Sunday, June 09, 2013

Two comebacks: Stone Roses and Primal Scream

The Roses' classic lineup reunited a couple of years ago for the first time since 1994, and while Primal Scream never technically went away, they've been playing "Screamadelica" live in its entirety at concerts, and reliving the glories of their most successful album from over twenty years ago feels like something that reuniting bands do.

Both of these acts were my favourite band in the world at one point in time.  A quick and subjective history:

1990-1991.  With all due respect to Depeche Mode and Nine Inch Nails, The Stone Roses were my favourite band during this period.  They'd already gone into hibernation in the UK by the time I heard "Fools Gold" sometime in the summer of 1990, but that hardly mattered to me at the time.

1992.  "Screamadelica" became a sensation, winning the inaugural UK Mercury Music Prize and creating superstars out of both the band and it's producer (Andrew Weatherall).  This oddly mirrored what had already happened when the success of The Stone Roses' debut turned its producer John Leckie into a household name.  I was too busy waiting for Manchester to rise again and scouring the music press for even the tiniest snippet of news about a new Stone Roses album (or gig, or sighting, or anything) and didn't really get into "Screamadelica" until 1993 or so.

1994.  Primal Scream released the blues-y, Stones-y "Give Out But Don't Give Up", which everyone desperately wanted to like.  The collective brainwashing lasted until 1997 or so, at which point a lot of people stopped pretending to like it (the fact that they pulled another 180 with the release of "Vanishing Point" definitely helped). But it wasn't all bad, because the singles "Rocks" and "Jailbird" were hits and still hold up today, and I got to see them when they toured with Depeche Mode on their summer tour (making an already debauched tour even more debauched).

Meanwhile, The Stone Roses finally released their second album, "The Second Coming", and it was a big disappointment in the "we waited five years for a Led Zeppelin tribute album?" sense.  In other words, if it had been released in 1991, people would have called it an interesting direction for a sophomore album and respected the band for leaving Madchester behind (even if the resulting album was even more retro-sounding). They would have regularly drawn thousands of people to their concerts for the next couple of years and been as big if not bigger than they were before.  But they released it in 1994 on the heels of Blur, Oasis, Suede, Pulp, and a wave of other breakthrough albums by British bands, turning them into just another Britpop band in a long list of them, rather than the saviours of rock as we knew it.  Expectations were through the roof, and the only thing that could have saved "The Second Coming" was if it turned out to be as good or better than their debut, which was of course an unfair burden, albeit one the Roses brought upon themselves by sitting at home doing nothing for a few years previous.

1995-1996.  The Stone Roses imploded in spectacular fashion.  Reni left the band.  John Squire broke his collarbone, leading to a cancellation of their headlining slot at Glastonbury and a golden opportunity at a homecoming that could have restored them to their previous stature.  John Squire left the band and a replacement level Stone Roses played at Reading 1996 with a tone deaf Ian Brown.  By the time of the inevitable final breakup in the fall of 1996, I was past the point of caring.  Once in a while I'd listen to the debut album and still be blown away by its ageless cool, but for the most part The Stone Roses had vanished from my life.  Unlike with, say The Smiths or Joy Division, I didn't revisit their music and wonder what could have been had they stayed together.  They were in the past, period.

2000-2001.  Having never really bought into the idea of Primal Scream as an era-defining band the first time around, I certainly wasn't expecting them to climb the mountain a second time.  Somehow, Primal Scream 2.0 turned out to be even better than the first version.  The jet fueled noise/dance hybrid "XTRMNTR" was the best album of 2000, Kevin Shields joined them on tour, and Primal Scream were my favourite band. Thirteen years later, I'm still not exactly sure what to make of "XTRMNTR" (it remains a very polarizing album, even among Primal Scream fans) and I still can't quite believe the 2000-1 years really happened.

2002-2008.  "Evil Heat" was a worthy follow-up to "XTRMNTR", but they'd always walked a fine line between sharp but twisted and demented commentary and lunatic ravings, so it was inevitable that they'd go off the rails.  By mid decade they'd returned to making classic rock and flipping their lids on stage at Glastonbury.  I stopped caring about them almost as quickly as I'd (re)started.

