The thing about the Manics is that each of their albums suggests the work of a band desperately trying to prove themselves: from the manifestos and sloganeering of "Generation Terrorists" to their first post-Richey work "Everything Must Go" the impression is of a band operating against the traditional expectations of both the music industry and the public. Even now, five albums into their career, the feelings of questing and expectation, of bravura and belief in the face of adversity, hasnt subsided.
"This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours" is their first post-post-Richey album, in the sense that its the first to be released to the scrutiny of the massively expanded fanbase (myself included) "Everything Must Go" afforded them, the album that could make or break them even though theyve undoubtedly been made and broken dozens of times before. Its also the first Manics album bereft of any of Richeys lyrics: remember, it was their determination to write around his sprawling, uncompromising verse without sweetening it that made "The Holy Bible" such a challenging, almost unlistenable, listen. And that might go some way towards explaining why "This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours" is their mellowest album yet. Whilst "Everything Must Go" had defiant lyrics and sparkling arrangements (remember the revelatory Northern soul stomp of the title track?), much of the new album takes on a more sober, mature stance, as if its the work of people experiencing deep feelings of betrayal and regret that they cant identify the source of, people whove been offered the moon on a stick and found that it created as many problems as it solved (a bit like The Boo Radleys after "Wake Up Boo!" granted them success beyond their wildest dreams and they realised that theyd rather make weird and wacky left-field new psychedelia instead).
In places "This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours" is as good as the Manics have ever been. Opener "The Everlasting" is a deep, wide and tall orchestral sweep over which James Dean Bradfield keens "I dont believe in it anymore/Pathetic acts for a worthless cause". "My Little Empire" ("Im sick of being sick/Im tired of being tired/Im bored of being bored/Im happy being sad") and "Im Not Working" expand on the feelings of hopelessness, which are echoed to varying degrees on almost every other track on the album. Not to give the impression that this is a bleak album (how could it be, compared to "The Holy Bible"?!), but neither is it touched to any great extent by the raucous defiance of "Generation Terrorists" or the cautious optimism of "Everything Must Go".
Part of my uncertainty about "This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours" must rest with the lyrics: when Richey wrote the words you were left in absolutely no doubt that, for example, "4st 7lb" was about anorexia or "The Intense Humming Of Evil" about the Nazis, but here it helps to be told that "If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next" is about the Spanish Civil War, because youd be unlikely to make the connection otherwise. Similarly, heres a couple of verses from "S.Y.M.M.", the song about the Hillsborough disaster, formerly known as "South Yorkshire Mass Murderer": "The subtext for this song/Ive thought about it for so long/But its not the sort of thing/That people want to hear us sing/The context of this song/Well I could go on and on/But its still unfashionable/To believe in principles". And so on, for six minutes. I cant decide whether its a work of absolute genius or a cop-out, in the way that it fails to mention its subject apart from a reference to Jimmy McGovern, who wrote the episode of "Cracker" that inspired the song.
Musically, its predominately stadium-sized servings of angst-rock in a similar style to the less inventive moments of "Everything Must Go". Many of the 13 tracks bristle with such un-punk appendages as string arrangements, wurlitzers, mellotrons and sitars, the kind of experimentation which is fine when used sparingly but which can get a bit wearing over the space of an entire album. (Speaking of which, a black mark for whatever dolt at Sony thought they could get away with pressing 63 minutes of music as a single vinyl album.) There is some respite in the form of the guitar-and-accordian interlude "Born A Girl", and the Nick Drake-style folk of "Black Dog On My Shoulder", one of the albums bestest tracks (although quite what the lyric "Winston Churchill can you hear my voice" has to do with proceedings I dunno). It has also been noted that several tracks here were produced by Dave Eringa, who worked with them on the "Gold Against The Soul" album, and after overseeing the debut by Manics clones Glitterbox he mustve found it instructive to be working with the real thing again.
"This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours" isnt a bad album, just a mature one, which is a coded way of saying that youll probably enjoy it less if youve followed them since "Suicide Alley" than if you just tuned in around the time of "Everything Must Go". Its also a few tracks too heavy and a little invariant of feel, but at this point in their development maybe the only kind of album they could make.
MANIC STREET PREACHERS/CATATONIA Cardiff International Arena, 22 December 1998
In an atmosphere of devotion unlike any gig Ive been to since I saw Morrissey - two top Welsh bands on their third sell-out night at Cardiffs closest approximation to an Enormodome three days before Christmas - Catatonia emerged about as victorious as they could wish to be. Ive not really followed their progress from major-label token indie underdogs to planet straddling success but a few quick listens to "International Velvet" suggests that we are in the presence of greatness, and tonight they dont disappoint. The first thing that has to be said is that Cerys is plainly a star. With that accent, about as genteel and refined as a lard sandwich, the presence of a (mildly) deflated Vanessa and a voice the nearest anybodys going to get to a female Rod Stewart its no surprise that the cameras fuelling the two video screens either side of the stage (first time Ive seen those at a gig, and a very useful addition they seem to be too) tracked her for the entirety on their set, never once focusing on the handful of Sleeperblokes that constitute the rest of the band.
