Air rage, arrogance and changing the world: Ian Brown remains as influential as ever as Bobby Higson found out when he met up with the living legend himself.
March, 1989: four lads from Manchester, the Stone Roses, have just released their eponymous debut album. It’s going to be well received; they already know this. On this album are eleven songs of guitar pop mastery that will herald a new dawn in British popular music and, as such, it’s pretty damn good.
Cut to May, 1990. That same band decide to stage a gig in Spike Island, Widnes. Almost 30,000 people attend. Their songs, anthems that scream youthful verve, capture the hearts of the music press and the public. For a short while, they are the biggest band around. Their frontman is Ian Brown: a natural showman who oozes charisma; a man who swaggers his way into the national consciousness.
Cut to 1994: due to hefty legal wrangling with the Roses’ record label, Silvertone, fans are forced to wait five years for the release of their second album, the underrated Second Coming. However the goalposts have moved, the music scene around them has changed and their second album fails to capture the public imagination in the manner of the first. After two years of periodic infighting Ian Brown washes his hands of the “filthiest business in the universe”. The Stone Roses are no more.
Slowly but surely, Ian Brown starts rebuilding his career. He confounds his critics with four highly acclaimed albums, each being, he believes, “an improvement on the last”. Considering that ten years ago his C.V. could have read ‘Singer of arguably most influential band of a generation: 1989-1996’ followed by, ‘Gardener: 1996-?’, it’s nothing short of remarkable.
I caught up with the man himself, coming out of 2005, which has been his busiest year yet. It has seen him perform sell-out gigs all over the world (including sets in China), following the success of his last LP, Solarized, which garnered strong reviews both sides of the Atlantic, the release of a greatest hits album and the prospect of 2006 being just as big. “Last year was amazing. I played four continents last year. Amazing. China was incredible. I was received well over there because of My Star [Top 5 single from debut solo album: Unfinished Monkey Business (1998)] as it talks about how the NASA space programme is really a military front. Because they saw me as anti-US, they thought I’d be a friend to China.”
Not only China is fond of Ian Brown; Brown has just been awarded the NME Godlike Genius award, a nomination for the Best British Male Solo Artist in the Brit Awards and the Stone Roses’ debut album has been voted best album of all time by NME.
Brown always maintained that the Stone Roses were the best band in the world and that it was only a matter of time before everyone else caught on. However, the success of his solo albums was less definite. Unfinished Monkey Business was self-financed and self-produced with Brown learning his instruments as he went along. For all its lo-fi charm, there is no way Brown could have expected great success. “Not at all, no. When we did the Roses, I expected all the success we had. But not solo though, no way. It’s like a dream come true for me at the moment.”
As the Roses began to achieve fame, Brown would often refuse to sign autographs on the basis that he was no different from the people asking. So, to be called a genius and handed a statue as proof must be unsettling for a man who has always professed an ardent egalitarianism. To reconcile his iconoclastic persona with humility must be difficult, if not impossible.
“Well, I just keep going”, he remarks, “When people say these things about me it goes in one ear and out the other. I always felt, right from the start, that if someone’s going to criticise you and you then get hurt by it, or that if someone says you’re great and that makes your day, then that makes you a sad person. You should be secure in yourself to know who you are and what you’re up to. Either way- good or bad- it runs off my back. I keep myself to myself.”
It’s this self-assuredness and effortless confidence, with its origins in his Mancunian intrepidity, that critics say borders on the supercilious. In fact, when you meet Brown, you get the feeling that what lies beneath is a hardened righteousness and a fierce belief in the correcting of injustices.
His last LP Solarized, for instance, ventures into political commentary. The song Kiss Ya Lips [No I.D.] is a fierce attack on the introduction of I.D. cards whilst Upside Down offers a wispy-toned reproach of inequality around the world. Brown subscribes to the idea that as an artist and public figure, it is his duty to talk about these issues. “Rather than talking about what’s up our noses or what’s for dinner, let’s talk about how people’s freedoms are being eroded. Now. Today. I’m just grateful for the platform I have.” Given this platform, I asked whether he has plans to address similar things in his next LP. “Yeah, I’ve got about six songs so far and I’m going to get about 30 and pick the best 10 or 12. I want to talk, in the LP, in terms of the injustices that there are.”
