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Black Sky Thinking

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

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.