (1986) here, and it was released in March ’89 to preview the album – although it stalled at No. 90 in the national charts, its indie acclaim set up the Roses’ ascent from local heroes to national phenomena. By September ’89, the Roses had sold out London’s 8,000-capacity Alexandra Palace and it was Made of Stone they briefly played that week on the BBC’s national Late Show, only for a power cut to halt them. (Cue Brown, “You’re wastin’ our time, man. Amateurs! Amateurs!”). On record, Made Of Stone is equal parts brooding verses and air-punching choruses, punctuated by a flanged Squire guitar solo that nods to Jimi Hendrix. In 1989, when asked what Made Of Stone was about, Squire replied: “Making a wish and watching it happen, like scoring the winning goal in a cup final on a Harley Electroglide dressed as Spiderman”… Many fans point to its evocation of fiery road death as another oblique reference to Jackson Pollock, who died in 1956 in a drunken car crash.
9. Shoot You Down
A change in pace, with its low-slung swagger again highlighting Reni’s drumming prowess and more Hendrix-ian guitar from Squire. You could argue it’s little more than a light jam, but maybe that’s the point; with its lyrics partly serving notice on all challengers, this is just the Roses coolly showing off. Recorded mostly live, early after the band had moved recording from London to Rockfield in Wales, it’s the sort of loose-limbed genius they’d revisit on Second Coming’s (also live) Daybreak.
10. This Is The One
The last song to be recorded for The Stone Roses, but one of the first written. This Is The One began life in 1985 when the band were locked in a room by producer Martin Hannett and told they weren’t allowed out until they wrote a song. They came up with this, lyrics by Brown, albeit in an uncultured and punkier form. Of the more heavily structured and overdubbed album version, John Leckie told Q magazine: “There was always a big question as to whether it should go on the record. It worked real well live, a bombastic thing that got faster and faster and was a bit Nirvana-ish. [On the album] we had to work hard on getting the dynamics right and making the speed changes work smoothly.” It’s famously played at Old Trafford as Manchester Utd walk out from the tunnel. Brown later said: “I wrote that tune in 1986 [sic] when I was on the dole, and there was no way I could have known that 20 years later, United would be coming on to the pitch to it. It still gets me every time.”
11. I Am The Resurrection
The music supposedly began as “a pisstake” of Paul McCartney’s bass on The Beatles’ Taxman, according to Reni. “Mani would play the riff backwards during soundchecks and we played along over the top for a laugh. Finally, we said, ‘Let’s do this joke song properly and see what happens’.” Its drum intro, chords and ‘vibe’ also bear resemblance to The Light Pours Out Of Me by fellow Mancunians Magazine (1978) – later covered by Bauhaus’s Peter Murphy in 1985, when …Resurrection was first written and demo’d. It’s another religious/redemption song, a love song, a fuck-you song, an ‘I’m better than you’ song. And its blissed-out Brown-on-bongos coda was the perfect E’d-up end to a Roses live rave. In the studio, it took three days’ rehearsals to piece it together for mostly live recording: the circular acoustic-guitar arpeggio before the strafing coda was something Squire had sitting on a cassette of riff ideas: for…Resurrection’s recording it was fed via a ‘ghetto blaster’ as a backing loop for the band to improvise around. Mani later approved the sampling of his bassline by fellow Mancunians MC Tunes vs 808 State’s Tunes Splits The Atom (No. 18, 1990): “Make it bang, combinating with slang/ Manchester! The dance capital of England.” Word to yer mam.
Manchester DJ and tastemaker Dave Haslam remembered of the time: “Reni was just a brilliant, brilliant drummer, and they had that real sense of rhythm. What I loved about them was their Byrds-esque guitar, Ian being a magnetic and mesmerising frontman, and Reni just being a great drummer. I was an indie DJ at The Haçienda and their records started to sound brilliant in the club; they were quite stripped down. Around that time, your typical indie band, like The Wedding Present, were just a clutter of noisy shoutiness, the Roses sounded so much cooler.”
John Leckie’s job was guiding the whole thing. He made sure the songs all had focused openings and, mostly, definite endings. The Roses liked Leckie. His work with George Harrison and XTC offshoot the Dukes Of Stratosphear were big ticks, as was him citing his favourite record to be Love’s Forever Changes (Leckie later admitted he said it off the top of his head). They were just as smitten with his counter-culture and commune background (Leckie has a Sannyasin pseudonym, Swami Anand Nagar, bestowed by Bhagwan Shree, the leader/sex guru/mystic of the Rajneesh movement). The Roses called Leckie ‘Swami’.
“Even though there is a punk heritage, they’re hippies. Ian especially. It sounds corny, but there’s a lot of love there, and you don’t really get that with other Manchester bands.” – John Leckie
That maybe explains why even the Roses’ ‘political’ tracks sound like blissed-out love songs. What’s inexplicable is another Leckie assertion: that they’d once considered calling themselves The Angry Young Teddy Bears.
Brown has said Leckie’s brief was to “get the ultimate live version, but with a twist” and the producer himself recalled a relatively straightforward process. “There wasn’t any pressure to prove themselves, they knew they were good,” he told The Quietus. As for the perceived weakness of Brown’s voice, Leckie had no problems. “To me, he was no different to any other vocalist,” the producer told Sound On Sound. “He’d perform, say, four takes, and I’d comp them and bounce them down. It certainly wasn’t a nightmare. He’d always get what we wanted within a couple of hours… and back then, you have to remember, there was no Auto-Tune.”
But Leckie continued: “They weren’t technically aware. They never touched the equipment, or sat at the desk and twiddled the knobs, or said, ‘Why don’t you try this?’. If they didn’t like something they’d say, definitely, and probably the most critical one would have been Reni. He’d be the first to tell you if he didn’t like the vocal, or if he didn’t like the drum sound, or if something was out of tune.”
Despite all songs being credited to Squire/Brown, the Roses were clearly nothing without Reni and Mani. Ex-manager Gareth Evans (a hugely controversial figure) cited the drummer as the “most important” group member, and the perma-smiling Mani brought a lot more than just infectious basslines. Ultimately, it’s a unique four-way partnership. As the bassist said in 2007, before their reunion: “I’m the only person who could bring it back together again. Ian knows how to craft a tune, John knows how to craft a tune. I don’t know if any of us are powerful without each other. The magic was the power of four.”
And what power. With those formative years spent gigging, writing, rejecting, honing, The Stone Roses were ready. And they made it sound easy. All in, although the recording was split between four different studios from October 1988 to March 1989, The Stone Roses took just 55 work days to complete.
The Roses bloomed all too briefly, of course. Recording injunctions, writer’s block, a usurping by young Princes Noel and Liam, and a wayward mountain bike (leaving Squire with a broken collarbone and a cancelled Glastonbury headline slot) saw them split by 1996. John Squire later said 1994’s Second Coming is “more like we wanted to sound”; Ian Brown demurs, arguing “we lost the light”.
28 years on, The Stone Roses still haven’t matched it – and it seems likely they never will. But it doesn’t matter. Playing this album alone will still sell out Warrington’s Parr Hall or London’s Wembley Stadium. This is the one.
The Stone Roses on vinyl
The original 11-track album is still available, but you’ll also find a 2x45rpm option and a 2x33rpm option. By 1989, vinyl was considered ‘minor interest’ behind CDs for albums, and John Leckie concedes the original pressings could have sounded better – on either format. But check the many online forums for opinions on best buys and pressings. The album has inevitably had the boxset treatment as well: 2009’s Collectors Edition has 3xLPs, 3xCDs (inc demos), a live (Blackpool) DVD, six art prints and more.