Throughout his career, Brown has always projected a resolutely principled profile. His much anticipated comeback interview was given to the Big Issue and he once charged journalists £15 a question when asked about his third LP, to raise money for Sight Savers International, which works to stop avoidable blindness in developing countries. He also once walked around Manchester with Â£100,000 in cash, handing out money to the city’s homeless.
The idea of the Roses was to do guitar music, now all I want to make are good grooves.
I asked him where his priorities would lie if he were able to impact policy on an international level. Brown talked indignantly: “Poverty’s the main thing, of course”, he said, “The gap between the rich and poor is bigger than it ever was and it’s getting bigger. It’s a deliberate structure and by no means is it an accident. The system’s a vampire and it sucks off everybody.” Given that, I ask whether he admires the work of Make Poverty History? “It’s a great slogan, but I don’t know practically what it means to wear a white band round your wrist. I don’t know how you make poverty history by doing that. I feel it is an issue that could really be helped in a matter of days, but only if the people in charge wanted it to.”
Despite the cynicism of the modern political climate and the carnivorous nature of the music industry which he has previously been openly disparaging about, Brown remains enthusiastic about the current music scene and the crop of new bands emerging, saying that we are in “an exciting time for music.”
He was quick to mention the Arctic Monkeys: “Nineteen years old and they’re from their own generation, that’s something to be celebrated.” Does he not think it’s dangerous how bands are sensationalised so early on in their careers? “I think that the way that the industry is set up is that there’s always got to be something new. They’re always trying to sell something new. But if someone’s got anything, they’re going to live up to the hype anyway, aren’t they?” A young, northern band with an incredibly successful debut album, poised for big things with heavy expectation on their shoulders. Perhaps Brown sees parallels between the Arctic Monkeys and the early days of the Roses?
“Yeah I do, but only in the way that things have happened naturally for them. They haven’t had stylists or tailors, they’ve just done their own thing and the people have gone with them. The Roses were like that, you know. The media were a little bit behind; it was the people that made them catch on. The Roses became media darlings but really it was the people that put us there. That’s what’s happening with the Arctic Monkeys, it’s a natural thing.”
Apart from their success, does Brown think guitar music is becoming stagnant? “Well it’s been going fifty years, hasn’t it?” he argued. “To be honest, I don’t think guitar music’s ever been stronger. If you look in the top ten at the moment, something like eight of the acts are guitar bands.” Brown’s solo music is prominent amongst such acts. His last four albums have contributed nine top 30 singles since 1998 and remain a testament to his eclecticism and variety. He explained, “The idea of the Roses was to do that sort of sound, that guitar type music. So, once that finished, you know, all I want to do is make music with good grooves. But because I’m solo, I’ve had the freedom to do whatever I want.”
Despite the acrimony that still exists between the individual members of the Roses, especially John Squire and Brown, he remains proud of their achievements in changing the landscape of popular music at the time. “Even though the Roses were more traditional sounding than my stuff now, we weren’t afraid to go into new territory, Fools Gold shows that. When we came out, we were told not to expect the major charts. There wasn’t any room for guitar bands then, but it’s not like that now.” Perhaps Brown feels a hand in that? “Well, probably the Sex Pistols put New Order and the Smiths on, before the Roses came through. The Roses probably put Oasis and Blur on, just in the fact that an alternative market just got bigger and bigger until it hit the mainstream and it started going down again. But now it’s back again.”
Brown admits to a certain nostalgia for his days with the Roses but said, “Everything I did with Roses, I’ve now done myself, except Spike Island.” He reflected, “Those days were good. I loved those days. But I’ve had a great eight years; eight years that ranks up alongside anything I’ve ever done with the Roses.” On that note, I ask about the rumours that have been circulating of a second Spike Island gig, with Ian playing as a solo artist. “Apparently someone’s hired the site there, yeah. But there’s been no formal offer or anything.”
