‘I got the answers. I understand culture. I am the nucleus,” rapper and Kardashian impregnator Kanye West said in a New York Times interview this week. The lengthy Q&A was a feat of half-cocked celebrity bravado and a terrifying glimpse inside the brain of a deluded brand on steroids. It was also a good argument for why a certain kind of macho male pop star should probably keep his mouth shut – especially if he cares about posterity and the nature of his fame.
A case for silence, or at least fewer words: the Stone Roses, another musical outfit recently in the press. While the Mancunian lad band hit its peak back in my junior-high days with the release of the 1989 self-titled debut album and produced only one follow-up album (Second Coming in 1994), their influence has lingered long and hard. In fact, despite years of creative bickering, legal wrangling, reclusion and ultimately a fragile reunion, some might argue that, culturally speaking, they’re bigger than ever. This month, two feature films about the band opened in U.K. theatres: Made of Stone, a documentary by wunderkind British filmmaker Shane Meadows (This is England), which tracked the band’s brief 2012 reunion tour with an infectious fan’s enthusiasm; and Spike Island, a dramatic feature about the band’s legendary 1990 outdoor gig in the north of England. I saw both this week and the experience almost made me dig out my old purple Doc Martens and overalls from the nineties. Almost, but thankfully not quite.
What is truly astonishing is that a band with such a modest output – even a very good one – would still be such an inspiration so many years later. In large part, of course, this is a testimony to the songs. Tracks like I Wanna Be Adored, Waterfall and Fools Gold, which each receive lavish live treatment in Made of Stone, are not just nostalgia trips for children of the nineties like me – they are anthems whose depth and layers stand up even after a couple of decades. The Stone Roses’ trippy mixture of dance beats, psychedelic rock melodies and punk attitude still feels fresh, but it’s not the only element that’s kept the band credible. Part of the magic is the band’s refusal to articulate its image or self-consciously brand itself, in an effort simply to play music. Or as West insists on putting it, “The longer your ’gevity is, the more confidence you build.”
This is something the Stone Roses instinctively have known, but never needed to say. They had bravado, of course – lead singer Ian Brown so regularly declared them “the best band in the world” that the catchphrase dogged them for years – but it was (and remains) an innocent sort of bravado. The members of the Stone Roses don’t want to design a line of smartphones or revolutionize the men’s fragrance market. They are a bunch of boys making music and that is their appeal, both to themselves and their fans. For years they swore they would never get back together. When their reunion tour was announced, guitarist John Squire had to eat the words he’d once inscribed on a piece of sculpture: “I have no desire whatsoever to desecrate the grave of seminal Manchester pop group the Stone Roses.”
This idealism, a throwback to the glory days of rock, is also the key to why the band can still sell out stadiums in hours and inspire almost religious levels of devotion from their diehard fans.
Watching footage from a famous 1989 BBC television interview, taped just before they were about explode out of the confines of the so-called Madchester scene (a landscape of booze, drugs and wildly creative clubbing captured brilliantly in the 2002 film 24 Hour Party People), it’s remarkable how young and unsavvy they seem, how unafraid of awkward silences and one-word answers. They aren’t sullen, exactly; they just don’t know what to say and so they do something that seems quite revolutionary in the era of the 3,000-word celebrity Q&A: They say virtually nothing at all.
Unlike West, who compares himself to Steve Jobs and threatens to become “the leader of a company worth billions of dollars,” the Stone Roses never wanted to do anything but be in a band. As happens to so many artists in their position, the cost of fame was high. After years of toxic legal disputes with record companies and management, the group’s creative output stalled and ultimately ground to a halt in the late 1990s. After the reunion tour, they were said to have a handful of new songs in the can but relationships in the band are still rumoured to be fragile.
Their drummer, Alan (Remi) Wren, who stormed offstage because of sound problems and cut short the reunion tour, was also the first member to leave in the original 1990s bust-up. At the time, he reportedly told his bandmates, “I don’t want to be any more famous than this.” It’s a staggering admission by today’s standards. In the Kanye West era, it’s also music to the ears.