Jumbo Coke pails in the area as our heroes take the final step from despair to warehouse-scaled arena rock...
A man of indeterminate age dressed in an understated five-figure suit glides across the lobby of Manchester's refined Holiday Inn, pausing only to whisper something in the ear of an aide. His leathery tan and bulky jewellery indicate some level of importance but, for some moments, the weather-beaten face remains unrecognisable.
"Fuckin' hell!" splutters Sean Moore as he sprays his Long Island Iced Tea out in a large arc. "It's Tony Bennett!" A second look confirms the presence of Anthony Dominick Benedetto, the crooner responsible for definitive versions of 'Stranger In Paradise' and Left My Heart In San Francisco' plus 1000 bad club acts. As Sean is fanned vigorously, his face drops again with the entrance of a portly David Soul, closely followed by Cagney And Lacy's Tyne Daly. Such a procession may be commonplace in the cocktail lounges of Las Vegas or Beverly Hills but in Manchester, you're more likely to witness Ian Curtis dancing the macarena.
The reason both Tony Bennett (plus ex-TV cop entourage) and the Manics are here is Music City, a week of seminars, showcase gigs and self-promotion. Multi-millionaire balladeers will be sharing media space with clanking Korean percussion artists, while Factory Records groot kaas Tony Wilson will doubtless claim that Manchester has been at the root of every musical form since the Big Bang. With the colossal Nynex holding 17,000, it's as good a place as any for the Manics to dip their toes into the ocean of stadium rock. As well as it being their last indoor gig this year, it's also their biggest headline date so far and, if successful, should see them clear to claim silver medal in the UK's guitar-band steeplechase.
Outside the arena itself there are ominous signs warning the crowd to "Watch out for the puck" - a reference to its day job of hosting ice hockey matches - but inside the atmosphere is that of a monstrous cinema. Usherettes move up and down the aisles flashing their Maglites, indicating the allotted space. The huge sloping banks of comfortable seats are full of people in TopRiverNext striped T-shirts armed with pails of Coke and huge tubs of popcorn that they stealthily munch while impassively gazing upon the support bands (Embrace, Audioweb, Mansun). As with most arena soirees, first impressions are that the audience is required to be there but in no way will they gain any feeling of involvement. It's a show rather than a gig: something different to do of a Saturday evening, like ten-pin bowling or Laserquest.
All of which must sit uneasily on the shoulders of James, Nicky and Sean. The old guard of fans - the feather-boa-wearing disaffected obsessionists with arms and faces smeared with blood-red lipstick - are being edged out in favour of gangs of thick-set men and contented couples who mirror the images projected onto the two giant video screens as part of the pre-gig cinematic ritual. As the orchestral version of 'A Design For Life' sweeps from the speakers, slogans like 'A Sense Of Belonging', 'Hope Lies With The Proles' and 'When Freedom Exists There Will Be No State' are flashed amid footage of gallivanting posh people and violent rioting. Devotees down the front with 'Hell Is Other People' T-shirts and multi-bangled arms follow every flicker, while conversations in the seats continue with fidgety impatience.
Finally the Manics trudge on, heads bowed. James murmurs a greeting, but his nervous delivery makes him largely incomprehensible and they fall straight into an impossibly fast 'Everything Must Go'. Whether it's nerves at being faced with the population of a small town or a desire to get things over with as quickly as possible isn't clear. But they appear to be so uncomfortable that James even fluffs a few lines of a song he's played endlessly over the past 12 months.
The similarly rapid dispatch of 'Enola Alone' is followed by the screens kicking back into life and flashing the lyrics to 'Faster', perfectly syncing James's venomous outpourings a single word at a time. Like a souped-up karaoke machine for university lecturers, the screens blip "Mensa... Miller... Mailer... Plath... Pinter" before finally coming to rest on the words "So damn easy to cave in, man kills everything". The staccato messages could mean any number of things - but the effect appears suited to to tonight's aura of mass entertainment, if only to improve the audience singalong potential.
The songs themselves lose nothing in translation to the arena vernacular: 'Kevin Carter' still sounds like a gargantuan blast with James spinning around on one leg and Nicky looking impossibly aloof, nose permanently in the up position - while 'Removeables' is propelled by brute force alone and no less affecting for it. The acoustic interlude, James picking out This Is Yesterday' and 'Small Black Flowers That Grow In The Sky' in a wash of vulnerability, gives a brief respite before Nicky, in heavy green eye make-up, and Sean return and stamp their way through 'Australia'.
Finally, the seated droves gain life and the apparent size of the place decreases as Nicky poses on the drum riser, impassively looking out across the dense mass of indistinguishable bodies. The stride is finally hit and all reservations are quashed with one jubilant roar.
"Let me introduce you to the sonic purveyors," says James in a single concession to the normal trappings of arena work. "The man who thinks he's eight foot four but is actually six foot -Nicky Wire (huge rumbling cheer]. And the man who has the best shampoo and is the most pragmatic - Sean Moore (hair-shakingly loud approval". And then into 'A Design For Life', played out in the necessary epic dimensions and extracting the screaming response that's taken over an hour to build up. The final gesture comes with the release of thousands of paper strips from the ceiling during a bilious 'You Love Us'.
Like some New Year's Eve party full of nostalgia for years gone by, early footage of wasted-glamour period Manics comes up on the screens. From playing under a constant hail of cans and abuse, mouthing off to anyone about their desire to sell 60 million albums, to tonight's uneasy movement toward stadium acceptancy, the stark contrast is undisguised. There's still some work, to be done - getting the message across without becoming Bryan Adams is no small task - but judging by the euphoric state of Troubled Adolescent and Poloboy alike as they file out, victory hangs in the air.
At the band's aftershow party in a featureless conference room back at the hotel, Sean is typically unmoved by the evening's proceedings. "It was hard, really hard. I didn't really enjoy it, but we'll keep plugging away." While he goes off in search of the absent Tony Bennett, James enters the room and is immediately surrounded by people pumping his hand and offering their congratulations.
"It was all a bit crass really," he shrugs. "It could have gone totally stadium but we really don't want to get into that. We're just ourselves and will always be that way. It's not in our nature to be contrived." With that, he's whisked away to meet yet more wide-eyed enthusiasts.
Tomorrow the band will go home, begin writing new material and lay off the arenas until next year. It's been a long time coming but those frustrated predictions of imminent global glory, spat out six years ago, are slowly coming to fruition. Whether they like it or not is an entirely different question.