Tuesday, December 20, 2011
MANIC STREET PREACHERS - “A Night of National Treasures” - 17 December 2011, London o2 Arena
20 years. 38 singles. 40 gigs. It's been a long journey. When the Manics came into my life, they were three singles old : “Motown Junk” was my entry point. Their entire discography consisted of nine songs. I was the shy, scared virgin. At lost in a world I neither liked, nor understood. A cruel land that was made of poverty and little joy. A typical teenage world then. In many ways, not much has changed since then.
Ten albums, two marriages, two divorces, two children, ten homes, fourteen jobs, countless funerals later, and here we all are again. I never thought, when they first pounced on the stage to 400 people at Leicester University on 30th January 1992, that 239 months, 7,263 days after I first saw them, I am still here. Still as excited as ever.
I never thought I'd be watching them in the biggest indoor venue in Europe, selling out, and performing a three hour set of 38 singles. I never thought I'd be nudging 40, jumping around, and shouting “rain down alienation - leave this country” as if it were still part of my very soul's DNA. The world changes, and we change the world with what we do, but also, we make the best of the world we can. How few songs ever capture so utterly the complete contempt with which I percieved the world as a child, and also, the same complete sense of betrayal with human potential that still is within me. Certainly, every agent defects, every artist sells out, and everyone is changed in small ways (at least), the question is how much one changes, and how much one resists the creeping tendrils of conformity. Yes, I may wear a suit, I may recognise I cannot instigate intellectual revolution, but I still want more than the world is prepared to offer, and much more than the world wants the future to be.
If this is a goodbye, then what a farewell this is. A defiant victory or something.
After 20 years though, and easily 10 years since their peak, the Manics have become almost just another band : yes, they make records and play live and sell T-shirts, just like other bands. But they are not like other bands. Even at the time of the chronically misunderstood “This Is My Truth”, the first concept album about depression and inertia and the failure of ambition to bring contentment (a charge echoed narrowly by Pulp's equally obtuse “This Is Hardcore”), when the band frequently toured arenas with enormous staging, even then, it felt like a kind of aberration – that the band would be so big and yet still strive to reach each of us. In the first ten years their rise was unstoppable. The final ten, their decline was palpable. Each album sold less, and featured more and more unessential material. After twenty years, you start to run out of things to say and exciting ways to say them. You have to keep trying. And here, the Manics recreate for one night, perhaps as a bookend, the kind of essential, pinned-to-the-wall fervour and relevance they held for so long and also, if this is the end, to go out in one final, defiant act of celebratory glory before they disappear. At least we had this.
But the O2 can be a soulless lump of a venue. Designed to resemble each heavily sponsored American Photocopier Arena from the off, this venue, buried inside the heart of a crudely designed entertainment complex of bars, restaurants, cinemas, is a machine designed to extract money in return for entertainment. And this, though presented as entertainment, is so much more than that, some populist art that communicates a world. The O2 meanwhile, is a frosty cavern, with 4,500 people thrown through each entrance every 45 minutes (100 people per minute, or 3 seconds per person per line). I arrive at 7.00, and the queue snakes around like some kind of bizarrre, glitter laden post-Christmas Harrods sale. Home made, paper thin t-shirts and skin made of cold bristles. People of all ages, from the once-in-a-lifetime thirteen year olds who've never seen them before that will speak of tonight with reverence in 20 years time, to grizzled fortysomethings for whom this is the inevitable splitting-up gig that we all know must one day come for each band we love.
20 years after I first saw them, and 330ml of plastic-bottled Pear Cider costs more than the first ticket I bought. 20 years after I first saw them, and the audience is still a mess of eyeliner and feather boa's. Yes. We're mostly older and not always wiser. Time has changed us. And some of our contemporaries, barely older than I, are ruining the economy, gifting the undeserving poor more poverty and suicides, and failing to learn the lessons of history. Some of the people who voted for the uncompassionate “Christian” values of the elected government are in this room. They know the words to all the pretty songs and they like to sing along. But they don't know what they mean.
