As the Stone Roses front man prepares to unleash his seventh studio solo album, Getintothis’ Peter Guy considers his true golden greats.
Be careful what you wish for. Back in 2012, when the Stone Roses reunited it seemed the fans had finally got what they’d waited for.
The third coming. The world was theirs for the taking. Again.
Push forward to 2018, and with the dust settled, aside from a series of momentous live outings and a superlative fan-orchestrated documentary, the reformation leaves but two studio recordings and, crucially, more questions than conclusive answers.
Half a decade is a mighty long time for one of the UK’s greatest bands to reunite and ultimately provide so little in terms of new music.
As a huge fan of both the band, and the respective individual musicians, the Stone Roses reunion was a curious happening which in retrospect leaves this writer wondering how much creative zest was lost during this period. While it undoubtedly gave vast numbers of fans the chance to hear timeless classics from their back catalogue, you have to wonder what might have been. To our mind, as we wrote in 2015, it seemed another missed opportunity.
Only the four members of the band know why more music wasn’t recorded. Perhaps the chemistry wasn’t there anymore.
One thing’s for sure, during the intervening years when the Roses split first time round, front man Ian Brown was on a hot streak.
His solo output was vivacious – and startlingly consistent – dishing up three superlative albums in Golden Greats (1999), Music of the Spheres (2001) and Solarized (2004) and a run of singles to match any UK songwriter.
While the unashamedly raw debut Unfinished Monkey Business (1998) and latter period The World Is Yours (2007) and My Way (2009) lacked coherence there were plenty of sonic riches to be minded across Brown’s catalogue.
Even more intriguingly, when compared to his rock & roll contemporaries; both Gallagher brothers, Richard Ashcroft and his fellow Roses band-mates, it’s startling to think that Brown, the vocalist who unfairly became the target of a ‘he-can’t-sing’ witch hunt, penned the most distinctive and sonically challenging catalogue of them all. And by some distance.
What gives Ian Brown the edge over these archetypal British musical figureheads is his confidence and belief in trying something different.
His solo albums may draw upon the rhythms and melodies of the Roses – and of course, there’s no escaping that whispery Mancunian rasp – but it’s his love of hip hop, Arabic, African and global music that courses through his solo albums. He’s also keen to collaborate and experiment widely with production techniques. It makes each of his solo albums such a treat when they arrived and a pleasure to rediscover.
With that in mind, here’s 10 of Ian Brown‘s finest solo work songs – and what makes them golden greats. Sorry in advance for anyone who loves Time Is My Everything…
UPDATE: This suspicious artwork has just popped up in Liverpool’s Baltic Triangle. The poster suggests Ian Brown’s forthcoming material will be called First World Problems – and features a golden monkey riding on a horse carrying an egg. What it all means, we don’t know but it’s safe to say, new Monkey Business can’t be far off. Reports suggest that the new album will be released in March 2019.
UPDATE: Here’s Ian Brown‘s new single First World Problems released ahead of his forthcoming album Ripples out March 1. This is the first material in nine years as a solo artist – check out our top 10 below.
10. Illegal Attacks with Sinéad O’Connor from The World Is Yours (2007)
Brown has always been hugely politicised yet few tracks in his arsenal have been as stark and visceral as this lyrical pop warfare. And teaming up with Sinéad O’Connor, Brown finds his ideal comrade.
‘So what the fuck is this UK, gunnin’ with this US of A. In Iraq and Iran and in Afghanistan, does not a day go by without the Israeli Air Force, fail to drop its bombs from the sky?‘
For near six minutes, the pair issue a state of the world address taking on the banks, the oil companies, military and just about everything in between with razor like ferocity; akin to Chuck D‘s Public Enemy in its verbosity. What makes the track so appealing is the James Bond theme-aping orchestration complete with sweeping strings and stinging tribal beat echoing the vocal motifs which are stamped home with brutal stomach-busting intent.
Followers of Brown’s career will also be aware of the repeated refrain, ‘and only so many soldiers come home
Soldiers, soldiers come home…‘ – a lyric harking back to 1999’s So Many Soldiers (from Golden Greats) – a track of personal reflection while contrastingly looking at the bigger political landscape married to deep tribal dub and exotic eastern instrumentation. It’s a good track – but not a patch on Illegal Attacks – and here the theme is fully developed and mastered.
By the time O’Connor signs off with the line, ‘What mean ya that you beat my people, and grind the faces of the poor,’ she sounds wrought with anger and close to tears. It’s an incredible track, and a rare duet in the Brown catalogue.
9. Love Like A Fountain from Golden Greats (1999)
Brown’s second album, Golden Greats, marked a key moment in his career. It cemented him as a true solo force to be reckoned with as he definitively stepped outside the shadow of his Stone Roses career.
