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One night in the north

John Robb celebrates the 20th anniversary of an event that captured the cultural and political moment, and a band whose anthemic, euphoric music for a brief time perfectly matched the sense of possibility and change

April 16, 2010
14 min read

When the Stone Roses strolled onto the stage at Spike Island on 27 May 1990, they very much represented the pop culture moment – the sonic soundtrack to a world that was suddenly changing very quickly. The harsh regimes of east Europe were crumbling. Thatcher was wobbling in Downing Street and was into the last few months of her premiership. And the frozen heart of sterile 1980s pop culture had been loosened by acid house and ecstasy.

There was a new mood in the air. The hair was longer, the trousers baggier and everyone was walking like a king monkey. And right at the heart of this youthquake were the Manchester-based band who would implode a few years later – never quite taking the world but definitely and defiantly changing it.

While 1989 had seen the band release their classic debut album, play their famous Blackpool Empress ballroom and Alexandra Palace gigs and rise from the gutter by word of mouth, 1990 was their year of triumph. Manchester became ‘Madchester’ and the epicentre of pop cool. It was dominating the pop culture agenda – and the Roses were right at its heart.

The Hacienda, with its dance nights, was the hippest club in the world; the Happy Mondays were arch-ruffian street cool; and the Stone Roses were the new soul warriors – the kings of new-decade class representing effortlessly the changes blowing through pop and that sense of possibility. That sense of future.

If 1989 had been the year zero for this new mindset, 1990 was when it went mainstream, with Spike Island as the unlikely staging ground. A frozen lump of chemical marshland on the banks of the Mersey near Widnes, the site was as brilliantly unglamorous and as far away from the pop mainstream as possible. Surrounded by chemical factories and a bastard to get to, for one evening – even with shaky organisation – it was the centre of the musical universe.

As Roses frontman Ian Brown recalls: ‘It was important to us that we could find somewhere that wasn’t rock n roll. Somewhere that no one had played before. Somewhere in the north. Spike Island was in the middle of a big industrial estate in the north west and we got 30,000 people there – kids from all over the country, and that was massive for us – and they all turned up in this chemical estate in the middle of nowhere!’

A musical sea change

The Stone Roses had arrived without anyone’s permission. The band had spent five years in Manchester honing their sound. Their reputation had spread slowly and by word of mouth in those pre-internet days before their eponymous debut album was acknowledged as a classic. By the time Spike Island came around, though, a year after the album’s release, the band was recognised as a phenomenon.

The night before the gig, at a press conference in a Manchester city centre hotel, the world’s press had been stonewalled by the band, who at that point in time had the world at their feet. The gap between the band’s surly cool and the media scrum was a pop art moment – a study in northern cool and a marker of the sea change in music that many still did not get.

And there had been some big changes going on since the 1980s’ musical malaise. The Thatcher decade had seen a cultural stalemate. This was the era of Spandau Ballet and Live Aid (great idea, terrible concert). Pop had become the soundtrack for a decade of selfishness – a champagne cocktail party that didn’t have to apologise for its greed anymore and was comfortable in its natural Tory world.

For sure there had been a rearguard action. The Smiths had provided a constant caustic commentary on the times. And the UK pop/noise underground of Jesus and the Mary Chain, and ‘Death to Trad’ rock bands like my own Membranes had combined with the post-hardcore American scene bands such as Big Black and Sonic Youth in keeping the flag flying for alternative culture.

But the mainstream had seen the dissipation of punk into absolute nothingness. As the punk bands had fizzled out they had been replaced by selfish groups who had ‘nothing to say about our lives’, to paraphrase the marvellous Morrissey, whose poetic genius and fierce intelligence had provided a rallying point for anyone interested in defying the Tory Reich, whether they liked his music or not.

Manchester itself had been one of those cities that on election nights was a fierce blob of red surrounded by an ocean of blue – a fortress of sanity surrounded by Daily Mail-reading middle England – and in the mid-1980s it started to stir musically. The devil may have the best tunes but the left-leaning bands are nearly always the greatest groups.

The key bands in this renaissance, the Stone Roses and the Happy Mondays, were from opposite ends of town and from opposite poles of pop culture. Where the Roses were the product of punk and scooter-boy crews who formed bands naturally, the Mondays were street lads who bumbled into being in a band. The Mondays had been signed to Tony Wilson’s hip local record label Factory Records, which had already enjoyed success with New Order and the Hacienda club, whereas the Roses were frozen out of the trendy inner circle in the city.

