Manic Street Preachers
There’s something idiosyncratic about seeing former snotty firebrands playing the festival circuit.
The wide eyed talk of changing the world with a song, the idealism and that wild, no holds barred teenage energy neatly packaged up into well executed greatest hits set of classic songs played to 30 000 teenagers in a foreign field who sort of know who you are two years after your last appearance there.
Of course there are worse ways to see out the end game of your creative idealism and the Manics are like a greatest hits machine these days but is this what they were buying into when they started? They still make great albums – the last three have had some of their best songs on them, so there is no creative dead end here and they always did want to make it and their powerfully emotive songs fill these big spaces but it’s a long way from the generation terrorists.
The Manics burst onto the scene with immaculate lipstick sneers, their caustic hatred was only matched by their intelligence and perfect songs. From the moment I heard them I loved them. A punk rock band in the middle of baggy! Skinny and cool small town rebels with high decibel IQs and a manifesto to match.
I remember them from further back to that demo tape I got before they had even released a single. It arrived with a lengthy diatribe/letter from Richey which got me interested before I had even heard the tape. At that point in time no-one did diatribes and no-one cared about that kind of righteous stuff, music was pretty stoned then and this kind of punk rock rhetoric had been long off the agenda. The demo backed it up as well, hopelessly idealistic punk rock genius, I was in love but who else would possibly be listening to this kind of stuff at that time?
They released a couple of singles and I interviewed them and started flagging them up in Sounds as part of a pincer attack with the late and great Swells over at the NME. We were hopelessly romantic old punks, even then, who still believed in the three chord revolution and the Manics fitted the bill perfectly plus they could really talk an interview- firing quotes like an AK47 as they musically mashed the Clash with Guns n Roses and sharp lyrics and a stance that seemed to piss everyone off.
Good job James could play that guitar and write them songs!
I remember interviewing them in the back of a van outside Heavenly Records Islington office for their first front cover. We all sat on the amps because no-one had any money to go to the pub and the band didn’t seem like caners which was unusual in those Manc baggy days when stumbling out of your head was the currency of the times.
It all seems like 24 hours ago as the young and quite shy band machine gunned me with a series of outrageous statements and a personal verbal manifesto that was thrilling to hear. They all could talk and were obviously smart but were mainly let Richey do the talking, and smiled as he laid out the game plan with his quiet and shy voice laying out quotes that would make you decide which side of the wall you were on.
Even after that front cover they still didn’t get anyone to their gigs. They even spent a time as the most hated band in Britain- all that eye liner and ammunition ambition was too much for most people. Somehow though, the songs ended up doing the talking and they pulled off one of the smartest tricks in pop- talk dangerous and sound conventional, the rest of us fools have always tried to make the music match the vitriol, the Manics were radio friendly in a genius way and utterly and quite brilliantly mainstream.
It’s been a couple of years since I saw them live and it’s been a mighty long way down rock n roll from the early shows in crap colleges on the outskirts of London or the Boardwalk in Manchester or those weird venues in the middle of nowhere or that empty tour they played with Flowered Up. The last time I saw the Manics they were now as mainstream as the Gap trousers they wore and the clutch of leopardkskin and smudged eyeliner kids were timidly wandering around the venue trying to avoid the glares of the beery lads who had come along for the sing along to ‘Design For Life’.
Don’t get me wrong, I love it when a band hits the mainstream, I grew up with the gilded mainstream in my glam rock youth- Trex, Bowie and Mott The Hoople were all chart botherers and they ruled. The Manics were just doing the same job, hitting the top ten and teasing the listener with hints of the underground, bringing more to the table than meat and potatoes lyrical content and fake love pop stodge and they still had songs that could really move you.
And we meet again in a dusty field in Budapest.
They were always a pragmatic band and the festival circuit is built for their mighty anthems. If they don’t challenge any more with their rock n roll, their wistful melancholia is still really effective. James is virtually the one man band, with his astonishing guitar playing and his voice pure and beautiful- Slash only had to play guitar in Guns n Roses! Nicky Wire looks far cooler without his mini skirt- he never had the legs for it anyway! and still has that collection of old school punk rock poses to run through. He is a charismatic talisman for the kids who still feel anything in the consumer numbed world, the white crap that answers back as Mark E Smith once sang whilst Sean Moore is a classic low key rock drummer with the necessary power and precision.
They still have an urgency and a power to their music and even if the whole crowd is not as ecstatic as they were for the previously night’s set by the Prodigy or seems to fully know all their songs they still create their own ambience in the sticky night air.
The Manics never reached the sheer heights outside the UK that they did at home. The youthful audience in Hungary are too young to know the band’s back history or the time and the place they came from or the politics or the desperate sadness of Richey’s disappearance/suicide. All that’s left is an introverted rock band playing anthemic songs- perfect for the UK but the rest of the world likes ‘Woo Argh!’ mad performers and they won’t get that from the Manics. In that British way they let the music speak for itself and in that British post punk way they still deal the like it or lump it attitude.
The songs sound crystal clear through the best PA I’ve ever heard at a festival and you are reminded of just how many great hits the band have had over years- an unbroken run of 33 top 40 hits till last year when they dropped just outside the singles chart with ‘Some Kind Of Nothingness’ stalling at number 44.
The songs capture every mood from euphoria to angst to sadness before touching loss and bereavement and community. They can even still do firebrand like on ‘Slash And Burn’ and you are catapulted back in time to Heavenly Records office and label boss Jeff Barrett finding ways to make the band massive, laughing at the controversial artwork, or flying us out to Paris to review the band at a Heavenly night when yet again they were totally against the zeitgeist- all smudged beauty and white denim in a baggy sea.
The highlights are, of course, ‘Design For Life’ and ‘Motorcycle Emptiness’- does anyone else dare write songs drenched with so much pure emotion and dislocated poetry? but the best is ‘Ocean Spray’ James’s touching paean to his dying mother- the intimate made into stadium and its at this point you fully realise the real genius of the band which is a long way away from their anger and is far closer to their sensitivity couched inside the high decibel of a rock n roll show, it’s a beautiful song that the bands own heroes like Guns n Roses would never dare to write.
And here we are decades later in a huge dusty arena where all the bands end up whatever their style, whatever their extremes- these are the lucky ones, the survivors, the ones that got the hits now playing back to back festival bills where once opposing band’s fit into a seamless well produced whole. The Manics do this perfectly, the band with more comebacks than any other, surviving still creating some of their best work, still out there and still sounding so pure that if Richie was watching he would probably allow himself a rare smile.