This article first appeared in REVERB (#20) March 2008
Ian Brown is one of the few undeniable living legends in music history. As the frontman for The Stone Roses he claimed to be the resurrection, and demanded adoration. Legendary status was inevitable. Now, almost twenty years on from his debut album, Ian Brown reflects on what it is like to be an official, NME sanctioned, God-like genius.
Ian Brown is an interesting case study. At the height of his fame with The Stone Roses he tramped through Manchester with a sack full of money, handing it out to homeless people; shortly after which, he and his Roses bandmates broke into the office of their old record company and bombed the walls with paint, resulting in a year long lawsuit for an assault which they claimed was provoked by a ‘third rate, money grabbing video’ for an unsanctioned single. As they say, you can take the boy out of Manchester… He has released five solo albums, four of which have graced the top ten in the music charts. Not that chart positions matter to Brown. After all, his crowning glory, the Roses debut album, barely scraped into the top forty charts when first released, given a dismissive seven out of ten rating by British rock bible NME, yet was crowned the ‘best album ever’ by the same publication less than ten years later. So what does Brown, King Monkey of the most important band of the past twenty years (at least in dear old Blighty) think about his legacy?
“It’s an honour man,” Brown drawls down the phone line. “A new generation of kids seem to be obsessing about it. Twenty years ago, we didn’t know it would have lasted so long. So, I’m never going to knock it.”
Brown admits that, although the band wasn’t quite aware of what they were creating, they knew, even back in 1989, that they would make an impact.
“We knew it was fresh, that it had a groove and all that. We knew it would definitely get us out of Manchester. But we didn’t know that almost twenty years later, people would still be discovering it.
“The main idea was to get out of Manchester. People often say Manchester is a great, wonderful place, but in the mid-’80s it definitely wasn’t,” states Brown, laying to rest all those 24 hour party fantasies that many have held.
But as The Roses themselves once said, ‘the past is yours but the future’s mine.’ And with five solo albums under his belt, Brown is happy to look back, but isn’t keen to dwell on past glories. After all, he is a now a solo artist in demand, coming to Australia for the Playground Weekender tour. And he couldn’t be happier about the situation.
“I loved it last time I was here. I’d been trying to get into Australia for nine years, so it’s great to finally have that green light.”
The main barrier to Brown’s visit down under was a four month stint in the notorious Strangeways prison, under the dubious charge of air-rage, which resulted after a peeved Brown threatened to cut off a stewardess hands with plastic cutlery. Brown is still understandably annoyed about the whole ordeal, but is happy to discuss what he clearly sees as an injustice.
“I went into prison with no respect for authority, and I came out with even less. There’s just no worth in it. They can take your taxes, they can put you in the army if there happens to be a war that our country is fighting in, and in prison, at night they would lock you in a cell and it didn’t matter to them if you were dead or alive in the morning.”
His solo albums reflect this political point of view; in fact his latest release The World Is Yours has been heralded as his most political album to date, a claim that Brown refutes.
“I have always written protest songs, rather than political ones. Whether it is about war, the church, poverty, whatever the case may be, I’ve always been outspoken, mostly in interviews though. I thought with this album, if I put my thoughts down in the songs more obviously than I have done in the past, there will be no journalists misquoting me, there’s nothing taken out of context, and the words are there for everyone to read, exactly how I intended them. Of course that’s still not always the case.”
An “almost guest” on the latest album was Paul McCartney, who lived a street away from the studio that Brown recorded in.
“Everyday I went for a coffee hoping to bump into him, but I never did. Then eventually we managed to get in contact with him, but he was too busy, he had a big solo thing going on, and his divorce (to Heather Mills) was just starting, so it wasn’t a good time. But we got a few of The Sex Pistols on the track so it turned out alright in the end.”
Twenty years on from The Stone Roses album, Brown is still managing to make music as vital as that startling debut. This, however, has done little to silence the reformation demands from generations of fevered Roses fans, looking for the second coming; a little splash of light to shine on those glory days where anything seemed possible. So, hypothetically speaking, if John Squire called Ian Brown tomorrow and asked to get the Roses back together, what would it take?
“Well, he’d better have some pretty good tunes together,” Brown deadpans. “After this long, they’d want to be pretty great.”