The ultimate difficult second album: how The Stone Roses went from Britain’s best band to rock’s greatest disaster story
After filling Manchester’s Etihad stadium for four staggeringly euphoric nights last summer, the Stones Roses return this week for a triumphant trawl around Britain’s outdoor sports arenas. The Mancunian quartet, whose gradual ascent through the 1980’s suddenly accelerated when their funky take on psychedelia collided with acid house, have always had a penchant for mammoth events. Yet, they’ve also flown by the seat of their pants, lurching from triumph to disaster.
The genesis of their second album, back in the early ’90s, was a case in point. After their self-titled 1989 debut album had finally catapulted them to the forefront of a whole new movement known as ‘indie-dance’, they were fêted as Britain’s coolest and most influential band. They hit the Top Ten with a ten-minute groove called Fool’s Gold, then put on a massive, yet chaotically organised gig at Spike Island, but spirits were still high as they set about creating their follow-up long-player – the one which would surely see them conquer the world.
However recording sessions in Monmouth were a disaster from start to finish. When, in early 1990 at the appointed hour, The Stone Roses’ producer John Leckie turned up at the at the legendary residential studios Rockfield – where Queen famously cut Bohemian Rhapsody – they were nowhere to be seen. Indeed, they wouldn’t turn up for another two days, as the band had diverted to Wolverhampton, in order to turn the office of their former label into some kind of 3D Jackson Pollock artwork, by splattering paint all over it – revenge for the fact the label had re-released their early single, Sally Cinnamon, without their consent.
When the four Roses finally rolled into Rockfield, they had to admit to Leckie that they had only written two songs, neither of which were very good. Then the police turned up, to charge them with criminal damage, and they were forced to spend the night at Monmouth police station. On their return, they spent three months working on a solitary composition, One Love, which was in the vein of, but no match for, Fool’s Good, and put it out as a stop-gap single, which duly went Top Five in July 1990.
In the meantime, they’d been brokering a new deal with American corporate giants Geffen, but were then duly embroiled in a court case to get out of their contract with current label Silvertone. During the hearing, they found out that their manager had been embezzling most of their earnings – he reputedly trousered a £40,000 Christmas bonus from Silvertone, tossing the four members a cursory £500 each.
When they finally won the court case in May ’91, they each received an estimated £125,000 advance from the new Geffen deal. But instead of doing something sensible with the money, the mid-twentysomethings squandered it on flash cars and a group holiday in the South of France, where their preferred mode of transport was helicopter. Back home in Manchester, Ian Brown, their cocky, talismanic singer, was spotted handing out £20 notes to the homeless.
By the time work on the album re-commenced in March ’92, the band were using the Rolling Stones’ exorbitantly expensive Mobile Studio, a mobile recording studio inside a lorry, which they had parked outside a B&B they’d converted in Ewloe, North Wales – sufficiently removed from the mounting expectation and pressure surrounding their second opus, yet only 30 miles from home in Manchester.
By now, arty guitarist and chief songwriter John Squire, and drummer Alan ‘Reni’ Wren were at loggerheads, as Squire suddenly preferred playing along to looped rhythms, which Wren felt marginalized him. Squire compositions like Breaking Into Heaven and Ten Storey Love Song were nailed then, but at a second patch of sessions in July-August, Squire’s creative inspiration dried up, and they wasted more time simply re-recording the stuff they’d already done.
At this stage, what the Roses desperately needed was someone to put a rocket beneath them, but without a manager, and with the Geffen label far too busy coping with the astonishing success of another of their acts, Nirvana, the project simply drifted on.
Squire took it upon himself to crack on with finally finishing the album at the beginning of 1993, and a studio in Bury was block-booked for a year. However the guitarist had written a bunch of highly personal songs about a recent romantic break-up, which Brown didn’t feel comfortable singing, and increasingly Squire became withdrawn and monosyllabic. Even when the tape machines were moved to the living room of the band’s new shared living quarters in Marple, this meant that everyone was too close to Manchester city centre, and thus prone to metropolitan distractions, which ranged from nipping off to the bank or meeting a mate, to three-day partying. Leckie tried to get tough with them, organising a month-long blitz of a recording session at Rockfield in July ’93, but on the band’s arrival, the producer quit, in part because he’d only been paid £10,000 for all his work thus far, and in part because not one song had been completed, and he’d simply given up the ghost.
Now totally rudderless, the Rockfield sessions spiralled on for another 14 months, at an estimated cost of £250,000. Squire’s songs increasingly reflected a new-found obsession with Led Zeppelin, and at this point the rest of the band spent a lot of time trying to steer the ship back towards a more contemporary, dance-orientated sound. The two camps became more entrenched by the day, and by early ’94, Squire began to numb his cares with cocaine, often disappearing to his room in Marple for days on end. By contrast, Brown and the others were heavy marijuana smokers: Brown vilified coke as a selfish drug in comparison to cannabis, whose natural properties he thought brought users into close harmony with the earth.
Each side, however, was effectively self-medicating their mounting fear of failure by bingeing on their respective drugs, and in the process, of course, only further delaying their album. All four now had kids with respective partners, yet their behaviour became increasingly odd: Brown and Wren shaved their heads like cult members, and a further sequence of producers and engineers came and went amid the dysfunction.
Down the road at Monnow Valley studios, meanwhile, a new band from Manchester called Oasis were recording, and dropped by to say hello. By the summer of 1994, their star was rising fast, chiefly thanks to the vacuum the Roses themselves had left. By that time, too, the Geffen label’s standard-bearer, Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain, had committed suicide, making the Roses suddenly a higher priority again. So, the label quickly imposed a tight deadline to finish the album, and it was duly cobbled together from the sprawling mountain of tapes they’d amassed, and released in December ’94.
The Stone Roses had been away so long, that the album’s title, Second Coming, hardly felt like an exaggeration. Finally, they were back, but inevitably rather, the record got a mixed reception. Its 66 minutes of meandering blues, folk-rock and borderline metal weren’t bad per se, but the whole thing failed to live up to either the revelatory vibe of its predecessor or its title.
Having finally done the hard part, the Roses then let their inner disharmony scupper what should have been the easier part, a successful comeback tour. Instead, Wren quit before the tour began, and a headline appearance at Glastonbury ’95 had to be scratched after Squire fractured his collarbone while mountain-biking. By August ’96, Squire too, had jumped ship, leaving a half-strength Roses bolstered by session musos to play a legendarily abominable set at Reading ’96.
Brown and avuncular bassist Gary ‘Mani’ Mounfield called time on the band soon afterwards, and it was a long road to the Roses’ comeback in 2011. Their first shows back together at Manchester’s Heaton Park in summer ’12 came about after Brown and Squire encountered each other at Mounfield’s mother’s funeral and went on to bury the hatchet. They’ve since gigged intermittently, and released a couple of new tracks online. The announcement of this year’s round of dates prompted heightened expectation for a third album, but it has oddly yet to materialise. The lesson from history must surely be: don’t hold your breath.
The Stone Roses play Wembley Stadium, London tomorrow, First Direct Arena, Leeds on June 20 and 21 and Hampden Park on June 24