In the second installment of The Mic's new fortnightly series, editor Daisy Carter delves into the context and content of Manchester group The Stone Roses' debut album.
May 1989: Thatcher’s time in office was almost up, The Berlin Wall would fall within months, and an underground scene of rave culture was thriving in the UK thanks to the proliferation of a new drug, ecstasy. Among all of this, four lads from Manchester released their eponymous debut record, The Stone Roses, which was – unbeknownst to them – to alter the landscape of British music for the next decade, and arguably beyond.
Formed in 1983, The Stone Roses had already acquired a bit of a cult following by the time the album was released thanks to their preceding singles, Elephant Stone (produced by Peter Hook of Joy Division and New Order) and Made of Stone. With the album, though, they assuredly cemented their place as key figures in the Madchester and baggy scenes alongside the likes of Happy Mondays and The Charlatans. Released on Silvertone Records by producer John Leckie, The Stone Roses fused the psychedelic jangle-pop of the 60s and 80s dance music in a subversive lovechild of the two genres; while it wasn’t immediately perceived as a classic, the band’s debut appearance on Top of The Pops in November 1989 increased the record’s exposure, and large amounts of critical attention in subsequent years has seen it frequently ranking high in music publications’ ‘Greatest Albums of All Time’ lists.
'There’s a fine line between confidence and arrogance and The Stone Roses certainly trod it, under no illusion that they were anything less than a game-changing band'.
Made up of Ian Brown (frontperson), John Squire (guitarist), Gary ‘Mani’ Mounfield (bass) and Alan ‘Reni’ Wren (drums, backing vocals), The Stone Roses are perhaps most famous for their debut’s opening and closing tracks, I Wanna Be Adored and I Am The Resurrection respectively. As is crucial for an opener, the former sets a bold precedent for the rest of the album; the creeping, building tension of the intro’s bassline contrasts with Squire’s more twinkly guitar before Brown eventually delivers the opening line, nearly 2 minutes into the song – ‘I don’t have to sell my soul, he’s already in me’. Referencing the Faustian notion that making a pact with Satan is to sell your soul, the gravity of the line seems at odds with Brown’s dispassionate, arrogant drawl – a precursor to the performance styles of Jarvis Cocker or Liam Gallagher. While Brown allegedly told Clash magazine that the lyrics were intended to paint the desire for adoration as a deadly sin akin to lust or gluttony, they’re commonly interpreted as somewhat of a mission statement to the world; there’s a fine line between confidence and arrogance and The Stone Roses certainly trod it, under no illusion that they were anything less than a game-changing band.
The now-famous, Jackson Pollack inspired cover art was painted by Squire himself and, mirroring a track on the album, is entitled Bye Bye Bad Man. Both cover and song make reference to the May 1968 riots in Paris, during which protesters used lemons as an antidote to the tear gas used on them by authorities. Since then, the lemon has become an iconic marker of The Stone Roses, adorning posters, stickers and bucket hats alike.
Somewhat experimentally, there’s a large disparity between the lengths of tracks on the album. 53 second long anti-royalist ballad Elizabeth My Dear is set to the melody of the traditional English song Scarborough Fair and takes aim at the Queen with lyrics such as ‘I’ll not rest till she’s lost her throne’, while I Am The Resurrection clocks in at over 8 minutes. Nevertheless, what creates a sense of cohesion between them is Squire’s jangly, psychedelic playing – reminiscent of the frantic guitar lines of The Byrds’ Eight Miles High – and the cynical wit of Brown’s lyricism. This overall tone of hopefulness and youthful arrogance runs throughout She Bangs The Drums (‘the past was yours but the future’s mine, you’re all out of time’) and Waterfall (‘Now you’re at the wheel/ tell me how, how does it feel?’) before culminating in what can be seen as a final triumphant dismissal of the band’s detractors in I Am The Resurrection: ‘You’re a no one nowhere washed up baby/ Who’d look better dead’.
'Spike Island was a demonstration of the immense potential of a musical movement to utterly capture the hearts of a generation'.
Indeed, any early critics who wrote The Stone Roses off as another vanity project destined to be consigned to indie-rock landfill were proved wrong in spectacular fashion by the band’s notorious Spike Island gig in May 1990, which 27,000 fans attended in a unique moment of unification between the bucket hat-wearing, acid-house ravers and the indie-rock musos of early 90s youth culture. Often considered to be the pinnacle of The Stone Roses’ career, Spike Island was a demonstration of the immense potential of a musical movement to utterly capture the hearts of a generation, just as Oasis and Blur would do with Britpop in the years to come.
Due to a combination of factors, The Stone Roses’ second album was repeatedly delayed and eventually came out in 1994 – Second Coming was perceived by many to be something of an anti-climax and the band dissolved only a couple of years later. Nevertheless, this unfulfillment of potential couldn’t take away from the chord their debut had struck with so many, succinctly capturing the essence of youth culture of the late 80s and sparking the imaginations of the major players in the 90s Britpop scene, almost single-handedly building a template for the next decade’s musical landscape.