Perfection! – The Stone Roses
This is a tough album for me to write about, because to my ears, it’s essentially perfect: a singular, standalone achievement (though one of startling synthesis, rather than utter originality). Not only has no other subsequent band been able even to come close to making a similar album of this quality, but the band themselves were only able to capture this lightning in a bottle once.
Like that other great British one-off scene catalyzer with a hard/soft name, The Sex Pistols, The Stone Roses apparently only had the one album in them.
But what an album – it has an amazing flow from start to end, yet feels like a greatest-hits or singles compilation. It’s a record of elegant power, and fierce optimism.
Yes, there’s a second Stone Roses album, and it’s better than its initial reputation suggests, but it’s just a pretty good rock record by a very good rock band. It’s not music seemingly beamed in from heaven with no apparent human help. I want to live inside the debut’s world – it’s a magical place, full of sound and imagery and feeling that you can get lost in.
Though the band, hailing from the musically fertile town of Manchester, were seen as leading lights of the dance/rock scene known as “Madchester“, they stand outside that, by virtue of their melodic and instrumental rock classicism, which seamlessly integrates bits of sixties British Invasion-related bands like their homeboys the Hollies, as well as the (American) Byrds.
There’s also more than a pinch of the moody, effects-heavy guitar rock of The Chameleons (also from Manchester), some of U2’s emotionally-widescreen ambition, and the post-punk tradition of letting a melodic bass lead the song’s way (Peter Hook produced the original “Elephant Stone” single for them – more on that song later).
And in John Squire, they had a guitarist with the inhuman dexterity of a Johnny Marr or a Jimmy Page, able to effortlessly switch from shimmering folk to crunchy rock to raunchy funk, and make it all part of a whole – layered riffs upon licks upon hooks.
Add in a rhythm section as locked-in and versatile as any you care to put them up against – the mononymical Mani on bass and Reni on drums – and a singer capable of surgically delivering poetic venom with Jaggerian or Lydonian aplomb, but all of it carried on catchy, pretty vocal melodies that would make a Beatle weep.
Pair this with a set of timeless songs, and put them all in a studio with genius producer John Leckie (who worked with former Beatles, Pink Floyd, PIL, XTC, and Radiohead), to help wring every drop of drama and impact from them.
And what you have on your hands here, is an all-time great.
Let’s get to it, shall we?
Headphones, as always, recommended, and rarely more-recommended than here; the beauty (and devil) is in the details, and there’re a lot of subtle tactile pleasures (brushed snares, fingers on strings) that you’ll miss on standard computer speakers.
For the purposes of this piece, we are going to refer to the American edition of the album, which added a couple singles to the UK album running order. (The multi-disc Collector’s Edition – image-linked below – includes all of these songs and more.)
“I Wanna Be Adored”
The album-opening song coalesces out of a fog of faint whooshes and metallic sounds, like a faraway foundry, or distant railway station. These mysterious industrial sounds are pretty much the duration of our stay in gloomy black-and-white Manchester; a Technicolor Oz awaits. Presently, a dark, regal bass pulse starts; drums and strings start stacking up.
This all goes on, patiently, for a full 90 seconds before a snare hits twice, and the song proper begins. A minute and a half is practically an eternity in pop-song-time, and with a wait like this we realize we are dealing with a confidence in this song (and album) that borders on outright arrogance.
This arrogance, it turns out, is not only justified; it is doubled-down on, the moment Ian Brown opens his mouth and nonchalantly delivers the first words on the album (and aside from its title, pretty much the ONLY words in the song):
I don’t have to sell my soul, he’s already in me
I don’t need to sell my soul, he’s already in me
OK, let’s pause a moment here.
Likening oneself to the Devil isn’t new. The similarly-named Rolling Stones did it, long ago.
But Jagger’s Devil is a modern guy: He’s pleased to meet you, hopes you’ll guess his name. He just wants your kind understanding.
Brown’s Devil is more…old-school.
Recall that Lucifer’s sin was wanting to BE God – to be His equal.