At the start of this band's life – 25 years ago – this country was no different from now. Under the rule of the Conservatives, admidst riots, strikes, and decimated towns shorn of hope. Little has changed. Too little. Time is not infinite, and every day without change us a day further away from all this world can be.
After ten years, give or take, in a career wilderness of decreasing sales and slowly less-inventive records, the Manic Street Preachers are, for now at least, putting their memories to rest with this, a one-off celebration and farewell. Who knows when or if they will be seen again? This is history – we are living through it and often forgetting that key fact. One day, the New York Dolls put it, it will please us to remember even this.
In terms of 'historic' shows in the Manics calendar, this is one of those shows that you had to be there for. The longest show they have ever played by far (38 songs, three hours and ten minutes long). Every single hit. And quite a few singles that fell limply into irrelevance. But also, given the fervent reaction, the passionate delivery, the fire of the evening, it is also the best Manics show I have seen since the 1999 T in The Park performance. It may be an impersonal arena in London, but this is the Manics coming home, for home is wherever their constituents are.
Eschewing the idea of playing the singles in order, the Manics therefore avoid a mass exodus at a certain point in the evening when they ceased to be of such stark relevance and became just another – albeit superior – pop group.
However, the uneven pacing of the set – hit singles from the 90's sitting next to not quite so good, or so popular, singles from the 00's – manifests itself in an often uneven experience. Pockets of furious jumping start for songs such as the glorious incendiary and beautiful “From Despair To Where” suddenly followed by a mogadon “AutumnSong”, which is an inferior copy of “Design For Life” in key, tempo, bassline, drums, and all but words and chorus. It is, frankly, boring.
Over time, The Manics fire dimmed. Not every song they ever release can be an absolutely essential document of the human existence. Latter singles such as the dreary “Autumn Song” - the chorus is what have you done to your hair? for fucks sake – are the sound of musical tedium chasing it's own tail and imitating past glories with none of the honesty or power. It's a slight return to the pastures of “A Design For Life”, the gap between watching pornography and being in love. An imitation of dignity. Sandwiched between these damp squibs are some of the finest songs ever writen.
And for me, this is not a funeral, but a bonfire of the vanities, a final glorious affair, before the inevitable comeback in 5 years time. The lights fall, the sirens wail, and the band appear from behind a curtain. For the first time in fifteen years, James Dean Bradfield is wearing a sailor suit. I know it's only clothes. But these things matter.
It starts with “You Stole The Sun”, which commits the greatest sin of any rock band. It is a dull and boring song about the perils of touring. It may be a fun vaccous bouncy-bouncy song, but it's not the way to start the defining gig of your decade. Luckily, it's out of the way at the start. It's followed by “Love's Sweet Exile”, which was, as far as I can remember, last played when John Major was Prime Minister and before the Internet was invented. It sounds the same as it always did.
So yes, they really are going to do it. Play all 38 singles, but not in order. “Motorcycle Emptiness” is gorgeous. Shorn of it's iconic Rumblefish visuals though, the song lacks the connection with the same film, the air of lost, youthful and doomed romance – but still resonates. Half my life later, and the words “This wonderful world of purchase power”, which entered my life when I was 18 years and 7 months old, still mean as much as they ever did 19 years and 10 months later.
And the lyrics. You forget the lyrics. But you never forget the lyrics. They are still in here. Hundreds of lines that shaped my world, and how I see the world. “A morality obdient”. “I don't want to be a man.” “There's nothing nice in my head : the adult world took it all away.” “Gorgeous poverty of created needs”. “If you stand up like a nail, you will be knocked down.” “I laughed when Lennon got shot.” These shaped my world view. I saw the world though their eyes. Though eyes just like mine. Eyes hungry, and aware, and shut out, dispossessed. I was just little people. At best, then, I hoped for change. I got a job instead. Libraries gave us power. And then work came, and made us free.
