Go with a smile!

Friday, October 28, 2011

Stone Roses

Anyway, I’ve heard that the Stone Roses are about to reform. That’s great news. I’d say that the Stone Roses were a band that my generation listened to. They were a defining band of the 90s. People talk about how Nirvana were an underground band which broke through, but the Stone Roses were the band which broke the Madchester scene. The fusion of dance, funk and 60s pop was to be a template for so many other indie bands that followed them. Some of the bands that followed in the scene were great (Happy Mondays). Some were so-so (Inspiral Carpets). Others were shit (Soup Dragons, The Farm). To paraphrase one of their album titles, the Stone Roses was the second coming of the 60s. It was an album that you could put aside many of the great albums of the 60s, and it could have come out from the 60s. It was a late 80s album that did 60s music and beat them on their own terms.

I used to go wandering around Toa Payoh listening to this album. No, I didn’t have a Walkman. I memorized the entire thing and played it in my head. It brought me back to more innocent times, when all I needed to care about was my “O” levels and listening to as much great music as I could get my hands on. I first listened to them a few years after the first album came out. I had heard about them, and it was around the time that the reputation of the first album was about to go through the stratosphere.
I was a little disappointed when I heard the album for the first few times – I had assumed that it was mindblowing. It wasn’t. But many of the songs eventually grew on to me. I still don’t think it’s a work of genius. But they did the ordinary things extraordinarily well. The songwriting on that album was uniformly excellent. And that album was a curious one in the light of all the problems they had later. I think that people like the Beatles more than the Stones because the Beatles had an image of being happy, friendly people. The Stone Roses were also like the Beatles – happy friendly people.

Unfortunately, their first album was also just about the only thing that went right for them in their whole career. Ian Brown and John Squire wrote great songs for the first album. John Squire was a great guitarist, and the Stone Roses had a great rhythm section. But the vocals were shit. Ian Brown cannot sing. Later on, I listened to their earlier stuff. Aside from a few gems, most of the stuff that came out before the Stone Roses album was inferior. During the first album, even their B sides were downright brilliant. They had “What the World is Waiting For” and “Something’s Burning”. After that, they had a problem – just like Bruce Springsteen after “Born to Run”, we had a band at the height of their powers, unable to record a follow up to their classic. When the dust settled, they went back to the studio and recorded “Second Coming”, which was a very good record, but not as great as the first. It didn’t really bear comparison to the first, though – it just went down the dance funk direction hinted at by “Fool’s Gold”.

After that, they had to break up. Their relationships got stained by the excessive use of drugs. John Squire was acting like an asshole. (I don’t envy the guy – who wants a name that screams out, “I’M NUMBER TWO”?) He formed a group called the Seahorses who recorded an album that was politely reviewed at that time but is generally acknowledged to be shit today. Ian Brown embarked on a career that had its moments but paled in comparison with the Stone Roses. The bass player joined Primal Scream. The drummer – ironically he was the best at his instrument at the time the band formed – dropped out of view.

I am very lucky to have come across music like this when I was a teenager. I don’t think I would have quite appreciated it if I had first listened to it as a 30-something later on.

I think about how the first album was lionized out of proportion. I have this theory – the great albums of the 60s defined in many peoples’ minds what great albums had to sound like. They were a collection of great songs. The songwriting was good. It wasn’t to be formless or experimental. It had to be simple enough that a lot of people could relate to it. It was not only a classic album, it was classical – meaning that it was iconic and representative. It would appeal broadly because it wasn’t that fancy. It had meat and potatoes. It was one of those very rare albums that was both a throwback to the 60s, and not inferior to the best of 60s music. Most albums who look back to the past are necessarily limited. It’s not the only great album of the 90s (let’s face it, the Stone Roses belongs to the 90s more than the 80s). But it’s the one that a lot of people agree upon.

But paradoxically, it was also an innovative album, because not only was it a throwback to music of the 60s, it managed to create a fusion that wasn’t really attempted back then – dance, funk, rock and pop. It was a prism through which you could look backwards and see the disparate threads of 60s music, and it foreshadowed what a lot of 90s music was going to be like – people throwing music of different genres together to see what sticks.

