Ian Brown

The past was yours...


The cocky 25-year-old was speaking as he stood on the edge of greatness in 1988 as the front man of The Stone Roses, the first British band since the punk era to truly set the British music scene alight. Back then Ian Brown was at the musical frontline with an army of four, ready to take on the world. Seventeen years later, as I meet him in an Italian café in North London, I ask Ian Brown where he’s at now.

“I’m bigger than ever,” is Brown’s simple answer, getting interrupted for the third time by an admiring member of the public wanting to thank him, ask about a Roses reform or exchange career advice. Ian engages every encounter, treats his apparent mate as familiar before moving his focus back, smiling. “I’m bigger than ever, man. I’ve got me biggest shows at the end of the year and I’m putting me ‘Greatest Hits’ together. I got here… somehow… well actually from hard graft.”

60,000 folk with their hands in the air

As we all know, in late 80’s Britain, rave culture exploded and The Stone Roses were the only young rock band that mattered. Ian Brown had the attitude to lead the way, announcing at the time, “We want to be the best of everything. To be all things to all people at all times. Aim for the stars and you’re gonna hit the ceiling. Never put up with second best.” In a decade of vacuous stadium rock and, The Smiths aside, uninspiring ‘alternative’ offerings, The Stone Roses set out to destroy the likes of U2 and The Rolling Stones. They even famously turned down a Rolling Stones support slot in a defiant statement that second best wasn’t even acceptable when the self-dubbed ‘greatest rock ‘n’ roll band in the world’ came knocking. 1989 was a year for celebration, the grim Thatcher years were drawing to a close and post recession hedonism was in the air for the youth of the UK. What seemed like a musical movement for change and insurrection had given everyone a sense of freedom. The Roses ingrained the indelible mark of arguably the greatest British debut album of all time on our conscience.

‘The Stone Roses’ became the soundtrack of that time, the zeitgeist. It’s almost unimaginable that five years later Brown would watch the catastrophic collapse of his band and the instant breakdown of the friendship he’d shared since school with writing and production partner John Squire. He’d start the 90s watching his drummer, Alan ‘Reni’ Wren play over a drum loop on ‘Fools Gold’ because Squire wouldn’t work with him and he would soon discover musical differences of his own. This was the beginning of four excruciating years where great promise and sheer, raw talent would fail to exact its potential. Relations gradually soured in the band as drugs took hold, and more time was spent in court than in the studio as they contested an action brought against them by their former manager. On the road Ian and John would sit in separate tour buses, Brown’s being the ‘noncocaine’ bus. By ’93-’94 he had become increasingly disillusioned but felt he couldn’t give up, giving John time to seek the attention he craved by letting him write and produce almost all of ‘The Second Coming’ alone. The Roses long-awaited second album would take 18 months to polish and was met with mixed initial reactions. They toured the world that year and, despite missing what would have been a legendary Glastonbury headline show due to John’s arm break, they gave what Brown describes as some of their best ever shows. Just as his faith was building back up, Ian Brown’s world was shattered. Drummer Reni was first to announce his departure from The Stone Roses in 1995, then one Sunday night early the following year John Squire phoned Ian to tell him he couldn’t go on. Squire immediately completely cut himself off from his best friend. Brown also suffered the split of his long-term relationship with the mother of his first two children at this time.

