The Stone Roses. The Stone Roses.
1989, Silvertone. Producer: John Leckie, Peter Hook.
Purloined CD (U.S. Version), 1991.
IN A NUTSHELL: The Stone Roses, by The Stone Roses, is a record I’ve listened to more than any other over the last 30 years. It’s a rock record with excellent guitar, drums and bass, with funky beats and terrific harmonies. Ian Brown, John Squire, Mani and Reni have taken bits of song styles and sounds and synthesized something original and fun, from dance club grooves to subtle tunes to raucous rock. The record has never sounded old, and it never gets old, even after years and years of listening.
NOTE: The setup – below the line ↓ – might be the best part … Or skip right to the album discussion.
Last year, 2018, was the 200th anniversary of the publication of Mary Shelley’s classic novel, Frankenstein; Or, The Modern Prometheus. Most people are familiar with the story from its multitude of productions, revivals, re-workings, the brilliant Mel Brooks movie, the equally-brilliant Bugs Bunny episode, etc. The original novel, in which a fanatical genius tries to reanimate dead flesh, was written as part of a lighthearted challenge from the poet Lord Byron to the teen-aged Shelley and her husband, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, to write a scary story. Eighteen months later it was published anonymously, as the thought that a woman could conjure such a horrible idea was too shocking for the public.
It wasn’t until the mid 20th century that scholars finally accepted the fact that a talented young woman could, indeed, make up such a story on her own. But be that as it may, the idea of taking parts of formerly-living beings, sewing them together and reanimating them has fascinated humans ever since. She based her story on the real experiments of Luigi Galvani, an 18th century Italian scientist who, in attempting to expand on the observation that recently dead frog legs could be made to move when electricity was applied, zapped entire corpses with jolts of electricity1. And upon its publication, the book inspired the work of real scientists in the 19th century2.
Shelley’s novel remains popular after 200 years, sitting on lists of best novels and still regularly assigned in high school, in part because of the tempting notion that a possibility exists to keep life alive indefinitely. Something else that interests folks is the idea of taking parts from different Things and assembling them to create a New, Better Thing. For example, create the best NBA player. Create the best animal. Create the best rock group. It’s a fun exercise.
So let me assemble my Frankenstein Greatest Rock Album – not using individual musicians, but just by taking parts I generally really like in music. Let’s start with drums. I’d take, from my love of classic and prog rock, drums that are inventive and unusual. However, I also grew up on disco, and love a strong, danceable backbeat, so it can’t be too complex. But I do like the drummer to exhibit chops. That’s a lot of boxes for the drums to check, but just like Victor Frankenstein, my task is not easy, nor for the faint of heart!
As for bass guitar, I like a grounded but cool bass line, one that gets people dancing, but that isn’t afraid to show off once in a while. It has to play off the guitar nicely, but not necessarily overshadow it.
As for vocals, it really doesn’t matter. A good voice is nice, but it’s not really necessary. Emotional singers are appreciated, but mostly I just like a good melody, and if there are some lyrical gems, they are appreciated, too. But word-salad, mumbled, esoteric meanings are fine with me.
Guitar is key. I’ve written this before. I like it crazy, I like it original, I like it subtle, or noisy, or soft, or cool, or jazzy, or effects-laden, or complex, or powerful, or simple. Whatever it is, it has to be interesting, and serve the song in a way that makes me want to listen repeatedly. Even if it’s just two notes that repeat, it has to hold my attention.
Other instruments are fine, but unnecessary. Then there are the intangibles. I like the sneer of punk rock, but the technical mastery of seasoned pros. Above all, there must be some sort of a Beatles vibe, and it would probably be best if this fictional band could come from Great Britain, and in particular, its working class.
