Cerys Matthews reclines in tequila-assisted style. Next door, the Manics practice their onstage skipping. It could only happen on this season's hottest tour...
And now, it's time for...skip-a-long with Wire! On stage at Glasgow SECC, James Bradfield bawls out an introduction to the show's next attraction. Right on cue Nicky Wire takes a skipping rope from atop his bass amp and stands poised in front of his microphone. Manics are heading toward the conclusion of a triumphant evening of thinking person's arena rock - moving into the chaotic closing section of 'You Love Us'. Having flung his bass to the floor, Nicky is now ready With his party piece.
Having mouthed along to such pleasingly bewildering lines as "Parliament's a fake life saver" and "Same PR problem as EST", he begins to whirl the rope over his head. As James and and Sean Moore propel the song towards its hectic finale, Nicky's flying exercise device becomes a blur, his feet keeping time with the song's heltering pace. When he turns to head off, skipping back and forth at implausible speed across the stage's breadth, the spectacle has taken on the dimensions of The Unforgettable Moment.
Looking like Nicholas Lyndhurst thrown into wig, tiara and eye make-up, and then miraculously given the footwork of Muhammad Ali and the teeth-baring facial expressiveness of a Class A-stoked Dot Cotton. Wire is at once ludicrous, inspired, gawky and quite nimble. It's a moment that typifies the frankly odd undercurrents that have been running below the surface of this tour.
In the face of it, the notion of the Manics and "very special guests" Catatonia moving through the land's arenas is one of the most obvious of rock success stories of 1998 - two British bands making their credible, fiercely humanist presence work in vast, life-sapping hangars. But, below the surface, this trek is awash with intrigue - and nowhere more so than in the Manics' dressing room after the Glasgow show.
Eyes wrinkled into a glitter-smeared scrunch and mouth stretched into that famous enamel-overloaded smile, Nicky Wire rocks in his seat while inspecting his latest acquisition - a battery-powered miniature of his beloved Dyson vacuum cleaner.
"Hoover?" he considers at the suggestion that he should abandon Dyson in favour of a brand manufactured in South Wales' own Merthyr Tydfil. "I dunno, Hoover's actually owned by Italians now, and Dyson are still the pioneers of guaranteed no-loss-of-suction. Mind you, I did play cricket against the Hoover works team When I was at school. Lovely pitch they had, and lovely teas afterwards if I remember correctly."
It's amazing that the bonsai Dyson navigated its way backstage tonight after being left with venue bouncers by two young female devotees. The security on this tour is astonishingly tight - so much so thau each Manic has his own personal minder and Catatonia's Cerys has suffered problems getting into her own dressing room.
When the subject is raised backstage, fingers are pointed squarely at Nicky. Yet tonight, far from radiating paranoia about his own safety, Nicky is hugely relaxed. With a grin permanently in place, he cracks a steady stream of quips while seemingly finding accidental humour in every aspect of this tour juggernaut. You get the impression that Nicky sees the iron-fisted security as a wonderful jape, some eccentric tribute to the paranoid legend of Howard Hughes which he's currently so fascinated by.
The Dyson isn't the only gift in the Manics dressing room. On top of the fridge sits a substantial pile of books. Instead of the case of champagne that the local promoters normally leave for bands, the Manics have requested their preferred stack of newreading matter.
Nicky wanders over and looks through copies of Irvine Welsh's Filth and Alan Warner's The Sopranos. The books momentarily abandoned, he stretches, smiles once more, then turns to his recent on-stage display of rope-based PE.
"Yeah, people seem to be quite liking the skipping part pf the show. I was always a good skipper - champion at primary school. I was. I was keen to show my feminine side, even at that early age." The smile remains in place.
"Toulouse sausage and caramelised shallots...Linguini with roasted pepper and saffron sauce." Backstage at the Sheffield Arena, two days before the Glasgow show, the on-site menu offers much gourmandish pleasure. In an adjacent corridor, Nicky Wire and Sean Moore stride toward soundcheck in strict single file. The venue is all but deserted, but still their procession is bookended by minders. Nicky beams from behind his Elvis shades.
