The Stone Roses
1989 — The Stone Roses (Silvertone Records)
The Stone Roses emerged from the always-bizarre, but fertile, Manchester music scene. They started up in the mid-1980s, with wonky haircuts, leather trousers, and drummer Alan Wren (Reni) sporting a jheri curl. Their sound was rough and histrionic; a strange mix of goth-rock and post-punk. Fortunately, after an unreleased recording session with legendary Manchester drug-addict Martin Hannett, guitarist John Squire and vocalist Ian Brown realized the band's strength lay in melodies, not rawk (well, they realized this until about 1992, that is). The main writer was guitarist Squire, who was a fan of then-popular indie groups like The Jesus and Mary Chain and Primal Scream. The Roses' sound from about 1988, however, moves into a quite-different direction from the other proto-Britpop bands of the time, and I think this is mainly down to their rhythm section. In 1987, Gary Mounfield (Mani) joined on bass. Mani not only pushed the others into a more working-class image — no more Beach-Boys-like matching tops — but also played fatter, smoother basslines that meshed amazingly well with The Roses' real difference maker: drummer Reni, who is just incredible. In short, they brought the funk! It took a little time for this to become apparent, but in the meantime Squire and Brown wrote up a nice clutch of classic-pop tunes.
As with any musical act of humble origins that suddenly achieves the rarefied level of genius, analyzing quite when and how The Roses distanced themselves from the pack is difficult. Was it simply the fully matured-talents of John Squire? The direction and studio-touch of producer John Leckie? Was it a matter of the collective simply adding up to more than the parts, in just the right balance, at just the right time? Whatever it was, The Roses hit an unsurpassable peak around late 1988 to spring 1989, just when this first album was
recorded (it was issued in May 1989).
NOTE: This article discusses the original 1989 issue of the album,
which has 11 tracks. Some international reissues of this album have
12 tracks, or 13 tracks, but I'm sticking with the original.
"I Wanna Be Adored" has obviously undergone the Leckie-effect,
with its long, non-musical intro of mystery and intrigue, creating an
eerie mood. As this strange intro slowly fades in, we hear some light
cymbals and slinky guitar parts; then, after over a minute, the bass-
drum crashes in, which signals the main guitar riff of the song. It's a
killer riff after a killer intro, but be warned: the bass-riff of this song is
as catchy as influenza. The more times you hear this great song, the
more likely you're going to get the bass-riff stuck in your head for several years, as I did. That might be the most memorable bass-riff ever, so watch out. Brown sings very softly for much of this record, and on this track (which was written back in 1985) he sings something about "sell[ing] his soul", which doesn't make a lot of sense, but the way he wraps this soft tone around the words of the title is really exciting. This song has about two chords, but the genius of it, besides the guitar and bass riffs, is in the structure. It's simply thrilling — especially played live — when everyone peaks, after the instrumental break, and the music stops dead. Brown's vocal ("A-dooooored") brings it back, it slows down, and then it builds up to another crescendo at the end. Spine-tingling!
Second track, "She Bangs The Drums", was the band's first top-40 hit in the UK (in a slightly different version, which is actually better than the LP one). This is a simply joyous pop/rock tune about the dizziness of falling in love, you could say; but what pushes it over the top, again, is the rhythm-section. The bass-line is once again highly memorable and melodic, and the guitar work by John Squire — subtle as it sometimes is — is just so good. The lyric, by the way, begins with a winning couplet:
I can feel the earth begin to move
I hear my need hit the groove
And the song just continues with sheer delights of pop-poetry and guitar-snarl / jangle. There are more melodic and rhythmic delights contained in the 3 minutes and 40 seconds of this one song alone than many
Britpop also-rans have been able to create in almost thirty years.
