By Ian Gwinn
The Stone Roses’ eponymously titled debut (released in 1989) is widely regarded as a seminal album in British indie rock. With soaring, chiming guitars and funky bass lines and driving rhythms, the songs are catchy and evocative, tapping into feelings of euphoria, youthfulness, energy and optimism. It is infused with Sixties sensibilities and attitude. Not for nothing were 1988/89 described as the ‘Second Summer of Love’. But it wasn’t just the music. The imagery, the artwork, and lyrics were just as important; I remember poring over the the sleeve notes to find out about the band and some of the stories behind the songs.
The album carries subversive themes alongside its Mancuian swagger. ‘Elizabeth, My Dear’, set to the tune of Scarborough Fair, is an anti-Monarchist declaration (‘I’ll not rest, till she’s lost her throne, My aim is true, My message is clear, It’s curtains for you, Elizabeth, my dear’). A pot-shot is also aimed at our elected representatives (‘every member of parliament trips on glue’). But it’s another track, ‘Bye Bye Badman’, that represents a more direct encounter with an earlier generation of counterculture.
According to interviews with the band, the track was inspired by the protests of May 1968 in Paris, after lead singer and chief lyricist, Ian Brown, met a man who had been a participant in the events, whilst hitchhiking around Europe. ‘[He] told us that if you suck a lemon it cancels out the effects of CS-gas. He still thought that the government in France could be overthrown one day…So he always carried a lemon with him so he could help out at the front’. The Roses’ identification with the spirit and youth-filled exuberance of the 68ers was captured in the image of the lemon, which was adopted by the band as a symbol. It was used on the cover of the album designed by John Squire, the band’s guitarist, along with the French tricolour, which was set against a Jackson Pollock-style background.
The lyrics of ‘Bye Bye Badman’ reference the protests, the truculence of the student demonstrators as well as the lemons: ‘Choke me, smoke the air, In this citrus-sucking sunshine I don’t, Care you’re not all there’. Other songs, like The Beatles’ ‘Revolution’ or The Rolling Stone’s ‘Street Fighting Man’, have explored themes of revolutionary politics and violence in relation to the civil unrest and the anti-Vietnam War demonstrations of the late-60s, but few have been so unequivocal in their support for the cause of the youthful agitators. ‘I’m throwing stones at you, man, I want you black and blue and, I’m gonna make you bleed, Gonna bring you down to your knees’. The desire to rebel, to challenge the establishment and status quo is mirrored in the recollection of French May: ‘I’ve got bad intentions, I intend to knock you down, These stones I throw, Oh these French kisses, Are the only way I found’. The sentiment must have been resonant with the youth of the late-80s and early-90s, particularly amidst the Poll Tax Riots and Tory efforts to criminalise free festivals and rave culture, which culminated in the Criminal Justice Act 1994.
I mention this not out of nostalgia for a misspent youth. Rather, I want to reflect on the struggle over memory in public discourse, which, in the case of radical events like 1968, is often less about what is remembered (though that is important) than about how it is remembered. In the French context, Kristen Ross has shown that the great outpouring of writing on 1968 has had a paradoxical effect; leading not to greater awareness or understanding, but to the forgetting or trivialising of the event as a moment of collective political agency. While 1968 has already received a considerable amount of media and academic interest in commemorations of the 50th anniversary, we shouldn’t overlook the fact that it holds little interest for most people outside the milieus of liberal leftie academics and politicos. This is not say that stories and memories of radical pasts, which are kept alive in increasingly embattled spheres of institutional life (the family, trade unions, social movements, and the university), cannot reach and enter mainstream channels. The question is can they do so in ways that connect with the mediatised experiences, identities, and sense of belonging among younger generations today?
The Left has often found it hard to relate to popular culture and to see it as having any potential for dissent. Conversely, radical academics have tended to overestimate its capacities for opposition and resistance. Popular culture is neither radical nor conservative in any once-and-for-all sense; full of contradictory and heterogeneous elements, it rarely works well as a transmitter of fully-formed political ideas or beliefs. What it might still achieve, however, is to make marginalised cultural memory and traditions accessible to new generations by embodying them in common media and means of expression which speak to particular social experiences and feelings in the present, even in inarticulate fashion – embodying everyday hopes and desires, imaginings of the future, longings for the past, and a sense of possibility and alternatives. That’s what the music of The Stone Roses was able to do, representing a fusion of joyful optimism, excitement and possibility, with a sense of defiance and disdain for authority.
Alongside the growth of rave culture and ‘baggy’, The Stone Roses reflected a subcultural ethos that was characterised by drug-taking, hedonism, and 60s psychedelic style and sound. But this was not just romantic nostalgia. The spirit of the 60s has continued to inform how later generations have framed ideas about youth, lifestyle, and politics. The Roses’ homage to 1968 served to sharpen this appropriation of radical and countercultural pasts. It is easy to dismiss youthful passions and hedonism for oiling the wheels of commercialism, or pop cultural references to past rebellion for not aspiring to reach a state of revolutionary consciousness. But when you grow up in a world where all forms of cultural production are commodified and your access to radical ideas is extremely limited, then popular culture is very often all you have.
In seeking to memorialise or to reanimate the radical event, popular culture and popular music expands the possibilities for thinking about the way in which the past gets made into the present and how its various, conflicting meanings get passed on. In the end, The Roses were never political sloganeers. In the view of music journalist John Robb, ‘there would be something hinted at, something revolutionary stirring…Everything was left vague, a blur of hints, a restlessness and a dissatisfaction with an archaic system’. Growing up in an archetypal ‘crap town’ in the English Midlands, that was all I had and all I needed.
Ian Gwinn is a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Liverpool, working on the AHRC-funded project ‘How Women’s Rights Became Human Rights: Gender, Socialism, and Post-Socialism in Global History, 1917-2017‘. He completed his PhD on the history of the History Workshop movement in Britain and West Germany entitled ‘A Different Kind of History is Possible’, which is being finalised into a monograph. He can be found on twitter (@iagwinn) and academia.edu.
50 years after the tumultuous events of 1968, HWO were inundated with posts exploring aspects of that year and its legacy. The Remembering 1968 was shaped from these submissions, and includes: