The Stone Roses may have had a well-earned reputation for partying as hard as the best of them, but while locked away recording the album that would later be named NME’s Greatest British Album of all Time they abided by the eminently sensible credo of not taking any drugs while they were actually in the studio. As Ian Brown told us back in April 1989, when the record was released: “You don’t need drugs to listen to the record.” John Squire added: “As for actually recording, you can’t get it together when you’re smashed out of your face, can you?” They did, however, make a rare exception after finishing work on their fifth track. The band rolled a giant spliff and lay down on the floor of London’s Battery Studios to hear the final version of ‘Don’t Stop’ for the very first time. As they stared at the ceiling and listened to their new song in all its backwards-tracked glory, they knew already they had the makings of a classic album on their hands.
It was the chance they’d been waiting for. Four years after they’d formed, there was a real sense of anticipation about what the band could produce, although they were still seen as outsiders in the Manchester scene because they weren’t on Tony Wilson’s Factory label, home of New Order and owners of the Hacienda nightclub. They called those formative months: “two years in the wilderness and two years in Manchester.”
Photographer Kevin Cummins, who shot all of the city’s greatest bands for NME, remembers the position the group found themselves in: “They were outsiders, and I think the problem was that the Manchester scene was very small, in its own way. Everybody went to the same gigs, and The Roses were slightly apart from that. They pissed everyone off in Manchester by going around spray-painting ‘The Stone Roses’ everywhere on the sides of major buildings and statues. People saw it as vandalism and decided they wouldn’t like this band whoever they were.”
They also had to contend with the fact that they hadn’t exactly been 100% transparent about how many actual songs they’d written. When they signed to Silvertone, a ‘new’ indie label which was actually a division of the terminally uncool Jive records, they’d told everyone they had “thirty or forty songs” in the bag. The truth was they had about eight. Fortunately, they had also had bags of self-confidence and an iron-clad belief that they could knock out the rest in a couple of weeks.
The band’s lack of songs was unbeknown to the record’s producer, John Leckie. Peter Hook had been the first choice to take on the role, but he had to pass as New Order had started work on ‘Technique’. Leckie was chosen in part due to his early experience working on records by the likes of Syd Barrett and John Lennon, which meant he’d learned his tricks of the trade from the likes of George Martin and Phil Spector. This meant a lot to John Squire, who was brought up listening to the Beatles as well as Elvis and Peggy Lee compilations. He told NME’s Simon Williams: “I didn’t hear a bad song until I left home.” Ian Brown was less attached to his musical upbringing, admitting: “I had an uncle who tried to get me into Led Zepellin.” Squire sympathised: “Horrible thing to do to a 10-year-old, isn’t it?”
Rehearsals began at Stockport’s Coconut Grove studios in June 1988 and then quickly stopped again, as Leckie soon realised the band needed to get their act together. He drilled each of them individually and before long they were playing as one. “The Roses’ strong point was that they all wanted to be the front man,” Leckie recalled later. “Somehow we made them into a group.”
Over the week or so the band wrote ‘Bye Bye Badman’, ‘Made of Stone’ and ‘Shoot You Down’ – songs which mixed Byrdsian 60s jangle with the new wave of acid house that was igniting raves the length and breadth of the country. They also reworked ‘I Am the Resurrection’, which had previously been played much faster, basing the new version on the fact that Mani would constantly sit around playing the bassline from The Beatles’ ‘Taxman’. Reni and John Squire would come in and play over the top, and eventually what started as a joke morphed into one of the band’s signature tunes.
With the sessions now going well the band decamped to London, moving into Battery Studios in Willesden. The album was recorded outside of working hours, from seven at night until sometimes as late as seven the next morning. Their living conditions weren’t exactly idyllic either. Mani would later recall: “We were sharing this house with The Bhundu Boys and we’d still be sat up all night doing hot knives while the odd business man would come and go in the morning. Hot knife frenzy. No wonder that LP sounds so mellow and laid-back. We were constantly stoned to fuck. Hot knives and trips were the order of the day.”
