Dissonant Notes

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Death Rattle - The Stone Roses, Primal Scream, Oasis and the Travesty of British Alternative Rock in the 1990s

"Why do we have to carry on
Always singing the same old song?
Same old song
The same old song"

The Creation "Making Time"

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-eighties 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’. 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.

The Stone Roses’ first great song was “Sally Cinnamon” and, ironically enough, it was a perfect slice of jangly guitar-pop. The production was definitely a little muscular by indie standards but a wistful yet sincere Byrds-esque tale of love between two girls? Only in 1987 and only in the UK.  In ’88 came “Elephant Stone” and already things had changed. The guitar playing was jangly but effortlessly fluid while the drums dominated the mix, giving the song a much harder edge. The sound was edging more towards classic rock and away from contemporary indie. Momentum continued gathering and things exploded in 1989, the year that the entire Stone Roses legend is built on. First up was new single “Made Of Stone” and it had ‘classic rock’ stamped all over it. With a chord progression nabbed from “Runaway” (Del Shannon) or “China Girl” (Iggy Pop/David Bowie) depending on who you asked, The Stone Roses shed any connection with 1980s indie music and made a song that could have been written and recorded in 1974. The self-titled album that followed was more of the same. Nothing indicated that the band had heard any music made after 1977. It was a glorious but limited reflection of what guitar music was capable of. The restless experimentation of the post-punk years was not only ignored but actively disdained. The ambition that The Stone Roses spoke of involved making an album equal to, or better than, The Beatles, The Stones or Led Zeppelin, as if nothing had happened since them worth measuring themselves against. It ushered in an era of classicism, of blokes making ‘proper’ music, of bands giving their fans something to ‘believe’ in. It reeked of religiosity and bloated rock ‘n’ roll conservatism. For some unknown reason the music of The Stone Roses soared despite its limitations but, in the hands of their progeny, it would cripple British music in the ‘90s. But hold! 1989 was not yet over and The Stone Roses had one more gift to give. November saw the release of “Fools Gold”, a song that not only put The Stone Roses in the top ten but also helped birth that other corrupted beast of ‘90s music: indie-dance. True to form, “Fool’s Gold” was magnificent. An unforgettable bass line held together this sample-laden funk workout as the boys from Manchester took a leap into modernity. Like all else they touched in ’89 it would inspire a multitude of imitators, almost all of them floundering where The Stone Roses flourished. Troubled by lawsuits and lack of songs, Manchester’s newest heroes were about to disappear into the wilderness, but they left behind a void that less talented individuals would try unsuccessfully to fill.

First out of the traps was Primal Scream. These indie underachievers had languished for years peddling standard issue jangle-pop to no avail (although they did manage to influence The Stone Roses and get on NME’s C86 tape). Either through luck or sheer desperation they hooked up with dance producer Andy Weatherall who delivered a radically altered, indeed almost entirely unrecognizable, remix of their song “I’m Losing More Than I’ll Ever Have”.  Rechristened “Loaded”, it soon joined the ranks of Happy Mondays’ “WFL” (Vince Clarke mix) and the aforementioned “Fool’s Gold” as the ultimate indie-disco floor filler. The alternative music press went into overdrive, completely beside themselves with excitement, stressing the cultural relevance of music that made indie kids dance!!! Primal Scream were supposedly pioneers despite being, at a conservative estimate, the fourth band (behind New Order, The Stone Roses, Happy Mondays) to be declared innovators for combining indie music with dance beats. 1991 saw the release of the woefully titled “Screamadelica”. To give you an indication of the esteem in which this album is still held I will quote you the opening salvo from allmusic’s album review:

There's no overestimating the importance of "Screamadelica", the record that brought acid house, techno, and rave culture crashing into the British mainstream -- an impact that rivaled that of Nirvana's "Nevermind"…

