There's no doubt what the most hotly awaited tour of the autumn is. We follow the Manic Street Preachers to Kettering and Chester and find out what the fans - old and new - think.
In Nicky Wire's mind, it's a hole in two, a try without conversion, Man U versus Barcelona. It's the England-bound lane of the Severn Crossing. It's a Dyson vacuum cleaner with a blocked filter. It's a good thing gone bad. The Manics once had the reputation for being the best live band money and make-up could buy, but now touring's become a tour of duty to them. They're even complaining about it on "You Stole The Sun From My Heart" on the new album, "This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours". "I have got to stop smiling", sighs James Dean Bradfield, dreading another two years on the road, "it gives the wrong impression".
Well, we at The Maker always liked impressions - Alistair McGowan's impression of Trevor Brooking, Rory Bremner's impression of Tony Blair, Shaznay All Saint's impression of a songwriter - so we thought we'd seek out your impressions of the Manics at the opening dates of their first national tour for blimmin' ages. First stop . Kettering? YEAH, Kettering. A sleepy li'l town buried in rural Northamptonshire - nice enough, but the last band to play here probably knew the business end of a lute far better than that of a white Les Paul. Kettering Arena itself is your standard out-of-town sports hall with rock'n'roll pretensions, a L15 hooker of a venue, as happy giving pleasure to generation terrorists wearing tiaras as civil servants wearing pinstripes. It makes tonight's debut show feel like a sales convention, like Steve Coogan could pop out any minute growling: "I'm a tiger! Grrrr!"
Not that that quells the tension steadily building up to the promised hour of 9.15pm, or stops the smattering of diehards from sprinting front-row-wards the second Kettering Arena's unsuspecting doors open. Not that that stops the ticket touts doing blistering business with the more casual punters, the idling hundreds dressed not unlike ticket touts themselves. But, between these extremes, is the silent majority, the long-term fans who never suited mascara, whose only experience of glitter comes from "Blue Peter", who barely register 1.7 on the "real" scale. Fans like Peter Cook, a 19-year-old student from Leicester.
"I bought the new album yesterday," he says, cheerily enough. "It's disappointing. The anger's gone from the previous album. and it's like: 'Nicely, nicely. Let's get to Number One'.
"I've followed them since the first album," he adds, "but I'd probably say this album is their low point. Nicky Wire's gone very commercial lyrically, really basic. I think Richey kept him within the line and now he's overstepped that line. `The world is full of refugees/They're just like you and just like me' [from "The Everlasting"] - that's the corniest line ever written, isn't it? It just makes you cringe."
What are you hoping for tonight? "Early punk rock." What do you think you'll get? "Pop. But, if we tolerate that, Embrace will be next. And they are shite!"
Inside, it's a different cup of tea. James Dean Bradfield's cup of tea, to be exact, perched on Sean Moore's drum riser, the least rock'n'roll prop we've ever seen. But the almost exclusively female diehards are still feverish down the front, nursing their ears after an aural battering from support band Mogwai. First to grab our attention are the glittery Erika and Carly, fanzine writers from Buckinghamshire. "I think the album's brilliant," insists Carly, "and I'm not just saying that cos I'm a fan. As soon as I heard it, I thought it was absolutely beautiful, one of the best things they've done. It's so. . true!" "I think Nicky's written some of his best lyrics ever," agrees Erika. "In fact, I find this album more disconcerting lyrically than 'The Holy Bible' ever was. It's a very, very personal album, like you're prying into something you're not supposed to look into. Richey made his choice, he left, and at the end of the day, this is Nicky's lyrics, Nicky's world, Nicky's album. And I think it's brilliant."
"I'm expecting a fantastic gig tonight," shouts Carly as an onstage roadie gets the biggest cheer of his life. "As long as they're happy and Nicky gives us a few smiles, and hopefully takes his sunglasses off, that's enough."
Seventeen-year-olds Satvinder Sehra from Leicester and local-girl Helen Healey are equally expectant. "I just wanna see the best show ever," yelps Satvinder, "cos the Manics are the best band in this world: fact! The new album's brilliant. There's a lot of fans who're still living in the past, living in '91. But they've got to move on like the band."
"That's the thing about the Manics," blushes Helen, "they always surprise us. And they're nice surprises. So I'm going on the whole tour, all the way through." To her left, there's a palpable sneer on the face of the 17-year-old Roberta Sheffield. "I thought the album would be better than it is," she grumbles. "Although they said it was gonna be dark, I thought it would be dark and going somewhere."
"Rather than dark and going up their own arses. I'm pretty upset with it."
So why are you here?
"Because I want the old stuff."
Do you think you'll get it?
"No, but it's a good waste of L15, innit? Still, if their new stuff isn't what I like, then that's my hard luck, isn't it? They've grown up. I haven't. A lot of my friends like this album. . . but they also like the Backstreet Boys."
We come not to bury the Manics, but to appraise them. Honest. The Manics, however, barely come. It's nothing to do with old fans/new fans, it's nothing to do with Richey and it's nothing to do with the slow, reasoned pace of many of their new songs, or the "This Is My Unbelievable Truth" atmosphere of their fifth album. It's all to do with apathy, with James' stodgy inertia, with Nicky's sulky, static sloth.
