30 years on from the now infamous Stone Roses Spike Island Getintothis’ Jamie Bowman takes a look back at the strangest and possibly the dustiest thing to ever land in Widnes.
“The ugliest festival of all time”
That is how music journalist John Robb remembers Spike Island.
“The site itself was like a crazed joke surrounded by cooling towers and hideous factories. Spike Island was no Glastonbury.”
And yet it was here that one of the most famous gigs ever to have taken place on UK soil was staged on May 27, 1990, when Manchester’s Stone Roses played to 30,000 fans on a small island between the Sankey Canal and the River Mersey estuary.
“Gareth Evans and Matthew Cummings ran the International and the International 2 which were great venues,” remembers promoter Phil Jones of the Stone Roses manager and co-manager.
“I did a lot of gigs there and they asked me to book a tour of seaside towns for the Stone Roses. We had Southend and Blackpool but as quickly as I got asked they just decided to do Blackpool.
“I then want on holiday to Greece with the instructions to get it sorted, but then two weeks later I flew back into Manchester Airport and picked up a Manchester Evening News and there was an advert for the Blackpool gig promoted by SJM.”
“I went apeshit about it, but was told there would be another gig in London somewhere so I said I’d organised that and that was Alexandra Palace.”
Yet to still play a major gig in the capital, the Stone Roses arrived in London on November 18, 1989, for their biggest show to date at the venue made famous in the sixties for staging psychedelic events like The 14 Hour Technicolor Dream.
But despite 7,000 tickets being sold and the gig coinciding with their hit Fools Gold, the show had been seen by many as an anti-climax, bedevilled by poor sound and a half-empty venue.
It was clear another statement needed to be made.
“Gareth kept saying we had to do a really good concert for this band,” says Jones. “We went round all these weird places. I remember this one in Essex that was like an old speedway track that was very desolate.
“We stayed in London for four nights and saw about eight places but Gareth came back and said the band don’t want to do it near London or down south. They wanted it near Manchester.”
“He phoned me just before Christmas and he said he’d found this place in Widnes. I thought ‘I know Widnes’ because it was where my future in-laws were from. He said there was this island there and we went and had a look on January 4, 1990. It started to snow and I don’t think I’ve ever been so cold with the wind blowing in off the North Sea. But I could see it working.”
30 years ago today, The Stone Roses played their iconic gig at Spike Island pic.twitter.com/OXlw7ieXUO
— MainlyOasis (@MainlyOasis) May 27, 2020
More famous for its rugby league team, Widnes developed during the industrial revolution largely helped by the arrival of the Sankey Canal and the St Helens and Runcorn Gap Railway.
The relative ease with which raw materials and manufactured commodities could be transported led to the growth of the town’s factories and housing for employees. The chemical factories produced soda ash, soap, borax, salt cake and bleaching powder and smoke was thrown out over the town by the billowing chimneys on a daily basis.
But despite its grim and grimy reputation, Widnes itself was in many ways the ideal location.
Halfway between the twin cities of Liverpool and Manchester, the groundwork had already been laid with the town’s Queen’s Hall venue already playing host to many of the baggy scene’s leading lights.
“All the Madchester bands had played there,” recalls Widnes musician Peter Bentham.
“I saw the Roses, Happy Mondays and Inspiral Carpets there not long before the Spike Island event and the Queens Hall is very close to Spike Island. The gigs in the Queens Hall were brilliant. Especially the Mondays one. I remember seeing Tony Wilson coming out at the end in the middle of all the kids totally drenched. He’d been at the front in his three-piece suit.”
Another Merseyside musician, Jonathan Copely agrees: “At that point, I was living in Widnes and the Roses, Inspiral Carpets and Happy Monday all played the Queen’s Hall in 1989.
“As did the House of Love, who were the best in my opinion. The Roses where deffo ‘our band’ at this point along with Pixies. The Widnes gig was quite chaotic and very loud but you definitely got a feeling something was happening.”
Once the venue was confirmed and the date set, it was a Sunday before the Bank Holiday, the considerable planning for an event accommodating 32,500 people (half the population of Widnes) began.
“It was Roger Barratt, who ran a company called Star Hire and who’d already agreed to do the staging, who got it through the council,” says Jones.
“We had two big meetings with the council and it was headline news in all the local papers there. I’d just married my wife that year and all her relatives were from Widnes and they were like ‘what’s going on with this concert?’ I remember going round to her grandma’s for a cup of tea.
“She was about 96 and was going ‘have you seen what’s happening? They’re putting a concert on over there and everyone is going to wee in my garden.’ I had to just sit there and drink my cup of tea. It was very controversial.
“I knew there was a real buzz about it and I knew because of how quickly Alexandra Palace had sold out that it would sell, but I admit there were certain aspects of Spike Island that weren’t brilliantly organised. We had to build bridges over the canal and build a huge stage, but the lights were the best I’ve ever seen and the backstage area was fine.”
