Indie Moans And The Raiders Of The Pop Charts. Or, ‘Don’t Pop’: How The Stone Roses Killed Indie And The Problem With Populism.

In my youth, if I was anything, I was an indie kid.   In reality, I probably listened to more music from the 1960s than I did modern (for the time) indie music.  And the reason that, of all the new music that was being released at that time, I chose to listen to indie music was because it was, basically, in thrall to the music of the 1960s.  The indie stuff I listened to, anyway.

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Bobby Gillespie – Classic Indie Kid look. Circa 1986.  Fringe, fey and flowery.  It was very much a modern take on the mid 1960s.

I don’t think I ever actively described myself as an ‘indie kid’ to anyone at any point, although I suppose I might have done for ease.  Generally, it was other people who labelled me thus.

In the late 1980s at the club I used to most frequently frequent, at first there were lots of different, er, tribes, I suppose you might say who’d go to Spiders.

You know when you’ve been going out with somebody for a little while and it’s going well?  After not too long, you go over your first date or two and tell your new boyfriend or girlfriend the things that you were thinking about but didn’t say?  Well, Clare and I first got together in Spiders and things moved very swiftly on.  After a couple of weeks, we were having that conversation and, while I found it difficult to put her into any subgroup in particular, she said to me, “I just thought you were an indie kid.”

Which was fair enough, really.  The Indie kid uniform, I suppose, consisted of a t-shirt (often striped, well, hooped, technically), jeans/cords and a moptop.  Certainly a fringe.  That was about it.  It wasn’t a complicated look, unlike some of the other tribes who tended to hang around at Spiders.  Goths were, by far, the most elaborately attired.  There was a lot of lace and leather, but especially accessorising going on: lots of bangles, beads, crucifixes, earrings, fancy arsed gloves and all that.  Their makeup must have taken a long time, too.  Some of the goth lads wore dresses from time to time which was an eye opener, but it was Spiders and anything – more or less – went.

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Goths, Spiders.  Look at them.  Cute as buttons, ain’t they?  I’m not joking, I think they’re ace.  The girl on the right isn’t actually a goth which she’s signalling by wearing her sleeveless Cramps t shirt.  She’s a sort of half arsed psychobilly, with a mild goth crossover which you can tell because of her crucifixes and her hair is down, as opposed to bequiffed.  Spiders may have had its own personal hole in the ozone layer.

Anyway, the point is, in 1989, in the subculture that was Spiders, there were lots of sub-sub-cultures, many of them also part of ‘students’, as Townies would have described them, regardless of whether they were studying anything formally.  Within a couple of years, that was all gone, replaced by a sort of homogenous ‘alternative’ type.  Not entirely, of course, but mainly.  That homogenous type also largely conformed to what was then known as ‘student’.

As far as I’m concerned, the cause death for those sub-sub-cultures was, to put it in evolutionary terms, that the tribe known as ‘indie kids’ experienced a mutation in 1989, the effect of which was the equivalent of introducing cane toads into Australia: they prospered at the expense of everything else and multiplied very quickly.  The mutation was The Stone Roses, especially ‘Fools Gold’.  Whether that’s a good thing or not depends on your perspective, I suppose.

Diversion – The Non-Alternative 1980s – Late

When I left school, I was interested in finding out what a nightclub was.  I’d heard of them but, as my parents were the last people you’d find in a nightclub, I only really had what I’d seen on ‘The Professionals’ or ‘The Sweeney’ to go on.

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Here’s Bodie from The Professionals in a Newcastle nightclub in 1981.  Look at his wing collars, the great Herbert.  It’s like punk never happened.  Which, frankly, I’m not convinced it really did outside of about fifty people in London and Manchester.  Oh and two teenagers in every city in England who were laughed at by people wearing flared trousers.  Ironically, those same people would laugh at anti-conformists like me who wore flared kegs in the late 1980s once they’d caught up with the new wave/punk straight trouser leg.