As Squire immediately launched himself in new band The Seahorses, the patched up Roses hobbled on, towards a disastrous final show 6 months later at the Reading festival. Brown was crucified for poor vocals and the subsequent mass exodus of the crowd. The remaining Roses had burned out in front of people’s eyes. “I was actually in tune that day,” he explains, “but not with the rest of the band. I was in a different key. When I left the stage all I saw was 60,000 folk with their hands in the air. I didn’t see this mass exodus with people crying, saying the world was about to end and it wasn’t until the next day when I heard a tape that I realised how bad it sounded.” The next week, two days before a review was to be published, he received a call that would confirm his worst fears. “A girl phoned me up that worked for the NME. She said that on the Friday night before the gig they’d had a meeting where Steve Sutherland the editor said we’re gonna bury The Roses. We were weak then, it was only me and Mani left out of the originals and he’d said at that meeting that whatever happened on Sunday, they were burying us. I realised then that there was no point in becoming the new Stone Roses or the new new Stone Roses, they were gonna kill us anyway.” In Ian’s mind they had failed. “We started out to finish bands like U2. And they’re still the biggest band in the world. We failed. People wore flares for a year or two. That’s all we really did.” With his band and his grand plan consigned to history, Brown seriously considered giving music up completely. He considered focusing on roses of a different nature. “I thought I’d had my go, I thought I’d done alright and got known and wasn’t gonna improve on that. I said to meself, ‘I wanna grow flowers in me back garden and take ’em to market and live life dead simple’.” He initially went to live in a council flat in Warrington with no recording contract and no manager and it was widely regarded that Brown was finished. However, musicians, fans, friends and strangers helped him rethink. “Kids would come up to me flat and say ‘You’re a legend’ and I’d say ‘Well where’s me pool?’” he remembers. “They were coming up to me in the street, total strangers and friends, saying ‘You’ve got to do it, you’ve got to’. A lot of goodwill was shown to me that I believe followed me through from the way we were in the early days. So I had to give it a go, and did, and here I am now doing me ‘Greatest Hits’, bigger than ever.” Reni bought him an acoustic guitar and Brown went for it, alone and completely selffocused. He took parts of songs he’d written in anticipation of a third Roses album and locked himself in a box bedroom with a small eight-track studio to start experimenting, his intention to “make a record that felt like when The Roses took off.” What resulted from an intensive six months writing and producing was debut solo LP, ‘Unfinished Monkey Business’, named as a reference to the King Monkey tag bestowed on him by the drummer from Dodgy. He says the making of the album was “a reaction to being in the studio with The Roses for 15 months making ‘Second Coming’”. He felt the time spent perfecting the production of the album he now distances himself from was too much, and he deliberately aimed to add rawness to his first solo attempt. “I didn’t want to do some 24-track super produced LP with sheen, I wanted it to sound like you were on the end of me bed watching me do it. I think I achieved that but now when I play it, it sounds a little too rough and ready.” What ‘Unfinished Monkey Business’s lo-fi, distant songs achieved was to re-ignite something in Ian Brown. It wasn’t even close to his work of old but the album kept him off the dole and gave him the chance to avoid trouble.

Unfortunately trouble was never far away. In February 1998, just after Brown had started work on his second album, he was on a flight from Paris to Manchester and became involved in an argument with an air stewardess. He is adamant that he did not threaten or swear at anyone, but the stewardess had to summon the captain. Brown apparently hammered the cockpit door and when he landed, was charged with threatening behaviour on board an aircraft. He got 60 days in Strangeways, much to his indignation the same term Gary Glitter received at the time for far more sordid misdemeanours. Prison was brutal but even in there he encountered the goodwill that follows him. He was constantly starving, constantly bored, and had to endure the prison officers he loathed trying to turn inmates against him. Conversely Brown quickly became ‘one of us’ to the prisoners, and as a result his respect for them grew. “The lads were beautiful. There was an honesty inside there. They were criminals, but they were honest. They took me in and looked after me.” He’d swap autographs for tobacco and newspapers and steered clear of the hard drugs he said were everywhere. “The state of prisons is a joke really. Ninety percent of inmates are on heroin. I saw more heroin and rocks [crack cocaine] in there than I’ve seen in the music business. Every day kids came offering rocks, and I’d be like, ‘Get them out of my cell’. I had five different pad mates and every one was a smackhead.” He enjoyed the odd joint but he got fit, read lots and turned Muslim to avoid the prison pies, benefiting from a halal diet of lentils, rice, chickpeas and chicken on a Friday instead. He received tons of fan mail, the prison guards reading it out, “Brown, Brown, Brown, Brown didn’t take long to get motivated. “It took me like five minutes after getting back on Christmas Eve to get started. I wrote the single ‘Love Like A Fountain’ by dawn on Christmas Day and then spent New Year and the early part of 1999 writing the rest of what was to become ‘Golden Greats’.” Brown realised that he needed to improve on the sound of his previous work and started to work with programmer Dave McCracken. “I had the beats, melody and lyrics for the track ‘Dolphins Were Monkeys’ from the album. Dave suggested a keyboard line, the one that’s in it now. I was like ‘That’s amazing’, so I sorted him out as a composer. If I was expressing an idea, he’d be right there. His connection would come straight away and he’s one of the reasons I rediscovered that I could improve on before.” Dave became co-writer and co-producer on a lot of Brown’s work and ‘Golden Greats’ took on the mantle of vintage Brown. The songs were passionate, driven by his time inside, and his ghostly voice was back at his best. The pair made third album ‘Music Of The Spheres’ in 2001, with Brown’s initial intention to make a classical LP without guitars or drums.

