The last time The Stone Roses made a live British comeback, it began in the less-than-glamorous surroundings of Bridlington, a drab Yorkshire seaside town that sits between Scarborough and Hull.
It was 28 November 1995, around a year after the release of a disappointing album titled Second Coming. I had been sent to interview them for Q magazine. Behind the scenes, what I most recall is the absence of anything suggestive of success. They were billeted to a shabby seafront hotel; one of my clearest memories is of singer Ian Brown trying to cadge 20p to use an ancient payphone. I saw the whole group together twice: during the 90 minutes when they were onstage, and for a testy 15-minute photoshoot on the beach that took two hours to organise. "It's not all hunky-dory in Rosesworld," guitarist John Squire told me. Within a year, they had split up, in a cloud of acrimony and spite.
But now look. Over three nights next weekend, 225,000 people will swarm to Heaton Park in Manchester, to see the original lineup, all of whom are close to their 50th birthdays. The crowds, by contrast, are likely to be of all ages: some set on reliving a brief moment from their youth, others drawn not so much to a rock band, as a myth that has ballooned during the 22 years since the four of them last performed in the UK.
Yet consider a few inescapable facts. The band's peak came in 1990. They released only two albums: one very good, the other very patchy. And Brown's vocals remain as erratic as ever: one Observer critic was recently moved to celebrate one song in which he had hit "every single note perfectly" – which made him sound more like a contestant from The X Factor than a man charging people £55 to hear his group.
So far, the reformed Stone Roses have played concerts in Spain, Holland, Sweden, Denmark and Germany – and the shakily shot mobile-phone footage posted on YouTube suggests age and experience have eaten away at the mystique that tends to ebb away as musicians get older. Around a fortnight ago, online films recorded a much-reported episode at Amsterdam's Heineken Music Hall, when drummer Alan "Reni" Wren failed to return for the encores, and a solitary Brown came back on to the stage. With all the elegance of a grumpy MC at a British Legion club, he said: "The drummer's gone home. I'm not joking … Get all your aggro out on me, I can take it. What can I say? The drummer's a cunt."
It is a reccurring theme in the Stone Roses' almost 30-year history: discord, anticlimax, and occasional outbreaks of farce. For the most successful phase of their career, their manager – one Gareth Evans – was a former hairdresser who knew almost nothing about the music business, and signed them to one of the most iniquitous recording contracts in history (his legal adviser was a mortgage specialist from the Mancunian suburb of Sale). When they extracted themselves from its demands via the high court and disappeared from view, it was easy to think they had gone to one of those shadowy places into which rock legends occasionally disappear (American rehab facilities, castles in Ireland), but the reality was more prosaic: between 1991 and 1994 they were working on new music in a converted working men's club in Tintwistle, Derbyshire. Their comeback in the mid-90s was meant to be crowned by a headline appearance at Glastonbury in 1995 – but it was pulled when Squire fell off his bike.
Even the most celebrated episode in their career was plagued by mishap and bad management. On 27 May 1990, they played to 30,000 people at Spike Island, a reclaimed toxic-waste site near Widnes, in Cheshire. I was there: aged 20, and dressed in the obligatory baggy uniform of the time – impossibly wide jeans, an equally voluminous denim shirt, and red Kickers shoes ("You look like a clown," said my mother). That day, I thought I had experienced the time of my life: the Independent On Sunday called it "the Woodstock of a new generation", and despite all kinds of privations, my friends and I thought that was roughly what had happened.
In hindsight, it was a fiasco. The queues for the bars were impossibly long. The support acts were largely awful. By the early evening, all I could think of was how much I needed a wee, and how long it would be before the Roses appeared. When they finally emerged, the sound was so blown around by the wind they were sometimes all but inaudible. On the way out, the 30,000 people present were herded across a series of narrow bridges – at one point, as a frightening bottleneck took hold, the section in which I found myself began a spontaneous chant of "Hillsborough! Hillsborough!".
Most of this has been lost to history. A film titled Spike Island is now in production, built around a fictional band who make their way to the event without tickets, and have some kind of epiphany. The advance blurb talks about "the gig of the decade", and its director, Chris Coghill, has promised a "love letter to the Stone Roses and to Manchester in 1990". Modern Britain is in need of myths and legends – and no matter how badly they messed up last time, the Stone Roses can help.
And here, I think, is why. They made some great music, a lot of it crammed on to their first album, which is not quite the Best Record Ever Made that some overexcited people have claimed, but certainly one of the most perfectly realised British albums of the past 30 years. Moreover, their best songs embody a time when musical and political orthodoxies were changing at speed, and a lot of people felt suddenly liberated.
