“Show me your vision” – The Stone Roses in 1990

The Stone Roses

We’re all familiar with the “difficult second album”, but “difficult seventh single”? Not so much. It’s ironic that 1990’s most anticipated record – the follow-up to a majestic debut album and groundbreaking 10-minute rock/dance hybrid – should now be the one moment from the Stone Roses’ glorious ‘Madchester’ period that’s least-discussed. It’s time to look again at “One Love / Something’s Burning” and what was going on with Britain’s most exciting rock band in 1990.

The Past Was Yours But The Future’s Mine

1989 belonged to the Stone Roses, and though their keen local following had been growing over the years, at the start of the year they weren’t necessarily a name on anyone’s lips to make it big, despite the pop thrill of late 1988’s Elephant Stone. Their sublime taster for May’s eponymous album was Made of Stone; and that, then the album, a tour and finally She Bangs The Drums in the summer (backed with two of pop’s greatest-ever B-sides in Standing Here and Mersey Paradise) cemented their position as the great new hopes for guitar music in the next decade. But why stop at guitar music? The band were in touch with what was going down in clubs, and the autumn saw them release one of the most groundbreaking singles of the late 80s in Fools Gold.

The band’s iconic Silvertone record covers, painted by guitarist John Squire

What made them the right band at the right time? They bridged a gap between pop’s past and its present: the band coupled this guitar-pop (aided by the Ecstasy-tinged production from John Leckie) with an awareness of club culture; their record sleeves – designed by artist & guitarist John Squire – were homages to Abstract Expressionist Jackson Pollock (and thus hinted at greater depths); and they oozed an aloof coolness. With anthemic songs like This Is The One and I Am The Resurrection, The Roses were the new Pop Messiahs: where would they lead us?

It May Go Right, But It Might Go Wrong

What no-one knew at the time, though, was that they’d already peaked, and the seeds of their downfall were multiple and long-planted. At the start of the 1990, former record label FM Revolver re-released the band’s delicate, summery 1987 single Sally Cinnamon, and promoted it with what the band saw as a cheap, derisory video. They took their revenge by covering the label’s boss, his girlfriend and his expensive car in paint. While there’s no such thing as bad publicity (oh but there is) this meant a court case in the near future, and the very real possiblity of a short custodial sentence. Not a great way to usher in the decade. Furthermore the record deal for Sally Cinnamon had been for two singles and an album, but the band had walked away from it; when they signed to the Silvertone label (offshoot of Zomba Records), theirs was the only offer on the table: the band had no choice. What they should have had, though, was a lawyer to pore over the terms of the contract they signed…

To capitalise on their popularity, and presumably to avoid becoming one of the stadium-filling acts they sought to dethrone, the band came up with the idea of a large tent that they could move around and play gigs under. This only happened for the band’s final show of the early 90s, on Glasgow Green. A fortnight before that was their largest, most legendary concert, at Spike Island near Widnes, in time for which (in late May) there was promised a new single. Intended as a Woodstock for Madchester, the venue was rubbish, on an island right next to a chemical plant; there was hardly any catering; the sound vanished in the breeze, and so by the time the band came on the punters had had a largely dispiriting day. An awkward press conference on the eve of the show (when their cocksure self-confidence translated as arrogance to the international cadre of journalists) hadn’t necessarily helped their case. Never mind, surely there’d be a new single along presently?

One Love front cover…

All The Scenes I Saw Left Me Wanting More

The new year the Roses had helped to usher in proved to be a golden one for pop, as BBC Four’s recent repeats of 1990’s Top Of The Pops attests. Yes, of course there was still a ton of corporate dross from Phil Collins, Elton John and Cliff Richard; and of course there was a ton of cash-in novelties from the likes of Megabass (AKA Jive Bunny), but what other year had such an exciting mix in the top 40? Among the Roses’ north-west English peers were breakthroughs from Inspiral Carpets, Northside, The Charlatans, 808 State, The Farm, James and The Las; and of course Happy Mondays consolidated their position that year with Step On and Kinky Afro. Other alternative pop that hit the charts that year included the (relative) big guns of The Cure, Depeche Mode and New Order (even as a Scot I can recognise the pop brilliance of World in Motion); there were Primal Scream, The Soup Dragons, Ride, The Beloved, The Wedding Present, Electronic, Pixies, Jesus Jones. And what other year could boast chart hits for LFO, Orbital, Tricky Disco, The KLF and Dee-Lite? …all this plus Betty Boo!