Changing the world with an ‘E’

At the time it didn’t seem likely that either group would make the breakthrough that they did. It took a change in drug culture to shift the public’s perceptions.

The UK in the mid-1980s was culturally arid, but as the decade ended there was big shift in people’s perceptions with ecstasy, ‘E’, starting to filter onto the streets. Acid house music, in combination with the euphoric rush of E, was bringing about a sea change that terrified the mainstream.

In Manchester the Hacienda suddenly turned from being more of a live venue into a dayglo temple of dance, with the key DJs of the period, Mike Pickering, Graeme Park and Jon Da Silva, changing the musical agenda. The atmosphere was electric and communal – something that the Roses reflected and in turn introduced to a generation of heartbroken indie kids who had just lost the Smiths following their implosion in the summer of 1987. ‘It seemed Manchester got big overnight – all of a sudden it was really exciting,’ Ian Brown recalls.

‘Everyone was dropping Es – that was what done it. My first E was amazing. We had been into tripping with acid in 1984-85. We had been out in town on acid but never where there had been 2,000 people tripping. Not everyone was tripping then but when it became ecstasy instead of windowpane acid everyone was on it and it was wild and amazing!’

‘I liked the house music before the Es,’ he continues. ‘Howard Jones, who was managing us, played us house music. He had tapes from Mike Pickering. I thought it was ace – just a piano and a beat, ace, dead simple! There wasn’t much vocals attached to it.

‘This was a year before ecstasy came in and when the acid house scene arrived suddenly everyone was your best mate – wasn’t it beautiful! I thought it was ace. There were thousands of us and more and more each week. We were going to change the world with this ecstasy.

‘Football violence stopped. Violence stopped. There was a different atmosphere. You could bang into people when you were out and it was a laugh. All the guys who had an edge to them didn’t have an edge to them. It made you feel sexy. It was powerful. There were so many at it – it could have changed the world.’

Acid house marked the biggest change in British pop culture since punk and had the same sort of profound cultural impact. Things were moving fast and the bands with the best cultural antennae were going to be the winners. By 1987 acid house was starting to encroach on the lifestyles of the hedonist fringe; it exploded in the second ‘summer of love’ in 1988 and dominated the late eighties.

The Roses themselves were never an ‘acid house band’ but you can hear the grooves meshed into their guitar-driven, psychedelic workouts. Some of the house drum beats are certainly in there and there is a feel of acid house in the mesmerising hypnotic fade outs of the classic cuts from their debut album. More importantly there is that acid house sensibility in their communal swagger and powerful all-in-it-together sense of self-belief.

Returning from raves or all nighters coming down from Es, carloads of people would turn to the Roses’ recently released album to chill out or experience the euphoric upward feel of the band’s music. When the Roses and the Mondays hit the mainstream in 1989, and Madchester became the scene, it was the culmination of the ’24-hour party people’ spirit that had been rocking in the city for a few years.

Seizing the moment

Pop music is all about the moment. That perfect moment when everything comes together – the culture, the music, the clothes, the geography. Spike Island was one of those moments. It felt like a dead weight had been lifted off everybody. The 1980s were finally over and it was time to party. Mainstream music now had some of our bands in there mixing it up. The Es were loosening everybody up. (Unfortunately, they would fuck some people up and in some cases kill them.)

The clothes were looser, the hair floppier; everything had a psychedelic tinge to it. After the austere decade in which ‘Loadsamoney’ was king, people wanted to party.

Acid house had been the vehicle for the change – the all-nighters in weird warehouse venues or sodden fields with the pre-mobile phone clandestine chases up motorways to phone boxes to find out where the parties were happening. One step ahead of the police, one step ahead of the dread world of work and the dead weight of real life.

The Stone Roses reflected this. They understood inherently the freedom of acid house; and if their music was more traditional in style it certainly encompassed the flavour of the new music. They understood the power of the audience and the communal rush of the times.

If Thatcher’s England had been about the individual (in a weird twist of punk’s key credo, ‘I am an individual’, the Tories and Thatcher, it could be argued, were the logical conclusion of that key punk politic), the Roses were about both the individual and the community.

Everyone was in this together and if Spike Island was a bit of a dump and the industrial backdrop was hardly Glastonbury, then so much the better. This was the north. ‘Live in the north, die in the north,’ grinned a thousand t-shirts sold in the Identity clothes shop in Manchester’s typically down-to-earth take on Haight-Ashbury, Oldham Street.

