In January, when the Coachella lineup was announced and the Stone Roses sat right at the top, Twitter lit up with the confusion of young Americans who’d never heard of the British icons. “Anyone that says that they love the Stone Roses is a liar,” one woman indignantly tweeted. “Nobody knows who they are.”
In their native England, of course, this is far from true. There the Roses are among the more influential bands since the Beatles, thanks almost entirely to their eponymous first album. They came to national attention in the late 1980s as the figureheads of an ecstasy-fueled music scene known as “Madchester,” which shifted the center of cultural gravity northward from London to Manchester and its suburbs. Their debut was a sleeper hit, climbing the charts single by single. The band didn’t need success to build its confidence, though: Ian Brown, the lead singer, told an NME interviewer just months after the album came out, “We’re the most important group in the world.” A rumor spread that the band had turned down an opportunity to tour with the Rolling Stones, because, as Brown told the magazine Smash Hits in 1989, “They should be bloody supporting us.” (The band’s manager, Gareth Evans, says the Roses fabricated the rumor as a publicity stunt.) In May 1990, having finished their first world tour, the Roses’ fame reached a fever pitch when they played to 30,000 people on an industrial island in the middle of the River Mersey, in Widnes, not far from their hometown.
But the band’s considerable sense of itself may have thwarted any shot at success in America. As Simon Spence recounts in his biography of the band, just published in the U.S. last week, the Roses refused to play the States unless they could be “mobbed like the Beatles” upon their arrival and play their first concert at Shea Stadium, which the Beatles famously sold out in 1965. As Spence observes, “The idea that the band could play Shea Stadium, and everybody in America would come to that one show, betrayed either breath-taking arrogance or a genuine naivety at the heart of the Roses.” In the end, the Roses cancelled the small college concerts they’d been sent to play in 1990, and didn’t set foot in the country until 1995, just months before they broke up.
Evans, the seedy manager who lured the band into an abominable contract with Silvertone Records, ultimately helped bring about the group’s demise. Though they could only blame themselves: They didn’t read the contract or seek legal advice on it. Among other things, the contract tethered the band to the label for seven albums and extended the label’s control of rights to “the world and its solar system.” The Stone Roses broke up in 1996, after a tepidly received sophomore album and an out-of-court settlement with Evans, who’d sued the band for a million dollars over his “unfair dismissal.”
Last year, the band reunited, selling a quarter of a million tickets to three Manchester shows, then touring the world (but not the United States). Their name has stayed alive for two decades on the strength of a single album—and the brilliance of The Stone Roses is not entirely in the music. “Even on songs we’ve got that are about a girl, there’s always something there that’s a call to insurrection,” Brown told Q in 1990. “People have to tune in.” “Waterfall,” for instance, could be a paean to a determined young woman or a patriotic vision of England.
Stands on shifting sands,
the scales held in her hands.
The wind it just whips her and wails
and fills up her brigantine sails.
She carries on through it all,
she’s a waterfall.
The album is infused with a fierce, if sometimes slightly veiled, politics. Like many of their peers, the Stone Roses detested Margaret Thatcher and her government and railed against the aristocratic and artistic status quo. In an interview with The Face, Brown railed against “people like Jagger and Bowie” who were “so insincere” as to be “patronizing.” “We’re against hypocrisy, lies, bigotry, show business, insincerity, phonies and fakers.” Last summer, at one of their enormous reunion concerts in Manchester, Brown called the royal family “parasites” and said the Jubilee was a celebration of “60 years of tyranny,” which seems tame in light of things he said at the height of the band’s career. In a 1989 interview with Melody Maker, Brown said of Prince Charles, “I’d like to see him dead. I’d like to shoot him.” That might explain whom he’s addressing when, in “Shoot You Down,” he sings, “I’d love to do it and you know you’ve always had it coming.” Guitarist John Squire’s album artwork for the band’s debut—an abstract expressionist piece with red, white, and blue stripes and three lemons set over a Pollock-style background—draws a parallel between the French student protests of 1968 (when lemons were used to counteract the effects of tear gas) and a similar British revolt the Roses were hoping for. (The Roses’ identification with the ’68ers is laid out clearly in “Bye Bye Badman,” where Brown adopts their perspective and taunts their adversaries: “Choke me, smoke the air./ In this citrus-sucking sunshine, I don’t care./ You’re not all there.”)
From the first shimmering insinuation of “I Wanna Be Adored” to Brown’s final hubristic declaration on “I Am the Resurrection,” The Stone Roses is vibrant and captivating. It is certainly the place to start. But they recorded other great songs that are not on that album. Below are 10 songs that anyone interested in the band should know. The playlist is weighted in favor of the band’s first album, but I’ve also included a few that will give you an idea of the band’s b-side strength and the sound of its second album, The Second Coming.
“I Wanna Be Adored,” The Stone Roses
“Bye Bye Badman,” The Stone Roses
“I Am the Resurrection,” The Stone Roses
“This Is the One,” The Stone Roses
“Made of Stone,” The Stone Roses
“Waterfall,” The Stone Roses
“Where Angels Play,” Turns Into Stone
“What the World Is Waiting For,” The Complete Stone Roses
“Fools’ Gold,” The Complete Stone Roses
“Ten Storey Love Song,” The Second Coming