27 May 1990, thirty years ago today, the Stone Roses played Spike Island. The DJs were on that rickety structure in the middle of the field with the sound & lights team. I played St Etienne 'Only Love Can Break Your Heart', 808 State 'In Yer Face', & Bob Marley 'Redemption Song'. pic.twitter.com/ggShgXdFUS
— Dave Haslam (@Mr_Dave_Haslam) May 27, 2020
Meanwhile, the band themselves were going through a certain amount of turmoil in the run-up to the event.
In January 1990 they had been arrested after vandalising the Wolverhampton offices of their former record company FM Revolver and with contract negotiations beginning to break down with their current label Jive / Zomba, there was little time to capitalise on the success of Fools Gold and write newer songs.
As for the support acts, Jones was presented with more problems when he was asked to book a drum-based support act with the Roses themselves insistent they wanted DJs rather bands.
“I’d been working with this Zimbabwean guy Thomas Mupfumo who had his drum orchestra so I booked him and we also had Adrian Sherwood’s On-U-Sound System with Gary Clail,” he says.
“We had the DJ Dave Haslam and this New York DJ called Frankie Bones.”
“I’m convinced the band had asked Gareth to book Frankie Knuckles, but we got Frankie Bones,” says Haslam. “I can imagine his logic; he’s American, he’s called Frankie, he’s cheaper than the Knuckles fella.”
“I think that was my fault,” admits Jones. “But it was very small on the list of problems.”
One thing the organisers did get right was the decision to run coaches from throughout the country on the day to reduce the strain on Widnes’ roads and railway station.
“We bussed everyone in and everyone out,” explains Jones. “The ads in the NME and Melody Maker all listed the places you could get a coach and I was amazed.
“Everywhere in the country seemed to have a coach you get on and get to Spike Island in time for the gig. Very few people came by car and for those who did the parking was well organised.”
The coach travel increased the impression this was almost a pilgrimage for the Roses’ fans no matter where they were in the country.
“I moved to Liverpool in late 1989, but knew of the Stone Roses from their appearance on Granada Television’s The Other Side of Midnight programme, and the band had already broken big by the time I arrived in Liverpool” remembers Dr Stuart Borthwick, author, photographer and higher education professional.
“Fools Gold came along, and Spike Island with my first opportunity to see them. We travelled there on the bus from the old Roe Street Gyratory in town and by the time we arrived in Widnes, the whole town was a sea of flares and beanie hats, and there was folk having a picnic on every roundabout. We wandered down towards the Mersey and found the site. Even though we all lived in Liverpool, none of us had ventured that far upstream before so it was an adventure.”
“I lived in Widnes so I walked,” laughs Jonathan. “But my friends came down from Manchester and all stayed on my mum and dad’s floor. Everyone met up early afternoon and we drifted down to the gig.”
For Haslam the sight from his vantage point high above the crowd was incredible.
“The DJ set up was 80 yards from the stage on a rickety tower also home to the mixing desk, the lighting desk and various techy people. From the tower, I could see the queues, acres of baggy jeans and so many T-shirts. Spike Island attracted a young crowd.”
Back on the ground, Phil Jones was beginning to encounter the first of a myriad of problems that would cast something of a shadow over what was supposed to be a special day as an estimated 40,000 people turned up, including a 5,000 strong guest list and 2,500 without tickets.
“We were completely overwhelmed,” says Jones.
“The security firm were supposed to supply 180 men and they only turned up with 80 and they didn’t get briefed as well as they should. There was this thing about not bringing food on site and they ended up taking this kid’s packet of sandwiches off him.
“There wasn’t enough food or drink on-site, but it was early days when it came to catering for mass crowds, there should have been about 200 units there and instead, there was about ten. It was a nightmare and backstage didn’t go well either, the beer ran out in about two hours.”
“We were early,” remembers Jonathan. “But remember this was a year after Hillsborough and there was a lot of nervousness. Some of us were worried as basically it was one way in or out.”
“Nowadays that Manchester scene has a really laddish, beer-soaked reputation, but back in 1990 it wasn’t really like that, although there was an absolute gang of thugs on the door who confiscated everyone’s packed lunches,” agrees Stuart.
Once inside, however, the crowds relaxed and began to enjoy the warm May afternoon with little sign of trouble and an atmosphere of stoned contentment washing over the throng. A small police presence meant drug-taking was openly calming the crowd.
“Inside it was much more innocent and gentle,” says Stuart, while Jonathan concurs: “The atmosphere was very very relaxed. It’s just not like now and there were limited facilities and most people bought booze and food with them.”
Evans had insisted on a helicopter pad being constructed and the original plan was for the band themselves top arrive by air, something else which failed to materialise.
“I had to basically say that if the band arrived by helicopter I was walking off the site,” says Jones. “In the end, they came in a transit van owned by a bloke called ‘Big Les’. He was the only one who had a vehicle.”
A more serious issue presented itself when Jones noticed the size of the waves heading down the River Mersey and threatening to flood the site.
“The deputy chief constable of Cheshire Warrington division stood me on the stage and said: ‘do you know it’s a spring tide today?’
