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The Dragon Goes From Strength To Strength -, September 1998

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Title: The Dragon Goes From Strength To Strength
Date: September 1998
Writer: Stuart Bailie

Uncorked in Ireland, Slane in flames and Number One in your affections. Manic Street Preachers are back on tour. Manics on tour in Ireland. A report by Stuart Bailie.

Cork Opera House, Emmet's Place, Ireland

'Australia', 'If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next', 'Everything Must Go', La Tristesse Durera', 'The Everlasting', 'Kevin Carter', 'You Stole The Sun From My Heart', 'From Despair To Where', 'South Yorkshire Mass Murderer', 'Baby Love' / Motown Junk', 'No Surface All Feeling', 'Motorcycle Emptiness', 'Small Black Flowers The Grow In The Sky', 'Elvis Impersonator: Blackpool Pier', 'Tsunami', 'You Love Us', 'A Design For Life'

Nine thirty in the evening and the mood is intense. One of the most heart-stirring weekends in the Manics' history has begun. There's maybe a thousand people in this hall, set to witness the bands first live performance in 12 months. The PA system is pumping out 'The Card Cheat' from The Clash. We're remembering how the Manics have practically outgrown this size of a place now, in the wake of their Brit Awards and chart success, after the drama of playing Manchester's Nynex and riding shotgun with Oasis at Knebworth.

No matter. The band have spent a long while getting to this level, and they're hardly going to become too lofty for us now. The Manics' images are all over the music press, and the interviews inside are as smart as ever; properly informed, intellectually and emotionally alive. One of their current watchwords is "purity". Now let's see how that state of mind can survive on tour.

And here they are, back on the stage, looking almost nonchalant as the people roar happily. Nicky Wire is wearing a sleeveless brown kagoule and enormous sunglasses, curved and crome-plated, like Elvis when he was big in Vegas. Sean is a blur of white as he steps onto the drum riser. James is wearing a desert issue shirt and combats. He blams out a chord on his white Les Paul guitar and we're off again.

'Australia' is first, and immediately James is spinning in circles, relating to the fight-or-flight instinct of the song, turning the pre-show anxiety into fast, free-moving music. There's hardly a pause before the start of 'If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next'. It's only been in the shops for five days but clearly it's a fave already, as these Irish kids are singing along with James, thinking about another era, when farmers went off to shoot Fascists in Spain, when matters of conscience were literally issues of life and death. And of course, elsewhere in the song, there's a discourse on the modern state of mind, vain and disengaged from such critical ideas.

That's been one of the Manic's recent strengths, of course. To personalise big themes, wrapping them in striking tunes and everyday language, taking it to the charts, the radio stations, the TV channels and the concert halls. It's clearly a winner in Cork, and as Nicky listens to the chorusing mass, he smiles.

The heavy beats of 'Everything Must Go' are recognised straight away. To the left, keyboard player Nick Maysmith is recreating the string sounds on the last album, aiming for the majestic power that was uncovered there. James scrapes at his stubble and asks the crowd to excuse the band "if we're a bit rusty". But hey, it sounds pretty fine. The first cigarette lighter flicks on for 'La Tristesse Durera' and high above, the spotlights turn red.

The band aren't playing anything from 'The Holy Bible' tonight. But there are several tunes from the upcoming album, 'This In My Truth Tell Me Yours'. The first is 'The Everlasting', a swooning, ballad-of-the-band idea with the refrain "in the beginning, when we were winning". It's surely a throwback to the band's early days in Blackwood, when they formed their blazing manifestos and planned to inflame the entire music industry. There's a hint of sadness in the song, suggesting that not everything went as planned, but the sentiments are still huge and self-affirming. Other new songs include 'You Stole The Sun From My Heart' and 'South Yorkshire Mass Murderer'. The latter sounds twisted and vengeful, a response to the Hillsborough tragedy and the questionable police inquiries that followed. "How can you sleep at night?" James bellows, while the music turns nasty and Nicky pulls his hood down over his face.