In my mind’s eye, nightclubs were extraordinarily glamorous places.  Mainly black and dark, but with smoked mirrors, glass tables and women with very 80s makeup carrying silver trays of fancy looking cocktails around.  Dance floors, I assumed, would light up when you stood on them, like in Saturday Night Fever.  I thought, more or less, they were part of the world suggested by the front cover of ‘For Your Pleasure’, by Roxy Music and would somehow sound like the record of ‘Baker Street’ by Gerry Rafferty.  Dead classy, you know?

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Roxy Music’s ‘For Your Pleasure’ Gatefold: in real life, it’s the shiniest lp sleeve you’ve ever held.  Check out Bryan Ferry pretending he’s some jolly chauffeur.  The fox hunting twat.

The first nightclub I ever went to was called ‘LA’s’ on Ferensway in town, next to the bus station.  I went with Webbo, Nobber and some kids who they worked with on their YTS placements.

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LA’s girls, surrendering.  To the beat.  Or something.  There’re some funny looks on those faces, aren’t there?  Look at the girl with the black cardio on.  Is that delight?  Horror?  Or what?  Maybe they’re doing the YMCA dance.  Fuck knows.  Whatever it is, they ought to stop it.

Before we went to LA’s, we went round town, which I’d also never done – not to pubs, anyway.  The pubs we went in were, with hindsight, total shitholes.  Rough arsed places.  The White Horse, Bass House, Stones House and Cheese.  All of them have shut down now, except Cheese, and that’s nothing like it was then having, as it now does, an actual tiled floor instead of sawdust on bare planks of wood.  I shit you not.  It was like the Wild West.

Not being a drinker, really, I got quite drunk, quite quickly and found it a bit of a pain in the arse, going to all these different places to go and stand in front of big, hard-looking older blokes who held court in whichever one they’d decided was their personal domain.  Mainly I kept my mouth shut.  We didn’t sit down all night and spent about fifteen minutes in each pub, which meant we drank a lot of beer.

Once in LA’s, I realised pretty quickly that my mental image of nightclubs as glamorous, enticing and decadent places bore no resemblance at all to the reality.  At least in LA’s.  And definitely not Spiders, later.  LA’s was like a vast,  already dilapidated B&Q kitchen from 1985 that had been melted into a nightclub at the hands of a demented Rod Hull whilst experiencing a long, alternating comedown and sugar rush.  The carpet was tacky in more ways than one.

Spiders didn’t even have a carpet, it was a stone slab floor with lots of tiny alcoves, partitioned off by wrought iron spider webs containing plastic chairs or wooden picnic tables.  If anything, it was as if a man eating spider had decided that the best form of web it could build to attract supple, tasty, essentially non-violent young people – and some plus sized goths – would be to weave a building made of materials exclusively found in an out of town garden centre and fill it with mixed up alcohol and strawberry milk.  It was mainly very dark, with the odd red light here and there.  The dance floors had some lights, but not many.  Goths were a bit like the opposite of moths in terms of attraction/repulsion to light.  Speaking of which, if moths dig the light so much, why don’t they come out during the daytime?

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Spiders: wrought iron cobwebs and alcoves.  More Garden centre than common or garden.  There’s been some hairspray used, by the looks of things.  This shows, mainly, the rockabilly/psychobilly area – check out the harsh side partings and shaved undercuts, the bum freezer jackets and vertiginous hair dos.  Nice bit of snogging going on, on the seats to the left – the lad’s definitely a psychobilly, with his jaunty cap, the girl, it’s hard to tell.  Also note the relatively normal haircut on the girl whose back is to the camera towards the bottom left.  However, my personal favourite person in this photograph is Lurch, holding his right arm with his left hand.  I think I enjoy him because of the stunned look on his face.

Anyway, the music played at all these pubs and LA’s was uniformly horrible.  It was chart music.  A lot of Eurythmics, as I remember.  And The Thompson Twins for Christ’s sake.