This changed when McCracken introduced Brown to his brother Francis Dunnery, a respected guitarist who ended up all over the album. With singles ‘F.E.A.R’ and ‘Forever And A Day’ providing success, ‘Music Of The Spheres’ was widely called his best work in a decade. Brown started to feel confidant working in new ways and experimenting with new sounds, like the Mexican mariachi trumpet and Asian flavours that were frequently populating his trademark groove. He took a break from recording whilst he married his second long-term partner, Mexican model and photographer Fabiola Quiroz, and he became a father for the third time. He put out a remix album of ‘MOTS’ before fourth album ‘Solarized’ was released in 2004. Again he was trying to improve. “I wanted ‘Solarized’ to have even stronger lyrics and melodies. On ‘Golden Greats’ and ‘Unfinished Monkey Business’ I had been involved in everything, the drumbeat, the bassline, the keyboard, everything. That changed on ‘Music Of The Spheres’ when I just focused on lyrics and melodies. With ‘Solarized’ I wanted to get back into doing more on the music side of it.” If not already so, ‘Solarized’ confirmed the talent and status of Ian Brown as one of the most important artists of the last two decades. Everything had come full circle. He’d built around himself a team of musicians who made his ideas work consistently as a solo artist. At the core of this team, alongside Dave McCracken is Inder Goldfinger, Brown’s percussionist, the man he says is “the most talented musician he has ever worked with”. There’s Aziz Ibrahim, another Manchester lad who has suffered the same fate with previous bands but whose background and guitar playing skills sit with ease alongside Brown and Dave McCracken’s brother Dunnery and Tim Hutton, the trumpet player who appears on the mariachi tracks. On ‘Solarized’ he collaborated with Noel Gallagher on ‘Keep What Ya Got’, a show of mutual appreciation with the one band who have copied and benefited most from what The Roses had to say.

He now works with a seven-piece band and full crew when he is out on the road, in many ways just like he used to, and feels totally at ease with his music, again like he used to. Undoubtedly and to many surprisingly, he has been the only member of that legendary band to nudge close to the magical melody and timeless groove of the great Roses songs. Songs that he recently decided to revive. One night late in 2004 as the sun went down on a hazy Surrey day, headlining a gig in aid of The National Trust at Claremont Landscape Gardens, Brown decided to breathe life into classics not heard in a decade by playing a near complete set of Roses favourites. The reaction was hysterical and word spread fast that the songs were alive. At Glastonbury earlier this year he opened his headline and festival closing set with ‘I Wanna Be Adored’ and effortlessly sailed through versions of ‘Made Of Stone’, ‘Sally Cinnamon’ and ‘Waterfall’, with every word sung back in triumphant unison. Brown will never forget it. “It was amazing, I wanted that feeling to go on forever. It’s funny, those songs are a lot older than me new stuff yet I remember the words so much easier.” Mani appeared at the side of the stage that night and if it weren’t for the strict curfew on the sound, the last two original Roses would have shared a stage once again for one more tune. I feel nervous touching too much upon Roses conversation but he insists he is fine to talk about anything. I ask if it could be viewed as hypocritical singing those songs when he always professed never to return to a lit firework. “You know, I never did any Roses for 8 years,” he says. “I didn’t want to hang on the coat tails of previous success. I wanted to achieve it all for meself.”