We go from amazing to sublime with the next song, "Waterfall". Seemingly a lyric about a girl, high on life (or something else), who takes the ferry from England to France, this tune is mainly memorable for its simple but unforgettable diamond-chiming guitar riff. I could listen to that riff and nothing else for several minutes and enjoy it, but everything about this track is equally stupendous: Brown's hushed tones work perfectly here, as his voice is both gentle and bright, which suits the lyric; Reni gets to play some slightly-jazzy parts that add complexity to this still immediately accessible tune; Mani's bass is very special, played as it is in a reggae/dub style that shouldn't fit this kind of song but does. This bass part is yet another example of how The Stone Roses not only wrote better songs than their peers, but played them in more interesting ways as well (I shudder to think of the bass-line that groups like Oasis or The Charlatans would have come up with for this song). Just as you're getting lost in the middle of "Waterfall", it cuts into an instrumental break, a showcase for John Squire's unique and highly enjoyable guitar(s). He squawks some funky sounds out of his electric guitar lead, and also plays some tasteful acoustic guitar. Finally, guitar, bass, and drums come together again in another exciting crescendo that accelerates the tempo as the song fades out. This is exquisite.
I'm less sold on the 4th track on offer, the psychedelic "Don't Stop", which is a backwards song. That is, it's the instrumental track of "Waterfall" slightly slowed down and played in reverse, with added instrumental parts on top and a (mostly) new vocal by Ian Brown. The Roses had released a couple of these songs before on B-sides, which, in retrospect, is probably the best place for them. Still, back in 1988-89, a band deciding to insert a bizarre psychedelic number in the middle of a winning run of pop-tunes on their first album took some knackers, and I respect them for it. Besides, it's a fairly enjoyable listen in itself, even if you don't know it's "Waterfall" backwards ("Llafretaw"?). Having said that, I don't think this number needed to be almost a minute longer than its source track. Two or three minutes would have been enough, thanks.
The final cut on the original Side 1 of this LP is "Bye Bye Badman". Squire and Brown were at least partly inspired to write this one after seeing TV footage of the Mai 68 protests and near-city shutdown in Paris, France — they liked the clothes. The spirit of Mai 68 (or at least the fashion) informs the lyrics, as in: "smoke the air / submission ends and I begin". The tune is bouncy and melodic, with tasty lead guitar runs subtly mixed into the choruses, which swing. Those choruses stop abruptly, leading into the song's bridge. So, once again, the dynamics and structure of this song are really a big part of its appeal, as is, again, the successful mixing of acoustic and electric guitars.
The second half of the album starts quietly with "Elizabeth My Dear". This is a 1-minute vocal and acoustic-guitar track, re-writing "Scarborough Fair" to lyrics about getting rid of the Queen of England (hadn't The Smiths already tried that one?). It's a nice change of pace, and since it's only a minute long, you can't really complain. Having said that, many years later, this kind of lyric seems a little juvenile and sophomoric, but actually its coy cuteness saves it. Ian sings:
Tear me apart and boil my bones
I'll not rest 'til she's lost her throne
30+ years on, and Elizabeth is still going strong, however....
"(Song For My) Sugar Spun Sister" is another stops-and-starts, herky-jerky, guitar-pop tune. This one stops and starts about eight times, but it's perfectly arranged and produced, leaving it sounding mellifluous, not awkward. The tune is indelible, and might also lodge itself permanently into your brain (hey, I'm giving you all fair warning again). No band of this era, or most other eras, has written as many great melodies as The Roses did in a two-year period (1987 to 1989, in their case). This song is one of the older on the record, having been written and amateurishly recorded as a demo back in 1986. Leckie sprinkles his fairy-dust on it and it sounds good, although this is one performance where I think Ian could have come up with a better vocal. His voice is a little too lackadaisical here, and often you have to actually struggle to hear him. The song is also played in an awkward key for Brown's voice. By the way, who is this titular sugar spun sister? I've heard different opinions ranging from a love interest to a prostitute (not necessarily mutually exclusive). But it's another dreamy and charming lyric.
"Made Of Stone" was actually the band's first single with John Leckie, released well before the album. It's a highly regarded song, considered a classic of proto-Britpop, if you will. It is a great song, and a good recording... but not a great recording, I think. The anthemic choruses don't jump out of the mix at all, and everything sounds a little too muted. The song itself is certainly a winner, with a memorable guitar + bass intro, and a grand, sweeping chorus about the romantic defiance of the human spirit while walking rain-soaked Manchester streets. I certainly like that aspect of it, but I've never been able to get into the verses, which seem like psycho-babble. It's my opinion that this song is very British-sounding (and not because of the lyrics). I have a feeling that if you play this track to Brits, they'll respond positively, and if you play it to North Americans, they'll be quite underwhelmed. I haven't done the research, but that's my impression.
