JOHN ROBB knows better than just about anyone the tale of the Roses' rise and fall. His own band, The Membranes, used to rehearse next door to them in the early eighties and he later documented the band's progress as a journalist throughout their career, for the various major music publications.
Author of the best-selling book on the Roses, The Stone Roses and the Resurrection of British Pop, here John Robb speaks to This Is The Daybreak. With John having covered the story of the Roses in the two editions of his book, the interview primarily focuses on certain areas not covered in detail in the book.
Thanks very much to John for taking the time to answer these questions.
Q1) How did you come to follow the career path of music journalism ?
It's down to the punk thing. The whole idea as we read it sat in Blackpool was DIY. Get off your arse. Do something. It wasn't about being a passive consumer. It was about making your own art. So I put a band together (The Membranes) and started my own fanzine (Rox). Someone at school had a copy of Sniffing Glue, which was a famous London fanzine. It was amazing to see a magazine about music knocked up on a typewriter and then photocopied. Before that I thought that you had to live in London to write about music.
From doing the fanzine I gradually got into the music writing loop and got to know fanzine editors everywhere. Some of them were editing a now long defunct music magazine called Zigzag and they got me on there in 1984. From that it was a short hop onto Sounds which was the best music weekly going - not due to sales because NME was the big seller - but due to its lack of snobbery and its honesty. And it was here that I started my relationship with the Stone Roses.
Q2) You knew the Roses from the outset (having rehearsed beside them in the early days with your band, The Membranes). How close were you to some of the other bands in the late 80's music scene (Primal Scream, Happy Mondays, etc) and how would you assess their importance ?
I knew all the bands on the scene. It was mixture of being in The Membranes, being on Creation Records and playing up and down the country meeting all the other bands. Add to this, interviewing bands for Sounds and you just get to know people. I always managed to interview key bands early in their careers and got to know them. The late eighties was a really good period for writing about music. Acid House, Grunge and Baggy were pretty fucking dynamite scenes.
Primal Scream just get better and better. They are one of the best rock n roll bands this country has ever produced. Especially since Mani joined, he's given them a real punk rock edge. His bass lines are great in the Primals, really catchy and driving. The Mondays were awesome. I remember that breakthrough tour in 1989. I went on the road on that tour and saw loads of the gigs. It was a heady time. You could really feel something happening. It's great when bands take off without the permission of the music press ! Sean Ryder's new solo album sounds really good. His brother Paul is singing in a new band called Big Arm and I heard a song of theirs the other day which sounds really good. I really liked the Inspirals as well.
Q3) How far back do you know Ian Tilton ? Just looking at 'The Membranes' section of your Gold Blade site, I notice that he photographed the band in the early 80's. And of course, his excellent Roses photos adorn the centre section of your book.
I've known Ian since he was about 10 years old ! He lived on the same road as me in Blackpool. It was the north end of the town - just suburbia. We both lived on Anchorsholme Lane. Ian's elder brother, Mark, was the guitar player in The Membranes. I used to go round their house every night and we would listen to records and write songs and Ian was always around. We played football together and went to see Blackpool play. He was a lot younger than us. I'm 4 years older than Ian and that seems like a big gap when you are 16 but he was always wiser than your usual 12 year old kid ! His parents were great people as well, they let us have their back room to make our dreams some sort of reality. Me and Ian's brother Mark put the Membranes together in that room and rehearsed in his garage.
When Ian started doing photography he was brilliant at it straight away. It was weird actually because my brother was really into photography as well - we had quite an arty little scene going on there in the dull suburbs ! We really believed that we were going to get somewhere but we didn't have a clue how we were going to do it - even Manchester seemed a million miles away !
Ian was at Sounds when I was there and we worked together quite a lot. He's still a mate now...I must have known him for nearly 30 years now. Ha ha ha, how scary is that !!!!!
Q4) You were 16 when you formed The Membranes in the year of punk, 1977. Did you see the major bands of that movement ? Which had the greatest impact on you ? The Pistols ?
In Blackpool we saw none of the bands. No-one ever seemed to play there. It's great when you live in a city where you get everything there for you. In Blackpool we just read about it and dreamed about it. As soon as I heard the Pistols I was hooked. I heard them when we used to go Ice Skating in 1976 (that's where everyone used to hang out ! They played Northern Soul but introduced a punk spot. They played New Rose by the Damned, the Ramones and the Pistols - there were no other punk records to play at the time). I remember seeing a picture of The Clash in 1976 and being blown away. Before punk I'd loved Slade and Mott The Hoople, so punk seemed a logical thing for me. It looked better and it sounded harder, and even though I wasn't a dole bound kid on a council estate, it hooked me. Punk was for everybody...
The band that really did it for me, and a lot of people in Blackpool, was The Stranglers. Their psychedelic take on punk blew us away. We saw them play in Lancaster in the punk years and everyone went home and formed a band. The way they were surly outsiders with this incredibly aggressive attitude - their music really hit a raw nerve. They were imaginative. I liked the way they did their own thing and didn't give a fuck. I loved their music and I still do ! The less fashionable they are, the more I love them ! That bloody bass..incredible (Ian Brown used to be a big Stranglers fan as well).