Across the way Catatonia sit in their dressing room. The tour began two nights ago in Bournemouth, but yesterday's day off was a full one for Catatonia - they recorded their slot for the Later With Jools Holland New Years Eve special, which included a duet between Cerys and Tom Jones. But, as she pours a glass of water and sets aside her mobile, Cerys' thoughts turn from Tom to the evening ahead.
"It's like the bloody Ideal Home Exhibition out there," she decides in concerned tones. "I didn't know it was going to be an arena tour. I never really got round to looking at the itinerary before we set off, so it was big shock when we pulled up here. Still, onward and upward. eh?"
The tour is slightly strangely placed for Catatonia - they've just finished recording the next album and are about to start mixing it. One side effect of this will be the presence of a handful of new songs in tonight's set - from the opening full-on rush Of 'Storm The Palace' to the potential next single 'Dead From The Waist Down' and the lilting 'She's A Millionaire'. The latter comes replete With a recorder solo from Cerys and lyrical references to piss-flavoured bottled water, Tampax and gynaecology.
Catatonia may have decided on a set-list, but one thing they haven't quite arrived at is a title for the album. The only working title they've revealed so far is the charmingly subtle 'Catatonia Are Shit'.
"Yeah but we now have a better title than that one," advises drummer Aled Richards. "'Catatonia Are Really Shit'."
"We did actually think 'Catatonia Are Shit' was a really good album title," adds guitarist Owen Powell, apparently in utter seriousness. "We do have a few other ideas for an album title, and our main objective is to get in the Guinness Of Records for the longest album title ever. The Super Furries have already had their 'Llanfair...' EP (or the 'Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogochcyngofod (In Space)' EP to give it it's full name), so we'll have to pursue other avenues than Welsh place names. With 'International Velvet' it was pretty obvious that was what the album was going to be called, but the christening of this one has been more problematic."
Perhaps contemplating future stage presentation of other new-album contenders such as 'Bulimic Beats' ("Just Cerys and a harpist and a few noises in the background") and an as-yet untitled piece featuring a musical saw, Catatonia prepare to fill the 14.000-capacity volume of Sheffield's premier über-hall. They'll have to be going some to match the Arena's forthcoming attractions. These include 'Holiday On Ice', Robbie Williams and 'Barney's Big Surprise', the prestige showcase for the man-dressed-as-purple-dinosaur and featuring "Barney, BJ, Baby Bop and Professor Tinkerputt".
"Playtime popcorn - fun to eat, what a treat." Two hours on from their dressing-room consideration of album-title glory, Catatonia emerge on the Sheffield stage. It's a mildly surreal environment - one that provides an outlet for both hoardings advertising slightly comical snack-foods and a pre-show DJ playing Joy Division and The Fall.
Catatonia bound straight into 'Storm The Palace', a pounding call to arms that takes in punk energy, a Motown backbeat and a vocal like Belinda Carlisle after a night on the gin. The cutely insurrectionary tone is maintained by the lyrics, which, as guitarist Mark Roberts had explained earlier are "about the dear old Queen's house - suggesting various new and different uses for the building". The band follow 'Palace' with a version of 'I Am The Mob' that clearly fits this tours exciting two-way Welsh-on-Welsh action. Wheeling round in her silver sequinned top and combats, Cerys makes a fitting alteration to the lyrics: "Stop messing around with the Taffy sound."
It's an evening beset by technical mishap - Catatonia didn't get a soundcheck tonight and 'Goldfish And Paracetamol' falls apart, leaving Cerys to turn the song into an emergency solo acoustic number. "Help me, help me God," she whispers plaintively, before the band weigh in once more for 'Dead From The Waist Down'. "The sun is shining/We should be making hay" it goes, with a melody vaguely like 'You Only Live Twice', another example or the lament-laden
Catatonia love song.
