Ian Brown interview 1999

City Life feature

Originally printed in City Life in 1999 (they f*cked-up the layout and it appears in a readable form for the first time here!)

Ian Brown was waiting for me in a room off Kensington High Street wearing a zippy brown anorak, sporting a good head of slightly lank hair, those monkey-skeleton cheekbones, and a grin. He was pleased to see me. He’d had something to eat, but had left the side salad. We had a drink together. He didn’t skin up.

Brown is an icon, with a hundred preconceptions surrounding him. If I had been wondering quite why I should go to London to see him, then what a music industry insider, an A&R friend of mine told me just days before convinced me; “The kids today don’t want it to be kept real. They want it manufactured, and preferably with the logo really big” which is hilarious, I suppose, and true even, but also the best reason for appreciating the likes of Ian Brown; a man who follows his own rules, who avoids putting a chorus between every verse, who would rather take a bus than a limo to Top of the Pops. In the old days I DJed for the Roses and he’d give me the funniest pre-gig advice; “Just good grooves, you know, er, yeah, and some Bob Marley at the end.”

I was there too, to hear his views on the Stone Roses and Madchester, and to shed some light on recent controversies – allegations of homophobia, air rage, his jail term. And to catch up. In December he married his Mexican girlfriend (next month they’re expecting a child – Ian’s third). For New Year’s Eve he was in Manchester of course, for his appearance in Castlefield; “It was fantastic. I felt honoured man.”

Live, Brown and his group do a version of Michael Jackson’s ‘Billy Jean’ but no old Stone Roses songs; “It wouldn’t be fair on Reni and John and Mani to do that. I did an acoustic ‘Sally Cinnamon’ in Japan when I got carried away but I wouldn’t do that again. It’s about staying fresh; life itself, let alone music.”

I’d seen his recent gig at the Apollo and it was surprisingly short of nostalgia. Down the front, especially, the fans were clearly a younger generation; “It’s amazing. It’s like all the Roses fans little brothers and sisters are getting into it.”

The Stone Roses were influential in a way that perhaps no-one quite realised at the time. Their first LP made amazingly high positions in those multifarious end of the century lists; higher than anything by the Smiths, Blur, or Happy Mondays. It was clearly a key record for a generation. And he’s certainly kept it fresh since the break-up, with a great collaboration with James Lavelle on ‘Be There’, and a new solo LP, Golden Greats (the LP features some ace songs; ‘Set My Baby Free’, and ‘Neptune’ among them).

Ian Brown himself always intrigued me. Politically, he’s invariably Bennite. He’ll also speak garrulously on the subject of Mohammed Ali, or Malcolm X. He’s also well up on all the latest conspiracy theories about who killed Princess Diana, for instance. He’s a militant, but he’s a bit of a mystic. He knows about star signs (he’s Pisces, born in the middle of February). He told me; “I do believe in all things we don’t understand.”

He’s also very witty and eager not to play the pop star. He’s not scared of thinking. He’s not part of the ‘I don’t read books, me’ world.

Ian Brown grew up through the late ’70s and ’80s when politics were rawer. It’s still us and them in 2000, but back then conflicts were played out in the streets; the polarisations of race in the NF and the Anti Nazi League, of class in the miner’s strike, and sexuality in the legislation we know as Clause 28 (which banned school teachers from taking a positive position on homosexuality). In 1988 I organised an anti-Clause 28 benefit gig and approached The Stone Roses to play. They were only too pleased to do it. Ian put down a heckler who questioned why they were onstage for a cause like that.

I’m telling you this because it impacts on an incident that blighted Ian Brown’s early post-Roses career. In April 1998 he caused a furore in Melody Maker when he talked about the part homosexuality played in violent Greek, Roman and Nazi cultures in a way that many people took to be homophobic. But I had first hand knowledge of his commitment to gay causes. He did the benefit gig but also went on the demo; there was a picture of the march in Gay News and Ian, Reni and John are right at the front (Mani didn’t come on the march because he thought that Moston would laugh at him, says Ian).

Ian doesn’t retract what he was quoted as saying, nor does he say he was misquoted; “I’ve had letters from university professors and students telling me that historically I’m correct, but I was probably talking about an issue that was too complex for the singles page in Melody Maker.”

He does regret, however, that a negative spin was put on his ideas, and the context of his own life was ignored; “In 1988 we walked with those gay people in Manchester. In these days of political correctness it’s easy to be politically correct, but I was there ten years ago.

“We used to go to gay clubs, Heroes, the Number One club; we’ve come out of a city where we’ve never had prejudice. In my own mind I’ve got peace of mind because I know I’m not homophobic. I’ve got the same gay friends who’ve I’ve known and loved in Manchester since I was 16.”

To some people, however, the incident reinforced a preconception about Ian Brown and The Stone Roses; laddism. Happy Mondays probably had far more to do with stirring this up than everyone else put together but somehow Madchester has taken part of the blame for Loaded and ’90s lad culture. Madchester was often portrayed as politically very backward – just lads mouthing off – but it was a lot more complicated than that. On the dancefloors there was on open-mindedness in the music scene that was reflected, in most cases, in liberal social attitudes. Anyone actually listening to The Stone Roses would never have got narrow minded lad attitudes from the band or the music; “No, never. But one of the things we had to face up to was that stereotype that if you’re from the North you’re thick. All those things were there so the slightest thing would give them ammunition. We had self confidence and self-belief which again people took for arrogance, or said we were cocky.”

