It was 1999. Ian Brown, already an Icon, stood poised for the biggest release of his career. The protracted demise of the Stone Roses behind him, Brown had already made good on the rarest of opportunities with his debut solo album, ‘Unfinished Monkey Business’.
A bitter fallout with boyhood friend John Squire allowed him a chance of reckoning; the ability to deliver something so angst ridden, vengeful and honest, in the way that only a debut album could.
Locked and loaded, Brown fired shot after shot at Squire’s emotional retreat from their friendship, (‘Ice Cold Cube’, ‘Nah Nah’) and his perceived obsession with money (‘Deep Pile Dreams’).
In January that year, Squire’s “The Seahorses” called time on their short-lived stint in the limelight. Inevitably, Roses reunion talk began. Amongst fans, there was a feeling that Brown had aired his problems, and Squire? He had tried his hand elsewhere, but surely now, a reconciliation beckoned.
Brown however, after a tough time at her majesty’s pleasure, had other ideas. Speaking on BBC2’s “The Ozone” in the same year, he bristled: “This country owes me 60 days. I will take it by all means necessary…”
That fire was clear for all to see on the bombastic opener, ‘Getting High’. Again, lyrical shots flew at Squire (“I could have found you if I wanted/ I wouldn't even have to try / Saved you if I longed to / You didn't wanna see me by”). Aziz Abraham’s guitar work combined the lo-fi outer space elements of the debut with an expansion of the Roses second album.
Brown’s prison sentence was farcical. A four-month stint, having offended an air hostess - the same sentence Gary Glitter received for a hard drive indecent images of children, following an ill-advised trip to PC World just a few months earlier. As a category D prisoner at Strangeways, Brown served the entirety of his 4 months there, in one of the country’s largest high security, Category A prisons.
However, the frustration and darkness of prison, became Brown’s muse. For it was here he would write ‘Free My Way’, ‘Set My Baby Free’ and ‘So Many Soldiers’. ‘Free My Way’ opens with the haunting line of ‘jingle jangle here’s the jailor, heaven’s here right now on earth’, viscerally describing the anguish of hearing the prison guard coming to lock him up each night.
Speaking to artist (and former forger) John Myatt, Brown talks with great affection about the people he met in prison; the spirit of those with far less, being perhaps the key to Brown maintaining his positive pop instincts on the record. When you consider the adverse effect prison had on Rob Collins (The Charlatans), we should be grateful to all of those people who helped our hero through his darkest days.
The chemical electronics of ‘Set My Baby Free’. The intoxicating distortion of the ‘Golden Gaze’. The vocal melody of ‘Free My Way’. All of this seriously tested periphery of what pop music could be 20 years ago. As the British alternative bands moved away from pop into their masterpiece era (Spiritualised - Ladies and Gentlemen, We Are Floating in Space; Pulp – This Is Hardcore; Primal Scream – XTRMNTR), Brown busily funnelled the vast imagination of the aforementioned acts via the medium of pop music to stand alone in the crowd once more.
When King Monkey Head was in high spirits, the alt-pop really shone. ‘If Dolphins Were Monkeys’ had the rhythmic funkadelic charm of the Roses. Meanwhile, ‘Love Like A Fountain’ is a trippy soul record from outer space.
The bravery, the creativity and crucially, the impact of ‘Golden Greats’, went on a long way to quelling the Roses reunion talk and would put pay to that eventuality for another 13 years.
Like the sexuality of Bowie and the satellite town visions of early Suede, Brown captured the world he, and he alone lived in, and enticed you in, if not invited. This blueprint became template for Brown’s solo career to come but it was here, despite being the difficult second album, that it launched in earnest.