Highlights - "Road Rage", obviously, the most sinewy, naggingly insistent chorus theyve yet penned, Cerys recorder work on one of a handful of new songs aired and - top this - Cerys singing the verses of "International Velvet" (a song, remember, whose chorus is "Every day when I wake up/I thank the lord Im Welsh") in, uh, Welsh. You slay us, you really do.
Not only did the Manics have the piledriver might of Catatonia to top, but they also upped the ante by filling the interval tape with tunes by the likes of Mogwai, R.E.M., John Cale, Gomez, Public Enemy, Mercury Rev and The Band, i.e. some of the best music ever made by anybody anywhere. But the fact that they not only managed to top all expectations and overcome preconceptions by the truckload but also put on one of the greatest performances Ive ever had the good fortune to witness suggests that the Manics have evolved into a band of global greatness.
It was a feat, basically, both musical and visual. Whilst some bands can ascend towards perfection without addressing the visual aspect (The Blue Nile, for example), you never appreciate how much more a little eye candy can add until youve seen it done properly. So, when the curtain covering the back of the stage fell it revealed three extra video screens that, during the concert, flashed up old promo footage whenever appropriate (some of which included appearances by Richey) or text (such as the R S Thomas quotation from the inner sleeve of "This Is My Truth, Tell Me Yours").
Musically though...well, if their last album doddered slightly under the weight of excess orchestration and a handful of less than top tunes, their live performance, in stripping out the dross and polish, shows just how good the core of "This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours" really is. Ditch the strings, sitars and mellotrons, forget about the less satisfactory second half and youre still left with a visceral performance of "If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next", played in the shadow of its rather gruesome video, full of people with distorted, mouthless faces mad fountains spurting blood, the quietly despairing but nevertheless rousingly anthemic "The Everlasting" - which brought a new meaning to the phrase community singing, an acoustic "Black Dog On My Shoulder" that slipped seamlessly into Whams "Last Christmas", of all things. Then theres the old favourites like set opener "Everything Must Go", "Motorcycle Emptiness", still majestic after all these years, sounding oddly like a message from the 1998 model Manics beamed back into their punk past, "Small Black Flowers That Grow In The Sky", the first two lines of "Revol", abandoned because "its Richeys birthday", a smashed-up Clash thrash through "Motown Junk" and "You Love Us" (and we do, of course) during which Nicky Wire abandons his bass guitar and skip-ropes around the stage...basically ninety minutes of classic and future-classic modern rock music.
Standing there the words that kept springing to mind were stuff like passion, power and commitment: to anybody whod argue that, post-Richey, they are somehow less "4 real" or have in some way betrayed their roots and ideals, I would invite them to name one other band who could coerce a room of x-thousand people (a surprisingly high proportion of them being parents accompanying children, or vice versa) into yelling along to songs about the Spanish Civil War. And when you think that they couldnt possibly have anything left to give, they close with "A Design For Life", with its incredible opening lines: "Libraries gave us power/Then work came and set us free". Whither Oasis when music can be this literate, powerful yet still accessible? Why bother straining for the lowest common denominator when music can be intelligent, caring and yet still prompt mass singalongs?
They finish, and the words "This is the end" flash up on the video screens before being gradually subsumed by interference. But this feels much, much more like a beginning, a touchstone for the possibilities and capabilities of music and live performance. Im astounded and pleased that, for example, both my fiftysomething parents have been totally bowled over by "This Is My Truth, Tell Me Yours" (the only other album from the 90s they like is The Blue Niles latest, discerning music lovers that they are!) because it shows that, although far from their punk roots, the Manics have a power to educate, agitate, organise, as That Petrol Emotion used to say, that seems to spread wider, across cultural and chronological boundaries, with every passing year. An awesome responsibility, definitely, but one that I cant see men with their commitment side-stepping. Its so much more than just music, in a way that maybe no band or genre has been since acid house more than a decade ago. And yes, its still 4 real.
MANIC STREET PREACHERS/SUPER FURRY ANIMALS/FEEDER/SHACK Millennium Stadium, Cardiff Arms Park 31 December 1999
As if I would have been anywhere else! Nominally a celebration of ten years of Manics history, as well as marking the not insignificant passing of ten centuries of recorded time and accumulated cultural detritus ("A millennium is a mighty long time.", the back of the tickets warned, "This event incorporates two of them. Be sensible, pace yourself"), the sense of occasion was amplified by the gradual addition of support acts to the bill in the weeks before the big night, including the mighty Shack (the second best British band you've never heard, after The Blue Nile) and the Super Furries (see above for frazzled, chaotic discourse on the subject of their boundless genius). Add to this DJs, the lure of beer at pub prices (if that's your sort of thing, of course) and the prospect of greeting the new millennium in what, with the roof closed, is the largest covered venue in Europe with 57,000 other like-minded revellers and it seemed like something special enough to bore grandchildren with in years to come.
