The Stone Roses Second Coming: 20 Years On

Two decades since its release, does the Stone Roses much maligned LP sound like a dismal mess of guitar and overdubs, or a decent collection of songs damned by time?
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Two decades since its release, does the Stone Roses much maligned LP sound like a dismal mess of guitar and overdubs, or a decent collection of songs damned by time?

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At the turn of the 1990s, they were top of the world, ma – baggy-trousered behemoths bestriding the globe with the universe theirs for the taking. Then it all went wrong. Hamstrung by hubris and lethargy, the Stone Roses dallied and dillied with their second album for so long that they lost the cart and with no idea where to roam ended up in a rock ‘n’ roll No Mancs Land.

When they finally found their way back in 1994, the musical landscape they had done so much to shape held no place for them. Their epoch-making debut album had been one of the progenitors of Britpop, but the Roses were no longer thinking in terms of jangly psychedelia or sparkling working-class pop anthems.

The follow-up that never was, the funky, Can-infused, Sly-inspired dance album in the vein of ‘Fools Gold’ and ‘One Love’ would have been a conspicuous (if theoretically amazing) oddity among the guitar bands of the era; the actual Second Coming, with its self-conscious, bollocks out Led Zeppery and acoustic campfire folksiness, stuck out like a sore thumb at a McCartney concert. Instead of joining Paul Weller as godfathers to the new guitar pop scene, the Roses were in danger of becoming its senile, incontinent grandparents: embarrassing themselves in public and pissing all over their past glories.

The ultimate humiliation came at the 1996 Reading Festival, when Ian Brown and Mani (sans John Squire and the long-departed Reni) completed the Roses’ self-iconoclasm with a performance of breathtaking dreadfulness. The band split up shortly afterwards, with Brown describing it as a pleasure to announce their demise. It was a miserable way to bow out, but there was nowhere else to go.

Fast forward to 2012 and the triumphant reunion shows in Heaton Park. The only Second Coming songs to be given an airing were ‘Love Spreads’ and ‘Ten Storey Love Song’ and the group have mostly maintained this antipathy towards their second album ever since. It’s understandable. Why trot out tedious tripe like ‘Good Times’ when you have monsters like ‘Sally Cinnamon’ and ‘Standing Here’ in your arsenal?

But is Second Coming as bad – or good, if you worked for Geffen during the Nineties and spent so long pretending that it was the best thing ever that you’ve gone native – as history makes out? Is it a dismal mess of ego and guitar overdubs, or is it a decent collection of songs damned by time, circumstance and the lengthy shadow of its historic predecessor?

Twenty years on, it’s time to find out.

Breaking Into Heaven

‘Listen up, sweet child of mine / Have I got news for you’

If Second Coming was the Stone Roses’ career disappearing down a drain, it’s appropriate that the album opens with the sound of running water – although how the tribal drum samples, eerie ambient strangeness and distant, intense fretwanking fit into this foreshadowing is less clear. It’s like The Blair Witch Project soundtracked by the ghost of Hendrix and it almost works. However, the creepiness quickly turns to tedium and it’s a relief when Mani’s bass dive-bombs in like an attack helicopter, locks into a groove with Reni’s snare and the song proper begins. Brown huskily rambles some clichés while Squire plays what sounds like fifteen strings at once, dementedly soloing into oblivion. It’s a decent enough tune but despite its mammoth duration it never really goes anywhere. There’s no peak, no climax, just a fadeout that sounds like the tape operator left the reels running for a bit too long. Not the most auspicious of beginnings.

Driving South

‘Any time you wanna sell your soul / I’ve got a toll-free number you can ring’

The first hint that John Squire found a Led Zeppelin songbook tucked into his Byrds anthology, ‘Driving South’ is an indie 12-bar drowned in a Mississippi delta: too slow, too dull, too bluesy. Even the solo sounds like it was recorded in a watery grave. The only real entertainment comes from the lyrics, which veer from the hackneyed to the hilarious. ‘You ain’t too young or pretty and you sure as hell can’t sing,’ croaks the famously key-averse Brown while Squire, the writer, sniggers quietly in the background.

Ten Storey Love Song

‘When you’re so much in love you don’t know just how much you can stand’

‘Ten Storey Love Song’ isn’t exactly a flashback to the first Stone Roses album, but in spite of its weedy, quasi-mystical lyrics and turned-up lead guitar, it’s a welcome change of mood and style from its two predecessors – and a definite bridge to the band’s more melodic past. What it lacks is any semblance of effort. The musicianship is tight but perfunctory, and Ian Brown sounds like he’s reciting a shopping list. No one sounds like they really give a shit, so why should the listener? Also, if ‘Tense Tory Love Song’ was a deliberate gag, it’s lame in the extreme. The Stone Roses previously sang about members of parliament tripping on glue and not resting till the monarch is toppled; depressingly, this ‘joke’ is about as political as Second Coming gets.

Daybreak

‘Black bones are the original bones / And so this the whole wide world should know’

It’s almost offensive to use a word like ‘groove’ in 2014, but it’s difficult to describe this freeform, slightly aimless slice of funk rock without it. This isn’t a song, as such; it’s an extended jam in which the rhythm section get to show off their considerable talents, John Squire’s soloing gets reined in and Ian Brown cuts loose, singing his own lyrics for the first time on the album. It’s difficult to discern their true meaning – references to Rosa Parks and a lack of black music on city radio stations indicate an anti-racist agenda, although the numerous references to love make it seem more like a general plea for peace and harmony – but it makes a refreshing change from Squire’s well-thumbed rhyming dictionary.