I think that people took that as a sign – when people compile lists of the greatest albums of all time, a lot of the 60s albums come out on top, followed by the 70s. Those are the 2 decades that people agree are the best for pop music. But the Stone Roses were loved because they were the first sign that something great was about to happen. Let’s face it, the 10 years between 1988 and 1998 were among the great periods of pop music. We had Sonic Youth, REM (actually REM did most of their best work before 1988 but never mind), Dinosaur Jr, De La Soul, Public Enemy, the Stone Roses, Blur, Oasis, Wu Tang Clan, Nas, Jay Z, Arrested Development, Guns n Roses, Metallica, Bjork, Radiohead, Beck, Guided by Voices, Pavement, PJ Harvey, Pulp, Manic Street Preachers, OutKast, Tortoise, Wilco, Goldie, Roni Size, Primal Scream, Talk Talk, Nirvana, Tori Amos, My Bloody Valentine, Pet Shop Boys, the Orb, Orbital, Future Sound of London, Prodigy, Tribe Called Quest, Souls of Mischief, Dr Dre, Tindersticks, Mogwai, Bell Biv Devoe, Keith Sweat, Ice Cube, Flaming Lips, Mercury Rev, Shack, PM Dawn, Matthew Sweet, Jane’s Addiction, Tupac, Notorious BIG. It was a musically very rich period and I am lucky to have all these bands soundtrack my teenage years.

But you know what? I know I’m becoming an old fart when I see an article like this, where some youngster gets resentful of the Stone Roses. It’s just like when I was young, and people always told me that music of the 60s and 70s was better. It was, but having a lot of great music in the 90s somehow made up for that. A lot of it was innovative, and a lot of it arose from the proliferation of synthesizers and sequencers. They were building something new and exciting, not merely mastering the music of the 60s and 70s and doing it better. They were producing stuff that didn’t exist in those earlier periods. I would say that the music of the 60s was made possible by the advent and proliferation of the electric guitar and amplified music.

The 70s gets a bad rap because disco is so vilified, but it’s the mirror image of the 60s, and a lot of great black music was produced during that decade. It was a grungy time. When a musical movement arises, it’s usually made possible by some advent of technology or some social movement. Equal rights for blacks, or women, or gays. Thus, the rise of DJ culture gave rise to dance music, disco and rap. The rise of the sequencer made a lot of genre blending music possible.

Unfortunately, if I were to characterize the decade of the 2000s, I would say that it’s the age of the crowd / cloud. I was a teenager who hated the idea of uniformity and conformity. I was horrified at the idea that American Idol was going to dominate the idea of music. I never did like the idea of Talentime. Unfortunately that was the legacy of Britpop. It started out as a triumph for underground music breaking through to the mainstream. But unfortunately it ended up as a lot of people just hankering for their 15 minutes of fame, and gaming the system. It was responsible for a lot of mediocre music making its way to the top. In a way it was like the 80s again.

So for the teenager who wrote that article, I think he was a little upset that his generation didn’t produce a Stone Roses, never mind that for all intents and purposes, the greatness of the Stone Roses is, like, one album. I’m also a little put off at youngsters who don’t respect music that was made before their time. I had a healthy respect for that. Of course, I was even more enamoured of music that was made before my time, but only were truly appreciated during my time. Bands like ABBA, the Velvet Underground, Steely Dan and Nick Drake didn’t truly belong to their eras. Yes, it’s unusual to say that bands like ABBA weren’t appreciated during the 70s when they were the best selling band around, but they didn’t have a great critical reputation. That only came later, around the time when Erasure hit number 1 with some of ABBA’s hits.

I’m especially critical when – they just dismiss bands like Steely Dan outright, on the pretext that it sounds on the surface like reviled smooth jazz. Steely Dan is a “still waters run deep” band, who, underneath the smooth veneer have the most cynical and sarcastic lyrics ever committed. I don’t know if I’m on the money when I think that many youngsters are just too superficial. Maybe they don’t understand cynicism and sarcasm enough to understand the real meaning of punk. To them, punk is just a fancy costume you wear, and a symbol that you’re really cool. Rather than an attitude and a way of life.

Maybe they never understood what it was like for underground music to be an underground movement. Maybe they never understood what it was like to rebel against authority, because they’ve never had a lot of conflicts with authority figures.
However, it’s great that there is a lot of music made today in indie music. I haven’t really decided whether it hits the heights scaled in the 90s.

Anyway I hope this reunion turns out well for them. The Dinosaur Jr reunion was a great success, and produced new material that was very near their late 80s peak. I had a blast attending their concert last year.


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