The Stone Roses: Adventures in Nostalgia Rock

On Saturday 9 June 1990, The Stone Roses played Glasgow Green. On Saturday 16 June 2013, they played Glasgow Green again. On both occasions, Andrew O’Hagan was there. On both occasions, he was among friends. 

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It was my last summer in Glasgow. I was about to graduate and living at a flat in Kent Road; a flat that became a notorious after-party venue for wide-eyed denizens of the Sub Club. The poor neighbours must still hear 808 State and The Stone Roses in their sleep, see taxis rolling up at 2am, and pairs of kids in dungarees hugging their way down to the basement.

It seemed so pure and so ordinary at the time: vodka and coke, ecstasy and spliffs, baggy jeans and Adidas Gazelles. “Your music’s shite, it keeps me up all night,” was a chant in my flat a year or so before Oasis was even born, and Kent Road was a puddle of happy fools who didn’t yet know what life would cost. One or two of them wouldn’t make it beyond their thirties, while others would go on to make it in the great wide world, but at the time you could barely tell them apart. Ecstasy seemed like equality in 1990 when all the walls came down.

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When you’re in a gang, you think life is always going to be about the gang. One of the reasons The Stone Roses were so appealing to us then (I’d just turned 22) was that they were an absolute mirror of who we were. They wore the same clothes, took the same drugs, and talked the same shite. All over the North, young men and women spotted an attitude developing into a soundtrack and they possessed it instantly. So, I remember exactly where I was on Saturday 9 June that year. I started the day in a telephone box in Finnieston with a heap of coins, ringing the gang to get them organised. “Sorted” was that year’s word: I had to check the tickets were sorted, get the drugs sorted, and then I had to sort out what I was wearing. I can still remember the exact outfit: Chevignon jeans, a Joe Bloggs black-and-white striped top that I stole from a girl called Leanne, and the aforementioned Gazelles. I didn’t have a smiley top, a pair of Caterpillar boots, Rizlas down my sock, or an anorak, but everybody else did and we met at the Rock Garden at 2pm to get drunk. 

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The day sings out to me. New Order were at Number One with 'World in Motion.' (That was quite unimaginable to those of us who remembered Ian Curtis.) Monica Seles beat Steffi Graf in the French Open and Michael Jackson went into hospital. Glasgow Green was buzzing that Saturday: half the kids were wearing Stone Roses T-shirts that said “Spike Island–Glasgow Green”. The now-notorious Spike Island gig had happened 12 days before in front of 27,000 people: Glasgow’s gig was in a tent – a green and yellow big top that could be seen from the head of the Saltmarket – with 7,500 kids half-pissed and totally wired. Every young life requires an opening onto adulthood. It used to be marriage or the army, an apprenticeship or a coming out, but for my generation it was often a rock concert: a night when your own sense of personal freedom and possibility is charged with sound.

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Glasgow was my city. There are photos of my family in the fetid back courts of the Saltmarket in 1880, and my mother worked in Templeton’s Carpet Factory that overlooks the Green. That night, I felt the future right at the end of my fingertips. I was about to leave the old place behind and The Stone Roses melodic brouhaha was the perfect storm to lift you over the rainbow.

The night ended with us all sitting in the corner of the Sub Club with the Roses, everybody off their tits, and the club pulsing with our own exact heartbeat. The band was the element and the element was us. We were too young to know that only happened once. We had no idea at all, but it was our trip to The Cavern Club, our sail down the Thames with the Sex Pistols, our last night at Hammersmith Odeon with Ziggy, our Stones in Hyde Park, our meeting with Elvis on the stoop at Sun Records. Rock music, for those who care about it, is never a pastime or an amusement: it is a calling that can seem, in the core essence of youth, to be made especially for you and about you.

It turns so quickly to nostalgia because it was ripe with it in the first place. We didn’t have the nose for it – ours were too busy sniffing speed – but by the end of The Stone Roses’ night in Glasgow in 1990, I didn’t say it but I knew categorically my youth was over. It slipped away in a brilliant miasma of fun, sweat, artificial highs and swelling guitars. Writers with a big interest in the past can’t fail to get the point of pop music. If Marcel Proust had heard The Undertones’ “Teenage Kicks”, it might have given him another 40 years worth of material for his masterpiece, 'In Search of Lost Time.'

