The summer of 1990 was a strange affair. Britain seemed to be on the crest of something. Which later turned out, contrary to the expectations of young radicals trying to get rid of a female Tory Prime Minister, to be another seven years of Conservative government under John Major. The year he took over was a time of decay defined politically by the aftermath of the poll tax riots. But on the football field, and in the wider culture that summer, it was all about optimism, particularly in the shape of Italia 1990 with the World in Motion, Gazza and Nessum Dorma in the World Cup England famously should have won but did not thanks to you know who. And Scotland went out early, again.
The Rolling Stones played Wembley for three nights that year, during the World Cup, returning to their home city for a series of dates in July 1990 after what at the time seemed like a long exile. To us then young and new fans high on the mythology of the legacy of the 1960s and early 1970s Stones and their survival, seeing them for the first time they seemed impossibly old. We grinned as Keith Richards cracked open another riff on Happy or Jumping Jack Flash and asked each other in wonder how on earth Keef was still alive after everything he inflicted on his system. It was only the best of stuff he took, he told interviewers. Twenty seven years later the Stones’ guitarist and guiding spirit is still rolling on, along with Mick and Charlie (“the Wembley whammer” as Jagger described him at Wembley back then) and Ronnie too, although Bill Wyman left the band soon afterwards.
The band that should have supported the Stones at Wembley that summer were the other great Stones, that is Manchester’s Stone Roses, who were in the summer of 1990 as vital and exciting as it gets. Their shimmering debut album released the previous year had swiftly been hailed as significant, and the double a-side follow-up single Fool’s Gold released in November 1989, suggested that here was the band the world had been waiting for. They offered something fresh that acknowledged the influences of the best of the 1960s and 1970s – Beatles, Stones, Stax, Beach Boys, Byrds, Big Star, Pistols – while infusing classic song-writing with the spirit of dance music and acid house without ever becoming a numbskull purely dance act.
Their timing was perfect. British music, or the indie-rock and pop end of it, had become far too compartmentalised in the 1980s. The Smiths – another Manchester phenomenon, what is it about that city? – had broken through into the popular consciousness on Top of the Pops, but they were inherently indie and their fanbase was overwhelmingly undergraduate and fey. In the mainstream, from the noble impulse of Live Aid in 1985, had emerged a battalion of artistic horrors, elevating a self-important and naff rock royalty. Whatever the individual merits or otherwise as human beings of Phil Collins, Sting, Dire Straits and Clapton, the middle of the roaders sat there in their Armani jackets, taking up all the room, throughout the mid to late 1980s, until acid house and then the Roses and Madchester made it all look obviously not very good and silly old man stuff.
The Roses were the swaggering leaders of that rebellion. They were not a middle class phenomenon, other than at the fringes of their support. They were a working class bunch, who had imbibed enough of dance music culture and fashion to reflect that incessant impulse in their work, without it eclipsing the song writing or the mesmerising quality of the playing on a shuffling song such as Shoot You Down.
It is unclear if the Stone Roses ever really were invited to support the Rolling Stones that summer, although that was the rumour at the time, and lead singer Ian Brown certainly dismissed reports that other major acts had asked them to play support. They should be supporting us, was the response from the Roses.
Whatever the truth, by weird coincidence the week that Jagger and Richards took to the stage in 1990 in the old Wembley was the week it started to go wrong for the Stone Roses with the release of the One Love single. The hype got to them and they predicted that it would go into the charts at Number 1. It entered at Number 2. It also wasn’t quite up to standard, although fans pretended it was. The tune was there, but the production was not quite right. It needed, they admitted later, more work.
Work is what the band lacked after that, as they fought a long series of legal actions that meant they were injuncted and could not record. The momentum of 1989-1990 was gone, and there were too many drugs and too many cocaine-induced guitar track overdubs. The second album (1994’s “The Second Coming”, see what they did there?) may have contained Love Spreads, one of their finest pieces of work, but there were too many misfires on the album as a whole for it to be an entirely worthy follow-up to their debut. The Second Coming divides Stone Roses fans to this day.
The Rolling Stones, for all their legal problems down the years, would never have made such a mistake early in their career as to not get down to work. For all their rebellion and languid posing, they had the intensely ambitious and clever Jagger as a frontman. They were a blues band at source but they were also a group imbued with enough of the showbiz work ethic of the time learned on package tours and in TV studios. Keep working. Keep pushing. Try not to die. Make money. What’s next? Keep going. Keep at it.
Perhaps it is a shame that the Stone Roses lacked a cool-minded management that could have guided them to a career of seven or eight albums in a row. There would have been no need for the plodding Oasis in the mid-1990s if the Roses had persisted and cracked it. Oasis got all the fame and misguided adulation owing to the more talented Stone Roses when Brown’s boys imploded in 1995.
There is an alternative view, that I think holds. The first album was a beautiful accident of circumstances, without a major label involved to ruin it with stupid demands. The Stone Roses made it produced by John Leckie who spotted what they had and simultaneously beefed up their sound and spaced it out, teaching them in the process how to project grandeur. They followed it with b-sides for singles – such as Standing Here and Mersey Paradise – that other bands would have used as the basis for entire careers. Then came the layoff and second album I mentioned. Give me that limited but brilliant body of work to listen to any day, rather two decades of mediocre Stone Roses work on the record industry corporate treadmill.
Since 2012 they have been back playing live. So how do they sound?
My apologies, I have again, such is the pleasure of writing for Reaction, turned a simple review of a concert into a rambling mini-essay on a subject dear to my heart. What of the concert?
On a scorching evening on Saturday the four original members played Wembley. By the time they walked on – to the tune of Stone Love, the Supremes track – large parts of the audience were quite simply out of their trees. The North West had come en masse to London and started drinking at midday in the sun. Not everyone had peace and love on their minds, although most seemed to, and the demeanour of some in the audience suggested they had not ingested chemicals in such large quantities since the day Gazza got a yellow card against Germany and started crying as England crashed out.
Other than that the audience was pure dadsville and I must admit I found all the lager and flares (smoke, not trousers) being thrown around quite off-putting. But within minutes of the opener, I Wanna Be Adored, we seemed to be as one – one love, stone love – in realising afresh how good the band is. Watching young scallys and oldsters (like me) chanting or mouthing the lyrics at each other, I marvelled again that the Roses could have produced from unpromising circumstances music and lyrics of such sublime beauty.
It helps that John Squire is perhaps the finest guitarist of his generation, and Reni the best drummer. Mani’s bass lines underpinning it all were not only rock solid. His playing had at the right moments a slippery glycerol-like quality. Even the frontman Ian Brown, who would not claim to be the best singer even in his own household, stayed steady. There were only a handful of moments when the focus slipped. Otherwise it got steadily more intense until by the end the effect was hypnotic. The line between 1990 and 2017 blurred. Where were we? Lost to the music in a way even a music obsessive knows is rare. Forgive me, it was hot. But they were that good.
We – a trio of old friends – were stood on the pitch at Wembley probably less than a hundred yards from where we stood seeing the Stones live for the first time 27 years ago. On Saturday evening in 2017 that same trio saw the other Stones – the Stone Roses – and they were better.