Death Rattle – The Stone Roses, Primal Scream, Oasis and the travesty of British Alternative Rock in the 90s
I’d like to talk about The Stone Roses.
In terms of the music this is no hatchet job because ultimately I regard their first album as something of a masterpiece. Maybe it was my age, maybe it was because I had just moved to a new town, or maybe it was because The Stone Roses is a faultless work of genius; who can say? The fact remains that upon being given a taped copy of their first album as a 13-year-old (remember kids, home taping is killing music) I fell head over heels in love and proceeded to play it to death. I bought my own copy with money from my paper round and in turn played that copy to death. In short that album meant, and continues to mean, a great deal to me. Let me also be clear, however, that this is not some exercise in nostalgia or a chance for me to wax poetic about just why The Stone Roses is so utterly fantastic. What the hell am I doing then? Well, since you ask, I’ll tell you. What I intend to do is convince you that despite being a genuinely brilliant album, indeed perhaps because of being a genuinely brilliant album, The Stone Roses is possibly the worst thing that has ever happened to British music. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Let us begin.
What exactly was happening in British music around 1988? According to many, nothing much. The Smiths had recently split and post-punk’s momentum had fizzled out long ago. This attitude belies a certain bias in thinking. To a particular mindset nothing much was happening in 1976 either, only for the entire landscape of music to change over the next two years. What was bubbling up to the surface in 1988 was Britain’s very own dance culture, inspired in large part by developments from America, hip-hop, electro, house and techno to be precise. Taking cues from, among others, Marley Marl, Steinski, Juan Atkins, Phuture and Frankie Knuckles, artists and collectives such as 808 State, Bomb The Bass, The Wild Bunch and A Guy Called Gerald (an ex-member of 808 State) began denting the charts, drawing crowds and generally altering the British public’s conception of music.
1988 was also the year of Acid House and Ecstasy as thousands of people gathered in warehouses and outdoor locations all over Britain to dance and get high. It would be a lie to say that the British alternative music press did not lend some support to this emerging movement; indeed the NME famously put Bomb The Bass on its front cover in ’88 indicating that the popularity of dance music was too big to ignore. However, the dominance of guitar music was, for the most part, unquestioned. Despite many music writers demanding more coverage for both hip-hop and dance, large elements of the UK alternative press seemed to be waiting for the right guitar band to get behind, the right guitar band to believe in. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you The Stone Roses.
First, let’s back up a little bit. There certainly were options for the guitar lover in ’88, but they could not be described as guitar rock. Ever since Orange Juice ambled onto the scene around ’79, the influence of The Byrds and Love had grown beyond all comprehension. As Orange Juice moved on to more polished, soulful recordings, the abandoned step-children of their Postcard years had been steadily increasing and by the mid-80s had formed enough bands to create something of a movement. Should this movement be called C86, twee or cutie? For argument’s sake, let’s just call it ‘indie’. [Let’s not – pedantic Ed] Sometimes jangly, sometimes noisy, mostly unprofessional, generally cheaply recorded, often off-key and hopelessly romantic, the music was loved and loathed in equal measure.
To some it was a genuinely alternative scene that kept the spirit of melody and song alive without slavishly trying to recapture the sound of another era. To others it was hopelessly fey, studenty, apolitical and out-of-date. Compared to the masculine proselytizing of Public Enemy, the lovelorn yearnings of a band like The Pastels seemed ‘girly’ and lacking in testosterone. This made sense seeing as the indie scene in general had generated the highest amount of female participation since punk rock’s heyday. What a dilemma for the music fan not completely sold on dance and hip-hop but who nevertheless still wanted to ROCK!!! In this environment, the success of The Stone Roses becomes somewhat understandable, even if it doesn’t quite explain the legendary aura that surrounded them and, indeed, continues to surround them. With that in mind, let’s get to the heart of the matter.