Your Star Will Shine

‘Your distant sun / Will shine like the gun / That’s trained right between your daddy’s eyes’

Pitched somewhere between Crosby, Stills and Nash’s worst, coke-and-guns-in-the-studio-era acoustic sing-alongs and – unbelievably – Greg Lake’s ‘I Believe in Father Christmas’, ‘Your Star Will Shine’ is derivative, charmless and outstays its welcome despite being the shortest song on the album.

Straight to the Man

‘Amsterdam is Sodom and Gomorrah / So I’m singing to King Stone’

Strip away the polish from Ian Brown’s sole solo contribution to Second Coming and it would fit comfortably on Unfinished Monkey Business. A distant cousin of ‘Daybreak’, it longs to break free and strut like its sibling, but the lead weight of its elementary structure keeps it strictly pedestrian. It would be unkind to say that marijuana was an influence on ‘Straight to the Man’, but the rambling, impenetrable lyrics, jumping from Biblical references to namechecking Bo Diddley’s maracas player before lapsing into scatted doo-doo-doos, are precisely the kind of disconnection one tends to hear through a haze of dope smoke. Not bad, exactly, but continents away from what people familiar with the first album were hoping for.

Begging You

‘Does it call you or maul you / And drive you insane?’

If Second Coming was a race, ‘Begging You’ would be tested for performance-enhancing substances immediately after crossing the finishing line. It outstrips the competition to such an extent that it not only sounds like it belongs on a different album, it sounds like it was recorded by a different band altogether – the real Stone Roses, in fact. While it neither chimes like ‘Waterfall’ or glides like ‘Fool’s Gold’, this slice of artisan organic techno carries itself with the swagger and menace of the Roses in their all-conquering pomp. It might be a coincidence that this is the only track to be credited to Squire/Brown, but it (cough) begs so many questions of how things might have turned out if the duo had been playing from the same songsheet or sharing the same stash. If the whole album had been more like this – an Old Testament preacher proselytizing apocalypse during an Underworld concert – history might have treated it very differently.

Tightrope

‘Are we etched in stone or just scratched in the sand / Waiting for the waves to come and reclaim the land?’

‘Tightrope’ is a mess: half-finished, screechy acoustic caravan club drivel with some of the corniest lyrics on an album where John Squire’s pen has not so much been blunted as replaced by a crayon. Ironically, in this sea of awfulness, floating not far from ‘My cup it runneth over …’ (yes, really), is the couplet quoted above: a moment of quietly beautiful desperation that almost, but not quite, transcends the horror that surrounds it. It’s almost as if John Squire had a flash of sober realisation at the monumental folly that was bringing down the whole edifice of the Stone Roses from within.

Good Times

‘Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned’

The one thing that ‘Good Times’ has in its favour is its infamously poor opening line (above). Any song that starts with a paraphrased William Congreve quote is proudly declaiming its deficiencies right from the off – and this song, the weakest by far on Second Coming, is more flawed than the mountain bike that ruined the Roses’ headline Glastonbury appearance in 1995. With bombastically poor lyrics, endless guitar soloing, an abrupt increase in acceleration and a meandering ending, ‘Good Times’ is the sound of a fat rail being chopped out and snorted: John Squire enjoying himself at the listener’s expense. He later claimed that during the recording of the album, he was using cocaine as a tool; what he didn’t say was that it had temporarily turned him into one.

Tears

‘If you hear me crying or talking in my sleep / Don’t be afraid, it’s just the hours that I keep’

Squire’s Led Zeppelin fixation reaches its apogee with this impassioned lament for a failing relationship that is transparently a metaphor for the breakdown in the Squire/Brown team. Friends since childhood, different drugs, personality changes and the pressure of trying to replicate the success of The Stone Roses were already stretching their bond to breaking point. Although things wouldn’t boil over for a couple of years, the signs were already clear to both men. Squire’s lyrics make it plain; Brown’s impassioned, genuinely anguished delivery removes any vestige of doubt. The old Roses never displayed any weakness or doubt, but despite its lavish production and big balls Geffen sheen, ‘Tears’ is as fragile as a strand of rain.

How Do You Sleep

‘I’ve seen your severed head / At a banquet for the dead’

The Stone Roses’ nastiness was always one of their greatest strengths. ‘Elizabeth My Dear’ was unashamedly regicidal; ‘Bye Bye Badman’ and ‘Shoot You Down’ were openly toxic; even the self-deification of ‘I Am the Resurrection’ was laced with a few choice barbs. ‘How Do You Sleep’ continues in this poisonous tradition, lambasting its target (presumably former manager Gareth Evans, although given the Roses’ habit of making enemies, there are at least half-a-dozen other likely candidates) with remorseless glee. Musically, it’s a rehash of ‘What the World Is Waiting For’, but having utilised so much from other artists in the past, it’s only fair that the band finally snaffle something from themselves.

Love Spreads

‘The messiah is my sister / Ain’t no king, man, she’s my queen’

Although its name still sounds like a brand of new age margarine, ‘Love Spreads’ has lost none of its apocalyptic reptilian strut over the last two decades. In fact, like an irascible elderly neighbour with an overgrown garden and derelict house, age has only made it more ominous. Ian Brown’s husky preacher vocals and John Squire’s liquid metal guitar dominate but the key component in the song – like so many others in the Roses’ canon – is Reni. Tight yet elastic, driving and cajoling, effortlessly powerful, his drumming drives the song forward from the back. If you want proof of its importance, check out the Help album version of ‘Love Spreads’, recorded with his replacement, Robbie Maddix. The difference is painfully evident.

The Foz

‘Stick with the old groove’

Even though ‘The Foz’ – a horrific stoned joke of dog barks, honking wails and a dismal absence of give-a-fuck – is up there with the worst examples of hidden last tracks, it’s still better than ‘Good Times’. Also, with its excess of narcotics and crippling lack of humility, it’s a perfect microcosm of Second Coming: the resurrection that never quite arrived.

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