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The World Is Still Waiting: The Significance Of The Stone Roses Reunion
Alex Niven , May 29th, 2012 12:00

Those seeing the recent Roses reunion as either uplifting nostalgia or lad rock showing its true capitalist colours are missing the whole picture, says Alex Niven

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Like brutalist architecture, or glasnost, or Gazza, The Stone Roses are a late-twentieth century phenomenon about which nobody can agree. Something of a joke in their early, hair-gel-and-Blue-Öyster-Cult phase, the Roses leapt quickly to dizzying heights of fame and influence in 1989-90, only to become a subject of mockery once again as their star imploded in the mid-nineties. In the years since, the pendulum has continued to swing violently in opposing directions. In Manchester the Roses are alternately lionised as folk heroes and lambasted for their part in the heritage industry that has calcified around the city’s indie music legacy (see FUC 51, a collective blog of “Madchester deniers”, for a gleefully scything recent critique of the Manchester Music Museum). Elsewhere pro vs. anti Roses skirmishes have been just as rancorous. Neil Kulkarni and John Tatlock traded cotton-gloved punches on the subject on this very website back in 2009.

Now, as the Roses reformation is finally upon us, we can expect more of the same. Initial reactions to the reunion gigs have been positive; but the old grumbles – the accusations of musical conservatism, the gripes about “laddism”, the compulsion to find new animal-metaphors for Ian Brown’s voice – are surely only a clock-tick away.

Amid the partisanship of the pros and the contras, a bit of critical perspective is needed. The Roses are probably not going to pull off the Third Coming many have yearned for over two decades of hurt. They are probably not going to finally conquer America. They are unlikely, I’m afraid to say it, to produce another really first-rate album (though they may still have a couple of interesting singles in them). Their utopianism has been too cankered by bitterness and infighting over the years, their once Olympian energy tempered by the attrition of age and experience. Above all, they will have to reckon with the toxic atmosphere of the nostalgia circuit they are venturing into, a late-capitalist napalm-cloud that threatens to vitiate and trivialise every single meaningful thing they have ever done or try to do now. Miranda Sawyer is already doing her bit to filter the legacy of the Roses through the wistful retrospectives of JD Sports brand consultants and celebrating their contribution to the corporate “Adidas-shod utopia” of post-regeneration Manchester.

But if we look hard enough we might just be able to see something very valuable indeed in the message the Roses are returning to the table this summer. For liberals like Sawyer, the reunion is a nostalgic lifestyle fantasy. For cynics and right-wingers, it can be explained away as a case of greed and rational self-interest finally winning out after years of conscientious refusals to sell-out. But if we accept these explanations, this says more about our own very historically specific form of unbelief and paralysis in the face of Capital than anything else. At the reunion press conference last October, Ian Brown revealed that the band had wanted to make the announcement the day after the riots. He then proceeded to reduce a Daily Mail reporter to a puddle of slop with the sort of route-one political invective not heard in British pop discourse since circa 2001: “What does it feel like to support the newspaper that supported Adolf Hitler? That supports the banker cabals that are ruining the world?” Shouldn’t this tip us off to the fact that something other than avarice and middle-aged revivalism is at play here?

The Roses' resurrection might actually amount to something worthwhile because it offers the prospect of a return to – or at least a reminder of – a tradition of popular radicalism in British music that was to a large extent derailed and suppressed in the nineties and noughties. This happened because, amongst other reasons, the Stone Roses pissed away their potential so regally and left a void behind for Blur and Kula Shaker to step into. This was a tragedy from which leftfield British pop has never quite recovered; revisiting it might provide some much-needed catharsis, as well as a chance to consider why we seem to have been stuck in a loop of ever increasing apathy and retrogressive inertia ever since the Roses seemed to metamorphose nightmarishly into Oasis one day in early 1994.

