Call for Feature Essays About Any Aspect of Popular Culture, Present or Past

Counterbalance No. 55: 'The Stone Roses'

Bookmark and Share
Friday, Oct 21, 2011
I hear my needle hit the groove and spiral through another day -- only this time, we're listening to the 55th most acclaimed album of all time. The Stone Roses on Counterbalance -- this is the one.
cover art

The Stone Roses

The Stone Roses

(Silvertone; US: 25 Jul 1989; UK: Apr 1989)

Klinger: “The Greatest British Album Ever.” That’s what the New Musical Express famously called the Stone Roses’ debut LP in 2006. Let’s let that sink in for a moment.

The Greatest British Album Ever. This from a nation that has produced the Beatles, the Stones, Led Zeppelin, David Bowie, the Clash, and Showaddywaddy. Mendelsohn, I am puzzled. Does the British critical community undergo periodic memory wipes?

I mean, let me state clearly—this is a pretty good record. Not being British (nor the kind of American who tries to work “bloody” into casual conversation), I have had only a vague awareness of the Stone Roses over the past 22 years. It turns out they’re not the group with Bez. But now, after really forcing myself to settle in with this album, I can say that it’s a well-crafted mix of psychedelia, pop, and I guess elements of dance (Mani and Reni are a solid rhythm section, but I wouldn’t exactly hail them as the Rodgers and Edwards of the 1980s). Well-developed melodies, some fine instrumental craftsmanship, and lyrics that don’t embarrass anyone. But am I missing something here, Mendelsohn?
Mendelsohn: It’s times like these where I really wish one of us was British just to make the other one feel like a stupid Yankee wanker for not knowing why the Stone Roses are the most important British band I’ve never heard of. If you were wondering, in this scenario, I’d be playing the part of the stupid Yankee wanker. I think, at the very least, we should seek out some sort of British music expert because I’m just as confused as you are. Well, more confused than normal.

As much as I like this album, I have a hard time reconciling its placement, especially since I find most of the album to be sort of a letdown after one of the best opening tracks I’ve heard in a long time. If the Stone Roses had found a way to duplicate the sonic beauty that is “I Wanna Be Adored” throughout the entirety of the album, I could see a reason for the high praise. As it is, I think this album is only here because of the influence it would have on the British indie rock scene that followed in the 1990s.

Klinger: I’m sure British music experts will be more than happy to chime in [I’m always up for talking your ears off about this subject, guys, as long as I can go on about how awesome Ride’s early material is—Ed.]. But for the time being we’ll just have to rely on hearsay and conjecture (which are kinds of evidence). Actually, come to think of it, it might be helpful to take a look at the numbers.

As we’ve suggested before, the late 1980s and earliest part of the ‘90s were, to put it mildly, a fallow time for popular music, and the Great List bears that out. Critically successful albums generally failed to light up the charts, and hit albums tended to make critics vomit all over their pit-stained Sonic Youth t-shirts. Only a handful of albums released between 1988 and 1991 make it into in the upper reaches of the Great List, and you’d be hard-pressed to call them massive hits. De La Soul’s 3 Feet High and Rising was about the biggest hit. Public Enemy’s Nation of Millions charted at #42 in the US and #8 in the UK, the Pixies’ Doolittle also hit #8 in the UK but only #98 in the US—meanwhile, no albums from 1990 make it into Acclaimed Music’s top 100. By my reckoning, only Nirvana’s Nevermind was an unqualified hit on both sides of the Atlantic, and after 1991 the “alternative revolution” brought the critical and commercial worlds together again, however briefly.

Which brings us back to the Stone Roses and The Stone Roses. It seems to me that in an era where Alannah Myles and Milli Vanilli can roam the streets with impunity, some people are going to get pretty hungry for a movement they can call their own. The Madchester scene appears to have filled the bill in the UK, and as young people flocked to it, the Stone Roses became the standard bearers. Now those 20-year-olds are the middle-aged farts who run the media. Do you think they’ll they miss out on an opportunity to mythologize (and commodify) their youth? Not bloody likely.

Mendelsohn: So, you’re effectively laying this at the feet of a bunch of middle-aged British wankers who are trying to force this record upon a new generation? I’m fine with that. For a minute there I was a afraid you were going to tell me that this record was worth the critical acclaim because it inspired a bunch of kids to use illicit substances, listen to rock music, and call themselves a movement. Not that those kinds of activities are entirely without merit—and compared to Ms. Myles and Mr. Vanilli, the Stone Roses were the closest thing to the second coming of the Beatles (at least until Oasis hit the scene). However, in the big picture, The Stone Roses is just another middling British rock/pop album with lots of pretty melodies but with nothing especially exciting to set it apart from what came before (The Smiths) or what would follow (Oasis).

