By Jacqueline Howell
What a time to be alive for Stone Roses /Manchester/ 80s “Indie” music fans. While good music has always struggled to find the sunlight through the harsh cracks of over produced pop, at last we are finding great books, films and music that celebrate this time. Twenty or so years on from Madchester, those who were there and all the kids around the UK (and the globe) who so wanted to be there have sat down to create biographies, journalism, and even the rare cohesive music festival in its honour. Spike Island marks a sea change for the patient and the bruised 80s and 90s teens who’ve never stopped loving the music and the memory. It’s also a worthy point of entry into this world for younger fans, and how often can you say that?
In the current digital landscape with its imperfect and gap-filled historical archiving of the recent past, it’s becoming urgently important to set down some truths and make some trusty maps. And so we have Spike Island, landing right in that elusive place, the one we’ve waited for.
The Stone Roses’ shimmering, impossibly beautiful and evocative 1989 self-titled debut sounded like it dropped out of heaven fully formed (but like most overnight successes, was really the result of almost a decade of mostly anonymous grind). Any reflective, current-day articles (such as Wikipedia’s) about the phenomenon that was The Stone Roses in 1989 and into the early 90s, of that one record’s impact, miss so much, miss almost everything. Time may have slipped through this beautiful band’s fingers in the end, but what went out from that vinyl disc traveled on its own steam through the UK, Europe, and the world beyond’s places that had indie/alternative radio and great record stores and all those with a finely-tuned ear. All the iconic artwork by virtuoso guitarist John Squire, the lemon graphic, is as imprinted, forever upon Stone Roses fans’ consciousness as any any Warhol, achieving Warhol’s recognition in months, instead of decades. It’s a symbol as clear as a flag. It lives on. (After this piece was begun, the lemon was displayed around Manchester, U.K. to much (real, not manufactured) fanfare, signaling the Stone Roses first new single in over twenty years as they’ve been coming back to welcoming arms in the last couple of years.)
Spike Island (2012) directed by Mat Whitecross, with a screenplay by Chris Coghill (in a hilarious small role as “Uncle Hairy”) is a film clearly made by people with love and care for the subject matter. This coming of age story is set among a group of friends who start their own band with varying degrees of commitment and talent, one of so many inspired by The Stone Roses amid that year that The Roses’ debut record became as significant among passionate music fans of the time as The Beatles or Bowie or The Ramones debuts were in their own time. Instantly endearing and funny, the film is well acted throughout including the now very famous Emilia Clarke (Game of Thrones) as the film’s ideal girl, its “Sally”.
The film centers around the daily life in 1990 of five tight knit Manchester friends giddily nicknamed Tits, Dodge, Zippy, Little Gaz, and Penfold: for the lads school is but their playground, music is their life and parents are adversaries or tragedies to be negotiated, at times like explosives experts. Girls are elusive and still full of promise and not a little magic and myth. Spike Island, the upcoming Stone Roses all-dayer, is all anyone in their micro-world can talk about. There is also a no count, locally famous brother called “Ibiza Ste” and you should need no more endorsement to see this film.
Spike Island, and The Roses, also marked a moment when one city went global, when the musical greatness long simmering in fits and starts in Manchester, so close yet so far from the burnished legend of The Beatles’ Liverpool, went out again, in a brand new way that transcended boundaries, connections, class structures, and borders; with a middle finger, to boot. For one of those glorious moments most kids only dream of, their city far north of the centre of things, London, was the center of the world. We could get academic and count “Ibiza Ste” and “Uncle Hairy” as symbols of delightful rogues, products of a great city struggling amid decay and against its limitations under Thatcherism, but let’s keep our feet on the ground. What Would (our plain-talking idol) Mani Say?
Spike Island, the concert of the film’s title, is a pivotal event in the real history of both The Stone Roses and their fans, and stands as a symbol for all those who weren’t there whether geographically or temporally the same way that lemon slice does. The film integrates that wider cultural memory or longing that has grown to include distant and later fans who have discovered the band after their breakup, who also share collective nostalgia for what some imagine is “OUR Woodstock”.
