A very last minute lunchtime email comes in asking if I want to photograph Stone Roses at The Riverstage tonight. Originally I had expected that despite everything that happened last year, I would end up seeing/photographing them at Future Music Festival. With that not happening, I’m glad of the email, as I was really starting to wish that was going and weighing up if I could still get a ticket on the door or something cheap on eBay.
Although this year’s line-up at Future was really exciting, and I’m a bit disappointed not to have gotten to photograph it, from the comfort of my sofa, the weather looked even worse than last year, and photographers I spoken to have said that it was one of the most unpleasant photographic experiences they’ve ever had to endure. Still, looking outside at the weather as the afternoon progresses, you can guarantee that every Stone Roses review from tonight will include a cheap one-liner about Mancunians feeling at home in the rain.
I first heard about Stone Roses at school in 1989, maybe early 1990, but didn’t pay much attention until ‘Fool’s Gold’. The first album is regarded by many as a stone cold classic and one of the best debut albums ever. I’ve always considered it a mix bag and very overrated. When it’s good, it’s very good but there’s also a lot of filler on it. Although largely forgotten and ignored, the follow up, The Second Coming isn’t as bad as reviews made out or music journalists may implied ever since it was released. When it’s good, it’s very good but there’s also a lot of filler on it. When it comes down to it, the best Stone Roses album is the (most recent) Best Of compilation, taking the best album tracks plus the best of the other singles, including full version of ‘Fool’s Gold’. The only thing it doesn’t have is the full version of ‘Breaking Into Heaven’.
I only got to see the band play once. I was primed to see them at Glastonbury in 1995 until John Squire fell off his bike and broke his collar bone, so the only time I saw them play was their final show (until the reformation) at Reading 1996, a gig that will live on in history for ever, albeit for all the wrong reasons. However bad they might end up being tonight, it would be impossible for them to be any worse than they were on that fateful August night.
Getting to The Riverstage proves stressful, as the car doesn’t start and I’m forced to walk to the train station, missing the train I was planning getting, having to wait another half an hour for the next one and hopefully getting there before the band start. However, there are times when you’re really glad that Queensland Rail can’t get its act together and the train is 10 minutes late and arrives at the station just a few minutes after you. Getting the later train would have been ok as the sign on the box office window lists the band as playing from 8:20pm to 10pm. There’s a DJ support, although for the $110 door ticket price, they could have at least put on a proper support act.
Arriving at the box office to pick up the photo pass becomes the ultimate kick in the face when the photographers are ambushed with what could only be described as the Worst Photo Contract Ever. Not only does it contain the ‘usual’ SJM ‘we own your photo and all other rights and can do what we want with them’, it also includes a clause that allows the SJM to sell the rights on to a third party without needing to contact you to tell you.
Normally I would have walked away and not photographed but this time I didn’t. Given that pretty much no photographer in Australia gives a shit anyway, I signed away, although very incorrect contact details may have been supplied and the word copyright may have been very lightly crossed out…
When Coldplay played at Splendour In The Grass a couple of years ago and brought their shitty little photo contract with them, that was brought out about 10 minutes before the band were due to start playing, from a total of 35 or so photographers, I think there were only two that took a stand and didn’t sign. When even very well established photographers don’t even stop to consider whether a contract should be signed or not, you know you’re fighting a losing battle. Funnily enough, I was discussing this very issue at Soundwave the previous weekend as we were waiting for the photo passes to turn up at the box office as I kept having a sneaky feeling that Metallica would ambush us with some godawful contract. So as angry as it made me feel (and still does sever months on), and as disappointed as it made me feel considering John Squire is an artist and the Stone Roses’ own experiences of signing shitty contracts, I signed.
A recent piece on The Guardian describes the Stone Roses contract struggles as follows
When they should have been making their second album, the Stone Roses were engaged in a long struggle to escape their first contract, a document so comically unreasonable that it listed among the territories covered “the world and its solar system”. The judge found that it constituted restraint of trade and, because of the inexperience of the band’s lawyer and manager, so “oppressive”, “unfair” and “entirely one-sided” as to be unenforceable.
It’s slightly ironic that some of the language used in the description and the judge’s findings in awarding the legal win to the band are every day common phrases in the contracts that bands/managers/promoters make music photographers sign.
Despite signing, if SJM, or anyone that they on-sell my photos on to come a-knocking one day, they’ll just find that the photos no longer exist.
Getting into The Riverstage, on first inspection, it’s hard to tell how many are here tonight, the over 18s licenced side looks a lot busier than the fairly sparse nearside of the hill. By the time I get in, there are already four photographers lined up, and the four become six by the time the band plays. I don’t recognise any of them. Maybe there’s a secret heritage act photo crowd I didn’t know about or maybe everyone else laughed and left at the sight of the contract.
Eventually, later than scheduled, the band starts, as always with ‘I Wanna Be Adored’ although from the photo pit, it doesn’t sound very good. The trouble with being at the very front, and especially the front of the photo pit with a low stage like The Riverstage, is that you get the on sound stage from the foldback speakers more than you do the mixed sound that the audience gets through the main sound system and it usually isn’t a pleasant sound. It also sounds very quiet from the front. It’s obviously not just me who is having issues with the sound as Ian Brown stops the second song, sorts out the problems he’s having on stage and then restarts it.
For all the build-up and anticipation, they’re fairly boring to photograph. It’s disappointing as I really wanted to get some strong images of John Squire but he mostly stays away from the front of stage, preferring to hang around the back near his amps. Even when he does move forward, his head is bowed and, for most of the time, his hair is all over his face. Occasionally, he moves towards Reni and the pair interact, but for the most part, each of the four members of the band keeps to their own allocated portion of the stage. Similar to when he played at the Big Day Out with Primal Scream last year, Mani stands on a spot right in front of his amps and doesn’t move.
Coming out of the photo pit after the first three songs, it’s a pleasant surprise to find that out on the concrete at the bottom of the hill, the sound is much better and the band actually sounds really good. It’s a concise setlist, the same as the band have been playing at every show. Although it takes a few songs for them to warm up, for the majority of the set, they play really well. An extended jam version of Fool’s Gold is the night’s absolute highlight but it forms part of a very strong second half to the performance. Ian Brown sings better than any of the (maybe) six of seven times I’ve previously seen him sing, although it’s a shame that his voice falls apart for ‘I Am The Resurrection’, the final song of the night, which he lets the crowd sing for the most part.
Having experienced the Stone Roses at their absolute nadir, one so extreme that it caused the band to break up for 15 years, and having experienced far too many Ian Brown solo shows where he spent most of his performance trying to find the right key to sing in, I didn’t know what to expect from night. I came expecting the worst but end up pleasantly surprised. Nothing will ever purge the experience of Reading 1996, but at least tonight the band go some way to showing that they do have their good nights.