Few albums have made as big an impact on me as the eponymous debut by The Stone Roses. All these years later, I can still recall the hushed reverential tones that came over Daragh and the Fifth and Sixth years in school whenever The Stone Roses came up in conversation. I had been filling my ears with everything from the Beatles, Pearl Jam and Guns N’ Roses, all the way down the spectrum to Altern-8, Kraftwerk and Yello. There was a deep mistrust between ravers and rockers in the early Nineties, with rockers believing that energy, emotion and lyrics made their music more “real” than the synthesiser-based songs that ravers appreciated in part for their sleek, precise heartbeats. With a foot in both camps, I wondered whether the bridge could be crossed.
I borrowed an original CD of The Stone Roses and duly copied it onto a 90-minute TDK tape from a three-pack that I had recently purchased, filling up the rest of the space with some tracks recorded off 2FM. I used to take joy in neatly writing down each track name on the lined, grey, almost-cardboard-strength paper inlay card. After my first listen, I did not get it. At only thirteen, my ears had not sufficiently developed to properly appreciate the different layers that I was at the time unaccustomed to, and it was only an instinctual reflex that convinced me to give it the Walkman test.
Listening to it in my headphones on the way home from school, I began to appreciate the different textures and colours in the sounds. Thanks to Bros, I never really connected with “I Wanna Be Adored”. Nonetheless, it remains a classic intro with the bassline slowly sliding and shimmering its way in. When you click play on the first Roses LP, it could quite easily be the start to “The Renaissance Collection” by Sasha and Digweed. They just got the sense that ambience and a space to breathe were important factors in musical compositions. Moreover, it seemed like they were making a conscious attempt to broaden the scope of the three-minute jangly pop wonderfulness that the Smiths had nailed in the decade that was just ending.
“She Bangs The Drums” romanticises the arrogance of youth and love in the most inspiring way possible. Later, we would listen to it at afterparties and the line “Through the early morning sun / I can see her here she comes / She bangs the drums” would reverberate with me forever. It is the sound of optimism. “The past was yours but the future’s mine / you’re all out of time” articulates the rush of youth.
Reni was undoubtedly the glue that held the Roses together, his drums so uniquely fluid, just bubbling away under the surface. Listen to “Second Coming” for definitive proof of how essential he was to them. Credit must go to John Leckie too. When I saw “She Bangs The Drums” live in the Phoenix Park in 2012, it brought home how the Roses could never truly replicate their sound live. It is too ethereal, too electronic, too perfect. The rhythms of electronic music are precise and more accurate than a live drummer. Reni is the closest these ears have ever heard to a living, breathing sequencer with the added emotion of a human, playing like some kind of futuristic human-machine drummer hybrid. Musically, he is my favourite member of the Roses. Listen to “Rattle and Hum” and then “Achtung Baby” by U2. Which record do you think Larry Mullen had in his Walkman before recording the latter?
What makes an exceptional live gig? In the electronic music scene, it is generally not artists, bands and producers who perform but DJs. Their skill is to physically match the tempo and mood of two records playing at different speeds and syncopate them to facilitate people dancing and enjoying themselves. Not many artists attempt to replicate the sound of sequencing electronic beats live as it is quite difficult, not to mention uninteresting, to observe on stage. The Roses sound is in some ways electronic. Not in the sequencing of beats, but in the length of some of their tracks. The majority of electronic music tracks can be up to seven or eight minutes long. Analyse similarly lengthy Roses tracks like “I am the Resurrection”, “Fools Gold” or “One Love” and something becomes apparent: they all have large periods with solely percussive segments and not just the normal verse, bridge and chorus structure of the standard rock song. Again, this blurred the lines between guitar and electronic based music.