I like “I Wanna Be Adored” and I’m bored by the rest of it. I perk up a bit on “Shoot You Down”—it has a nice groove—and “I Am the Resurrection” has some great shades of ‘60s rock, but that’s about it.

The entirety of the album reminds me of every other British alt-rock band that has released an album after 1990—Oasis, Blur, Radiohead, Supergrass, the Verve, Stereophonics, Coldplay. Feel free to fill in any blanks I’ve missed.

Klinger: That could take a while, so let’s just say I can see where this fits into the big tapestry of British pop music. The Stone Roses do throw a few more elements of dance into the overall mix than most of the groups, but there’s a through-line here that gives the album a sound that’s curiously evocative of, uh, old Blighty. Maybe it’s John Leckie’s gauzy, pastoral production, or guitarist John Squier’s clean, tasteful leads. Maybe it’s lead singer Ian Brown’s tendency to stay within a comfortable vocal range (if he ever raises his voice on this album, I can’t recall it).

Of course, maybe it’s just this level of restraint that has ensured The Stone Roses’ place in the canon while other Madchester groups have fallen by the wayside. Amped-up Day-Glo excesses are going to cost you some gravitas points in the long run, and it seems that the Stone Roses deftly avoided that trap with this album, except perhaps in the inclusion of “Don’t Stop”, which fairly screams spliff-induced self-indulgence. It’s one thing to create a new track based around playing “Waterfall” backwards—it’s quite another to include that crazy backwards song immediately after the frontwards version. Expecting us to listen to the same song twice like that seems design to test our patience.

Mendelsohn: If both songs were better I might even call it genius. Writing a song that sounds just as good backwards as it does forwards probably isn’t as easy as it sounds.

Here’s the million dollar question. Will this album still be hanging around the top 50 over the next decade or two or will it fall substantially as the Madchester movement slowly fades from memory?

Klinger: I’m still not entirely sure I understand exactly why, but I have little doubt that this album is going to be hovering around the top 100 somewhere for the foreseeable future. After all, the Stone Roses were sort of a brand apart from the rest of their Manc brethren—they were the Beatles to Inspiral Carpets’ Gerry and the Pacemakers, if you will. Plus this is an album that charted higher in UK when it was reissued in 2004 and 2009 than it did when it was first released in 1989.

It’s an album that is maintaining a legacy of its own, and ultimately I have to concede that it all comes down to the overall strength of the songs. Personally I think that “Bye Bye Badman” is pretty darn catchy and somehow evocative of the hazy days of the spirit of ’66.

Of course I may be feeling a little more lenient toward the marshmallow confection that is The Stone Roses after the long, hard slog that was last week’s Counterbalance—but I digress. Mendelsohn, what do you think—is this album one for the ages?

Mendelsohn: I don’t think I’m qualified to answer that seeing as how I’m just a stupid Yankee wanker. I may kid about that, but this is one if those albums where I think the music and the cultural relevance go hand-in-hand. Either one by itself is kind of forgettable, but when you place the Stone Roses in the context of the larger scene you do get something much more than just an album. But without a personal connection to either the music or the scene, I have a hard time forging a strong enough bond. Nevertheless, so long as this record can still turn the crank on the nostalgia machine, and it’s just good enough to do that, I could see it continuing to have an impact much further down the road than I’d care to admit.

Klinger: And now that the Stone Roses have just announced that they’ll be embarking on a cash-grab tour of their own, the nostalgia machine has been kicked into maximum overdrive. Will this be a Pixies-style victory lap that reinforces their image as cultural icons or a Sex Pistols-ish Filthy Lucre slog that suggests a group whose members have run out of ideas? Only time will tell, Mendelsohn…

Tagged as: madchester | stone roses
Related Articles
12 May 2013
The story of the biggest British band to never make it in America gets a thorough, honest, and fair recounting.
By Simon Spence
1 Apr 2013
Going beyond the myths to depict a band that defined Britpop, Simon Spence illustrates the Stone Roses’ incandescent talent and jaw-dropping success while contextualizing them in the ‘90s music scene.
9 Jul 2012
This unofficial but revealing reunion documentary seeks out the truth about this year's biggest reunion.
21 Nov 2011
Isn't this recently-reformed rock group the same band that, apparently, just lied to its disciples about the possibility of a reunion?
Now on PopMatters
PM Picks

© 1999-2014 All rights reserved.™ and PopMatters™ are trademarks
of PopMatters Media, Inc.

PopMatters is wholly independently owned and operated.