But the Stone Roses? They were like Banquo’s ghost at the feast. The spring saw Silvertone re-release Elephant Stone, Made of Stone and She Bangs The Drums, and all charted while the record label – and the public – awaited the band’s next musical move. There was an interview and cover feature with Smash Hits, and there were the gigs. It seemed they were everywhere except on the “new release” shelves.

What The World Is Waiting For

The new single had been slotted for May, to be backed by an appearance on prime-time BBC1 chat show Wogan. One legend has it that the band pulled out because the show wouldn’t be live; the other legend says the BBC got wind of their plan to denude host Terry Wogan of his wig. Either way, that TV performance never happened and so their aborted early ’89 appearance on The Late Show remains their sole UK live TV slot.

Meanwhile, in the studio? The band were neither prolific writers nor fast workers. An interview on the eve of their breakthrough Blackpool Empress Ballroom concert in the summer of 1989 teased at a forthcoming single called “Any Time You Want Me”. What actually followed was, of course, Fools Gold / What The World Is Waiting For in November, but the lyrics to One Love were evidently in gestation.

On the night of the paint attack on FM Revolver in January the band retreated to the studio and recorded most of Something’s Burning, so at least something was down on tape. And let’s look at that B-side – effectively the last transmission from the Roses for four long years.

Something’s Burning is a close cousin to Fools Gold, and it seems the band had found an interesting (if narrow) new path and were making the most of it. Plenty of “indie-dance” songs used a generic Soul II Soul beat, but when you have a drummer of Reni’s calibre that isn’t an option. However, the hidden demo version of Something’s Burning on The Lost Demos (released as part of The Stone Roses 20th anniversary package) uses the same loop as Fools Gold. Like that previous single, it’s heavily influenced by Ege Bamyasi-era Can. It seems the band had moved beyond sticking the tape in backwards for an entire track and merely reversed some bass parts for the spiralling, enveloping minute-long intro. The multi-talented Reni also plays vibraphone (I think) and xylophone alongside his pattering, shuffling percussion. John Squire’s guitar licks are sporadic and funky, in hock to the groove. And what a groove! Fools Gold aside, Mani’s bass is rarely prominent enough in the mix of a Roses song, and he makes damn sure to show off what he can do. The vibe is murky and swampy (this works in the song’s favour, unlike the sometimes messy interplay of sounds on the A-side), but the mix is also clear. Brown’s hushed, whispered vocals threaten and cajole in familiar style. Fools Gold may have reached 10 minutes, but the vocals ended halfway through; One Love is over seven, and again the vocals end midway; Something’s Burning is (although this isn’t necessarily obvious at first listen) the more structured of the two songs on this single, and the vocals are spread evenly throughout the length of the song. The coda echoes the intro (not dissimilar to Miles Davis’s In A Silent Way) and the band fade into silence until November 1994. We can only imagine what would have happened if this was indeed a direction the band were planning to take in subsequent years. In retrospect, Something’s Burning is a road not taken: many bands have them, some for better, some for worse.

Over on the A-side, One Love. John Robb calls it “mean, sinuous and funky” which is pretty accurate, but I can’t help feel that despite the euphoria of the chorus there’s something missing from it. In hindsight, the band were disappointed with the song, which sounds rushed – indeed unfinished – and owes too much to Fools Gold. The plan was evidently to mark Spike Island and a summer of big tent gigs with a suitable anthem, but as Ian Brown later said “we wanted to cover all bases and ended up covering none”. For all the song’s pop rush it’s difficult to argue, but I can’t quite put my finger on where the fault lies: the empty bombast of the chorus lyrics, John Squire’s guitar which ventures all over the place (though not to the extremes that the future would hold), or the mix? It’s a brave stab at melding rock and dance but Fools Gold did it better; perhaps they felt they couldn’t keep turning out anthemic psychedelic pop but where were they to go? Hendrix/Led Zeppelin or Can? Or dance? There was an Adrian Sherwood remix done at the time but it’s really poor; surprising given his superb dub credentials. And that mix: after an age working on the track, producer John Leckie departed for six weeks, only to discover on his return that there was still no satisfactory mix – and it still shows. It’s a mess.

