The Stone Roses conquered the indie scene and changed the face of British guitar music - then they fell to earth.
The Stone age
Blackpool's Empress ballroom is one of the great British venues. A 19th-century emporium built for holidaymakers to the UK's premier working-class resort, a 4,000-capacity space with an ornate roof complete with chandeliers, it has a special atmosphere. It is steeped in seaside musical history, from 1950s swing bands to The Rolling Stones getting a 25-year ban from playing in Blackpool after a riot at their 1964 gig.
The Stone Roses' August 1989 show at the Empress was a pivotal moment in British music. Weeks before, the band had been playing to handfuls of people at gigs across the UK, apart from in their hometown of Manchester where they were already popular. On paper, the Empress seemed like a gig too far. But it caught the flavour of the times. That hazy summer day, Blackpool was full of kids in flares. The clothes changed to match the music and the atmosphere was intense. A sweat-soaked sea of heads and euphoria greeted the Roses as they took to the stage and changed the face of British guitar music.
Post-Roses bands had that swagger, that tunefulness, that attitude. Groups went out and bought wah-wah pedals to cop the band's distinctive guitar sound. Their hometown of Manchester became a byword for indie cool. Already occupying the throne with a post-punk history that included The Smiths, Joy Division, Buzzcocks, Factory Records and the Hacienda, Manchester had a definable sense of self that the Roses and their buddies the Happy Mondays set in stone with the baggy clothes, the language, and the 24-hour party people lifestyle of the northern city.
That night in Blackpool, you could feel the excitement. The band was magical that night and the atmosphere was intense. Back at their hotel on the Blackpool prom, the band looked dazed. It had been a draining and incredible day and despite their already famed confidence, the moment was a lot to take in. That evening, late into the small hours, it was felt that the Roses were undefeatable. Here was band who was going to take on the world. They had the songs, the momentum, the musicianship and the frontman.
In the next few years, they stumbled towards the pole position and then unravelled. Twenty years later, Ian Brown is about to release his sixth solo album in a maverick and highly successful career that has seen him move far away from the Roses' guitar template into a neo-hip-hop, breakbeat-dominated music that is fused with esoteric influences and has no boundaries. Brown's solo career has been a highly original and highly productive run of creativity that he's taken to a new high with his best album yet, My Way.
The Roses may have split in the mid-Nineties, but their influence remains as strong as ever. Generations of British bands enthralled by the sheer magic of the group still use its eponymous 1989 debut album as a creative template. Even Oasis, the biggest selling band out of Manchester, are indebted to them. The Roses' first big local breakthrough show in 1988 at Manchester International 2 was where Liam Gallagher saw the future when Brown, cool as ice, walked onstage playing with a yo-yo, oozing that special cool, that attitude, that swagger - it was all there, and Liam copped it.
And when the Roses' album came out a year after that gig, in May 1989, it went straight to the heart of the hipsters of that generation. As the summer months went by, you would hear the Roses everywhere - leaking out of bedsit windows, in Manchester's trendy clothes markets and all across the city. It was the soundtrack to that long, hot summer of love. The word was out and it was building slowly but surely.
The Roses' rise was marked by key shows such as November 1989's selling out of London's 7,000-capacity Alexandra Palace. This was a night when the new northern culture came to the capital city. That evening, crowds converged on the Victorian grandeur of the Palace - famous for Sixties psychedelic freak-outs. The Roses' album had peaked at No 19 but had remained a grower - a word-of-mouth record that would become the template for British guitar music. It was already a classic when the band trooped on to the stage.
The sound was muffled that night, but the audience was enthralled - the long instrumental end section of I Am the Resurrection was mesmerising and the atmosphere was intense. There have been few bands I have seen where the fan/band relationship has been so fired up. There was a real sense of occasion at the sound check, during which the Roses ran through their songs flawlessly. It was possibly the best I ever heard them, with astonishing drumming by Alan "Reni" Wren - the best drummer of his generation at his peak. The bass man Gary "Mani" Mounfield's melodic and dub-heavy playing was mesmerising; John Squire was a new sort of guitar hero, with Jimi Hendrix, The Beatles and wah-wah funk at his fingertips; and the frontman Brown oozed charisma - they were the perfect band.
The manager Gareth Evans ran around in a bizarre woolly pullover with a butterfly pattern on it as the band mooched around the building trying to contain the thrill of having the whole world at its feet. The following summer, they reached their peak with a 30,000-strong sell-out of Spike Island near Widnes - a big show in those pre-stadium indie days. I remember standing at the side of the stage watching the band walk into the vast space to this immense roar. It was a thrilling, adrenalised, zeitgeist moment. A point in time when the Roses seemed unstoppable.
And then it started to unwind. The next single, One Love, was not quite as good, despite being a huge hit. The band just seemed to unwind. They wound up in court for throwing paint around the offices of one of their labels. I covered the case and watched the band laughing their way through it. They were four cocky young princes posing for pictures in the court doorway looking like the Stones in their prime, with that same cockiness.
And then they disappeared for five years, ostensibly working on the second album. Occasionally you would bump into Reni around town and he would talk about how he wasn't going to play drums on the record, while Brown would appear like a ghost. The band kept making headline news while the press tried to find what was going on. When the follow-up album, Second Coming, came out, it was always going to be an anticlimax and the reaction was mixed.
Squire quit in April 1996 and the remaining Roses staggered into their last gig at that summer's Reading festival in a disastrous appearance that saw Brown bury the myth of the Roses before the band finally fell apart. Many industry watchers expected Brown to disappear, assuming he didn't write the songs. When Brown re-emerged with his debut solo album, he managed to sidestep the Roses myth. With the band's legendary status cemented and growing, Brown quickly established himself as a solo star and spent the next decade putting out idiosyncratic records that give him the space and freedom that suit his songwriting. With albums built around loops instead of guitar riffs, Brown modernised his sound and took a jump away from the jangling, chiming guitar pop of the Roses.
Brown is a survivor. And the band's legacy remains untarnished. They have retained their cool like few other groups from their generation and their influence hangs heavy over the UK scene. Last month, the Stone Roses' debut album re-charted in the UK top five 20 years after its release, and Manchester remains the UK's premier music city.