Hell might not quite have frozen over, but some great climatic sea-change must have occurred to effect the reunion of The Stone Roses, announced this week to a mixture of astonishment and glee from the band's fans. And given that the group's creative core of singer Ian Brown and guitarist John Squire had at one point not spoken for around a decade, it does seem a more surprising reunion than most.
The Stone Roses were one of Britain's most iconic groups of the post-punk era, their shuffling indie-dance grooves a route out of the grey indie mire into which "alternative" music had slipped towards the end of the 1980s.
The brooding but melodic acid-rock of their eponymous 1989 debut album, since voted the Greatest British Album Ever in one magazine poll, was a breath of fresh air that served to inspire a generation of Britpop bands, notably Oasis, whose Gallagher brothers extended further the lippy Mancunian self-assurance which Ian Brown had displayed in songs such as "I Am The Resurrection" and "I Wanna Be Adored".
The attitude extended beyond the songs, too: whenever they became involved in business disputes, the Stone Roses were as likely to take direct action as consult lawyers, in one case throwing paint over a label boss who accompanied a reissued single with a promo video they disliked.
It was their seemingly interminable dalliance with m'learned friends over a wide range of matters – some delinquent, some contractual – which delayed the release of the follow-up album, whose modest title The Second Coming rebounded on them when its ersatz heavy-rock was poorly received. In their absence, a succession of music trends - grunge, hip-hop, techno, retro-rock, trance/ambient – had displaced the "baggy" indie-dance scene, and the likes of Nirvana, Suede and Oasis chipped away at their constituency.
When The Stone Roses broke up shortly after, the accepted view was that John Squire, a gifted guitarist, would have no problem, while Brown, who couldn't play a note, would end up on the scrapheap. But Brown taught himself how to play guitar and write songs, using a blues songbook and Bob Marley as guidance.
Before long, he had acquired enough skills to write his debut album Unfinished Monkey Business, a collection of swamp-funk and dub grooves. It was immediately clear that despite the obvious shortfall in natural ability, he possessed the greatest ambition.
Brown was born in February 1963 in the Lancashire town of Warrington, and was brought up in the Manchester suburb of Timperley. His father George was a joiner whose socialist leanings made a sizeable impression on the youngster, as did his own youthful fascination with outsider heroes such as Bruce Lee, Muhammad Ali and George Best. "My dad brought me up to follow no man," Brown once said. This anti-establishment attitude runs through his half-dozen solo albums.
In his earlier work, Brown often lapsed into clichéd denunciations of war mongers and money grubbers, but by his fourth album Solarized, he was creating sharply wrought lines such as: "Oil is the spice to make a man forget man's worth". Like many an intelligent lad who left school too soon, as an adult he became something of an autodidact, with a particular interest in Britain's colonialist past. He was especially impressed by Marcus Garvey's biography, marvelling at the black nationalist's ambition.
Like Garvey, Brown was sentenced to time in jail – though not for his high-minded beliefs, simply for an in-flight fracas with cabin crew that he maintains was blown out of proportion. His two months was spent in Strangeways Prison. While unpleasant, his time inside passed peaceably enough. Pop stars in prison can be targets for notoriety-seekers, but he was threatened only once, and was heartened to find himself protected by fellow inmates. "I was touched by the way kids looked after me inside," he said later.
After his release Brown continued to mature, the twin powers of parenthood (he has three teenage sons) and sobriety supplanting the rock'n'roll attitude. Although there remains a touch of the old arrogance – when he sponsored his local football team Chiswick Homefields for a season, the team shirts bore the legend "IB – The Greatest" – he has also become a deeply spiritual man, albeit on his own terms. "I believe in the spirit," he says. "All the great tribes, through time, have all got it down to the one spirit – the aborigines, the Incas – all the prophets believed in the one God. But the organised churches have hijacked religion off all of us, they've stolen God from us, they've put the priest next to God."
While demand for tickets for the forthcoming Stone Roses shows – 150,000 tickets were sold within 15 minutes yesterday – confirms Brown's appeal among his own generation, to younger kids he may be better known for his brief cameo as a bohemian wizard drinking in the bar at the beginning of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Not that it prompted a desire to change the course of his career. "It didn't give me a taste for it," he said. "I'd rather be free and doing my own thing. The actors don't hear the applause, do they?"
Born: Ian George Brown, 20 February 1963, Warrington.
Family: Son of George, a joiner, and Jean, a receptionist. Divorcing Fabiola Quiroz, with whom he has a son. He has two other sons.
Education: Park Road County Primary and Altrincham Grammar School.
Career: The Stone Roses released just two albums. The first was voted the best British album of all time in 2004. After the band split in 1996, Brown pursued a solo career. In 2006 he was awarded NME's Godlike Genius Award.
He says: "There's more chance of me reforming the Happy Mondays than the Stone Roses." (2005)
They say: "The Stone Roses getting back together: not been this happy since my kids were born." Liam Gallagher.