The Stone Roses (album) – Classic Music Review

Despite my boycott of American music, Americans still make up about 70% of my readership, so I’ll address my opening remarks to my former compatriots, who may have never heard The Stone Roses play a note (the album barely squeaked into the Billboard Top 100 way back in the late 80’s/early 90’s).

Dear Yanks:

Though you missed out on a good chunk of Britpop, you are all familiar with and cherish many British bands and solo artists: The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Kinks, The Who, Pink Floyd, The Clash, The Zombies, David Bowie, Cream, Jethro Tull . . . the list isn’t infinite, but close enough. It is likely that you have some or all the following albums in your collection: Revolver, Sticky Fingers, Village Green Preservation Society, Who’s Next, Dark Side of the Moon, London Calling, Hunky Dory, Odessey and Oracle, Wheels of Fire, Aqualung and others that you consider among the greatest albums ever produced by those funny people with the charming accents.

Well, apparently, you don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about, and neither do I. The Stone Roses’ debut album was voted “the greatest album ever” at the NME Premier Awards Show in the year 2000, and reconfirmed as “Greatest British Album Ever” in polls taken in 2004 and 2006. Better than anything ever recorded by The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Kinks, The Who, Pink Floyd, The Clash, The Zombies, David Bowie, Cream, Jethro Tull, Led Zeppelin, Pulp, Blur, Oasis, The Sex Pistols, The Smiths, The Yardbirds, John Mayall, Radiohead and every other British musician who dared foul our ears with obviously substandard music that fell short of the gold standard set by The Stone Roses.

I invite you to join me in a hearty “Oh, for fuck’s sake.” 

Love, kisses and a pinch of your nipple,

Arielle

p. s. And I thought the Brits only recently went bonkers with the Brexit thing. Silly me.

To set the record straight, there was a vigorous counter-reaction to the effusive accolades accorded to The Stone Roses in some retrospective reviews. Neil Kulkarni of Quietus described the album as “Three good tracks and a right barrel-load of shite afterwards,” and Fiona Sturges of The Independent titled her review, “The Stone Roses – A ‘classic’ that is nothing but fool’s gold.” Ms. Sturges went on to suggest that “(The Stone Roses) are second only to The Doors as the most overrated band in pop history” and added that lead singer Ian Brown “was living proof that a monstrous ego can get you a long way in pop.”

I began to sense that I might find the truth somewhere in the middle.

As for my engagement with the record . . . I don’t remember exactly when I first heard The Stone Roses, but it was sometime in the 90’s after I read that Noel Gallagher identified them as a significant influence. Ever curious about musical evolution, I zipped down to Tower Records and scrounged a dusty copy from the discount pile. I rushed back home, played it once, hated the production, put it back in that erroneously tagged and perfectly horrid invention known as a jewel box and continued my pursuit of great music elsewhere (frequently diverted by my pursuit of great sex).

I didn’t think about the album until I started the Britpop Series and it came up in my research. I listened to it again and had a slightly more favorable reaction, but when I read about all the 5-star reviews and over-the-top accolades, I found myself getting angry at the album!

That wasn’t a fair fight, since the music couldn’t fight back, but I wisely resisted the temptation to talk to a therapist and instead played the album for my parents to get their take.

“Solid guitar work. They might have caught a few ears back in 67-68—psychedelic but on the gritty side,” opined my father.

“They seem to be more about mood than melody, though a few melodies are pleasing to the ear. Rather like a darker version of The Moody Blues. The singer doesn’t have much in the way of expressive range, though, so some of their ambitions aren’t realized,” offered maman.

As they displayed no sense of outrage, I decided it was silly to be angry at the album and decided to turn on the thinking part of my brain. In doing so, I came up with three theories as to why The Stone Roses appears to be one of the most overrated albums in history:

  1. The critics were upset about having been born at the wrong time, condemned to write about music during a period when the music was generally weak and desperate to make something out of not much.
  2. The fans who voted in the polls were largely Gen Xers who were also attempting to imbue their era with significance. Every generation does that, so it serves as a credible explanation.
  3. There is something about British culture that outsiders will never understand. This is both the weakest and strongest argument of the lot, because there is something about every culture that outsiders find nonsensical. As an American, I never understood the fascination with violence as manifested in loose gun laws and the National Football League; as a French woman, I’ve never understood how the French came to worship Jerry Lewis. I have been unable to discover much on the The Stone Roses that is uniquely British, but that in itself could be an indication of a cultural blindspot.