It’s surely not much of an exaggeration to say that the nineties and Britpop might have been very different had the Roses continued to expand on their radical response to Thatcher’s Britain, instead of retreating into cocaine addiction and all-night The Song Remains The Same binges as protracted legal struggles unpicked their solidarity in the early-nineties. As Jon Savage put it in the Britpop documentary Live Forever: “Spike Island was a good feeling: it was a feeling of space, it was a feeling of freedom after having been locked up by eleven years of a Conservative government. But what happened after Spike Island was that The Stone Roses completely fucked it up. The Roses were the group who were going to break through and make it. And they didn’t, because they lost their nerve."

In fact the entire Stone Roses project might be viewed as an attempt to avoid a more general “failure of nerve”, an all-or-nothing late-countercultural offensive against Thatcherism that stitched together all of the most poetic strands of pop history in an effort to win back the centre-ground from the neo-liberal moneymen and the post-modern ironists. It was not for nothing that a previous failure of nerve – 1968 and the Paris student riots – provided a continual point of allusion in the artwork and lyrics of the Roses’ first album. This evocative date acted as the central metaphor in a wider campaign of historical summary. Songs named after Picasso’s Guernica, Jackson Pollock pastiches, Muhammad Ali moves, Situationist rhetoric, Cymande samples, neo-punk polemics against the monarchy: the Roses knew popular culture and the twentieth century avant-garde inside out and pasted it together to create a potent collage of artistic populism, one that slotted into a wider feeling that the punitive eighties might finally provoke a revolutionary cultural reaction.

Throughout their apprenticeship on the margins of the mid-eighties indie scene, the band occupied a classic romantic-radical position from which they made repeated assertions that another dimension was lying dormant, ready to burst into life with the right amount of collective belief and imagination. Magical train rides through rainy cityscapes, hallucinations of bursting into heaven, graffiti scrawled on statues, daydreams about young love, lyrics about searching for the perfect day wrapped around chiming Opal Fruit guitar lines: this was the druggy landscape of dole culture in the second Thatcher term, a place where fantasy and utopianism offered a trapdoor-escape from post-industrial depression, especially in places like the North where the social defeat had been very real. Countless bands from the Smiths to the Cocteau Twins adopted a similar tone of hermetic idealism during this period. What was remarkable about the Stone Roses though – and the reason surely why they are regarded with such quasi-spiritual reverence to this day – is that their romantic assertions about another world being possible suddenly and miraculously started to seem realistic and realisable as the end of the eighties loomed.

As they approached their peak, the Roses encapsulated a feeling of coming into the sun, a feeling of imminent outbreak and possibility that has very few parallels in the last quarter-century. Often caricatured as working-class boors, the Roses were in fact one of the most lyrically articulate bands in the history of pop. Commenting on 'Made of Stone' in an interview in early 1989, John Squire memorably said that it was “about making a wish and watching it happen. Like scoring a goal in a Cup final, on a Harley Electra Glide, dressed as Spiderman”. Their lyrics of the time were lacquered with a similar sense of expectant wish-fulfillment, a sense of arrival at a momentous historical crux: "I can hear the earth begin to move, I hear my needle hit the groove; soon to be put to the test, to be whipped by the winds of the west; you’ve found what the world is waiting for, I guess it’s time; take a look around there’s something happening; the time has come to shoot you down." The Roses belated renaissance of sixties idealism was something more than the vintage rehash we’ve become used to in subsequent years. This was an early, sublimated version of Retromania: a British reprisal of psychedelia, funk, and 1968 that briefly looked like it might actually amount to something socio-culturally meaningful.

For some, this sort of idealism is always doomed to failure. But the gap between failure and success can be slight. Sometimes a great swathe of society invests a large portion of its emotional energy in a cultural avatar, a vanguard team that embodies the hopes and dreams of a much bigger demographic. The Stone Roses were not alone in symbolising an outpouring of collectivism and radical hedonism at the tail-end of the eighties: the various representatives of acid house, hip-hop, and the rock underground were clearly far more influential in practical and global terms than the Roses’ and their short-lived campaign of dance-pop tribalism. Of course there are umpteen examples from the late-eighties of music that was more innovative and challenging, forms of music that continued to develop into the nineties and act as effective short-term antidotes to the spiraling neo-conservatism that has more or less totally decimated the pop avant-garde over the last two decades.

