A weekend on Spike Island: 23rd anniversary of Stone Roses’ Sunset Sunday

Bank Holiday Monday will mark 23 years since The Stone Roses iconic ‘Sunset Sunday’ gig. Here, Katie Clare shares her memories, and exclusive photographs, of a weekend on Spike Island.

May 1990 and The Stone Roses had already been a huge part of my life for nearly two years, so many unforgettable experiences had those four boys from Manchester at the centre.

Hitching up and down the UK, pleading assertions ‘Of course we’re 18’ to unmoved and too-clued-up doormen, unfairly spending most half a day in a Wolverhampton prison cell, drinking brandy on Blackpool promenade singing to the sky and sea as we staggered home to the mix and match chintz of our seaside B&Bs: all special, all unique, all cherished.

We were in no doubt Spike Island would definitely be another one.

On Friday May 25th I’d travelled from Coventry to Liverpool Lime Street Station and met up with my partners in all things Stone Roses that year – Gerry and Mel, who had both made their way from Portsmouth. We waited as train after train passed, until the one bound for Widnes finally appeared.

Adorned with flowers and drenched in sun, Widnes Station was looking quaint and pretty when we arrived around lunch time. We spoke to the Station Master to get directions to what was to be our home for the weekend. “Come to see music have you?” he stated rather than asked – “Paul Simon wrote ‘Homeward Bound’ right here on this platform”.

Armed with this information and the advice that a cab “wouldn’t cost much” we jumped in the lone taxi outside the station, and as we set off the driver chatted away, “Stone Roses? Don’t know them. You should listen to Paul Simon – he wrote ‘Homeward Bound’ at Widnes Station”.

Arriving at Spike Island the first thing we saw was the stage; it was huge. Stage hands were about and as we chatted we got to look a little around the site. They near roared with laughter when we asked if there was anywhere close by where we could get some food and drinks.

Eventually we found a Happy Eater some way along the A557 there was very little in the way of food, however we did get a clean bathroom and the lady on the till filled us in on local history – “Paul Simon he wrote ‘Homeward Bound’ here at Widnes Station”, she gave us as her parting shot. Walking back to Spike Island we met with some local teenagers and saw out the evening enjoying beers, smokes, jokes and songs, the sky turning from black and grey to purple and orange as Saturday May 26th began.

The early morning passed by talking to security and watching the stage fitters, lighting techs and sound guys. As lunch time approached, Gareth Evans (the Stone Roses manager at the time) drove up behind the tower being erected for the mixing desk. He was both amused and concerned that we had stayed on the island the night before and set about sorting out a safer place for us to stay on the site that night, while obtaining our opinion of the event merchandise – he went so far as to give us posters, t-shirts, hats and extra tickets for the show.

We had about a hundred questions for him and he took the time to answer many of them. He was clearly excited and resolutely determined to impress on us that the show was going to be so much bigger than all the others we had seen so far and that the fireworks, which had cost a fortune, would be outstanding. He imparted that we should stay right where we were because the boys would be around soon. By now the final addition to our little group, Rachel, a new devotee had arrived.

As the afternoon began, the heat of the sun (which was a fixture that whole summer) did a great job warming the grass and its scent filled the air. A few fellow fans and local children came to watch the excitement on their doorstep, when suddenly we were joined by Ian Brown.

I can’t recall how he arrived – he was not there one moment, and the next moment he was! It was not the first meeting for myself, Gerry or Mel, this time not as brief and certainly less crazy than the previous – which was a couple of months earlier at Wolverhampton Courts.

Ian said hello, asked how we were and pulled faces when he saw my camera. Gerry and Mel asked if a photo was okay. He flung his arms around their shoulders. “Coventry!” he shouted at me, “you too,” and my refusal got him bellowing “Come on”. I joined the trio, slightly mortified.

By this time so many people were trying to speak to Ian – and giving them space we turned to see John standing to the right of stage, quietly smoking and drinking beer. Asking if a photo was okay John smiled and said, “anytime”. We inquired if everything was going well and he said it was.

We could now see Mani and Reni signing t-shirts and talking to some of the growing number of children. It is common knowledge that Mani is a great person and wonderfully he took time to talk to us and agree to a photo; I’d never had such high hopes for a great picture and have never been quite so disappointed that it turned out so badly – the photo and me in it that is, not Mani.

By now a lot of children were running around, two of the youngest looked like mini Stone Roses. They were especially captivated with Reni and it seemed he thought they were just as cool and cute as we did; we happily gave the tickets Gareth had just given us to some of them.

Taking time out from all the attention, Mani, Reni, Gareth and some of the crew took the chance to play football on the grass and we became distracting cheerleaders – me shouting approval at Mani’s moves and Gerry whistling hers for Reni’s.

John now had so many children around him, that he was close to being overwhelmed. He asked me, “is it over yet?” when I laughed and said “no” he pulled the best face – I am still surprised to this day that my Snappy Snaps disposable camera actually got the picture!

The band was soon on stage, and as the sound check began we lay on the heated grass and tried our best to take it all in. Not unexpectedly it was over all too soon. The stage crew seemed to continue working for a long time, however eventually they too were gone and darkness fell on Spike Island. It was only slightly warmer in our truck ‘room’ that night it’s hard to imagine how we slept excited with the day’s events and those still to come, but at some point we did just a little.

Sunday started early as stage trucks were moved off site and the burger vans moved in. We were warned that the event security would soon be there and that we should not be so visible if we wished to avoid being taken off the island. So we hung out with one of the food truck owners as he prepared his stock, kindly supplying us with a beer and a bun for breakfast. We stashed our belonging and all the goodies Gareth had given us the day before under his van and waited for the chance to escape the cold shadow of the vehicle.

