Category Archives: 1980’s

Pixies – Surfer Rosa – Classic Music Review

Nice tits.

What’s striking about those tits is that they look perfectly natural. Having recently studied the history of modern porn from the first issue of Playboy to the present, I have concluded that tits have gone through three phases of development:

  • The Natural Phase: Tits as determined by genes inherited from mom, dad or the mailman
  • The Inflated Phase: Tits rounded out and inflated due to the extra shots of estrogen and progesterone in birth control pills
  • The Bimbo Phase: Large and “perfectly” shaped tits fashioned by saline or silicone implants

I developed this taxonomy of tits after spending an afternoon with my hardcore lesbian cousin and her multi-gigabyte collection of adult female porn. Her collection is carefully curated and organized, so I asked her to organize her pics by date of publication so we could view changes in tit development over time. The chronology clearly shows that the natural tits of Betty Page and Marilyn Monroe started to give way to inflated tits in 1966, and other than the occasional sop to small-tit connoisseurs, hormone-enhanced tits dominated the pictorials from that point on. Fake tits entered the picture in the ’80s, but consistent “perfection” would elude plastic surgeons until the 21st century. It’s obvious when you look at some pornstars from the ’90s that their saline bags have gravitated towards the nipple, resulting in a look my cousin defined as “tit sausage (nichons de saucisse).” Recent porn is dominated by the bimbo look, marked by perfectly round, gigantic tits accompanied by fat-augmented lips that make women look more like circus clowns than sex kittens.

But I digress.

We agreed that natural and hormone-enhanced tits were the most pleasing to the eye, and that breast augmentation/reconstruction should be reserved for the unfortunate women who have had to undergo mastectomies. I don’t think our joint opinion will have any impact on the tit-building industry because modern cultures have made tits a commodity, and “bigger is better” dominates the field just like extra-large cokes and super-sized fries. The Mayo Clinic suggests that breast augmentation “might help you improve your self-confidence,” and when a respected institution like The Mayo Clinic argues that a purely cultural bias is a valid reason for a medical procedure, it should tell you that tits are an important revenue stream in the health care field.

The “self-confidence” selling point arises from two sources. It’s validating when a woman walks into a night club and causes heads to turn—and nothing draws a man’s attention as effectively as a respectable rack. But unbeknownst to most men, women pay just as much attention to racks as men do—and I’m not just talking about gay women. Women are always checking out each other to see how they “stack up” in comparison. Somehow, shelling out serious bucks to own a better rack than your girlfriend builds “self-confidence.” Natural tits have become passé in our totally fucked-up world.

Yes, but what the fuck does all this tit play have to do with Pixies?

Glad you asked! In preparation for this review, I listened to three commercially successful records from the ’80s:

  • Songs from the Big Chair by Tears for Fears
  • The Stone Roses
  • So by Peter Gabriel

All these albums (and many more ’80s recordings) are marked by the sound of drums enhanced through gated reverb to give the music a more cinematic wide-field sound. It is one of the distinguishing features of ’80s music (along with cheesy-sounding synthesizers). Those horrid production values led me to define the ’80s as a decade largely marked by fake sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Huh. U2’s “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” just popped into my head. I wonder why.

Anyway, when the Pixies opened their first full-length studio album with David Lovering and the sound of natural drums, it represented am emphatic rejection of the sleek and slick sounds of ’80’s music. Like the Punk Revolution, Pixies music represented a return to the rough-and-rowdy, bursting-with-energy essence of rock ‘n’ roll. Combined with Steve Albini’s raw production and the trademark soft-LOUD dynamics, the Pixies’ approach to music would have an enormous influence on a diverse group of musicians who would dominate the scene in the ’90s—Kurt Cobain, Billy Corgan, PJ Harvey, Radiohead, etc.

It should be noted that none of the four artists mentioned in the previous paragraph came close to duplicating the absurdist humor in Pixies songs (Cobain came the closest). At first listen, Black Francis’ songwriting style seems like undisciplined stream-of-consciousness, but it’s really more like the output of an accomplished improv actor: the words that come out of his head feel spontaneous but are nearly always tied to a palpable theme. He seems to start with a germ of an idea—a word, a location, an experience—and takes it wherever it leads him without allowing the censor to block the idea’s natural growth.

