Manic Street Preachers - Kentish Town Bull And Gate - 9th May/17th July/17th October 1990
In the eighties and nineties the Bull and Gate in Kentish Town was a thriving bastion of the London indie scene. The late Jon 'Fat' Beast ran the Timebox and Hype clubs from there and they were followed by the equally innovative Cube and Pop clubs. On most nights you would find three or four bands playing in a warm, friendly atmosphere and many bands who went on to major success played some of their early gigs there (I saw Carter (USM), Suede and Mega City 4 but missed the likes of Blur, PJ Harvey and, later on, Coldplay). During 1990 I probably spent more nights at the Bull and Gate than any other venue in London and at that time was seeing four or five gigs a week working as a freelancer for 'Sounds'.
I'd heard the word about this new punkish band from Wales on the grapevine. Ian Ballard from Damaged Goods gave me a tape of a forthcoming 12" single he was releasing which sounded promising and two of their songs appeared on a compilation album called 'Underground Rockers' alongside the likes of the Senseless Things, HDQ and the Price. The Manic Street Preachers made their London debut at the Horse and Groom in September the previous year but had played rarely since then and when they were booked to play at the Bull and Gate in May 1990 I was intrigued enough to go along but wasn't quite ready for what I was to witness. They played mid bill in front of an audience of no more than thirty people, most with a mild interest but nothing more. When they came on stage they looked both stunning and bizarre at the same time, all wearing white trousers and white shirts which were spray painted with slogans such as 'Destroy Work' and 'Apathy is a Death Sentence'. When they started playing it was like watching a chemical adrenalin rush unfold in front of your eyes. The music itself was almost incidental, the songs all infused with a punk rush and barely held together at times, but the attitude of the band was so in your face that you couldn't take your eyes off them - James, Richey and Nicky lined up across the front in true Strummer, Jones and Simonon style. There was no concession to the fact the place was fairly empty or the gap between the stage and audience which opened up as nobody was brave enough to get too close to the front. Yet the Manics were all leg kicking, jumping arrogance and a self-assured strut engrained within what was clearly a tight gang mentality. And they played as if their lives depended on it.
A fairly nondescript band from Russia had played before them and one of the members walked backstage to go to the dressing room mid Manics set. "No wonder the suicide rate is so high in Russia if everyone is as boring as you," remarked Nicky from the stage. You could have heard a pin drop. After they finished I left feeling completely exhilarated but laughing at the same time. And I wasn't the only person to have that strange double reaction.
They were back two months later to the same scenario. Pretty low turnout and complete confusion from most of the audience. There was no Manics following as such at that time. A handful of people like myself had come back to make sure what they saw first time around had really happened and bought a few mates to witness for themselves. It was the same short sharp shock set and quite reassuring to recognise that the first time wasn't a one off.
I reviewed the first gig for 'Sounds', raving on about class war and punk rock because that's how they made me feel. The review virtually wrote itself and the hardest part was keeping it down to a couple of hundred words. I interviewed them soon afterwards to hear some of the most softly spoken polite voices spouting some of the fiercest opinions and polemic I'd ever experienced. They didn't suffer fools gladly to say the least Yet at the end of the interview someone asked James if he was coming for a drink and he replied he had to get home back to Wales because his Mum had his dinner in the oven. He wasn't joking.
In October they were back at the Bull and Gate again but this time headlining and word had got out. The venue wasn't full but there were certainly a lot more people in attendance than the last two times they'd played. The momentum was clearly building and whilst in those early days they upset as many people as they won over, you could see the seeds of the band they went on to become germinating. The show was as equally thrilling as the other two, at times they to like the most exciting band in the world at others a band with a completely false sense of their own importance, but you couldn't ignore them. Many older punks weren't quite sure where they stood with them but in those days you had to take sides. And the audience too young for seventies punk were already starting to get on their side.
The following year things did really start happening and by the rime they released debut album 'Generation Terrorists' In 1992 the rough edges of those early songs had been smoothed and honed for a more rock friendly audience and whilst you could still hear the fury in them, the jaggedness and unpredictability which were so apparent at the Bull and Gate had started to disappear. That edge would return a couple of years later, albeit in a slightly different form, for 'The Holy Bible' album where they seized back control of their destiny.
Watching those three gigs I couldn't possibly have predicted the band that the Manic Street Preachers would go on to become or the impact they would have but I knew I was witnessing something special. And most of all I knew those four kids from Blackwood in Wales didn't just want to be in a band. They wanted to be in a band that would change the world.