Context is important. Back in the late 1980s, the British Top 40 read like a list of people you’d like to smack about the head. Those not riding the dayglo pop train were left to ponder in the shadows and lament the demise of the Smiths. Something had to change. Something had to come soon.
As the decade of Yuppies, Yahoos, and greed snorted it’s final lines, acid house rose from the underground and infiltrated the mainstream with smiley faces and thunderous beats but with it, the guitar bands began to cast off the long overcoats. From the Northwest a hurricane blew in, and at the eye of the storm were the Happy Mondays and the Stone Roses. In May 1989, the Stone Roses released their self-titled debut album and nothing would ever be the same.
It’s at this point I have to ask you something. Do you own the Stone Roses’ first album? If you do, then fine—the following will merely confirm what you already know; but if you don’t, then reading on will just be just another way of wasting further minutes of your life. Go now and buy it. I don’t know what it will cost you down you local record shop, but its value is more than the price label says and thank the Lord that albums are not priced like pieces of art, or you’d never be able to own a copy.
It’s nice to have you on board.
Those who like to pigeonhole would no doubt stick an indie label on this and scribble “melodic guitar rock with psychedelic ‘60s overtones” somewhere in the margins. Although technically they would be right, it is worth remembering that you would technically be right if you described the Sistine Chapel Ceiling as “a big religious painting.”
The Stone Roses is an album where everything was on the money. From the opening rumblings of “I Wanna Be Adored”, it was a declaration of intent from four men who knew they were better than what had gone before them and knew they had created something special—it was just a matter of time before everyone else caught up.
Through John Squire’s guitar was a noise that lifted whoever heard it, like the Pye-eyed Piper of Manchester, it became something to believe in and a sound worthy of devotion. There was no need for the gratuitous fret-wanking of other guitar heroes because this wasn’t an album led by one person. The total was always greater than the sum of their parts.
The bass of Gary “Mani” Mounfield is one of the best examples of how bass guitar can bring an album forward and it became the bread to Squires’ butter. Behind them, the drumming of Reni was again the epitome of a musician who pulled an astonishing sound from his instrument without resorting to the “look at me” haven of solos. Singer Ian Brown later said, “I may not be able to sing like Lennon but when these guys get together it’s something special.”
Sure, Brown’s voice was not Lennon’s and you certainly won’t find octave-spanning vocal acrobatics here. His hushed tones and Mancunian drawl sound as cool as anything you’ll hear though. Lyrically, his self-belief borders on arrogance and narcissism and the themes here are tinged with bitterness.
The religious imagery that underpins the album is not one of devotion to a God, but one that would attain God-like devotion—“I am the resurrection and I am the light.” In the late ‘80s/early ‘90s, they were. “Elizabeth My Dear” hijacks the traditional Scarborough Fair and raises it to an anti-royal statement. “Tear me apart and boil my bones / I’ll not rest ‘till she’s lost her throne / My aim is true, my message is clear / It’s curtains for you Elizabeth my dear”. It ends with a silenced pistol shot. The Roses could be political without resorting to tired leftie rabble-rousing. “Bye Bye Badman” is about the student riots in Paris during the ‘60s and the “citrus sucking sunshine” is a reference to the students who carried lemons in the belief that sucking on them would help nullify the effects of tear gas. Their symbolism would be a constant reference with the Stone Roses and they were our gang fighting the good fight on our behalf but with blissful music. They once claimed the name “The Stone Roses” came from the contrast of hard and soft like their beautiful music with vitriolic lyrics.
They were not afraid to experiment either. “Don’t Stop” is the previous track, “Waterfall”, played backwards with vocals laid over the top, while “Shoot You Down” proves that slower songs need not be saccharine love songs—“I never wanted, the love that you showed me / It started to choke me”. An essay could be written about each song as this is one of the few albums where you won’t need to touch the skip button. On later re-releases, the album also contains “Fools Gold”—the song that brought guitar kids onto the dance floor.
The influence of this music was far reaching and is still being felt today. Noel and Liam Gallagher while at a Roses gig were moved enough to decide that this is what they wanted to do. The latter once said he bought the album three times because, well, he just felt he had to. When asked to comment on this album, writer John Harris pointed out that when Sgt. Pepper was released, some entirely reasonable zealots had special pockets sewn on to their clothes so they would never be without it, and there were people who felt the same way about the Stone Roses. This album was more than just a piece of black plastic, it was the totem of a generation coming out of the wings and defining an era.
The band were soon to slake back into the shadows as they fell foul of legal disputes with their record label and would not resurface until late 1994. But what they had given us was an astonishing album that both stood the test of time and encapsulates the era when it was released.
Make love to this album, get stoned to this album, start an uprising to this album, change the world to this album. For this album has changed many people’s world and a world without it would be a place with slightly less magic.