In the 26 years since The Stone Roses’ gathering-of-the-tribes gig at Spike Island, it has become the stuff of legend. Barry Nicolson speaks to organisers, artists and attendees – including DJ Paul Oakenfold, actress Maxine Peake, author Jon Ronson and promoter Phil Jones – to find out what really happened
On a grey Thursday morning in January 1990, three men stood on a man-made island in the Mersey estuary and decided that this was as good a place as any to make history. For the last few months, they’d been scouting locations for a massive outdoor gig by The Stone Roses, visiting quarries, speedway tracks and caravan parks around the UK, but none of them, until now, had seemed quite right for what they had in mind. “It was Gareth [Evans, Stone Roses manager] who came up with the idea of Spike Island,” remembers concert promoter Phil Jones. “It was near where he lived and they’d had events on there in years gone by, so myself, Gareth and Roger Barratt, who ran a company called Star Hire and who’d already agreed to do the staging, went out there, took a look around and said, ‘Yeah, we can do this here.’ The council were there, we’d already worked out what the capacity would be and we all shook hands on it that afternoon.”
For a band who once professed their desire to play a gig on the moon, a reclaimed toxic-waste dump seemed an unlikely staging post, but that was always part of Spike Island’s appeal. The Stone Roses could have had their pick of venues – such was their popularity at the dawn of the ’90s, even Knebworth, where Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin and The Rolling Stones had played, wouldn’t have been out of the question – but they had no interest in following in the footsteps of others. As Ian Brown told NME in 2010, “We wanted to do something outside the rock’n’roll norm and do it in a venue which had never been used for that sort of thing before. This was back in the days of raves, remember. We started out doing warehouse parties and we still had that mentality where we wanted to play different venues. We wanted to play places that weren’t on the circuit.”
Spike Island certainly wasn’t that, but while Heaton Park, scene of 2012’s Manchester reunion shows, was bigger and the band members would probably tell you Glasgow Green, where they played a month later, was better, Spike Island was to be the Roses’ defining statement, a celebration of not only their own success, but of an entire youth culture. “It was a gathering of the clans,” Mani later told NME. “We were always confident that if we just turned up, people would come. That was always the way it was with The Stone Roses. We knew what we’d started, we knew the reactions we were getting all around the country, and we just wanted to get everyone together.”
At that time, The Stone Roses were a bridge between the past and the future, between ’60s psychedelia and the burgeoning acid house scene. They had arrived at the fag end of Thatcherism, the vanguard of a new sound, a new style and, in ecstasy, a new drug. Ian Brown spoke of killing the Queen and becoming bigger than The Beatles, and for a brief moment both seemed within the realms of possibility. “History in the making was how it felt at the time,” remembers Andy Fyfe, who reported from Spike Island for NME. “It had been hyped up for months before; endlessly emphasised that this was the defining moment of a generation – when rock meets rave, the point at which the music world was going to explode in one big group hug.”
As May 27 drew nearer, anticipation reached fever pitch. The Roses hadn’t played live for six months, and no-one could be sure when they would again, because a criminal damage case brought against the band by their former label boss (they’d daubed his office, cars and girlfriend in paint as retaliation for a ‘Sally Cinnamon’ video he’d commissioned against their wishes) meant the threat of prison was hanging over their heads. Much to their relief, they eventually escaped with a fine. Meanwhile, a short warm-up tour of Scandinavia hadn’t gone according to plan, and the press conference held the day before the gig bordered on calamitous: BBC and ITV news crews declined to cover the event when Gareth Evans tried to charge them for access, and the surly and uncommunicative band were accused by one journalist of “treating these people like fucking shit”.
When the band arrived onsite – not in a helicopter, as has been reported, but in a rented minivan – they were unimpressed by the heavy-handedness of the security and the apparent lack of facilities. “The organisation was shambolic,” Ian Brown told NME in 2010. “The PA wasn’t big enough for a start, and certain things were going on that we didn’t know about. The management were taking people’s sandwiches off them at the gate to force them to buy five-quid burgers when they got in. Some kid got impaled. He broke out of jail, tried to jump the railings and ended up leaving his bollocks on top of them. We were still finding out about this stuff two, three years later.”
“Our management really fucked up,” agreed Mani. “There were security guards taking booze off people, there was a lot of overcharging for food and drink, and there wasn’t enough facilities onsite. There were a lot of aspects of Spike Island that were really badly thought out, but none of that is the band’s job.”