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I have a photograph beside me as I write. It is from the late Seventies and was taken at the Glasgow Apollo during a gig by somebody or other. It sits on my desk to remind me what flaming youth is all about, just in case, in middle age, I ever fool myself into thinking it’s about understanding trigonometry and caring about carbon emissions. The photograph shows a group of boys wigging out to the band, knees bent, air-guitars aloft, some opting for the two-figure salute, eyes clamped shut, the moment of youth as fixed and delicate as a woodcut. From my prejudiced point of view, the band they are listening to is probably shite – no fan of good bands ever played air guitar – but that doesn’t matter because the scene is perfect.

The picture is a novel to me and a symphony, too: we can’t afford, dear reader, to miss vitality in its fullest throes, because so much of life is killing, oblivion and distraction. A great gig is like a great book, a perfect love affair, an amazing wine, a terrific magazine: it exudes life and connection to a brilliant degree. And so we get to the millions of people who hanker after that gig, the ultimate moment with their perfect band. I look at that photograph and know it is gone into the turmoil of air, and yet everywhere we look, people are chasing that same moment. It has become an industry: the Comeback Tour, the Anniversary Release, the passionate hunt for the Big Déjà Vu and the spirit of who you were before Calpol and sub-prime mortgages. Every band is at it, the new vitality, the bid for the resurrection and the life. When tickets for this year’s Stone Roses gig in Glasgow Green went on sale – 50,000 tickets, seven times more than when the band were “big” – they sold out in less than 30 minutes.

Four complimentary tickets arrived by courier. (I could just stop the essay right here. You want to know what time’s done to this hardcore fan? Those six words carry it. Give him 20 years, give him a nanosecond on The New York Times bestseller list, give him a few airs and graces, a fitted office, a part-time professorship and a dozen fan letters a year, and he’ll produce the sentence “Four complimentary tickets arrived by courier.” What a cunt. But let’s press on.) I bought another four (and then another two on top of that) and began contacting members of the original gang. A pattern quickly established itself among the mates. They would, in each case, immediately fall into one of the following categories of response.

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The 'Having it Harry.' To say these individuals bit my hand off would be to offer too little respect to their rapier speed. You just have to say the words “free tickets” to these geezers and they’ve booked their train and got high in preparation for the event. As it happens, there was only three in this grouping. Alan, who grew up in the same town, would go to a party up a yak’s arse. He took the first ticket and wanted one for his wife. She’s better fun than anybody on the planet, but, after initial acceptance, I later said no to wives for journalistic reasons. I wanted to recreate a time when wives were mere mythical threats on a far, uncertain horizon.

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Paul is my girlfriend’s uncle – steady now – and up for it. And the third in this category was my younger friend Harry, who never saw the Roses but likes a night out. He also comes from Manchester and I thought he might bring a reverse perspective on this excellent festival of nostalgia.

“Too right.” This involved individuals who already had tickets but wanted to blag a free one anyway, who think media ponces like me get everything for free. Peter took one and came with his wife. We didn’t see him for the rest of the day.

“Beat you to it, mate.” This is a nice category: people who never miss an important gig and get tickets early. They spend their lunch hours on the phone to Ticketmaster. They proudly declined my tickets and made arrangements for the pub.

“OMG. Are you serious?” Having collected the main participants in the original 1990 outing, I thought I’d spread the love a bit by inviting my teenage stepsons. They’re into music but in a very different way from us. They don’t buy records. They don’t tape things off the radio. (“What! Is this the Paleolithic Age or what? Haven’t you heard of Spotify?”) They’re into the charts, and they don’t know any bands before they’re famous. But they’re nice guys and they kept saying, “Oh my God, this is so amazing” every time the subject came up, but they didn’t organise themselves properly and they missed the gig. Note the middle-aged tone of mild complaint in the above: kids today, in my day we would have marched from London to Glasgow through a million bogs of slime to get a free ticket for a concert, etc.

“Aw, all right, then.” In the final hours, with all bets in and no-shows accounted for, we turn with pleasure to the people who never cared about The Stone Roses and who are really more interested in a few beers than they are in bands. My brothers. And then we bumped into a pal in the pub who’d been having a shit time in his personal life, and we gave him a ticket. The posse was complete, and it was filled less with the sound of old bells than the peel of new ones. Even those who were there the first time round were totally – and properly – preoccupied with the responsibilities of now.

