We’re #2! – The Stone Roses’ “Love Spreads”

“Love spreads her arms, waits there for the nails.”

Inspired by Tom Ewing’s “Popular” (which traces the history of UK #1 singles) and Tom Breihan’s “The Number Ones” (which does the same for US #1s), “We’re #2!” looks at the history of those songs which almost but not-quite managed to reach the summit of the UK Singles Chart, beginning a quarter century back from this column’s inception (March 2019) up until whenever the Present Day comes about.

014] The Stone Roses – Love Spreads

Reached #2: 27th November 1994

Weeks at #2: 1

Music writer Chris Molphany, first in 2011 at the now-defunct Village Voice and then again in 2013 at Billboard, once coined a term that I find endlessly fascinating as somebody who enjoys chart-watching in all its various guises: “The AC/DC Rule.”  Short version is that the chart performance of an artist’s newest work is more a referendum on the quality of their previous album than anything to do with the new work itself.  If an artist had previously put out some kind of indisputable masterpiece, then consumers and fans typically fling themselves with greater fervour at whatever that record’s follow-up might be which can often propel the new record to bigger heights than the previous masterpiece, at least in the short-term, on account of massive hype and a trust to blindly jump in and hear the new record right the heck now.  Molphany mainly cites the performances of AC/DC’s legacy-defining 1980 hard rock classic Back in Black (which only peaked at #4 on the Billboard 200 but was certified 22x Platinum in 2013) and its 1981 follow-up For Those About to Rock We Salute You (which peaked at #1 but has only been certified 4x Platinum by 2013 and it achieved that ranking in the early 90s) but provides a wide list of examples and it’s a theory which slots a lot of observations I’ve had on the charts and social behaviour over the years into place.

More relevant to us, it explains how The Stone Roses managed to score their highest-charting single with something off of Second Coming.

In November of 1994, The Stone Roses had been radio silent for four entire years.  Back in May of 1990, they were on top of the world, headlining the mythical Spike Island outdoor concert to 25,000 people, continuing in spirit and in rock’s own way the Second Summer of Love.  Vocalist Ian Brown, guitarist and lead songwriter John Squire, bassist Mani, and drummer Reni had weathered false starts, critical indifference – never forget that the NME originally gave their debut album a 5/10, and many other critical outlets were similarly unimpressed at the time – occasionally shambolic live performances, a near-refusal to do revealing interviews with the music press, and the reduced clout and industry control of the upstart and little-thought-of independent arm of a major label to become one of Britain’s biggest bands.  Off the back of nothing more than a collection of largely excellent forward-thinking tunes that melded psychedelic rock with the burgeoning dance music craze and growing word-of-mouth, here was a band which, over the course of a single year, went from relative nobodies to Top of the Pops-featuring household names.

And then it all went silent.  After the release of non-album single “One Love,” the band terminated their five-year deal with Silvertone Records over monetary disputes and aimed to jump to a major label.  Silvertone’s owners, the mega-conglomerate Zomba Records, took this development extremely poorly and put out an actual legal injunction against the band which prohibited them from signing with another label, recording for another label, writing for another label, and even touring, necessitating a near-nine-month legal battle between both sides.  In May of 1991, the courts found in favour of Stone Roses and the band immediately signed with Geffen Records for a cool £1 million advance… only for Zomba and Silvertone to appeal against the ruling, necessitating another year-long legal battle that ground those spooling-up wheels back to a halt.

Naturally, Silvertone also spent this time reissuing the band’s music in various forms over and over again for naked cash-grabs, but the Roses’ profile effectively disappeared for four entire years in the meantime.  Following the conclusion of the appeals proceedings in late 1992, the band continued putting off making that follow-up and instead travelled Europe, bought houses, started families in the case of Brown and Squire.  (Contrary to what the British music press were claiming, the band would insist in a February 1995 interview with L.A. Times’ Robert Hilburn that the break was more about a desire for time off and relaxation rather than being wracked with self-doubt over following up their debut or drug addictions or infighting.)  The recording process would at last begin in 1993 and was plagued by difficulties both mundane (fatherhood), tragic (the deaths of many close friends of the band), and the far more substantial (regular producer John Leckie who had helped make them stars quit over musical differences).  Overall, the album would take almost an entire year of 10-hour-long working days to make until, at last, in November of 1994, the machine whirred into life once more.

