About Ian Brown
Every prophet must get stoned.
I first met Ian Brown twenty years ago. The Stone Roses were the next door band in the rehearsal space we shared and next door neighbours in the bohemian bedsit land of West Didsbury in Manchester.
We thought they looked pretty handy and they thought we were nutters. Even then they carried themselves with a supreme confidence, a confidence that belied the fact that they even played a gig yet. Turned out they were the nicest bunch of people in town, easy going and armed with a swagger that was born of hard work, self belief and a raw talent that they were refining even then, back in 1984.
Fired by punk rock, they had the intensity of Johnny Rotten’s staring eyes tempered with a love of psychedelia and classic guitar pop, a grounding in scooter clubs, northern soul and early Eighties street music – a street cred that was a million miles away from the poseur Manchester city centre cliques. The Stone Roses were coming into the music scene from a very different angle than that of their contemporaries. Ian Brown was the leader of the pack, self assured and cool, the frontman for a gang of droogs who had a crazy amount of talent at their fingertips.
We all know what happened next: they struggled along for a couple of years undimmed by being ignored, unblemished by the whims of fashion and then suddenly flowered into the band of the moment. The signposts are imprinted on a generational consciousness: Manchester International, Blackpool, THAT debut album, Ally Pally, Spike Island, ‘Fools Gold’ and then they disappeared for five years into the wilderness of the Welsh mountains and watched what seemed like every band in the UK take their template and turn it into a career.
By the time they returned with the seriously underrated ‘Second Coming’ they had been overtaken by their fans fronting new bands. They did a world tour and fell apart before they took America. In many ways it was one of those perfect rock n roll journeys:, fire up a generation, inspire the people and then burn out.
For many it looked like the story was over for Ian Brown. Most people expected him to disappear, the Stone Roses being a tough act to follow. What do you do when you’ve been the iconic frontman of the most influential British band of your generation?
Well you go home and do some gardening, shrug your shoulders with a nonchalant cool and ignore the banal chatter of the music biz. But when Manc guitar ace Aziz comes knock-knock knocking on your door armed with some great guitar riffs you get the hunger again, dig the old porta-studio out of the loft, get inspired and start writing songs.
Ian Brown put together a solo album which he produced himself and played some instruments on, learning as he went along. Bagged it up with a great album cover photo that spat attitude and humour. With a tongue firmly in cheek, he called it ‘Unfinished Monkey Business’, a smirking rebuke to the King Monkey nickname affectionately bestowed on him by the drummer from Dodgy, referencing that loose-limbed gait that Brown had copyrighted and had been copied by droves of teenagers searching for that elusive rock star cool. One of them, a certain Liam G, even made it his own for a time.
The very rough and ready nature of the ‘Unfinished Monkey Business’ album is what makes it work. It sounds like a work in progress, a musical diary of a stubborn northern icon sat in the wilderness, a sonic blog of a musical maverick learning as he goes along with that great northern ‘like it or lump it’ attitude that has underscored all the greatest Manchester music. ‘Monkey Business’ was all stuttering beats and rough hewn songs and somehow it worked. Surrounded by over produced records, it was a reaction to the five years spent air brushing the last Roses album in expensive studios. ‘Monkey Business’ was a back-to-the-roots trip, recorded in a valve studio with a breath of fresh air, and underlined a streak of wilful originality in Ian Brown. It was also a neat escape route from the heady guitar anthems of The Roses into a whole new area of music that gave Brown plenty of new creative options.
Instead of re-treading Roses history – the classic guitar pop that made everybody swoon – Ian was messing with beats, samples, eastern flavours and mashing it all together. He once said ‘It’s not where your from it’s where your at’ and he was now living that maxim through his music which was experimental and personal and armed with great idiosyncratic lyrics like on ‘My Star’ which took a dig at the US space programme as a cover for their military activity. Built round one of Aziz’s classic cascading guitar riffs and Simon Moore’s great drumming, the song was a brilliant debut single and set the stall perfectly for an album that was as stuffed full of great hooks as moments of homemade originality.
Freed from the Roses, Ian Brown was going to take his music were he wanted to. Surrounded by a crack team of musicians and the coolest-looking bunch of multi ethnic punks to ever wander around the Top Of The Pops studio, this was very much a modern operation. If Ian wanted to swerve off and make a track with UNKLE then that was up to him, and if the track was the perfect marriage of beats and that husky lived-in Brown voice, then that was even better. The fact that the first time Ian heard the song on the radio was in the D wing of Strangeways prison kinda tells you what happened next: the infamous air rage bust which saw him banged up on the flimsiest of charges.