I lean towards #1 and #2, and pronounce myself incapable in terms of #3.

Once I subdued my anger and turned my attention to the music, I concluded that The Stone Roses was a decent debut album, a promising start from a band in need of greater discipline and lyrical skill. John Squire’s guitar work is excellent and Alan John “Reni” Wren proves to be a very interesting drummer once you get past the excessive reverb/gated drum fetish of the period. Gary “Mani” Mounfield plays a workmanlike bass and avoids major fuck-ups, and as for Ian Brown . . . there are moments when his offhand approach to vocals works and other moments when he sounds “like he had been locked in the janitor’s cupboard during recording and submitted his vocals through the crack under the door” (Fiona Sturges is the mistress of snark). Still, there are enough tantalizing moments to encourage a listener’s fantasy that these guys might put it all together someday.

Alas, ’twas not to be. Instead of starring on a quick follow-up album to cement their success, The Stone Roses starred in the rock ‘n’ roll version of Bleak House, mired in a legal battle that kept them out of the studio for four-plus years. The long-awaited album titled Second Coming sold well on anticipation but turned out to be a rather pedestrian blues rock record, disappointing fans and critics alike, leaving their début album as their sole claim to fame.

The sound you hear on The Stone Roses has earned multiple genre and sub-genre designations: Madchester, acid rock, twee, shoegaze, dance rock, indie rock, neo-psychedelia, alternative, jangle pop, acid rock, rave-friendly. I think my mother came closest to the truth: imagine a dark version of The Moody Blues with Sartrean pretensions, replace Justin Hayward with a couldn’t-be-bothered vocal stylist and filter it all through the muddy, reverb-heavy production popular in the 80’s. Voilà! Les Roses de Pierre! 

The album opens with 40 seconds of nothing much: low-level electric buzz and a “beat” that sounds like a very lazy train approaching. The bass establishes the simple pattern to “I Wanna Be Adored” and the other instruments gradually join as the volume increases. John Squire’s guitar fills are subtly fluid and quite pretty, but the dreamy feel of the introductory passage is interrupted by a couple of reverb-heavy whacks on the snare that tell the listener, “Welcome to the 1980’s!” Ian Brown enters in typically understated fashion, precisely articulating lyrics that have been described as “minimalist,” a very generous and deceptively artsy description. In truth, the lyrics fail to evoke the emotional impact inherent in true poetic economy and are simply a meagre collection of words vague enough to mean anything you want them to mean:

I don’t have to sell my soul
He’s already in me
I don’t need to sell my soul
He’s already in me
I want to be adored
I want to be adored

Except for a pronoun change down the road, that about wraps it up for the lyrics. Brown explained to Clash Magazine that he “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.”

Yes, or something like that. We’ll leave Keats, Rimbaud and T. S. Eliot turning in their graves and shift to the positive aspect of the song: the dreamy mood, enhanced by the simplicity of the chords (anyone can figure out Stone Roses chords in 11 seconds) and the relatively steady dynamics, interrupted only by one brief and unsuccessful attempt at a build and an awkward attempt at a dramatic ending. Despite its flaws, I rather like the song and the pensive mood the band creates, but I’m not sure it was their best choice for the opening slot.

I would have given that honor to the single version of “She Bangs the Drums,” a song that could have topped the charts in 1966 with its brighter sound, palpable energy, uplifting harmonies and jangly guitar. The album version doesn’t convey half the energy of the single, and probably seemed a better fit with the moodier flavor of the album—but damn, the single seriously rocks! Ian Brown loses the beret and drops the existentialist pretense to deliver the spirited vocal demanded by the let’s-kick-some-ass commitment of his fellow band members. The instrumental passage where the band alternates between subdued-and-steady and let-it-fucking-rip gives both Reni and Squire a chance to tease-and-drive-it-home like a lover in total command. The lyrics feature a built-in out for the lyricists (“there are no words to describe the way I feel”) and don’t form much of a narrative beyond getting a hard-on for a girl drummer, but feature a sufficient number of singable lines to give the listener on opportunity to join in.

“Waterfall” has an even more pronounced 60’s pop feel with its light melody, sweet harmonies and sunny-day rhythm. The lyrics are among the most interesting on the album, presenting a story about a young woman who hits the road in response to cultural corruption initiated by a foreign power:

Chimes sing Sunday morn
Today’s the day she’s sworn
To steal what she never could own
And race from this hole she calls home . . .

