Live Night & Day (Mail On Sunday Magazine)
21st May 2006
THE TRACKS OF MY YEARS
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What do you get for making one of the best albums of all time? After The Stone Roses' debut triumph, rock legend Ian Brown got musician's block, a council house and two months in Strangeways. Interview by Piers Hernu
There are three universal truths governing a thirty or fortysomething's music collection. One: the bottom row will consist of a vast slab of vinyl - Led Zeppelin IV, Dylan, bootleg Hendrix from a street market - that you cannot bear to part with, even though you now have it all on CD and your Rega Planar 3 turntable has not had a viable cartridge since 1993. Two: after surviving your squalor years in glorious anarchy, it will be arranged neatly in alphabetical order, one of your partner's non-negotiable conditions of co-habitation. And three: it cannot be a collection at all without the lemon slice and Jackson Pollock-speckled cover of The Stone Roses, by The Stone Roses.
Released in 1989, the wish of the Roses' lead singer, Ian Brown, clearly set out in the album's opening track I Wanna Be Adored, came true with astonishing speed when the combination of his yearning vocals and guitarist John Squire's Sixties-style hooks and melodies kick-started an entirely new genre in British music. The album is voted on a monthly basis as the best British album ever recorded - it was there again at the top of last month's NME annual poll. It was also the first and last decent work the band produced in their tumultuous existence.
Despite selling three million copies, The Stone Roses' massive royalties were spirited away through fraud, theft and contractual court cases, and Brown's world collapsed publicly and acrimoniously when the band disintegrated. First, the drummer left and then, most hurtfully, Brown's soulmate and songwriting partner Squire quit the band by phone. Angry and embittered, Brown withdrew from the public eye with few people rating his chances of survival in the music industry. And then, when he did manage to get back into the studio years later, he was promptly jailed for air rage and spent two months in Strangeways, the prison in whose shadow he had grown up.
With that kind of history, it's difficult to reconcile that image with the 43-year-old stepping out of the back of a taxi in north London. He cuts a humble figure and is chatty, polite and attentive. His trademark mop of dark hair, prominent cheekbones and permanent pout speak to a rock god from the past, but there's no hint of menace or resentment at his spectacular fall from grace. Rather, he appears every inch the successful, drug-free, drink-free, happily married family man he has - rather improbably - become.
We make our way to a photographic studio near Camden Market where he is being photographed for Live. Once he is at ease, his angular frame sprawled along a leather sofa, I tell him it's hard to imagine him in his darkest day - broke and living in rented accommodation in Warrington in 1996. He pauses as if to consider the question - he is pensive and reflective, in contrast to the impetuous wild man of legend.
'I had two sons in a council flat and no money to raise them,' he finally says in a broad Mancunian accent. 'People would knock on my door at midnight and tell me I was a legend, and I wondered how they could. I used to tell them, if you really do love me, please leave me alone.
'The band had been together for 12 solid years and ended up being signed to a big American label, Geffen, but still I ended up living like that. I never had self-doubt. But after all the bullshit, I certainly didn't have any inclination or will to work in music. I wanted the simple life. I wanted to grow flowers and take them to the market, like my granddad had done before the War. I've always thought that would be a beautiful honourable way to live.'
After a bleak period of soul-searching, it was his fans who pointed the way forward. 'Kids on the street would say to me, "You're Ian Brown, make some music!", and it got me thinking. After a few months I regained my love for music making.' He clawed his way back into the studio in 1997 with a new deal, but promptly hit four brick walls: the inside of a cell at Strangeways.
He can't talk about the air-rage incident that resulted in his imprisonment without a visible display of bitterness and outrage. 'I was flying home on British Airways in first class from Paris with four black friends, two Asians and a couple of white kids, and our stewardess was not best pleased. She was obviously used to white middle-class guys with suits and ties.
'Being teetotal I'd had nothing to drink, but when she brought round the duty free she waved her hand dismissively at me, which was rude, so I challenged her. She apologised and I said flippantly, "Do it again and I'll chop it off." She didn't seem to mind but ten minutes later the captain came flying out of the cockpit to have a go, and when I got off the plane the police were waiting for me. I was let out on bail but there was a genuine air-rage incident in Spain just before my court date, which put the subject in the news. They wanted to make an example of me. I was a free advertisement for BA, which needed to show they were enforcing the new laws.'
He pauses for a moment. 'I'd mentioned Strangeways' tower in one of our early Roses songs because it's such a menacing feature of Manchester's skyline. I always used to wonder what it was like inside. When I got to find out, I thought, "Now why the fuck did you wonder that?"
'I got the same sentence as Gary Glitter: four months. He had 4,000 images of babies being tortured and abused on his computer and I got the same. And as far as I know I'm the only Category-D prisoner that had to serve his full sentence in a Category-A prison.
'I expected some in there to try and knock me out just so they could brag about punching a celebrity but I was treated beautifully by the lads inside. I had five different cellmates, all heroin addicts who used to buy Kit Kats, give me the chocolate and keep the foil wrappers so that they could chase the dragon. I used to have to watch them doing it every night, and I learned that prison is full of kids from homes who have had no love and have been dumped on the street at 16 with no one to look after them. They're from the poorest areas of the city and they end up becoming institutionalised.'
In a bizarre dénouement to his prison experience, exactly one year after his incarceration and on the eve of the new millennium, Brown took the stage in front of a crowd of 20,000 ecstatic fans at an open-air gig on the outskirts of Manchester - and relished the view.
'I could see the Strangeways tower from the stage and it was the most amazing and satisfying feeling I've ever had. Sometimes the best revenge you can have is success.'
While he admits to smoking 'the odd spliff', Brown is vehemently against hard drugs, singling out cocaine in particular, which he calls 'the Devil's dandruff'. He hates that it is rife in the music industry.
'I've met Pete Doherty. He's a lovely, talented lad. But I'd advise him to keep off Class-A drugs because it doesn't matter how big you are, they will take you down. People start taking cocaine to give them extra confidence and energy but they end up needing it every time they go out. Six months later, they're a hollow shell. I've seen so many great lads dropping like flies around me. The vibe people give off when they're on it is not a love thing; it's like an icy wind.'
I tell him I'm surprised he doesn't even drink. 'My public persona is this northern lad but I've never drunk a can of beer, and I haven't had a pint since 1980. I think that would surprise people.'
Brown has been teetotal since December 1999, the same year he married Mexican wife Fabiola, the mother of his youngest son, to whom, despite the temptations of touring, he maintains he is rigorously faithful. He lives with her and their son Emilio, and at the weekends they are joined by his two sons from a previous partner. He clearly adores all of them.
'Emilio is six on Sunday - he's the Latin me,' he beams, 'Casey is ten and-a-half and my blue-eyed double. And my oldest, Frankie, is 14 in two weeks. They're all much cleverer and far cooler than me.'
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Today, Brown is riding high on the back of a successful solo career, which spans four critically acclaimed albums that have produced a string of hits, such as My Star, his debut single, Dolphins Were Monkeys and his most creative and best-loved work, F.E.A.R. (Bizarrely, he can also be spotted in the opening scenes of the Harry Potter film The Prisoner Of Azkaban, in which, as a wizard, he magically makes a cup of tea stir itself while reading Stephen Hawking's A Brief History Of Time. 'I'm a friend of its director Alfonso Cuarón, and he asked me if I fancied doing it,' says Brown. 'I've got three kids so I couldn't turn him down.') Last September saw the release of his greatest hits package The Greatest, which has sold more than 300,000 copies. Finally, it would appear, he is making good with his remarkable life.
Born in Warrington, Brown moved to south Manchester at the age of four when his father, a joiner, and mother, a receptionist, sought work there. He lived on the same street as his eventual musical partner, Squire.
After passing his 11-plus, Brown went Altrincham Grammar School (which Brown's son Frankie attends today). Schoolwork, however, came a poor second to music. 'I couldn't get into revision. The summer nights were too tempting. Plus, we had bands like The Clash, who I went to see the night before my Geography and Maths O-level…'
After leaving school at 16 with three O-levels he found work at a local hotel as a kitchen porter. He never considered making music a career until a chance meeting with a soul legend, Geno Washington.