Never has an album been so undeserving of its legendary status. To begin with, the British mainstream had been more than exposed to acid house, techno and rave. Seminal Chicago house track “Jack Your Body” by Steve “Silk” Hurley was released in 1986 (yes, 1986) and went to number one in the UK in early ’87; “We Call It Acieed” by D Mob made it to number three in ’88. Let’s also not overlook the fact that the Pet Shop Boys had been bringing dance music to the masses since 1985 and had even covered House music classic “It’s Alright” in ’88 (and went on to have a top ten hit with it in ’89). To be honest I could spend several paragraphs picking apart exactly what’s wrong with the allmusic review, but the disinformation contained in the above quote is repeated almost verbatim in most appraisals of “Screamadelica”. One look at the song titles reveals the breathtaking triteness of the whole enterprise: “Movin’ On Up”, “Don’t Fight It, Feel It”, “Come Together”, “Damaged”, “I’m Comin’ Down”, “Shine Like Stars”.  Then there are the lyrics. Bobby Gillespie is perhaps the only man alive capable of making Noel Gallagher’s observations sound like poetry. What can you say about a person who follows up the line “What I got in my head you can’t, buy, steal or borrow” with “I believe in live, and let live. I believe you give, what you get”? Why would a person want to buy, steal or borrow such stomach-churning banality?

What saves “Screamadelica” from complete embarrassment is the music which most of the time can be credited to other sources. The Orb make “Higher Than the Sun” sound blissful even when the words are an interest-free zone. Andy Weatherall enhances the majority of the album with the Beach Boys-esque “Inner Flight” being something of a highlight mainly because we don’t get to hear Bobby Gillespie’s burned-out rock ‘n’ roll drivel. The two worst songs on the album are the Black-Crowes-on-a-bad-day “Movin’ On Up” and “Damaged” which take the art of mimicry to new levels of discomfort, with Primal Scream aping the strung-out sound and feel of The Stones circa 1972 to an embarrassingly exact degree (also throw in the fact that these tracks were produced by Jimmy Miller, who also produced “Exile On Main Street”). Exact minus the danger, the glory, and the point, that is.

Basking in the glow of success at last, the band followed up “Screamadelica” with “Give Out But Don’t Give Up”. Again, look in horror at these song titles: “Jailbird”, “Call on Me”, “Sad and Blue”, “I’ll Be There For You”!!! With the media now giving them attention Primal Scream did what they had always wanted to do-- make a Rolling Stones album. It was bad beyond belief, reveling in the worst kind of lowest-common-denominator rock ‘n’ roll backwash imaginable. Also of note was their unbearable stupidity and Britpop approved thuggishness (one particular article on the band had them gleefully recalling a night of humiliating and physically intimidating Damon Albarn from Blur). Desperate to win back their innovator status, they swung back to electronic music, with Bobby Gillespie apparently convinced that whispering vaguely menacing lyrics about some person or thing would create a sinister atmosphere. I suppose if you like the idea of someone intoning dreadful incantations along the lines of “She’s got a nuclear reactor face….a nuclear reactor face” over and over again, and then perhaps throwing in something about bombs or explosions or maybe Nazi’s, then you’re in for a good time. Soon enough they made another bad Stones imitation album. Then back to dance. Repeat ad nauseum.

If Primal Scream took the dance approach then Oasis ran with the classic guitar rock angle. Exuding arrogance and inviting ‘belief’, Oasis blew up the British indie scene and effectively destroyed it in the process. With Brit music weekly Sounds having already gone under, the NME and Melody Maker became the victims of the Gallagher brother’s success as the UK press were forced more and more to give both favourable and excessive coverage to Oasis and whatever band they happened to be hanging out with that week (Melody Maker took a more critical stance than NME which is probably why it went under too). It should be obvious to almost everyone by now that Oasis really weren’t very good, and this is coming from somebody who bought into the hype early and even attended their monster concert at Knebworth. “Definitely Maybe” remains their best release with the album coming across as rather varied (by Oasis standards) and tuneful. This was before Noel settled in to writing all his songs in the same “Let It Be” derived tempo. It isn’t really necessary to go into detail as to why Oasis were substandard. This has been done elsewhere and will continue to be done for a good while yet. Their limited talents soon ran dry but not before they had kicked open the door to a million sound-a-likes who popped up every other week on the front cover of NME.  The knock-on effect of all these blokes with guitars was the resurrection of the cocky British male. Whereas the UK in the ‘80s had put forth a more sensual, less defined version of maleness, with The Modfather himself Paul Weller seen lounging about in homoerotic poses, the ‘90s did away with this more complex view of masculinity and sent us hurtling back to the pre-feminist ‘60s; being a man was once more seen as a one-dimensional, moronic, insensitive condition. With the publication of mens ‘lifestyle’ magazine Loaded (named after the Primal Scream song), Britain fully embraced its cheeky-chappy, get-‘em-out-for-the-lads, knuckle dragging persona (just take a look at Blur’s “Country House” video for evidence). Paul Weller was making ‘proper’ rock music again and even that prophet of the fourth sex Morrissey took on a more physical presence, waxing freely about his love of boxing and obsession with British underworld figures. The whole country seemed to be regressing.