Something happened to change his approach. “Someone sent me a CD of one of John’s shows where he plays Roses songs, badly. He’s not a singer. You can’t step to the microphone aged forty and start singing publicly for the first time. Anyone that learns to sing comes out of pubs, clubs, shitholes and crap rehearsal rooms; you can’t just start off by butchering songs that mean so much to people. If he hadn’t done that I don’t think I would have sung any Roses songs again. I didn’t wanna do it to Mani and Reni, but he did it badly so I thought fuck it, if he’s having to play Roses tunes to launch himself and ain’t got the bottle to do his own solo things, then I’ll do them properly and nicely, the way they should be done.” You get the impression that he enjoyed making his point, and in doing so he gave thousands something they thought they’d never be lucky enough to see. It remains to be seen if he will continue to do it. “On me website they had a poll to say what I should play on tour in November. 51% said I should just play solo only so I may just go solo only.” Since it was reported recently that John Squire had gone on record saying he wanted to make one more ferocious guitar album and then put The Stone Roses back together, Brown has been plagued with rumours and requests about the possibility of one of the most talked about band reformations in history. Even friend Noel Gallagher has said that they have unfinished business to attend do, further stoking the flames re-ignited by the live reappearance of The Roses’ music. It infuriates Brown that the same press who buried The Roses while he was still fighting now make it look like he is the one stopping a reunion. “How can I be the villain when I was the last man standing? Me and Mani were the last ones left; they wouldn’t let us carry on without John and Reni! I don’t understand how they can say that.”

The offers of a reunion have been huge and frequent, especially in recent years, with one offer alleged to have amounted to as much as £5 million. Only a few minutes on the subject clarify that it’s not going to happen. “I’ll tell you once and I tell you now, you could come in here and offer me anything you want and there’s not a single thing in the world that could get me to do it. I got stabbed in the back and that ended the spirit of it. It was all about the spirit and that’s why it’s lasted. We came from nothing and reached so far out because of that spirit. It was killed the moment he stabbed me in the back and formed his band the next day. That was it – dead.” I ask what he would say if John came back tomorrow, and begged forgiveness. “I don’t give a fuck, it’s not up to me to forgive. I’m only a man. God forgives. I’d say, ‘So what? Who the fuck are you? You stabbed me in the back 9 years ago. What the fuck’s changed now, did it not work out for ya?’. I tell you, if I had started The Seahorses and he was sat here now putting his ‘Greatest Hits’ together would he still be going on about The Roses? I don’t think he would.” He sums up the position he is in with an analogy. “Say ten years ago, you used to go out with a girl and you’d been going out with her for ten years. She suddenly turns round and says, ‘I don’t want you no more’, but ten years later phones you up and says. ‘I want you again’. What you gonna do? You’ve had ten years of life, and might have had nine kids with five different women. You don’t just drop it and go back cos they want it. So fuck what he wants, I don’t care what he wants. He didn’t care what I wanted.” He pauses for thought and lights a cigarette, letting his mind breathe before speaking his truth. “It’s all about cash anyway; there isn’t a band on the planet that reforms for artistic reasons, they do it for the cash. He’s a 43- year-old fella who has nowhere to go in life without the Roses, and like anyone he’s got to eat. How’s he gonna put dinner on his table? He can’t keep selling Spike Island posters. We were never about cash so why go and destroy all that good work? I feel that if I did I would be destroying it, because when you do it, it never works. Best thing is to stick together in the first place, like New Order or U2.”

John was worried that people would think he was a white kid trying to play black music

I ask Brown if he feels regret surrounding their downfall and his own role in letting things get so bad. “I remember in a day we made ‘Fools Gold’, and after it I wanted to make an LP that sounded like ‘Fools Gold’. John was worried that people would think he was a white kid trying to play black music, trying to play the funk like we was Level 42. He wanted to take what was to me the obvious path, the white guitar rock hero path.” He didn’t think he needed to stop it at that point, preferring to give John his chance. “I got most of the attention because I was the singer, and you’d go to a show and half the crowd would have a hat on like the drummer. I think John felt left out. He’d be like, ‘Hang on, I make the sleeves. Don’t they know how important I am?’ He had to write that second LP mostly on his own so that he could have a bit of attention. We had a 5 LP deal so I was thinking we’d still have 3 LPs to coast on, but it wasn’t to be, so I do have a slight regret that I bothered to give him his time and sing his songs. I read a quote from him a couple of years ago saying, “I now realise what a great working partnership that me and Ian had”. Well, what a sucker cos he didn’t know that at the time. What a sucker.” The firework is clearly still lit and Brown ain’t picking it up. You can feel the hurt these times have caused but you can see the regard in which he holds his old partner’s playing skills when he describes him as clearly the best of his generation. He believes John has not played to his potential since leaving their band. Brown’s current guitar player, Stevie D, came up with a way of summing John up that Ian feels hits the spot. “He said when John was truly great he followed Jimi Hendrix but when he got to ‘Second Coming’ he followed Jimmy Page. He followed the wrong Jimmy.”

