The Stone Roses: The Early Years

"The flames have taken hold"
Early Stone Roses
In April 2009 and to celebrate 20 Years of 'The Stone Roses' debut album. Clash spoke to the people involved and why that album is important for a whole generation. Below John Robb looks at The Stone Roses' early days

As The Beatles perfectly proved, genius is never an overnight sensation; for every chancer that made themselves an instant celebrity in the tabloid world of pop, there have been bands that grafted and crafted their sound to perfection in various line-ups and shitty youth club gigs.

Listen to The Stone Roses’ perfect debut album and you know that there was a lot of history there, a lot of time spent listening and learning and honing and a lot of heartache chiselling their sound down to perfection.

Fired in the late Seventies by punk, Ian Brown was typical of anyone who was awake in his generation - the thrill of the new and those endless signpost seven inch singles of the period soundtracked his life and, after a chance meeting, they would also soundtrack a new friend’s teenage life, as Brown himself remembers.

“I got to know John in about 1977. He was getting his head kicked in at school and I knew he lived up our street and I jumped in and helped him out. That night, because I felt a bit sorry for him, I took some records round. I already had ‘God Save The Queen’ the day it came out. I also took the first Clash LP and The Adverts’ ‘One Chord Wonders’. I knocked on his door and took round these tunes. He had The Beatles’ ‘Live At The Hollywood Bowl’ and The Beach Boys’ ‘Golden Greats’. I played my stuff and he got it straight away and he got really into The Clash.”

Within months, and now at college in South Manchester, they had a germ of a band together with Andy Couzens on vocals, because they had been impressed by his bolshy behaviour at college when he had sparked an assailant out - figuring that anyone who could fight like that and had the right cropped hair, cropped attitude and winkle pickers must be perfect frontman material.

“He was weighing into this kid fighting and we were impressed with his bottle because the other kid was bigger than him, and we thought, ‘let’s ask him to be the singer’. He was wearing winkle picker shoes, a long black Crombie and had a spiky haircut, so we knew he was coming out of the same sort of thing that we were.”

They asked Couzens to front their nascent band with Ian Brown - perhaps inspired by the legendary Stranglers bassist JJ Burnel - on bass, John Squire on guitar and another school friend who, fired by Topper Headon’s stunning drumming for The Clash - the super cool ‘funky’ Si Wolstencroft on drums - was an old mate of Ian’s from school. “Si was the first kid I met at school. He was the only person to have Docs [Doc Marten boots] on, so I clicked with him straight away.”

John was also deeply into The Clash and the band, now christened The Patrol, wrote sets of songs that were Clash punk/reggae inspired, and played a youth club show watched by another mate, Pete Garner, whom they had met hanging around a small wooden bridge near their home base in Timperly, South Manchester.

Garner taped the gig, and thirty years later you can hear The Clash strongly in the band’s original compositions - whilst they may not have been stunningly original they were very adept even at this early stage. Whilst one of the great things about punk was that anyone-can-get-up-and-do-it attitude, it did mean for a lot of fumbling and head-scratching playing, but The Patrol were far ahead of many of their contemporaries on the playing front and the songs are clearly discernible all those decades later.

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The band played a handful of gigs before Brown’s wanderlust got the better of him and he sold his bass and amp and bought the famous chopped-down scooter, which he painted pink with ‘Angles With Dirty Faces’ on the side, and hooked up with a Chorlton scooter club - soon to be joined by John Squire. Si joined up with one of Johnny Marr’s pre-Smiths combos, Freaky Party. Ian, with his cultural antennae finely tuned, sensed that changes were afoot in the punk fallout.

“Punk was going by end of ’78. We still liked The Jam; ‘Setting Sons’ had come out. I was into the Pistols, but they split up in ’79. so I was now into The Upstarts - their ‘Murder Of Liddle Towers’ was a big tune - Cockney Rejects’ ‘Flares And Slippers’, Sham 69’s ‘Ulster‘ - that was their first record and then ‘Borstal Breakout’ and ‘Angels With Dirty Faces’; great records. I was really into them and then I started getting into early mod bands.”

