“My first reaction was ‘Island? What island?’ I didn’t know there was an island on the Mersey,” recalls stage director Roger Barrett of a 1990 phone call that would change the course of British pop music history. “Then I went to have a look at it and I thought, ‘You have got to be kidding.’”
The caller was Phil Jones, a music promoter who wanted to organise a 32,500-capacity outdoor concert for Manchester band The Stone Roses on a waterlocked tongue of industrial wasteland outside Widnes called Spike Island. Jones reckoned that Barrett’s stage-building company Star Hire could help him pull off the unprecedented event, having built the scaffolding stage for the free Artists Against Apartheid concert on London’s Clapham Common four years previously. Always up for a challenge, Barrett accepted the offer.
The Stone Roses’ concert on Spike Island on 27 May 1990, 30 years ago today, has since gone down in music folklore. Three decades of myth-making have cast it as a defining moment in British youth culture: when the kings of Manchester’s thriving ‘Madchester’ music scene came of age in front of thousands of working class ravers who’d found a new ecstasy-kissed identity in the dying days of Thatcherism.
The reality was altogether less euphoric: much like 2017's social media car crash Fyre Festival, Spike Island was an overcrowded near-calamity with scant infrastructure, terrible sound and air thick with acrid discharge from a neighbouring ICI factory. The event was, in fact, both legendary and chaotic. The chaos “doesn’t actually matter,” remembers Dave Haslam, who was resident DJ at Manchester’s famous Haçienda club and warmed up the crowd at Spike Island. “It’s like [it was for] the people who saw the Sex Pistols at the 100 Club or The Rolling Stones at the Marquee. The fact you were there was enough.”
Noel Gallagher, the Oasis guitarist, attended. “It was a s___ gig,” he has said. “From a technical point of view, the wind was blowing the sound all over the place. I don’t think I got to hear one song properly. But that wasn’t the point. The point was [that] there was all those people there.”
Spike Island is notable for two more reasons. Far from marking the beginning of The Stone Roses’ imperial phase, it presaged the group’s decline. Perhaps more importantly, as the first of its kind Spike Island led to inventions (borne of both its audacity and its failings) still used at concerts today. The chemically-enhanced gathering on the chemical outcrop set the template for the outdoor mega-gigs that millions of music fans flock to every summer.
The Manchester music scene of the post-industrial late 1980s was colourful and inclusive. Dour bedroom bands such as Joy Division and The Smiths had given way to a porous underground culture that embraced Chicago house music, jazz-funk and soul. The drug of choice, ecstasy, enhanced this sense of togetherness.
The scene had its own fashion: bucket hats, ludicrously wide flared jeans and Kickers or Wallabees on the feet. Extreme proponents were known as Baldricks, after their pudding bowl haircuts influenced by Blackadder’s sidekick. A language developed, with phrases such as “Top one” and “Sorted” becoming so commonplace that they’ve become caricatures.
The movement’s spiritual homes were clubs The Haçienda and the International 2, whose owner Gareth Evans also managed the ambitious band at Manchester’s beating heart, The Stone Roses. Singer Ian Brown, guitarist John Squire, bassist Gary ‘Mani’ Mounfield and drummer Alan John ‘Reni’ Wren mixed the sweet harmonies of Simon & Garfunkel with the jangly psychedelia of The Byrds and Reni’s sublimely funky drumming. Their self-titled debut album in May 1989 captured the moment. According to i-D magazine in 1990, the so-called Scallydelic or Madchester scene was “the North’s practical and humorous two fingers to fashion and Southern wealth”.
Its influence seeped into unexpected places. “There was an old guy who had a market stall in Moss Side. I remember waving at him once and he shouted ‘Rave on!’ back at me. The phenomenon had reached the flower seller who last went out to a club in 1964,” Haslam recalls.
Anticipation for Spike Island built to fever pitch. The Roses, who once said they wanted to perform on the moon, stoked demand by going to ground in early 1990 following well-received concerts at Blackpool’s Empress Ballroom in August 1989 and at London’s Alexandra Palace that November, the same month they made their Top of the Pops debut (on the same show as Manchester contemporaries The Happy Mondays). The Roses’ hibernation wasn’t totally deliberate: they’d been arrested that January for vandalising their former record label’s offices. But Madchester snowballed around them.
In March 1990 the Mondays played the city’s vast G-Mex exhibition centre and had a top five hit with a cover of John Kongos’s He’s Gonna Step On You Again. Fellow Mancunians Inspiral Carpets and Stoke’s Candy Flip also tasted chart success (as did Scotland’s Primal Scream with Loaded, a modestly-successful single but the finest example of the period’s dance-rock hybrid). The underground was bubbling into the mainstream.