With guitar music now in freefall, the second half of the nineties produced practically nothing of note for UK fans of the six-string variety. The next big shot in the arm came by way of America, as The Strokes wielded an unnaturally large influence on British music with both The Libertines and Arctic Monkeys citing them as an influence. At heart, even The Libertines and Arctic Monkeys are simply more of the same with all of their songs dealing with laddish misbehavior, street wisdom of the “eh mate, you’re a right phoney so you are” variety, romanticised views of English life and troubles with girls. In other words, it was the stuff of arrogant rock ‘n’ roll legend. Like Oasis and The Stone Roses before them, The Libertines and Arctic Monkeys seem to inspire that selfsame ‘belief’ that produces multitudes of copycat acts, and as a result British guitar music remains bereft of inspiration. Perhaps it was doomed to happen no matter what the circumstances, but I can’t help but feel that a large part of the blame must be laid at the door of the UK music press in the ‘90s who did more than simply bombard the public with second-rate product; they betrayed an emerging UK music scene in the process.

UK electronic music in the early ‘90s was both exhilarating and revolutionary. With acts such as Aphex Twin, Orbital, A Guy Called Gerald, The Orb, The KLF and Massive Attack all breaking new ground, the music press had an embarrassment of riches to choose from. For the most part, however, electronic acts were pushed to the sidelines in order to make way for a classic rock revival and Britpop. Even worse, no-hopers Primal Scream were actually portrayed as the real groundbreakers and were certainly the act that reaped the most benefit from dance music’s popularity. Small-minded rock music collectors with a penchant for excessive drug use, they stole the thunder from electronica’s real innovators with complete backing from the music press. It appears as if the NME and Select (a UK monthly magazine) only considered a musician influential when they made an album palatable to indie fans. What was even more frustrating was the fact that most UK music journalists had a limited understanding of electronic music’s origins. Synth-pop acts such as Gary Numan, Visage, Depeche Mode and Yazoo had actually been a huge influence on America’s emerging hip-hop and dance scenes. Juan Atkins, Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson all considered UK synth-pop to be an essential element of their musical fusion, while Frankie Knuckles regularly mixed the aforementioned bands in with the more up-to-date House music that Chicago and New York were producing. To all but a few UK journalists, however, none of those bands mattered. Only New Order could be mentioned proudly as an influential UK dance act and only then because of their post-punk roots. The whole thing reeked of laziness and classic rock prejudice. Oasis were congratulated for the very thing Depeche Mode were ignored for-- selling millions of records. The difference was that Depeche Mode were making electronic music with influences outside of the accepted canon while Oasis were churning out monkey see-monkey do re-treads of overly familiar rock standards.

The rock music collector mentality of Primal Scream and the lazy everyman outlook of Oasis had no place for synth-pop. It wasn’t ‘proper’ music. Britain’s emerging electronic scene was not only pushed to the sidelines but its influential past was purged from the history books so that a rock ‘n’ roll lineage could be created and in doing so the press could declare bands like Primal Scream and Oasis to be the natural heirs to The Rolling Stones, The Small Faces, Led Zeppelin, The Sex Pistols, The Jam and The Smiths. British music has never fully recovered and to this day you’ll find both nostalgia-hungry males in their mid-forties and strutting teens desperately looking for a guitar band to emerge and reconnect the current generation to the classic rock music canon. Only guitar music made by three to five everyday males can provide people with something to ‘believe’ in, or so it seems. “(What’s The Story) Morning Glory?” and “Screamadelica” are still regularly placed higher than the infinitely superior “Violator” by Depeche Mode or “Very” by the Pet Shop Boys on “best album of the ‘90s” lists, if indeed Depeche Mode and the Pet Shop Boys are placed at all. “OK Computer” by Radiohead almost always wins such best-of lists, another example of a rock band being seen as credible for putting electronic innovations in a rock context (to be fair Radiohead’s ambitions and motives are more noble than those of Primal Scream but that doesn’t mean I don’t find them boring a lot of the time, although they do allow Q readers to feel more edgy and less like dinosaurs). More interesting guitar bands such as Suede and The Boo Radleys are also ignored or banished to the lower reaches of such lists as the ‘90s canon becomes more solidified with each passing year.  

