Manic Street Preachers: their appeal is becoming less selective.
Life, one would think, should have tired of hurling surprises at Manic Street Preachers. As the ‘Everything Must Go’ album hoovered its multiplicity of awards and slid calmly into the 750,000-plus bestseller bracket, the band’s tradition of tumult had appeared to plateau, the abiding image from the turn of the year that of a very ’appy, very ’umble, strangely noble trio mounting a variety of podia to pocket a selection of music biz-sanctioned silverware. No fuss, no fireworks, the new music - a uniquely lofty guitar rock, veined with sadness but bolstered by immense certainty - left to speak for itself. Essentially reprising their British gigs of last year - a jaunt due to conclude at this year’s Reading Festival ("a spiritual home for us," declares James Dean Bradfield, surprisingly) - this tour was surely meant to be a mopping-up exercise, drily acknowledging the new Manics constituency the compromises, well, suddenly just about everybody.
Except, typically, that it hasn’t quite gone like that. Equipped to take care of business in front of a Scots multitude at Glasgow’s cavernous SECC on April 5, James Dean Bradfield experienced a shock, if not a full-scale epiphany.
"It was the first concert in my entire life where I had a lump in my throat," relates the singer. "It was (adopts husky LA rocker voice) the first time I’d ever really felt that I’d bridged the gap between us and the audience. I felt corny as hell, like I had a big white flag hanging out of my back pocket, the closest I’ve seen to Oasis’ Maine Road experience - that tidal wave, the feeling that an audience wanted to almost claw the music into their mouths and their ears, to spoon-feed themselves with everything the band had to give. It was nothing I’d ever really looked for, and maybe it’ll be the last time I feel it."
He won’t feel it tonight, though god knows the band strain every ligament in pursuit of the busted romanticism that, currently, only they are capable of. "It’s clinical," drummer Sean Moore complains of the Brighton Centre, "like a local council function room," yet as evidence of how Manic Street Preachers have leapt subcultural barriers to lay their vision in front of all, this will do just fine. Frankly stupid mitherings from some quarters to the effect that they are pandering to a lower denominator than hitherto are belied by the awed attention that greets their introductory back projections: cutesy family Super 8 intercut with police beatings and fist-in-face slogans ("Read The Dictionary Every Day", "Man Does Not Create. He Discovers"). These are not different people; they are just more people. Some of them are not even students.
The Manic Street Preachers’ dressing room is a big, drab thing dominated by a galleon of ignored "nibbles". Post-gig, a weary Sean Moore osmoses into a chair in the corner. The teetotal Nicky Wire is long gone, back to the hotel where doubtless there is golf on the box. Over a background murmur of polite conversation and a ghetto blaster’s constant blaring of The Best Of Badfinger - Bradfield’s choice ("Two of them were Welsh") - the singer ponders the problems of being the band everyone adores, when you used to thrive on their outrage. You Love Us still closes Manic Street Preachers sets, its once-simple snub to fan love ("We won’t die of devotion," barks Bradfield) now a blizzard of ironies.
"I still think there’s a certain antipathy in the song," reflects Bradfield. "It’s one of the old-style ripostes. At this point there may be half of our audience that don’t really know the song, so there’s still a mischievous aspect to playing it. It’s not the kind of challenge that it used to be, but I think it still manages to make people think that, yes, maybe they could hate us."
The show they peddle ("It’s old hat for us now," notes Moore) leans weightily on ‘Everything Must Go’, a crowd-pleasing opening of ‘Elvis Impersonator: Blackpool Pier’ - the band flanked evocatively by six ingeniously illuminated columns of gauze - ushering in nine more of its bedfellows out of the set’s total of 19 songs. But it’s Manic’s relationship with their back catalogue that is most revealing. The scabrous, breakneck ‘Faster’ is the sole offering from ‘The Holy Bible’, disparu lyricist Richey James’ harrowing masterpiece. This hair-raising single remains a flung-down gauntlet, Bradfield’s frantic, atonal guitar solo rocking the crowd back on their heels as the word "Lizards" lingers unnervingly on the screen behind him, and Wire and Moore become a spiteful, machine-like blur. ("Nick and Sean have a certain anxiety to their playing," observes Bradfield proudly. "It’s like they’re racing to get the stabilisers off their bikes.") It’s as unrepentant as ‘Theme From M*A*S*H (Suicide Is Painless)’ is embarrassed, the latter unconvincingly punkified and cocked up by a grinning Nicky Wire. "I forgot the pile-of-shit song," announces the bassist, tonight sporting a pink feather boa, just like he used to.
"We enjoy playing ‘Faster’," Bradfield explains, "because we think it epitomises something about Richey’s lyrics in that there’s not a lot of self-pity there. It’s all about discipline, and there’s still a certain positive energy in playing that song, whereas a lot of the songs on ‘The Holy Bible’, of course, just sound like the anthology of a self-fulfilling prophecy. And we don’t play a lot of songs from ‘Gold Against The Soul’ because we just don’t like much of it. For us, that was the most unfocused period of our history."