Opening with that thrilling sound of natural percussion, “Bone Machine” proceeds to give each member a turn in the spotlight, with Kim Deal hot on Lovering’s heels with a memorable bass run reflecting her preference for old strings that strips unwanted treble and brightness from the bottom. Joey Santiago enters with a decidedly nasty guitar riff over which we hear Black Francis shouting, “This is a song for Carol.” The structure and delivery of the song defy convention: the verses are narrated; the bridge features a melody that tracks the bass pattern as Francis and Kim sing in unison; what passes for a chorus is delivered in loose harmony and stop time. “It’s a song about fucking”, Kim Deal said in the documentary Pixies – On the Road, standing up to demonstrate the movement of a woman’s pelvis during a fuck (the bone machine is the “thing” that makes the pelvis go). Carol apparently has a bone machine working on overdrive and all she has to show for it is a case of herpes:

You’re into Japanese fast food
And I drop you off with your Japanese lover
And you’re going to the beach all day
You’re so pretty when you’re unfaithful to me
You so pretty when you’re unfaithful to me

You’re looking like
You’ve got some sun
Your blistered lips
Have got a kiss
They taste a bit like everyone

Uh-oh, uh-oh, uh-oh, uh-oh
Your bone’s got a little machine

The second verse represents a leap through memory association, harkening back to an incident involving a different bone machine, one belonging to a pedophile pastor:

I was talking to preachy-preach about kissy-kiss
He bought me a soda
He bought me a soda
He bought me a soda and he tried to molest me in the parking lot
Yep, yep yep yep

The concept of a “bone machine” highlights the disconnection between the sexual organs and the part of the brain that exercises judgment. Carol fucks like a rabbit, the narrator gets turned on by her unfaithfulness, the pastor can’t control his repressed libido. In the last verse, the cause of attraction is brown skin that we assume differs from the narrator’s, hinting at the age-old truth that forbidden fruit amplifies attraction because it is forbidden. Attraction is a complex, often mysterious dynamic, but if there’s a takeaway here, it’s something like “know who you’re fucking and why you’re fucking, or . . . uh-oh.”

Pixies are by definition mischievous, and Francis often likes to play the role of a loser, allowing the character to present their loser behavior with a minimum of judgment. Being true to the character makes the point far more effectively than giving us a sermon on the evils of whatever weird shit the loser comes up with. The character in “Break My Body” is an extreme self-destructive type, an honest-to-goodness masochist who repeatedly dares life to pile on the pain. This creature breaks down doors, (probably) fucks mom, and leaps from building to building just for the hell of it. The most controversial line is typically rendered as “I’m a belly dancer/I’ll shake forever and I’ll never care,” but what I hear (and validated by user Blue Grenade on Genius Lyrics) is “I’m a belly dancer/I’ll shake for Arabs and I’ll never care.” The latter makes more sense, especially if you avoid the mistake of viewing it through a post 9/11 lens (and yes, there are male belly dancers). My take is that the song is about how people revel in their own victimization, but as blog critic Gordon Hauptfleisch concluded, what really matters is “It has a good beat and you can run a record store to it.” Two minutes of percussion-driven overdrive, distorted guitar pushing the edges of dissonance, unrestrained vocals from Francis and Kim Deal . . . then the sudden switch to muffled guitar, the drums now front and center to support the vocal duet, then—drop-dead silence. While they certainly took an unusual build path to get there, that closing passage raises the tension to the nth degree like that moment in the horror flick when the idiot is about to open the door that no one in their right mind would open and then . . . tune in next week for the thrilling finale! Arrgh! Whether “Break My Body” is the prototypical Pixies song (as Mr. Hauptfleisch argued) is good fodder for a barroom debate, but I’ll say this: I can’t imagine any other band on the planet coming up with a song quite like it.