I went a couple of times and, to be honest, it was a bit hairy.  One of our lot was beaten up every time we went in town – not an extended kicking, but two or three fast, hard punches to the face.  And that didn’t seem out of the ordinary to anybody except me, who was evidently far more keen on not getting a pasting on a Friday or Saturday night than my mates.   After the fights, if you could call any of them that, it was even more weird because both sets of people would then just start chatting, as if nothing had happened, blood staining their shitty Sydney Youngblood khaki shirts and silk, kipper ties.

Appreciating that, sooner or later, it was going to be me on the receiving end of some violent pisshead’s fists, I decided that I’d seen enough of town, knocked it on the head and went back to what I’d done on the weekends when I was at school, which was going to my mate’s house whose parents were in the Caravan Club and were out all weekend, every weekend.  We watched films, boozed a bit and had a nice time with people who were unlikely to lamp you without, seemingly, any particular trigger.

Once I’d started work at Trading Standards and met Sarah, she told me she went to Spiders, Silhouette and, sometimes, Welly and I could go to those places with her if I fancied, which I did.

End of Diversion.

Spiders, Silhouette and Welly were very different from what we called Townie nightclubs.  You don’t hear that anymore, do you?  Townies.  I suppose the less pleasant Chav superseded it.  While I’d learned that Townie nightclubs like LA’s bore absolutely no resemblance to the front cover of ‘For Your Pleasure’ or what I’d been led to expect from violent police series of the late 1970s and early 80s.  In a way, I think maybe those clubs also thought that they had a touch of class, in that they all had dress codes: no trainers, no t shirts, that sort of thing.  A bit like school uniform.

Diversion – School Uniform.

The idea is that school uniforms stop richer kids taking the piss out of kids who wouldn’t be able to afford expensive, fashionable clothes.  Also, it’s a bit like ‘The Fly’ with Jeff Goldbloom, who had a wardrobe consisting of exactly the same sets of clothes so he didn’t have to waste any brain power on thinking about what to wear that day.  You know, if it’s a school day, you’re going to be wearing your school uniform, so that’s one less thing to worry about.  Focus the mind, you know.  Mind you, I’ve taught girls who told me that they got up at half past five in the morning so that they can paint their eyebrows on, so maybe it’s not a perfect system.

And that’s what happens, isn’t it?  Kids – and adults – will find some way of expressing something by subtly subverting their uniforms.  We used to tie our ties the wrong way around.  I mean, we’d have the thinnest bit showing and the wider bit tucked inside our shirts because wide, kipper ties weren’t cool.

Which is what I mean.  Tell people they have to do this, that or the other and they’ll spend their time thinking about how to subvert it.

It’s a bit like a really minor version of the war on drugs – it’s not going to work, so maybe we ought to accept that and stop pretending it is.  Still, that’s me.

The other thing that girls used to do at the schools I went to as a kid was, generally, make their skirts shorter than they were supposed to.  At one of the schools I went to, if the head of house thought that a girl’s skirt was too short, they’d make them kneel down on the floor and, if the hem didn’t touch the floor, they’d get detention and have to sort it out.  Usually, they’d just rolled it up, so it was easy.

Anyway, I don’t care what kids wear to school, personally, so long as they’re wearing something.  If girls are wearing short skirts, I don’t find it off putting or anything.  I’m not really sure why I would.  If you can’t stop yourself gawping at girls because you can see their legs, maybe you ought to work at it a bit harder.  What about older women with visible legs?  Can people not hold a conversation with them either?

I put it down to being raised in the eighties and being in with an alternative crowd which was, to its credit, a lot more tuned into the idea of having a bit of respect for, well, differences in general, really.  Nobody batted an eyelid at what you might now call the gender fluid, homosexuality and anybody else who didn’t fit in with the status quo.  And not talking at girls’s tits.