Followed with the first single from last years “Postcards From A Young Man”, the first set, like the whole night, is frustratingly uneven. Lesser known songs barge inbetween better songs and result in sporadic moments of cathartic furious exorcism through jumping around, and mild breathers as yet another, later-years midpaced ballad appears forgettably. Certainly, some of these songs - “Empty Souls”, “Let Robeson Sing” (sung by Gruff from the Super Furry Animals) are under-rated, but others : “Autumnsong”, “Indian Summer”, “Some Kind Of Nothingness” are the sound of boring complacency.
Can anyone write a protest song? In this day and age, the most turbulent and unhappy political landscape I can remember since 1985, we need angry songs that peel back the foreskin of capitalism and show this world for what it is, and what it isn't. Shopping won't make us happy. Commercials kill our sensitivity.
And in this, the rarely performed songs - “She Is Suffering” that was last seen about ten years ago. The performance is far from perfect – perhaps to save his voice for the 30 songs yet to go, James Dean Bradfield misses verses out of songs and undersings them : there is no angry cry of “I don't want to be a man!” in Life Becoming A Landslide.
And “This is the Day”. In probably the only time it will be played in public. Strange it is, and my eyes damp, to think of the sentiment behind it : not only do I recognise the footage shown in the background, but I was there at those gigs. I remember those scissorkicks with my own eyes. But this, all of this leads up to today. You cannot reach the future without living through the past.
“You've been reading some old letters. You smile and think how much you've changed.All the money in the world couldn't buy back those days. “
Some people don't listen to words. This band was – is – my truth. I connected with these people. Barely older than me, too, living in a town seemingly without much hope. We may have been relatively rich, we had food, and beds. But that is not all a man needs. The Manics grasped this nettle, and squeezed until it stung the life out of complacencey. Even the first handful of single, not featured here, made the point. “Hospital closures kill more than car bombs ever will.” And This Is The Day draws the line between then and now, and the linearity of history. It can only be understood backwards and can only be lived forwards. We move forwards because that is the nature of time.
There are 38 songs. Not every one of them can be brilliant.
“The Everlasting” is a song that saw the Manics at a crossroads. Only seven years into their existence, and already, they were showing nostalgia for what they had lost. It's been a long time since I have heard this song live : and even longer since it sounded so good. Here though, it is utterly and correctly of its place – in a set that is entirely made of looking back, this captures the air of regret and joy that often comes with the passing of time. The O2 is bathed in a mirrorball. The lyrics speak of knowing your history. At the time of its release, I was barely 25, and yet, also, keenly aware of time, precious time, slipping away, of opportunity passing. “The gap that grows between our lives, the gap our parents never had”. Which now, now we are adults with mortgages and children and careers, and our parents – if they are alive, til death us do part – are together, and we are the divorced, the broken, the hoping still.
And during much of the first set, the band perform with a last-chance saloon passion, before an audience that could be cut up and sold as hamburgers.
It's a night of many emotions. Too many in fact in many instances. My mind races from regret and sadness, to joy, and furious indignation. After 20 years, we, mankind are still here fighting the same fucking battles. Have we learnt nothing? Gone all this way yet ended nowhere ?
At the interval, we tinkle glasses, and some people eat Pringles. The lights dim at 9.15, and the band start their second, nineteen song set, to a roar of sirens, and then – the frankly pedestrian “Australia” : for some reason, this strangely popular song is one the band still play. But it is boring stadium rock, with mediocre lyrics, and like a Bruce Springsteen b-side. It's followed by “La Tristesse Durera”. Who else would do a single, quoting a French philosopher as its title. This song. THIS song.
“Life has been unfaithful. And it all promised so much.”
A song that captures my life in itself. A song that changed my life. When I was sitting in unheated rooms. When I was sitting with too much month at the end of my money. When lovers betrayed me. These songs were here. They kept my soul warm. These songs were comfort sometimes, and others like it, when life itself was disappointing.
Even “There By The Grace of God”, a song that live often fell flat when performed live, here, achieves a status of almost elegant calm. The screens behind the band fill with images of Dungeness and Derek Jarman's Garden – which is my favourite place in the universe apart from my bed. But again, as per the rest of the night, the response is uneven, fast, slow, slow, slow, new slow single, die of boredom. And then, as “Some Kind Of Nothingness” fades into nothingness itself, the evening finally seems to jettison the mediocre or the middleaged and aim, headlong and heartfirst into 14 non stop, stonking hit singles, one after the other.