The Berlin Wall was about to come down, Mrs Thatcher would soon be gone, and the spread of ecstasy gave pop music a new mood of stampeding optimism. "Kiss me where the sun don't shine/The past was yours, but the future's mine" went She Bangs the Drums – which may have been standard-issue braggadocio, but sounded like a group in tune with how fast things seemed to be changing. Since getting back together, Squire and Brown have again been writing songs, and the band have signed two big record deals: the only description of new material that has done the rounds is of "psychedelic pop songs", which does not sound too different from their speciality last time. The difference will be not just how much they themselves have changed, but the fact that the things that made their music so resonant are part of a distant past.
Not that it counts for much, but that's one reason I'm not minded to see them play this time round. That, and the fact that I have had a peek behind the curtain. The day of the Bridlington gig, I was finally ushered into a backstage canteen area to interview Brown, bassist Gary "Mani" Mounfield and new drummer Robbie Maddix. Brown was wearing an oversized fleece, tracksuit bottoms and one of those winter hats, complete with ear-flaps, that makes anyone who wears them look completely ridiculous. His skin looked grey; compared to the person who had stared from magazine covers five years before, he seemed to have somehow collapsed in on himself.
And he was in no mood to be interviewed, not least because I had reviewed his band's second album in the NME and given it a mere six out of ten. For some reason, he was carrying one of those novelty harmonicas set into a big plastic banana. Every time I asked a question, he would blow into his banana and shoot me a look. At one point, he jumped up from his seat and, with no little malice, tried to push me out of the room. I know why I didn't walk out: not only did I have to deliver a 3,000-word feature, but I was 25, and still in awe of a group who had soundtracked my youth. And this was my reward: truculence and borderline bullying.
Squire, by contrast, was charm personified. He requested a solo interview, and we met the following morning. He was candid about the impasse the band had reached at their peak – when, for keeps, they became not just a band, but the signifier of an entire cultural moment: "I felt like we were flogging something for somebody, but I didn't know what it was or who they were. A lifestyle, I suppose. An attitude." With a knowing laugh, he said the precedent-setting court case that extracted them from their first record contract was "probably a greater contribution to popular music than anything we've recorded."
I talked to him again six years later, after he had stepped back from music to concentrate on being a painter and sculptor (Squire designed all the band's record sleeves; his Pollock-esque abstracts have long since worked as a series of de facto logos). Sitting around the kitchen table of his home-cum-studio on the edge of the Peak District, we discussed Second Coming, the album whose interminable gestation caused irreparable damage to the band, and had done for his friendship with Brown in particular. "Ian smoked too much dope," he told me. "When he was stoned, he was at best a tuneless knob, and at worst a paranoid mess."
If that seemed mean-spirited, it was a belated riposte to years of slights from his old colleague, about Squire's use of cocaine, and how upset Brown had been by his departure. ("He left me to sink or swim, simple as that," said the singer. "He didn't give a fuck"). The poisoned divide between them remained for more than a decade, and the idea of any reconciliation – let alone a band reunion – seemed slim. In March 2009, there were rumours of a comeback tour, which led Squire to produce an artwork based around the words: "I have no desire whatsoever to desecrate the grave of seminal Manchester pop group The Stone Roses." As with the Smiths and the Jam, it looked as if they would leave the snowballing craze for reunions well alone, which seemed all to the good, particularly in the case of a group with such a record of haphazardly damaging their own magic.
But now, after Squire and Brown met at Mounfield's mother's funeral and repaired their relationship, they are back: their legend has grown in absentia, but how can they live up to it, not least as men with an average age of 48.75?
Fair play to them, perhaps: in the wake of a career so ruined by accident and ineptitude, during which endless thousands seemed to fall through their fingers, it would be churlish to begrudge them the chance to finally have a go at doing things properly, and make a load of money in the process.
The bigger question is why so many people want to see them, though in the handbills for the other summer events where they'll be appearing – T in the Park, the V Festivals – there lurk all kinds of answers. Other headliners include Snow Patrol, the Vaccines and the Maccabees, who will turn up, do their thing with tedious proficiency and go blankly on their way. In other words, it falls to four men at the tail-end of their 40s to remind modern audiences of the tightrope walk that once lay between triumph and disaster, and why even in the midst of a talent for self-sabotage, an elusive something can still burn through.
That's the highfalutin theory, anyway. The more prosaic truth may be that in times as grim as these, thousands of people will happily pretend that the last 20 years have been rolled back, and that if only for a couple of hours, they can be back in 1990 – happily looking to a future which, for the Stone Roses as much as anyone, singularly failed to happen.