I’ve been toying with the possibility of doing more reviews of the Peter Gabriel edition of Genesis and Peter Gabriel’s solo work ever since my review of Genesis’ Nursery Cryme two-and-a-half years ago. I opened that review with a passage that still holds true for me today:
Genesis is a band worthy of study because their work combines the best and worst tendencies of progressive rock. In the four albums featuring the “core” band (Nursery Cryme, Foxtrot, Selling England by the Pound, and The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway), you will hear both stunning masterpieces and some of the most pretentious nonsense imaginable. Peter Gabriel in particular will drive you mad, as he careens from brilliance to preposterousness on a single album, a pattern he would reliably reproduce throughout his solo career.
After a long period of dicking around, I finally had to conclude that Peter Gabriel triggers the Goldilocks side of my personality. Most of his work is “too” . . . something or another. Because I’m a girl who can never get enough heat, I would sum it up by saying none of his albums are too hot, some are too cold and some are way, way too 1980’s.
Us is the album I find closest to “just right.” It’s not perfect, and there is one song in particular I find deeply offensive, but its obvious strengths outweigh the few glaring weaknesses.
What is unusual about Us is that it’s an emotionally honest work from a man who seemed to go out of his way to mask emotion through ornate poetry, clever bits of phrasing and obscure symbolism. The album features some of his most purely beautiful works and (lucky me) one of my favorite sexual posing songs ever, one I save for extra special erotic occasions. As he did for all his solo albums, Peter brought in an ever-expanding list of both big names and scarcely known but very talented musicians from all corners of the world to make contributions. Despite the challenges in managing a seeming cast of thousands, the end result reflects discipline and diversity, seamlessly integrating sounds and influences from Senegal, Ireland, Russia, Armenia, Scotland, India, Turkey, Kenya, Canada, France, the USA and the UK.
The ingenuity involved in mixing diverse sounds from diverse sources is on full display in the mesmerizing soundscape of “Come Talk to Me.” The opening synthesized drone playing the base chord pattern is quickly relegated to deep background with the appearance of Northumbrian smallpipes courtesy of classic piper Chris Ormston. Bagpipes of all kinds have been used for centuries to instill spirit in those facing a challenge—the boys marching off to war, the mourners at the gravesite or competitors gearing up for the games. Here the pipes are played over a contrasting rhythmic background of sabar drums courtesy of The Babacar Faye Drummers to call up the courage it takes to deal with the challenge of mending a broken relationship.
Peter Gabriel was thinking of his daughter and the rift between them that grew as the result of a marital break-up, but the song’s brilliance comes from his ability to universalize the agony that accompanies the disruption of a lifelong connection. Sinéad O’Connor’s harmonies in the chorus seem to reflect his hope that his daughter is equally keen to close the chasm. The complex and shifting moods of such a situation are captured in the diverse instruments and voices that ride over the underlying drone throughout the song, most notably the melancholic sound of the duduk and the energetic vocals of the Dmitri Pokrovsky Ensemble. I don’t know how Peter Gabriel managed to successfully combine these contrasting textures from different cultures, but the result is an inspired arrangement that works beautifully with the lyrical content.
The poetic structure is intensely revealing, for in the first quatrain of the first two verses, we find the Peter Gabriel we’ve come to expect—the guy who writes like the English major yearning for a spot in the Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey when his dust returns to dust. In the second quatrains, his language becomes more concrete, more immediate and by extension, more emotionally direct and impactful:
The wretched desert takes its form
The jackal proud and tight
In search of you I feel my way
Through the slowest heaving night
Whatever fear invents
I swear it makes no sense
I reach out through the border fence
Come down, come talk to me
After going through two more cycles where Gabriel feels the urge to feed his poetic beast prior to getting in touch with his emotions, he finally abandons the inner bard in an extended bridge for genuine, heartfelt interpersonal communication:
I can imagine the moment
Breaking out through the silence
All the things that we both might say
And the heart, it will not be denied
‘Til we’re both on the same damn side
All the barriers blown away
I said please talk to me
Won’t you please come talk to me?
