This Was England '90

Hidden somewhere deep within a photo album at my parents' house, there's a snap of myself and my siblings on Christmas Day in 1989. In amongst the tableau of hastily unwrapped hair straighteners, Stephen King novels, Neighbours-related board games and boxes of orange Matchmakers, you can just about make out a grinning youngster holding up an 808 State album and sporting the unmistakeable telltale combination of a long-sleeved What The World Is Waiting For t-shirt - note, not a Fool's Gold one - and an overgrown centre parting; the trouser cuffs, sadly, are out of shot, but it's a fair bet that they fitted the stylistic bill too. And you won't win one of the boxes of orange Matchmakers for deducing that it was me.

By that point I had already become a fairly obsessive and evangelical follower of The Stone Roses and indeed pretty much all of the other similarly-minded bands that emerged from Manchester (and, let's be honest about it, a fair few other Northern towns and cities, and even London managed to come up with a couple of decent ones too) around the same time. They weren't in fact the first of the 'Madchester' bands that I'd discovered; that honour went to Happy Mondays, and you can find the tale of my constantly-thwarted efforts to get hold of the 12" of 24 Hour Party People after hearing John Peel play it one evening in Well At Least It's Free. Peel never really played The Stone Roses - as was his idiosyncratic wont, he had cultivated a bizarre dislike of them despite enthusiastically championing dozens of other outfits who sounded similar without being even a tenth as good - so I'd been seeing their name mentioned in increasingly excited terms in the music press for a good while before I actually heard them. But that all changed when I was illictily staying up late one night in January 1989 to watch The Other Side Of Midnight, a regional ITV arts show presented by Tony Wilson, and four moptopped casuals (and their oft-forgotten effect box-operating sidekick) showed up doing a dancey and hypnotic jangly guitar-pop song with mesmeric lyrics to match. It was that immediate. On the basis of one performance of one song, I suddenly had a new favourite band. And not just a favourite band, one that eclipsed anything I'd liked before, from The Smiths and My Bloody Valentine to Bomb The Bass and N.W.A. and, well, even Happy Mondays. It was not unreasonable to say that I was now something of a fan of The Stone Roses.

Within days I'd got hold of their previous single Elephant Stone, closely followed by the imminently-released Made Of Stone, and although I have to confess to feeling a bit ripped off by the backward versions of the a-sides that helped pad out both of those 12"s, the other b-sides were intriguing enough to draw me futher in. Then in July came She Bangs The Drums, featuring two of the best b-sides in the entire history of singles ever, and more pertinently a third on which they finally got the hang of this 'backwards' lark and came up with something that was shimmering and ethereal yet also sonically overwhelming, and better still didn't bear any relation to anything that you'd already forked out for. Well, not at that point anyway. The self-titled debut album, meanwhile, had sneaked out initially unnoticed in early May; as unbelievable as it may seem nowadays, I had some trouble getting hold of it in the week of release, and after being told by at least one high street store that "we don't always stock all the independent records" I eventually managed to find a copy in - appropriately enough, given its fusion of sixties and nineties pyschedelia - the 'New Dance Releases' rack in Penny Lane Records. THAT song from THAT television appearance was there in all of its elongated transcendent glory, and better still also appeared in a superb reworked backwards form (and there were photos of the performance in the sleeve art too), and seemingly every other track was every bit as good, from the nigh-on ten-minute closing number which spiralled out from a dynamic Byrds-go-Motown song that you would not have liked to have been the lyrical target of into an immense early seventies-style stop-start funk workout, to the brief and to-the-point burst of folk song with literal monarchy-targeting lyrics that seemed genuinely shocking at the time. Yes, even to someone who had been playing Fuck Tha Police on a loop for months on end. Cultural differences are a foreign country.

Bob Stanley's Melody Maker review of The Stone Roses famously concluded "this is simply the best debut LP I've heard in my record buying lifetime; forget everybody else, forget work tomorrow", and for me and countless others like me, the effect was similarly immediate. Here was a band that seemed destined to change all the rules without following anyone else's, for whom great things seemed ahead both artistically and commercially, and whose surly dismissals of the idea of being in competition with anyone from The Rolling Stones downwards seemed more a statement of fact than arrogance. This was a feeling that was only compounded with the release late in the year of the swaggering folky groove of What The World Is Waiting For, and its initially ignored double a-side Fool's Gold, a no-holds-barred dive into the cutting edge world of samples, loops and breakbeats. No matter how many times the word 'down' might have been repeated in the second verse, there was no keeping Fool's Gold down and the single was quickly flipped, leading to the celebrated same-edition Top Of The Pops debuts of The Stone Roses and Happy Mondays just as the eighties receded from view. We were, as that song that they had started doing live but hadn't released yet had it, on the verge of something shining. And coming throu-oo-ou-ah-ou-ah-oo-wa-ough.