As the miles they disappear
See land begin to clear
Free from the filth and the scum
This American satellite’s won . . .

The scales have fallen from this girl’s eyes, and she simply doesn’t want to live under the rule of a virtual occupying army whose most effective weapons are not bombs and rockets but thrill-based entertainment and slick marketing pitches. This strain of anti-Americanism manifested itself in early Clash and accounted for a good part of the motivation behind Britpop (Blur in particular); what’s unique about the Brown-Squire approach is that the woman balances her disgust with Americanization by launching an affirmative effort to recover what was lost:

See the steeple pine
The hills as old as time
Soon to be put to the test
To be whipped by the winds of the west

Stands on shifting sands
The scales held in her hands
The wind it just whips her away
And fills up her brigantine sails

The lightness of the music expresses the hope behind the woman’s journey in search of a more compatible culture. Despite its light pop orientation, “Waterfall” turns out to contain some of the best poetry on the album.

We’ve now reached the album’s Checkpoint Charlie, beyond which allegedly lies a right barrel load of shite. I will proceed with due caution and a shoe scraper.

Neil Kulkarni’s argument finds immediate validation in “Don’t Stop,” an exceptionally annoying drone song dominated by phased, delayed, stretched and compressed electric guitar combined with engineering tricks that bring to mind passages of certain mid-period Beatles songs, particularly “Rain” and “Baby, You’re a Rich Man.” The song has minor historical value as evidence of the Stone Roses’ influence on fellow Mancunians the Gallagher brothers, as the introduction is more-than-reminiscent of “Who Feels Love” from Standing on the Shoulders of Giants. Unlike that song, however, the lyrics of “Don’t Stop” fall into the category of “utter nonsense.”

Equally dreadful is “Bye Bye Bad Man,” the result of a chance meeting between Ian Brown and a soixante-huitard, a Frenchman who had participated in the civil unrest that paralyzed France in May 1968. Brown encouraged listeners to “Imagine a protester singing [it] in a policeman’s face during the Paris riots. Then you’ll get some idea what it’s about.”

Yes, or something like that.

Even with that clue, you’ll need further help to solve the mystery. For example, the phrase “citrus-sucking sunshine” has to do with the protestors’ use of lemons to minimize the effects of tear gas. Using poetic devices to obscure rather than illuminate is only one of the crimes committed in this piece; the worst is a change to a jolly double-time rhythm supporting these only-jolly-to-a-psychopath lyrics:

Here he come
Got no question got no love
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
Bye bye badman
Ooh bye bye

The badman, in case you haven’t guessed or have no interest in history, was the supremely arrogant Charles DeGaulle, but what the song fails to mention is that once the general furor died down, DeGaulle’s party won the greatest parliamentary victory in French history. Bye bye my ass.

Just when you think couldn’t get any worse on the Greatest British Album ever, the lads slip in a lyrical fragment set to the melody of  “Scarborough Fair” and dress it up as “Elizabeth My Dear,” wasting fifty-three valuable seconds of recording time in what appears to be an attempt to outdo The Sex Pistols:

Tear me apart and boil my bones
I’ll not rest till she’s lost her throne
My aim is true my message is clear
It’s curtains for you, Elizabeth my dear

Well, she’s still on the throne thirty years later, so piss off.

The next song . . . wait—is that “Pretty Flamingo” I hear? Oh, damn. Wishful thinking, I guess—I could really use a good song right about now. But no, while the opening chords are identical to that Manfred Mann classic, they’re just the intro to “(Song for My) Sugar Spun Sister,” a song bemoaning Ian Brown’s inability to do anything to make a girl happy. “Try writing better songs!” I scream in response. This is the best evidence in support of Fiona Sturges’ assertion that Brown “submitted his vocals through the crack under the door,” and his attempt to form blue notes fails so miserably that you feel almost sorry for the guy.

