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.
Excerpted from The Stone Roses: War and Peace by Simon Spence. Copyright © 2013 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin's Press, LLC. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or printed without permission in writing from the publisher.
It started with John Squire and Ian Brown forming their first band together, The Patrol, during their final year at Altrincham Grammar School for Boys in 1979 when they were both aged sixteen. Initially a three-piece with Squire on guitar, Brown on bass and fellow classmate Si Wolstencroft on drums, The Patrol rehearsed on Thursday nights in the back room of Wolstencroft’s parents’ house in Hale Ringway, a civil parish close to Manchester airport, situated between the notorious council estates of Wythenshawe and the leafy, well-to-do market town of Altrincham on the south-westerly outskirts of the city.
Wolstencroft, who would go on to play drums in the original Stone Roses line-up, The Smiths and The Fall, had been in the same high-achieving school class as Squire and Brown since the age of eleven. He recalled that despite their rudimentary ability and equipment, including an amplifier Squire’s father had made, The Patrol made ‘a good noise’. He was closer to Squire than to Brown, having bonded over a shared love for The Clash’s 1977 eponymous debut. They had also shared Latin lessons and the distinction of being the first pupils in their year to be caned after being caught drawing graffiti on their school desks: ‘We got six with a bamboo cane off the deputy head.’
Brown favoured the Sex Pistols and thought that their 1977 debut Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols ‘was going to change the world’. Although he wasn’t fronting The Patrol, who as yet did not have a singer, Brown should have been. He combined a keen interest in politics with a self-confessed ‘rebellious streak’ and an effervescent personality. He was a born showman, well known for standing in front of the class entertaining everyone with his impersonations of the school’s teachers. Brown was also, thanks to his study of karate, not to be messed with. ‘I saw him use it on this guy in the chemistry lab,’ said Wolstencroft. ‘It was pretty impressive. I remember thinking the guy deserved it. Ian gave him a good kung-fu kick to the throat.’
Squire, although less confrontational, was no less defiant of authority. ‘I think he was the first kid in the school to play truant,’ said Brown. ‘And he did that by himself.’ He also had a recognized gift for art, which meant that while Brown and Wolstencroft got stuck into football during games lesson, Squire was encouraged and happy to stay indoors painting.
There was a fourth member of The Patrol gang, Pete Garner, who, while not in this band, would play bass with The Stone Roses between 1983 and 1987. Although a year younger and at a different school from the other three, Garner had been close to them, particularly Squire and Brown, since the age of thirteen. He lived in Brooklands, Sale, a five-minute walk away from Squire and Brown, who lived four doors apart on Sylvan Avenue in Timperley, a pleasant village enclave of Altrincham.
Garner shared the elder boys’ love of punk, and most days after school the gang of four could be found shooting the breeze at the local hot spot close to Squire and Brown’s homes. The allure of girls and cigarettes gave the spot, a bridge over a brook at the top end of Sylvan Avenue, a hallowed appeal. The small stream also signified the boundary between Sale in Manchester and Timperley in Cheshire. ‘When I first met Ian he told me he’d seen the Sex Pistols,’ said Garner. It was a lie, but an impressive one. Brown further impressed Garner with his copy of the eponymous 1969 album by The Stooges. Squire’s admiration for The Clash was self-evident: he played their debut album every day.
For Garner the distinction in the personalities of Brown and Squire was clear. ‘Ian was in your face, charming, very confident, full eye contact, people liked hanging around with him and he was always blagging you a bit. With John you had to wrestle stuff out of him, he’d think about what he was going to say before he said it, but he turned out to be creatively brilliant. They were always like that.’
Squire was usually known as John. Other people called him Johnny but never Jonathon. Brown was IBEX, a nickname that is used to this day. It originated from a fad at school where EX was simply added to the initials of your name. ‘I knew Ian had done karate,’ said Garner. ‘I think he was a black belt, but I don’t recall it being a big thing in Ian’s life when we started hanging out. I suspect as soon as music came in, it went out of the window. We became obsessed with music to the detriment of every other hobby we’d had.’ Wolstencroft, Squire, Brown and Garner were all from a similar background. ‘Ian and John lived in your bog-standard, post-war semi; pretty much all the houses round there were like that,’ said Garner. Or as Brown put it, ‘Poor, down to earth.’
Brown, born in February 1963, had lived in Timperley since he was six. His family, including younger brother David, had moved the ten miles east from Warrington in 1969 following the birth of his sister Sharon. His father, George, worked as a joiner and the new house with a garden was something to be proud of. Family always came first for George, who instilled a firm sense of discipline in his eldest son as well as passing on his strong socialist beliefs. He was ‘a bit to the left of Arthur Scargill’, said Brown.
Culture vulture Garner, a fish out of water at the rough all-boys Burnage High School, recalled being introduced to Ian’s mum, Jean: ‘The first time I went round to his house, his mum was saying to him, You’re not hanging round with him, he’s bad news.’
Squire had been born in November 1962 in Broadheath less than a mile away from Sylvan Avenue. His father, Tom, was an electrical engineer working at the vast General Electric Company factory in nearby Trafford Park. Tom’s record collection held a sacred place in the life of the house, and included jazz greats such as Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis. There was also room for The Beatles, Elvis and Peggy Lee. ‘I didn’t hear a bad song until I left home,’ said Squire. His younger brother, Matt, was best friends with Brown’s brother David.
Brown and Squire, legend has it, first met in a sandpit as young children in the fields near their home – and in all likelihood, with their families living so close to each other and the children so similarly matched in age, they did. It’s a hazy memory, at best, for both. Until punk brought them together they were not friends. They didn’t attend the same primary school, and nor after both passing their 11+ did they socialize much at Altrincham Grammar.