As the first bodies started to appear on the grass in front of the stage we bolted from our hiding place and secured ourselves a spot with them, almost dead centre at the front. We had no food and only a couple of drinks for what was one of the hottest and most protracted days I’ve ever experienced.

I could write half a book on the events of Sunset Sunday, and fill the other with plenty more tales of the days before it, but for the most part it was very long with a rather intense couple of hours at the end.

Check out Ian Tilton’s book Set in Stone; his photographs and the descriptions most exquisitely bring to life the power and exuberance of the band on stage that Sunset Sunday.

The day ended with us returning to find no burger truck and practically everything we had left gone, luckily our back packs were hooked on the bushes nearby, with our sleeping bags and coats perfectly fine inside. Rachael had already left to catch the coach that was part of her ticket deal – we could not help but be a little envious at the time. Unable to avoid the sweep to clear the island, we found ourselves bruised, dehydrated and the most exhausted we’d ever been standing on a quiet ‘A’ road at 1am.

The Happy Eater seemed the best location to take ourselves to and we slept outside its closed doors until the birds woke us as the sun rose on Monday morning. We found that we had shared the luxury of the Happy Eater’s car park with a van full of lads, one of whom was Paul Ryder.

They offered to get us to the train station in time for the first train back to Liverpool – which they did with a lot of animated chatter considering how hard the weekend had clearly been on all of us. As the train pulled up we were the only ones to board and it seemed fitting for us to sing,“Homeward bound, Home, where my thought’s escaping, Home, where my music’s playing …..” as loud as we could before falling into a very deep sleep.

After Spike Island we had Glasgow Green and that was an insanely special weekend too – special like Blackpool had been special and the gigs during the summer of 1988 – but as they say that’s a whole other story.

So here we are 23 years later, many things have changed not least my locale, however my love for the group is still as strong as ever. I was, after decimating years of savings, able to travel from Japan to the Heaton Park concerts in Manchester last year and to see them again at Fuji Rock less than a month later.

Being stuck in Tokyo working has been torturous since that incredible press conference on October 18th 2011, it was impossible to go to anymore of the gigs however I avidly follow each date and event via the internet. People can say it sounds trite however it’s nonetheless true: some of the best things about my life are because of The Stone Roses.

Their music, their personalities, the people I have met, the travel around the UK, Europe and beyond – thousands of affirming, defining, and precious experiences; they opened my eyes to the amazing possibilities that life has to offer, teaching me that nothing can hold me back and that the world is there for the taking.

All words and images by Katie Clare. Katie is our Tokyo correspondent and you can read more from her on LTW here.

Were you at Spike Island? What is your stand out memory of the gig? Share with us in the comments section.

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8 comments on “A weekend on Spike Island: 23rd anniversary of Stone Roses’ Sunset Sunday”

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  1. Brendan Streetforce

    I only went because ‘On U Sound / Dub Syndicate’ were on the bill – can’t remember under which name, but they were main support. My recollection was that I was the only person dancing to them! They are the forgotten heroes of the day!

  2. What I remember of the support that day (Frankie Knuckles, Gary Clail’s On-U Sound System with Jah Wobble, Ruff Ruff and Ready and sets from Dave Haslam, Dave Booth, Paul Oakenfold & Stefano. This is all I can recall) was that it didn’t worked for me nor the few hundred directly around where I was ~ a little dance down to some of the tracks played sure, but you don’t ‘rave’ before a gig with the sun beating down on you. My love of the ‘no support gigs’ in Japan directly stems from Sunset Sunday, I’m a true believer in doors open say an hour before (for drink or two) the band on do their thing then finish you’re then free to go and party as you wish.

  3. Steve Molyneux

    Made a pilgrimage to Spike Island today. Weather forecast not looking too clever for the 27th so opted for a road trip today. Spent a couple of hours just strolling around taking pictures, trying to remember how things were back then. The site seems much smaller than it did. Plenty of people just enjoying the open space, walking, cycling, playing ball games. All seemingly oblivious to the fact that such an iconic gig had taken place there 23 years ago.
    I sat on the grass where the stage would have stood and listened to ‘I Am The Resurrection’ on my ipod. The grass in front of me completely empty apart from 2 guys who sat quietly and enjoyed a couple of cans in the afternoon sun. Were they there 23 years ago? Had they too returned to relive their memories? I doubt it. Only sad 40 something’s like me do that kind of thing… Don’t they?
    As I was walking back to the car I spotted a knitted bucket/beanie hat that had been left on a branch in case the owner returned looking for it. Certainly not one of Reni’s… Unless he’d been visiting with his kids?

  4. Good photo of Katie, Rachel, and Gerry (complete with signed jeans!), in the crowd at Spike Island on page 143 of the aforementioned Set In Stone book by Ian Tilton! Great book btw :)

  5. Cheers Rich Ian Tilton’s book is amazing and of course it is amazing to be in it!

  6. Hi,

    My name is George Rose. I am a representative of Shock Radio – we are currently working on a special broadcast on Manchester in the 90s. From this i want to do a package on Spike Island, looking into the gig and trying to paint a picture for listeners. I am looking for contributors to talk about their experience at Spike Island. If you are interested please contact me on g.rose@edu.salford.ac.uk or ring me on 07930292692. The show is to be aired on the 4th of December live from Media City UK.

    George.

  7. Hi Katie, its Mel from Portsmouth. This was a great read took me back for 5 mins smiling the whole time.

  8. This is a great article. Takes you right back 25+ years (and I wasn’t even there!).
    The photos seem to have disappeared. Can you get them back?

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