The next track is slower and funkier: "Shoot You Down". Squire gets to indulge his then-emerging Jimi Hendrix fandom with some real funky and gritty licks. Once again, the song features stops-and-starts to good effect. Brown sings of wanting to shoot someone down (metaphorically, one supposes), and after full stops by the band he very softly chirps: "I'd love to do it and you know you've always had it coming". The most impressive part of this composition, to me, is the change into the bridge, where everything stops (again), and Ian and Reni sing: "I never wanted the love that you showed me...". It's another sharp crescendo moment, which peaks quickly and then segues back into the regular verse, but it's an inspired piece of songwriting. Squire's licks played over the outro (with some very soft backing vocals, if you listen carefully) are just magically perfect. This song seems simple and "light" upon first listen, but it rewards repeated listens and throws up numerous layers of sound.
The Roses save their big, dumb, stadium-rock moment for the penultimate track, "This Is The One". Like "Adored", this song dates back to 1985 when the band recorded it with Martin Hannett. The difference between that rather poor proto-take and this 1989 master with Leckie is remarkable. The band themselves seemed to have been somewhat indifferent to this song, and actually by the time they started working with John Leckie they'd dropped it from their live setlist. I guess Leckie encouraged them to give it a go; maybe he liked it or he heard its stadium potential. Fortunately, his work on the track saves it from what could have been the whiff of cheese and makes it into a grand, stately, epic anthem. Again, Squire's work on both acoustic and electric guitars is superb. Ian Brown's verses are again a bit odd and nonsensical, but lyrically all you really need to know is the "This is the one" refrain (you can't miss it as it's repeated about 100 times). It's nice to hear Reni break out and let rip a bit, too, and the dynamics of he and Squire in full motion at track's end are fantastic. Yet, amazingly, their interplay would easily be bettered by the very last track of this unique album....
"I Am The Resurrection" lasts well over eight minutes, and has two parts: a standard rock/vocal section for three-and-a-half minutes, and then nearly five minutes of an instrumental rock/funk workout. Both parts are simply genius, incredible, amazing... did I mention they're good? The song-proper starts with eight bars of only Reni drumming a simple 4/4 beat, to which Mani's simple, funky bass is added, and then Brown's vocal. The lyric is essentially a wry diss of someone, featuring such memorable lines as:
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 slurs upon my every word
Pretty nasty stuff. Finally, in the choruses, Squire's guitar is added into the mix. This arrangement makes for a unique track on this record. But what makes this tune so exciting is that the driving rhythmic attack of the 4-on-the-floor beat never lets up, and just keeps driving through the entire vocal part of the song. Everything keeps building and building, until you feel a need for a release (does this remind you of anything?). And, after three choruses, there is one. After a dramatic build-up, Brown suddenly shouts out the "I am the resurrection and I am the life" bit a couple of times, with some suitably funky guitar leads in between. At this point, the whole track shuts down for a moment, before Mani's bass and a blistering Squire-guitar lead push it into the instrumental second half. That second half is groovy as hell (thanks to Reni), and it rocks, too! At about the six-and-a-half minute mark, the track quiets down and an acoustic guitar plays the simple bass riff that Mani played back at the start of the song. Squire and Reni then go to town, almost trying to out-do each other with their furious attack on the end of the track. This ending is so dynamic, exciting, and well-recorded that it's just pure musical bliss. You're left drained after listening to it. It's the band's finest-ever moment on record, and one of British rock's greatest.
So, that's The Stone Roses. Some people think the band is kind of a one-album wonder, but that's not really so. Actually, they had a number of essential tracks between 1987 and 1990 that don't appear on this first album (I'll get to most of them in another review, soon), and their second LP is pretty good, too. But there's no doubt that the late-1988 to spring-1989 period captured the band just at the zenith.
Another unique thing about The Stone Roses is that their most dynamic musician and the focus of their live show is their drummer. One thing that John Leckie did, probably by necessity, is to tone-down Reni in the studio. If you hear them live during this period, on bootleg recordings, he's much more dominant, and the more so if you saw the band in the flesh. Dominance by Reni live, and years later by guitarist Squire, tilt the band off its axis somewhat. But for that brief period during which this record was made, they were perfect. They captured the zeitgeist... and invented Britpop (but don't blame them for that).