Not that the evening started on a particularly auspicious note, something of a surprise when the first proper band on the bill (Nicky Wire's brother Patrick Jones was merrily plugging away at the divide between poetry and trip-hop when we arrived) was the mighty Shack, newly resurgent following six months of the greatest critical (and possibly commercial, even though they barely registered as a blip on the nation's Megastore-racking consciousness) success in their twelve year history. I've raved about Shack in these pages many, many times before, but it's worth restating what lies at the root of their eloquence and excellence once again. Imagine if the current and recent-past gaggle of guitar-toting Britpop and post-Britpop bands (let's see Oasis, Ocean Duller Scene, Stereophonics and Travis for a kick off, maybe The Stone Roses at times when their legend looks a little tarnished) were actually as powerful as their hype, had actually suffered some serious addiction and rejection as opposed to the kind of fracas and ruckus that makes for tabloid front pages, wrote songs that traced their lineage back through the works of other cruelly ignored artistes such as Nick Drake and Arthur Lee then you'd be getting close to the core of what makes the music of Shack so great. But tonight, for some reason, nah. Not enough volume to carry their wonderful music farther than the dedicated few hundred huddled up to the stage, not enough surprises in a short set that leaned almost exclusively on the admittedly terrific "H.M.S. Fable" album. But Mick Head's charming, wide-eyed persona gets you rooting for them just the same, as does an inside-out romp through "Natalie's Party" and their customarily excellent cover of Love's "A House Is Not A Motel". Wonderful band, wrong place, wrong time, but they bothered, and that's what's important.
Unlike Feeder. Apparently two members of the band are Welsh, which would go some way towards justifying their singer's almost comically pathetic rabble-rousing chants of "Wales! Wales!", but doesn't ameliorate the fact that their music is generic underachieving indie rock, the kind of thing that used to get me unleashing raging torrents of verbal bile every time Kev sent me a Symposium CD to review. A nation that has taken Travis and Stereophonics to its collective bosom probably deserves bands like this, quite frankly.
But would you let Super Furry Animals anywhere near your collective bosom? Think of the devilry, the strange drugs, the bizarre costumes, that weird Syd-Barrett-meets-"The Wizard Of Oz" music they play. Admittedly it's a trimmer and far less self-indulgent SFA that are here to entertain us tonight compared to last week's "Mash Up The CIA" extravaganza, with most of their toys remaining back in the nursery at FurryWorld - no surround sound, no balloons, no alpenhorn, no Tellytubby outfits, no pope 'n' panda brass section (so no "Northern Lites", tragically), their sole extravagance was the fairy lights twinkling on the bass drums of the two kits. But, possibly more than ever before, they have the songs: tonight their portfolio still includes "God! Show Me Magic", "Mountain People", "The Turning Tides" and a cruelly truncated (five minutes, rather than 20) "The Man Don't Give A Fuck", and sometimes that's just about enough.
In the minutes leading up to the Manics' appearance the video screens broadcast footage of famous Welsh sporting victories and sound bites from natives, ex-pats and supporters of the cause such as Tom Jones, John Cale, Arthur Scargill, Max Boyce, Charlotte Church (drowned out by jeering) and Shirley Bassey. (No contributions from Stereophonics or Catatonia, funnily enough.) Then, at 10:45, Joy Division's "Incubation" cracks through the PA, to the accompaniment of a potted visual history of the Manics' last ten years. Yellow lights sweep over the crowd, suddenly they're on stage and bashing through "You Stole The Sun From My Heart" like the festival hardened professionals they are these days, and somewhere up in the seating area my mother is dancing like a demented aerobics instructor. Like the SFA gig reviewed above, my memories are a little dislocated by the overwhelming sense of occasion, but I remember a set marginally heavier on "The Holy Bible" and lighter on "This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours" than their Christmas 1998 CIA concerts. They rattled through the "Twist And Shout" harmonies of "Masses Against The Classes", Nicky Wire imploring everyone in the crowd to buy the single on the day of release " and get those fuckers off the top" (extraordinarily prophetic, that lad!), and Chuck Berry's "Rock And Roll Music" made a surprise appearance. "Motorcycle Emptiness" was heart-rending, as always, "Stay Beautiful" got prefaced by more live-Wire-isms on the subject of Renault "stealing Richey's words" to sell cars, and "You Love Us" was as apt as ever it was, although Nicky failed to do his skipping rope thing this time around. He did ruminate on what the rival Cream event at the city's ice rink might be like, though ("£100 to watch blokes playing records? There must be about three people there "). Following the relaying of the BBC's midnight coverage (the Thames' flaming river of snake oil being particularly appreciated by the crowd) James returned for an acoustic "Can't Take My Eyes Off You" and dedicated "Small Black Flowers That Grow In The Sky" to the night's most notable absentee. And you've scarcely time to catch your breath before 57,000 people are hollering "Libraries gave us power", a miniskirted Nicky Wire is trashing his bass guitar against the front of the stage, and it's game over.
Were they good? A qualified yes: they didn't generate the same sense of community, liberty, egality, fraternity, whatever it was that took last year's CIA gigs beyond the realms of sound and vision and into a borderline religious/political/social experience. Perhaps this was down to as little as the lack of back projections that bundled that evening into such an event, or the fact that any band would look lost among the windings of a venue this size. Maybe the relatively brief applause that followed each song was a measure of the dilution of the fanatical element inevitable on a night like this. But that's all small beer compared to the respect they deserve for having the gumption to even attempt to pull off an event of this magnitude in the first place, about as relevant as the complaints of the people who spent two hours queuing at the bars for drinks sometimes you just gotta prioritise! Where they go now is anybody's guess: rumours abound of one more album before they break up, but they've been generating soundbites like that since before "Generation Terrorists". But whatever's next, the Manic Street Preachers can at least claim to be one of the few bands left, maybe one of the few bands ever, to make a difference, and the success of their Manic Millennium grand plan will live with a great many people for a long time to come.