But the failure of the Roses in the early-nineties – which was basically an arbitrary collision of bad luck and personal fall-outs – was the kind of unfortunate collapse that has profoundly negative repercussions throughout an entire stratum of the culture. Instead of being a wild anomaly that stood at the summit of a creative apotheosis only ever partially recaptured after the mid-nineties comeback, 'Fools Gold' might have been the foundation text of an alternative Britpop: a politically engaged mainstream movement that would never have gotten into bed with Blair, a revival rather than an attenuation of the post-war New Left, guitar pop more in thrall to Bootsy Collins than the Beatles, a progressive filter for – rather than a reaction against – the most thrilling leftfield developments of the nineties from Tricky through Timbaland. As it was, the independent scene crossed over to the darkside and instantaneously lost its whole raison d’être, while the underground progressively retreated into microcosmic obscurity in an age of internet atomisation (cf. chillwave).

It goes without saying that the political and music industry establishment is perfectly comfortable with this bifurcation into corporate traditionalism on the one hand and bedroom individualism on the other. What it is really worried about, and what it is just possible the Stone Roses reunion might remind us of, is the sort of significant minority avant-garde incursion that is somehow able to retain an ethos of subversion and an aesthetic of creative openness, whilst also managing to communicate these values to a wide enough portion of the population with melodic and rhythmic immediacy.

What the Camerons and the Cleggs and the Cowells and the monarchists and the Mail-readers and the Mumford & Sons minions are really deeply fucking scared of in the pits of their blackened souls is a normative radicalism, the sort of aberrant culture that does all the traditional things like making us dance and giving us songs to sing at weddings and wakes and school discos and sports occasions, at the same time as it introduces subtle formal innovations and delivers uncompromising messages of insurrection. The Stone Roses Mk. II will have a tough job managing to do anything very effective at all, once Zane Lowe and the Shockwaves NME start winding up the hyperbole machine. But if we press the mute button on our cynicism this Imperial-time-warp summer, we might just be able to hear their profoundly optimistic message resounding through a landscape ravaged by a newly virulent strain of Thatcherism: a kind of spiritualized socialism framed as a funky, communitarian song; an angry, affirmative voice promising that he won’t rest until Elizabeth II has lost her throne. Take a look around, there’s something happening. It’s the Britpop that never was. And right in the nick of time.

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Mof Gimmers
May 29, 2012 4:24pm

While I may not agree with all the points, this is a terrific bit of writing. The soap opera of rock 'n' roll has got a heartwarming tale of the reunion of Brown and Squire, which in itself, is pleasing enough to see. Whether the gigs are a failure or not is a moot point because dyed-in-the-wool Roses fans will love it regardless and all the critics won't swerve their judgement either way.

What will be sad is that this will stop various publications looking elsewhere for another decade when it comes to the music of Manchester (something that the FUC51 brigade was often keen to point out). The Stone Roses reunion seemed unlikely and is pretty fun now it's happening. Sadly, the spectre of Manchester past has swallowed everything in the city again, and that's something of a shame.

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May 29, 2012 4:25pm

I'm neither a massive Stone Roses fan or foe - I'd rate their debut as a good, promising but notably uneven collection, and what came after as supremely disappointing - but this is the first piece that's made me re-consider my distaste for this particular reunion. I'd still say there's a great risk in these gigs completely airbrushing any trace of radicalism from the public perception of the group and rooting them even more firmly in the lad-rock cannon (which, in fairness, isn't a place they really belong) what with their decision to play V Festival and so on, but it would be heartening to see more bands take the ideas and openess of an Elizabeth My Dear or a Made Of Stone on board.

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Nobby Stiles
May 29, 2012 5:04pm

I like listening to the Stone Roses recorded work but can Ian Brown sing live these days?