That’s not to say they weren’t putting the work in. “It takes effort to sound effortless,” as Ian Brown told us. “Like, it’s hard work not working. Being on the dole takes great endurance ‘cos you have to use your imagination, otherwise you’ll stagnate.”
Somehow, the weird alchemy of the band, the producer and the situation all came together to create gold. Everything they touched turned into a classic. Cultural commentator and former NME writer John Harris was a teenager in Manchester when the album was released. He remembers: “There was a club called DeVilles which had an indie night that I went to most Saturdays. I remember thinking what a big record it was because one night the DJ played every track from it over the course of two hours. He even played ‘Don’t Stop’, which is quite hard to dance to but we gave it a go.”
As well as the fact that every single one of the tracks was groovy enough to pack a dancefloor, there was a real intellectual weight behind the music. “Even on songs that we’ve got that are about a girl, there’s always something there that’s a call to insurrection,” said Brown, quoted in Simon Spence’s biography ‘The Stone Roses: War and Peace’. “People have to tune in, we don’t make it obvious because that would be less exciting for us.”
Sometimes their political statements were subtle, like the lemons on the album sleeve that reference the fact that the student protestors in Paris in 1968 sucked them to counteract the effect of being tear-gassed by the police. Other times, they wore their radical colours on their sleeve, as with scurrilous lyrics like: “Every member of parliament trips on glue”, from ‘(Song For My) Sugar Spun Sister’. As Harris points out: “The second side opens with ‘Elizabeth My Dear’. You weren’t in any doubt where they were coming from. They want to kill the Queen! How much more blunt can you get?”
Harris argues that The Stone Roses managed to find a way of engaging with politics without the hectoring sloganeering of the more overtly political bands of the era. “There’s this cliché around that acid house washed rock music of all its political aspects,” he says. “But Thatcher was still around in ’88, and Manchester hadn’t recovered from what Thatcher had done to it. Although it was more subtle in The Stone Roses’ case, it was in there and it was in their interviews. You instantly understood where they were coming from when they were admiringly referencing Tony Benn. Channel 4 had a season of programmes marking the 20th anniversary of Paris ’68. Quite soon after that out comes this record which, in the shape of ‘Bye Bye Badman’, has a song that references it. That placed them in the context not just of Thatcher and the 80s, but in the lineage of the Sex Pistols and the Sixties counterculture. I’m sure they sparked a lot of interest in Paris ’68.”
Away from politics, the band were less keen to get specific about their subject matter. Squire told us that ‘Made of Stone’ could be about anything we wanted it to be, and was generous enough to give us his own take: “It’s about making a wish and watching it happen, like scoring the winning goal in a cup final… on a Harley Electroglide… dressed as Spiderman.”
He at least gave a clue as to the genesis of ‘I Am The Resurrection’, saying that the Lord himself had literally given them a sign: “That’s to do with church publicity. There was a church in town that had a big yellow dayglo sign up with that line on it.”
Ian Brown was quick to pour scorn on any suggestion that the song might be mocking religion: “No, because I believe in God. There must be some substance to Christ ‘cos the myth has lasted so long, like 2000 years… but it’s convenient ‘cos you don’t have to make your mind up until you get to the gates.”
Mani, typically, sounded less convinced. “Heaven was just created to give us something to look forward to after all this shit,” he added.
While Kevin Cummins remembers that the NME office was “very excited about the record. We got a very early copy and played it to death,” it received only a lukewarm 7/10 review written by Jack Barren. As the months went by, however, the album seemed to grow in stature.
Former Melody Maker writer Simon Reynolds puts this down to the band capturing a prevailing sense of positivity: “Even though the lyrics are quite angry and political, there’s an optimism to the music that seemed to catch the feeling of the year. It was what everyone wanted. The other good music that was around at that time was quite dark and twisted in a fatalistic escapist way, with bands like My Bloody Valentine or Sonic Youth. The Stone Roses were seeing what was happening at warehouse parties in the north so they had another idea. Young people were coming together to create resistance through optimism.”