MANIC STREET PREACHERS The Masses Against The Classes (Epic)
Six months behind the rest of the world, I finally get to hear the latest Manics single, and I'm disappointed to confess that I find it an embarrassment. Played in the glam style that made much of their "Generation Terrorists"-era material so grating, it's three minutes of raucous, tuneless, distorted politicking, sandwiched between Chomsky and Camus in an attempt to give it some spray-on cred for the Richey-fetishists. The other two tracks on this limited, numbered 10" barely compensate: "Close My Eyes" is only notable for filching Ringo's proto-drum machine riff from The Beatles' "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise)" - which would be a terrific idea if The Beastie Boys hadn't had it first - and an enthusiastic knockabout rumble through Chuck Berry's "Rock And Roll Music" is fair enough but hardly revelatory. All told, an uncharacteristic let-down from the band that, normally, just keeps on giving.
MANIC STREET PREACHERS Leaving The 20th Century Cardiff Millennium Stadium 1999/2000 (SMV)
Something of an eerie disc to review, this, since I was lucky enough to be one of the 57,000 fortunate souls huddled inside the Millennium Stadium that night; this DVD release presumably allows those who were stuck queuing for drinks for most of the night to see what they were missing. Which, if memory serves, is pretty accurately facsimilied here: the Manics are ever-entertaining, but the sensation that this was an off-night for them is increasingly hard to shake off, even people who didnt attend the concert having come to the same conclusion independently. Tragically the DVD exorcises Nicky Wire's more caustic comments concerning Westlife and Renault, replaced by redundant interview and rehearsal footage recorded at Newport Centre, and the whole kit caboodle is prefaced by 'colourful' footage of those 'oh so wacky' obsessive fans, which rather gives the whole an unwelcome air of novelty. The DVD adds additional takes of "If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next" and "Ready For Drowning" taped during the "This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours" sessions ("Why?", you might reasonably ask), a sketchy discography, English and French subtitles and a photo gallery, but not the night's support slots from Shack and Super Furry Animals, which could have elevated an average disc into a great one. Ah well. If you love the Manics and/or you were there this is essentially self-recommending: if neither of the above apply I can see why you might not be bothered.
MANIC STREET PREACHERS Know Your Enemy (Epic)
So here we are standing on the coattails of a particularly contradictory few years in Manics history, even by their own contrary standards. They've swung from the fiftysomething-friendly AOR of the string-saturated "This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours" album to the frankly awful 4 real rumble of "The Masses Against The Classes", from playing millennial stadium rock in front of 57,000 merry pranksters to serenading Castro. Which suggests that "Know Your Enemy" is likely to gravitate towards the noisier, more political end of their scale, and naturally enough it does: I cant imagine my mum doing aerobics to any of the 16 tracks presented here.
"Know Your Enemy" sees the Manics returning to the template that served them so well on their first post-Richey album "Everything Must Go": songs that exorcise personal and political demons - ranging from the death of a close relative to Paul Robeson's pursuit by anti-Comminust witchunters - wrapped around pop tunes shot through with agitation, distortion, hope and despair. Frequently the music is subsumed almost entirely by the ghost of other bands: "Found That Soul", for example, sounds like it's crawled bleeding from the second side of Iggy And The Stooges' "Raw Power" album, right down to the one note piano riff; "So Why So Sad" glistens with Beach Boys harmonies and, bizarrely, a stylophone solo; "Miss Europa Disco Dancer" is as ironically "Saturday Night Fever" funky as you'd expect from the title. Other tracks get hauled over the coals by techno types David Holmes and Jagz Kooner in an attempt to subvert their guitar rock origins - not entirely successfully, it has to be said, since all they seem to acquire of any significance is an extra few layers of distortion.
But is "Know Your Enemy" actually any good? I'd venture a muted yes: there's nothing categorisably bad here, and in places - notably the soaring "The Convalescent", which allies the sloganeering of old ("Cos DNA means do not accept") with one of their finest, most propulsive melodies yet; a shame that its near six-minute duration sabotages its chances of being released as a single - it's very good indeed, fine enough to excuse the less inspired rants at the centre of the album ("Dead Martyrs", "His Last Painting", "My Guernica") and the sixth-form philosophising that sometimes mars proceedings ("Intravenous Agnostic", "Freedom Of Speech Won't Feed My Children"). For me it lines up as the Manics' third best album - it can't top the splenetic, stream-of-consciousness, raw wound rage of "The Holy Bible", nor the pop sheen and heart kick of "Everything Must Go", but as a combination of the two it delivers as much as we really have any right to expect unlike Sony's abysmal pressing, which scrunches up 64 minutes of music onto two heavily compressed, dynamically lifeless sides of vinyl. Heads should roll, they really should.