Fact of the matter is that The Stone Roses could have released anything as their big comeback single and it would probably have shot up to the higher reaches of the singles chart.  They could probably have gotten away with releasing the eleven-and-a-half-minute album version of “Breaking Into Heaven” and still scored a Top 5 single.  By the time that Second Coming was gearing up for release, The Stone Roses had already been enshrined into British music legend and was well on its way to irritating the shit out of Bob Geldof on national countdown-based television.  Sure, the whole Madchester scene that had sprung up around it died just as quickly as it was birthed, but the songs truly resonated with a Northern working-class who needed music which reflected their laddish optimism in a society that was beating them into the dirt, whilst many other bands had clearly been taking notes from the record in their own mainstream-attacking music – Primal Scream, Suede, and a little fellow Mancunian band called Oasis.  In many respects, the Roses provided the genesis for the Britpop movement that was in the midst of consuming British popular music; two months earlier, Oasis had scored the biggest first-week sales for a debut album in British chart history and they too accomplished that on an independent label based largely on word-of-mouth.

The public were at a fever-pitch.  They wanted to welcome back the unassailable mythical kings with open arms.  And so, on the 21st November, just two weeks before the release of Second Coming, the Roses obliged with… an off-brand “Voodoo Child (Slight Return).”

I had not actually heard Second Coming in full before working on this article.  Of course, I’d heard The Stone Roses, I even own that three-disc 2009 expanded reissue with the demos I listened to half of once upon purchase and literally never again since, and “Fool’s Gold” was a proper foundational part of my youthful music fan evolution as well as a strange staple of my Junior School Discos for some reason.  But outside of “Love Spreads,” I had never actually listened to Second Coming myself.  The stink around it was too pungent and the track lengths in particular were far too long for me to want to dive in in a pre-Spotify world.  And now, having run it through multiple times for context and educational purposes and morbid curiosity, I can confidently state that the band made the right call in issuing an otherwise bewildering solo cut like “Love Spreads” as the lead single because it’s the best thing on the album save for “Begging You” by multiple county lines.

Despite the reputation that Second Coming has garnered over the years, both in the negative initial reactions and recent cult classic re-evaluations trying to insist it’s a misunderstood flawed masterpiece, I was honestly disappointed by the results.  I expected a debacle and, aside from the genuinely unlistenable untitled hidden track – six-and-a-half-minutes of rhythmless, atonal, pissed-up scraping, coughing and aimless plucking like nails on ten thousand chalkboards; it legitimately made my skin crawl and I cried out loud “PLEASE JUST FUCKING STOP” as my respect for this band started to wither and die – it’s just really boring and uninspired.  Second Coming isn’t even all that unique in the musical landscape of 1994, with Primal Scream (Give Out But Don’t Give Up) and Suede (Dog Man Star) also shirking the pop-friendly dance-adjacent sounds which brought them fame and making hard left-turns into bloated jammy psychedelia-indebted groove rock records.  But whilst Give Out at least has a trio of killer singles front-loaded and some inspired moments in the back half, and Dog Man Star balances its indulgence with moments of legitimate transcendence and its excursions reveal the breadth of frenemies Bernard Butler and Brett Anderson’s songwriting, Second Coming for all of its meticulously displayed technical proficiency revealed the Roses to be deeply limited songwriters.

The jams on “I Am the Resurrection” and “Fool’s Gold” became legendary because they locked into some proper danceable, hooky, sticky grooves that drew a line connecting psychedelia and dance music, and also because they were the only major instances of such jams on-record so they were both novel and earned.  But almost every song on Second Coming shirks pop song immediacy for grooves and relentless noodling from Squire, many of which just aren’t particularly memorable or melodically interesting – and often the few that are have clearly been nicked from other better sources – and they drag on for absolutely-fucking-ever.  Every song on this album is at least twice as long as it should be, and I’m even including the good stuff; “Begging You” would be an excellent pummelling blast of big beat had it stopped once it audibly exhausted all of its ideas at 3:23 rather than running in place for another 90 seconds.  Ian Brown is often forced to sing well outside of his comfort zone, said comfort zone being ‘drowned in the same level of reverb reserved for karaoke machines down at one’s local working men’s club,’ and the lyrics, which frankly weren’t worth much more than texture on that debut (they have all the substance of the labels on a Kinder-Egg wrapper), are often pretentiously vague and cliché-ridden.

All of these are criticisms I can very much apply to “Love Spreads,” which is why I have interjected a mini-review of Second Coming itself into this ostensible write-up of its lead single.  “Love Spreads” is indeed super-endemic of its parent album.  The thing is nearly six minutes long and spends much of that time absolutely refusing to lock into a meaningful groove because Squire would really desperately want you to know that he is a massive fan of “Voodoo Child (Slight Return),” especially since Mani’s bass similarly goes walkabout far too often.  Brown is having to sing hackneyed lyrics re-envisioning Jesus Christ as his black sister being nailed to the cross in a way that’s clearly meant to be transgressive but lacks any substance at all to make it mean something.  There is a chorus, not always guaranteed on this album, but it is super-repetitive and spends two of its four lines redundantly saying absolutely nothing (“Let me put you in the picture/Let me show you what I mean”) which is an utter pet peeve of mine.  At times, it less resembles a song meant for anthemic public consumption and more an extra-lengthy guitar tab for future-YouTubers (then-guitar shop nerds) to consciously show-off their l33t guitar prowess by nailing exactly.