2011 - 2013.  The Stone Roses announced the reunion of their classic lineup, a series of gigs, and rumours circulated about a third album being in the works.  Mani left Primal Scream to focus on being in the Roses again, and has been replaced by MBV's Debbie Googe! (apparently Primal Scream are contractually obligated to have their bassist pull double duty!)  The "Screamadelica" revival shows don't excite me, but the idea of a new album ("More Light") produced by David Holmes is certainly intriguing.

With the introduction out of the way, let's check out some recent gigs by these bands.  Are they still any good?  Is there any reason to still care about these bands?

Primal Scream in Berlin in 2011

This is an hour long TV-quality recording of a "Screamadelica" show, and it's nostalgia at its worst.  I mean, if this wasn't Primal Scream playing "Screamadelica" then you'd shut it off in disgust after five minutes.  Bobby Gillespie's "singing" is lifeless, tuneless, and completely devoid of energy, save for the two minutes at the end of the set when he just screams random things into the mic, which seems to be the only thing he knows how to do anymore.  I've put "singing" in quotation marks because at no point could you conceivably claim that he's carrying a tune, emoting the lyrics, or doing anything else that you'd normally associate with singing.

The band and even the background singers are not doing much more than going through the motions.  "Loaded" gains some momentum toward the end and it's nice to hear them mix the original "Come Together" with the Weatherall remix from the single. There were a few brief instances when this gig brought a smile to my face because I remembered how much I used to love these songs.  Then Bobby Gillespie would screech some kind of horrible phrase and I'd return to the hellish reality of the husk of Primal Scream in 2011.

Like I said, pure nostalgia, and the worst kind because it only makes you think about what once was.  The present is barely tolerable and contains almost no new musical worth.  

The Stone Roses live in Barcelona and Lyon, June 2012: 

Having watched the Primal Scream concert before this one, let's just say I was fearing the worst here.  Yes, I'd heard that the Roses reunion shows had been successful, but I'd heard the same about the "Screamadelica" shows. Ian Brown's voice, which was never what you'd call "polished" even in his younger days, has been steadily heading south over the past decade and a half, and his solo career hasn't exactly disguised that fact.  Whereas the Scream have been playing together for over twenty five years (plus or minus a few lineup changes) and should have been energized or at least something approaching professional at this stage in the game, this lineup of The Stone Roses hadn't played together in over twenty years at the time of their reunion. Hell, Reni hadn't even played drums live on a stage in twenty years.

This is a complete concert pieced together from fan footage of shows in Lyon and Barcelona.  I'm always shocked that somebody has the patience to carefully piece together these things and post them on Youtube, but am usually thankful that they did.  Plus I've always loved a great bootleg, with crowd noise and muddy sound and all the nuances that go into making you feel you were really there, packed in among thousands of people.  Some of these songs cut off a bit before the end, but otherwise the concert is complete.

Three out of the four Stone Roses have been active musicians for the past two decades.  That said, is it obvious that the added experience and time spent honing their stagecraft separately would help them play better as a reunited unit?  I don't think it is ... who's to say that the chemistry would still be there after fifteen years apart?

This is a remarkable concert, and far better than it had any right to be.  What the Roses lack in technical precision is made up for by sheer determinedness.  They're going to put on a great show by force of willpower, and they're going to do it their way.  Ian Brown is going to prance around not doing much of anything other than shake the occasional tambourine, John Squire is going to jam when he feels like jamming, Mani's going to hold the whole thing together with his steady bass playing, and Reni's going to show that he can still drum with the best of them after eons away from the stage.  That's the plan.  They don't let little blips like the distracting unintentional tempo changes in "When Angels Play" and "Standing Here" bother them.  Ian Brown's voice might falter at times, but it still sounds stronger than it has in years, possibly (hopefully) because of the added motivation behind this reunion.  Plus, he's got a safety valve -- whenever he's low on lung power, thousands of people are more than happy to help him out.  

The entire band looks great, especially John Squire, who hasn't aged a bit or changed his clothes or hairstyle in 20 years.

Like all great gigs, this one builds momentum toward the finish, with the band sounding better as they go, until "Made of Stone", "This is the One" and "She Bangs the Drums" close the set with a flurry of hand waving and crowd participation.  It's just so great to hear these songs sounding so anthemic more than twenty years later.  The finale, naturally, is "I Am The Resurrection", and it still sounds unstoppable.

It's not the kind of show I'd want to watch and rewatch every day.  I know I'd keep finding holes in it and some memories are meant to be revisited only occasionally.  But reunion shows can't get much better than this.

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