But, you say, this task is impossible! How could there ever be a band or album like this, that could ever be stitched together from disparate pieces to create a living, breathing, Favorite Album?? Why, you say, this is madness!! I don’t think it’s Madness, as I’ve always found them a bit too ska-heavy to be perfect3. But I know an album that, from the first time I heard it at a party in 1990, has been in heavy rotation due to its Frankenstein-ian perfection: The Stone Roses, by The Stone Roses.
Sometime in the winter of 1990, as 1991 approached, I was at a party with my friend Cary, whose band I would eventually join. I was quite inebriated, and all I really remember about the party is that it was at an apartment in downtown Lebanon, PA, and I really loved the CD that was playing, The Stone Roses, and the host of the party said I could borrow it. I still have it. It is most likely my most-played, non-Beatles CD over the past 29 years.
The Stone Roses are a band that is largely unknown in the United States, but that is widely loved in the UK, where it came out of the hyper-fertile Manchester music scene that also produced The Buzzcocks, Joy Division, New Order, The Smiths, Simply Red, The Happy Mondays and Oasis. In the late 80s The Stone Roses were at the vanguard of the “Madchester” scene, which was full of MDMA and raves4. The US, on the whole, never fully drank from the Madchester vessel, but some of its wannabe backwash reached our shores in the form of 3rd- or 4th-generation one-hit wonders like “Unbelievable,” by EMF, and “Right Here, Right Now,” by Jesus Jones.
In the U.K., the band, which officially broke up in 1996 after an 11-year career in which they released only two albums of original music, plus several singles, has had numerous chart hits, including a Top 20 song as recently as 2016, when they briefly re-formed. They caused a stir among the U.K. music press when they announced reunion shows in 2012. They’re popular enough in the U.K. that bucket hats there are often called “Reni hats,” after the band’s drummer, Reni, who typically wore one in the band’s heyday. Singer Ian Brown cameoed in a Harry Potter movie. Among rock musicians, they have enough cache that guitar monster Slash considered joining them in the 90s. (Although, reportedly, he was rejected due to his leather pants.) Their 2012 reunion tour was the subject of a feature film. It’s amazing to me that they’re so overlooked in the U.S., where they played the Coachella festival a few years ago to tiny crowds, while in the U.K. major newspapers still run stories on the enormity of their legacy.
I became rather obsessed with the band after hearing them. My band had more than a few Stone Roses affectations, and we covered a couple of their songs. I bought a few 12″ singles, even though I had no record player. I bought their singles collection (and rule-breaking Favorite Album #63) Turns Into Stone. I anxiously awaited their follow-up record, 1994’s Second Coming, and bought it on the first day it was available. I listened to their debut over and over. I read books about them. I watched BBC TV shows about them, and clips of old TV appearances and concerts. They remain – despite only two albums’ and several singles’ worth of material – among my favorite bands.
In fact, I’m as surprised as anyone that The Stone Roses is NOT MY NUMBER ONE ALBUM! I was shocked when the rankings were released by the Pricewaterhouse Coopers accounting firm, and nearly fired them over it. So let’s see what all my fuss is about.
The album begins with “I Wanna Be Adored,” a song that rumbles to a start after nearly 50 seconds of noise, an opening worthy of prog titans Yes. Then bassist Mani5 begins a simple, but catchy, bass line. At 0:56 guitarist John Squire plays a lilting guitar figure, with a nifty curlicue end. By 1:14, Reni’s bass drum is thumping along and then at 1:30 the rest of his kit kicks in, and the song’s main theme begins. Ian Brown’s few lyrics are funny and dark, and offer a boast superior to bluesmen and rockers of yesteryear: “I don’t have to sell my soul/ he’s already in me.” The song continues to build, and at 2:22 Reni mixes the drums up and begins to add more cymbals, until 3:00, when the band hammers a bridge that releases all the pent up energy that’s been building. At 3:40 it begins building again to the end. As a song, there’s not much to it. It’s just energy and attitude with a groovy rhythm section and cool guitars swirling throughout. It’s an opening statement as much as a song.
