The story of the biggest British band to never make it in America gets a thorough, honest, and fair recounting.
The Stone Roses: War and PeacePublisher: St. Martin's Press
Length: 326 pages
Author: Simon Spence
Publication date: 2013-04
There's arguably no more frustrating group in the history of pop music than the Stone Roses. Here is a band that, for a brief period in the late '80s and early '90s, seemed to be untouchable. They were brash, confident, and innovative, as they were among the first rock bands to embrace rave culture and incorporate it into both their musical style and their fashion sense.
It’s a shame, then, that they lost the plot so quickly, taking so long to record a follow-up to their exalted debut album that they inevitably crashed, burned, and fizzled out in just about the same amount of time it took for them to get started. Worst of all, the band’s rise and fall means nothing to the average American music fan, as the Stone Roses never found a foothold in America at their peak or afterwards. Even now, when bands as thoroughly unimpressive as Mazzy Star can get a nice payday and a sizable crowd at festivals on the wave of nostalgia, the Stone Roses failed to get any love from anyone at this year’s Coachella performance, be it from the crowd or from the dozens of music journalists who thought that Nick Cave’s agro-noise side project was more important than one of the most popular and enduring rock bands in the world.
It’s this frustration and seeming lack of respect that builds the foundation for The Stone Roses: War And Peace, Simon Spence’s 300-page account of the Stone Roses’ tumultuous first life and glimpse at their second.
As a narrative, Spence keeps things fairly conventional, tracking the lives of the young Stone Roses and their fellow Manchester cohorts as they discover punk rock and follow the path from music enthusiasts to actual musicians. However, Spence makes the decision not to start with, say, the beginnings of Ian Brown and John Squire, but with a moment that occurred well into the band’s career: their massively-attended performance at Spike Island, Widnes in 1990, declared by many in the UK as a show comparable to Woodstock.
However, Spence lays out the events of Spike Island in such a way that it’s shocking that the show even managed to happen. Sound equipment failed, the bookers brought in the wrong opening act, and the drug-addled crowd almost ran over the stage at the alarming sight of a helicopter landing on the island. The band’s performance almost appears as an afterthought until you realize that it’s the only thing that went right on a day where seemingly everything else went wrong. It’s a moment that perfectly encapsulates the career of the Stone Roses: brilliant, lasting, beautiful music surrounded by bad luck and managerial incompetence.
Despite the ego clashes that led to the Stone Roses’ breakup in 1996, Spence avoids casting any of the band’s members in a negative light. Singer Ian Brown comes across as slightly arrogant in clips of interviews done at the band’s peak, and guitarist John Squire appears to be ornery and anti-social, but these traits are never played up by Spence to create more conflict than what’s already evident in the band’s history.
If there's a villain that Spence hones in on, it’s manager Gareth Evans. Throughout the book, Spence lays the blame for many of the Stone Roses’ failures at Evans’ feet. It’s Evans, for example, who refuses to allow the band to tour America unless they can play at Shea Stadium (even though he had made little headway towards breaking the band into America.) It’s Evans who gets the Stone Roses into years of costly legal proceedings after promising the band’s album to multiple labels, only to abandon those deals once better options came along. All in all, Evans appears to be a giddy fan who found himself going in way over his head, and the band suffered as a result.
Aside from clearly painting Evans as an antagonist, Spence keeps things fairly neutral and avoids overt critical bias whenever possible. While covering the lengthy, fraught sessions that produced the Stone Roses’ Second Coming, a lesser writer would have taken the opportunity to heap even more negative criticism on an album that has received too much of it, but Spence focuses more on the album as an outlet for John Squire’s songwriting dominance and how it affected the band dynamic at the time. A more knowledgeable fan would probably prefer reading an account of the Second Coming sessions that was a little more sensational, but for newcomers and fans less versed in the band’s backstory, this sort of balanced account is welcome.
Above all, Stone Roses: War And Peace is an honest, journalistic look at the history of the Stone Roses, and while it doesn’t entirely dish the dirt, it has enough original material from all the major players in Stone Roses lore to work as something more than a re-telling of old stories. Hopefully, it’s enough to turn some curious American readers into the fanbase that a band of this caliber deserves.