The Stone Roses Reunion: Fool’s Gold, or What the World Is Waiting For?

I will preface everything that you are about to read by saying that I have never missed an opportunity to express my love for the Stone Roses. However, as time has passed, and as I have continued, ceaselessly, making that admission, I have come to realize that what I mean to say is that I love The Stone Roses. That 1989 album is one of those I’ll-never-forget-the-first-time-that-I-heard-it records, one of those rare expressions of artistic prowess that still makes me utter sycophantic non sequiturs like, “If I could play the drums like Reni, I’d never leave my house.” And while I genuinely do not possess the cultural perspective to say whether or not it is the greatest British album ever, I do agree with Noel Gallagher that The Stone Roses is perfect.

I submit all of this to you as a means to contextualize my growing ambivalence about the band’s upcoming reunion shows in 2012. When I first heard the news that the group (which disbanded in 1996) was reuniting, I genuinely rejoiced. The possibility — no matter how remote — of seeing the band perform any track from their debut album in concert was enough to make me want to take out a second mortgage just to score tickets off of some auction website somewhere (my Internet connection not being powerful enough to elbow the rest of the world off of the official ticket site). But then, the knowledge that thousands upon thousands of tickets to the band’s resurrection would sell in about the same time as a Catholic mass left me questioning my faith. “What, exactly, am I buying into?”, I wondered. “Isn’t this the same band that, apparently, just lied to its disciples about the possibility of a reunion? Why should I make any donations to their decidedly corrupt church?”

Sure, some of this thinking was a case of sour grapes. Again, if given the time and the money, I would not have missed the opportunity to commune with the band. Still, after having already purchased, and repurchased, and repurchased the group’s lean back catalog via their near Smithsian repackaging campaigns, I could not help but see this whole late career slumber party that the Roses are throwing for themselves as complete and utter vanity. The vanity of vanities, some might say.

Sure, to a certain extent, it is appropriate for the Stone Roses to be entirely self-serving, particularly when their market value has risen to astronomic heights in recent years. After all, this is the same band that anointed itself the resurrection and the light in the closing track to its self-titled 1989 debut LP. If they did not remain the arrogant ones we’ve been waiting for, then this interminable month of Sundays would have been a waste of time for all of us. Nevertheless, the more I’ve thought about it, the more the image of a middle-aged Ian Brown singing “I Wanna Be Adored” has appeared less like salvation and more like a pathetic Judd Apatow movie. Honestly, the band does not look particularly good these days, and that is an enormous problem for a group that has come to be known at least as much for its style as it has for its music.

Speaking of the band’s music, there isn’t much of it, and a good portion of it isn’t very good. The group’s petulant apathy during the early 1990s has been thoroughly chronicled, and any fan is quite aware of the meager dividends that Second Coming (1994) has paid over time. As an aside, you should know that I am quite often — and quite illogically — a frequent champion of bad albums. I don’t think Ride’s Tarantula is nearly as horrible as everyone thinks it is. I also believe that there are many redeeming qualities to Radiohead’s Pablo Honey. Likewise, I’ll defend to my dying day my claim that Machina/The Machines of God is the only Smashing Pumpkins album worth owning. [Ok, that’s where I draw the line, Joseph — Siamese Dream and Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness are impeccable. — Ed.] Therefore, if you’re one of the few who really likes the Roses’ swan song, then fine, have at it. You won’t get any pushback from me. Still, no amount of critical revisionism or gushing fanfare can cancel out the simple arithmetic that shows, quite clearly, that the Stone Roses wrote two albums in roughly 13 years. By most gauges, they could rank as one of history’s laziest rock bands. Heck, even Nirvana, one of history’s most self-destructive rock bands, was more prolific than the Stone Roses.

Does any of that matter? Objectively, I really don’t know. If Pablo Picasso had only painted Guernica and nothing more, or if Toni Morrison had only written Beloved and nothing more, it would still be absurd to call either of them lazy for not producing more work. With the Roses, though, the knowledge that they spent the first half of the ’90s fighting, like the adorable brats that they were, with their record label Silvertone, all the while — we’re quite sure — indulging in whatever they liked, only to produce a wildly uneven record five years after The Stone Roses, hardly makes it easy to call them disciplined.

And so, when we backtrack to their debut, we find our way to what is their masterpiece, and it is a work of disciplined artistry. As the band chronicles in the liner notes to the Legacy Edition of The Stone Roses, two of the album’s signature tracks — “I Wanna Be Adored” and “This Is the One” — date back to 1985, with the others emerging in various stages and forms over the following four years. The record is, perhaps even in spite of itself, the work of a committed band, which only makes their subsequent lack of commitment all the more frustrating. Likewise, the Roses’ acknowledgement that the record did not spring fully formed from their collective consciousness thoroughly deflates the endless self-mythologizing that has accompanied everything they’ve ever done — up to, and including, their recent press conference about their reunion. Ian, your plan is to “shake up the world”? Really? Again? Have you written new songs? Oh yeah, you’re writing new songs. Sure. And really, Reni? You’ve missed these guys? Since when, exactly?

In many ways, these kind of hackneyed statements — suggestions of magical forces guiding the work of pop stars — are really just fodder for water cooler talk (and for pop journalism, I suppose). Still, the more that 1989 recedes into the distance, and the farther away we get from the halcyon days of baggy Madchester, the more it seems like the Roses were a flash in the pan. Granted, they were a brilliant, ecstatic, enormously colorful flash, but they faded quite quickly, and I’m not so sure that these upcoming shows will do much to reanimate their vibrant past. Go ahead, call me a pessimist. You wouldn’t be entirely mistaken.

Writing for PopMatters in January 2010, Zach Schonfeld pondered the motivation behind all manner of indie-scene bands hitting the reunion circuit. His argument was a hopeful one that downplayed the economics behind this trend in favor of celebrating the work of musicians whose output had often been underappreciated. Will the Stone Roses reunion function simply as a nostalgia trip, or will it bring more inspired — and inspiring — music? Obviously, it’s much too early to answer those questions. At the same time, it’s a bit too late to be entirely confident that this reunion is more than a bunch of fool’s gold.