So when the next line hits,
I wanna be adored
…we know now what the narrator is after with the word “adored,” and it’s not your love, or friendship, or anything so human and trivial as mere R-E-S-P-E-C-T.
He wants worship. Veneration. Utter surrender, and total sacrifice.
Barely three lines in.
(It’s perhaps also worth noting that Brown’s mush-mouthedness potentially allows the word “adored” to be misheard as another rock trope, made famous by the guys that often followed them alphabetically in the record bins – namely, as “a dog.”)
We repeat the lyrics, in slightly-varying configurations; the music builds to at least two distinct climaxes (three, if you count the crashing finale), never rushing nor losing a single atom of effortless cool; a marvel of musical detail and high drama, built from very few moving parts. It took the Bunnymen 4 albums to make a song as sophisticated as “The Killing Moon”; U2 didn’t deliver an opener as epic as “Where the Streets Have No Name” until their fifth LP.
The Roses are playing in those legendary leagues by album one, side one, song one.
Wait, there’s more?
“She Bangs the Drums”
After the high-hat counts us in with sixteenth-notes, a supple bassline once again leads the way. This time though, it’s fleet and propulsive, which suits the upbeat lyrics.
I can feel the earth begin to move
I hear my needle hit the groove
And spiral through another day
I hear my song begin to say
“Kiss me where the sun don’t shine
The past was yours,
But the future’s mine –
You’re all out of time”
The planet-sized ego is still there, but there’s another presence in the universe now – the unnamed “She” of the title.
I don’t feel too steady on my feet
I feel hollow, I feel weak
Passion fruits and holy bread
Fill my guts and ease my head
Through the early morning sun
I can see her, here she comes
She bangs the drums
Have you seen her, have you heard
The way she plays, there are no words
To describe the way I feel
Coupled with the sparkling, ringing guitars, this declaration of awestruck love leaves me as speechless as the narrator. In “passion fruits and holy bread,” we get another religious reference, evoking Communion. But here Brown seems to say: if he’s Lucifer, then God is a Her.
And it’s not just who She is, but it’s what She does – creates music, uncontrollably, and with joyful abandon (she “bangs“, not “plays” nor “hits“) – that makes her what she is.
This is the first place where the US and UK album versions differ – this 7″ single (originally produced by Peter Hook, remixed here by John Leckie) was added in for American audiences.
Personally, I feel that was a good choice, since it keeps the initial momentum going a little longer, and it’s a fantastic song on its own, with a terrific, driving drum performance from Reni – the way he’s “banging the drums” here is actually one of the few times the dance influence of the burgeoning acid house scene would subtly rear its head on this record.
(The 20th Anniversary edition of the album, while boasting vastly improved sound, with a lot of depth and detail and low-end added, inexplicably drops this song from the running order again – fair warning!)
I was disappointed, too, to find that I had always misheard the chorus. The actual line, “Seems like there’s a hole, in my dreams” is a perfectly-fine wistful psych-pop lyric, but I thought it was “She’s my better whole, in my dreams“.
I’m always a sucker for lyrics that take a cliché and twist it, and changing one’s beloved from a “better half” to an unattainable “better whole” (that is, an “everything”) was a good one.
She wakes up, and by all rights her head should be pounding like Reni’s drums in the discotheque the night before.
But she’s never felt so clear-headed in her life.
“Waterfall” is a measured, shimmering love song about breaking free. Producer John Leckie somehow magically fashions the presumed sow’s ear of Brown’s vocals into silky self-harmonies reminiscent of The Hollies or The Byrds. (Check any live recording on YouTube, and at least when performing in public, Brown can’t carry a tune in a bucket – the difference between Brown’s live and studio recordings is so great, that I half-suspect Brown may have terrible stage fright like Andy Partridge of XTC.)
The lyrics are about “her” again, but this time they draw on some very British “green and pleasant land” pastoral and mythical imagery, as She leaves to go… anywhere, really.
