Diary. Sunday 25th July 2004
I’m standing in a Capability Brown landscaped field in the middle of Surrey at nine o’clock in the evening. It’s Sunday the 25th July 2004 and we’re supposed to be at the peak of the long, hot British summer. So far, apart from a few days of sunshine, the weathers been a wash out. Hopefully tonight will be different. I’ve been waiting for this night for months, if not for years. But you never can tell.
This is Claremont Gardens near Esher, once the home of Clive of India and a childhood playground to Queen Victoria. I’m here to see former Stone Roses singer Ian Brown who’s performing his biggest concert of the year in association with the National Trust who now own the gardens, though not the house. The setting is idyllic – the crowd tiered on the steep grass amphitheatre designed by Charles Bridgeman in around 1722, with the small covered stage flanked by two Cedar trees and backed by a mirror-flat ornamental lake.
Long-time Brown collaborator Aziz Ibrahim (the man who took John Squire’s place on guitar during the disintegration of the Roses and has since co-written a number of Brown’s solo material) has not long since left the stage after doing a solo (mostly instrumental) performance with a percussionist – known amongst the crowd as ‘Dave’- including the full length version of the song which eventually became the introduction to Brown’s ‘Getting High’. Apologizing for not playing the main show with Brown he gives a hint as to what is coming next, saying: ‘Let’s leave the Roses songs to them who wrote ’em.’
It was a uniquely intimate performance with Aziz dazzling on an array of acoustic guitars, playing with his teeth and bringing weird sounds as he loops the effect created by tapping the jack plug on the pickups. Before leaving the stage Aziz says: I dont know if Ill ever get my record out, but its been a privilege to play them to you tonight.
Were now eagerly awaiting Browns arrival as roadies put final touches to the stage.
Brown is well on his way to becoming a British institution. In 1989 the Stone Roses were another in a long line of bands hailed as the next Beatles. But for once all the hype was backed up by an album that delivered all it promised. And so for a time that summer (three weeks according to Brown in a 2000 interview with the Guardian) the Roses were IT.
And then came the long hiatus before the second album, which on the face of it, and at a time when other bands were leaping on the 60s bandwagon seemed somehow a disappointment. Arguments inside the band followed, Reni left, and a disastrous appearance at the 1996 Reading Festival brought the Stone Roses to an un-satisfying and incomplete end.
Following this public collapse at the height of Brit Pop in the mid-nineties a time when the Roses should have been reaping the rewards of the seeds theyd sown Browns profile has remained largely good. But at the time expectations regarding any subsequent solo career werent high, and initially Brown looked set to prove the critics right as he slid into semi-obscurity and found himself skint and without a career in a Warrington council flat. Three serious beatings in 95, 96 and 97 compounded matters, and Brown looked set to become yet another casualty of popular music.
Despite the release of the low-fi offering Unfinished Monkey Business (1998) on which he played almost all of the instruments, matters seemed to be continuing downwards, and Brown reached a nadir when he was jailed for air rage in the Autumn of that year after arguing with cabin crew on a flight from Paris to Manchester regarding a Curly Wurly. Brown spent three months inside HMP Strangeways in his adopted home city of Manchester (Brown was born and spent the first six years of his life in nearby Warrington), where he converted to Islam largely in order to avoid the dog food style meat that the prisoners were served up at meal times and secure himself chicken, and though his accounts of his time inside occasionally seem stereotypical, and almost conjure up images of Burt Reynolds in Mean Machine, he came out leaner and somehow with a renewed focus and his profile underlined.
He now has three solo albums to his credit the already mentioned Unfinished Monkey Business was followed by Golden Greats (1999), and The Music of the Spheres (2001). Each album has progressed Browns individual musical persona. Shuffling, looping break-beats, quasi-mystical lyrics and big choruses. A long-awaited new album is in the pipeline with hopes that itll be released before the end of the year.
And, looking back, the Stone Roses are held in higher esteem than ever before, with their debut album listed recently by the Observer as the best British album of all time, and even the hulking leviathan that is the Second Coming LP is starting to be re-appraised more favourably.
Browns status seems assured.
The gates opened at 5:30PM and the weathers just about holding.
The stage suddenly darkens as Lalo Schifrins theme to Enter the Dragon fades out and figures appear (the intermission tracks have mostly been classic reggae, including Bob Marleys Trenchtown rock, two Beatles tracks Tomorrow never knows and Back in the U.S.S.R. some drum and bass, plus a bit of Shaun Ryder). Theres a big cheer which rises as the bass rumbles into life and to the surprise of the audience, I wanna be adored rolls out over the summer night. Brown swaggers onto the centre of the stage as the lights come up dumping a retro-styled shoulder bag by the drum kit.
He mooches round the stage, nodding his head to the beat.
He looks good.
Were the culture set now, yeah? he shouts out, gesturing to the surroundings.