As 1990 dawned, The Stone Roses were everywhere. There were the chart-hogging reissues of earlier singles, the innovative-for-the-time one-off outdoor shows in unlikely locations - most infamously North West industrial park Spike Island - the splendiferous top five single One Love, and the cover of every magazine from Sky to Smash Hits. And then... nothing. Alerted by a shrewd advisor to a ropey clause in an early contract, they entered into litigation that was supposed to free them up to take on the world, but instead dragged everything into a whirlpool of appeals and counter-appeals, with the band left unable to record or even visibly write anything new for fear that they might have to forfeit material if matters didn't go their way. And somehow, this just added to the momentum, with credible rumours circulating that they were quietly planning the album that would wipe the floor with the pop, rock and dance establishment in one fell swoop, and palpable excitement when an impatient NME journalist tracked them down to a rehearsal room and was politely ejected with a handful of trademark Ian Brown zen mutterings before they had a chance to hear a single note of new music. Four long years later, the legal coast was finally clear and... well, this article isn't about that. Nor about the bands that I got into while waiting for The Stone Roses to reappear (although you can find a whole book by me about that here). It's about something else that Happened Next.

It was around this time that I started to get the first stirrings of a nasty feeling that my past was being sold back to me. By early 1994, I was at University and the Student Union astutely put on a couple of 'Madchester' revival nights, drawing in a surprisingly large crowd who were as pleased to hear New FADS as they were The Stone Roses, Happy Mondays or Inspiral Carpets. Then they put one on later in the year, following the rise of Oasis, and it all seemed to have changed; 'mad fer it' types vacated the dancefloor at the first bars of Shall We Take A Trip?, Can You Dig It? and All On You (Perfume), besieged the DJs with requests for 'anything by Oasis', and took to greeting any Stone Roses number with whoops, cheers, football-style group hugs, and embarrassing displays of bottle-in-hand Liam Gallagher-aping dancing. That's where it started, and it's got worse from there.

You might be surprised at this point to discover that this is one of the few things in the entire history of the universe that I'm not about to blame on Oasis. In fairness to Noel Gallagher, he only ever really posited The Stone Roses as one of a wide number of influences, and even then spoke more of drawing inspiration from their attitude and appearance than from their music (a point that The Stone Roses' own Gary Mounfield seemed to agree on when he launched into a fairly voluble rejoinder to a clueless 6Music presenter's offhanded comment that Oasis had 'carried on where The Stone Roses left off', stating with audible irritation that he felt the 'arty, intelligent' Blur who had, crucially, 'heard Wire and Syd Barrett' had more in common with his former outfit). Oasis were many things but they were not Stone Roses copyists either musically or image-wise; they simply had the misfortune to play into the hands of tedious rock journalists and broadcasters furrowing their brows over where those troublesome 'Madchester' characters fitted into their easily-defined off-the-peg History Of Rock where everything started with Love Me Do, and a financially battered former record label keen to make as much money as they could out of their departed signings' comparatively small back catalogue.

Suddenly, after being ignored and even derided as a curious relic from a bygone age, The Stone Roses were apparently 'Classic Rock' through and through. Those misfiring rip-off backwards b-sides were reclaimed as 'genius' via swathes of floridly-written gibberish. Silly opinions were vouchsafed about the comparative lack of worth of the likes of The Mock Turtles, The Paris Angels and Candy Flip, for whom, according to the 'Pocket Essential Guide' to 'The Madchester Scene', "a seventh level of imitation Madchester hell" was apparently waiting; this might have come as something of a surprise to anyone who bought and liked Strawberry Fields Forever. Suspicious accounts were given of the Spike Island concert as some kind of harmonious pilgrimage to a utopian musical bliss, without a single mention of the smell, the dodgy sound system, the deep techno warmup acts, or the gangs of ne'er-do-wells who clearly weren't there for the music (and, conversely, referring to the venue as a 'derelict wasteland' when it had actually been reclaimed as a 'green space' several years previously), almost as though they might not actually have been there. Most infuriatingly of all, it somehow became acceptable to refer to 'She Bangs The Drum'. Singular. By the sort of people who would fly off the handle if anyone put a 'The' in front of 'Pixies'.

Meanwhile, although Silvertone's determination to exploit every last scrap of Stone Roses material that they happened to have lying around actually started as a good thing - fans desperate for new material were more than rewarded with the studio version of Where Angels Play and the Adrian Sherwood take on One Love, while singles and rarities compilation Turns Into Stone can in retrospect be viewed as the second album that should have been - matters rapidly went downhill, from Blackpool Live hardly exactly capturing what was great about the band, through the just about doing-what-it-says-on-the-tin The Complete Stone Roses, down past the endless and barely distinguishable remixes of Fool's Gold and increasingly contrived repackagings of the album, and reaching a wince-inducing nadir with The Remixes, a whole album's worth of modern-day overhauls nobody asked for.