Chimes sing Sunday morn
Today’s the day she’s sworn
To steal what she never could own
And race from this hole she calls home
Now you’re at the wheel
Tell me how, how does it feel?
So good to have equalised
To lift up the lids of your eyes
See the steeple pine
The hills as old as time
Soon to be put to the test
To be whipped by the winds of the west
Stands on shifting sands
The scales held in her hands
The wind it just whips her in waves
And fills up her brigantine sails
This one is pretty much “Waterfall” backwards, with all kinds of studio effects and strange, fragmented lyrics that nevertheless may be continuing the story from “Waterfall,” since one bit goes
Hear the sea spray give
I was with her
We’re under the ship so get me over
Now that was me, listen
Now she fishes now, listen
It’s a pretty neat little slice of psychedelia (and “Don’t stop, isn’t it funny how you shine?” is a lovely lyric), but it probably goes on longer than needed to make its point.
Still, it’s a trip on ‘phones and a nice way to catch your breath between “Waterfall” and
“Bye Bye Badman”
Here’s a song that lets us know that despite the sullen, yobbish image Brown often publicly affected, he’s clearly read a book or two besides the Bible. Like the French tri-color and lemons (supposedly used to counteract the effects of tear gas) on the album cover, the song is a reference to the 1968 Paris student riots.
If there’s a song that best symbolizes the flower-punk synthesis of the Roses – the way they tapped into a vein of youthful hope (and discontent) that ran from the hippies, through the punks, to a rave scene they themselves helped catalyze, and made it all seem as one – this is it for me.
The music is airy and light and optimistic; but the lyrics are pure punk vitriol.
Here he come
Got no question, got no love
I’m throwing stones at you, man
I want you black and blue, and
I’m gonna make you bleed
Gonna bring you down to your knees
You’ve been bought and paid
You’re a whore and a slave
Your dark star holy shrine
Come taste the end, you’re mine
I’ve got bad intentions,
I intend to
Knock you down
These stones I throw
Oh, these French kisses
Are the only way I’ve found
(These were some more misheard lyrics for me for many years – I thought it was “These stones I throw, are lethal kisses“. “Stones thrown, like lethal kisses” is an elegant phrase, no? And I thought “I want you black and blue, and” might have been “I want to wrack and ruin“, which I think works just as well. Oh well.)
Sing along with the bouncy tune – it’s impossible not to – and you’ll never have felt so happy whilst threatening someone’s life and limb with violence.
“Elizabeth My Dear”
But wait – did I say the Roses only synthesized three decades of music, youth culture, and protest?
No, their ambitions to timelessness are greater than that, as this brief snippet of a song shows.
Set to the hundreds-of-years-old melody of “Scarborough Fair”, the Roses’ mini-tribute to the Pistols’ poison-pen “God Save the Queen” (and/or fellow Mancunians the Smiths’ “The Queen Is Dead”) seems to remind us that from time immemorial, symbolic regicide is always youth’s solemn duty.
Tear me apart,
and boil my bones
I’ll not rest,
till she’s lost her throne
My aim is true,
my message is clear
It’s curtains for you,
Elizabeth my dear
“(Song For My) Sugar Spun Sister”
Well, now we’re just spoiled – just ANOTHER perfect love song, with ANOTHER heavenly melody? What can we even say about that? I like the line about every member of Parliament tripping on glue.
“Made of Stone”
This is a moody one, with apocalyptic empty-street, burning-car imagery. Whether it’s again about riots, or is perhaps just the idle revenge fantasy of a spurned lover is unclear. There are some lines in here that, taken together with the anti-royalty sentiment of “Elizabeth My Dear,” would become sort of eerie when Princess Diana later died in 1997.
I’m standing warm against the cold
Now that the flames have taken hold
At least you left your life in style
But once again, that melancholy chorus just SOARS.
“Shoot You Down”
A sort-of sibling to “Bye Bye Badman,” in that exceptionally-breezy music is once again paired with lyrical malevolence; this time, the target seems romantic, rather than political.
