Wednesday, 26 October 2011


Following the below post and comments on the Stone Roses reunion, I've been thinking a lot about why they were so important. I think at heart it's because they were perhaps the ultimate synthetic band: everything they did seemed to join together apparent antitheses (harsh/soft, simplicity/sophistication, individual expressivity/collectivism, guitar music/electronica, and so on). This is why their message remains so radical. They were truly revolutionary because they didn't conform to any of the stereotypes about Britishness. They were neither middle-class art-school wankers in the manner of Blur nor working-class boors in the manner of Oasis; but then nor were they geeky, proletarian "mis-shapes" in the manner of Pulp (cf. Mr Hatherley's latest). In fact they represented the British Establishment's deepest fear: the organised aggregate and sublimation of these disparate elements, an emboldened team of earthy, arty, funny, political, vociferous, populist, intellectual, macho, sensitive lads.

If this sounds gendered, well, I think gender and sex were integral to the opposition-dismantling tendency. To take just one example, check out the lyrics to "Going Down", an insanely gorgeous B-side from 1989:

Dawn sings in the garden
Phone sings in the hall
This boy's dead from two day's life
Resurrected by the call
Penny here we've got to come
So come on round to me
There's so much penny lying here
To touch, taste and tease
Ring a ding ding ding I'm going down
I'm coming round

Penny's place her crummy room
Dansette crackles to Jimi's tune
I don't care I taste Ambre Solaire
Her neck her thighs her lips her hair
Ring a ding ding ding I'm going down
I'm coming round

I'd better come clean and say that I think this is one of the very best lyrics in the history of popular music, no question. But value judgments aside, it's clear that the charm of this comes from its incredibly gentle, disarming brand of machismo. This is the anti-Inbetweeners, if you like: a cheeky, even "laddish" exploration of adolescent sex that is nevertheless utterly respectful, refined, and humane, redolent of some of the finest passages from the prelapsarian sections of Paradise Lost.

I suppose a certain kind of feminist might object to this sort of thing, but frankly I think this would be a huge shame. This is a woman-worshipping song in the sweetest, most generous, most self-abnegating sense, a song about heavenly intimacy that builds up to a description of a "69" juxtaposed with an allusion to Jackson Pollock's Number 5. There's a unique and divine bathos at work here, a magical evocation of that state of mind - not necessarily sexual - when everything blurs and the high becomes low and two people become one and suddenly everything under the sun seems possible. In short, this is the visceral, sensual experience of equality, the bedrock of everything the Stone Roses ever did.

Not many bands are like that.


Anonymous said...

Hi Alex,
Great bit on the Stone Roses! Thanks for this little gem of a post. I wonder if you might ever write a monograph on them? I'm certain it'd be insightful and loving. And now could be a good time too (if there is time, that is).


Alex Niven said...

Well really glad you liked it Matthew. A monograph would be a dream come true frankly. Would be interested to hear your angle on them too.

Anonymous said...

I came to them pretty late, only about five years back. Ian Brown was playing in Brisbane so I checked it out. Massive contingent of Union Jack-waving lads. Someone briefly stopped the show after spitting on Brown. For a good five minutes Brown did that teacher thing where every one's detained till the offender owns up. Weird repetition of "Who did it!? Who did it!?" At some point security find the guy and bring him up front for Brown to launch a much anticipated retaliatory gob, before getting thrown out on his arse. All fair enough! I didn't love the show, but after that I listened to the Stone Roses a lot.
I love the first album, it's all I've got of theirs actually. A band I play in recently did a cover of 'Made of Stone', which was fun to do, but also left me feeling like one of those guys who pretend they're Oasis in that 'Live Forever' Britpop doc. It's a sad lug, getting out from that place.
I also love the mix of personalities in the band. You covered that one well already though.
I don't know really. I don't have much of a position on them, it's just uncritical approval: I think they're awesome!

All best,

Anonymous said...

Maybe there's a sports analogy to be made there somewhere too. Like you alluded, they were a great 'team'. Besides the great music, a big thing about them being their self-belief, disregard for the 'opposition', even Ian's perhaps wry admission that he felt superior to other people ("I'm on a false ego-trip"), perhaps all hinting at a deep fear of choking they could never admit but must have felt, coming off a five year leadup to getting anywhere at all. Jon Savage described their fall as them losing their nerve. I guess that's not unusual though, to be crippled with doubt. (I used to get it on Saturday mornings before rugby, still do actually, only it's less predictable, more a long-hard-look-in-the-mirror thing now.)
That they choked maybe makes their massive (but I think also admirable) arrogance a bit more interesting. I guess it'd take either a big fan or an idiot to think about that aspect though. "What were they REALLY like!?"

Anonymous said...

(The big blind assumption up above of course is that 'Second Coming' prob isn't great. No doubt I'm wrong in this.)

Alex Niven said...

This is really interesting. I was also taken with Savage's comment in the Live Forever documentary about a "failure of nerve", which I think is actually a phrase that he would have been familiar with from accounts of modernism's "failure" in the mid-twentieth century (eg. the critic Herbert Read talks about the "failure of nerve" of Eliot and Pound).

But I think this is at the heart of the matter isn't it: what exactly is a failure of nerve? It's a remarkably vague phrase that achieves the trick of putting the blame onto the subject, implying some kind of fecklessness or lack of work rate or mental deficiency without having to be specific about what it is. I suspect there's class prejudice somewhere behind it, both a projection of the Establishment that the Roses were laddish thugs too stupid to make anything of lasting worth (see below post and comments), and a tragic mirroring of this within the band itself: this feeling of "doubt" you talk about. It's a sort of "best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity" syndrome that seems to define the class divisions of British pop music. You can't imagine, say, Damon Albarn or Chris Martin having a "failure of nerve" now can you?

Anonymous said...

I'm not attributing this to the band, but yeah, maybe that kind of doubtful/'loss of nerve' thinking is part of a very '60s (I think?) escape narrative, where the 'toppermost' is a precarious safety point away from bleak homelife. I don't imagine the Stone Roses felt that way exactly, but their mix of awkwardness and apparent hubris does smack of a '60s-styled 'we want the world and we want it now' kind of roleplaying. That attitude fit well with their sound too, of course, and the fact they appeared to be pulling it all off. Maybe their psychological downfall was already sewn into the rhetoric they took on. I certainly don't know.

Alex Niven said...

Hmm. Yeah I see what you mean. I'm not sure they're downfall was inevitable though, more a case of being destroyed by a culture of record label wrangles, hype, and coke-hubris rather than their own political idealism.

Anonymous said...

"[B]eing destroyed by a culture of record label wrangles, hype, and coke-hubris rather than their own political idealism." Could make for (part of) a great read, Alex!

Anyway, cheers, and all the best.