The Stone Roses kick-started the Madchester phenomenon with their 'baggy' style and infectious fusion of funk, rock and rave.
So much to answer for
Twenty years ago, The Stone Roses seemed like an unstoppable force of nature. These four baggy trousered young rock icons from Manchester were adored all over Britain, and appeared on course for world domination. They were even hailed as the new Beatles and had just enough ferocious self-belief to look like they might justify such lofty claims - for a couple of glorious summers, at least. The lead singer Ian Brown and the guitarist John Squire were former schoolfriends with a seemingly fathomless reservoir of mystical, spellbinding lyrics and gushing, rainbow-coloured melodies. Together with the band's bass guitarist Gary "Mani" Mounfield and drummer Alan "Reni" Wren, they changed the look, sound and mood of their hometown, from post-industrial wasteland to hedonistic playground. In sun-splashed colours and huge flared trousers, they spearheaded the so-called Madchester scene of the late 1980s and early 1990s, which transformed the city into a kind of Day-Glo pop factory.
"Manchester had always been perceived as miserable," Brown recalls. "But I see The Stone Roses in 1989 as Technicolor. We were all about joy and possibilities of life. The Smiths were a bedsit mentality, our attitude was to get out of that - be exciting, not dour and grey. We did like early Joy Division and New Order, but we definitely didn't take off any of the Manchester groups" The Roses released their self-titled debut album in March 1989, cementing their graduation from local heroes to national phenomenon. Reissued tomorrow in three lavish boxed and expanded editions, the album contains such evergreen indie-rock anthems as I Wanna Be Adored, She Bangs The Drums and Waterfall. But it was more than just a musical milestone, sending profound and enduring ripples through British youth culture.
Now a BBC radio DJ and singer with the award-winning band Elbow, Guy Garvey was a teenager in the Manchester satellite town of Bury at the time. The release of The Stone Roses had a huge effect on Garvey, changing the way he dressed and inspiring him to form his own band soon afterwards. "They just looked so untouchably cool," Garvey recalls. "The photograph of them on the back, they just seemed so incredibly good-looking and interesting, and the music was absolutely amazing. It was all about the ethics of the late 1960s put into a modern context. It was all right for lads to wear flowers and stuff again. I had a paisley bandanna and pair of massive 16-inch bell-bottom jeans."
Crucially, the Roses were much more than retro-rock throwbacks. Like their fellow "Madchester" contemporaries, the Happy Mondays, their sound combined guitar-jangling nostalgia with the fluid rhythms of the city's vibrant rave scene, which was then centred around its most famous nightclub, The Hacienda. "One of the things that differentiated the Roses and the Mondays was that they had a real sense of rhythm," says Dave Haslam, a former Hacienda DJ turned author and Manchester pop historian. "They had space too, compared to the indie bands of that era, where the music was very cluttered and uptight. With the Roses and the Mondays it was looser. It wasn't just dance and rock intertwined: it was funk, hip-hop, reggae and soul too."
As the new decade dawned, the Roses could do no wrong, selling out huge live shows and releasing their all-time classic funk-rock single, Fool's Gold. But behind the scenes, their new-found fame was turning sour as they became embroiled in bitter legal battles with their record label and their former manager, Gareth Evans. Tours were cancelled, friendships sundered and huge sums of money squandered as they spent almost five years recording their next album, Second Coming.
Peter Hook, formerly of the iconic Manchester bands Joy Division and New Order, was an early champion of the Roses. He produced the band's 1988 single Elephant Stone, then watched in despair as they began to sink into rock-star cliché during the making of Second Coming. "They should have conquered the world but with The Stone Roses, you had to put it down to bad management," Hook recalls. "The trouble with the second album is that just John Squire wrote it. It seems a bit indulgent to me, it sounds like bad Led Zeppelin. But I knew what they were going through personality wise. They were not having a very happy time. It was very difficult period and it is, in every sense of the musical cliché, a difficult second album."
History has not been kind to the album, a far more conventional blues-rock affair than The Stone Roses. But in fairness, despite its troubled gestation, the second Roses album still contains flashes of their old mercurial genius. Almost 15 years later, it still has its champions. "I think it's an amazing record" says Garvey. "Whatever they came back with wasn't going to hit the mark, because of the all the expectations. If they'd done a record exactly the same, half the people would have complained. If they took the record in a totally different direction, people would still have complained. They just waited too long to bring another record out, but I still think it's brilliant. I quite often play it on my radio show."
