[11 September 2009]
PopMatters Interviews Editor
Let’s actually ask ourselves the question: when someone makes a “Deluxe Edition” of a classic album, what are we—the listeners—ultimately supposed to get out of it?
Well, what we should be getting is a deeper understanding of a musical milestone, whether it be because of a substantially-enhanced remastering job or a bonus disc filled with B-sides, rarities, and demos from the era that further illustrate the brilliance of the artist/band in question. What we often get, however, is a hack-job cash-in effort on an album that we already own anyways. DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing is one of the greatest albums ever made—no question—but the Sony Legacy Deluxe Edition that came out in 2005 featured little more than a bunch of alternate versions and remixes that did very little to enhance our understanding of the album (much less Shadow!) in question. The very fact that a “classic album” album gets re-released is usually enough to garner a mention of its supposed historical importance in in all the websites, magazines, and media outlets that cover this kind of thing, but rarely do these Deluxe Editions let us actually reexamine the album with a fresh pair of eyes. Too often do we go up to our friend and simply ask “hey man—can you burn me a copy of that bonus disc?” without much regard to what it all means.
So imagine what a genuine surprise it is to hear The Stone Roses: 20th Anniversary Collector’s Edition for the first time. Although available in multiple formats (standard CD, 2CD/1DVD combo, and a “Collector’s Edition” with three CDs, a DVD, and all kind of other bonus ephemera), the “Collector’s Edition” is what we’re talking about here, and for good reason: this is what every album re-release should aspire to be. This is a disc that alters, twists, enhances, and deepens our understanding of the Stone Roses’ debut album—an album that we’ve been listening to incorrectly for the past decade (more on that in a moment).
Yet let’s first establish why the Stone Roses eponymous disc is worthy of reissuing. In the late 1980s, Britain was caught up in a tsunami of synth-drenched New Wave pop, a sensation that rode out through the end of the decade. When the Stone Roses—formed by vocalist Ian Brown and guitarist John Squire from the ashes of their early group English Rose—released their single “Sally Cinnamon” in 1987, the track was virtually ignored by mainstream radio, which was too busy playing monster hits by the likes of Boy George, Starship, the Pet Shop Boys, and Rick Astley. It was only natural that a counterculture movement would emerge in the wake of all this synth fluff, and it was during the late ‘80s that hard dance music slowly established what came to be known as the basis of modern-day rave culture, or—as it was known at the time—“Madchester”.
Though UK rave culture didn’t fully crystalize (at least in a musical sense) until the release of Primal Scream’s 1991 masterpiece Screamadelica, late ‘80s acid house groups like the Happy Mondays were certainly making their mark, yet no group’s influence would prove as lasting as the Stone Roses. It always seemed like drummer Reni (born Alan Wren) was having a joke played on him, as here was a kid with a thing for jungle hats and a serious knack for creating blistering, club-ready dance beats on a standard rock drum kit, all while the band played heavily psychedelic, ‘60s-indebted Britrock all around him. In many ways, the Stone Roses’ weren’t doing anything new, but what they were doing—blending dance music with classic popsike rock experiments—sure as hell felt revolutionary during a time when just about every major pop and rock album suffered from that “‘80s studio effect”, where every drum hit and guitar lick sounded overproduced and tinny.
Though the Roses’ eponymous 1989 debut wound up becoming an amazingly popular album at the time, it wasn’t until years later that we really got to see what the Roses had accomplished: they sowed the seeds for what ultimately became known as Britpop, a movement of music and culture that gave the UK a renewed sense of nationalism, with artists and bands making songs that weren’t just made in Britain, but were about Britain. Bollocks to those who didn’t know what being “on the dole” meant: this new wave of fresh musical blood embraced their musical heritage, and through these bands (lead by the Britpop Godhead made up of Blur, Oasis, and Pulp), Britpop ultimately defined a majority of England’s musical output for the rest of the decade.
Though a majority of us have “discovered” the Stone Roses well after the fact, the thing we never realized is that we had been finding out about them in the wrong way. The US CD version of the Roses’ debut (released in December of 1989) was notably different from the UK release, as it added two additional tracks that wound up becoming huge non-album singles for the band in their homeland. The ridiculously upbeat “Elephant’s Stone” was dropped right in the middle of the US album’s lineup, and the nearly 10-minute dance masterpiece “Fool’s Gold” was tacked on at the end just for good measure. Though there’s nothing inherently wrong with these additions themselves (especially considering that they’re two of the band’s crowning achievements), US audiences have been lead to believe that this is the way the album was constructed, a belief that lasted for nearly two decades without anyone making any sort of correction (because, really, why would anyone even bother to point it out?).