“The wind got up and the way it was blowing there was the possibility the banks of the island could be breached. No one had thought to mention it. He had some men down there and he radioed them and they were stationed there to watch the waves. If it went past them we were told we’d have to evacuate the island.”
“I kept looking at it and it was a torrent and was rising a yard every ten seconds. It was scary.”
Oblivious to the rising waters threatening the site, the crowd settled in to enjoy the DJs, who also included Dave Booth and Paul Oakenfold.
“Slowly, collectively, us DJs began raising the atmosphere,” says Haslam. “I remember playing Cubik by 808 State; by this time the crowd were kicking up dust, dancing, a sea of Reni hats and floppy-haired happiness.”
“The atmosphere was one of rising anticipation of the band’s performance,” remembers Stuart. “It was dry and there was dust in the air giving the light a golden glow as the afternoon went on. We joked that it was from the chemicals underground because the site was an old chemical dump.”
Eventually, at around 9pm, the Stone Roses took the stage with the familiar bass intro of I Wanna Be Adored spurring the crowd into life. Ian Brown held a huge inflatable globe giving the gig its definitive image but it immediately became clear there were issues with the PA as the wind blew around the exposed island.
“For some reason, they were far quieter than the other acts,” says Jonathan. “It was nothing like the intensity of the Queen’s Hall show and it felt like it was strung out as they simply didn’t have the songs to play a gig of that size.”
Jones disagrees: “I think the sound was superb but then I was stood in the right place. At the end of the day, we were on a peninsula in the River Mersey. Halton Council had put ten different monitors around the site and even as far as Widnes and Runcorn town centres and they had been adamant from day one that there mustn’t be any sound disruption in the towns.
“They said that if it went over the level they’d have no hesitation in turning us off. Everyone always says we didn’t have enough PA but we had too much and you could’ve probably heard us in Liverpool but everyone was so worried.”
“They sounded amazing in the soundcheck but the wind got up and if you were on the edges maybe the sound wasn’t fantastic, but down in the middle it was absolutely awesome and one thing I’m really proud of is I got the lights spot on. It was spectacular and it’s just a shame no one really filmed it or took pictures.”
The band finished with I Am The Resurrection followed by Dave Haslam slipping on Bob Marley’s Redemption Song accompanied by a firework display.
“I remember being disappointed as were others,” adds Jonathan. “It kind of felt like being sunburnt but you can’t remember the day on the beach. Although loads of mates went and a few worked on it, I never actually went on the day as it was my bands’ rehearsal night,” adds Pete Bentham.
“We were only about half a mile from the island! I think there might have been a bit of the ‘Bloody Mancs coming here taking over, who do they think they are? daft attitude.
“We were in the pub nearby when the crowds were streaming past after the gig and I do remember thinking ‘Wow, this massive thing just happened in our little town’. The locals do refer to it with some pride to this day.”
For Jones, there was immense satisfaction, but his problems were still not over just yet.
“When the Roses had come on everyone had stood up at the same time and because it was very dry there was all this dust,” he says. “Unfortunately there wasn’t just dust in those particles and a lot of people had to be treated and one kid actually stopped breathing.
“The guy from the Red Cross hadn’t liked me from the moment we set eyes on each other and had opposed the thing from the start. He came up to me ten minutes after the band had gone off and said: ‘what’s it like to have a dead ‘un on your hands?’
“I’ll never forget it. I rushed over to where the ambulance was and there were guys there with oxygen masks resuscitating him and all four of them put their thumbs up. He came round and the next day the Roses went to see him in hospital and gave him loads of stuff.”
Despite the issues, the problems and the subsequent mixed reviews, Spike Island has gone down in history as a seminal event, forever mentioned on documentaries as the apex or even climax of what became known as the Second Summer of Love.
It’s now become customary for bands to announce their arrival on the world stage with similar shows and the next decade would see the likes of Oasis and The Verve try and repeat the trick with their Knebworth and Haigh Hall concerts.
Even the Roses themselves tried to recapture the magic with their enormous Heaton Park comeback gigs in 2012. The show would also mark the end of the Roses’ imperial period when in many fan’s eyes it should have marked the beginning.
Four years later they would finally release their audience-splitting second album by which time the world had caught up with their vision and turned it into a money-spinning renaissance for guitar bands, many of whom had been inspired to pick up their instruments by Ian, John, Reni and Mani.
Mystique and mayhem just weren’t enough anymore.
“The chaotic nature of the event combined with the baking sunshine and the setting of an island in the Mersey, equidistant between Manchester and Liverpool, made for a historic event,” reflects Stuart.
“Spike Island means a lot to me. I went with a close friend who subsequently passed away in very sad circumstances, so I have very fond memories of our time at the gig, and I feel privileged to have been there. I often cycle down on the anniversary and it is tempting to go this year, but Covid-19 says we should all stay away. For better or worse, the festival scene we have now is partly built on that event.
“Once Gareth Evans and the Stone Roses had pulled that off, anything seemed possible.”