'It was 1983 and I was at somebody's 21st birthday party in Manchester when suddenly in walks Geno Washington, the guy Dexy's Midnight Runners sang about in Geno. We got talking and he told me he thought I had star quality and that I should start singing immediately. In those days in Manchester, being a singer was thought of as effeminate, but my friend John Squire had been asking me to sing for his band for months so I suddenly thought why not? I suppose Geno spotted something in me that I hadn't spotted myself.'
It was during the next few formative months, when Brown was finding his feet as a singer, that he and Squire would frequent Corbieres Wine Cavern in Manchester, taking turns to play their favourite tracks on its jukebox.
'Corbieres was famous for having the best jukebox in town and I believe it still has. We'd hang out there with other new Manchester bands like The Happy Mondays and listen to classic songs. Ever since then I've always fancied owning one, but it's one of those things I haven't got round to buying… yet!'
He looks fondly at the Wurlitzer we found in Sheffield for our shoot, which can connect to an iPod. 'I remember in particular the tracks that inspired me to sing in those early days - Motown tracks such as Twenty Five Miles by Edwin Starr and I Want You Back by The Jackson Five.'
Brown used to have a reputation for being difficult, but he has matured into a dignified role model for youngsters. These days he's even happy to give them an autograph. 'I used to expend so much energy saying no because I wanted to put the message out that we're all the same whether we're on stage or digging roads. It was only after I'd been in the game for a few years that I realised people want to put you on a pedestal and have someone to look up to. Nowadays I'd rather make someone's day and sign an autograph than break their heart.'
Further evidence of Brown being at peace with the world emerged in 2004, when his live shows began to include a fair smattering of Stone Roses hits. With a massive pay packet in the offing, the almost annual rumours of The Stone Roses reforming (last year it was said they would play at Glastonbury) depend entirely on Brown's arctic relationship with Squire, who quit the band by phone ten years ago. Suprisingly, Brown reveals news of what could be construed as an olive branch. 'He actually sent me a backing track a few weeks ago,' says Brown, 'but that's the only contact I've had with him since 1996 - apart from a packet of Maltesers he sent me with a note telling me that he still loved me and that he hoped everything was cool. We always used to buy each other a box of Maltesers at Christmas...'
Brown's rift with his former best mate, with whom he spent the most creative and intense period of his life, clearly still affects him deeply. So would he rule out ever working with Squire again?
'It's highly unlikely having not spoken to him for ten years. It's down to him to phone me, isn't it? When the Roses split up it was sink or swim. I ended up doing the butterfly backwards.'
Ian Brown is headlining the Hi:Fi Festivals, Saturday, May 27, in Newcastle and Sunday, May 28, in Winchester.
The one that got away...
Tony Wilson, Factory Records founder and owner of the legendary Hacienda nightclub, helped launch New Order and Happy Mondays and was the driving force behind the 'Madchester' movement of the Nineties. He was also the man who, to his everlasting regret, declined to sign The Stone Roses...
'I used to present a music show called So It Goes and we would regularly showcase new bands. A researcher kept going on at me about The Stone Roses but I kept saying no, mainly because I had signed rivals Happy Mondays to my label. Then one night Gary Whelan, the Happy Monday's drummer, put a cassette on. After about 30 seconds I said, 'God, that's wonderful' - and it was The Stone Roses. Three weeks later we had them on the show, and the photo shoot done at the TV session is on the sleeve of the album. I could have worked with them after that, but everyone who managed them was a former ex of mine: my ex-wife Lindsay Reade and the ex-manager of my club, Howard Jones. So it was a no-no.
'The album that followed mesmerised us all. It's a true album, a classic as a whole. I love I Wanna Be Adored and Waterfall - they are sublime - but they were also blessed with Ian Brown who is an amazing frontman - Liam Gallagher learnt everything he does from Ian. The Stone Roses is one of the greatest rock albums of all time - and alongside Guns N' Roses, one of the best rock bands of the early Nineties.'