So imagine, if you will, hearing the Roses’ eponymous LP with those songs completely removed. Then, imagine every single song on that album remastered in such a way that you wind up listening to the album with fresh ears, almost as if hearing it for the very first time. This, my friends, is why the Collector’s Edition of the Stone Roses’ debut is nothing short of required listening.
The set opens with “I Wanna Be Adored”, a track that—when coupled with the closing number “I Am the Resurrection”—is often used to highlight the projected ego of Ian Brown, who seemingly made no lyrical bones about his desire to become intensely famous (the only actual lyric to “I Wanna Be Adored”—aside from a repetition of the title—is “I don’t have to sell my soul / He’s already in me”). On the original 1989 CD version, the track’s quietly menacing bassline seemed to just fade in from the ether, almost as if we the listener are walking in on a session already in progress. On the remastered version featured here, we get so much more of the story: the bassline is, in fact, buried in an indistinct wave of radio static—something that you can barely hear in the ‘89 version but can’t miss here. Instead of walking in on the song, we can gradually hear the bass and guitar come in at different points, followed by the drums (instead of all the elements being played at once), almost as if the band is constructing the song around us, piece by piece. The end result makes it sound more lively and far more exciting the ‘89 version that we’re all familiar with.
A listen through the ‘89 version of the LP brings us to another strange revelation: it sounds as if the whole album was engineered almost to be “normalized”—where the bass, guitar, drums, and vocals are all at the same volume level, muffling a lot of the energy and color and that was so much a part of the band’s interplay. The remastered version fixes this: everything has its own place in the mix, and suddenly we can hear Brown’s voice slightly reverberated and isolated from his bandmates, a simple trick that gives the vocals a bit more of an impact. Reni’s drums gain more punch, Squire’s guitars gain a helluva lot more texture, and so on. What this remarkable remaster job does is ultimately give this album a big kick that it was lacking in its original ‘89 incarnation. That three-note piano coda that comes in at the end of the first verse on “Bye Bye Badman”? It glistens now, instead of sounding grainy like it did before. The sweet interplay between Reni and Mani (the bassist) at the start of the disarmingly sweet faux-ballad “Shoot You Down” now sounds like the work of two musicians feeling out a groove together, instead of coming off like both parts were mixed on the same track, making the ‘89 version sound positively flat in comparison. Truthfully, we could go and make comparisons between these two versions all day long, but the result is the same: this remastered version of the disc makes these Roses sound fresher than they’ve ever been.
What’s even more amazing is how much tighter the album gets by excising “Elephant Stone”. Before, the upbeat charmer “She Bangs the Drums” fades right into the squiggly, psyched-out “Elephant Stone”, which really forced too many of the group’s pure pop numbers up front, making the album seem more bubbly than it actually is. Now, “She Bangs the Drums” fades right into the mid-tempo guitar number “Waterfall”, and—lo and behold!—the album’s flow suddenly makes sense. We now realize how immaculately sequenced the original LP was, the band showcasing their rock (“Adored”), pop (“Drums”), and love song instincts (“Waterfall”) within the first three tracks, flexing a lot of musical muscle in a very short amount of time. “Elephant’s Stone” threw off that delicate balance, and now that things have been restored, the disc has never sounded tighter.
Unfortunately, this leads us into the biggest problem with this whole re-release. Though the “Collector’s Edition” is undoubtedly the way to go on enjoying all these exciting revelations, not everyone is going to be willing to plop down $120 to get this four-disc behemoth. Some may settle for the 2CD/1DVD version that’s getting released at the same time, but you’re not getting the same thing. The 2CD/1DVD version (and the single-disc re-release that’s coming out as well) both add on “Fool’s Gold” to the end of the original album, which is an erroneous move for multiple reasons. In short, The Stone Roses should end in the way it was always meant to end: on “I Am the Resurrection”, a funky dance number that evolves into a psych-rock guitar explosion that touches on everything from traditional folk-rock to Who-styled power chord excursions all over the course of its delightfully overstuffed eight minutes. By adding on the even more club-oriented “Fool’s Gold” at the end (which itself is nearly 10 minutes long), we not only A> end the album on a completely different tone, but also B> wind up devaluing “Fool’s Gold”, one of the Roses’ best singles. It isn’t rocket science: by placing two extremely up-tempo dance tracks right next to each other, the intended effect is somewhat dampened, as they cancel each other out somewhat. Simply put, the climax of “Resurrection” just isn’t as stunning, and “Fool’s Gold” isn’t as funky by contrast.