The Roses self-belief was huge. In 1988 and 1989 they were surfing a fantastic wave. The way that rock music keyed into the eclectic vibe of Acid House back then was unselfconscious and unique; “That was the beautiful thing about Acid House, everything was used. That hunger for music that people had then was awesome. At one time it was absolutely huge but it wasn’t commercial was it? It was a true revolution. There was pure unity; that was the feeling.”

But soon we became aware of things around the scene that ended up destroying it; some of Ian’s friends into selling a bit of weed in The Hacienda were dragged into a gangster network, and violence was in the air; “I had a few occasions in town when kids in like a VW Golf with a piece on the back window would draw up next to me and the kids would lean over threatening me, We’re going to get you and all this stuff.”

The dark days post-Manchester coincided with The Stone Roses legal battles with record companies and management, wasteful years recording Second Coming which sacrificed lightness of touch and creativity for a stodgy rock sound, Ian’s split from guitarist John Squire, and a slow, inevitable end for the band. Ian still sees Reni, but he’s had some kind of falling out with Mani (“I fell out with Mani’s girlfriend; I never fell out with Mani,” he says), and he’s not spoken to John since he phoned Ian up in 1996. The rumours of getting back together are completely unfounded: “I’m not into these groups who get back together again just to get their egos stroked. I don’t need that.”

Last year’s Happy Mondays reunion he forgives, however; “That was great because the fact that some of them were signing on was a disgrace. It wasn’t their fault that Factory went bust and they lost all the money. At the end of the day they deserve to get paid.”

Since their break-up, The Stone Roses have been credited with paving way for Britpop, yet Ian Brown has been consistently scathing about the Britpop bands (“Music in that vein, that guitar music, has gone backwards since 1990,” he tells me). His preferred listening is the bleaker end of Hip-Hop and Reggae, and some of the influences are bear on the new LP. There are lots of dubby spaces, squidgy noises, rolling riffs, and embrace of the computer. Lyrically, the record strikes me as quite melancholic, but very positive as well, even optimistic; “There’s no reason to be pessimistic,” says Ian.

There’s a line in ‘Dolphins Were Monkeys’, the current single – “No-one alive can lock the door to your dreams” – which is a neat summation of Ian Brown’s positivity. I’m amazed he’s not bitter, especially about his prison sentence. In 1998 he was charged with endangering lives on an aircraft and for threatening cabin crew (charges he has always denied). But his trial fell bang in the middle of a moral panic about air rage incidents, and Ian found himself with a four-and-a-half month jail sentence, the bulk of which he served in Strangeways.

How close, I wondered, did the trial, the uproar, and the prison experience itself come to disillusioning him; “To avoid crime all my life in a city full of criminals and then end up in Strangeways at the age of 36 wasn’t funny. I could look back on my whole life and question why but then I think the about what they say in the Bible, that the devil will put you in jail to test you. And I believe those people were devilish to say that I said those things when I didn’t.”

So how did he keep his head together in jail? “I read books, and I kept fit. When you’re first locked up you’re in the induction wing and you’re locked up for 23 hours a day so you’re not doing much. Then in the main jail you’re locked up for 12 hours a day and for the other 12 hours all the cells are open, and you drag it out like a school dinner time. One guy says You get some biscuits, I’ll provide tea bags, and you find some sugar and you drag it out, swapping stories, having a laugh, and listening to music. Everyone’s got a sound system and all you hear is Tupac and Biggie all day long. But I was counting the days- 32 days to go, 31 days to go. It was painful, dead painful. A weekend lasts a week.”

He was a Category D prisoner – unlikely to harm himself or anybody else – in a category A prison, and, to an extent, he was singled out when he was in Strangeways. He had to stop his family visiting him because the visits were being used as excuse to strip search him and do a cell search straight after. “They can strip search you whenever they like; The screws are like hyenas. You would maybe be three feet away and they’re Don’t fucking push past me lad when you’re nowhere near them. When you’ve got twenty days to go you know that if you respond you’re going to get an extra 21 days.

“I thought there’s going to be someone in there who’ll knock me out just to say that they’d done it but the screws were such dogs, that with the other lads I was one of them then.

“At eight o’clock they bang you up, but the light in your cell can stay on for an hour; Most of my pad mates were smack heads so as soon as that flap shut at eight o’clock, out would come the Kit Kats and they’d give me the chocolate and I’d have to sit and watch them disintegrate before me.”

We paused. It was time for me to move on. He’d been relaxed, upbeat; we could have gabbed all night, but you never get enough time. He had a grumble about Silvertone remixes of ‘Waterfall’ and ‘Fool’s Gold’ (shocking, unlistenable). We had a gossip about some mutual mates, then I got off.

I was intrigued by this absurdity; that there are more drugs in prison than anywhere else. “I’ve seen more rocks in Strangeways than I’ve ever seen on the streets, or any music biz party or any nightclubs or anywhere,” says Ian, “I saw more drugs in a couple of months in Strangeways than in the whole of the rest of my lifetime.”