“Oh, bloody hell,” fans of The Stone Roses will shout after reading this book, for several reasons: First, how could the band fritter away being the second coming of the Beatles, having the ego, talent and drive to pull it off? How could they make such horrible decisions on the business side? How could they let interpersonal issues spoil their good thing – after all, even Pink Floyd was able to punch out a big stack of classic studio albums despite the members’ open contempt for each other. In many ways, it’s the archetypical rock fable: Big talent, big potential brought down by big egos in the band, the band’s management and band’s labels. And while drugs in excess don’t seem to be a big part of The Stone Roses’ story, although they do play more than a bit part.
For those who aren’t up to speed, Manchester, England’s The Stone Roses released its self-titled debut record in 1989, hailed by many critics as the best guitar-pop album since Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. While the Mancunians were the slam-dunk most popular – and critically acclaimed – leaders of the ecstasy-driven “Madchester” music scene, they were outsiders among the Tony Wilson-led Haçienda club and his Factory Records label, which defined Madchester for groups like the Joy Division/New Order/Electronic/Revenge cabal and Happy Mondays.
The songs on the 1989 debut are the stuff of which rock legends are made. Spence documents how the band – fueled by frontman Ian Brown’s perhaps-justified absolute self-assurance that they were at least as big as the Beatles and musical mensch John Squire’s guitar-playing and compositional musical abilities to back that up – the were destined for fame. The debut record, riding the line between hippie 1960s throwback guitar pop and modern “Funky Drummer” club dance, certainly was all that.
They somehow built this mystique that they were transcendent, not needing to bow to the local establishment, and they didn’t. It was over almost as it began – unable to get a second album out for half a decade because of slow work processes and legal beefs with their label, by the time the Roses followed up their debut in 1994 no one cared. Until last year, when the Roses announced a reunion, were booked to headline Coachella after a decade and a half of dormancy – running on the fumes of their legendary perfect guitar-pop debut. (The Coachella reviews, by the way, have been mixed).
Most of all, War and Peace will leave readers – at least American readers – wondering, does author Simon Spence like the band or not? One of the top British rock scribes of our generation, this guy has the chops. Sort of a droll, less-edgy Martin Amis of music journalism, known for chasing down long-lost rock icons such as the Rolling Stones’ hermit manager Andrew Loog Oldham (dug up in the bowels of Australia, no less) and getting them to spill their guts.
One description of this book picks the perfect adjective: Forensic. As if that’s a good thing. Part of what have influenced Spence’s arms-length bio of Britain’s greatest band of the last 30 years (sorry, Oasis) might have been the band, which turned on him midway in the making of the book, painstakingly created from some 400 interviews of people in and close to the band – and some previously published quotes to round out the proceedings once the band became hostile witnesses. That the Roses turned on him likely wasn’t Spence’s fault; the group – especially aloof frontman Ian Brown – has a long history of that.
Whether you think The Stone Roses were a flash in the pan, a beautiful rock snapshot in time caught once and never to be recaptured, or the second coming of the Beatles and await their return to the Mount of Olives to take us to perfect pop heaven, this book will fill in a lot of details and context previously unclear to all but the most diehard fans. Just a few:
* Veteran Pink Floyd and punk producer John Leckie, while he didn’t write or perform the songs, probably had as much to do with debut record The Stone Roses’ beauty and perfection as the Roses themselves.
* Drummer Reni – who came from the hard rock/metal scene, of all places — was a monstrous rhythmic talent that, while fans might not have appreciated as much as Squire and Brown, was appreciated by the band so much they had a catchphrase, “No Reni, no Roses.”
* Aloof singer Ian Brown might have appeared an a-hole megalomaniac to the media and to folks representing the band, but personally he had a very compassionate side, pulling over by the side of the road and helping homeless people, and signing autographs for little kids who wandered in to band rehearsals, and letting them try out the group’s instruments.
There are many more nuggets in this incredibly researched band bio that anyone with an interest in The Stone Roses will appreciate. Just don’t look for any critical context; Spence gives none, leaving us cold and unfulfilled on that front and dreaming of what could have been, much like the Roses themselves did, musically.