‘We became friendly at thirteen, fourteen,’ Brown said. ‘I started chatting to him and I took “God Save the Queen”, the first Clash LP and “One Chord Wonders” by The Adverts round to his house. He was into The Beach Boys and The Beatles. We were total opposites. I was very outgoing, the class joker, and he was the loner.’
‘Virtually everything we did together was related to music,’ Squire said. Before The Clash, The Beach Boys had been Squire’s great obsession, initiated by the TV advertising for the 20 Golden Greats album. It was, however, the Sex Pistols’ debut single ‘Anarchy in the UK’ in 1976 that made him want to pick up the guitar for the first time. ‘I think I was fourteen when I heard that and realized how electric guitars could be made to sound. I started pestering my dad for a guitar, got a paper round, started hanging around guitar shops on the way back from school. It was the next Christmas I got the guitar. I’d sit depressed on the windowsill in my bedroom with no amplifier, picking my way through “Three Blind Mice” on one string wondering how long it would take.’
For Squire, Brown, Wolstencroft and Garner, punk was their defining teenage experience and influence. Squire got his mum to take in his grey cotton flares and add zips. Dr Martens shoes became de rigueur, and they were regulars at Discount Records, Manchester’s key punk record shop, which had fortuitously for them opened outlets in Sale and Altrincham after establishing its city centre reputation.
Alongside the Sex Pistols and The Clash, another early punk band, Generation X, became a key influence. Squire, particularly, was smitten by the band’s eponymous 1978 debut. ‘That’s where John gets a lot of his sound from,’ said Wolstencroft. ‘We thought the first Generation X album was a masterpiece.’
‘Me and Ian both loved The Damned as well,’ said Garner. ‘Ian had The Damned’s “Stretcher Case/Sick of Being Sick” single, which you got free if you went to a certain Damned gig in London. Ian, being an opportunist, wrote to Stiff Records [home to The Damned and The Adverts] and they sent him one. He was the only person who had it. That single was like the holy grail.’
Brown and Garner also shared a passion for Slaughter & the Dogs, who hailed from nearby Wythenshawe, particularly their 1977 ‘Cranked Up Really High’ single. ‘It Won’t Sell’ by The Panik, released by Manchester independent label Rainy City Records, was another key 7-inch for the pair. ‘The guitarist in The Panik went on to be in V2, another Manchester band we really liked,’ said Garner. ‘You have to bear in mind you’ve only got so many [punk] records in 1977, so you know every note on everything. As soon as one of us got a single, the first thing you’d do was play it to the others, to turn them on to it.’
From around the age of fourteen, the four schoolboys had also been checking out punk bands playing live. Squire remembered his first gig – The Clash at Manchester Apollo in 1977 – as ‘the most exciting thing I’d ever experienced’. Brown also saw The Clash in 1977, and travelled the city to watch Manchester’s premier punk bands Buzzcocks, Slaughter & the Dogs and The Fall. He managed to catch Public Image Ltd (PiL), formed by John Lydon after his former band, the Sex Pistols, broke up in 1978, and The Stranglers. Brown and Squire were also both at the famous March 1979 Joy Division gig at Bowdon Vale youth club in Altrincham.
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Squire, Brown and Wolstencroft left Altrincham Grammar in the summer of 1979 and enrolled at the Timperley-based South Trafford College to study for A-levels. Brown and Wolstencroft arrived for the first day at college in September, after a summer spent rehearsing The Patrol, in newly acquired, Two Tone-influenced tonic suits. Two Tone was a fresh, young, English take on ska, revolving around bands such as The Specials, The Beat and Madness. The movement was closely linked to the burgeoning mod-revival scene led initially by The Jam and featuring bands such as The Chords and The Purple Hearts. ‘Ian, Si and John turned mod,’ said Garner, the only one of the gang who didn’t, ‘which basically meant putting your [upturned for punk] shirt collar down, doing it up to the top button and putting your hair in a side parting. It was like, wait a minute, three weeks ago everybody was a punk!’
At South Trafford College, where Brown took politics and Squire continued to pursue art, they met Andy Couzens, a fellow first-year pupil and the fifth and final original member of The Stone Roses. Couzens played guitar with the Roses for three years from 1983 until 1986. He was originally asked to become the singer with The Patrol after Brown and Wolstencroft saw him have a fight in the college canteen. ‘Andy handled himself pretty well. He had a spiky haircut, biker boots and a car, so Ian asked him if he could sing.’
‘I said, All right, yeah, why not? Never say no,’ said Couzens. ‘Ian liked the idea of it: Look at him. He’ll be a good singer. It seems ridiculous now.’ There were close to 2,500 people at South Trafford College but, even before being approached, Couzens had noticed Brown. ‘He was turning up wearing tonic suits. He had a pretty striking look.’
Couzens had ‘done punk’, loved Joy Division, but since the age of fifteen had been heavily involved with football hooliganism, following both Manchester City and Stockport County ‘for the fights, not the football’. Couzens lived in Woodford, a village five miles south of Stockport, and had chosen to study at South Trafford College in an attempt to break away from the hooligan scene. Timperley was almost ten miles from Woodford, a journey he made in an old MG Midget.
For him, joining The Patrol was as much about forging new friendships as being a front man and he began hanging out after college with the gang on the bridge. Garner, now in his final year at Burnage High, gave Couzens a copy of The Panik’s ‘It Won’t Sell’ as a welcome. ‘The record wasn’t that good,’ said Couzens, ‘but the picture of the band on the sleeve was important. It was a directional picture for The Patrol to go for.’ With Garner acting as an ersatz roadie, and Couzens on vocals, The Patrol moved out of Wolstencroft’s parents’ back room and began rehearsing at the Walton Road scout hut in Sale.