The Pixies were given ten days to record and wrap up the album, but they got down to business and pretty much finished Surfer Rosa in a week. That left them lots of time to mess around with “experimental stuff basically to kill time.” As true in music as it is in science, some experiments work and some don’t. For “Something Against You,” Albini ran Black Francis’ vocal through a guitar amp to achieve a “totally ragged, vicious texture.” I suppose some sort of backhanded congratulations are in order, for the vocal is certainly ragged, but a.) it’s impossible to make out the words because b.) the mix doesn’t separate the vocal enough from the already ragged background featuring a combination of detuned rhythm guitar and high-distortion lead/rhythm. The lyrics consist of one line repeated several times and a closing shot: “I’ve got something against you/Oh yeah, I am one happy prick,” a wonderfully economic statement on the human tendency to take pleasure from resentment. I just think it would have been better if Francis had shaped it into a haiku and delivered the vocal from some misty mountain top.

“Broken Face” is one of the more punk-oriented pieces on the album, burning hot, hard and fast as it rips through its tale of incest in about a minute-and-a-half. The narrator seems to be the defective result of a multi-generational orgy within the family (“There was this boy who had two children with his sisters/They were his daughters/They were his favorite lovers), and at first I thought Black Francis’ imitation of the disabled kid’s speech mannerisms was rather cruel. It took me a while to shift blame to the senseless idiots who sired the kid, and though I’m still not entirely comfortable with the piece, I love the ass-kicking noise of it all.

Kurt Cobain loved Pixies music and fully acknowledged their influence, but his admiration did not prevent him from lodging a complaint with management: “I wish Kim was allowed to write more songs for the Pixies because ‘Gigantic’ is the best Pixies song and Kim wrote it.” Well, no . . . not quite. Here’s the real story as related by Kim Deal’s then-husband John Murphy in Fool the World: The Oral History of a Band Called Pixies:

MURPHY: Charles [“Black Francis”] came up with the riff, but he wasn’t really sure what the lyrics were going to be, so he goes, “Eh, well, Kim, why don’t you take a shot at it? The only thing I know is that I want to call it ‘Gigantic’,” and she says, “Fine.” So she comes home with it and she’s playing it on the guitar and I said, “Gigantic, okay, maybe it’s about a big mall.” She goes, “Okay, let’s try that for a while,” and I’m like, “The mall, the mall, let’s have a ball.” So I wrote that. It changed to “Hey, Paul”, because it had to rhyme. And then, a couple of days later she had fixated on this Sissy Spacek movie Crimes of the Heart about this farmworker, I think he’s a black guy, and Sissy Spacek and this farmworker get together – so that’s what it’s about. An illicit love affair.

While Kurt didn’t have the whole backstory, I do agree with his sentiments, but I would have lodged a slightly different complaint—something like, “Hey, guys, are you trying to force Kim out of the band or what?” As things turned out, Kim’s presence on Pixies albums would never come close to her near omnipresence on Surfer Rosa, where she sang lead, harmony or unison on a majority of tracks. She would only get one half-credit for songwriting on Doolittle (“Silver”) and zero on the last two Pixies efforts. When the guys rejected her original compositions as “not Pixies songs,” she formed The Breeders, in turn reducing her commitment to Pixies, in turn leading to a lot of bad juju, yada, yada, yada.

There are different mixes of “Gigantic” (the Albini version on the album, the Gil Norton version on the single), so feel free to choose one that suits your tastes. For me, the mix doesn’t matter all that much, as what draws my attention and twiddles my diddle is Kim’s vocal. There’s a wickedness in her voice as she anticipates that “hunk of love” drilling into her sweet spot (“Hey Paul, hey Paul, hey Paul, let’s have a ball”); her voice shifts to unbridled ecstasy as he delivers the goods:

Gigantic, gigantic, gigantic
A big, big love

Though I think large dongs are highly overrated and I can’t stand chick flicks, “Gigantic” never fails to thrill me.

