Review by Neil O’Sullivan
The Stone Roses: War and Peace, by Simon Spence, Viking RRP£20, 352 pages
The Stone Roses’ decision to reform late last year shocked their fans. Guitarist John Squire, seemingly content with his second act as a visual artist, had only recently produced a work bearing the inscription: “I have no desire to desecrate the grave of seminal Manchester pop group the Stone Roses.” This echoed the view of Ian Brown, the band’s singer and Squire’s estranged songwriting partner. “I don’t see how we could create what we had. It would spoil everything by trying.”
Prior to their announcement, the Stone Roses’ last meaningful action had been to split up in 1996. Yet the fourpiece – completed by drummer Reni and bass player Mani – remains probably Britain’s most influential of the past 25 years. They released two albums, only one of which, the eponymous psychedelia-tinged 1989 debut that came to define the “Madchester” scene, is really responsible for their musical legacy. The 225,000 tickets for their reunion shows in Manchester next weekend sold out in hours. Few rock bands have done so little and come to mean so much.
Journalist Simon Spence explores this curious tale in depth and style, steering clear for the most part of the florid excesses that mar many rock histories. Through scores of interviews, he offers fresh insights into the grandiose vision of schoolmates Squire and Brown and reveals their pragmatic, sometimes ruthless approach. The pair’s decision to take credit for the songwriting was resented by the rest of the group.
He also details how the band worked hard to create an aura of greatness, even as an initially hostile music press wrote them off. The formula was far from original. Anarchic punk-inspired stunts – such as spray-painting large areas of Manchester with the band’s name – were coupled with studiedly arrogant proclamations of impending world domination (usually from the swaggering Brown). But it undoubtedly contributed to the mystique that set the band apart from more straightforwardly hedonistic contemporaries such as the Happy Mondays.
Once the band found their groove, most notably on the trance-making single “Fools Gold”, they began to justify even their own inflated publicity. As the 1980s turned into the 1990s they led a brief love-in between rock and dance culture and marked their brief period at the summit with a fraught and typically unorthodox rave-style gig on a man-made island in Widnes, Cheshire. Spence, who reported on the event for the Face magazine, evocatively reprises what would become the ecstasy generation’s version of Woodstock.
The band’s demise is the most puzzling part of the story. A period in court trying to extricate themselves from what Spence describes as “one of the worst recording contracts in history” was followed by a $20m deal with the US major label Geffen and four years working on (or for much of that time, not working on) their second album. The group bought houses, settled down and started families but grew apart from each other. Reconvening to make music, they discovered Led Zeppelin (with the exception of Brown, who believed they should pursue a funkier sound). Drugs were taken, rows took place, and lots and lots of guitar tracks were laid down, but in narrative terms this sense of extended ennui is a challenge even Spence’s inventiveness cannot wholly overcome.
News of the Roses’ reformation was a mixed blessing for the author, who started writing this book as a collaboration with drummer Reni in 2010 before others in the newly reunited band vetoed the idea of any such project being “authorised”.
Greater access to the group might have helped illuminate the gloom surrounding their break-up. Were they – and Squire in particular – paralysed by the fear of making a less than perfect record? Why, when they were on the brink of achieving what they set out to, did they seem to lose conviction? The next chapter is about to be written – will the Stone Roses legend survive their own second coming? In the meantime, this is a rich and rewarding record of the story so far.
Neil O’Sullivan is deputy editor of FT Life & Arts
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2012.