But for every journalist and fan who calls for a Roses reunion, there must be, at least, an equal number who scorn the idea. “Exactly” said Brown, “I get people that only got into my solo music or that prefer it to the Roses. Then there’s people that were into the Roses who say ‘We were there for the Roses, don’t spoil our memories.”
It’s understandable why people would want them to reunite. The Roses were a band who, despite prodigious talent, woefully underachieved. Brown describes them as having “George Best’d it”. They had the world at their fingertips, only to watch it slip away. But, as Brown said, that was a long time ago and he’s had an astonishing time since. I asked him whether he would ever consider writing a book about his life? “Yeah, I would. I started writing a book just when I came out of jail, just because I didn’t have my own newspaper so couldn’t get my story across.”
He is referring to the 1998 incident when Brown was sentenced to four months in jail for air rage after threatening a stewardess and a pilot during a flight. He told the hostess he would “chop her hands off” and banged on the cockpit door. Brown has always vehemently denied the charge, saying the hands comment- a line from one of his songs- was a joke. “The idea of a book was to get that information out: my story.
But since then I’ve done eight years work, been all over the world and lots of funny things have happened and I’d love to record it in a book. When I’ve finished my fifth LP I’m going to get back into my book because I’ve not really looked at it since year 2000. Apparently, someone’s just gone and put out a book about me. Don’t know what’s in it, but it’s another reason why it would be good for me to write my own.”
Brown refuses to get riled by the fact that people he has never even met are making money out of him. “Well, that’s just part of the game,” he offered, “You can’t get annoyed, because that’s just how it is. Once you’ve got a bit of success, people hang on to your coattails.”
There is no doubt of Brown’s lasting influence today in music; not least in the remaining bands of the ‘Britpop’ era. It was Liam Gallagher who, as an impressionable fifteen year old, was inspired to become a rock star after seeing Brown perform onstage in Manchester, in 1988. When Brown was young, however, he was inspired by figures such as Muhammad Ali and John Lydon of the Sex Pistols, and it doesn’t appear that anyone new has taken their places. “Well, to be honest,” he said, “I’m more inspired by my own life, you know. I’ve had an amazing life so far and I look to the sun, the stars and the sea around me, not so much personalities. I’ve got my own agenda,” he laughed.
His final remark is apt: The Stone Roses were a band that achieved great success in making music, but they did so on their own terms and Brown’s solo career is proof of this individuality. Approaching forty-three, his prospects are as bright as they have ever been. For now he just wants to play: “I want to get into Russia and South America and play; that would be mega wouldn’t it?”
The best of Ian Brown: King Monkey’s essential records
The Stone Roses – The Stone Roses
A debut that spawned the ‘Madchester’ scene and as a result came to define the direction of British indie music for the majority of the nineties. Most households own a copy, and the songs remain classics and Fools Gold, Waterfall and She Bangs The Drum, to name but a few, remain stalwards of the indie disco scene. From the rumbling bass intro of I Wanna Be Adored to the sprawling end of I Am The Resurrection, Ian Brown, together with guitar genius, John Squire, produce an album that still regularly comes in the top 5 of British album polls.
Ian Brown – Music of the Spheres
The Stone Roses split in 1996 after a long period of estrangement following 1994’s The Second Coming which was mainly seen as a disappointing follow up 5 years later to their now legendary debut. While Squire went on to form The Seahouses, Brown embarked on a solo career which many believed was destined to fail. His first two albums were relatively well received; however it was Music of the Spheres, helped in no small part by the anthemic F.E.A.R., that finally started to see Brown taken seriously as an artist in his own right.
Ian Brown – Solarized
Ian Brown’s latest solo album, and generally regarded as his most complete work by himself, the expectation that preceded Solarized was answered by an album that nods both to the experimental and to the ‘lad-rock’ genre. The latter is kept happy with Keep What Ya Got, co-written with fellow Mancunian legend Noel Gallagher who also features on guitar, yet Brown also continues to push his more adventurous world music influences. He also specifically attacks Blair and Blunkett’s I.D. card system on the vitriolic Kiss Ya Lips [No I.D].