The flip side of the “Gigantic” single was “River Euphrates,” also remixed by Norton. While the lyrics are clearer and the sound cleaner on the single, I have a strong preference for the album version for two reasons: one, Joey Santiago’s introduction is deliciously dissonant on the album, and somewhat “straightened out” on the single; and two, the “ride, ride, ride” vocals on the album sound sweeter and more natural. You’ll notice that Kim has to catch her breath a couple of times within the phrase, something that technically qualifies as poor breath control but is oh-so human (go ahead and try to duplicate the vocal and home to appreciate its difficulty). I just love how Black Francis’ mind works: “Oh, I’m out of gas in the middle of the Gaza strip, but let’s just put that jack to work, grab a couple of tires and float down the Euphrates!” No obstacle is insurmountable for Charles Michael Kitteridge Thompson IV!

“Where Is My Mind?” builds on a question you commonly pose to yourself when you forget to . . . don’t recognize . . . fuck things up . . . have a brain fart. “Okay,” you say, “But what’s the song about?” Black Francis explained exactly how I would have explained it, so rather than plagiarize, I shall cite this quotation I found on Shmoop:

I can’t explain it to you; I just think the song is likable. Even though Kim barely sings on it, there’s something about her singing that little haunting two-note riff. The same thing with Joey, he’s got a little two-note thing going on too. It’s so simple, and then there’s me in the middle singing the wacky cute little lyrics. So it’s kind of a quintessential Pixie song. It sort of displays everyone’s personalities. The song has something very likable about it and I’m not sure what it is.

Certain songs just make you feel good. You can identify the components that contribute to the “feel good” vibe of “Where Is My Mind?” (major key, minor chords used to strengthen melodic flow before returning to an uplifting major chord to finish the phrase, sufficient variation without going overboard, nice swaying beat, the stick-in-your-head two-note patterns described above, the relaxed execution), but getting the right ingredients doesn’t always result in a dish that wows the dinner party. According to standard pop formulae, “Where Is My Mind?” shouldn’t make you feel good because the lyrical lines are imbalanced and there isn’t a single rhyme in the mix. I think the key here is in the magic of the four different musical personalities, each making a distinctive contribution to a satisfying whole. At their best, Pixies are just fucking fun to listen to.

We now return to the catalog of life’s losers, and the ultimate loser in any society usually winds up in prison sooner or later unless they’re white and have enough money to float bail and afford a crack legal team. We don’t know what he’s done to earn the time, but we find the loser in “Cactus” sitting on the cement floor of his not-so-cozy bungalow bemoaning separation from his squeeze. The strong, steady thumping beat and dark minor-key guitar distortion form a background that reflects a feverish obsession, and in a voice that sounds like the whimper of a man breaking down from the experience of enforced isolation, Black Francis informs us that our anti-hero’s obsession has to do with a specific piece of apparel:

Sitting here wishing on a cement floor
Just wishing that I had just something you wore
I’d put it on when I go lonely
Will you take off your dress and send it to me?

The italics (mine) serve to identify Kim’s flashes of vocal harmony that appear in the closing words to each verse, one of those little touches in a song that make all the difference in the world (enter “Count Basie Theory” in the site search box for more information). The expressed desire to wear her dress (rather than stuff it under his pillow for a comforting beddie-bye scent) gives me the impression that the man may have been tagged to serve as the female partner in one of those prison shower romances, and Kim’s spot vocal tacked onto the narration reinforces that impression. It’s obvious that the guy is desperately trying to hold onto his heterosexuality (“I miss your kissin’ and I miss your head”) but the paranoia induced by isolation consistently leads him to worst-case-scenario thinking (“And a letter in your writing doesn’t mean you’re not dead”). The last request to his long-lost love can be interpreted as the ravings of a sicko, a plea for proof that she is still among the living or the cry of an overwrought man with an unfathomable desire to experience intimacy at the cellular level:

Bloody your hands on a cactus tree
Wipe it on your dress and send it to me

While “Cactus” lacks a proper chorus, the verses are the most conventionally-structured poetry on Surfer Rosa, with an AABB rhyme scheme. While I think that sop to tradition makes the song more accessible, our anti-hero is unlikely to evoke much sympathy from lock-’em-up Americans. Here’s a tip for those of you who have an empathy deficit: on your next vacation, head to the great city of Philadelphia, skip the Independence Hall hoo-hah and drop by the Eastern State Penitentiary. Look long and hard at the prison cells, and try to remind yourself of Phil Ochs’ admonition: “There but for fortune go you or I.”