Just like it used to be
Come on, come talk to me
The essence of the song is that simple cry for human communication and understanding, four monosyllabic words essential to human existence: come talk to me.
Peter gets even more personal in the confessional piece “Love to Be Loved.” The arrangement itself speaks volumes, combining a funk rhythm shimmering with gorgeous piano runs as he presents the symptoms, fading into a suspended string-laden section where drums and bass vanish as he digs deeper in an attempt to get at the root of the problem. The problem is hinted at in the first two choruses—the difference between wanting to be liked (accepted by society) and wanting to be loved (cherished for the true self). The challenge at hand is the timeless struggle captured in Gautama Buddha’s first two Noble Truths: the human condition is suffering; the suffering is caused by craving, desire and attachment:
This old familiar craving
I’ve been here before, this way of behaving
Don’t know who the hell I’m saving anymore
Let it pass let it go let it leave
From the deepest place I grieve
This time I believe
And I let go
Much to his credit and sense of humility, Gabriel’s dramatic monologue in the closing passage describes the discomfort in detaching oneself of those cravings and desires. He realizes that he is “losing such a central part of me,” then attempts to buck himself up by saying, “I can let go of it/You know I mean it/You know that I mean it.” That’s a clue to the listener that he doesn’t mean it, and finally he just says fuck it and opts out of the opportunity to achieve nirvana:
I recognize how much I’ve lost
But I cannot face the cost
Cause I love to be loved
Yes I love to be loved
I love to be loved
So do I, Peter, and so does pretty much everyone else in the world, whether they admit it or not.
The most purely beautiful song on the album is the second duet with Gabriel and O’Connor, “Blood of Eden.” The combination of duduk, violin and arpeggiated guitar creates a warm, tender and faintly melancholic foundation, and the relatively subdued voices of the vocalists help paint a soundscape of sacred ground. Though I’m anything but a Christian, I admire Peter Gabriel’s choice to use the symbolism of Adam and Eve as opposed to the dynamic of yin and yang. While both symbols represent the active-masculine/receptive-feminine dualism at the heart of the universe, yin and yang are abstract concepts while Adam and Eve represent flesh and blood. This is a sensual song celebrating the physical union of opposites, and when such a union involves genuine love and caring for the other, it takes on a spirituality of its own.
In this context, Peter seems to want use the sexual act to heal a souring relationship, an all-too common attempt to recapture that beautiful feeling of oneness—an attempt that usually causes both parties to go deeper into mourning over what has been lost. The song is structured in uneven verses (3-2-2-3, 3-2-2-2, 3-2), reflecting awkward communication and partial understanding. In the longer first verse, he admits all is not right within, contrasting his pursuit of deeper understanding with the crass materialism that surrounds him—almost wishing he could feel as secure as the normals do with their precious trifles:
I caught sight of my reflection
I caught it in the window
I saw the darkness in my heart
I saw the signs of my undoing
They had been there from the start
And the darkness still has work to do
The knotted chord’s untying
The heated and the holy
Oh they’re sitting there on high
So secure with everything they’re buying
In the second verse he defines his inadequacy in material terms (“I cannot get insurance anymore/They don’t take credit, only gold”), and admits how in his confused state he is incapable of accurate perception or understanding, unsure whether his partner is his destroyer or his savior:
Is that a dagger or a crucifix I see
You hold so tightly in your hand
And all the while the distance grows between you and me
I do not understand
As in “Love to Be Loved,” he breaks from verse structure to describe the attempt at physical reunion, crying out as the “moment of bliss” arrives. He then returns to the verse to compare his state to those consumed by consumerism:
I can hear the distant thunder
Of a million unheard souls
Of a million unheard souls
Watch each one reach for creature comfort
For the filling of their holes
The chorus has appeared between each of the verses, but truly comes to fruition in the extended fade, where the mingling of duduc and violin reach an evocative peak expressing infinite beauty and infinite sadness:
In the blood of Eden lie the woman and the man
I feel the man in the woman and the woman in the man
In the blood of Eden lie the woman and the man
I feel the man in the woman and the woman in the man
In the blood of Eden we have done everything we can
In the blood of Eden, so we end as we began
With the man in the woman and the woman in the man
It was all for the union, oh the union of the woman, the woman and the man
“Blood of Eden” is an immersive experience, a song both enchanting and achingly sad, one that touches me at the core of my soul.
