Ian Brown - Unfinished Monkey Business
"I only ever wanted the one with the flag, but all you ever wanted was a $60 bag/And a cheap limousine for your deep pile dream on the highway" - 'Deep Pile Dreams'
"To be honest, I'm not addressing anyone with this stuff" - Ian Brown, January '98
HONESTY, AS BILLY JOEL ONCE memorably noted, is such a lonely word. It is also a matter of perspective. Here's a tale to illustrate that point: a journalist recently went to interview Ian Brown in Manchester and sat astonished in a hotel lobby as Brown explained the sorry circumstances that surrounded the death of his old group, The Stone Roses.
Brown said that he'd been the one chomping at the bit to make 'Second Coming', The Stone Roses' second album, that he'd been the one frozen out by guitarist John Squire and his cronies, that he'd sat forlornly on the 'clean' tourbus as some of his colleagues snorted the dreams of a generation away on the 'cocaine' tourbus.
Above all, he said that he hadn't really wanted to make another rock album with The Stone Roses, but that Squire had been so intent on creating a Zeppelin-esque monster Ian Brown stood aside and let him write 'Second Coming'. He'd stood by Squire when Squire had needed him, and then Squire severed his relationship with Brown and the other Roses towards the end of a world tour, and he'd done it by phone. The guy was cold. He was ruthless. And he'd messed up Brown's life in a big and bad way.
Now, by a spooky twist of fate this same journalist was due to review Squire's boogie-woogie blues band The Seahorses the very next night. Spookier still, said hack was given a lift to the gig by someone who'd worked closely with the Roses throughout their career. This insider sat silently appalled as Brown's tale was relayed to them before exploding at its close that the journalist had been fed a load of lies, that, in fact, it was all the other way round. Brown was the aloof, distant and difficult one. His working practice had made it impossible for Squire to stay. Well, well, well. Too much bloody perspective...
So, as any child of divorced parents will tell you, there are always two sides to every story. 'Unfinished Monkey Business' is definitely one of them. In fact, it's hard to recall too many albums so bitterly devoted to one break-up. In recent memory, Spiritualized's 'Ladies And Gentlemen...' comes close, but its tone is much more respectful and lovelorn. No, for pure bitter acrimony you have to trawl as far back as 1979 and Marvin Gaye's 'Here, My Dear' album, a record Gaye was forced by a court order to make to pay his ex-wife's alimony. Enraged by this decision, Gaye stormed into a studio and, writing as he recorded, savagely detailed his divorce on every line, the album's title a cutely ironic riposte to his missus.
'Unfinished Monkey Business' doesn't go that far, there are songs about space travel and lions too, but the spring in its foot is provided by cocksure bitterness. Further comparisons with arguably the greatest vocalist of all time may be unkind to Ian Brown, however, Gaye played most of the instruments and produced 'Here, My Dear' and, unbelievable though it sounds when you recall how difficult it was to make 'Second Coming', this is a turn Brown also accomplishes on his eight-track studio in his Warrington flat for 'Unfinished Monkey Business'. Which is why it sounds like the production work of the cast of Babe. But in amongst the mush of distorted bass and drum-machine crunch, there is a spirit and mystery that John Squire cashed in at the crossroads for the chance to duck-walk across the globe with The Seahorses.
Squire gets it in the neck before the record even starts properly, during the electronic crackle of the intro 'Under The Paving Stones: The Beach', when a toy electric guitar ushers in 'My Star', the sound of The Stone Roses recording a brilliant new single in a cardboard box. On 'Can't See Me' we actually get a new Roses track (minus John, natch) as Mani and Reni join in for a groovy mirror of 'Fool's Gold' and Ian remembers, "The man used to fly, he used to fly easy/Now he can't see me".
'Ice Cold Cube' was a song the Roses actually played at Reading, again without John, during the performance that killed them in '95. Its title is a nickname for Squire and its mild psychedelia has a pleasant eastern sway to it (even allowing for Aziz Ibrahim's ridiculous guitar solo) and another sting in the tail for absent friends: "I just ran into this ice-cold cube, thought its ways could freeze me out/So I left it melting there, no doubt".
'Sunshine', however, is the first track that truly surprises musically, arriving in a warm, fuzzy blur of Donovan-ish acoustic guitars, some sweet mystical guff about moons, tides and ocean beds, and another killer kiss-off: "It's all been done before... I can see you got the sunshine in the rain". The implication being that you won't find Ian Brown digging up the '60s for inspiration and, Christ, 'Lions' proves that. Sharing a duet with former Primal Scream singer Denise Johnson, it's a song with no obvious form - apart from maybe a loose hip-hop one - which clatters to a halt and restarts two-thirds of the way through and with a barmy chorus repeated 973 times ("There are no lions in England, no, no, no" - that's right.) and yet, despite all this it supports a brilliantly cold and blue atmosphere. When Bobby Gillespie said that 'Unfinished Monkey Business' sounded like Joy Division, this is the song he'd been listening to.
'Corpses In Their Mouth' swaggers by like a tooled-up Abba in a shell-suit before the final attack on John Squire is launched. Brief highlights: the whispers of "cocaine, cocaine" during the wah-wah heavy intro of 'What Happened To Ya Part 2'; '...Part 1''s gentle folk resting a chorus as sad as: "What happened to ya, did you change your mind?/What happened to ya, we were one of a kind"; 'Nah, Nah''s 1970s Eurovision swing (key Squire dig: "I'm too embarrassed just to look you in the eye/You stuck your neck out, gosh, at least 1,000 times") and 'Deep Pile Dreams'' cool sway as Brown repeatedly knees Squire in the nuts: "I've seen you but you've never seen yourself/That's what you pay your shrink for". With a singer with a tongue as sharp as this you wonder why Squire insisted on writing all the lyrics to 'Second Coming'.
In the end you almost feel sorry for Squire, certainly he's kept a more dignified public counsel regarding his old group. But Ian Brown isn't the one making lame, safe music and writing songs about "rum old slappers". Instead he's putting his neck on the block and creating something strange and ultra lo-fi that has more in common sonically with the Aphex Twin's Rephlex label than any classic lineage. Much of The Stone Roses' beauty was their soul and spirit, and it's Brown who's collected these heirlooms. So, yeah. Who'd have thought it? It's Ian Brown and not John Squire whose art emerges smelling of Roses after all. Round one to King Monkey.