The release of Spike Island leads Steve Bradley to recall what it was like to be at an historic gig.
May 1990 – I was 21, and in the preceeding six months or so I had attended gigs by the Stone Roses, Happy Mondays, Charlatans, Inspiral Carpets and James. The Roses debut album had soundtracked the sunny Summer of ’89, in Piccadilly Gardens, Affleck’s Palace and the Underground Market. What a great time to be a music fan in the city of Manchester! A couple of weeks previously, Manchester United had won the FA Cup, and the following week, the World Cup would kick-off in Italy, making heroes of Gascoigne and Lineker. Today’s heroes though were Brown, Squire, Mounfield and Wren.
I picked up three mates and the four of us headed off down the motorway in a Ford Escort. We wore John Squire’s art on our t-shirts, and were accompanied by the sounds of a Roses compilation cassette. The sun peered out from above the Widnes clouds but it remained dry and breezy throughout the day. We waited for a while around the footbridges that connected the venue to the mainland, until the security guards started opening gates and moving barriers, inviting us to rise to our feet and shuffle forwards to cross the murky Mersey.
Having arrived early-afternoon, the endless waiting dragged on. The largely forgettable support acts struggled to hold the fans attention and failed to win their affection. We were there for the Roses and the best efforts of the DJ’s were merely a distraction as we waited and waited. To pass the time I read, then re-read, that weeks NME. But even then, as the crowd grew and the anticipation increased, we started to sense we were going to be a part of something; it could be the “I was there” moment for a generation of Madchester / Hacienda music fans. A day out to see our favourite band, that would go down in music legend as a unique Manchester awayday, and become the subject of a coming-of-age film drama, a generation later.
A helicopter buzzed overhead; was it the media, was it the Police, or was it the band themselves, arriving Beatles-style for their very own ‘Shea Stadium’ moment? I surveyed a sea of ‘Reni hats’, mostly worn by the younger fans or those that were late to the party and only became fans in recent months. To the longer-established fans the hats now seemed a little passé. Compared to previous Roses gigs there were now hundreds of much younger fans, an army of twelve and thirteen year olds, having seen the band on Top of the Pops they were now following the lead of the older brothers and sisters.
The Roses arrived on stage as the sun set, to a deafening roar and surging in the crowd as everyone pushed forwards. Clouds of soil dust were being kicked up from the dry ground by thousands of pairs of trainers, causing coughing and spluttering. It turned out it wasn’t just dust that was causing the irritation, but the toxic top-layer from the nearby chemical plants that had been blown across the island over recent years.
The music was largely unclear, as the sound system (primitive by today’s standards) battled with the wind blowing in from the Mersey, to disperse and distort the Roses’ efforts. Then the wind would drop momentarily, allowing you to hear a moment of music clearly, so you could identify the song and quickly sing along before it got lost on the breeze again. The next song would start and you couldn’t hear a thing, as fans looked to each other, puzzled, trying to hear a brief snatch so as to recognise the track. ‘One Love’ got an airing and, unheard being as yet unreleased, it was difficult to gauge exactly what it sounded like.
Ian produced an inflatable globe of thin, clear plastic, and held it aloft, somewhat proudly and defiantly. We felt that the Stone Roses were what the world was waiting for, and for a moment, Ian symbolically had the whole world in his hands. He casually tossed it into the crowd where it was ritually pulled apart by a lucky few. Hands pulled at the thin vinyl that was surprisingly resilient, tearing and stretching it until it came apart in continent-sized slices. I took home a large chunk of Southern Australia as my unique souvenir.
Mancs and Scousers set aside regional and football rivalries to sing together, in their Mersey Paradise. The clichéd-chorus of ‘Manchester, la la la’ was less-used since Ian Brown’s legendary response at the Alexandra Palace the previous November; “It’s not where you’re from, it’s where you’re at.”
The gig closed with ‘I am the Resurrection’ and everyone knew the Roses didn’t do encores. As the stage emptied a blast was heard with crackles overhead, as a surprise firework display lit up the night sky. A November tradition enjoying an unusual May appearance. With this part of the performance being outside of copyright it was soon possible in Manchester to buy a seven-inch vinyl record of the sounds of the fireworks, thus creating another unusual souvenir for the completist fan.
We drifted back to the footbridges and the car park, trudging through the debris left behind, buying an unofficial t-shirt then queuing to leave with thousands of other cars, Roses music emerging from the opened windows of each one. Despite the event passing into folklore as the event where thousands were high, stoned or tripping, as the designated driver I’d been unable to indulge in anything, be it herbal, chemical or alcohol.
A band that had accrued merely two top-ten hits to their name had assembled this crowd of around 28,000 people on an open windswept Cheshire space. Another gang of Mancunian lads would leave the gig, inspired to form a band. The Oasis debut album released 4 years later was arguably the birth of the next musical era, but Spike Island had seen the conception of Britpop.
Today, the Mersey Estuary, tomorrow, the world. Surely after the excitement and anticipation of this event, such great music and the band’s Manc swagger, it was just a matter of time before they would be filling stadia worldwide and notching up a string of number one albums. Wouldn’t it? Surely? Alas, a series of record company squabbles, musical differences and ego battles would lead to the Second Coming then a gradual fading away; while Spike Island should have been the end of the beginning, it was in fact the beginning of the end. No-one knew it at the time, but it was to be the penultimate gig featuring the classic line-up, for 22 years. The Independent described the event as ‘Woodstock for the Madchester generation’; for those that were there it remains a halcyon day but perhaps the event was greater than the sum of it’s parts. In a tale that arcs from the Sex Pistols at the Free Trade Hall, via Joy Division at the Factory to The Smiths at the Hacienda then Oasis at Maine Road, the Roses continued to shape Manchester’s musical history at Heaton Park in 2013.
All words by Steve Bradley. More work by Steve on Louder Than War can be found here.