We move on to the much lighter “Tony’s Theme,” marked by Kim Deal’s loaded-with-naive-high-schoolish-enthusiasm vocal intro and don’t-fuck-with-me lead guitar from Joey Santiago. Tony is the master of bicycling, racing and popping wheelies; the card in his spokes identifies Tony as a future wannabe Harley owner. Beneath the daredevil façade, he’s a good boy who always remembers to mow the lawn after school, a tidbit that seriously diminishes his hero status. It’s followed by the title track that is not a title track but does contain the only reference to Surfer Rosa: the Spanish-language bash, “Oh My Golly.” Opening with David Lovering’s emphatic attack on the toms (natural, of course), the song forms a celebration of a whirlwind Caribbean romance where the narrator and Surfer Rosa make out and get drunk (besando, chichando) under the Caribbean moon. The heart-thumping nature of the erotic experience is accentuated by high speed and truncated measures that intensify the out-of-control passion incited by Surfer Rosa (see tit pic above).

“Vamos” is a different take of a song that appeared on Come On Pilgrim, featuring an opening verse in Spanish where the narrator is considering the option of moving in with his sister in New Jersey, who has told him about the great life in the upscale burbs (very rich, very cool)—the East Coast preppy version of the American Dream:

We’ll keep well-bred
We’ll stay well-fed
We’ll have our sons
They will be all well hung

They’ll come and play
Their friends will say
“Your daddy’s rich
Your mamma’s a pretty thing”

The lines can also be interpreted through the lens of incest, but I think it’s equally plausible to interpret the “in-breeding” hinted at here as something involving social class and not brother and sister (old money and the trophy wife). That interpretation is reinforced by the man’s classic fascination with the hot Spanish maid, the upper-class fantasy extraordinaire. The sister’s expressed frustration that “I keep getting friends/Looking like lesbians” tells us that her enclave may be too preppy for their tastes and that they might have more luck in the less rigid but still superficial upper-class life in California. Lots of drive, noise and exuberance in this piece, with Joey Santiago’s random guitar attacks standing out.

“I’m Amazed” begins with Kim Deal telling her mates a real-life story about how a coach with a thing for field hockey players mysteriously disappeared from campus. That kind of story would draw a lot more publicity today, and somewhere in the coverage, someone who knew the pervert would shake their head and say, “I’m amazed.” Oh, bullshit. You knew something was going on and chose to ignore it. The same is true of the three incidents mentioned in the song proper—all create some form of “amazement,” but none are really all that amazing except to those who have their heads up their asses. The fascinating aspect of the music comes from the Francis-Deal vocal duet that falls somewhere between call-and-response and a half-hearted attempt at a round—chaotic and very effective.

Surfer Rosa closes hot with the blues-tinged raucousness of “Brick Is Red.” The duet that stands out here is the interplay between Santiago and Lovering in the extended intro where both men are ripping and bashing like there’s no tomorrow. The vocal duet featuring Francis and Deal ain’t half bad either, with Kim randomizing her harmonic splashes to arbitrarily highlight words and phrases that may or may not have significant meaning. Though the poetry may not make “sense,” the image of eyes turning the color of diamond—“just the color,” “the frayed color of ice”—forms a picture that is both alluring and repulsive.

What struck me most when re-engaging with Surfer Rosa is how fresh it sounds thirty-two years after its release. The feeling of spontaneity, the direct and indirect humor, the sheer excitement of the musicians as they create a novel approach to rock music—all these come through soft, LOUD and clear. It’s one of those rare albums that expand the listener’s perspective without crossing the line into pretension, and even with its occasional forays into the so-called dark aspects of the human personality, Surfer Rosa leaves you with the feeling that you’ve just had one helluva good time.

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.

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