I suppose early Britpop was political in the narrow sense of being a reaction to American cultural imperialism. "Modern Life is Rubbish" & "Suede" suggested that British people had lives that were worth commenting on. It was a welcome change from switching on the television & seeing American programmes reminding you that you were 5000 miles away from anything worthwhile.
Sure it was parochial, but no more so than listening to tales of being shot at in South Central, or being stuck in a small town in Kansas.

I think that the reason Britpop wasn't too political in a wider sense was because the number of youngsters who came of age in that era was small relative to the rest of adult society. There just weren't that many people born in the 1970s to kick off as young adults. At least in the South, many older adults were doing quite well for themselves & couldn't give toss what we had to say.

I remember that the kids who were into indie guitar music before Britpop exploded in my neck of the woods tended to be more middle class than average & weren't always popular with the kids who were into techno or chart music. It is hard to lead of line of people who think you & your mates are gay for having long hair across the barricades.

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broseph k
May 29, 2012 5:52pm

"The Roses belated renaissance of sixties idealism was something more than the vintage rehash we’ve become used to in subsequent years."

nope, they were the beginning of the "vintage rehash". gormless boors in fishing hats who thought that if they aped the sounds and rhetoric of the sixies and seventies, maybe that would lead to some of the acclaim and "importance" of the bands of those eras rubbing off onto them.

their true heirs are shite like the enemy, all mouth and no brains.

lets consign these knuckleheads to the bargain bin of history once and for all.

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Russell MacDonald
May 29, 2012 5:53pm

Beautiful! Thanks for writing that piece.

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May 29, 2012 5:56pm

and it's important for all of us to remember what an enormous bell end ian brown is. worse than liam gallagher and richard ashcroft put together. anyone remember this?

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mark e
May 29, 2012 7:15pm

" guitar pop more in thrall to Bootsy Collins than the Beatles,"

this ^ this ^ this ^ this

if only.

excellent piece.

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May 29, 2012 7:25pm

I had a far more significant stool movement this morning. It sounded like Brown.

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May 29, 2012 8:20pm

Really good article, the Stone Roses role in the propagation of the turgid mainstream crap we suffer through today has always been much more interesting to me than their actual musical output (which, really, is just a shiny re-packaging of late 60's guitar pop). Not sure I agree with the small bit lumping Blur in with Kula Shaker...but that's a minor quibble in the end. Good piece.

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May 29, 2012 11:36pm

Are those FUC51 bores still banging that drum? The idea that The Stone Roses, Happy Mondays and Hooky's Hacienda Cruise Ship somehow stifle the chances Manchester's new bands is nonsense. If people want to wallow in the 90s then fine but Manchester now has more live venues than ever before, and the live scene is as vibrant and varied as ever. It is possible for the past and present to co-exist.

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May 30, 2012 7:53am

In reply to broseph:

Didn't he also get done for driving at 90mph in a 40 zone recently, with the defence claiming that he needed to keep his licence in order to be able to attend band rehersals?

Brown has always come across as a bit of a split personality to me. Happy enough to leave 'em to it though, unless he's driving somewhere nearby.

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Van Armstrong
May 30, 2012 8:08am

massively overrated, plodding, dull shite with a barking dog of singer who couldn't hold
a tune in a bucket...

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Paul ward
May 30, 2012 9:48am

I love the quietus, excellent article!

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Mof Gimmers
May 30, 2012 11:13am

One thing that has always tickled me is that, almost, The Stone Roses got a bunch of alpha-males into folk-rock.

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16 again
May 30, 2012 11:14am

When is someone going to question Pulp or the Pixies lazy reformations which featured no new songs, a totally unquestioning press and were both prey for the money?

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May 30, 2012 12:48pm

what is the problem with musicians wanting to make money so they can continue to make music? It seems to me, a middle class notion, that they need to keep it real by being poor.