Just when it seems the shite streak will continue to the bitter end of the album, the downward spiral comes to an abrupt and emphatic stop with the ironically uplifting “Made of Stone.” The opening stanza describes the last seconds of a driver en route to a head-on collision, and though you’d have to put two plus two plus pi and a whole lot of other numbers together with supreme intuitive insight to connect the lyrics to the album cover and in turn to the death of Jackson Pollock in a car accident . . . the words elicit the disturbing disorientation similar to the feelings many people have upon gazing at a Pollock painting:

Your knuckles whiten on the wheel
The last thing that your hands will feel
Your final flight can’t be delayed

No earth, just sky it’s so surreal
Your pink fat lips let go a scream
You fry and melt I love the scene

In the opinion of fellow abstract expressionist John Squire, a head-on collision with its associated gore was the perfect ending for Pollock:

I’m standing warm against the cold
Now that the flames have taken hold
At least you left your life in style

All this may not sound particularly uplifting unless you accept the perspective that the artist’s life is a life of rejection, of differentiating oneself from the norm and accepting the profound loneliness that accompanies the choice to be different. The chorus is an split expression of empathy and envy for the artist’s courage and his release from the mortal coil:

Sometimes I fantasize
When the streets are cold and lonely
And the cars they burn below me
Don’t these times fill your eyes
When the streets are cold and lonely
And the cars they burn below me
Are you all alone
Is anybody home?

The band demonstrates more commitment and enthusiasm on this song than on any other track on the album, and the arrangement gives each member a critical part to play. Mani’s bass is the connective part, providing superb lead-ins before each transition. Reni maintains the song’s edginess with a drum part that constantly threatens a full break-out but backs off at just the right time and in just the right amount to provide the necessary punctuation while leaving some of that tension in reserve. John Squire’s guitar contributions are superb, from the memorable opening passage to the solo (though I wish they’d given the solo a bit more volume), and his introduction of counterpoint acoustic guitar in the verses is the perfect complement to Ian Brown’s vocal. That vocal shifts between a tone of intense internal reflection demanded by the minor key verses and the triumphant release of buried feelings in the chorus. I love the way the song ends, with the closing note breaking pattern and rising instead of falling on the final word: “Are you made of stone?” That rise gives emphasis to the question that any artist has to face—does the act of separating oneself from humanity render the artist inhuman and therefore ineffective? Hardly a piece of shite, “Made of Stone” is the strongest song on the album, and could have served as a solid starting point for their future endeavors.

“Made of Stone” seems even stronger when paired with the completely worthless piece of shite called “Shoot You Down.” Whether this is a sadistic fantasy or a sample of braggadocio doesn’t matter; the song itself is a poorly-executed mess lacking clear intent. The perception of the song suffers even further when contrasted with the next song, the Manchester United pitch entry theme, “This Is the One.” As I’m not a big fan of anthems, the song doesn’t come close to sending me into ecstasy, but I respect its energy and politely but firmly disagree with Mr. Kulkarni’s assessment that it belongs in the shite pile.

“I Am the Resurrection” is definitely a candidate for the outhouse, a song where the lyrics and music form a horrible mismatch and neither would hold up by themselves anyway. It’s an intensely mean-spirited song, obviously written by a first-rate asshole:

Cut loose, you’re no use
I couldn’t stand another second in your company
Don’t waste your words I don’t need anything from you
I don’t care where you’ve been or what you plan to do
Stone me, why can’t you see
You’re a no-one nowhere washed up baby who’d look better dead
Your tongue is far too long
I don’t like the way it sucks and slurps upon my every word

Don’t waste your words I don’t need anything from you
I don’t care where you’ve been or what you plan to do
I am the resurrection and I am the light
I couldn’t ever bring myself to hate you as I’d like

Believe it or not, a devout Christian contributor to Songfacts claimed that this song was one of many of pieces of evidence strewn throughout the record that The Stone Roses is a Christian album that tracks the life of Christ. There’s more evidence to support that idea in the lengthy, wordless and completely pointless jam that follows the song proper, but I have to thank the contributor for confirming my belief that people pretty much hear whatever they want to hear.

“I Am the Resurrection” closes the original album; later releases append the single “Fools Gold” to provide the finishing touch. Take your pick: both songs seriously suck, so it comes down to whether you want to immerse yourself in Ian Brown’s hateful, messianic ravings or the lamest rendition of funk in musical history.

While the notion that The Stone Roses is the best British album ever doesn’t sit well with me, best-of-anything lists are fundamentally silly, a journalistic device designed to create controversy and increase readership. The album has its moments and shows some promise, and it’s too bad The Stone Roses and their fans were denied the experience of a coherent developmental narrative because of legal silliness. In the context of the remarkably shitty music of the late 1980’s, The Stone Roses must have sounded like celestial deliverance.

And really, if people want to believe that The Stone Roses is the pinnacle of British music, who cares? It’s nothing to get angry about.

One response

  1. I don’t know. I think you’ve overreacted on this one, ARC. It’s got a good beat; you can dance to it. 🙂

    Like

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