It is now so ironic that Brown was initially described as The Roses’ member least likely to succeed. He hated that tag and has taken great pride in proving the opposite. “I get these people saying I’m a crap singer, but if I couldn’t sing how come me first solo LP went straight in at number 2, me third LP went in at number 7 and I’ve had a couple of top five singles? I look around at all them other bands and I think who’s Pavarotti? There are no Pavarottis out there. If I can’t sing then I think I’ve done alright. Two years ago that first Roses album got voted Best British Album Of All Time so I must have been doing something right. Most of the lyrics and melodies are mine, so I can’t understand why people say ‘least likely to’ when they’re calling my work the definitive work in British music.” So what work does he think defines him best? His answer is quick and candid. “‘Made Of Stone’, because I wrote it on the dole in 1986”, then launches into a story. “You know, the second ever fan letter I got was in 1989, from a girl in Japan. She said that her father used to abuse her, she’d come home from school and he’d beat her and sexually abuse her. She said that the only release in life was to put on the Roses LP in her headphones. I thought, ‘Shit, is this what fan letters are about? Is it about being a social worker? I can’t get into that’. So I requested the record company never to send me fan-mail and never opened any since.” That was until the day the Roses split when he felt like opening another. “They sent me a letter from a girl in Chicago. She’d never heard of The Stone Roses, but at an airport she bought a newspaper that spoke of this influential band and she bought the album right then. She wrote to me to say that she was playing ‘Made Of Stone’ on the headphones as she flew over Chicago and that it inspired her. You know, whatever happened to us, that was still something. It felt like an amazing achievement cos we was on the dole when we wrote it and 11 fucking years later she’s flying over Chicago and buzzing off it. That means a lot to me. However, I think my biggest achievement is coming back bigger than ever to arrive here doing me ‘Greatest Hits’.”

From the lad on the dole who coined a hundred unforgettable lyrics, he has developed into a songwriter with a thirst for knowledge. He’s a reader of the Bible and the Koran, and is a believer in spirituality and connection with the universe. He loves to smoke weed and has used peyote, which he said opened up the universe and brought him closer to the planets. He is interested in natural mind stimulants but hasn’t taken class A drugs since the early 90s. He despises what they do, particularly cocaine, and he doesn’t drink. His time is now split between his Bayswater home in London with Fabiola and Emilio, and Manchester at weekends with Frankie and Casey. A cameo appearance in the last Harry Potter film was a slight recent departure from music but not one that he will pursue. 2005 has been his busiest year yet, with his ‘Greatest Hits’ release and a summer of festival headline slots. One such appearance was at T in the Park where he savaged the monitor engineer and threw speakers off stage when he refused to turn Brown’s sound up, and at V festival where he walked on stage in a custom made pink Ian Brown Adidas tracksuit. Both were phenomenal shows where his name was chanted from start to finish as he confidently delivered exactly what his fans wanted. His onstage presence and contribution to music have now become truly iconic.