…and the back of the sleeve. No swastikas, but close enough to ring alarm bells.

Outside the studio there were further problems. John Squire’s artwork had evolved away from the Pollock paint sprawls, and the cover for One Love was influenced by both the Castrol oil can, and the mascot for the Italia 90 World Cup. But Squire noticed to his horror that there was the suggestion of a swastika in the design – a major embarrassment for a band proud of their left-wing politics. Squire pulled the cover and destroyed the proofs of the artwork, using the torn scraps to produce an alternative front cover.

Wogan never happened, there was a single TV performance of the new single to back it, and the video didn’t seem to enjoy any bigger a budget than before (the Lanzarote Fools Gold shoot was prudent enough to also produce enough footage for the later I Wanna Be Adored video). Could expectation alone carry the single to the top?

What Goes Up Must Come Down

One Love entered the charts at an impressive number 4, but spent a mere four weeks in top 40 (the same as the re-released Elephant Stone had done in March, and as the re-entry of Fools Gold would shortly afterward). It leads to the conclusion that One Love didn’t noticeably broaden their appeal and merely kept them treading water.

Ian Brown has since mentioned unreleased (and probably unrecorded) songs including English Electric Lightning and Mr. Shy Talk, but the only other hint we have of where they may have gone if they’d maintained 1989’s momentum is Pearl Bastard. This plangent, downtempo number appeared on The Lost Demos in the 20th anniversary package, and while it was great to hear a bonus track from the Roses, although allegedly recorded in 89-90 it sounds like something from the period between Sally Cinnamon and Elephant Stone: that is, 87-88. What it doesnt sound like is the direction they took after Fools Gold, which leads to the conclusion that the rock-dance hybrid they embarked on was a relatively sudden development.

Although in October the band escaped jail for the paint-throwing incident at Revolver, in early 1991 there followed a protracted court case to free themselves from the frankly bizarre terms of their Silvertone contract (no money to the band for the first 30,000 records sold; a seven-album deal), and after the band won – and immediately signed to Geffen for a rumoured £2 million – Silvertone got their own back by milking the band for everything they could, with diminishing artistic returns. First off, in the autumn of 1991 was the aforementioned I Wanna Be Adored single which at least gave us the gorgeous album out-takeWhere Angels Play (though producer John Leckie reckoned it was never quite finished), and a stunning live version of Sally Cinnamon. They followed that with a repackaging of the debut album; an unnecessary release of the sublime Waterfall; an utterly terrible 7″ edit of I Am The Resurrection, and the admittedly fine (if cheaply-produced) B-sides and non-album-singles compilation Turns Into Stone.

The band, now hugely wealthy (after existing on £60 a week while signed to Silvertone) almost inevitably drifted apart, losing the gang mentality which was such a huge part of their appeal. They seemingly retreated into their separate record collections (70s rock for Squire, dub and soul for Brown, and hip-hop for Mani), detached from what was happening in music (which in 91-93 meant either American grunge or the blossoming electronica scene); and by the time they finally re-convened for rehearsals and recording, were also (according to legend) all on different drugs. It’s absolutely no surprise then that the result should be a record as murky, disjointed and regressive as Second Coming. It’s not without its merits, but I could happily never hear it again, while every spring I put their debut on and it still sounds fresh and ecstatic. Yet when I listen to One Love and Something’s Burning, I wonder what might have been.

Sources

Robb, John: The Stone Roses and the Resurrection of British Pop (Ebury Press, 1997)

Spence, Simon: The Stone Roses: War and Peace (Penguin, 2012)

https://www.officialcharts.com/artist/25315/stone-roses/

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