Still, an inaccessible island remained almost as inappropriate as the moon as a concert venue. It was reachable by just one pedestrian bridge, a huge arena needed to be built from scratch, and hundreds of locals objected. Even mother nature appeared sceptical: the island was subject to a perilous neap spring tide which, by cruel coincidence, was due to rise the night of the show.
Star Hire’s Barrett relished such logistical hurdles. Organisers built four temporary access bridges with the help of old army equipment (but not before outraged barging enthusiasts tried to block the canal). A senior fire officer helped develop a safety strategy should a nearby factory explode (stay put). And the challenge of building one of the biggest stages ever was eased by the invention of a new lightweight roofing system (called VerTech), used to this day at events such as British Summer Time in Hyde Park.
But a whiff of the underground remained. Barrett refused credit to the promoters so accepted payment in used notes, largely collected from nightclub doors. The money was handed over by Jones and Evans in carrier bags at service stations on the M6. Barrett remembers trying to deposit £45,000 in used fivers in a provincial branch of NatWest near Crewe. “It took two hours to convince the manager we were actually a responsible business,” he says.
Farce reigned. Eschewing support bands for DJs, the Roses had requested that Chicago house DJ Frankie Knuckles play. But their confused management booked a DJ called Frankie Bones instead. And there were strong suspicions that every ticket sold had been duplicated: stubs afterwards showed two of most numbers.
Overcrowding was just one problem on the day. It was hot, there was no shade or running water, and the bars were overrun. Gates opened at 2pm and the band weren’t on until 9, leaving an estimated 50,000 people with little to do but get monumentally stoned. Haslam watched the “gathering of the tribes” from his “rickety” DJ structure. A daytime show was a new experience. “We thought hippies did outdoor gigs,” he says.
And then the band came on. As the sun set Brown walked to the microphone and, arms aloft, declared, “The time is now.” The crowd’s reaction was biblical. The defining image towards the end of the sixteen-song set was of Brown holding an inflatable globe. To many present it didn’t matter that, according to Simon Spence’s Roses biography War and Peace, it sounded louder in Widnes town centre than on site.
It didn’t matter that the rising neap tide came within a yard of the police halting the event. And it didn’t matter that the Roses didn’t play well, thought the gig “anticlimactic” and failed to make a penny. Melody Maker slated the show. “The grander the scale, the harder the fall,” it said. Fans simply didn’t care. “I was there, near the front, 16 years old. I’m 41 now [and] I remember it being the best day or my life,” wrote fan Joanne Brookes under the sole scraps of grainy footage that exist on YouTube. (In writing this piece I was approached by a man who claimed to have unreleased footage of the entire show but I couldn’t ascertain how serious he was.)
Despite its failings Spike Island was the “blueprint” for Oasis, Gallagher has said. The show’s impact stretched far beyond the gig itself. Indeed, he believes the Roses “need never have played a note”. The gathering was enough. And it made him want to form “the biggest band in the world”.
On a practical level, the day had a lasting impact. Spike Island happened as the Home Office was compiling a safety manual for outdoor concerts after two Guns N’ Roses fans died at a festival in 1988. Star Hire shared its learnings from Spike Island. So when the wheelchair platform buckled after ravers commandeered it, the industry standard became stronger low-level structures.
When the fences were breached, stronger panels were designed. And when sleeping bodies were found beneath mounds of rubbish the next day, it became practice for vehicles to be banned from outdoor concerts until all rubbish had been removed. “We came scarily close to squashing a couple of unconscious people,” Barrett says. These findings became codified in the so-called Purple Guide on safety, still extant. Spike Island quite literally wrote the rule book.
A 2012 feature film and this year’s anniversary covers band recreation (postponed until September) help keep the Spike Island legend alive. But its euphoric chaos could only ever have happened on that day in May 1990. “Spike Island was us peaking,” says Haslam. “We expected to be outsider weirdos for the whole of our lives. It was far more than we’d ever imagined.”
The Roses themselves imploded after Spike Island. Wrangling with their record company and writers block meant that when they eventually released new music in 1995 they’d been superseded as kings of Manchester’s music scene by a band who would become one of the world’s biggest acts. That band was called Oasis. Gallagher had been as good as his word.
It’s ironic; almost Shakespearean in its poetry. Spike Island’s towering legacy contributed to the death of its very creators.