MANIC STREET PREACHERS/GORKY'S ZYGOTIC MYNCI Cardiff Arena 23 August 2001
I'd just remarked to my mate Davus (he moonlights as bassist with Ivor And The Engines, whom you may have seen during their world tour of Cornwall this summer) that the unidentified band trooping onstage looked remarkably like Gorky's Zygotic Mynci - something to do with the singer's unruly curly mop and the presence of a female violinist pumping the old little memory triggers - when Euros Childs announced "Hello, we're Gorky's Zygotic Mynci"! And so they proceeded to be throughout a 40-minute set that, unless the old little memory triggers had prematurely exhausted themselves, seemed to consist predominately of material drawn from their forthcoming new long player (admittedly with Davus rapping incredulously throughout, muso stuff along the lines of "He's only playing two chords!", "These songs are all slow", "They've got all those musicians on stage, but they're playing the same thing!", "The last ten seconds were good but the rest of it was shite!!"). Me, of course, would have neither noticed nor cared, especially when the Mynci began trampling on some familiar territory: both "Sweet Johnny" and "Spanish Dance Troupe" climaxed in white noise fury that would have swamped even The Velvet Underground's amplified heat, Euros attacking his keyboards as if Keith Emerson had never happened, head bobbing furiously as he chopped out great swathes of distorted atonality. And then seconds later they'd be delicately picking through the cornfield folk of something like "This Summer's Been Good From The Start". I thought they were marvellous, rising to the difficult challenge of filling such a large space with music that doesn't really aim to rouse a rabble, and they seemed to be rightly appreciated by the Manics' crowd. What d'you reckon, Davus? "Six out of ten". No pleasing some people.
It's a little after 9:15 and the video screens behind the stage crackle into life with footage of a candle being lit and images of a hand scratching words onto page. The camera pulls out to reveal an elderly gentleman in a Father Christmas beard. "Good evening Cardiff", says elderly gent, "I'm Karl Marx, and I'd like to introduce my favourite rock band, the Manic Street Preachers". Which, as an introduction, could only be bettered by the band arriving on stage and launching into a supercharged, valedictory rendition of "You Love Us" and we do. Amidst the NME-circulated rumours that their forthcoming festival appearances might be the band's last live shows, to explode into a hometown show by playing that song, knowing that its sentiments are as true now as they've ever been, is about as grand a gesture as the Mk II Manics are capable of making, and it makes for an astonishing entrance.
Unfortunately the adrenaline levels seem to fluctuate throughout the evening. There are many fine moments: "Motorcycle Emptiness" is a thing of gleaming, twisted beauty of course, played against footage of Cuba that was presumably scored during the band's visit earlier this year. "Archives Of Pain" was the night's sole burnt offering from the awesome "The Holy Bible", but it was a marvellous, murderous thing, Nicky Wire's bass slabs seeming, for a few brief minutes, like the most ominous noise to emerge from strings and circuits and cones since Black Sabbath crawled from the Middle Earth. ("There's a load of people at the bar going "What the fuck was that?"", observed James Dean Bradfield after the song shuddered to a close.) Nicky Wire dedicated "Little Baby Nothing" to "everybody who shops at Claire's Accessories", which, judging by his appearance, included himself, short skirts and khaki apparently being this year's model. A cover of Guns N' Roses' "It's So Easy" demonstrated that they haven't entirely forsaken their cartoon rock roots, as would a cover of Van Halen's "Jump" had it not been merely the latest fake introduction to effervescent evergreen "Motown Junk". Bradfield dedicated an acoustic "Small Black Flowers That Grow In The Sky" to Richard Edwards, and "A Design For Life" was "A Design For Life", which, as ever, was enough. And, maybe as a result of the muso mumblings from my left during the Gorkys' set, tonight the Manics seemed to gel better than ever before musically, Bradfield especially, whether he was replicating the trumpet solos from "Kevin Carter" and "Ocean Spray", or taking over from 'Beast Thing' Nicky Wire on low-end duty for "Miss Europa Disco Dancer".
But on the other hand why the bizarre set list which dispensed with all the short sharp punk shocks in the first half, leaving the end of the evening clogged up with slow, dreary album filler ("Tsunami", yes?)? And although it was probably too much to ask, expect or imagine to hear their wonderful cover of McCarthy's "We Are All Bourgeois Now" the absence of the Spector rush of "Everything Must Go" was a bit crushing. And the punk clatter of "The Masses Against The Classes" isn't the most inspiring way to send an audience home.
So it was an evening that entertained and infuriated in equal measure: they were certainly more energetic tonight than during their rather tired and hackneyed performance at the Millennium gig, but compared to their December 1998 CIA shows, which verged on something like a religious experience for some (i.e. me!) it was merely a very good band playing (mostly) pretty good songs. And despite all the devotion and fervour they rightfully whip up in an admittedly partisan audience, it didn't seem like enough. But Davus rated it a ten out of ten so am I asking too much?