This switches to the Supremes' 'Baby Love' as James croons the old Diana Ross lines, setting the crowd up for 'Motown Junk', the oldest and still one of the most affecting songs in the set. James replaces Lennon's name in the line "I laughed when Lennon got shot" for another identity, which is inaudible (later, he refuses to explain what he sang). Nicky puts his hands on his hips, voguing with attitude, barking a few words into the mic, knowing that they band have still to play 'No Surface All Feeling' and 'Motorcycle Emptiness', classics all.

James holds the stage on his own for a bit, performing 'Small Black Flowers The Grow In The Sky', picking out little inflections on his acoustic guitar as the cigarette lighters spark up everywhere.

It's getting close to the end now, and before the head-rush of 'You Love Us', James is introducing his mates, calling Nicky "big, tall and beautiful" and Sean "flash-posh-posh", and crediting the support act, Dublin all-girl band, The Chicks. . Finally, there's space for 'Design For Life' and all those defiant emotions, as the fans embrace each other and our hearts are full. It's so fine to see the Manics with us again.

Slane Castle Estate, Country Meath, Ireland

'Australia', 'From Despair To Where', 'If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next', 'Everything Must Go', 'The Everlasting', 'Kevin Carter', 'La Tristesse Durera', 'You Stole The Sun From My Heart', 'Elvis Impersonator: Blackpool Pier', 'Tsunami', 'No Surface All Feeling', Motorcycle Emptiness', 'You Love Us', 'A Design For Life'

Now let's imagine something a bit spectacular. A natural, rolling amphitheatre, in the shade of a half-ruined castle, thirty miles north of Dublin. U2 recorded 'The Unforgettable Fire' here, before the place was burnt out. Other bands who have played Slane in the past include REM, Oasis, The Rolling Stones, Queen, Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan.

There's 80 000 people enjoying the nice weather. The airspace above is buzzing with helicopters. Behind the stage, a flotilla of ten boats is keeping guard over the fast-flowing waters of the River Boyne, determined to avoid the scenes of 1995, when two prople drowned while trying to swim acoss.

Other bands on today's Slane schedule include James, The Seahorses, Finley Quaye, Robbie Wiliams and The Verve, who are headlining what may well be the band's final show. The Manics are due on at six thirty, the second act on the bill. But that's not before the Manics are joined in their dressing room by Mo Mowlam, the Secretary Of State For Northern Ireland. She cracks a few jokes, talks a bit of politics and tries to get Nicky over his fear of flying. Unsuccessfully, that is.

Earlier in the day, Nicky had been talking to fans outside the hotel in Cork, wowing over the amazing reception the night before, describing that first gig as "spiritual". But while most of the other people in the entourage went for a celebratory drink in the Iso Bar in Cork afterwards, the bass player declined, feeling an ache in his knee joints, one of the several Wire ailments. He seems to have recovered in time for Slane though. Wearing a scarlet shirt and white pants, he gets you thinking of the band back in '91 when they were bright and glamorous and not afraid to flaunt it. Those days aren't entirely over. You can see the band on the steps leading to the stage. James is beating out a rhythm on his legs, revving up for the job in hand. The dry ice fogs up the stage, out of which you hear 'Australia' again. next is 'From Despair To Where' as the crowd catch some of that adrenalized flavour and Wire is playing the notes on his knees.

It's a huge stage and the band, essentially a three piece, have to work hard to make it carry in their favour. James goes wheeling over to the left wing, filling the area with his guitar lines, and then wheeling back again.

In such a place, with a crowd that's heavily in favour of The Verve, too early to use the stage lights, it's unlikely to see the band triumph completely. But you feel their presence all over Slane, even when a new song such as 'The Everlasting' doesn't translate too well. Around the time of 'Kevin Carter' they're once more in command, causing an outbreak of body slamming. A stage technician with a brilliant luminous vest decides to go crowd surfing. He's clearly having a great time, and the rest of us point and laugh.

'Tsunami' is another new tune. It is the Japanese word for tidal wave, and the lyric deals with the real life story of twin girls who developed their own secret language, closing out the rest of the world. They were institutionalised, which explains the lyric in the song "disco dancing with the rapists". Another good call. James dedicates the song to the band's photographer friend, Mitch Ikeda.

The most important anthems are kept for the end. The closing seconds of 'No Surface All Feeling' are inexpressibly powerful. During 'You Love Us', James is swerving and duckwalking. As the band sweep everything away with 'A Design For Life', the moon starts to glow and there are Welsh flags waving across the Slane bowl. A lesser headlining act than The Verve would have been completely upstaged. Instead, it was just a great day for rock and roll visionaries.