It looked like the band itself was like thousands of others who came to life in the brief flicker of post-punk activity, with its two key players charging up and down the country going to scooter rallies

“In ’81/’82 I went all over - Great Yarmouth, Brighton. Not that many kids from Manchester used to go on all the runs. A hundred of us would go to Scarborough but only a hardcore of ten or fifteen went south, but there would be ten thousand other scooters when you got there on these scooter runs. We used to meet outside Horners on Ayres Road in Chorlton. We were the Chorlton crew - the Trojans. We had chrome helmets with a fox’s tail hanging from the back of it. We would take fifteen hours to get to Brighton because we had to use the A-roads. We would sleep in a bin bag in a ditch. The idea was to go there and get girls and have a good time…”

In the meantime Andy - now on guitar - and John got another ad hoc band back together (initially christened The Fireside Chaps) for a laugh, and were rehearsing with a tough looking skinhead on vocals called Kaiser, Mani on bass and Chris Goodwin on drums. The band rehearsed at Andy Couzens’ house before changing their name to The Waterfront. By now their sound was like a tougher version of Orange Juice’s frenetic jangling Sound Of Young Scotland, with Squire’s guitar picking out the rudimentary jangles that would, with a bit of polish, become his trademark. Their demo underlines this with the track ‘Normandy (On A Beach In)’ being sung surprisingly adeptly by Kaiser. The demo pricked up the ears of a listening Ian Brown.

“They played the demo that they had done - they were sort of Orange Juicey and I wasn’t into that, but I thought, ‘wow! It sounds dead tuneful - like a proper band’. They were into Josef K and Glasgow Postcard sort of stuff, as well as Green On Red, early REM, Rain Parade - I never liked any of that. They said, “Do you want to join up singing?” So I rehearsed a couple of times with them; the idea was for me to join up on vocals with Kaiser and have two vocalists. We never played a gig and it didn’t really happen.”

Around this time in 1984, Brown and Couzens did make one famous trip up to Clint Boon’s rehearsal space in Ashton called The Mill to have a jam with Boon’s pre-Inspiral Carpets outfit named The Mill (or T’Mill depending on which day of the week you asked him).

The Mill, who were a three piece of Boon, Mani on bass or guitar and Chris Goodwin on drums, were recording semi-psychedelic jams with metal percussion and noise - “a bit like Einsturzende Neubauten”, grins Boon years later (who also recalls Brown and Couzens turning up in Couzens’ “big American car”). The five of them bundled into the rehearsal room cum homemade recording studio and attempted to create some magic, but the group, who were a Manchester supergroup ten years too early, failed to ignite, with Ian finding the music uninteresting, pretending that he had never sung before, making his excuses and getting out of there.

The Waterfont continued rehearsing but they never played any gigs. However the hard work saw John Squire in particular honing down his guitar with his tight circle of friends already noticing that there was a special talent beginning to emerge. Ultimately though the band itself fell apart, with Kaiser going off to join the army.

It was around this time that Ian Brown was living in Hulme in the now-demolished legendary council flats near Manchester city centre that were rent-free because the council were too ashamed to grab the money because of the condition they were in. The area was rough and chaotic and full of students, junkies, dealers and arty bohemian types in what was arguably Europe’s biggest squat area.

One night Brown was having his 21st birthday party in the crescent when there was a knock on the door and one of Brown’s mates, Gluebag Glen, who had been to see Geno Washington play a gig in town, had brought the singer back to the party. Washington was instantly taken with Brown and declared him to be “a star”, and when the pair went to the Reno club in Moss Side to score some weed, he kept telling Brown to be in a band; “You’re a star, everyone loves you”, he kept telling the charismatic young Brown.

At first Ian was laughing it off, but something must have stuck from the soul singer’s proclamation because within a month he got back in touch with John Squire and the pair of them talked of getting band back together, as Brown himself remembers.