Phil Jones, however, disputes this version of events. “What you have to remember is that Mani doesn’t like Gareth, and he also has a very limited idea of how these things work. We provided exactly what the council told us we had to, and if he went through the paperwork, he’d see that Gareth complied with everything. There’s no blame to be apportioned, and certainly not on Gareth – if anything, if it was Widnes Council. D’you think Mani went wandering around the site to find out how many toilets there were? He arrived in a vehicle, went backstage, did the gig and went home again. He had no idea about the number of toilets.”
Meanwhile, the site posed environmental challenges of its own. The island had only one access point, necessitating the construction of new bridges, and as a flat expanse surrounded by water, it was susceptible to strong gusts of wind coming in off the Mersey. For Jones, however, the more immediate concern was a rising tide that briefly threatened to put a stop to the whole event. “I was stood on the stage with the deputy chief constable of Cheshire Widnes division, who told me, ‘It’s a spring tide, Phil. It’s never gone over this island before, but it is getting very high. If it goes past a certain level, you’re going to have to get everyone off.’ It was a high neap tide on a full moon, which is the highest tide you can get. It never came close in the end, but that was the worst moment.”
After a supporting bill that included DJs Dave Haslam, Paul Oakenfold and Frankie Bones, as well as sets from a Zimbabwean drum orchestra and reggae artist Gary Clail, the band took to the stage shortly after 9pm, with Brown urging the crowd to “do it now, do it now”, and ‘I Wanna Be Adored’ rumbled into life. As 30,000 people suddenly rose in unison, a cloud of red dust formed in front of the stage, triggering asthma attacks among some members of the crowd. Others simply got caught up in the moment – Shameless actress and Eccentronic Research Council member Maxine Peake, who was 15 at the time, remembers “being completely overwhelmed when they came on. I started to get hysterical, and I couldn’t breathe. When the woman behind me asked if I was alright, I had to pretend to have asthma because I was so embarrassed. It was ridiculous.”
A camera crew from Central Music TV were present, but at the last minute the band instructed them to stand down. The only footage that exists of the gig was shot on a fan’s camcorder, which is one of the reasons why no-one who was there seems able to agree on whether the performance was second rate or sublime. NME’s Andy Fyfe remembers them playing “abysmally. Colleagues who went to the soundcheck the day before said it was amazing, electrifying, they were on top form, but from what I recall, they had no funk to them at all. There was a certain weight of expectation that they didn’t live up to.” For author Jon Ronson, however, “Even though the sound was blowing all over the place, it was impossible not to be moved by it. When Brown came out brandishing an inflatable globe [during the show], it was everything it was supposed to be – the world in their hands. When you saw it, you absolutely felt like you were a part of something, at the centre of that place and time.”
“Take it from me, people could hear the gig fine,” insists Phil Jones. “There were 30,000 people there, and 29,990 of them had a whale of a time. Whenever I read about Spike Island, it’s always negative. Show me firm evidence that the sound wasn’t good. And the lights were the best fucking lights I’d ever seen. What we had on that stage was state of the art. We didn’t scrimp on the PA, either, but the council wouldn’t allow it to go above a certain decibel level.”
Ninety minutes later, it was all over. “I touched base with the band in their dressing room afterwards – I think that everyone involved felt a sense of triumph that day,” says Paul Oakenfold. “They were great musicians with a great sound who came along at the perfect time – and sometimes timing is the most important part of it. By the time they got to Spike Island, there was a whole movement they were at the forefront of: you had what was going on in the clubs in London, and what was going on up north with bands like the Roses and Happy Mondays. The whole country wanted a change, and the Roses captured that at Spike Island.”
For Mani, however, “It all felt a bit anticlimactic. I wasn’t overly happy with the way it had been thrown together, and there were a few incidents that pissed me off. We went back to our manager’s nightclub in Manchester after the show, and the snide cunt tried to charge us for a can of lager. After we’d made him that much fucking money.” The Stone Roses themselves made no money from the gig, but they made something more elusive: history. In the years since, outdoor shows on that scale have become commonplace – Oasis at Knebworth, Blur at Hyde Park, even the Roses themselves at Heaton Park – but none loom so large in the collective consciousness as Spike Island. It was a real moment in time; the beginning of a long hot summer that saw England nearly go all the way in the World Cup, the peak of a period when Manchester and the north-west felt like the centre of the universe.
“It really felt like an ‘us versus the world’ moment, because of the amateurism of the organisation as much as despite it,” says Jon Ronson. “It didn’t feel to me like the start of something as the end of it – the ideal place to bring down the curtain on what it had been. The record had been out for a year by then, and because the Roses didn’t release another record for so many years afterwards, it framed perfectly the summit of what they’d become and what they meant to people.” A quarter of a century on, it’s a summit few bands have ever come close to scaling.