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A writer is an oddity, really. If you’re a professional writer, you really just gave your inner child a job. For most punters, the rock nostalgia industry is just a chance to tap the last of their old energy and revisit a subject. There’s really no difference between lipstick thirtysomethings ganging up to go and see Robbie Williams, Deadhead grandfathers making the trip to see The Grateful Dead, and fortysomethings who once assumed themselves to be the core of Cool Britannia entering a park to drink warm cider and mouth along to songs they’ve known half their lives. “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there,” wrote LP Hartley at the opening of The Go-Between.

And writers are people who feel they have a passport to that country. We don’t want to live there, but we see it fresh every day, the weather, the people, the sounds of that time. As it happens, I feel more alive at 45, more alert and better prepared, than I was at 22, but the years flow forwards and backwards to an incredible degree, and the nostalgia rock element grabs me by the throat. “Are you still angry?” it says. “Still fighting the power?”

Probably not. But for a fistful of hours, 50,000 men and women on Glasgow Green felt they might. And that is the glory of it. We can make trips to the moon, any minute now. We can fathom the depths of the ocean. But can we take a holiday in the realms of our own potential? That’s what the comeback tour is all about for the fans, even if it’s all about dosh for the acts. The fans want to revisit themselves, and, on Glasgow Green, 50,000 of them want to sign up for an opportunity they missed 20 years ago.

As soon as we got in there, it was the usual fight for the bar and the usual jumble of sachets so people could have a dab or a tab or whatever was going. It has to be said, in the interests of true reporting, that everybody at the gig was wasted. And there’s something different about older people on drugs from their younger counterparts. The very young often don’t know where they’ll end up when they take drugs; older people tend to know exactly, and they know how they’ll feel the next day, too.

It was raining and the crowd just melted into one another. The great thing about those Manchester bands was that, for a short time, everybody seemed to know how everybody else felt. We were all fucked and nobody needed to explain that.

Jake Bugg was on. He’s 19. In some ways, though, he was more invested in the past than anybody. He sounded so like Dylan I wondered if the present would ever touch him, never mind the future. “I’ll tell you what, big man,” said the guy next to me. (Only in Glasgow is it possible for me to be called “big man”: I live in what Martin Amis has described as “that much disputed territory between 5ft 7 and 5ft 7-and-a-half”.) “I’m telling you, big man: oor boys [he meant The Stone Roses] could knock seven shades of shite oot ae him.” Primal Scream were up next and the crowd went up a gear.

Bobby Gillespie is a brilliant frontman for our generation: he always, always seems more fucked than anybody watching him. He’s like a lightning-rod of fuckedness, a tottering tower of meltedness and his attitude is ever-sprightly with rock’n’roll effrontery and posturing. Just looking at him makes you want to pack in your job or throw your homework in the fire.

In 1990, we all managed to stay together. We were in a tent, after all, and could see each other. But this year, it was all about mobile phones and getting lost. Trips for beer could take hours and climbing gear was required for taking a piss or going to buy a T-shirt. And the technology means you end up with a record you’d never have had before: not of the gig, but of the people missing in action and the rising tide of their drunkenness. Keith is one of my oldest friends. Here are his texts:

“We are left hand side next to toilet at mr whippet ice cream van. X”

“Where us cuntsz.”

“At mr whiPpy van left side.”

“Get u at that VAn.”

“Left hand side up from front ya cunt!”

By the time The Stone Roses hit the stage, Ian Brown is in the kind of yellow mac we would all wear, in this rain, if only we had one, but he’s doing it for us. They broke into “I Wanna Be Adored” and the crowd could forget about its mates because everybody was its mate. I noticed the band was better than they were all those years ago: the singing was better, the guitar work was clearer and the production more solid. But it didn’t matter because the crowd was the vocal. They were drowning out the band because that was the sound they wanted, not the band, really, but the moment the band conducted. In celebration of a past event we created a present one, and that, too, would be remembered, and that’s what happens now, up and down the country, as people gather to mark the journey of their own joy.

At one point, with all the mates gathered in one place to share their wares and leap up to the sound of 'I Am the Resurrection,' I looked down the slope over all the heads to see the sun going down over the park. I’m sure I saw a young man down there in a Joe Bloggs shirt, head down, dancing to himself, not knowing the future.

In the early hours of the morning, Keith, an English teacher who was looking forward to the end of term, sent me a final text. 'Ave got not of hangover!' it said.

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MORE IN MUSIC:
Johnny Cash's final Masterpiece
Bobby Gillespie: What I've Learned 
Brian May: "This Country Is In A Terrible Place
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