Soon after Second Coming was released, internal tensions began to tear the Roses apart. Wren left in March 1995, followed by Squire in April 1996. Brown carried on with a replacement guitarist, but the new line-up soon unravelled following a disastrous Squire-free show at the annual Reading Festival, 40 miles west of London, in August 1996. Brown was panned for his off-key singing, hammering the final nail in the band's coffin. "I went to Reading with the intention to bury the myth of The Stone Roses and launch the new Stone Roses," Brown admits. "We did bury the myth, but not in the way I intended."
After the Roses split, Mounfield became a full-time member of Primal Scream, where he remains today. After launching a short-lived new band, the Seahorses, and releasing an underwhelming solo album, Squire has reportedly now abandoned music and returned to his first love, painting. Wren briefly dabbled in his own fruitless solo project, but is now a virtual recluse. Only Brown enjoys a comparable cult profile to his Roses heyday, releasing five solo albums in the last decade, with another due later this year.
Since the split, the band's legend has only grown, swelled by celebrity fans such as Oasis and Arctic Monkeys. For almost a decade the British press has been abuzz with regular Roses reunion rumours, which is strange, as the bitterly estranged Brown and Squire have barely spoken for years. In their rare interviews, various ex-members have dropped hints about reforming, but usually in a vague and mischievous manner. The strangest example yet came in 2006, when Squire told a reporter he had plans to put the Roses back together, angering Brown further since he had not been consulted. Naturally, the scheme came to nothing.
But the eternally optimistic Mounfield, who remains friendly with both Brown and Squire, continues to press for a reunion. If anyone is going to broker a truce, it will be him. "I'd just love them to phone each other up and straighten it out," Mounfield says. "Basically it's a pride thing. Ian's still very hurt and I think John? I hope he doesn't hate me for saying this, but John should pick up the phone and give him a call."
Of course, rock reunions are currently big business, as more and more veteran artists can earn a much bigger paycheck from touring than recording. In recent years, the Roses have turned down some hefty financial incentives to play together again. In 2005, Brown tells me, one promoter offered them £5 million (Dh31m) for 40 shows. "I've got three kids so that's a serious thing to me," Brown admits. "But then I look at it and think: every band reforms for the money. I don't blame the Sex Pistols for reforming because they never got paid the first time around. We never really got paid either, but we weren't ever in it for the money. It wouldn't make me happier. I can only eat a meal a day. I'm not into flash cars. I've got a nice house."
This year, with the debut album's 20th anniversary, press rumours about a Roses reunion have reached a feverish crescendo. In a bizarre piece of wishful thinking, Britain's Daily Mirror newspaper printed details of actual tour dates in March, prompting Squire to take the unusual step of appearing on the BBC TV programme Newsnight to deny the story. To hammer home his point, he even produced a sculpture emblazoned with the message: "I have no desire whatsoever to desecrate the grave of seminal Manchester pop group The Stone Roses, 12.3.09".
Which sounds like a pretty definitive final statement. But Mounfield continues to hint that a huge payday might tempt his former band mates back on stage, as it has for so many estranged rock veterans in recent years. Last month, the bass guitarist told The Sun newspaper that he was still hopeful. "John Squire always said he'd never sell out for the money," Mounfield argued. "If he considers it selling it out that's fine, it's all right for people who've earned millions off the royalties. But morals and principles don't put food on the table, do they?"
But even if they never play together again, the mythic power of the Stone Roses lives on. Walk around Manchester today and the band is still a highly visible part of the city's cultural heritage. Along with other local music legends including Joy Division and The Smiths, its legacy is constantly being celebrated in museums, book shops, bars and nightclubs - as well as in rehearsal rooms all over Britain.
"They left a legacy, the Roses," claims Garvey. "Every Manchester guitarist, every lad who picks up a guitar, they pick up a Strat or a Gibson and a wah-wah pedal. That style that John Squire played on the first record is what every single band of 15-year-old lads goes for, even now. They still start with the Roses, then move forward." The Stone Roses Special Edition, Legacy Edition and Collector's Edition are all released on Sony Music on tomorrow.