End of Diversion.

So, I went to Spiders every weekend with Sarah and it was good.  Better than LA’s anyway.  There wasn’t any violence at all.  Well, almost never.  Even though all those sub-sub-cultures were all together in one building.   Maybe that’s why they were all together, I don’t know, but it was alright.  There was a certain amount of snideness directed from one lot to another but it was exclusively verbal, or sometimes just mildly mucky looks.

However, it wasn’t to last all that long because, as I intimated earlier, The Stone Roses happened.

When The Stone Roses’ album came out in April 1989, it wasn’t like Definitely Maybe which it seemed instantly to have a big effect on the youth of the time, it happened pretty slowly at first with The Roses, and then built up steam so that, by the end of summer ’89, everybody had it, and everybody loved it.  Well, not everybody.  Not goths, really.  Not psychobillies or any of the rest of Spiders lot.  But a lot of Townies did.

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My friend Robbo in spiders, C.1990.  Not all that alternative, really.  This picture doesn’t do him any favours because he normally has quite a nice look on his face.

The clientele of Spiders subtly began to change.  The delicate equilibrium between the various tribes was irreparably changed.

The Stone Roses, despite being on Silvertone – not even really an indie label – happily explained that they didn’t care about being on an indie label.

“What difference does it make who pays for it?”  Ian Brown rhetorically asked Snub TV around the time of their album being released, “Indie or major?  They all hire pluggers, don’t they?”  

A revelation.  An indie kid who didn’t even care about being an indie kid.  Gasp.  Pointing the finger at all these independent labels who liked to pretend they were a bit like Robin Hood of the arts world.  Ian Brown called them all out for being capitalists.  I thought it was great.

The Smiths never actually made it into the Top 10 and they were the indie kings.  A lot of their singles never actually made it into the Top 40 at all and even they’d signed to EMI immediately before splitting up.  She Bangs The Drum did what you might call Primitives business – in for one week at number 34 and then out again, but even that surprised me.

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The Stone Roses on Top of The Pops.  Didn’t see it.  Knackered Transmitter.  Three more from them later.

Then in autumn came Fools Gold.  Straight in at number 13 – so far, they were the new Smiths.  Providing they dropped ninety places by the week after, everything would be normal for a very successful indie guitar band from Manchester. You know, like The Smiths had been.  But it didn’t.  The next week, it went up.  To number 8.  Happy Mondays were on Top of The Pops with them.  Not that I saw it because BBC conked out that night and I only saw a video of it a couple of years later.  I was pissed off.  All those hours when Howard Jones and that shirtless dick with the chains sticking out of his neck appeared with crystal clarity on Thursday nights…  I listened to it on the radio instead.  The presenter, Jackie Brambles said, “That’s The Stone Roses and they’ve got a new album out next spring,”  Even better!  Except they didn’t.

Spiders, by now, was about 70% populated by kids in baggy jeans – not much in the way of flares, but Hull’s always behind everywhere else.  Well, most of it.  I had some bottle green, flared jumbo cords that I lived and died in.  And a pair of 28″ bottom parallels that, if it was raining, could have killed me due to exposure.  Walking was pretty slow when those buggers were wet.  Anyway, you still got the odd goth and the rest of it, but the damage was done.

The Stone Roses became a genuinely big deal, especially in Spiders, Sil’s and Welly.  You’d even hear Fools Gold drifting out of some of the horrible pubs I’d managed to not get my head kicked in, in.  A lot of kids who, presumably like me, just didn’t know that there was an alternative to the mainstream and when they found out about it, got into it wholesale – like I had.