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Jun 3, 2012 7:43pm

great article
agree the stone roses had more depth than all of britpop put together
hope they can pull something off this summer
(its good that Ian can put the important of 'voice' into perspective

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Tudor Parry Jones
Jun 4, 2012 11:25am

Brilliant article. That last paragraph really nails an underlying mood that I'm sure nags at a lot of us.
I don't feel any cynicism about them re-forming. They all look great, I'm sure they sound great and this is at least one re-union where the band seem keen to write new chapters rather than potting together a neat easy-to-understand version of themselves for the Glasto set.
Personally I don't blame the Roses or Britpop for anything that went wrong and think Nobby Stiles makes a good point about how the latter has been misunderstood (and why there was a need for it in the first place). There was a collective mood at the turn of the nineties, and not just in music that was tangible even to those of us who were children at the time. Communism in Europe had been dispensed with, the more aggressive stances of the eighties were rapidly going out of fashion (alas the holders of such stances had simply found places to hide while plotting for 10-12 years), everyday radicalism appeared to have been absorbed so certain prejudices while not exactly vanquished were no longer acceptable and it was cool to be conscientious. I'm probably making it sound very grand but it really did feel as though corners had been turned on certain matters. We seemed to hit a period of doubt in 1992-93 and some of the directions we took beyond then were the wrong ones so I guess we blew it.

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Jun 5, 2012 8:20pm

In reply to chrisdonkey:

A very interesting read, one of the many reasons I keep coming back to the Quietus. I can't comment on any of the socio-political commentary in the article (no first hand experience as I live in the States) but would agree with this head-scratching notion that a reunion for the sake of making $$ is so abysmal.

As much as I love the notion of following my artistic visions to completion there are these things called bills which need to be paid. I'm far from a materialistic person but will happily admit that the options which a good chunk of $$ provides are rather appealing to me.

I too took the "untouchable bands" of my youth to task (this when I was much younger than now) when, inevitably, their top-selling records were the worst of their respective lexicons. And tho I certainly don't dislike my current profession I'm not sure there's anything noble about spending 50 hours a week in a cube. And I'd be damn horrified to find Frank Black (just as one example) sitting in a cube next to me 'cos he decided to be "noble" and pack it in after Doolittle.

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Reggie P
Jun 6, 2012 7:23pm

In reply to 16 again:

Well said - was thinking the same thing re Pulp and that most over-rated of all bands, The Pixies.

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The Venue
Jun 6, 2012 8:28pm

I liked the Stone Roses but never understood the hype. The NME used to make out that they'd ire invented the wheel when in fact they'd re-tooled it . Good luck to them for paying the mortgage off but the past is theirs but the future's someone else's.

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Reggie P
Jun 6, 2012 9:30pm

Did they bottle it/blow it...? The then NME editor, Steve Sutherland, wrote a piece about Blur, Elastica, Pulp et al in the Christmas '97 edition of the aforementioned weekly chastising them for the same thing as the arse-end of Brit-Pop.

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Jun 8, 2012 4:46pm

Neanderthal thick shit knuckle dragging tuneless wank in 89,more so now
prick band,prick fans

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Jun 11, 2012 1:48pm

"if we accept these explanations, this says more about our own very historically specific form of unbelief and paralysis in the face of Capital than anything else"

And Lenin was crap on banjo, I'm told.

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Nick white
Jun 13, 2012 9:07pm

The only people trapped in nostalgia is the Fuc51 troll who bleats on about the past and offers no new bands or new music as a counter argument, A standing joke in the city, Fuc 51 is a tragic little man.

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barry ballsack
Jun 21, 2012 4:38pm

Pedestrian sub-Byrds 6th form poetry tosswank

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Jun 23, 2012 9:59pm

were they important or just self-important,who cares..they were creating 'pastiche' 60s,70s rawk' and were nothing more than a youth club type band who lucked out by coinciding with the 'E'generation.Any ol' 'cock' sounds good if you're 'on one,matey'...but,you can't polish the Brown turd..,he should be nowhere near a mic...

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