Departure lounge ramblings on music, places, climate change and stuff outdoors

The Stone Roses: War and Peace

Being a creature of habit, every year on our summer holiday I read a biography of a favourite band. It tends to drive my partner mad, because serial playing of their entire back catalogue inevitably accompanies the historical investigation. This year, I’m pleased to say, my reading material was not a source of conflict, because while Simon Spence’s The Stone Roses: War and Peace was an engrossing read, the band only knocked out two albums, the first of which was of such sublime, epoch-defining quality that I suspect it is what the ‘Repeat All’ button was invented for.

I’m not sure why it has taken me so long to read a Stone Roses biography. They were unequivocally my favourite band during my student days and I doubt I have gone longer than a couple of weeks without listening to their music in any year since 1989. I can vividly remember leaving my mates playing Risk to the sound of ‘I Wanna Be Adored’ on my last night in Burton before leaving for university, and being immeasurably pleased and relieved to hear ‘I Am The Resurrection’ blaring out as I arrived in my new student caravan (another story).

We had to wait another five years for a follow-up album and while ‘Second Coming’ hasn’t stood the test of time, we played nothing else for weeks in my post-student flat when it came out. I even gave in to apparent progress and made the switch from vinyl to cd to purchase it (a mistake I corrected in the new millennium).

‘War and Peace’ brings it all back, particularly the surprise and inspiration that came with the Stone Roses and the sense that they were the instigators, or at least the portents, of significant change. Capturing this feeling, Spence quotes a euphoric 1989 Bob Stanley review in the Melody Maker, in which he referred to the band as ‘four teenage Jesus Christs’.

Spence also neatly details the formation of the band, which had a chance of success from with Ian Brown’s charisma, and John Squire’s idiosyncratic guitar playing alone, but was transformed into greatness by the addition of Reni on drums (the focus of most early live-show praise), and Mani on bass and enthusiasm. Along the way we also learn of the incomprehensible decision of orginal member, Simon Wolstencroft, to leave the band, which would be the stuff of future nightmares on its own, but this came just a couple of years after he had declined to join The Smiths because he didn’t like Morrissey’s voice. Ouch.

This, like many of the book’s anecdotes was news to me, and reading ‘War and Peace’ has made me wonder if I would have liked The Stone Roses even more if I’d known more about them at their peak. The band’s progressive politics, for example, always shone through their songs, but I hadn’t realised just how deep-rooted is lead-singer, Ian Brown’s, socialism and anti-racism, including as a teenager having blagged his way into a Labour Party conference to hear Tony Benn.

What is certainly only fully possible with the benefit of hindsight is the biographer’s ability to shine a light on some of the Stone Roses more exasperating characteristics, not least their unsurpassable ineptitude in business. Indeed, an entire book could be devoted to this subject, if only as a guide of what not to do for up-and-coming bands. Most notable was the band’s decision to appoint Gareth Evans as their manager because they wanted someone who would be as much of story as the band itself, despite the absence of any relevant experience on his CV, outside of running a nightclub.

Evans certainly turned out to be a character, but sadly that included taking an extortionate 33 per cent of gross profit, deliberately neglecting the official merchandising operation so that it would leave a bigger market for the more profitable unofficial merchandising sideline that he also ran, and advising the band to sign a record deal so bad that its only redeeming feature was that a judge later ruled it to be illegal.

While such episodes get a decent investigative treatment, Spence deals with the some of the positive sides of the Stone Roses story in a curiously cursory way. For example, the following passage is typical of the attention given to the band’s greatest moments of creativity: “To add to the list of classic songs they had already written they added ‘Waterfall’, ‘Going Down’, ‘Mersey Paradise’, and ‘Elephant Stone’. Full stop.

The reason for this mismatch is likely to lie in the fact that Spence appears to have interviewed almost everyone who has ever known any member of the band, but not the band themselves. Reni had, apparently, authorised the book without telling his bandmates, who imposed a purdah when they found out.

It’s a shame, but actually War and Peace’ provides enough insight into the central question for any fan of the Stone Roses, at least if taken alongside Shane Meadows’ wonderful cinematic hagiography ‘Made of Stone‘. That is: how could a band of such immense talent and devoted following manage to produce only one brilliant album and a clutch of extraordinary singles, before fading out prematurely?

The answer appears to be that, as is so often the case, the Stone Roses’ greatest strength has also been their greatest weakness. They are a real band, far greater as unit than the sum of their talented parts, built around the cornerstone of an almost telepathic musical relationship between singer and lead guitarist, and buttressed by probably the era’s greatest drummer and most influential bass player. Equally importantly, for most of their time as a band they saw each other not as colleagues, but as brothers. When fame, fortune and chemical excess temporarily destroyed their friendship, the band simply could not function.

Famously their record label failed to see the writing on the wall, pouring $4m into the interminable recording sessions that finally produced the coke-addled ‘Second Coming’. Spence includes a lovely section where a head-in-the-sand Geffen boss is called over for a crisis meeting at their north Wales recording studio, but dismisses the breakdown between band members as irrelevant compared to the rancour in the label’s biggest sellers, Guns ‘n’ Roses. A year and a handful of disastrous shows later the Stone Roses were no more.

Perhaps strangely, given the euphoria it provoked, Spence devotes little attention to the Roses’ 2012 reunion. It’s no matter, as most people who read this book will, like me, have been to one of the glorious Heaton Park, or other gigs of the last few years, or will have enjoyed Shane Meadows life-affirming film (as I am about to do again right now), where they will have witnessed that the Stone Roses are a band of brothers yet again.

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