While debut album Unfinished Monkey Business undoubtedly contained a clutch of superb singles, and a collection box of oddities and rough sketches – some left behind from his Roses days – his second album managed to not only move him further away from the rock & roll guitar-orientated pop of his day job but here was a record which hung together as a package.
Sure there were obvious tracks which were marked out as singles but the entire album felt like a leap ahead from that debut and for the most part was an exceptional listen.
Opener Gettin’ High is perfect introduction as to his newfound direction; resplendent in crunching riffs, Eastern histrionics and coated in a mystical hazy fog – it absolutely wreaked of weed. Dolphins Were Monkeys confirmed the skunk suspicions as a visit to the museum inspired Brown to pen this intergalactic robotic groove about man’s evolution.
But the finest track to emerge from Golden Greats is lead single Love Like A Fountain – a track Brown himself notes as a personal favourite.
Living up to it’s title, the track positively oozes and swells into a circular riff drenched in Brown’s fuzzy effects-laden vocals. In many respects it draws upon the Roses classic Fools Gold with it’s elasticated grooves, Reni like rhythms and a mid section which bobs and weaves before the bass boots kicking it all back into gear.
The album version also contains the beautiful additional coda with multi-tracked vocal harmonies over latter day Roses’ guitarist and regular Brown collaborator Aziz Ibrahim. It’s these kind of little extras which makes Brown’s solo career so appealing.
8. Can’t See Me from Unfinished Monkey Business (1998)
Perhaps the most beautiful element of Unfinished Monkey Business is how ridiculous it actually sounds.
It’s almost impossible to imagine a star of Ian Brown‘s magnitude releasing a record which *sounds* so dreadful as his 1998 debut does. Record companies simply wouldn’t allow it.
In these days of compression and radio-ready singles, Unfinished Monkey Business could be used in music colleges of how ‘not to record your debut album’.
In terms of production alone it’s sub demo. Yet this is exactly its appeal – and presumably why the album is titled as it is. For here’s a collection of work scrabbled together from the still glistening ashes of the Stone Roses, fueled by animosity and vitriol – primarily aimed at his boyhood friend John Squire – and thrust out into the public domain as an open letter of contempt.
The critics took pot shots at Brown, a star seemingly on the wain, however, his fans lapped it up – for exactly the reason they’ve always loved him: his effortless charisma and unswerving self-belief. He’s a true rock and roll star.
And Unfinished Monkey Business was bristling with all rock and roll’s chief characteristics: swagger, arrogance, anger, attitude, sex and romanticism. It may have been put together like a Blue Peter science experiment but that was all part of the charm. It was more Syd Barrett than Second Coming.
The Squire attacks came thick and fast – and while the bitterness was hard for any Stone Roses fan to swallow – the quality of the many of the tracks was undeniable.
While album track Ice Cold Cube was debuted at the Stone Roses‘ (post John Squire and Reni) final show, it’s fair to summise that What Happened to Ya Part One and Two plus the rollicking groove Can’t See Me were all tracks worked on by the remaining members of whatever the Roses finally became.
Indeed Can’t See Me is trademark Mani. A song built almost entirely around his bass lead which snakes centre stage amid syncopated metallic drums; again attributed in the sleeve notes to Roses drummer Reni.
Lyrically the song is a vehement barely disguised attack on Squire and his reported cocaine addiction: ‘Hey I caught you, you cannot hide, he can’t free you, he can’t be you, he needs a dealer, as a healer, the man used to fly easy, now he can’t see me.”
Yet for all it’s bitter lyrical finger-pointing, Can’t See Me conjures up what might have been as Mani, Reni and Brown weave a minimal funk stew pointing to a future which never quite happened ever again.
7. Kiss Ya Lips (No I.D.) from Solarized (2004)
As stated earlier, Brownie is no stranger to political verbosity and Kiss Ya Lips is another example of him addressing the topical issues on the agenda.
With MP David Blunkett and the government seemingly intent on introducing compulsory ID Cards, Brown was quick to issue his condemnation of the idea and wrapped it up in this cosmic disco number.
Sure, the lyrics are daft (‘I ain’t no number, don’t require no ID round my neck, so Mr number maker, ID cards won’t stop no hijack jet…‘) yet there’s a simplistic message here which aligned to upbeat nature of the track which makes it impossible to resist making it one of his best, and most underrated solo pop songs.
Credit must also go to long-time producer and songwriter Dave McCracken and especially to percussionist Inder “Goldfinger” Matharu whose tabla rolls ensure this is a firm dance floor favourite.
6. My Star from Unfinished Monkey Business (1998)
Considering just how sketchy Brown’s debut album is, it sure threw up several timeless classics. And, My Star, his first single as solo artist is one of his most enduring to date.
Almost autobiographical, the track paints his own new beginning with fresh unique image; set adrift in his own universe – a lone boxing space cadet with just an adidas endorsement and a pair of flip flops to his name. But there’s a newfound confidence and positivity at work talking about ‘new world orders‘, exploring galaxies and creating his own star.