There had been plans to put on the same gig at other sites around the country. Logistics prevented this and it was fitting that Spike Island was the only place it happened – that the pinnacle of the Roses’ brief flicker should be located at the centre of the hurricane in the industrial heartland of north-west England, a part of the country battered by the Tory years.

Doing without slogans

It was an unspoken political gesture from a band that didn’t have to deal in slogans. Politically the new pop generation was not about slogans. It may not have been as directly political as the 1960s and the punk era. But then were the Stones ever overtly political or was the feeling inferred? Did Elvis ever sing a political song or was it just the way he moved his hips on the Ed Sullivan Show back in 1956 that woke up middle America? And what were Bob Dylan’s politics anyway? Perhaps you just knew, through the dense poetry and the sound of his voice, that there was something going on, Mr Jones.

I remember playing a gig in Russia a few years ago and the promoter, who grew up in the 1960s, telling me that the Beatles were the sound of freedom. More than that, it was their hair and their demeanour that meant so much in the grey days of fake communism. They didn’t need slogans – like all great people’s music, you simply felt it. Their youthfulness and energy were inspirational as people travelled hundreds of miles to buy the occasional Beatles seven inch single from the sailors in Baltic ports.

That’s the power of pop. It’s the nuance, the walk, the blank canvas that hopes and aspirations can be painted. The Stone Roses – for their brief moment – were that canvas.

The only direct political comment on the Stone Roses’ first album was in ‘Elizabeth My Dear’, where Ian Brown underlined his anti-monarchist opinions. But Brown had no truck with the privileged or the class system – a system that the media hinted at when some commentators would refer to the Roses and other northern bands as ‘monkeys’ or ‘plumbers’.

The Roses hinted at something deeper. There were situationist elements in their artwork and their lyrics. Their album sleeve had a lemon on it in direct reference to the 1968 Paris riots where the citrus fruit was used to mitigate the effect of tear gas on the demonstrators. Whether anyone got this or not didn’t matter. You just knew that they were on the right side, and as the masses loosened up and were fired by the idealistic possibilities of pop culture the Roses were there for them, ready to celebrate the feeling.

That was their place and their debut album was one of the most perfectly realised records ever released in the UK – a call to arms and an inspiration to so many. In the 1990s nearly every British group originated from the influence of this band, this point in time. This was the escape that the real world could never provide.

Unbelievable timing

As Noel Gallagher of Oasis remembers: ‘The Stone Roses album came out bang on midday on the right day, right year, in the right decade – unbelievable timing. It was just something about the way the music sounded and the fact that the songs dealt with serious subjects. It was important for kids like me. I just thought “At last!”

‘We used to go and see them all the time and I wanted that set list recorded and released as a record so I could play it at home. So it was kind of a relief when it came out. It was so long in the making that we’d been waiting five years for it! I thought, “Right, if they can do it, so can I!” I remember meeting Mani before the album came out and thinking, well he’s just like me, you know, they are not fucking wizards. They are just fucking lads. I can do it as well – you know what I mean!’

Spike Island was the culmination of a classic series of gigs that underlined the Stone Roses’ outsider status. They didn’t take the usual musical route to the top – the sweat and grunt gigs, the tour supports, the slavish media love. They seemed to be swaggering in under their own steam, with their own sense of style and their own codes of pop style: a mash up of nouveau baggy, classic mod and punk attitude.

The album was already out and could be heard out of every bedsit window and across the hip city centre of Manchester. Fusing with the dope smoke and the Es, it was a word-of-mouth buzz that a change was in the air. Spike Island was the day when everyone got it.

At a time when partying was a political act, Spike Island felt like the beginning of a new age, a working-class psychedelic movement. It reflected the new optimism, the ecstasy-fuelled party spirit, the sudden feeling of freedom that was epitomised in the collapse of the east Europe regimes. It also laid the foundations for what, by the mid-1990s, would become simplified, and diminished, as ‘lad culture’ – the Loaded/Oasis axis.

But for a short time the Roses’ anthemic, euphoric music perfectly matched this sense of possibility and celebration. It was a brief, rare moment when pop music presented possibilities instead of grinding away with relentless hype, and when the right group with the right songs matched the hopes and aspirations of the people to become the biggest band in the country.

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