Good luck escaping from the Stone Roses at the moment. Last week they played vast shows in London and Glasgow. This Friday brings the release of the pleasant but scarcely earth-shattering Spike Island, the (fictional) story of five ticketless Mancunian schoolmates making their way to the band’s 1990 show on the Mersey Estuary. Already in cinemas is The Stone Roses: Made of Stone, a documentary by Shane Meadows (This Is England) in which the circumstances of the band’s recent reunion are contrasted with a brief history of their brief career. And now there’s this blog post on the NS website of all places.
I wasn’t at this month’s live shows—having attended a gig on their lacklustre 1995 tour to promote The Second Coming, and seen them (accidentally) at their infamously poor Reading Festival appearance the following year, I feel I have given the extreme sport known as Stone Rosing a more-than-reasonable go. But I was a casual admirer of the band the first time around, and I have seen Spike Island and The Stone Roses: Made of Stone, so I feel fairly confident in claiming that they are truly the band that helped devalue the phrase “the band that helped define a generation.”
If I had to pick a side in the musical mishmash that was Madchester, I was always more of a Happy Mondays boy first time around. Sure, the Stone Roses’ first album was intoxicating. It seemed briefly that they could get away with anything, even a perverse failure to reproduce their magic on stage: a mere ten seconds of live singing by their frontman Ian Brown could force one to revise upwards even the lowest musical opinion of Linda McCartney. But the Mondays’ music was infused with humour as well as soulfulness; they were clearly dotty over music. The Stone Roses’ first love was always themselves.
It wasn’t specifically the messianic bent of their self-mythologising that irked me—the religious imagery of titles like “I Am the Resurrection” and The Second Coming. Most rock’n’roll has that swagger and arrogance; that’s why rock musicians are rarely confused with watercolour artists. But there seemed such a shortfall between the bragging and the music. Clearly hundreds of thousands of fans feel differently. But while Meadows’s film reminded me of the euphoria, it didn’t correct the impression that this was a group of talented men who, for reasons not entirely under their control (such as the legal wrangles with their former record company which put them out of action for several years), stretched a small amount of music and goodwill an awfully long way.
Perhaps a more persuasive and less starstruck filmmaker could have built an argument for the band’s greatness. Meadows is not that man. He admits from the outset that he turned into an over-excitable two-year-old when the Stone Roses’ singer Ian Brown commissioned him to make a documentary about the band’s reunion. Putting aside the key telling detail in that statement—that this is an officially sanctioned movie in which the musicians rather than Meadows presumably had power of veto—that’s an endearing admission, though it does make one ask: Who really wants to see a film directed by an over-excitable two-year-old? Predictably, discernment and analysis prove not to be on the cards.
The historical footage is nicely assembled and intermittently revealing. It’s easy to forget that Brown was quite the scamp; in a rather agonising interview with a TV journalist in the late 1980s, he glows with attitude, but is careful to temper any bolshiness with flashes of that inviting smile and those twinkling eyes. I had completely forgotten that he even had that seductive side; it’s one that was missing later on from, say, Liam Gallagher, who could ape the arrogance well enough but always came up short on charm.
But it’s in the latter-day material, the bulk of the film in other words, where there’s a distinct lack of nourishment. The choice of Meadows as director makes sense when it comes to finding idiosyncratic characters to interview outside concert venues, or during the mad dash to a free Stone Roses gig in Warrington, but in all other respects he seems to have been chosen merely because, as a self-declared fan, he can be the band’s lapdog. Nowhere is this more evident than when the band almost breaks up for the second time after its drummer, Reni, storms off stage after a gig. Not only does Meadows steer his camera away from the fracas, he never even addresses the rift once the band has reconvened for its homecoming shows in Manchester’s Heaton Park. The first elision is the more understandable one—if he can’t get access to the band in the aftermath of their troubles, there’s not much he can do about that. Using drably-shot concert footage as concealer, though, is no kind of answer. It feels closer to a dereliction of duty.
What Meadows has produced in effect is the cinematic version of those glossy brochures that go on sale at high-end concert venues—your Earls Courts, your Wembley Arenas. You can spill your jumbo cola or the ketchup from your hot dog on them and the mess comes straight off. That’s The Stone Roses: Made of Stone. There’s precious little context about Manchester or the environment from which the band emerged; no attempt to get under the skin of the group or between the notes of the music. In Warrington, one fan talks to Meadows on the subject of what makes the Stone Roses special. “You know and I know but you can’t explain it, can you?” Maybe not. But no one would hate you for trying.
The Stone Roses: Made of Stone is on release. Spike Island opens Friday