The repeated, casually-murmured assurances that “I’d love to do it, and you know you’ve always had it coming” – sung so quietly, they are nearly whispered – make the titular promise seem like a fait accompli.
But mostly, this relaxed, soothing tune serves to lead us into
“This Is The One”
Like “I Wanna Be Adored,” this one has relatively few lyrics and musical segments, with those arranged and repeated for maximum impact, but where “Adored” is dark and murky and menacing, this is bright and triumphant. Once again, images of pastoral natural beauty and fire make an appearance, as the pangs of burning love and unbearable anticipation and desire for freedom are given musical form, and set aloft to flight.
A girl consumed by fire
We all know her desire
From the plans that she has made
I have her on a promise
Immerse me in your splendor
All the plans that I have made
This is the one
This is the one
This is the one
This is the one
This is the one
She’s waited for
Sometimes a tiny snippet of words or syllables and their imagery and melody can be so inherently delicious that they stand alone. I’ve talked before about how I could listen to Richard Butler sing the words “snow-blind and / sleepwalking“ on a loop for days.
Here, as Brown names the object of his desire in seven syllables, my heart catches in my throat.
I’d like to leave the country
For a month of Sundays
Burn the town where I was born
If only she’d believe me
Burn me out, or bring me home
Just say those words out loud a few times!
If no woman has used “Bellona Belladonna” as a stage name, someone should.
The song is another dynamic tension/release masterpiece – when the drums thunder back in at 3:02, it’s an army of horses charging over the hill straight at you as the brilliant sunrise breaks in your blinded eyes. Like the album as a whole, there’s no way to rationally account for how such simple individual parts can add up to so, so much more. Simply magnificent.
But as overwhelming as that is, it’s somehow just leading us into the (sort-of) finale…
“I Am The Resurrection”
This bookends the original UK album sequence.
In the opener, Brown was the Devil – here, by the album’s end, he’s given himself a promotion, and now he’s the Redeemer.
The lyrical vitriol here, set to the snare’s relentless, pounding quarter-notes, is off the charts; I’ll just include my favorite bit:
Stone me, why can’t you see
You’re a no-one, nowhere, washed-up baby, who’d look better dead
Your tongue, is far too long
I don’t like the way it slurps and slurs upon my every word
Don’t waste your words, I don’t need anything from you
I don’t care where you’ve been, or what you plan to do
Yet a God can afford to be magnanimous, so he immediately turns around and drops the bomb – divine absolution – in the form of a beyond-audacious chorus (which the band have already musically teased-but-withheld twice, the cheeky bastards):
I am the resurrection and I am the life
I couldn’t ever bring myself to hate you as I’d like
A gossamer guitar solo, and repeat that sky-high chorus once more; then the music spins on its heel and breezily becomes a 4-minute extended funk workout, filled with some scorching guitar licks, impossibly liquid bass, ludicrously nimble drums, and multiple fakeout endings.
It’s as if, having just delivered an epic kiss-off and album for the ages, the band isn’t satisfied with just dropping the mic – they have to moonwalk out the door. Show-offs – but when you’ve got it, you’ve got it.
And that’d be the end of it – except that the US release tacks on the 12″ single of “Fool’s Gold,” like an encore or victory lap.
I wrote about this one already here. It’s a fantastic dark-funk groove. I just want to give a shout-out to Brown’s genius-stupid lyrics and vocal performance, which evoke some sort of peyote vision quest through Babylon, with traveling companions the Marquis de Sade and Nancy Sinatra. There’s another trademark bit of cool Brownian lyrical malevolence thrown in: He knows the truth, and he knows what you’re thinking.
And he won’t lift a finger, as he watches you sinking.
Only one thing left to do then: spin the whole thing over again.
Playlist – The Stone Roses – The Stone Roses – 20th Anniversary Legacy Edition (Remastered)
Header Image: Promo Art for the “Elephant Stone” 7″, on Silvertone Records; located, as well as some lyrics, via THESTONEROSES Fansite.
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