Amongst The Stone Roses’ many classic songs, Waterfall is (for us) the impeccable masterpiece of the lot.
An inspiring and uplifting track, it’s undoubtedly our favourite from the Manchester band. And we’re taking a close look at it.
Now, a quick plug here for John Robb’s highly insightful The Stone Roses and the Resurrection of British Pop. Thanks to that intricate work, we found out a huge amount about the band’s inner workings during the 1980s.
But, okay, the song! It’s the third track on The Stone Roses’ eponymous debut (1989) It’s deceptively simplistic, with John Squire’s looping guitar riff that’s like a canon as it continues on for the first section.
Ian Brown’s hushed lyrics are soon joined by drummer Reni’s borderline falsetto backing vocals, and his drumming sets the track in full motion.
We hear about chimes, racing from this hole she calls home, and becoming free from the filth and the scum. Later on we get:
Stands on shifting sands, The scales held in her hands, The wind it just whips her and wails, And fills up her brigantine sails.
The chorus lets us know she’ll carry on through it all, she’s a waterfall.
Bass player Mani rumbles along in the background, but the driving force to Waterfall are Brown, Squire’s looping riff that chimes as it matches crashing cymbals, and drummer Reni with his jazzy fills.
He’s busy at work on the high-hat, mainly, but his soaring backing vocals really complement Brown’s innocent style.
Recording for the eponymous debut album took place in London back in 1988. And the year after that (1989—for anyone lacking mathematical skills).
Whilst clearly committed to the task, the band was also committed to dicking around as much as humanly possible.
Particularly The Stone Roses’ pin-up, Reni, whose silly wit is in full force throughout video footage at the time.
The behind the scenes clips of the band in the studio, down in London, first appeared on a Stone Roses DVD in 2004.
There were various demos for Waterfall. It’s unclear when it was written, but versions first emerged around 1987.
One of these is below, which was fine-tuned in time for the 1989 album. This turned up to mark the 20th anniversary of the band’s eponymous debut.
The meaning of the lyrics is up for debate. On songmeanings.com we came across one analysis from 2006 that we don’t agree with:
"This is an astonishing song, great riff and those lyrics... I'm not a flag waver or anything but I think this is one of the most profoundly patriotic songs i've ever heard. Britain's got its faults, its old and creaky, it lives in the past etc, but despite being almost submerged by the influence of US culture it carries on in its rickety eccentric way. The absolute master stroke is that the song is in the style of a sea shanty with Ian Brown doing his folky best to sound like a 19th century troubador."
The eponymous debut album is anti-Tory and anti-monarchy. A few other comments reflected this, but Ian Brown has said it’s a song about a woman who’s had enough.
She takes some drugs and goes to Dover, planning to escape the country? Or contemplate the modernisation of England?
Manchester in ’80s era England wasn’t exactly a great place to live. Quite the opposite.
In fact, the allure of The Stone Roses for many was they offered life-affirming music despite the poverty and decay that generation faced under Thatcher.
So for us it’s a song about escape. Leaving behind poverty and working class hopelessness—there is a way out, one way or another.
Our favourite song from the band? Yes. But then there are many other classics to pick from, too. Manchester’s finest, we say!
Rehearsals for the band in Lancaster on 08/06/1989 show the four members absolutely riffing off an unexpected rise to national stardom. They were on a mission.
And this is a perfect example why The Stone Roses were so special at their peak.
Brown sounding fabulous, John Squire on form, Mani fitting in effortlessly, and a genius drummer almost dominating the show with his singing and rhythm skills.
Although Ian had been smoking all day so sounds like crap at the ’89 Blackpool gig, the band’s musical abilities are nonetheless on full show.
It’s a punkier version here, but it shows off the effectiveness of the outro and how thrilling the band’s live performances were at their peak.
Particularly noticeable is the sheer physical effort of Reni’s drumming, which you can hear in the thunderous climax. On a three-piece kit he’s going ballistic.
Better live versions exist, particularly from the legendary Glasgow Green gig in 1990. But for its impact and punchiness, we like the Blackpool effort.
On other recordings around the time, Reni’s backing vocals that really help lift the song.
Another live performance at Alexandra Palace in 1989 highlights the importance of his live contributions.
The recording isn’t the best, with Brown’s vocals lost in the mix. But Reni’s backing harmonies are pulled right to the fore.
That recording makes us think of an NME journalist’s comments about the drummer following a live show in Amsterdam.
"Drummer Reni is magnificent. In Amsterdam, I’d watched him soundcheck for an hour on his own, slapping 17 shades of shining shite out of his kit for the sheer unbridled joy of playing."
Heading over to Tokyo for show on the 10th October, 1989, the take on Waterfall is again quite punchy and punky.
The Stone Roses were very much The Who with their live performances.
With the studio albums polished and magnificent (and that does include some of the best bits from Second Coming).
But their live performances were a different beast entirely. And whilst Brown’s vocals could be a bit all over the place, his stage presence never did falter.
At their collective peak, the band was indeed magnificent. All four members working in unison to deliver this work of genius.
Don’t Stop—Reversing Waterfall
On a final note, the band had a habit of taking their songs and then reversing them. They found they could add lyrics over that and have another great track!
Don’t Stop is one such example. It’s Waterfall reversed, with Brown’s cryptic lyrics added over the top for excellent effect.
We like this one a lot, too, it plays right after Waterfall on the acclaimed debut album.