Then again, it’s also a lot of fun to feel the temporal but thrilling joy of carnal desire, and “Steam” does that for me every fucking time. People who have dismissed the song as “Sledgehammer II” are either idiots or idiots with no concept of eroticism, but idiots all the same. “Sledgehammer” was Peter Gabriel’s tribute to soul music, a song marked by slick production and dumb lyrics lacking any hint of adult sexuality. “Steam” is about the heat and nothing but the heat because sometimes all that fucking matters is the heat.
“Steam” is certainly available for my fuck playlists, but I save it for those nights when I’m really feeling it in my tendons, nerves and nether regions—when my inner thighs glisten with anticipatory wetness as I get ready for the scene—when pictures of realized and unrealized fantasies stream through my brain—when my nipples and clitoris turn rock hard, ready to explode and explode again before I’ve even made contact with my partner—when I know it’s going to take hours to release all the tension coursing through every fiber of my being and I look forward to savoring every fucking minute—and when I make my entrance in full leather and riding crop with tits and crotch exposed but agonizingly out of reach, you’d better fucking . . .
I’ll leave the six minutes of posing to stutter-stop guitar, pounding drums and the seriously hot Gabriel-Lanois horn arrangement to your naughty imaginations.
“Only Us” is clearly post-orgasmic, with Tony Levin’s dominant bass guitar maintaining the strongest connection to the rhythms and impulses of steamier moments. After the intensity of the first four tracks, the piece feels more like an intermission than a thematic extension, though the lyrics do present the theme of finding solace from “the great escape” of daily life in the arms of another (to be explored in more depth in the album closer). Gabriel also follows George Harrison’s lead in paraphrasing from the Tao Te Ching, reaffirming the notion that “the further on I go, the less I know,” linking that wisdom to the spirituality of intimate physical contact.
Next up is Gabriel’s attempt at creating a late 20th-Century spiritual, “Washing of the Water,” but the tropes he uses (the river, water as a symbol of purification) are as ancient as ancient gets. The lyrics repeat the theme of solace in sexuality (“Let your waters reach me, like she reached me tonight”) and the psychological flaws that lead us to fear genuine human connection. Some listeners might find the translation of these themes through the lens of spiritual music more accessible, and there’s no doubt that the pain Gabriel describes is genuinely felt.
Peter Gabriel being Peter Gabriel, he had to spend some time exploring the dark side of human nature, and I suppose you could say he does this successfully in “Digging in the Dirt,” where he attempts to empathize with a psychopath wallowing in the experience of severe toxic masculinity. According to Songfacts, “This song evolved out of a project where Gabriel studied inmates on death row to find out what made them kill.” What Gabriel learned is this: “When you have self-knowledge, you don’t fall into the same behavioral traps. One of the keys is—take responsibility. Blaming anyone else, especially in relationships, is a futile activity and not going to move you forward.”
Uh-uh. You know what, Peter? I don’t give a shit about your pop psychologizing, and I wish you would have given a whole lot more attention to the trauma suffered by the victims of these poor boys rather than wasting your time trying to understand them.
Shit. Here comes my #metoo moment.
When I was twenty-three, I was abducted at knifepoint by such a man, who forced me into his car and drove me to a relatively isolated spot on the eastern shores of San Francisco Bay one summer night. I don’t want to go into the details, but I took advantage of the fact that the asshole’s brains were in his dick and managed to escape with relatively minor physical injuries. The psychological trauma of the event was far more serious, aggravated by the cynicism of the men on the police force who dismissed my tale as another date gone sour. Like Elizabeth Warren, I persisted, and eventually managed to convince the district attorney’s office to pursue the case. This poor, poor boy was sentenced to a few years in jail where he probably spent his time learning from the pros how to become a more successful rapist and murderer.
Excuse the fuck out of me for not feeling a single bit of empathy for that sick fuck.