“Fool’s Gold” was meant to be a standalone track: it was constructed to be a pocket dance odyssey, not an alternate ending to the foundation of all of Britpop. Hell, if we’re putting “Fool’s Gold” back in the running, why not toss in “Elephant’s Stone” as well, and make the whole thing exactly like the 1989 version all over again?
Which leads us to yet another confusing extra: the various bonus discs. The Lost Demos is one of the “gets” to this compilation, and listening to it is nothing short of fascinating. On “I Wanna Be Adored” alone, John Squire sounds positively amateurish—frequently missing notes, showcasing positively none of the flash or flourish that would ultimately become his trademark, and seeming tentative (afraid, even) to do anything “too wild” with his solos. Contrast that to the way he plays on the Blackpool Live DVD included here, and you’d be hard-pressed to claim it’s the same person in both places. During the Blackpool performance (shot entirely in black and white), Squire plays with an effortless cool, never really looking up at the audience (or cameras) while casually showcasing his virtuoso guitar chops. Brown—whose reedy voice never really seemed like it would hold its own in a live context—also proves why he had reason to believe his own hype: the man could still draw out an impressive howl just when you least expected it (and his spastic between-lines dancing proves to be a visual spectacle within itself).
If anything, the Lost Demos show just how far the band came in a relatively scant few years, and further show that a lot of what made The Stone Roses so special in the first place wasn’t made by accident. Producer John Leckie heard what the boys were doing, but decided to up the stakes considerably and made things sound a lot more dramatic, playing down Mani’s bass just a bit in the mix (it comes thudding through in a couple of the demo recordings) and giving Squire and Brown just the perfect amount of reverb, forcing both of them to sound a bit “important” but ultimately proving that such a gamble was well played: that little bit of drama gave the songs a bit more spark. Leckie also made some great judgment calls by killing the double-time drum beat that comes through on the “I Wanna Be Adored” demo, adding in the guitar arpeggios that decorate the start of “Bye Bye Badman”, and toning down Reni’s drums considerably on “Shoot You Down” (it certainly doesn’t help that on the demo recording, Squire’s guitar sounds positively pedestrian compared to the album version). Again, The Lost Demos wind up giving us a huge amount of insight into what ultimately made The Stone Roses what it is: a carefully constructed tour through Britian’s rock history that was made through a lot of painstaking labor and tough calls on the artistic front; this wasn’t just something that the guys “stumbled upon” by any means.
If you’re buying the 2CD/1DVD version, then you get the remastered album, the Blackpool Live DVD (which also features a bunch of horribly uninteresting music videos from the era), and The Lost Demos. Though there’s nothing inherently wrong with including The Lost Demos, the decision to include this doesn’t really make a whole lot of sense, as the third CD on the “Collector’s Edition”—simply titled Extras—winds up having far greater entertainment value. On it, there are collected non-album singles (“Elephant’s Stone”, “Fool’s Gold”, “One Love”), B-sides (the fantastic “What the World is Waiting For”, featuring a drum beat that Blur totally ripped off for their single “There’s No Other Way”), and various other assorted rarities (“Guernica”, “Mersey Paradise”, etc.). The 12” mix of “Elephant Stone” positively destroys any memory of the original album version, downplaying Squire’s psychedelic guitar excursions in favor of a far more dance-oriented vibe that allows Reni to show off his considerable skills, the triple hit coda during the final stretch sounding positively booming here. Though the highlights come quick and heavy (“One Love” ranks just below “Fool’s Gold” in terms of quality non-album singles, and “Going Down” introduces the slightest bit of twang into the band’s sound), there are also a few backwards-tape experiments (“Guernica”, “Full Fathom Five”, “Simone”) that are worth listening to maybe once but not much else beyond that.
Though it would’ve made more logistical sense to include Extras instead of The Lost Demos on the 2CD/1DVD version of the Stone Roses’ 20th Anniversary re-release of their unquestioned masterpiece, such qualms are relatively minor in the long run. The bottom line is simply this: the Stone Roses eponymous debut has always been considered one of the greatest albums ever made, but only through this 20th Anniversary re-master do we actually get to feel its intended power. There has never been a better time to reacquaint yourself with this milestone, because even if you already know it front to back, this Collector’s Edition makes you reconsider the disc in exciting new ways. In short, this is the new standard that any Deluxe Edition album should be held to from this point onward. How many re-releases can you truly say that about?