It is my dream that one day a proper history of British music in the ‘90s will be written and it will be an accepted fact by all that Britpop was an embarrassing farce. The ‘90s were supposedly my peak music years. I began the decade aged 14, the perfect age for musical obsessions to begin. Right now I should be shaking my head at 16 year olds and telling them that they have no idea what music is and how the music of my youth was so much better. Except that I can’t because the music I was exposed to week-in/week-out by the British music press has only become more hollow with age. British guitar music in the ‘90s was, in the majority of cases, a puffed-up phantom, a petrified ghost trying to follow approved behaviours from the past and expecting to get the same artistic results. Primed by The Stone Roses I became a Creation Records’ disciple, believing it to be the ‘keeper of the flame’ in regards to the true spirit of rock ‘n’ roll (they were one of the prime movers in the shambling indie-rock scene of the ‘80s) when in fact by the ‘90s they were a huge reactionary force that transformed itself into a monster after Oasis became superstars. Groups like Teenage Fanclub and The Boo Radleys moved (or were pushed?) into a more classic, Oasis-influenced direction as Creation flexed its muscles, seemingly intent on extracting some kind of revenge for the synth-dominated ‘80s (never forget, it was this environment that allowed for the success of Kula Shaker.). Creation was undoubtedly the biggest benefactor of The Stone Roses’ success. When Ian Brown and company vanished for several years, it did not merely add to their legend, it fueled the idea that rock music could still be legendary, could still matter. A thousand mediocre wannabes later, it seems like nobody has learned their lesson.

In June 1980 The Soft Boys released “Underwater Moonlight”. It was, in its way, a brilliant creation, but its heart was in another era and it was all but ignored. Rather than seeing this as an outrage, I see it more as poetic justice. The UK was in no mood to look back and when albums such as The Raincoats’ debut, “Metal Box” (Public Image Ltd), “The Pleasure Principle” (Gary Numan), “The Correct Use Of Soap” (Magazine), “The Affectionate Punch” (Associates), “Colossal Youth” (Young Marble Giants), “The Voice Of America” (Cabaret Voltaire), “Travelogue” (The Human League), “Cut” (The Slits)  and “Closer” (Joy Division) had either just been released or were about to be, why would anyone have wanted to? The Soft Boys were tied up in the past while others were looking to the future, and Robyn Hitchcock’s outfit suffered as a result. (“Underwater Moonlight” eventually found something of an audience as music fans became more comfortable listening to ‘60s-influenced pop and rock). Imagine a UK press and public that had treated “The Stone Roses” in the same way, as a great album mired in the past that could certainly be enjoyed but which nevertheless paled beside the forward-looking musical experiments of the time. True, British electronic music did not have an armful of classics under its arm in 1988 but, with enough support, the ‘90s could have been so different. Instead, as the experimental guitar wave broke around ’85 and bands began to indulge in more and more retro-isms, the classic rock paradigm was resurrected by the very institutions which had once sought to destroy it (maybe the NME was indulging in some knock-‘em-down/build-‘em-up for a change).

The success of The Stone Roses and what happened immediately afterwards represent the moment when both the British alternative music press and the British alternative music fan lost their nerve and lost faith in pop music’s ability to reshape itself amidst changing times (the emergence of Uncle Tupelo in America represents a similar moment for US alternative music with the difference being that I cannot stand Uncle Tupelo). They rallied to the classic rock flag and in doing so helped destroy the forward momentum of alternative music, along with its allegiance to the most radical musical innovations, and made the ‘90s a decade in which almost all of the headlines were grabbed by acts whose albums are not even worth dusting off anymore. That’s assuming most of you haven’t sold them already. Punk, for all its faults, drew a line in the sand, making people move forward while Britpop was a delusional gateway to a distant past. To anyone aged between 14 and 23 I’m going to hand out a little bit of hard-earned advice. If anybody ever, and I mean ever, tells you that the music from this day and age doesn’t compare to the music of their youth treat their comments suspiciously. If, however, the person in question starts throwing out names like Oasis, Primal Scream, Supergrass or even Blur, then smile politely and be on your way as quickly as possible. You’ve encountered somebody who has bought into a terrible lie and are still the victim of it. If good music happened in the ‘90s, it was in spite of Britpop not because of it, and the vacuum that was filled by desperate musicians and journalists in the absence of The Stone Roses (compounded by the success of Nirvana and the need to show the Yanks that the Brits could still make relevant guitar music) remains nothing to celebrate. What we should be doing is turning away from it in shame. Not maybe, definitely. 

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