Tonight might may have been trying, but the band's estimably rare spirit shines through and they're received with a fondness that's obviously miles removed from the hostility that Mogwai sometimes suffered on their recent jaunt with the Manics. Catatonia play an inevitably rousing 'Road Rage' and close With 'Strange Glue'.
The Manics themselves are barely anything but splendorous this evening. The Derek Jarman-esque washes of red light that accompany the intro-tape's Massive Attack remix of 'If You Tolerate This...' and the way RS Thomas' poem Reflections is projected onto the giant stage-side screens during the opening 'Everything Must Go', are just portents of the show ahead - arena rock cut to an exquisite, erudite new design.
'My Little Empire' is dedicated to "Nas the Sheffield prince" and 'Black Dog On My Shoulder' is given a new incisiveness with James' solo acoustic rendition. The Francis Bacon quote projected during 'The Everlasting' ("I've always wanted and never succeeded in painting the smile") is given further irony by the way Nicky grins once more through 'Motorcycle Emptiness'. They conclude With 'A Design For Life' and one more screen-projected slogan: George Orwell's "Hope lies with the proles." Beamed up in this nouveau northern auditorium, the words are at once anachronistic and glorious.
"Have a good Christmas, get fucked, get pissed. love you loads." James Bradfield's farewell message to the audience in Glasgow underlines the way this performance has been, if anything, even better than the one in Sheffield. After slipping across the road to take in a bit of Bjorn Again in neighbouring Sydney Opera House=styled venue The Armadillo, Cerys has danced along, stage front, to 'If You Tolerate This...' and the Manics have fired the night to joyous heights - both with Nicky's display of exhibition skipping and a wryly celebratory cover of Clash's 'Train In Vain'.
After the show, Catatonia's Aled ponders on his band's own forthcoming mega-gigs. Come May they'll be staging their open-air 'Home International' at Port Talbot's Margam Park.
"Should be good," decides Aled. "There's a lot of deer at Margam Park, So there's bound to be a bit of deer shit around. The shows about us doing our bit for Welsh culture. We're raising the people up from sheep shit to the more elevated realm of deer shit."
Meanwhile, the Manics dressing room resounds With their own strange brew of after-show good cheer. With the sound turned down, the television is tuned to Sportscene Match Of The Day. Inspired by a studio discussion featuring sundry Scottish ex-footballers and the odd hair styling of host Dougie Donnelly, Scotland's answer to Des Lynam, Nicky and Epic Records MD (and Julia Carling paramour) Rob Stringer enter into an impromptu football quiz. Talk turns to the 1983 Manchester United-Brighton FA Cup Final and Rob poses the first question.
Rob: "What was the score in the replay?"
Nicky: "It was 4-0 to United. What a load of shit."
Rob: "Correct. And which Brighton star played in the replay who didn't play in the original final?"
Nicky: "Steve Foster. I remember the commentator saying how he would really bolster the
Rob: "Correct. And who was managing Brighton?"
Nicky: "Jimmy Melia."
Rob: "Correct. And what was he wearing?"
Nicky: "A white suit and a red rose..."
At which point Nicky collapses into a fit of giggles before recovering and entering into a wistful reverie on the Cup in general.
"Oh, the FA Cup, I love it," he laughs. "Every summer I would get in the peanuts and shandy, draw the curtains and turn the telly on. I've only ever missed one Final - Liverpool-Sunderland in 1992 when we were touring Japan. It's such a lovely thing."
As the Manics' resident photographer Mitch Ikeda takes a quick snap Of Nicky and Select lensman Ed Sirrs, Nicky launches some more banter in the direction of Ed - the man who took the famously shocking shot of Richey with '4 REAL' slashed into his arm.
"Hang on, Ed," Nicky guffaws. "I'll just roll my sleeve up, get a few cuts going and then you'll have another world-beating photo."
Pleased With his blackly-humoured (but fondly-intended) gag, he cracks one more grin. He'll have to stop that smiling. It might give people the wrong impression.