 

The major record labels realised that there was definitely money to made out of these Manc scally bands who the indie kids were going mad for and, all of a sudden, you couldn’t move for bands saying, “There’s always been a dance element to our music,” because Fools Gold had a sample of Hot Pants’ drumbeat propelling it and, as The Roses had broken indie, that’s what all the guitar bands started doing.  Even the fucking Soup Dragons got in on the act.  Other bands started cropping up and hitching a ride on the baggy bandwagon: The Charlatans, who’d been a bit of a mod band, The Farm, who’d just put nondescript crappy records out now put crappy records out with a sample of the Funky Drummer beat and got into the Top 10.  Even sodding Primal Scream, who were the least groovy band in the world, got on it, although through a remix of their (pretty good, actually) ballad, “I’m Losing More Than I’ll Ever Have”, which lost all the vocals, gained a baggy drumbeat and became “Loaded”, and Creation made the Top 40 after all those years.

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Bobby Gillespie, 1991: Doesn’t look all that different to the 1986 model, but it was.

And that’s what you heard at Spiders – baggy.  Not exclusively, of course.  There was quite a lot of sixties stuff too.

The major labels appeared to have hit pay dirt because a lot of these baggy bandwagon leapers actually made it onto Top of The Pops.  Personally, this all added up in my mind at least.  It added up because, when I was going all over the place to watch The Stone Roses in crowds of about twenty people, it felt like something was happening.  Like there was a musical revolution coming and The Roses were just the vanguard.  The crowds at Roses’ gigs grew enormously over about the space of a month and a half and it looked like it was happening.

It was happening.  I just thought it might evolved and keep happening, but it didn’t.  After The Stone Roses’ album and Fools Gold, it all went quiet and the baggy bands became a bit of joke by the time Candy Flip were putting out a cover of “Strawberry Fields Forever”, except with a baggy beat on it.

The Happy Mondays put out a good album – Pills, Thrills & Bellyaches and then disappeared up their own fundament.  Primal Scream brought out Screamadelica in 1991, but that was widely viewed as a ripoff because pretty much all of it had been out on singles from the past 18 months.  And that was about it for good ‘baggy’ albums.  Baggy became a bit of a joke.

And then Nirvana happened and Spiders turned into Grunge rock hell.  All the bandwagon hopping spandex metallers ditched their stack heels, blusher and hair crimpers for tatty student jumpers and started putting records out about adolescent angst, a bit like The Smiths’, but less shy.

And then the homogeneous indie kids from Spiders, and from clubs like Spiders up and down the country grew their fringes out into bleached blond, messy bobs, borrowed their sister’s eyeliner and started being all angsty and Seattle about everything because now the major record companies were signing every band they could find with a distortion pedal, badly fitting Dennis The Menace jumpers and even tenuous complaints about their parents making them tidy their rooms.  Nirvana were an even bigger deal than The Stone Roses had been.

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Kurt Cobain in ‘The Beano” The Musical.  Gnasher not pictured due to being in Frankie Goes To Hollywood.

But the damage had already been done to the alternative scene(s) in places like Spiders.  Now the goths and the psychobillies and the Earth Mothers weren’t around anymore, it was just a revolving cast of mainstream guitar bands who once would have slotted into one or the other of the tribes at Spid’s but who now were signed straight up by the majors and, crucially, expected to sell a lot of records and get in the proper charts.  Previously, the likes of The Soup Dragons and Silverfish would have been in the Independent chart, on Squirrel Records or whoever, selling 2000 records and that’d keep them going.

But once you were on MCA, RCA, EMI or some other major, selling 2000 records was going to get you dropped and, once these scenes died out, that’s what happened.  They were dropped like sweaty turds and there was no loyalty from the indie kids like they’d had from the Goths and the rest of the Spiders tribes because The Stone Roses achieved mainstream popularity.

Diversion – Fashion, Flair and Flares.

And that’s, I suppose, how fashion – in terms of a fairly rapid turnaround, as opposed to a sort of steady classicism – infiltrated the alternative scene.  Previously, you’d get newish Goth bands cropping up, but they still wore the same uniform that the goths had always worn.  Same for psychobilly bands – if they were going to be accepted into that little sub-sub-culture, they had to conform to what was already there.