I find “Digging in the Dirt” a disgusting experience, a completely worthless effort by an entitled entertainer who has the financial means to piss away his money exploring the dark layers of his persona through psychotherapy while ignoring the psychological devastation these deviants leave in their wake. To add insult to injury, Gabriel admitted to The Daily Mirror that the song “was probably the hardest one to do on the album because it was written around a groove and it just didn’t make sense at first. I was really missing the bass and drums.”
Missing the bass and drums? That qualifies as a difficulty? Any thought to the difficulties faced by the families who will never recover from the murder of a family member? Or the difficulties of the women who feel the need to leave the lights on when they go to bed at night? Or the women who have heard “This time you’ve gone too far” so often that they instinctively curl up into a ball to minimize the impact of the beating they’re about to take? Fuck you and your definition of “hard.”
I’m not surprised that “Digging in the Dirt” went to the top of the charts in one and only one country, the toxically masculine United States of America. Personal feelings aside, the song sticks out like a deformed penis in the context of an album celebrating love, union and the desire for close contact. My Us playlist excludes this piece of shit, and listening to it three times in the process of writing this review was an experience I never want to repeat.
Let’s move on to The Rothko Chapel in hot, humid and oily Houston, Texas, the source of inspiration for “Fourteen Black Paintings.” This meditation begins tenderly with Levon Minassian’s duduk solo, where he produces a marvelous tone on this ancient double reed instrument, mingling spirituality with earthiness. The sparseness gives way to an electronic ensemble heavy on bass tones designed to express in musical terms the feeling evoked in Gabriel’s visit to the chapel. The background also serves as a platform for Gabriel’s model of progressive change:
From the pain come the dream
From the dream come the vision
From the vision come the people
From the people come the power
From this power come the change
With the world tilting towards authoritarianism today, this seems terribly naïve, but perhaps hope will spring again someday. As a mood piece, though, “Fourteen Black Paintings” is very effective.
“Kiss That Frog” was surprisingly released as a single, even though it’s a fundamentally dumb song that attempts to soften its cuteness with nudge-nudge-wink-wink references to oral sex. The single went nowhere, just like the song. The Peter Gabriel who wrote this turkey was the Peter Gabriel who wanted to be liked, and I hope its chart failure taught him a valuable lesson.
The album closes with “Secret World,” where Gabriel finally returns to the central theme of love as a prerequisite to true happiness. Here he also echoes a theme that appears frequently in rock music throughout the years, the idea of a loving relationship serving as a refuge from an often hostile society that denies both love and individuality. Jack Bruce touched on it in “I Feel Free,” PJ Harvey in “One Line,” The Bee Gees in “Holiday,” Ray Davies in “Waterloo Sunset,” to name a few. Gabriel’s take on the refuge theme is quite different, however, as he points out that the secret world of refuge can also become a claustrophobic environment if the lovers fail to tend to the essentials of trust and open communication by holding secrets within the confines of the secret world. He also moves away from the symbolism of Adam and Eve as the ultimate form of union, likening a collapsing relationship to the period after the fall:
In this house of make believe
Divided in two, like Adam and Eve
You put out and I receive
Down by the railway siding
In our secret world, we were colliding
In all the places we were hiding love
What was it we were thinking of?
The arrangement features a multitude of instruments that have no business communing with one another, but the melding of Mexican pan flute, dobro, cello, guitar and various products of programming never sounds crowded, thanks in large part to carefully attenuated dynamics. When I’ve communed with fellow musicians who like to do their own thing through software, I encourage them to listen to Us as a sterling example of superb modern musical arrangement.
Often brilliant and occasionally oblivious, Us remains my favorite Peter Gabriel album with my favorite Peter Gabriel song (“Blood of Eden”). I have to admit that I like “Moribund the Burgermeister” almost as much, which reveals one of two things: a.) my range of musical taste is completely bizarre or b.) Peter Gabriel is a remarkably talented individual who refuses to be limited to a specific playing field. Although I often find myself frustrated with some of his tendencies and choices, I have to give him credit for his lifelong willingness to push the boundaries of what’s possible in music.
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).
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,
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.