Manic Street Preachers: Birmingham, NEC Genting Arena – live review
Manic Street Preachers | Editors
NEC Genting Arena
14th May 2016
IDP reports on the Manic Street Preachers gig showcasing their seminal Everything Must Go album here is his review of the show together with an exploration of the complexities of the English language.
“I went to the cinema after I’d eaten my dinner.”
In this sentence is the word ‘after’ being used as a subordinating conjunction or as a preposition?
That took you by surprise. It’s a question from the recent SAT tests for 11 year olds and it was put by Martha Kearney to schools minister Nick Gibb live on radio and he got it wrong. It’s ridiculous of course. Who could ever, in real life, need the ability to analyse a sentence in this kind of detail? Nobody probably and almost certainly nobody ever in the context of a Manic Street Preachers review.
Far across the North Sea in Stockholm two brave British minstrels armed only with unjustifiable optimism, the innocence of youth and a truly dreadful song are being given a beating by representatives of the rest of Europe.
I am standing in the dark by the side of the stage at the Genting Arena, waiting to photograph Editors, who are opening for the Manic Street Preachers. I am weighed down with cameras and I am thinking about Kevin Carter. It’s twenty three years since the South African photojournalist was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his photograph of a vulture eyeing up the crouching body of a malnourished Sudanese child and was subjected to a wave of condemnation, (including being compared to the bird itself), for preying on a suffering child without rushing to feed and adopt it himself, all despite the fact that the child was unharmed and had been placed on the ground for a few minutes while her mother went to a nearby feeding station.
It’s twenty two years since he taped up the exhaust of his pick up and killed himself, leaving a note which said –
“the pain of life overrides the joy to the point that joy does not exist.”
Twenty one since the disappearance of Richey Edwards and twenty since Carter’s name became the title of the third track on Everything Must Go, the breakthrough fourth album by the Manic Street Preachers, whose birthday we are to celebrate this evening. (There’s a Twentieth Anniversary reissue of the album, reviewed by Simon Tucker here.)
As well as the vulture and child image Carter photographed murders and executions with unflinching courage. He was the first photographer to shoot a necklace murder in South Africa and his images of thin legs projecting from the burning carcase on a muddy township street are as powerful and terrifying as photos get.
I’ve managed to get through my life so far without ever witnessing a major disaster or tragedy or murder and I have no idea what I would do if I was faced with one. Run away probably. I’m not known for my courage. Or maybe stay to help. But if I had my cameras with me? I think I’d probably stop to take pictures, partly because the historical record is important, partly because I know they’d sell. It’s not a good feeling, but I am that shallow and mercenary.
Kevin Carter is my favourite track on Everything Must Go, not just because I’m a photographer but also just because it did an earworm thing on me, when I first heard it and long before I knew what it was about. As we shall be reminded tonight, whatever the merits of their politics and poetry, the Manic Street Preachers have always been distinguished by their ability to write a shit hot little poppy rock song that won’t let go of you, so you find yourself singing it quietly to yourself days later.
But the song itself, one of four Richey Edwards compositions on the album is, like most of the songs on the album, remarkably difficult to interpret. Is Edwards criticising or defending Carter? To this day I still don’t know.
The key line is –
“Vulture stalked white piped lie forever”
And what I am trying to decide is whether in that lyric the word lie is being used as a noun, referencing Carter’s lie in the photograph, (it was, in part, a set up, Carter late admitted to waiting twenty minutes for the perfect shot to arrive and the child was not dying despite the image implying the opposite), or as a verb referring to the child lying on the ground. Lie might also be suggesting that the photo itself is lying about the nature of its relationship with the event (we know that Edwards had been reading Roland Barthe’s Camera Lucida on the subject of the philosophy of photography, shortly before his disappearance). It’s not made any easier by the fact that the lyrics are more like a series of jotted notes than a fully developed piece of grammatically correct writing with neatly completed sentence construction.
This seems to me to be part of what makes Everything Must Go special. A few scribbled words, some of which make sense, most of which don’t. Some stirring guitar chords and glistening strings, a strange and conflicted mixture of the uplifting and the melancholy, an unashamedly commercial piece of blue collar agit pop that references art and artists at every turn.