MANIC STREET PREACHERS Louder Than War Manic Street Preachers Live In Cuba (Epic)
Or "What We Did On Our Holidays". "Louder Than War" presents footage from the Manic Street Preachers' ground-breaking performance in Cuba, and as such is almost the obverse of Wim Wenders' "Buena Vista Social Club", in which the neglected music of an insular country was exposed to the world via the good offices of Ry Cooder. The DVD arrives garlanded with an impressive array of extras, although to rack up the full 200 minute running time referred to on the cover you'll need access to a DVD-ROM drive. Aside from the gig itself there are two documentaries, which together amount to little more than a topspun reworking of Channel 4's equivalent "Our Manics In Havana", 30 minutes of what are referred to as Cuban TV bonus tracks (why these aren't included as part of the concert proper is never explained), photos and the usual airbrushed corporate discography Sony DVDs tend to carry. Several of the songs also offer multiple angle options, but as the packaging makes no mention of this you'll have to keep an eye on your player's angle indicator to determine where it's applicable.
Buried under all this largesse and political and cultural significance is some music, of course, and it's alright, but, as with the earlier " Leaving The 20th Century Cardiff Millennium Stadium 1999/2000" disc it's difficult to escape the sensation that the band are once again overwhelmed by the occasion, resulting in a less-than-enthralling performance. (It's hardly the Manics' fault, though - what other band has piloted such a creative tour itinerary in recent years?) A dearth of material from "The Holy Bible" will disappoint anyone who believes (rightly, in my opinion) that raw, bleeding wound of an album to be their finest hour, and the sound quality on this DVD is clear enough but naggingly thin with it, reducing the excitement quotient still further. On the credit side, though, the setlist is still challenging, especially considering that the thousands crowded into the Karl Marx Stadium were unlikely to have heard a note of the band's music before the concert, with old favourites such as "Motorcycle Emptiness", "A Design For Life" and "You Love Us" almost compensating for the puzzling omission of "Everything Must Go". And there are a few sublime moments from their meeting with Castro preserved here: the genesis of the disc's title is explained by Nicky Wire's warning to the General that the concert might be a bit loud, to which he replies that it cannot be louder than war. The scene where Castro has his arm around the shoulder of an apparently terrified little Sean Moore is also priceless. But otherwise? If you like the Manics, and you weren't there (which, let's be honest, you weren't) "Louder Than War" is essentially self-recommending, no matter how many brickbats you might care to throw at it.
MANIC STREET PREACHERS/IAN BROWN Cardiff Arena 15 December 2002
My first experience of a CIA balcony seat, my perch up in the gods wasn't initially promising: sited right at the back left hand corner of the hall perpendicular to the stage, it almost had me longing for the smokey crush on the floor below, especially during Ian Brown's, hmmm, charismatic support slot, during which the sound of my lonely applause ricocheted severely around the area. A tightly wound combination of antagonism and arrogance, Brown played one of the most confrontational sets I've ever witnessed, King Monkey permanently on the defensive, shuffling around the stage in a grotesque caricature of a fur-hooded 70s anorak and strafing the crowd with a flashlight beam, punctuating his performances with bizarre street-fighting Manc rhetoric like he's Mark E Smith's sportswear-endorsing grandson or something. And as for the music well, the Brown larynx is not a pretty instrument by repute, but it copes better with the songs that were designed with its limitations in mind, rather than, say, tonight's cover of "Billie Jean", although that certainly improved on the second attempt, Ian paying rather more attention to singing than moonwalking (moonslouching?), to the performance's audible benefit. But if the insomniac in you has witnessed Brown's almost permanent fixture on "ITV At The Festivals 2002" you'll be pleased to note how much of his set tonight makes sense: his own songs are purposely limited but chunky and enjoyable enough, although none of them can hold a candle (or indeed a flashlight) to the five seconds of "Fools Gold" the band (not the singer) teased us with tonight. His guitarist's (Aziz Ibrahim? He, like the rest of the band, wasn't introduced) bizarre, skeletal gloves are revealed to be a suit of tiny red lights. But the critic baiting acapella close to "My Star" is sadly absent, and when he finally leaves the stage, striking Charles Atlas poses, after around 45 minutes, there's a not inconsiderable volume of booing amidst the cheers.