The ‘Greatest Hits’ album consists of the singles from his four albums plus two new tracks, ‘Return Of The Fisherman’ and ‘All Ablaze’. Included is ‘F.E.A.R’, an amazing track written after reading Alex Hayley’s biography on Malcolm X. “I just found it a better way to amuse myself in a hotel room than watching the porn channel,” Brown recalls. “Malcolm X’s message to people was to study etymology, the break down of language and words. He speaks of how important this is to society and why society has got so much control over people through the use of language and how you can manipulate with it. ‘For Each A Road, For Everyman A Religion, Find Everybody And Rule’, only a few of the hundreds of acronyms he came up with sitting looking out from a New York tower block and playing with the word ‘fear’.” After a trip to the city’s natural history museum he wrote ‘Dolphins Were Monkeys’, his challenge to Darwinian theory. “Darwin’s theory is just that innit, it’s just a theory. There was this creature in the museum like an afghan hound, with fur like an otter, ears like a fish, i.e. no ears, and waterproof eyes, waterproof fur and with flippers like big paws. They say he’s the missing link between the dolphin and the monkey. The dolphin is warm-blooded, which means he must have lived on the land at some point. Something made him go back into the water, either he was scared or there was something he didn’t like on the land. It got me thinking and I thought there was a song there.” Other classics included are his ode to acid house ‘Love Like A Fountain’, live favourite ‘Lovebug’, the Jamaica inspired ‘Golden Gaze’, where he pleads “Don’t be nervous, have a purpose”, and ‘Longsight M13’, his tribute to the people and the place The Roses came from, with its immortal graffiti, once proclaiming ‘Free Ian Brown’. He has included a bonus disc of remixes, which features his covers of Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’ and ‘Billie Jean’. Jackson is an artist Brown grew up loving but who lost his respect in the last decade, believing him to be guilty of his charges.

Brown’s views are strong on most morally and politically charged subjects. He has a disdainful attitude towards authority with the royal family and government always a target. “What kind of society in the 21st century has a monarchy like Camelot?” he fumes. “We pay them bastards to do what? To fleece us. It’s a scandal, a big fucking con… What’s that phrase? “Beware the devils spawn because he kills for sport, he kills for lust”. They’re bloodlusters that kill for sport. They’ve got the top spots in the country, the best little glades, little hills and salmon streams, and we’re not even allowed to fucking walk there. I’d put them all up against the wall tomorrow.” His disrespect for Blair and Bush is tantamount. “I went on the No War In Iraq march, because at that time I thought if we go to war with Iraq there would end up being suicide bombers and terrorist attacks. I think Al Qaeda are pretty smart. They’ve attacked America and drawn them into their own land, land that Bush calls a crucible. That is crusader talk. I think Bush and Blair are nutters, just like Bin Laden, they’re equally trying to indoctrinate millions with their opinions. What really fucks me off is this thing about the terrorists attacking our values, like we all have some common British value. We don’t, well I don’t have the same values as them anyway. I can’t stand being a 42-year old guy with 3 kids being spoken to like I’m twelve.”

Brown believes in using your voice where you can. He’s not slow to use his, but he questions the motives of musicians involving themselves in politics and particularly those involved in Live8. “All music comes from black people and without them we would have no music. Yet there were hardly any black people on the Live8 bill because Chinese people wouldn’t watch it, so Geldof said. I think there’s something a bit sick about going on about saving the starving with your music and your sales go up 1000% a week after. U2 became famous worldwide after the first Live Aid, they used that opportunity and Bono is still acting up there. Chris Martin has got Make Trade Fair on his hands but when he signed his contract he didn’t say make all me albums £1.99 did he? He’s quite happy to be part of the game but he’s not saying anything, none of them have got anything to say. The world is fucked up and if you make music you should be rebelling against it, but a lot of people now just wanna be stars, they wanna be in magazines, they don’t want to change the world. I believe in trying to create a generation gap with your music but now I don’t see anyone doing that.”

So does Ian Brown still want to change the world with his own music? “I just want to free as many heads as I can with me music now. Me next LP is the fifth and I’ve just signed another contract for 2 albums. This (Fiction/Polydor) is the best company I’ve ever worked with and the best team around me. One thing I never do is moan about record companies; people that do that probably spend equal amounts of time moaning cos they’ve not been signed. You can either be a hippy and make music and give your mates tapes or if you want it in the shops you need to work with a company, and just make that work.” 2005 is Ian Brown’s year. His path has been laid on his own terms and he’s never walked away. His influence on bands and fans across the world is now being truly recognised. Talking of the place he is at makes him smile once again. “I take it that my destiny was to do this, to do a solo ‘Greatest Hits’ LP, not to do a fifth, eighth or tenth Roses LP. What I might have thought was me path hasn’t been. Everything that’s happened has been natural and nothing has been contrived.

The place I’m at is totally happy.”

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