The Stone Roses, much-worshipped progenitors of the indie dance-pop movement known first as “Madchester”, after its city of origin, and later marketed as “Baggy”, have released new music for the first time in 21 years. Reaction to this single, “All For One”, has been divided: fans are feverishly trying to convince themselves it’s as good as the band’s earlier music; detractors are gleefully engaged in the kind of competitive derision that has led one satirical website to forecast its adoption as an Olympic sport.
A plodding rock tune with a light psychedelic gloss, “All For One” is to my ears neither wonderful nor awful. It’s proficient, pedestrian, mediocre – like the bulk of their oeuvre. The fans, therefore, are right, but not for the reason they think.
The Stone Roses did make wonderful music, just not much of it. On their 2012 reunion tour (the definitive line-up’s first public performances since 1990), I saw them play in Manchester’s Heaton Park. I was struck by how far they had to stretch their best material. No other act has acquired such canonical stature with so little. There is their self-titled debut album (1989), half of which is brilliant; a belated follow-up, “The Second Coming” (1994), which was muddled and underwhelming; and a handful of singles.
Yet the Stone Roses command almost mystical devotion from their fanbase. To understand why, we have to go back to the spring of 1989, when the British music mainstream was still labouring in the torpid aftermath of Live Aid. The Stone Roses’ debut was as invigoratingly zesty as the slices of lemon that illustrated their album cover, and it mirrored the blossoming underground rave scene’s energy and atmosphere. Its release marked the beginning of a twelve-month period in which the band surged to prominence and then peaked. From their performance on “Top of the Pops” of “Fool’s Gold”, their biggest hit, to their Spike Island mini-festival in May 1990, the Stone Roses provided the soundtrack to a long shining hour of dancing, drugs and joie de vivre. They mattered for only one year; but it is a year many would dearly love to relive. Mat Whitecross, who directed “Spike Island”, a 2012 film set at the festival, described the event as “a Woodstock for the Baggy generation. If you grew up in 1990, it was your Shangri-La.” That Shangri-La is what the Stone Roses are now selling: not the music but the experience of revelling in it with thousands of like-minded people. If you weren’t at Spike Island (and only a fraction of the hundreds of thousands attending shows since 2012 could have been), you can make-believe you are, swaying and braying along to the anthems at dusk, or locking into that crouching dance with hands deployed as paddles. It taps into mythic memory to induce an ecstasy of nostalgia.
It helps that, although the Stone Roses made scarcely 45 minutes of good music, they are, as an instrumental unit, an excellent band. When Reni, Squire and Mani hit their groove, their fluid, rolling rhythms, dazzling guitar, and sturdy, rubberised basslines merge into a whole that transcends even lacklustre material. Then there’s Ian Brown. Cloth-eared and burlap-throated, Brown is the worst singer I have ever heard; not just technically, but artistically. Yet as a frontman at these huge shows, it isn’t his voice that counts, it’s his presence. He is totemic, a swaggering priest conducting a vast pagan rite under twilit skies. That, now as ever, is the key to the Stone Roses: not the music itself, but the experience of being there, at a gathering of the clans.
Two years before the band reunited, Squire announced: “I have no desire whatsoever to desecrate the grave of seminal Manchester pop group the Stone Roses.” He soon changed his mind (or millions of pounds changed it for him). But what was there to desecrate? The magic of the Stone Roses was partly in a small clutch of songs, but mostly in fans’ heads. Which is where it remains.