Next up is a song that’s more traditional in its composition and sound, but that retains its Stone Rosiness, perhaps my favorite of the album, “She Bangs the Drums.” (Actually, it’s hard to say if this is my favorite, as nearly every song is my favorite.)
“She Bangs the Drums” opens with Reni’s high-hat and Mani’s Peter-Gunn-esque bassline, then Squire’s guitar washes over things and Brown’s whisper voice enters. This is the first song to really showcase drummer Reni’s remarkable harmony voice, which enters on the second verse, about 0:45. As a huge Beatle guy, I love harmony vocals, and the voices of Reni and Brown blend perfectly. Brown’s lyrics are often indecipherable, but this is a pretty straightforward love song, and it has a line about feelings of attraction that I love: “She’ll be the first/ She’ll be the last/ To describe the way I feel.” This song is a classic pop song with incredible guitar and a fabulously catchy chorus (1:10). This is the type of song that I think should’ve been a #1 hit, but which only made it to #34 on the UK charts.
I have the US version of the Silvertone release, and that means the next song is “Elephant Stone,” a song that had many versions released over the years.
This one is all about drummer Reni, his bass drum, his snare, his toms. Sure, John Squire has a nice opening, and does his usual subtle trickery, on both electric and acoustic guitar, underneath the proceedings. Mani chugs along, and Brown sings psychedelic-influenced lyrics, which Reni supports superbly on harmony. But it’s all about Reni’s drums this time. He’s both smooth and aggressive, both at the same time.
Reni’s drums are amazing throughout the album, and that’s certainly the case on a song that is one of the band’s most popular, “Waterfall.” The song is also a showcase of John Squire’s guitar talents, too.
It opens with Squire playing an arpeggiated riff against Mani’s ranging bassline. After a verse, at about 0:33, Reni’s drums and harmony vocals begin, and both are just brilliant. He hits the snare on the upbeat before the “two,” where a typical backbeat falls, all the while making the whole thing swing. At 1:00, the beat changes slightly and the band continues to groove ahead, with Ian Brown singing lyrics describing a woman with steely resolve as a waterfall6. Each time he sings “she’ll carry on through it all,” Reni answers with a sweet drum fill. The song transforms (prog-rock-like) into a different piece of music at 2:50, with acoustic picking, which leads into John Squire’s remarkably cool guitar solo at 2:57. All the while Mani is pushing that hypnotic bass, and it all recapitulates at 4:00, with frantic Reni drums. I friggin’ love this song. Here the band plays it live on the BBC.
The next song is “Don’t Stop,” a sound collage with words that is kind of “Waterfall” played backwards. I don’t really like it – maybe this is why the album is only #2? – but I read a cool piece breaking down the making of the song. This is the link to it.
Up next is “Bye Bye Badman,” a song that eventually becomes a sort of danceable country tune. In a (very) good way.
It begins as a kind of lullaby, with wispy guitars and swooping bass. The lyrics are about the Paris riots of 1968, which the album cover art also alludes to, a display of the band’s socialist/punk credibility. At 1:05, Mani begins a rolling bassline and Reni adds a Western-swing style beat, which Squire supports with a country guitar. Reni’s fill at 1:33 is excellent. It’s a weird song. Squire plays a brief solo at 3:00 that repeats and stretches into the outro.
Up next is the brief, dark, barely veiled threat against the U.K. monarchy, “Elizabeth My Dear,” which is the English folk tune “Scarborough Fair” with scarier lyrics. The song seems kind of throwaway, which is what I think should be done with all monarchies.
“(Song for My) Sugar Spun Sister” is a song that is sweet and mellow. It’s a good feature for Ian Brown, who really doesn’t have a strong voice, but somehow makes it work7. The lyrics are a kind of hallucinogenic love song in which a boy eats too much cotton candy because he loves the girl selling it. It’s one of the most straightforward songs on the record, sort of a mid tempo, 60s-influenced pop number. And of course, Reni’s drums and harmonies are masterful.