There follows an interminable wait for the arrival of the Manics, brightened somewhat by a between-set interlude that includes tunes by New Order, Public Enemy, The Clash and Public Image Ltd. (during which lighting technicians perform death-defying, probably not meant as entertainment, feats, shimmying up ropes to the gantry above the stage), and the arrival of Nicky Wire's feather boad microphone stand, which is greeted with a burst of applause. (But why no Welsh flag draped over his amps?) When the lights finally dim we're treated to an impressionistic, revisionist film of Manics history soundtracked by David Bowie's barnstorming "Low"-era instrumental "Speed Of Life", and then they're finally on stage, rather diminishing the rest of the evening by ploughing straight into the yearning, battered wondermint of "Motorcycle Emptiness", and, well, it's all very competent and professional, but consider this. The first time I saw the Manics, same venue, four years earlier almost to the day, their performance was charged with something approaching religious fervour. I attended as a casual fan and left as a convert. And every time I've seen them since they've been simultaneously very fine (although the Manic Millennium might have been a slightly off night) and slightly disappointing. Tonight's show was perhaps the most workmanlike of the lot, mostly a straightforward trawl through the bigger hits (why else would the apparently despised "The Everlasting" be back in the set?) spiked by the odd unexpected moment - two acoustic choruses of "Last Christmas", for example, or a slash 'n' burn though "Theme From M*A*S*H (Suicide Is Painless)", their NME "Ruby Trax" charidee album submission (apparently Richey had voted to cover Bay City Rollers' rather less revealing "Bye Bye Baby" instead). "Motown Junk" is dedicated to the Edwards family, as is right and proper, "Tsunami" to Aneurin Bevan and their masterpiece "The Holy Bible" is skimmed for "She Is Suffering" and "Faster" (altogether now "I am stronger than Mensa"!). "Everything Must Go" makes a welcome return to the set, and as 11 o'clock approaches and they haven't yet touched "You Love Us" and "A Design For Life" (a number two hit that begins "Libraries gave us power" - if you ever need a succinct definition of why the Manics still matter, even in these beleaguered times, there it is) you don't exactly have to be Sherlock Holmes to work out that both are coming next. The biggest surprises of a somewhat staid evening are the two new(ish) songs aired, "There But For The Grace Of God" and "Forever Delayed", both of which are a little bit Massive Attack and a whole lot more interesting than much of the band's previous two albums. Those, and the way the balcony comes alive when the Manics take to the stage, the evening turning into something more resembling a live music experience than a night watching "ITV At The Festivals 2002" from the sofa. It makes such a difference to be able to see the whole of the stage - however distant - and not have the view change altered minute by minute by the swell and surge of the crowd, or be jostled by people trying to make it to the bar and back. So, after an hour and 45 minutes on stage "A Design For Life" crashes to a close, no encores, no alarms, no surprises, and though on paper they might appear to have ticked every box I can't help thinking that they've done better than this.
MANIC STREET PREACHERS Send Away The Tigers (Columbia)
Widely lauded as the Manics comeback album even though they havent actually been away from anywhere except perhaps the publics consciousness at times Send Away The Tigers feels like a theme park ride through the bands history. The sleeve typographys reversed Rs are straight off The Holy Bible and the lyric You stole the sun straight from my heart is deployed unashamedly. The albums sound rejects the immaculately polished surfaces of Lifeblood and the stretching stylistic diversity of Know Your Enemy (both underrated works, in my humble opinion); instead, Send Away The Tigers sounds like the album they shouldve built around standalone Y2K chart-topper The Masses Against The Classes, with which it shares its noisy guitars and impassioned commitment, although there are also occasional nods to the dayglo splatter of Generation Terrorists.
The title track opens the album with some stirring faux-cathedral organ like youve put Neon Bible on by mistake (or perhaps deliberately) or sumpn, and theres a tiny vocal catch following the chorus of Underdogs, perhaps designed to sound like a clumsy edit, that delights me every time I hear it. Nina Persson, of half-forgotten fluffy pop Sabbath coverers The Cardigans, might seem an unusual choice of vocal sparring partner on the covert Richey tribute Your Love Alone Is Not Enough, but, then again, why not? It makes for sweet, anthemic rock music in the vein of If You Tolerate This Your Children May Be Next; it might sound a bit trad, but if it were really as effortless as the Manics make it appear wouldnt everyone be doing it? And, as an answer, next up are Indian Summer and The Second Great Depression (eerily prescient in this week of unprecedented queuing outside financial institutions); glutinous and melodically similar, sequenced back to back they cause the centre of the album to sag perceptibly. Rendition, with its introduction that couldve been lifted from a particularly bombastic Star Wars soundtrack moment and lyrics ripped bloodily from the headlines (Rendition/Blame it on the coalition Never knew the sky was a prison) hardly halts the rot. Autumnsong, though, starts huge and just keeps getting bigger, piling handclaps upon string arrangements, ornate layered harmonies and a guitar solo that just wont stop peaking, as if some long-suppressed Queen influence has just seeped to the surface; their I Want To Break Free moment, if ever there was one. Imperial Bodybags is the albums sleeper hit, a stormtrooper of an anti-war rant that rages harder than anything else here. Finally, Winterlovers has a big 70s glam rock Nah nah nah vocal hook (that Queen influence running havoc again?) that adds a little warmth to what mightve been a chilly sign-off. Thats unless youre unfortunate enough to own the CD, which, after a few moments respite, assails the ears with a cover of Working Class Hero that somehow manages to elevate the artistic achievements wrought on this John Lennon song by Tin Machine.
MANIC STREET PREACHERS / CHERRY GHOST Manchester Central 5 December 2007
I approached this evening with grumpy trepidation. Id last seen the Manics six months earlier in Prestons Guildhall, a performance heavy with both songs from the freshly released Send Away The Tigers album and band/audience antagonism, Nicky Wire in particular barely a hairtriggers breadth away from a tirade for most of the night. Added to which I wasnt exactly relishing visiting the venue formerly known as G-Mex, fuzzy memories of my only previous gig there (Blur a dozen years earlier, almost to the day) suggesting it was a bit enormodome for my tastes.
Happily, my fears proved groundless, as usual. First up in the surprisingly accommodating and acoustically compliant (considering its illustrious history as both a railway station and a car park) venue were Boltons Cherry Ghost. Another solid and interesting Manics support act, their sound is a veritable pot-pourri of northern miserablism. Initially strongly reminiscent of a more voluptuously upholstered (feathered?) Babybird, as their set progressed traces of Doves, Elbow and maybe even Tindersticks flickered in their songs.