The persuasive zippiness of last year's shows seems diluted down to dregs tonight, songs like "Australia" and "Everything Must Go" boasting no more bite than the dreary sludge of "SYMM" and "Nobody Loved You". Even classics, real fan-pleasers like "Yes" and "La Tristessa Durera", fall flatter than Nicky's hair, the songs' flaccid failure un-buoyed by Wire's short-circuited, eyes-closed, scowling reluctance to perform. They play "You Love Us". We merely tolerate them. We shuffle out. And we meet Germaine and Simone Smith, two teenage sisters wearing black tops and blacker looks.
"All Nicky had to say was: 'Hello Kettering' or something," sighs Simone, "but he didn't even smile, did he?"
"I don't have the album," adds Germaine, "but, from what I heard tonight, the new stuff sounds like Elton John! We bought our tickets well before we'd heard any of those songs. Having heard them, I don't think we'll be buying tickets for the next tour."
Something that's sadly echoed by 24-year-old Paul Norman and 18-year-old Zoe Clark from St Ives. "I reckon Nicky Wire's happier to be hoovering than playing these days," says Zoe. "Although I really like it, I hope this is their last album. It's sad seeing old men regurgitating crap. They've been through too much."
Sheesh! Cheer up! Look, there are some dead funny old skool fans over there, decked out in brilliantly convincing military gear. Very '94. Very committed. Very studiously shepherding vehicles out of the car park. Uh?
"We're Army Cadets!" says one. "We're working! To be honest, I prefer drum'n'bass, but they were all right tonight, the Manics. Different. Yeah, different."
Definitely time for bed.
Chester's stayed beautiful through its 2,000-year history, its Roman origins providing the foundations for countless glorious medieval buildings, its High Street a charming collaboration between architects and butchers. And fashion designers. And bakers, one of whom we visit to purchase a big, juicy steak-and-kidney pie, a small token of our dissatisfaction that we hope to give to lames tonight.
In fact, the town best known as the setting for the staunchly middle-class "Hollyoaks" probably wouldn't know what had hit it if thousands of proletariat Manics fans descend upon its tidy centre. Good job they don't then. Good job they all hang around Chester's Northgate Arena all day (another sports centre) for fear of ending up in the second row. And, as we head that way ourselves, our cab driver chats about the last two albums he bought: local boys Mansun's "Six" and the new Manics LP. He likes them equally. The fans outside the venue don't. Erika and Carly from last night nearly retch at the suggestion that bands like Mansun might have stolen some of the Manics' thunder. Even local lad Eric McCartey, an avowed Mansun fan, won't countenance a comparison. So why did so many supposedly obsessive fans have a negative reaction to last night's show, then?
"The crowd weren't really Manics fans," suggests Carly, "just locals on a big night out, and it's always the crowd that really makes the gig."
Isn't that a tad elitist?
"All right," she nods, "of course Nicky wasn't really into it. He wasn't smiling and, when he did take his sunglasses off, his eyes were shut. It's just a shame the crowd didn't react enough to lift him out of that mood."
"But we saw them in Belfast a couple of weeks ago," adds Erika, "and they were fantastic. There were people in tears who'd never seem them before. So it's not fair to suggest they've lost it - last night was just because the crowd were crap, frankly. They didn't care whether they were seeing the Manics, Mogwai or Ocean Colour Scene. Which was surprising for the first night of a tour."
"That's the danger of playing a place like Kettering," mutters Carly. "The locals are gonna queue up and grab all the tickets straight away, just because it's a band - any band coming to Kettering." "Sure," nods Helen Healey, another of the fans we met last night. "I mean, I come from the Kettering area and most of the people that know from school and college went just for the hell of it, just because it was a band playing Kettering, not because they were fans."
"It won't be the same tonight," insists Carly. "It can only be better."
Nicky Wire is on his knees, mouth open wide, the Monica Lewinsky of pop. He's wearing a T-shirt that reads: "Home Is Where The Hoover Is", his sunglasses are off, his tiara's on and, yup, that's a smile all right. Jesus, that's a smile. The difference between tonight and yesterday's shows is like the difference between Hiroshima before and after the bomb. Yesterday we were worried. Today we're blown away.
And it's all down to effort, down to those scissor kicks, those starjumps, those teeth, dammit! It's down to the almost sickening energy rammed into a squealing "Faster", into a triumphant "Tsunami" and a fevered "Motorcycle Emptiness". It's down to the sunglasses thrown onstage which James dons during a solo strum through "My Little Empire", and it's down to his whipping them off after three lines, singing: "I don't think these sunglasses fit my fat head!" It's down to the communion between crowd and band; down to the chants of "Wales!!!" between every song (it's practically next door); down to the sheer glee of a final, monumental "A Design For Life", radiant and relevant. Everything has come.
And, as we file out again, this time sharing grins rather than grimaces, tears rather than tension, experience rather than mere memory, we catch the misted eyes of people we know, people who were right. Carly, handing out flyers to people happy to receive them. Erika happily yapping with a stranger about something intensely intense in its intensity. Helen, eyes burning through her make-up with a victor's beam. And we catch their smiles, and maybe they catch ours.
We don't have the heart to offer James that pie in the end. He's already had his cake and eaten it tonight. But it's a rapturous reception he'll always deserve, just as long as that rapture reflects in his face, just as long as the Manic Street Preachers do their f***ing best to give us the kicks they've given us. If they can only tolerate their fans, long may they continue to get fat on this land.