Notorious for his off-key singing, I await the first note with a degree of trepidation.
Mimicking Squires spidery guitar work, the lone guitarist walks out over the bass as the kick drum builds the beat. And then Brown launches.
On record his voice holds a sort of Northern cool and swaggers over the music, live at his best theres a terrace chant about it. At its worst it is fascinatingly off-key.
Tonight the tune holds and he sings to the faithful. The crowd straightens up and readies itself to be amazed all over again. Its going to be OK. The weather will hold. Ians singing is on the money.
The backing band are tight bassist and guitarist from an Aberdeen-based Stone Roses tribute band, Fools Gold plus Browns usual drummer together with Sikh percussionist Inder Goldfinger dressed to the nines and looking like something straight out of Rudyard Kiplings Kim.
Brown holds his microphone aloft, singing and exhibiting his trademark walking on the spot dance, singing: I dont have to sell my soul.
The crowd cant quite believe it. Hes actually singing Stone Roses songs live for the first time in almost a decade.
I wanna be adored thunders to a close. Brown asks: Have you got any requests?
Someone near the front shouts something, Brown angles forward, cupping his ear. He nods, then turning to the guitarist gives the word. A pause, and a moment later the jangly opening to Sally Cinnamon fills the countryside.
And so the time flies by. For the next fifty minutes the crowd are treated to almost the entire first Stone Roses album plus the B-Sides Mersey Paradise (Have you moved to Liverpool?) and Where angels play. Amazingly so because no one anticipated this as Brown well knew, you were expecting these tunes, right? This was a solo gig. There was some flakey, stoned idiot in the crowd whod whisper, nudge nudge, wink wink, to anyone prepared to listen that this was a lo-key gig to herald the reformed Roses and that Squire, Mani and Reni would be there on stage with Brown when the lights went up. No one believed him and I wanted to stab him in the eye. I wasnt even expecting to hear more than the ghost of Fools gold at the end of Love like a fountain as hed done in his gigs in 2000.
But tonight Brown is a man seemingly at ease with his own legend. A fan passes across a navy blue old skool Adidas tracksuit top with a stencil of Bruce Lee on the front. Brown eases it on, then swings his arms King Monkey style. The floppy bucket hats beloved of Reni in 89 and 90 are tossed to him, and he obliges by donning them and doing his take on the moonwalk.
Brown teases: Last Roses tune, yeah? And a moment later the guitar ripples into Waterfall, Brown in fine dancing form.
Where angels play draws to a finish and Brown moves to the front left of the stage.
Lets see how quiet you can get, just for two seconds, yeah? The English summer evening huddles around the proceedings, the lake behind lit by green light. The moment pauses. After three. One, two, three.
Theres a big cheer and Brown shakes his head.
See if you can hold the silence, yeah? After three, yeah? Anyone who opens there mouth gets thrown out, he says, the Mancunian accent coming through loud and clear, One, remember keep it nice and quiet, yeah, two, three.
He counts down again.
A set of wankers continue to scream.
Someones going to get their head kicked in a minute, Brown warns pointing into the crowd.
Turning away, Brown shakes his head again. Youve got no vibe, he declares before opening into Elizabeth, my dear.
At times the gig could so easily come dangerously close to simply watching a Stone Roses tribute band, and really you need the rest of the original Roses there to bring home just how good it is to hear Brown sing these songs today. But Ill take what I can get, and tonight Brown is on form far better than many of his gigs with the rest of the Roses back in the days of Madchester when the 1990s were still full of promise.
Brown triumphantly brandishes his tambourine, at times almost like a weapon. Theres an air of return about this performance.
As if Brown suddenly knows where he fits.
I know the truth and I know what youre thinking, Brown announces as Fools gold shudders to a conclusion. The bass player and guitarist leave the stage, the drummer and percussionist remaining, and its time for the solo stuff.
For this Brown reverts to backing tracks and gives what is largely a karaoke performance. But this is serious karaoke. Suddenly a NASA sample cuts through the air and we all know whats coming. Space exploration, an excursion to the stars, on a military mission, on a military journey to Mars. Ill see you in my star… As Brown sings a ‘plane on its way from Heathrow flashes its navigation lights behind a thin veil of cloud in the darkening sky overhead. It all slips into place.
Next comes If dolphins were monkeys, and then the best song of the night: the monumental F.E.A.R. from The Music of the spheres.
Strangely more of the crowd seem to be singing along to the post-Roses songs.
The final song of the night is a new one, Time is my everything, from the forthcoming album, with a live trumpeter (from Groove Armada) who goes into little dances like King Monkey himself.
And the music concludes to a massive cheer.
Brown picks up his shoulder bag and looks at his watch. Weve hit curfew, so Ill love you and leave you.
A wave and hes gone again.
I once met a man from County Durham who on a questionnaire listed his heroes as William Blake, Lenin, and Ian Brown. Bill and Vlad werent in bad company.