The reality of that time, place, and event is very different. Stories vary as widely as opinions of what precise price different people are willing to pay today to leave their homes and see musical giants perform for them a short distance away. The truth belongs to nobody, and the nostalgia is very real, and very shimmery. The film handles this relationship between memory, myth, and truth brilliantly and with a Mancunian candor. The imperfectness of that day, of that era, and of that band, the close calls and near-misses (as well as the reach) are integral to this band and hallmarks of its generation that have brought heroes and fans closer together in recent years as a widespread community who just gets it. Further, without the toxic old media in the way, the bands today reveal themselves as true to their 90s ethos – themselves supportive fans of one another, trench mates and lads after all, not warring factions as the weeklies would have once had us believe.
It should be noted for close watchers (and listeners) of this film with elephantine memories full of love that even the clearly obvious replica t-shirts are a joy to see, and, importantly, the haircuts are correct, the girls look as real and naturally fresh as we all once were, and ALL the necessary music clearances were all given with apparent gusto to deliriously grand effect that make detractors of the film sound like nothing more than ultra-modern haters who cannot feel. Like the John Hughes films of the actual 80’s, this film fits like a record in a sleeve of memories – the highest compliment possible for a period and a music film, and essential to an 80s film.
Spike Island is simply a perfectly built time machine. Time just moved much slower in our relationship to music. Music came over to some of us on boats. It immersed deep into our lives over years and was passed from hand to hand, shared in darkened rooms among friends half drunk on the joy and secrecy of it as much as the lager shared amicably. The music played on, tirelessly, as if it, like those rambling and perfectly directionless days of youth would never end.
Spike Island gets that bittersweet truth of the era, that little slice of sun in the afternoon before all succumbs to shadow, perfectly. It’s moving and funny, a revelation: it’s like watching our own home movies that don’t exist of those days that were just lived and not recorded, an inverse of the norms of today where selfies and status updates scream about all the fun we’re having. And this film achieves its aims: it’s about the purest and widest love there is. Or is that loves? The unrequited loves and friendships of youth, and also, the permanence and unshakable devotion possible with music.
There are universal themes in films about teenagers of any era. But every era’s teenagers expresses that same urgency, excitement, promise, frustration, and all out open-heartedness in their own ways. In those pre-digital late 80s, you found or lost your friends, you hitched a ride or you walked, you shared a contraband drink or pill if offered, or you went dry all day without the emergency snack filled backpacks and heavy water bottles of today that kids carry like turtle shells (while prepared for most eventualities, they carry significant baggage and are taught little of spontaneity).
There was something so pure and lovely about those summers, of kids really living in the moment, trusting life would carry them along on its wave, when you were alright as long as you had a friend to walk home with in the dark. All this is scored by the music of The Stone Roses (and some key others of the time) the very music you would wish for in any movie about this time and place, and for your memories of your own well-trod home streets and dramatic school crushes.
The film takes its leads and its events to Spike Island while keeping in mind the impossible to replicate personal truth of memory, imagination and nostalgia; the various stories and value of the real Spike Island; the value of the narratives of those inside the gates and those forever locked outside it whether upwind or down wind of the noise, or very far away indeed. There’s a lot to say here about friendship, artistic dreams, loss and memory, and is mostly said with subtlety even as lines are drawn and some things are lost forever in the changing winds of youth.
Viewed as it should be, as a film about loving the band more than a literal narrative of the band, this is one little Indie film about one too brief period of music, with all the fleeting energy and optimism of hope that will run right over your heart like “Sally Cinnamon” once did to an anonymous writer of a letter found in a pocket/ of a jacket/on a train in town.
Jacqueline Howell once fought over a Spike Island poster with someone who’d also never been there but who cherished it equally, and she hopes it still has pride of place on a wall somewhere.
Spike Island is available on DVD/Blu-ray, and was recently found on Netflix.