Ulster Hall, Bedford Street, Belfast, Northern Ireland

'Australia', 'From Despair To Where', 'If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next', 'Faster', 'La Tristesse Durera', 'Everything Must Go', 'You Stole The Sun From My Heart', 'Kevin Carter', 'Ready For Drowning', 'Motown Junk', 'Motorcycle Emptiness', 'No Surface All Feeling', 'Small Black Flowers The Grow In The Sky', 'Elvis Impersonator: Blackpool Pier', 'Tsunami', 'You Love Us', 'A Design For Life'

It's just after six in the evening, and the band are soundchecking at the Belfast venue, the last stop in their Irish tour. Everything is running behind schedule because the band left Dublin a few hours later than planned. The reason for the delay was that they wanted to know how 'If You Tolerate This...' had fared in the UK chart.

While the chart news is officially transmitted by Radio 1 at seven in the evening, the record companies can access the information a few hours earlier. And so the Manics travelled up to Belfast with the knowledge that they had scored their first number one single. They celebrated for a while at the Clarence Hotel in Dublin. A few tears were shed and some champagne was uncorked. The band's difficult history, with all its diversions, hairpins and glory days, had finally led to this historic point.

During the previous two days, they had been fretting over the chance that Steps might beat them to the top, just as Mark Morrison had kept 'A Design For Life' off the poll position two years ago. But that's no longer relevant. It's another sunny day and everything is well.

Nicky is going to speak to Mark Goodier on the chart show, just as the number one is announced. James is at the end of Bedford Street, in the BBC's Broadcasting House, talking to the local radio show 'Across The Line' about Slane and Mo Mowlam, about getting to number one and the realisation of "a childhood ambition". He's got that strange mixture of modesty and arrogance, and he's still not quite forgiven his mum for buying the Steps single. And he's thinking over the birth of the new album, how "every time Nick gave me a lyric, it felt like scripture". But it's not a time to over-analyse anything. It's a chance to feel a bit glad. "I'm not gonna analyse or dissect it," James says. "I was just pleased."

A few minutes away, the the Europa Hotel, there's another coterie of Manics friends. Martin Hall is the band's manager, and brother of Philip, who "discovered" the Manics and guided their fortunes until he died of cancer in 1994. Rob Stringer signed the band to Sony when he worked there as an A&R man. Back then, most of the music industry regarded the band as a joke. But he took them to Epic Records when he became MD of the company and is still intensely involved. Both Martin and Rob have been part of the mission for so many years now. It's fair to say that they are happy men, as they sup a few drinks with Mitch Ikeda, the photographer and Mark Farrow, who designed the art work for 'Everything Must Go' and the new record.

The doors of the Ulster Hall are finally opened, admitting the girls with diamante tiaras and feather boas, the boys with eye-liner and combats, the footie fans and the punk veterans. Later the DJ David Holmes, who has remixed the new single, will show up and greet the band. It's the first number one single that he's remixed, so he's an ecstatic man. He's invite them over to his gig at the Limelight later in the night, where James and Sean will hang out for an hour, chatting to Therapy's Andy Cairns and listening to Homer in action at the turntables.

The Manics play a set that's wonderful and furious. The crowd of 1200 are sharing in the fun. Nicky has been collecting T-shirts from Irish fans. He'll wear the one that bears the legend 'Forever Delayed' (taken from 'Roses In The Hospital', of course) and another which he'll hold up to the crowd, smiling. It just says 'MSP: We Will Always Matter'. Indeed.

So it's time to watch those scissor kicks and the flouncing shapes one more time. 'Faster' makes it off 'The Holy Bible', and sounds ace. 'Ready For Drowning' is another new song, a reflection of the treatment of Wales, and the way that it's most famous children manage to burn and fry in the light of celebrity status.

Nicky dedicates 'You Love Us' to Philip and Richey, those two people who should have been here to share in such a day, and to hear it all climax with 'A Design For Life', the ultimate affirmation of the band's strength and sensitivity, their very own answer to 'My Way'. Completely immense. The dragon goes from strength to strength.