Tonight the Manics seemed empowered: ripping straight into a lustrous, flexing Motorcycle Emptiness could there be anywhere else for them to go? Course. There was no let up over the next 100 minutes, with practically all areas of Manics history covered. In this context their recent reconnection with their earlier, punkier ethos on Send Away The Tigers was an inspired move, making their older work seem visionary and timeless (or, from another, less flattering perspective, just as dated as the rest of their material). Again, the venue proved something of a pleasant surprise; even from near the back I could see more of the Manics than at the far smaller Guild Hall, even without factoring in the assistance provided by the two jumbotrons either side of the stage. There was a bit more breadth and depth to the setlist as well compared with the classic single/new song flip-flop that dominated their Preston performance, the focus on Send Away The Tigers reduced in favour of inclusions from the formerly ignored Know Your Enemy and Lifeblood (Our Marmite album, jested James Dean Bradfield).
Yes, recast in stunning acoustic colours last time around, was returned to the vicious, twisting electric rant that opened The Holy Bible; in its place in the unplugged section were Suicide Is Painless and a winningly restrained The Everlasting. As is traditional, a singalong A Design For Life closed the show: no encore, appropriately, because how could anything follow the desperate sense of community that song engenders?
A far better evening that Id anticipated, then. It still fell some way short of my first Manics concert experience (Christmas 1998 at Cardiffs International Arena, a show that scraped at the underside of a religious experience), but it towered over the mild disappointment of their performance six months previously.
MANIC STREET PREACHERS / THE ANSWERING MACHINE Roundhouse, London 30 May 2009
Mancunian quartet The Answering Machine blend elements of Joy Division, Franz Ferdinand and The Wedding Present, without ever threatening to be as entertaining as such a combination might suggest. They achieved a commendably crisp sound in this Grade II listed venue, though.
Signs on the entrance doors had already announced that the Manics would be playing two sets, the first a run-through of their pretty good Richey-scripted new album “Journal For Plague Lovers” and the second containing “all your favourites”, which pre-supposes an element of mutual exclusivity. Their performance was, well, alright - well drilled, as you might expect on this third and final night of their Roundhouse residency - but my enthusiasm was dampened by the crush of a crowed that displayed more beer-throwing idiocy than I’ve experienced in a long while at a concert. An authentic Welsh string quartet were wheeled on as the songs demanded, but not the hoped-for harp for “Facing Page: Top Left”, which James Dean Bradfield instead played solo and acoustically, inspiring a somewhat inappropriate outbreak of handclapping in the audience. As with the album, it’s the closer “William’s Last Words” that had the most emotional heft for me, sung by a cracked and broken-voiced Nicky Wire (who actually pleaded illness tonight, fortified by champagne but noticeably less dramatic than usual) it’s a world apart from the angular post-punk that’s gone before.
As forewarned, the second set was heavy on the hits, the most resplendent being “Motorcycle Emptiness” (inevitably), “Faster”, “You Love Us”, “Motown Junk”, a string-assisted “Everything Must Go” and traditional closer “A Design For Life”. However, the sound seemed to become more indistinct with each successive set, with Bradfield’s vocals hopelessly garbled by the end of the night. Yes, they were good, but I’ve seen them often enough to become complacently dismissive of a mere ‘good’, knowing how transcendent they can be when the mood (or at least an adoring, holiday-happy home country audience) takes them higher.
MANIC STREET PREACHERS / THE JOY FORMIDABLE Motorpoint Arena, Cardiff 21 May 2011
North Wales trio The Joy Formidable seem to be making many more noises than are apparently being produced on stage. Those Farfisa-style organ belches that sound like something from a Stereolab album don’t seem to be the result of any of the visible drum and string manipulation that’s going on. Their sound is a bit like Primitives/Darling Buds-style pop swathed in shoegazey effects, but the destructive frenzy they build to during set-closer “Whirring” places rather a different complexion on what’s gone before.
The Manics take to the stage accompanied by a visual précis of their history on the screens to either side, swelled to a quintet tonight by extra guitar and keyboard help. They play “Life Becoming A Landslide” in what seems like slow motion, and the listlessness of “My Little Empire” is emphasised by the glorious ” Faster” that follows it (along with “Of Walking Abortion” a treat for the Holy Bibliests amongst us). They even play something off “Lifeblood” – “Solitude Sometimes Is” – the redheaded stepchild of the Manics discography, although nothing is aired from “Journal For Plague Lovers”, the Richey-album they toured complete at the time of its 2009 release. James Dean Bradfield’s solo acoustic interlude of “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” and “Everything Must Go” allows Nicky Wire to slip into something more comfortable, namely his trademark skirt, and “Motown Junk” is prefixed with Bradfield playing our nation’s anthem in the style of Hendrix’s “The Star-Spangled Banner” on a guitar decorated in the style of our nation’s flag.
They deliver a typically passionate and committed performance that drives this near-hometown audience into a frenzy that, as usual, I can’t quite connect with, at least until the heart-swelling communal socialist singalong of closer “A Design For Life”. So near, yet…