After the success of its musical shift with Sally Cinnamon in 1986, The Stone Roses began delving deeper into psychedelic numbers.
Elephant Stone was one off the results, a thumping and propulsive dance-like number with catchy hooks and enigmatic lyrics. Pretty much everything that makes the band great in one nifty little capsule.
But there are two versions of the song, so let’s a dive into its history and get all happy about elephants and that.
The History of Elephant Stone
As usual, singer Ian Brown and guitarist John Squire penned the lyrics to Elephant Stone.
Peter Hook, of New Order and Joy Division fame (see 24 Hour Party People), produced the first take on the song.
It was the third single released by the band and launched in October 1988. But it was recorded in January 1988, it just took a while for the band to get a label to release it.
And Elephant Stone, as with many of The Stone Roses’ songs, never did make it onto an official album release.
Unless you count the American version of the band’s eponymous debut. On that, Elephant Stone and Fools Gold were added to boost the album to the US audience.
Elephant Stone was created in part to show the world what drummer Reni was capable of. The band was eager to flag up their exceptional drummer.
Although, if you read everything below, it’s kind of telling about the band they didn’t bother doing much else for him.
Still! With this song, in particular during live performances, it was pretty clear the level Reni was at.
But, yes, Elephant Stone initially launched with the 12 inch vinyl cut. That version is almost five minutes long and highlights Reni’s drum patterns.
However, a shorter version was recorded with John Leckie in a deal with Silvertone Records.
This features more of Squire’s famous wah-wah guitar playing. The band made this somewhat awkward mimed performance for a TV show called Music Box to show the song off.
So, yes, what is an Elephant Stone? What is the song about? As Squire put it:
“Love and Death… War and Peace… Morecambe and Wise…”
Although it wasn’t a successful single when first launched, after the band’s rise to superstardom in during 1989 it was launched again as a single in 1990. Then it peaked at #8 in the UK charts.
Anyway, analysing the song and it’s clearly about… well? Perhaps a bad drug trip. Ecstasy was pretty rife in Madchester during the late ’80s.
Elephant Stone may actually refer to an ecstasy tablet. Here’s a portion of the lyrics:
Burst into heaven,
Kiss in the cotton clouds,
Arctic sheets and fields of wheat,
I can’t stop coming down.
Your shrunken head,
Looking down on me above,
Send me home like an elephant stone,
To smash my dream of love,
Dreaming ’til the sun goes down,
And night turns into day,
Rooms are empty, I’ve got plenty,
You could move in right away.
Seems like there’s a hole,
In my dreams.
Bear in mind The Who’s Pete Townshend had penned songs in the mid-late 1960s based on his experiences with drugs.
And Elephant Stone seems to be The Stone Roses’ delve into that world, along with nods to the likes of Love’s 1967 album Forever Changes.
All of which is wrapped around a catchy and rather exhilarating song that moves at quite the rate. Depending on which version you listen to.
Live, the band tended to choose the shorter three minute take as an earlier set opener after I Wanna Be Adored. That worked very effectively, as it got the audience full into dancing flow after the slower opening number.
But we do prefer the 12″ version, with Reni’s drum loop followed by jangly guitars and all the fabulousness of it.
Elephant Stone shows Brown and Squire had made incredible strides with their song writing and structuring in the space of a few years.
It’s very assured and quite brilliant. But one of the crucial elements is drummer Reni. Peter Hook said of him:
“Reni’s drumming lent such a character and identity to the songs. Ian and John had got it with the melodies and lyrics but they were lucky to get Reni because he took them from being a traditional, normal rock band into the stratosphere with other great groups.”
And that’s pretty telling here, as you wonder what a lesser drummer would have done with the song. Just the usual dun-dun-clank?
With Reni, instead it became an instantly memorable song with a driving, propulsive force behind it. And that was very noticeable during live performances.
Notable Live Performances of Elephant Stone
Along with The Who’s Keith Moon, it was Reni who got us into drumming back around 2001.
We bought the VHS tape of Blackpool Live 1989 on a lunch break from college, getting the bus to Preston to check out the HMV (an entertainment shop here in England).
When we saw it we were blown away by Reni at this gig, right off the second number in and he’s delivering that superhuman effort. It’s blistering and incredible.
As one commenter on that YouTube video puts it:
“Reni is a marvellous drummer! He has this ability to be light, supple, funky and swing a song into a blissful rhythmic cloud.”
However, despite the popularity of the song with fans, the band didn’t include it in their 2012 reunion world tour set. It was strange in its absence.
It did eventually return, though, from 2013 onward until the band’s final gig in June 2017.
One of the best versions comes from a performance at Glasgow Green in 1990 (often cited as the band’s best ever gig). It shows them at their absolute peak.
And there’s also a very important early version of the song, which was played at Manchester’s Anti-Clause 28 gig in May 1988.
Anti-Clause 28 was a major LGTB movement in England against Thatcher’s Tory government, whose homophobic Clause 28 (also called Section 28) set out laws prohibiting the “promotion of homosexuality” in society.
Thatcher introduced that to tap into the general bigotry of the right-wing voters of the day, which backfired spectacularly when left-wing demonstrations led to major steps forward in gay rights across the country.
The Stone Roses, who all went on the march in May 1988 (pre-fame, we might add, it was no publicity stunt) were very much anti-Tory in general.
In fact, The Stone Roses (the eponymous debut) is an assault on the Tories and the monarchy system.
And this gig helped bring attention to the cause.
But another notable thing here is it’s such an early version of the song, including a lengthy drum intro.
This was eventually refined as The Stone Roses improved on their live act. Yet it’s impressive to see, even in 1988, they had it down as a number that’d come to define their sound.
Elephant Stone’s Drum Pattern
Reni came up with a very clever piece of drumming that’s memorable and deceptively simple.
It’s a case of relying on the right tom tom, pelting out a beat on that and crossing one arm over another to drive the song along.
It’s one of those, “Why didn’t I think of that!?” type of deals for other drummers.
There’s a great take on it above by Louie Malvessi on his YouTube channel. It’s become one of Reni’s most covered drum numbers on YouTube.
It’s worth watching the above and then going back above to see the Blackpool 1989 performance, as he’s full on there. Sensational, even.
But it’s just a great fun bit of drumming to play. One to impress people with, but also a good workout as it keeps your arms very busy.
Full credit to Reni on that one, as he’d cut back to a three-piece kit around 1986 and was relying on his creativity and natural feel to make it sound like he was on a 10 piece kit.
Mighty impressive. Like an Elephant Stone.