The aesthetic of how the music was released was also a crucial factor, with the single “Elephant Stone” issued with an accompanying DJ-friendly 12″ remix intro. Nearly all electronic music comes with a remix and The Roses tapped into this. Reni really lets the remix breathe. It’s my second-favourite track of theirs. Paradoxically it was this innovative blending of the two genres that made them an inconsistent live entity. The Roses had a very mixed reputation when it came to their live shows. Spike Island was dogged by technical issues and their gig at the Reading festival after “Second Coming” was shambolic. Even their coming of age shows, like that at the Empress Ballroom, had sonic issues. Brown’s vocals were poor. I think this is because the first record is so well produced and pristine with its clean sequenced beats imbued with the flair and energy of a live act. However, reproducing this sound live is nigh on impossible, and to achieve the balance they created in the studio on tour just cannot be done.
When they played the Phoenix Park in Dublin, the sound was awful – which has admittedly been the case numerous times at this venue, so it may not have been entirely their fault. It was not just the dodgy sound system that MCD may have used or the ropey acoustics in the Phoenix Park, though: the Roses looked like their balance had deserted them. Squire was doing his bluesy guitar solos, Brown was being the frontman jester while Mani and Reni were busy trying to tie the whole thing together. Yet it just sounded like they were being pulled in too many different directions and their loose, shuffly feel became lost in the mix. Like the post-rock music genre that was to follow, the Roses also possessed the innate ability to seamlessly fleet between loud and quiet moments, with “Standing There” a prime example of this. Beginning with a heavy metalesque guitar solo, it ends with Ian Brown singing, “I should be safe forever in your arms” over some gently eddying mellow, melodically chiming guitars. I was excited to hear this live but, again, it did not stack up.
Electronic music is inextricably linked to technology. It thrives on new developments to keep it fresh. Like Science Fiction movies, the drawback is that it can become dated extremely quickly. The Roses backwards songs, “Guernica” and “Don’t Stop”, were innovative (with a nod to “Revolution 9” by The Beatles) when originally released, with both being created by playing the instrumental track backwards. One amazing thing in the 2012 show was how they made “Don’t Stop” live. Amazingly, Brown sang the song backwards!
Returning to my earlier thought on what makes a good live gig, surely it is when an artist enhances or emphasises a piece of their music differently to the studio production. If I consider the very best gigs I have witnessed – Nick Cave, U2, Springsteen, Kraftwerk, the Valentines – each added something to their songs when performing live. Too often at the Phoenix Park, it felt like something was missing. There were some exceptional moments: “Waterfall” was fuller and more fleshed out than on the finished LP. Brown introduced “Elizabeth My Dear” as a different track and this gentle acoustic guitar number was a nice way to pace the set, its anti-monarchical sentiment well-received with baying whoops from the Irish crowd. “Made Of Stone” was equal to the LP. “Shoot You Down” is an example of a structurally complex song, with its frequent starting and stopping and layers of lead and rhythm guitar, that was always likely to prove tricky to replicate live, and so it proved. No surprise, really, that “This Is The One”, still played at Old Trafford before kick-off, worked a treat, building to a crescendo of noise, guitar and loud vocals reminiscent of the communal feeling at a match. Lyrically it also taps into said sense of camaraderie and it was probably their best track on the night with the crowd singing along with every word. “I Am The Resurrection” is the best example of, as previously discussed, a band incorporating a krautrock-style electric jam into a pop song; not in the “Tago Mago” Can sense, because the shimmery synths updated “Resurrection” for the Acid House era. While the chorus was splendid, the thumping rhythm wig-out did not translate quite as well.
“Fools Gold” and “One Love” are where the Roses genuinely blurred the boundaries of synthesiser and guitar music. That “Fools Gold” is still included in a lot of house music DJ sets is evidence enough of this. The inherent funk seems totally at odds with what a guitar-based band could or would produce. Needless to say, the rhythms did not work live. It remains tempting to contemplate the cocaine-free future that The Roses may have had if they had continued down this path after 1991. I think, as much as is even possible to be definitive about such a matter, that the Stone Roses LP might just be my pick for favourite album ever, as it was the record of my teenage years. Occasionally I suffer from Acute Over Listening to a Record (AOLTAR) syndrome which temporarily stymies my enjoyment of The Stone Roses, yet perhaps that is the point with records that you loved as a kid. They continue to be untouchable in your musical memory. A word of advice, though: do not rely on a live performance to live up to those memories, for they are best kept wrapped in cotton wool inside your mind.