When the lights go down and we file into the pit for Editors I haven’t reached a definite conclusion. I will ask an eleven year old who has just aced their SATs. It gives me comfort to know that in the future, when the Gove/Morgan project is reaping dividends, all British school leavers will be able to write fully grammatical songs with a clear verb, subject and object in every stanza, plus, of course, an appropriate number of subordinating conjunctions.
Editors manage to convince me that I really don’t know enough about them and that they would repay some serious listening. Given their reputation for bleakness I’d been expecting something altogether moodier but they’re upbeat and edgy and very good and possess, in Tom Smith, a front man vocalist whose hypermobility and vocal intensity are mesmerising and somewhat reminiscent of a bendy Nick Cave. They’re on home ground and seem to have a large crowd of followers in and their sound clearly recalls Joy Division among many others. I’ve read (on Wikipedia, there I said it) that the band have asserted that JD are simply too ancient to be considered an influence on their own output but it’s not a line of argument that permissible in the context of a twentieth birthday album show. So there.
Twenty years hey? Doesn’t time fly? In 1996 when the Manic Street Preachers hit the big time John Major was Prime Minister (with a year to go) and the Tories were divided over Europe, Bill Clinton was still in his first term, the Spice Girls and Peter Andre were dominating the charts and we were getting thrashed at Eurovision.
I’m never sure about the logic of album shows. Even the best albums have their weaker moments and the logic of the two forms is very different. Conventional wisdom says that you put your strongest songs at the start of an album. It also says that you build towards them in a live show. Everything Must Go is an album whose second half is noticeably less strong than the first (until of course you get to No Surface All Feeling). It’s going to be curious how a set can kick off with the likes of Elvis impersonator: Blackpool Pier and A Design For Life and build towards Removables, Interiors and Further Away without seeming front heavy.
If there’s a problem with that then nobody has told the Manic Street Preachers. They’re on excellent form, angular and edgy and as in your face as you like. They storm through the early songs in the set, including a jagged and energetic Everything Must Go. In the absence of strings (which would have been nice in the context of the 20th anniversary) it sounds less like a lost James Bond Theme than usual. James Dean Bradfield delivers a tender solo acoustic Small Black Flowers and Nicky Wire performs a series of jumps, pirouettes and fancy walks that suggest he’s training for a bass players’ dressage competition. Invisible behind the drums Sean Moore holds the whole thing together with his usual immaculate drumming and of course Richey Edwards is a major presence at the show. The band reference him frequently, particularly at the start of Flowers and The Girl Who Wanted To Be God which they dedicate to him and to Sylvia Plath and perform before a backdrop of disco lighting that is utterly counterintuitive and somehow just right.
When the second half of the album arrives the band simply seem to step up the intensity of their playing, with Bradfield supplying some nice guitar licks, particularly on Removables. Australia is of course a live favourite and this version seems faster and more staccato than the album cut but it still send the crowd pretty wild.
As the album set draws to a close the air blowers start and the arena is filled with coloured ribbons which arch into the dark vault before descending to the floor. Several get caught up in the overhead cables and gantries where they hang, waving gently, for the rest of the show, like the tendrils of huge jellyfish or intestines in a serial killer’s bedroom.
After a break the Manic Street Preachers are back for a second set and it may be my imagination but it looks to me as if, released from the obligation to stick to the album material, they’re much happier. We get a solo Tsunami from Bradfield and a riveting Motorcycle Emptiness performed on a blood red stage with what is probably my favourite Manics guitar riff ringing out urgently across the arena. Bradfield takes a few spins across the stage and Wire is on great, sly form. He reminds the audience of previous Manics gigs in the area, ending by singing the praises of Aston Villa leisure centre which brings an inevitable groan from the crowd. Wire admits that he knew it would happen and uses it to leverage his way into Natwest-Barclays-Midlands-Lloyds – “Don’t get angry about that, get angry about this….” and the show ends with If You Tolerate This.
A simply excellent show.
Oh and it’s a subordinating conjunction. A lot of parents went on strike over these tests and kept their kids off school, but not enough – and if you tolerate this then your children will be doing these same ridiculous tests this time next year.