Musically, Brown touches upon Beatles induced psychedelia with the guitar riff reminiscent of Dear Prudence and Fabs’ mid-period Indian mysticism interspersed with NASA moonlanding samples and a characteristic tribal beat. It serves as a mighty fine introduction of what was to follow.
5. Longsight M13 from Solarized (2004)
One of the most farcical, much debated and contested untruths in music revolve around Ian Brown as a live vocalist.
Perpetuated by the mainstream music press, it has rarely bothered fans – as they know just how magnetic a front man he is. There’s very few better. On stage he’s a caged tiger. Every move of his limbs akin to that of Bruce Lee. And when Brown took to the stage during his third album tour, opening with an ode to Manchester’s Longsight it was a moment to behold.
Longsight M13 carries the triumphant Northern clarion call you associate with Brown in his Roses heyday – a move copied infinitely up and down the country by musical pros or kids in their bedroom in front of full length mirrors. With lyrics nodding to stars shining on, love flying and whacking your enemies out cold it has all the hallmarks of a punch the air, hug your mates and sing along in unison.
Musically it continues the Golden Greats theme; all crunching beats and mystical arabic-tinged guitars yet it’s granite fused production makes for a more punchier affair. Simple, effective and a classic shake your imaginary tambourine moment.
4. Northern Lights from Music Of The Spheres (2001)
Such is the consistent tone to his solo work, Brown’s albums can easily be viewed as one complete whole. They rarely veer too much from the same trusted path. While his mid-solo career delivered his finest work to date, the later years have somewhat lacked the variety necessary to sustain our interest.
And if there’s one one thing Brown, does rarely, yet should be encouraged to do more of, it’s the ballad. He’s very good at it. Northern Lights is one of the best examples.
Built around a Dave Gilmour guitar lick (here by Tim Wills), this minimal love song drifts in ambient dub cyberspace before swelling into a crescendo and big choral refrain. ThePink Floyd like solo which bursts through the mix is a rare instrumental break from tradition before climaxing in Brown’s scattershot vocal purr. It’s a great track, and a personal favourite.
3. Keep What Ya Got from Solarized (2004)
Originally written by Noel Gallagher for the 1998 X-Files film under the title Teotihuacan, the song was rescued from obscurity and became the centre-piece to Brown’s best album to date, Solarized.
Taking Gallagher’s repetitive piano riff and breezeblock riffs, Brown insisted he ‘de-Oasis‘ the new version of the song and stamp his own take on it. The result is a defiant, triumphant stomp.
2. Corpses In Their Mouths from Unfinished Monkey Business (1998)
1998 marked this writer’s first year at university. A great time indeed, and a great time for new music.
It’d probably be a toss up between The Verve‘s Rolling People, Spiritualized‘s Stay With Me or Corpses In Their Mouths, the second single from Brown’s debut album, which rung out the most from my bedroom window in Leicester. And while it’s fair to say the album from which the latter is taken has aged considerably less well than Urban Hymns and Ladies and Gentlemen We’re Floating In Space, this track still retains a subtle beauty.
Penned with latter day Stone Roses guitarist Aziz Ibrahim, the song is another barely veiled attack on John Squire and while the lyrical content both contemptuous and somewhat clunky, it’s Brown’s nous for melody and distinctive tone which makes this such a winner.
Side note: the ridiculous harmonica solo, much replicated in jest by my best mate Brummie Dom, can’t help but raise a smile.
1. F.E.A.R. from Music Of The Spheres (2001)
By 2001, Brown was on a roll. Commercially, critically and profile wise, he was his own man and the stars certainly collided with the lead single from Music Of The Spheres.
Having collaborated with and DJ Shadow on UNKLE‘s Be There, Brown along with co-writers Dave McCracken and Dave Colquhoun continued to explore the science-fiction themes aligned to a vast cinematic orchestral groove suited to the big screen.
Inspired by Malcolm X‘s autobiography, Brown incorporates each of the four letters of the song’s title into a creative lyrical scheme – eg: ‘Free expression as revolution, Finding everything and realizing.’
The result is F.E.A.R. A strident piece of propulsive pop.
On the creative process he said: “Malcolm X’s message to people was to study etymology, the break down of language and words. He speaks of how important this is to society and why society has got so much control over people through the use of language and how you can manipulate with it.”
Whether you feel it’s lyrical genius, a playful idea or mere jibberish, there’s no denying this is a Grade A slice of songwriting.
Like all his best solo songs, F.E.A.R. contains that empowering, uplifting emotion – allowing the listener to raise their head high and embrace the good within. Brown is a master at transmitting an energy, a positivity and transferring over to the listener. F.E.A.R. does this best of all. It’s a towering composition – and his greatest work to date.