And yet, despite being wholly endemic of the album it springs from, the song does kinda work.  For the longest time, I was baffled and vaguely annoyed by “Love Spreads” and its seeming adamant refusal to just sit the fuck still and adhere to conventional pop structure, even when I was at the age where I judged Greatest Guitar Players of All-Time by how radical and ripping their solos were rather than by what their playing substantively brings to a song.  (So that’s where I admit my personal biases.  As I’ve gotten older, I’ve found I have way more of a preference for guitarists who act like clinically-precise surgeons with their contributions, such as Annie Clark, rather than indulgently showing off and needlessly soloing all over the place, like Joe Satriani or the worst Matt Bellamy pieces.)  Then one day, fairly recently, that “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)” connection clicked in my brain and suddenly this song made more sense.  It pales in comparison to Hendrix, of course, but it makes the incessantly jutting guitar work more understandable, an homage to the playing style of Hendrix and how he’d frequently seem to fly off into noodling before seamlessly cresting back into the groove, rather than merely empty showboating which was the last thing a listener needs after 65 minutes of much the same.

Then there’s the breakdown at the four-minute mark, where the groove crashes to a halt and has to slowly build itself back up in the remaining 100 seconds.  The groove itself is one of the more memorable in the course of the record (again: “Voodoo Child”) and wouldn’t be too out of place on an early Doors LP but, for all the surface flash. the song doesn’t substantially change up to that point, instead just flooding the listener with endless noise and instrumentation, battering them in much the same way that the rest of the album had done.  That brief moment where the song just hangs, air creeps back into the mix for what feels like the first time in yonks, and each element of the track takes turns reintroducing and layering itself (even the guitar work staves off relentless hammering for a little while) provides genuine variation that feels revelatory after a record which – for all its tablas and jazz breaks and big beat excursions and cringe-inducing campfire singalongs – is often a pounding monotony.

Despite half of it being made up of placeholder lyrics that really should have been filled in with future drafts, the melody of the chorus is pretty catchy after a few listens.  Although it all veers a mite too close to having been custom-bred for featuring in Tab of the Month columns in whatever classic rock magazine particularly floats your boat, the technical acumen on display from Squire, Mani and Reni is objectively fantastic – and, I must admit, the song is fun to play on Guitar Hero and Rock Band.  And were the rest of Second Coming not such an utter snooze, I would have appreciated the absolute brass balls on the part of everyone involved with the Roses’ camp in issuing this as the first new communication from the band in four full years.  To know that you’ve got the general public so on tenterhooks for something, anything new and you hit them with what seems like a sharp left-turn lacking in the immediacy and sprightliness and tone which made you an influential household name to begin with?  I’m always down for that; if you’re basically guaranteed success and have the nation ready to hear anything, why not take a genuine risk and fuck with some heads?

Of course, it turned out that “Love Spreads” was less a bold seizing of the moment and more damage control because the album is not particularly good and this was easily the highest point across its often interminable 78 minute length (aside from in the universes where “Begging Me” is correctly just 3:30).  And for all of the album’s own unique flaws (the production on this is weirdly muddy and crushing) plus the overwhelming hype brought upon by the lengthy gestation and actually naming the fucking record Second Coming ugh, the reason why I think it so totally destroyed the Roses’ career is because this record’s flaws exposed the flaws and limitations in the band as a whole.

To be perfectly frank, The Stone Roses is one-half amazing and the other half middling filler that, in the case of “Don’t Stop,” could be somewhat pretentious.  Ian Brown is not a good vocalist, the lyrics are almost entirely empty gibberish, a few of the songs are not fully fleshed-out and rely on strong late-80s indie pop production to see them through.  But the record still slaps because the band, when it counted, were able to finesse all of their technical proficiency and noodling into direct and extremely effective pop songs with monstrous hooks and choruses with the execution and lightness to back up their anthemic ambitions.  They mostly knew when to pull back and when to indulge – compare “I Wanna Be Adored” to “Breaking Into Heaven” as both songs and album openers and the differences are clear as day.  And John Leckie’s production absolutely made those grooves, locking the songs in whilst still making great use of space and lightness, hiding the extremely limited vocal abilities of Brown by making him more of a texture to the soundscapes rather than a frontman vocalist we need to clearly hear.  But, notably, the band hated the production of Stone Roses; Squire even described it in John Robb’s 1997 book The Stone Roses and the Resurrection of British Pop as “twee” and not “fat or hard enough.”