“So it was Geno Washington who had sowed the seed. I said to John what had happened at the party and he said, ‘Why don’t we give it a go?’ The Waterfront had now finished but he was still playing his guitar on his own all the time. You would go round and he always had his guitar round his neck. He would be playing it always, watching telly or walking around, making a brew with the kettle with a guitar round his neck. Me and John were still sort of mates even though we had not seen each other properly for a year. We were leading different lives, but we said, ‘Let’s get this band thing going.’” Both of them agreed to get Pete Garner in on bass even though he couldn’t play, but they innately understood that bands are gangs and the affable Garner was everyone’s mate, because he was working in town at the key Paperchase record shop and knew all the new young faces in town including Johnny Marr (who he shared a bus ride home from work with). He also vaguely knew the pre-Smiths Morrissey, who he had chatted about the New York Dolls with. Despite John’s reservations they got Andy Couzens in on guitar and Si Wolstencroft in on drums. “It was like getting The Patrol back together,” laughs Brown, who had moved from bass to vocals. The band, installed with an unlikely work ethic, began to rehearse hard in early 1984, and I remember them moving in next door to where my band The Membranes were rehearsing in South Manchester, and we became friends.

Si left early, believing that the band, now christened The Stone Roses, were not as good a bet as ex-Specials frontman Terry Hall’s new outfit The Colourfield. Si went on to drum for an early Smiths line-up before ending up in The Fall for ten years. A great drummer, it’s a shame that he never got his talents recognised in the mainstream. His style - the original funky drummer - would, ironically, be a template of the late Eighties indie scene.

Losing your drummer is tough; good drummers are hard to find, but with a quiet resolve the band searched out a new sticksman, auditioning the drummer from The Skeletal Family, before placing an ad in A1, the local music shop. The ad was only answered by one person, Reni.

They set up an audition and went round to pick up the young drummer, who apparently answered the door of his Gorton house in his moon boots, and his extrovert nature caught the quieter Roses on the hop.

On the tape of Reni’s first rehearsal, you can hear Reni’s exuberant enthusiasm in the rehearsal room as he introduces himself to the band before getting behind the kit to play along to ‘Tragic Roundabout’, instantly turning the song into a Roses song. Within five minutes you can hear the sound coalesce and the distinctive drumming that made Reni the best drummer of his generation suddenly turning the Roses into contenders.

The band debuted weeks later at the Moonlight club in London supporting Pete Townsend (who tried to poach Reni for his own band. The Roses were thrilled when their obviously talented stickman opted to stay put) at an anti-heroin benefit. This was followed by a gig at Preston Clouds, which descended into a kick-off, and the Swedish tour, which was the band’s mini Beatles-in-Hamburg moment; the five-piece Roses were far rockier than their later incarnation, but this line-up has been constantly underrated by everyone. The songs were as euphoric and anthemic as the ones that made the band famous, maybe because song like ‘This Is The One’ and ‘I Wanna Be Adored’ were already in the set. The early Roses had the swagger and attitude that, with some fine tuning, would make them famous. They certainly were not a goth band; Pete garner’s long black hair was a testament to his love of The Stooges and New York Dolls, and their music was a louder version of what would eventually become their classic sound.

They played the Warehouse parties just behind Piccadilly station in Manchester and created a mini local legend. The gigs were full of their rowdy scooter mate fans and a small coterie of Roses believers - the first of a new generation of pop kids who would become the core of the upcoming new scene.

They recorded with Martin Hannet, but the by now dazed and confused legendary producer was struggling by then and the resulting recordings were shelved as the band began to tread water, bringing in the maverick manager of local club International, Gareth Evans, to manage them, then they sacked Andy Couzens and then Pete Garner left.

Despondent they tried out a bass player before Mani rang up and declared himself perfect for the band; they knew he wasn’t blagging.

Within one rehearsal the most important British guitar band of its period was in place…

Words by John Robb

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