Q5) Can you detail for us the two major bands of your career, The Membranes and Gold Blade ? What would you cite as the high point(s) in each of those groups ?
The Membranes were inspired by punk and although we were punk rock, we never sounded like a punk rock band. We loved Captain Beefheart, jazz and blues and mushed all that into our sound. It was a heavy sound but twisted with all sorts of influences. The highlights were the Spike Milligan's Tape Recorder single (which still sounds awesome to this day !) and the Kiss Ass Godhead album. It was great to be able to tour all over the world as well...
With Gold Blade we play a highly adrenalized celebratory punk rock that celebrates rock n roll ! The highlight is the current line up. It sounds shit hot and we're about to go on a world tour...the single that everyone loves is Strictly Hardcore and the best album will be the next one. Which is what all musicians say, isn't it !
Q6) From your impressive CV, of the various major music publications that you have worked for (Sounds, NME, Melody Maker, City Life, The Face), was Sounds the most enjoyable ?
Sounds was the best. The people that worked there were very enthusiastic. There was a real buzz about the place and we were turning the paper around when the publishers pulled the plug. I did the first ever interview in the world with Kurt Cobain and he was a big fan of the paper...we would have risen with Nirvana but it wasnąt to be...
Q7) Have you read Mick Middles's book on the Roses ? What are your opinions on it ?
It's a good solid piece of journalism.
Q8) Did you know that Steve Adj is currently writing a book on the Roses, entitled From warehouse parties to Wembley ?
Yes, I heard about that. It will be brilliant. He's got the inside story, he's seen the whole thing, this will be the Stone Roses book to have. I can't wait to read it.
Q9) What part did you have in last year's PLAY UK documentary on the Roses ? Were you responsible for bringing in some of the interviewees ?
I helped them out. I was working on another programme made by the same company - a ten part series on the history of punk, so I gave them some phone numbers and rang a few people up for them.
Q10) Do you plan to work on any more projects (books, documentaries) concerning the Roses in the near future ?
I'm lucky enough to have had my say on one of the greatest bands that have ever come out of the U.K. May do another update of the book one day. I keep getting new information all the time and I've got some amazing bootlegs of the band and rehearsal tapes that you wouldn't believe, like the first rehearsal with Reni and a Patrol rehearsal...!
Q11) Great stuff ! I recall you mentioning that first rehearsal session with Reni in your book. What were the most special Roses gigs you went to, either as a fan / journalist ?
The early gigs were great because you could feel that something special was happening. And the way that they were so against the grain and apart from the hip city scene was also very attractive. But I reckon it was Blackpool that was the one. The sheer amount of people suddenly turning up, the total buzz of the day, the way the band looked and sounded and the immense party atmosphere. The bonding that happened and the fact that my home town felt like it was at the centre of the pop universe for once !
Q12) What are you currently involved in ?
I'm in the middle of a world tour with Gold Blade. We played Russia last week, (and Bristol this evening - 8th July 2003). We'll be playing a few festivals in the Summer, U.S.A., Brazil, Argentina in the Autumn and probably Germany after that.
Q13) Do you still keep in touch with any of the Roses ? When was the last occasion on which you spoke to each of them ?
I saw Mani a few months ago. He's a brilliant bloke, full of life. He never changes ! I saw Ian Brown in town a couple of years ago with his kids on a Sunday afternoon. Again he was really nice, really chilled out. He's a really pleasant person, very charming. I always go and see him play and really like his solo stuff. I haven't bumped into John Squire for years. I saw him play at the Manchester Ritz a few months ago - I spoke to his brother down there who is a really good photographer. It was a good gig. Reni lives near me and drove past and parped his horn last year...
Q14) Do you know of any moves since the band's split towards a reformation ?
It's got to happen one day. I would like to see it. They could lift peoples' spirits - it could be legendary and it would work. I would be happy just to hear Reni play drums again !
I think Ian Brown's solo stuff has been genius. Really different and with a great edge to it. He's kept the Roses vibe in there and made it sound like himself. The combination of his idiosyncratic voice (and I think he's a great no-bullshit honest singer) and the electronic backdrop is a perfect one. Mani has been a godsend to the Primals where he has virtually become their frontman. But you can always tell where his heart lies, can't you ? I think they should reform. There are not enough great British bands these days, mainly because none of them has the discipline to go all the way to the top. Imagine if The Beatles or Led Zep had fizzled out after two albums ?
Q15) What bands in the current music scene do you rate ?
I like all sorts of music, from Marilyn Manson and The Transplants to Queens Of The Stone Age and The Music. From Indian classical music to Sufi chants, to Greek Rembetika music. From The Coral to The Doves and the Red Hot Chilli Peppers to Mars Volta to Kinesis. I still love my punk rock and I still love reggae and dub. I've got 3000 albums...can't get enough music can you ?
Following this interview, John sent me a never before heard Stone Roses recording - the band's first ever rehearsal.
To visit John Robb's Gold Blade site, click here.
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