I think that titbit best explains why Second Coming went so wrong.  Stone Roses wasn’t some kind of earth-shattering clarion call by the saviours of British music who would be the next Beatles.  It was just a really good record that kind of happened in a bit of a fluke by a bunch of extraordinarily proficient musicians (and also Ian Brown was there) who needed genuine guidance to avoid falling into their worst, most self-indulgent instincts of the kind that the annals of music history are littered with.  Even whilst I really don’t like the album, I can understand why somebody else would earnestly call it underrated – putting “Love Spreads” on Best Alt/Indie Rock Songs of All-Time lists, not so much – and I do believe that the knives were definitely out from the music press at the time due to that ‘only human’ fact making itself evident.  Again, it’s not majorly bad or a calamity save for the unconscionable hidden track, just kinda boring and uninspired – the logical outcome of what a Stone Roses album would sound like if any one component that made their debut so strong went wrong.

Things broke down quickly after Second Coming released and charted at #4.  Reni exited the band in March 1995, just two weeks before a UK tour was set to begin, after a row with Brown; he was replaced by Robbie Maddix.  They’d hoped to do a series of secret shows to properly kick off the comeback tour, except that the music press leaked the info and so that was immediately cancelled.  A headline slot at that year’s Glastonbury had to be cancelled due to Squire injuring himself whilst mountain biking, which led to Pulp’s iconic and star-making replacement headline set instead (silver linings).  Finally, at the end of ’95, the band managed to put together and pull off a full-blown sold-out UK tour… only for the experience to be so demoralising that Squire quit the band on 1st April 1996.  He was replaced by Simply Red touring guitarist Aziz Ibrahim but the notoriously shambolic live performances afterwards, including a woeful career-destroying headline set at that year’s Reading Festival, illuminated the writing on the wall and the band officially dissolved in October of ’96.  Brown went onto a long solo career, Squire briefly made other music before giving it up to became a painter, Mani joined Primal Scream midway through the sessions for their 1997 masterpiece Vanishing Point and stayed for well over a decade, and Reni disappeared off the face of the earth pretty much.

And yet, somehow the legacy remained.  Even with said legacy being based largely on just the one album, The Stone Roses remained a culturally beloved institution people desperately wanted to hear more of for 15 years afterwards.  As alluded to earlier, that debut was voted by the public in a Channel 4 poll to be the second greatest album of the entire millennium to the consternation of, well, everyone who had to announce that fact on-air.  Once Pixies kicked down the door for improbable band reunions, the Roses spent the entire 2000s being dogged by the music press as to whether they were going to do the same.  And when they finally acquiesced in 2011, it became major nationwide headline news with a big press conference, immediate sell-out stadium gigs the world over, a concert film documenting the homecoming shows by Shane Meadows, and promises of a third album at some point in time.  During that tour, they rarely played more than four Second Coming cuts in a set whilst The Stone Roses and its assorted singles would often get full airings night in and night out.

Five years into that reunion, the band finally put out a new single, their first new music in almost 22 full years, “All for One.”  A boring lifeless rehash of past glories that was met by fans and critics with a disinterested shrug, it nonetheless debuted at #17 in the UK charts (unheard of for a guitar band making rock music in this current landscape) based on the hype of a new Stone Roses track alone before plummeting a week later.  In June of 2016, almost a month to the day after the release of “All for One,” a second single appeared, “Beautiful Thing,” to even less acclaim and public interest.  The third album was quietly cancelled, the band toured for another year and, last week, John Squire officially confirmed in a Guardian interview that they had broken up for good.

Bonus Beats: In September of 1995, the charity War Child got together a collection of British music’s then hottest names to release a scrappily recorded compilation album within a week to raise money for aid in war-stricken areas.  The Roses’ contribution was a truncated and extremely messy re-recording of “Love Spreads” notable for being the only studio recording with Robbie Maddox on drums and live keyboardist Nigel Ippinson.

Bonus Bonus Beats: Here’s that brief bit in Edgar Wright’s 2004 modern classic zombie comedy Shaun of the Dead where Shaun and Ed debate which of Shaun’s records are to be thrown at the zombies with Second Coming being saved from the fling by Shaun’s ashamed defensive “I like it!”

The #1: “Love Spreads” was kept from #1 by the second and final week of the surprise crossover rave hit “Let Me Be Your Fantasy” by Baby D.  Originally a non-starter when released in 1992 (reaching just #76), a 1994 re-issue saw it immediately jump straight into the Top 3 and then displace Pato Banton from the top spot in its sophomore showing.  The severely-edited Radio Version is a 3.5, but the full eight-minute version that appears on the Deliverance EP is a very high 4 for the acid rave breakdown section in the middle that the Radio Edit otherwise cuts out.

The gaps: Our brief jump from “Another Night” to “Love Spreads” is due to Pato Banton’s former #1 “Baby, Come Back” sliding down into the #2 slot for a week after being usurped by “Let Me Be Your Fantasy.”

A new entry of We’re #2! will be posted every Saturday.

Callie Petch can’t, they won’t, and they don’t stop.

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