My soul may always be young and hopeful, but it is now I forget the past twenty years existed. Because these songs speak to me as much now as they did then. I wish they didn't, but so little has changed in this world. If you stand up like a nail, you will be knocked down. And then... not played for ten years - “Revol”. The most obtuse, and somewhat brilliant lyric I have ever heard, which details the sexualisation of politics in the same way that pop, and films are sexualised, through the iconography of ideas. And, at one point, 20,000 people are staring at a screen saying “STALIN” in huge letters. It sounds immense, huge perfect. Few bands have ever meant so much to someone, anyone. Even at this late stage in their career, the band are still writing defiant statements of intent : “The world will not impose it's will : I will not give up. And I will not give in.”
Time may change you, but I can change time.
Behind and around all of this, the etheral presence of absent guitarist Richey Edwards is untouchable but tangible : his visaqge mouthing the words to “Roses In The Hospital”, his words running through at least half of the songs, his presnece and his ethos in every moment, as the band claim back the sense of life, of fury, of existence, from these songs, as if being in a state of resistance and awareness were a justification for life itself. We know we are alive, because we do not accept but we resist.
Nina Perrsson appears for “Your Love Alone is Not Enough”. A strange, and unusual title for a song. It's a fun romp. But the kind you could see and hear being sun by anyone. There's not enough individuality in this song.
Followed by the first-time-in-a-decade “Slash N Burn”, which is executed – and executed is the word – ruthlessly with a keen eye to getting to the end as fast of possible, with a shitload of cowbell. At least they don't have that crap second percussion player they did in 2002. It's not the best song they ever did – at best, it was a unholy mix of Marx and Motley Crue – but it was perhaps their most accessable attempt at combining knowingly-stupid rock and knowingly-clever words. The set starts to end with the most precise, furious, condensed, best ever, white hot, “I-laughed-when-Lennon-got-shot” of “Motown Junk”. Steam rises from the crowd.
For three minutes, everything makes sense again.
The evening closes with the rote, but still glorious “A Design For Life.” It may be that, like having watched Star Wars too many times, repeated exposure has made this song – the national anthem this country should always have had – has dimmed the shine a little. But it is still one of the best songs I have ever heard, a song that encapulates the nature of class struggle, class structure, and the fine art of getting drunk in one precise four minute adrenaline hit. As always, the song comes to a rousing chorus, the huge venue smiles and sings and dances, and we celebrate the end of our grand little dream that maybe once, we could have been contenders. As. We. Are. Told. That. This. Is. The. End.
The venue empties. Feedback rings in our ears. The Manics are gone. Maybe for now. Maybe forever. And I am glad that I was here for this. I've seen this band 40 times in 20 years. I've not seen them quite so engaged this millenium. One day, today, it pleases me to remember this. We were there. We saw this. We tasted history as it went past. We are all part of history. And this band, these moments, this passion – that is something to look back without regret. In a life filled with regrets, this isn't one of them.
You Stole The Sun From My Heart / Love's Sweet Exile / Motorcycle Emptiness / (It's Not War) Just The End Of Love / Everything Must Go / She is Suffering / From Despair To Where / Autumnsong / Empty Souls / Let Robeson Sing (with Gruff Rhys) / Faster / Life Becoming a Landslide / Kevin Carter / Little Baby Nothing / This Is The Day / The Everlasting / Indian Summer / Stay Beautiful / If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next
Australia / La Tristesse Durera (Scream to a Sigh) / Found That Soul / There by the Grace of God / Some Kind Of Nothingness / You Love Us / Suicide is Painless (Theme from MASH) / Revol / The Love Of Richard Nixon / Ocean Spray / The Masses Against the Classes / Roses in the Hospital / So Why So Sad / Postcards From A Young Man / Your Love Alone Is Not Enough
(with Nina Persson) / Slash 'n' Burn / Tsunami / Motown Junk / A Design For Life