Eventually, the two dovetailed in time for - you guessed it - the twentieth anniversary of the album's release, prompting a flurry of toturous music press waffle (though, admirably, almost blanket silence from the band themselves), and a paving slab-sized ludicrously-priced anniversary box set that would have had those 1989 record store employees guffawing in disbelief, and which provoked me into penning the following snarky outburst for my then-current blog:

The Stone Roses 20th Anniversary Box Set: What You Get For Your £873.54"The Stone Roses 20th Anniversary Box Set: What You Get For Your £873.54

- The Stone Roses and Turns Into Stone for at least the fifteenth time, as if there isn't a single person in the world who doesn't already own both of them eighteen million times over

- Blackpool Live for at least the fifteenth time, as if there is a single person in the world who ever wanted to willingly own it in the first place

- lyric booklet with lots of extraneous commas

- exclusive John Squire art print of something

- USB memory stick containing rare photos (like that one of them all crouching on a rooftop), rare videos (only ever previously available on the five hundred different Stone Roses videos and DVDs), rare screensavers, rare wallpapers, and a rare documentary featuring two hours' worth of some 'Madchester veteran' music journalist you've never bloody heard of, but absolutely no contributions whatsoever from the band themselves

- £50 to buy the 2-Disc version of The Complete Stone Roses, featuring several tracks inexplicably omitted from this box set, from some greedy fucker on Amazon Marketplace

- Why The Roses Were Top, Man!: an exclusive memoir by That Fat Bloke Doing An Air-Punching Dance To Waterfall In Every Indie Disco In the World

- Somewhere Soon by The High

- free 'Space Spinner'

- full colour poster of Gonch, Robbie and 'Trew'

- the baffled disdain of anyone who bought the album in 1989 after being told by two major high street stores that "we don't always stock all of the independent albums" and loved it and played it until the tape literally fell apart and they had to buy another eighteen months later and who got caught up in the excitement of this arty, intelligent band (where's all this nonsense about them being 'lads' come from?) threatening to smash into the upper echelons of chart stardom and dethrone the mainstream megastars and ultimately failing but spectactularly so and in any case they paved the way for Britpop to make that a reality five years later and who can't help but feel ever so slightly cheated by the 'Classic Rock Radio' fodder and mediocre student t-shirt industry they've since become courtesy of people who weren't even born in 1989 but have still come up with this make believe scenario in which everything changed forever when the entire world went Stone Roses crazy as opposed to just a few of the hipper types in school and some students you knew while everyone else was too busy listening to The Chimes and saying "these bands you like, how come I've never heard of them in the charts?" because it wasn't all Madchester in 1989 you know there was The Sundays and The Heartthrobs and the collapse of the Eastern Bloc and Emma Thompson's awful sketch show these youngsters today they don't know they're born and I'll tell you what I bet they never snogged Alison Lee either etc etc..."

Ahead would come that dismal Spike Island film and Shane Meadows' muddly documentary, and, basically, that's how we've got from someone discovering The Stone Roses by seeing them do Waterfall on a small-hours regional-only TV show in 1989 to Bradley Wiggins claiming that he discovered them by seeing them do Don't Stop on a children's TV show after coming home from school in 1991, and nobody batting an eyelid.

Doubtless by the time that you've read this far, there'll already be someone on Twitter scoffing "heff peff have you ever met mr pot mr kettle?????". And yes, back in 1989 - at least in terms of my interest in sixties music, archive TV etc - I almost certainly was guilty as charged. But, crucially, it was precisely this moving of the Stone Roses-related goalposts that taught me never to accept notions of 'The Past' on face value and to always go back and look at things in a wider cultural and technological context, to think about the mechanics of their production, and to get a first hand impression of how they were genuinely recieved at the time. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how you end up on a national news broadcast with a big caption saying 'CLANGERS EXPERT'.

Anyway, I can't tell you how many times I listened to the 12" of Fool's Gold over that Christmas. But I also can't tell you how many times around the same time I listened to The Madchester Rave On EP, The Island Head EP, Boing!, Nowhere, Quality Street, Two Sides, A Life With Brian, Madstock, Leisure, Pigeonhole, Sundew, Some Friendly, Ninety, Native Place or Chicken Rhythms. Oh alright, I can tell you that one. Once.

You can find much more about the late eighties and early nineties indie scene in my book Higher Than The Sun.

If you've enjoyed this article, you can find lots more like it in The Camberwick Green Procrastination Society, available in paperback here, from the Kindle Store here, or as a full-colour eBook here.