The Stone Roses looked sort of like indie kids had always looked, but there were subtle differences.  Their clothes weren’t cheap on the whole, the flares were seen as sometimes an ephemeral thing and at other times a major thing.

I recall crossing the road in town one summer afternoon in my flared cords and these youngish kids who were waiting at the lights in their car gawped at me.  One of them shouted through their open window, “That kid’s wearing fucking flares!

And flares, in a way, were a big deal.  All the way through high school, occasionally the question would be asked, “If flares came back, would you wear them?”  And everybody said, “No!”  like they’d been asked if they’d shove their genitals into a mincer.  My mother would never buy me tight school trousers – Farahs – so I was always being accused of wearing flares anyway, so I just kept my mouth shut.

Flares, being influenced by the vagaries of fashion were, probably the first change in indie kid fashion since I don’t know when.  As I said, none of the other sub-sub-cultures’ fashions ever changed.

When I went to Spiders in my car, I had to keep a spare pair of straight trousers in the boot because the door policy wasn’t particularly consistent.  Having shed all of my inhibitions relating to conforming to traditional masculine gender roles, I’d bought a pair of candy striped bell bottoms from TopShop – a girls’ clothes shop – and wore those sometimes.  Sometimes I would be turned away because, “You’re not wearing those in here.”  So I’d have to go and change my bags in the street so I could get in.  The next week, I’d try again and sometimes they weren’t bothered and sometimes they were.

End of Diversion.

So yeah, The Stone Roses killed independent music, they killed the subcultures and the sub-sub-cultures by genuinely appealing to the masses.  Once there was one mass who were susceptible to changing fashions, it was all over.  It wasn’t their fault really.  It was when other indie bands decided they wanted a bit of commercial success and, having listened to Fools Gold, decided that the difference between their last single and The Roses’ was that drumbeat.

And it wasn’t.  That wasn’t the difference between their records and The Roses.  The difference between their records and The Roses was that The Stone Roses weren’t prepared to adopt the indie ethic of underachieving, mainly in terms of the quality of their records, as opposed to the quantity of records they sold.

Occasionally, I find myself thinking how surprised I am that The Beatles, probably, are the most successful band ever because they’re also the best.  I’m flummoxed by it, really.  I don’t expect the majority of the public to have what I’d consider to be good taste because, by and large, they seem to lap up all manner of shite.  Sometimes, the shittier, the better as far as I can gather.  But not always.  Sometimes, they’re bang on.  And that’s what confuses me.  How can you go from The Beatles to, I don’t know, Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Titch?  Maybe it’s not the same people buying them, I don’t know.  But I can’t get my head around it.

And that’s what I mean about populism.  It’s all very well, the likes of clever twats like me, saying that The Beatles are the best band and that the public got it right with them, but not with Renée and Renato, isn’t it?  But all that is, is me wanting to have my cake and eat it too.  When the public agree with me, they’ve had a moment of clarity, when they don’t, they’re fucking idiots?  Yeah, maybe.

I never wanted to be a goth, but I was glad they were around.  I liked all the little variations among the tribes that congregated in and around Spiders.  When they started dying off, I was mildly pleased because I thought I could pat myself on the back for backing the right horse.   Why?  Because people want to be right, don’t they?  They want to back the right horse.  And if they’re not right, at least with populism, they’re not wrong by themselves.  I know, I’ve been there.

Me?  Sometimes I’m a total moron and sometimes I’m not.  I’m one of the public.  Isn’t that a more likely reality?  The public are neither total morons, nor geniuses all the time. It depends what it’s about, it depends what you think and whether the majority agree with you, doesn’t it?  Sometimes they get it right, sometimes they don’t.  In the case of The Stone Roses, I thought it was a good thing, but maybe it wasn’t.  Maybe we should be wary of populism.  And elitism.  Because let’s face it, nobody knows what they’re talking about all the time, do they?

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