"Escape from our history", yearn the lyrics of ‘Everything Must Go’, but it’s hard when your history has such tragic magnetism. ‘Stay Beautiful’ is a reminder tonight that while the four-piece Manics were specialising in putting noses out of joint in 1991, they were putting out enough pithy, sure-footed singles to make their debut album a useful double. As it ends, a Richey James-related comment from the audience forces Bradfield to observe, "I’m afraid there are a few necrophiliacs in the crowd," though later he’ll wonder why he said it. "None of us think that Richey’s dead anyway," he shrugs.
Evidently there are those who are less than keen to see Manics move on. Even less keen, it transpires, to see them embraced by the masses.
"I felt as if we were the only band ever to win awards who could actually piss people off by winning," recounts Bradfield of the of the seeming landslide of approbation that greeted ‘Everything Must Go’. "There was a feeling that by winning awards for our least Manic-esque performance we’d be alienating our old audience. We’ve never felt that when we won awards our fans were very happy for us. They think, You kissed ass."
Was Nicky Wire’s donning of the old-school, gender-bending feather boa a bridge-building exercise?
"No, because if we wanted a bridge-building exercise we’d do a revue show. I’d come on with the white jeans, go off for a costume change, come back on with the rock’n’roll hat and the glasses and Bruce Springsteen beard, then the sailor suit, then the nondescript Mr. C&A garb."
There comes a time in a band’s career, if they’re lucky, when their monicker slips its literal bonds and starts meaning something entirely different - when a name like, say, The Beatles, stops sounding silly. Pink Floyd must have been relieved when it happened to them; it never happened to Stitched Back Foot Airman. For Manic Street Preachers it happened in June 1992 when they released ‘Motorcycle Emptiness’.
The song hinges the set tonight, an old hiccup of reflection after live (and no longer hidden) keyboardist Nicholas Naysmith has laid waste to ‘The Girl Who Wanted To Be God’ and ‘Motown Junk’s yellowing manifesto ("We destroy rock’n’roll" indeed) has been dispatched. A high, lonesome figure issues from Bradfield’s guitar, of the sort that someone in Thin Lizzy might have written on a tremendously good day - roughly six notes that carry the lost, wasted idea of the song far better than the characteristically garbled verse or even the brief, lilting chorus.
"‘Motorcycle’... ‘No Surface All Feeling’... ‘Design For Life’ - they’re the three that I get most pleasure out of," ruminates Moore. "And ‘Motown Junk’, when I play it well. They’re the key moments in our history. The ones I always remember, where I can picture the instant that we wrote them and recorded them, and the events that surrounded them."
"‘Motorcycle Emptiness’ was a turning point for us," confirms Bradfield. "Not that it was the biggest hit single in real terms, but a lot of people heard that we weren’t trying to put forward a dictum or a philosophy about a generation. Motorcycle was trying to relay a lot of failures and lay a lot of fears to rest for us. I think that’s why that song was the foundation of our fan base."
Terrifyingly, that was five years ago. As everyone around here dubs them, there are "new fans" now. Some of whom punch the air, but only one of whom (and with possible irony) holds a cigarette lighter in the air.
"We’re not giving out our free cans of hip oil at the door," remarks Bradfield. "We are an obvious white male experience with a hint of despairing young girls - that’s our forté. That’s not what we set out for, but if you look at it, that’s what we’ve got. Ultimately, I’m pleased that we seem to have bridged a gap - that we can rock out and still not make it seem mindless."
Bradfield exhibits the candour only the truly confident can muster. He is, recounts a former flatmate in the entourage, livewire company, given to stalking the house incessantly, shouting "Fuck, fuck, fuck!" at TV sport. Today, he is a soothing companion, given to speaking in sentences.
"The only thing that I can point to concerning the relative sense of comfort with which we’ve grown recently is Nick. He certainly has the air of a politician of pop music. He’s a person who writes songs with an alarming, crystal-clear intelligence and logic, while he has a very pragmatic stance as well. And yet everybody knows that he’s not really this man of great experience. He could sit down as Bill Clinton and say that he didn’t inhale [ie, while smoking a spliff] and people would believe him. I think a lot of it’s down to him... because I write music and Sean writes music from the lyrics, out of this belief that what Nick says is right, basically."
‘You Love Us’ concluded, when the lights go up and the ululation of applause subsides, an out-of-place character picks a delicate path through the departing, casual-clad throng. Wearing heavy black eyeliner, with a mussed tuft of hair setting off stick-thin legs in pencil strides, he’s the dead spit of you-know-who - the night’s definitive been-there-since-the-beginning Manic Street Preachers fan. Lolloping towards someone he evidently recognises - another pale, glamorous youth - he breaks into a broad, satisfied smile and the two embrace. They don’t look so very betrayed after all.