The jail stretch didn’t embitter him and the second solo album, ‘Golden Greats’, is a refined version of the debut with slicker production and yet more great beats and classic songwriting meshed in with cool eccentricity and mystic inventiveness. The music was pretty well a mash-up of styles from neo-acid house, groovy beats and occasional riffing guitars – like those great Manchester eclectic record collections of legend. ‘Love Like A Fountain’ is solo Brown perfection, the simplest of grooves and a mantra-like vocal. Simple, off-the-wall, original and stubbornly Brown, it was a great calling card for the album. The follow up single ‘Dolphins Were Monkeys’ was the sort of gruff originality that has to be celebrated when it swaggers to the upper reaches of the charts. Ian’s Top Of The Pops performance was a magical moment, featuring as it did a cameo appearance from Paul Ryder of The Happy Mondays on bass, a doff of the cap to the genre-defining moment when the Mondays and the Roses appeared on the same TOTP show some years previously. Lyrically it was quite special. Inspired by a trip to the Natural History Museum, Brown looked at the evolutionary theory that dolphins had once been land-based monkey-like animals that had gone back to the sea whilst going off on a few other lyrical tangents. Try putting that into a three minute pop song into the charts! He did.
By the time Ian got to ‘Music Of The Spheres’ he was firmly established as a solo singer, Easily knocking back the endless requests for a Roses reunion with more great songs of his own. He had his own sound nailed – more shuffling beats, bits of guitar, loping grooves and his gruff proud vocals – this time a touch more laid back. Opening track ‘F.E.A.R.’ is a lyrical and musical tour de force with those mystic religious hints so beloved by the Brownman. On other songs the usual targets are addressed in anti-coke culture lyrics, a song sung in Spanish inspired by his Mexican wife and all the other pure Brown touches here and there that show that Ian has long since wandered from the Mersey paradise of his Roses days. The groove is deeper and the voice a touch gentler but the atmosphere is still intriguing.
Hot on the heels of the album was ‘Remixes Of the Spheres’ which featured some great reworking of the Spheres album, some of the tunes arguably better in their new form than the original.
The culmination of all this toil was 2004’s ‘Solarized’, his best solo outing yet. It managed to retain the homemade innocence of his earlier releases but with a big sound and flavours from all over the world – parping Mexican Mariachi horns sat next to chumky riffs and loose, danceable beats. It sounded quite unlike anything else around and, in a music scene where everyone plays spot the reference point, that is no mean achievement. Noel Gallagher dropped into the studio to play guitar and pay tribute to the ace face who kicked off the whole scene on ‘Keep What Ya Got’ and there is much lyrical anger that shows the punk rock heart is still beating away with an anti-ID card song. The mood switches from dark to celebratory, every song has so many flavours, those Mariachi horns pop up again to give ‘Time Is My Everything’ the epic kind of feel enjoyed by Arthur Lee’s genius Love at their late Sixties peak. Brown was wearing his Madchester mystic crown with aplomb. His gigs may not have been in football stadiums but they were packed with people who just KNEW. The kind of heads who had travelled the same sort of long and weird path as the singer who was articulating a generation’s quest with a semi-stoned sermon on the mount guttural voice. A voice that sounded lived-in and sounded honest, real and raw like all great vocals should do.
This has been a fascinating quest- a solo career forced upon a singer, an icon of a generation with no interest in the role, the last great maverick British rock star who has brought his audience with him to some weird and wild sounding places. He is the man who launched a thousand laid-back walks and countless haircuts and even made flared kecks look cool. He has wandered a million miles away from his past but is cool enough to get away with revisiting it by recently adding Stone Roses classics to his set.
Ian Brown wasn’t meant to be a solo artist, he was the man in the band as a gang remember, but he’s nonchalantly made his solo status his own. The down-to-earth mystic Manc revolutionary, the Bible and Koran-reading former frontman who could have been in the biggest band in the world. The reluctant figurehead of the last great street rock n roll scene in the UK and a solo artist with a back catalogue of cutting edge music that somehow ties all these strands together with a brilliantly original collection of songs.
Ian Brown is unique, an original and a true musical icon.
Long live Ian Brown.
Long live the greatest.
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