Last Wednesday at Blackpool's Empress Ballroom, the Manics proved they are still the UK's greatest rock band. Unarguably.
Cabbie: "I'm an old soul man myself. I saw Edwin Starr support Isaac Hayes here in '72. I saw Marvin Gaye here in the late Sixties. They'll never be topped if you ask me. Who're these then? The Mad Street Teachers y'say?"
"What are they like?"
"You'd like 'em. They're a soul band."
The first time I saw the Manics I was wearing stupidly baggy jeans, huge Nikes, a suedehead and a hooded coat. In a sea of mascara and leopard-skin I felt like a thug. Tonight, Blackpool is full Of similarly nervous looking people. They're the ones in
mascara and I leopard-print. They eye the Ralph 'n' Vans lads who now make up a large part of the Manics' audience, with suspicion, tweak their roots, flaunt their Revlon.
Fucking lads. Cast fans. Three years ago they would be hurling bottles stageward in hatred. The words to Motown Junk are embedded in my heart and they are singing "We only wanna get drunk" in CELEBRATION, in ignorance. They're everything the Manics turned me from, offered an alternative to, a refuge from. And now they're here. It's not a betrayal. Love fades.
The lads eye the glam 'n' bones kids with suspicion, sup their pints, stare it out.
Fucking poofs. Student wankers. Bullshit pretty boy posers, whiney freaks, stuck-up little smug sods. Let's have some fun. Let's crack some heads.
This isn't a gig. This is a bona-fide style war.
Or at least that's what some might have you believe. The reality is a little more complex than that. The older fans are defiant, look fabulous, and are starting to to feel forgotten. They're like a board of directors disappointed on the waning return of their investment. What they're mourning though, isn't James' make-up or Richey or scrawled shirts or bloody arms. They're mourning the fact that the Manics aren't in control anymore. The Manics, like Public Enemy, like Dexys, almost alienated themselves an audience. They aroused such contrasting reactions from the inflammatory start that to merely tum up to a gig became an article faith, and to turn up and jeer was equally charged with relevance.
Now, tonight, people turn up cos they quite like the singles, like what they've heard of the new LP, saw them on telly, heard them on the radio. The Manics are out there and have relinquished control in their public domain to the whims and vagaries of the
"marketplace. And that's precisely what pisses off the old fans, the easy availability of the Manics now, the way you can walk in on them off the street, with no password, no invitation, without the Manics permission.
In many ways, early manics gigs went beyond a call to prayer, past a glance at the idols; what mattered was the other people there. It was never something as banal as a sense of community, but the startling realisation that through different routes you'd all arrived at the same place. It was like Richard Dreyfuss meeting the other mountain-obsessives in "Close Encounters". So when you see the Empress Ballroom is packed fulla cazzies stood at the bar, bored with the old stuff, waiting on a newie, you can almost understand the wounded pride, the bitterness.
But here's some news for the old fans: those lads are all shit-scared of you. Expect to get the odd dead leg, the odd foot trod on, because the more people, the more wankers, right? But they are terrified, I swear. They're looking at the nancy boys, the anti-girls, like they're from Pluto, angry because all that eyeliner makes them unsure about whether they can really defend being into this band, angry because you're living proof that tonight isn't just another gig.
And before I forget, Christ, yes, Manic Street Preachers are astonishing tonight, the best I've ever seen them.
A gorgeous, beatless E-Z version of "Design" trails them, the backdrop images perfectly fitting the sounds as they do all night, lyrics and images dropped in with pinpoint eye-popping fluidity. Taking the stage to near bedlam, it's surprising how intimate they now look; there's no huge spaces separating any of the band, no running space, they're packed in closer, warmer, more locked in and on and sounding perfect. It forces them to respond and react to each others playing, bringing them together where they had been locked away in their own private universes at stage-edge. And no
here has heard them sound better; Sean's drums dead-on, Wire's bass immaculate, James' guitar as brilliant and impossibly big 'n' wide as ever. The synth player works in samples and string when needs be, doubles on trumpet for a razor-sharp Kevin Carter and there you have it. The modern rock band perfected.
This is just stunning. Australia pivots on a band who sound they're still hungry, the constellation backdrop only spinning our heads further; Tristessa has never sounded funkier, never sounded more overloaded with too many hooks for your mind. James keeps the chat short, enjoying the way his band sounds as much as we are; From To Where gets
taken to places of melody and magic never reached on vinyl, almost recasting itself as the Motorcycle Emptiness that never got noticed. Nicky dedicates a song to Sharon Stone (for saying Dylan Thomas was Irish), spitting "stupid fucking Yanks" to a delirious front 30 rows.
No Surface All Feeling has a lump in throat threatening to choke me, every single intricate line of melody gorgeously picked out and scattered to the air. Suicide Is Painless gets a speedier treatment, the cruel humour of the original almost becoming slapstick, Everything Must Go plummets its Ronettes-thump even more gloriously deep
and the guy next to me kisses a large geezer in a Man City shirt. On the lips. Oops. The guy kisses back. Cool.
By now, even the bar-hugging scaredy-cats are diving into the throng. James is still pretty much the model rock frontman; given less of a stage to run round he's limited to wicked little hi-kicks, windmill-riffola, head-snapping tension , a whirlwind of confined energy. And Christ, I know it's been said, but just exactly how cool is Nicky
Wire? Any man who can fall flat on his arse (as he does during the encore) and still laugh, and still look cool doing it and still stand there while his bust bass gets fitted looking cool is surely unfairly blessed.
For the closing two songs, The Maker contingent find the balcony for a bids eye view. A Design Life, undoubtedly the rock anthem of the late Nineties, is an avalanche. I don't think a more successful socialist rock song exists; that the audience sing it as a celebration of mindless hedonism is more amusing than annoying, but as the song which started and contributed to the Manics'current course, it's absolutely crucial. What's amazing, is that this is the penultimate song, and they don't just play it as a singalong obvious closer. They draw it out, they expand on its sound, play it lusher and more suffused with passion than anyone has heard it, and now the tears really do come, with no apologies, now you can see everyone in the hall come to the same realisation. Which You Love Us spells out large.
I think I realise something. The Manics are just a great rock band, Sure. A great rock band doesn't have to inspire disciples, promote intelligence, challenge anything, change rock, change you, evoke sympathy, tell you how to vote, confuse bemuse, amuse or abuse you, tell you anything you don't already know, even though the Manics do most of these things.
A great band must communicate the totality of their thought and experience in such a way that the curse of pop, its insatiable demands on us, its stupid hope andn unhealthy hold on us, become worth it. The Manics have always done this, still continue to do this every time they play, do it tonight in Blackpool more than ever.
Tonight, they reach into life and drag us breathless from a world where we are weak, inarticulate and inconsistent to a world where the blinding white light of a justified humanity falls away to reveal a mirror. It's you. It always was you. You can be this true, you can be this good. They were always yours, whether you've been here since '89 or '96.
Ultimately, whether everyone gets exactly what you get out of the Manics is irrelevant, none of your business. Because, at the very least, the Manics are still leagues ahead of the rest of rock in terms of offering the chance for a wider view, in terms of sending you out in a million different directions, in terms of making life more.
That's why they're still the greatest rock band in the world. And that's why Blackpool feels like love again. Unarguable.