Monday, June 10, 2013

The Stone Roses at Finsbury Park, 8th June 2013

It’s one of those moments I never thought I’d live to see.  Before my very eyes Ian Brown, John Squire, Mani and Reni stride onto a stage to rapturous applause and launch straight into I Wanna Be Adored.  The Stone Roses are a band tailor-made for mythmaking; their first album is widely (and correctly) regarded as one of the greatest British albums of all time and their monumental concert at Spike Island in 1990 is considered a pivotal moment in British musical history.  Following this triumph the band descended into a murky gestation period for their followup, Second Coming, which was eventually released in 1994 to mixed reviews.  

The band slowly began to dissolve, eventually leaving Ian Brown and Mani.  Following a series of nightmare-awful concerts (dancing girls on stage...?) the band was finally broken up and everyone went their separate ways.  Ian Brown to a successful (and to my mind under-rated) solo career, John Squire formed the short-lived band The Seahorses and later pursued his art career, Mani joined Primal Scream and Reni, considered “the best drummer of his generation”, all but disappeared from the public eye.

In the meantime their legend grew, in 2006 the NME voted their debut album “The Best British Album of All Time”.  I’ve been a fan for about 10 years, and I've listened to The Stone Roses probably more than any other album, ever.  I’ve seen Ian Brown performing solo numerous times, and fondly remember his performance at Glastonbury 2005 (where he performed many Roses songs) as absolutely magical.  There was always a faint hope that I’d get to see them reform, though felt it unlikely that they'd resolve their differences.  For example, in 2007, John Squire said "A reunion is highly unlikely. I'd have to stop painting and that's just not in my plans."   Yet in 2011 they announced that they’d be getting back together to play a series of gigs.  Immediately I vowed to be at one of them, no matter what.  Finally, finally I’d achieve my dream of hearing I Am The Resurrection live, and shouting “STONE FUCKING ROSES!” at the top of my lungs.

Well, I did that with gusto.  I yelled it with as much enthusiasm as I could muster.  But it didn't feel quite right.  It’s an obvious question but one worth asking - why did The Stone Roses reform?  Simply: money.  I don’t begrudge the Stone Roses for their decision to cash in on their musical history, and just these men playing these songs should have been good enough for me.  I can't fault them for their musicality: they played them note-perfect, the songs sounding almost exactly as they do on the records.  But there was something lacking; some electric spark that’d fizzled out in the last 15 years, on stage there was a palpable lack of enthusiasm.  

I don’t particularly care if bands reform just to make a decent wodge of cash, but I wish they’d at least do the audience the service of pretending they're there because they want to be, not because they have to be.  I’ve seen Ian Brown tons of times and he’s nothing if not an unpredictable presence on stage.  Memorably, when I saw him at T in the Park he got into a fight with security, appeared to sack his band and concluded the set by playing drum solos on his own.  Here he just turned up, sang the songs and left again - the only time he spoke between songs being a half-hearted request for people to stop pushing at the front.  The rest of the band were similarly silent throughout.

I can’t deny the show (visuals, sound etc) was polished to a mirror sheen, but this in-your-face professionalism sucked some of the life out of it.  For me one of the primary pleasures of listening to The Stone Roses is the sense that this wonderful music is being improvised, especially on the longer tracks like Fool’s Gold and I Am the Resurrection, both of which transform into beautiful, flowing jams powered by John Squire’s god-like guitar riffs. Songs like these vibrate with potential, a band both discovering just how amazing they are and rubbing everybody else's nose in it.  At the end of The Stone Roses you get a sense of Ian Brown telling ever other band around, "top that." But on Saturday night this atmosphere of freewheeling musical discovery was absent, and worse, even the illusion of it was absent! I would have settled for the illusion - and frankly it wouldn't even have had to be a particularly convincing one for me to buy it.

I guess I can’t blame them for being a bit dispassionate about this music.  It’s got to be rough to be pestered your entire adult career to reform the band you were in 15 years ago,  ending up as a 50 year old man endlessly singing the same old songs you wrote in your mid twenties.  Plenty of bands manage to pull it off though, The Rolling Stones seem to get away singing songs that are themselves 50 years old, and certainly no-one’s going to begrudge Paul McCartney for pumping out Hey Jude for the infinitieth time.  Seeing The Stone Roses doing it feels somehow painful though.  I’ve always felt they were a band defined by a punkish youthful egotism, their success a big ‘fuck you’ to the musical establishment.  

There was no anger or drive here, a critically missing element in the capturing the swagger of the Roses.  This is a band whose lyrics seethe with images of images of destruction. Whether they’re singing about their enemies burning to death inside cars in Made of Stone; “Your pink fat lips let go a scream / You fry and melt I love the scene”, the utter character assassination of an unnamed bozo in I Am the Resurrection; “You're a no-one nowhere washed up baby who'd look better dead” or even the simple daydream fantasy of assassinating Elizabeth II: “It’s curtains for you, Elizabeth my dear *muffled gunshot*”. This dangerous and violent sentiment is neatly mixed with an self-confidence that runs right through their work and is most apparent on This is the One and (most obviously) I Wanna be Adored.  On the record they sound like a band with something to prove, every single note infused with passion.  Live in 2013?  Not so much.  

So, the songs sound the same, but that driving, powerful, positive spirit that attracted me to the band in the first place has long departed.  I want to see a Stone Roses that have something new to say, I want them to kick back against the pricks, I want to see them floating on the casual egoism that comes from unshakably knowing you're the best band around - not scrubbing around for whatever bucks they can squeeze out of their towering reputation.  Once upon a time Ian Brown called himself King Monkey.  At Finsbury Park he felt more like an organ-grinder’s monkey, grudgingly putting himself through a same tired old routine - a factory worker punching in and out for a shift.  Seeing a man I’ve always respected for his individuality doing something he clearly would rather not is quite depressing.  

Perhaps the audience is partly to blame for this debasement.  We bay like dogs for the legends to reform, to allow us a taste of a hallowed, iconic bit of musical history.  But the past is dead and the men that make up The Stone Roses have all moved on in life.  What’s left is musically polished, but dead inside.  I am glad I went, if only to tick “hear I Am the Resurrection played live” off my ‘Things to Do Before You Die List’, but ultimately it was a hollow, slightly sad experience.  Some bands shouldn’t reform, and sometimes happy memories should stay in the past.  

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