The Stone Roses closes with a string of four songs that is among my favorite run of songs on any album. (It would be three songs, but I have the US version, which tagged an extra song on the end.) First on this list is the ominous, tough guitar/drum showcase “Made of Stone.”
The opening guitar and bass are terrific, then the band backs off to let Brown carry things for a verse. In the classic Stone Roses style, the song builds with each verse, adding layers of guitar, until the chorus hits at 0:48, where Squire’s acoustic picking supports Brown and Reni’s harmonies. The song has a mysterious mood, and it is reportedly about Jackson Pollock’s fatal car crash8. But each time the chorus comes along, I can’t help singing along. And Squire’s guitar solo, about 2:37, is great. The ending of the song, from 3:52, is just fabulous, and ties everything together perfectly.
The next song, “Shoot You Down,” is a hushed tune with lilting solo guitar throughout about a man who wishes he hadn’t begun dating his girlfriend9. Squire is brilliant here, tasty and cool all through the song, culminating with nifty turns around 3:00 and a great closing by the whole band.
“Turns Into Stone” has one of the great intros in rock, which they extend to a Yes-like two minutes while swinging back and forth between Mani’s solo bass, or Ian Brown’s thin, solo voice, to full-band fanfare.
The song really kicks in at about 1:50 when Reni and Squire show up to once again steal the show with drums and harmony, and big guitar sound and stylish runs. Brown’s lyrics work best when they’re cocky, as here, where he avers that This Is the One She’s Waited For. The song has a sound I get lost in, especially from 3:02 to the end, where layers upon layers of voices and guitars wash over frantic, tribal drumming. It’s a song that really sets the stage, as the next song, “I Am the Resurrection,” truly is the one I always wait for.
The song opens with a marching drumbeat reminiscent of an old Pretenders song. The vocals start soon, and then the song builds, slowly, with every verse. This song is a long one, with multiple parts, and the band lets the intensity build with each verse and chorus, leading to a tantalizing note (0:58) which returns to the beginning with no payoff through three verses. After the first verse, Squire begins adding his patented dipsy-do’s, letting his sounds build along with the song. The payoff finally comes at about 2:24, when Brown declares “I am the resurrection.” His lyrics are, again, arrogant, pushing away a person (an ex? a journalist?) by not only being downright mean, but by comparing himself to Christ10. At 2:44, Squire plays a terrific solo that foreshadows the guitar extravaganza to come, beginning at 3:44. It’s a section, I’m sure, British music publication Q Magazine was thinking of when they named this song the 10th best guitar song ever in rock. I won’t say anything about it – just listen to Reni, Mani and Squire jam. Go ahead, I’ll wait.
Wasn’t that fucking awesome? The original, U.K. version of the album ended there. The U.S. version, which I have, includes the song “Fools Gold,” which was a top-ten single in the U.K. and had such a dance-club following that the label tacked it on here. It’s a groovy, fun dance song with cool guitar riff, great wah-wah guitar and some kind of Treasure of the Sierra Madre-referencing lyrics from Brown.
So there’s my Frankenstein band and album: The Stone Roses. If you’ve read the Frankenstein books, or seen the movies, you know that usually these experiments don’t work, and that things come to a horrible end. And perhaps the fact that the band recorded so few songs is evidence that it didn’t work. But briefly, for one album at least, the dark potential of Mary Shelley’s imagination, as filtered through my musical taste, was realized. I love this monster, which never incited any angry mobs. Only dancing mobs of late-80s, U.K. music fans and me.
TRACK LISTING (1989 U.S. Version):
“I Wanna Be Adored”
“She Bangs the Drums”
“Bye Bye Badman”
“Elizabeth My Dear”
“(Song For My) Sugar Spun Sister”
“Made of Stone”
“Shoot You Down”
“This Is the One”
“I Am the Resurrection”