By November, the band were ready to grace the cover of NME and Kevin Cummins came up with the idea of shooting them as a Jackson Pollock-influenced John Squire painting. “It’s an era defining picture, along with Shaun Ryder on the ‘E’,” says Cummins, who set up both pictures to capture the mood of a country that was falling in love with taking Ecstasy for the first time. “They were two great NME covers. They were full of acid colours, and captured the zeitgeist in terms of the drugs people were taking and so on. It was an explosion, really.”
The photo shoot was suitably anarchic: “John opened a gallon tin of paint and just threw it across the room,” remembers Cummins. “I thought: ‘Jesus, this is going to be such a mess!’ Gradually he built the colours up. I’d ask him to add different colours and he’d get paint on a brush and throw it across them, splattering it. Then he’d paint himself and get into the shot. It was playful that I chose sky blue and white as the base colour, ‘cause he’s a Man United fan and I support Man City. That was my way of getting one over on them really.”
At the end of the year NME named ‘The Stone Roses’ the second best album of 1989, after De La Soul’s ‘3 Feet High And Rising’. The group cleaned up at the NME Awards, taking home Band of the Year, New Band of the Year, LP of the Year and Single of the Year for ‘Fool’s Gold’.
But even at their moment of greatest triumph, there were already cracks beginning to show. The pressure of a band who had been knocking around for four years suddenly being pushed into the stratosphere by their flawless record was almost too much, and their live performances were struggling to keep pace. When NME sent Stuart Maconie to crown them Band of the Year the talk soon turned to whether or not their recent Alexandra Palace show had turned out to be an anti-climax. Their biggest gig to date, on November 18 1989, was branded by Mani: “Crap. It was a disaster.”
Brown was more defensive. “It wasn’t crap. It was under par,” asserted the frontman. “We were struggling all night against the sound. There were a lot of nothing moments but there were a lot of good moments too.”
None of this, neither disappointing live shows nor the prolonged wait for ‘The Second Coming’, could dent the first album they’d cast in stone. Cummins says that even a quarter of a century ago he knew there was something about ‘The Stone Roses’ which meant we’d still be talking about it now. “I think it had that timeless feel and quality to it straight away,” he says. “When that record came out we played it to death and it sounded fresh every time we played it. The fact that they came back and reunited and did those gigs playing those songs and still sounded like a new band is a testament to that.”
Two and a half decades later, The Stone Roses continue to show the way. When the band did reform in 2011, their acolytes queued up to pay tribute. Noel Gallagher told NME: “In the cold light of day what you’re left with is the music, and what it boils down to is that they wrote the greatest songs of the late ‘80s. Without that band there would not have been an Oasis.” Tom from Kasabian added: “I must have only been eight or nine when they made that first album, but it’s a record that’s always been massively important to me.”
The Roses’ attitude lived on too. Ask Alex Turner what the best piece of advice he’s ever been given is and he’ll tell you this story: “We were at the NME Awards, the first time we were there and Ian Brown was presenting us with an award. Afterwards they take you to do a photo shoot. It was us and Ian Brown. He’s got the award and the swagger. We’re doing this photo shoot and the photographer’s like: ‘Oh yeah, Alex, could you just turn to your left?’ Ian Brown looked at me and said: ‘Don’t turn left for no-one.’”
When the author Joseph Heller was asked why he’d never written another book as good as ‘Catch-22’, he quickly pointed out: “Nobody else has, either.” Few would argue that The Stone Roses ever quite reclaimed the peak they’d reached in 1989, but when their debut was as unimpeachably classic as ‘The Stone Roses’ who can blame them? Ian Brown remembers John Leckie approaching him when they’d finished the album and telling him: “This is really good. You’re going to make it.” With typical ten-storey confidence, Brown thought to himself: “I know”. This was the one they, and we, had been waiting for.
Cover story for NME, 26 April 2014.