MANIC STREET PREACHERS, Everything Must Go #20, London Royal Albert Hall, 17 May 2016
It's been 24 hours and 19 years, 1 month, and 5 days since the Manic Street Preachers last played the Royal Albert Hall. That night, as James Dean Bradfield recalls, he was shitting himself, as his Mum and Dad, and Jimmy Page, were in the room. Tonight, of course, is what Nicky Wire describes as 'Probably the last time we will ever play here'. The Manics, at album twelve, now seem to be looking back.. and it's not quite as good as was when they were looking forward.
Touring a 20th anniversary celebration of that album and period, it feels disturbingly like some form of musical museum, a nostalgia for a time that never really existed. Trust me, I feel no nostalgia for then. There's a danger to pretending that being in your late teens and early twenties was awesome ; it wasn't then, and even less so now. Romanticising the past? It's nonsense, and whilst there was good in it... now is better.
Ultimately, it feels wrong. What's the point of always looking back? There's a creative stagnation here, a cultural necrophilia in touring all the old albums in order. The albums don't quite work played live. Not that the songs are in any way lesser – after all, Everything Must Go is near enough a greatest hits made of new songs – but that those songs, in that order, just don't quite work on stage. They are designed to be experienced alone with headphones, not in big rooms not alone.
On stage, the 1996 live lineup are augmented by Wayne Murray on guitar, and the rest of the band, growing older slowly, play with the same sense of passion and engagement. What is absent is the fire : the songs are no longer fierce declarations of independence – free from the memory – of the past, or paths to the future. They're echoes. They're memories. They are reminders of things hat once were and can never be. It's not that the band perform badly, or without integrity. It's that … maybe you shouldn't go back and recreate the past anymore. Maybe it's time, especially with the goodwill of the superior Futurology starting to fade, that the band need to write about, and continue to look at, where they are now, and how they fit in the world. Not about how they used to.
Few bands were ever as culturally relevant, or important, at one point as the Manics. Now they're a jukebox. It's predictable, and whilst it's also refreshing to hear songs like “Removables”, “Interiors” and “The Girl Who Wanted To Be God” being played after 20 years away, there's also a sense of being shackled to the past. Great songs are ignored. Crowdpleasers are anthems. And well, definitely in the midst of “Australia” and “You Stole The Sun” (the two worst Manics single there are, both being anaemic, diluted, and utterly boring stadium rock with …. unspectacular lyrics), these songs may be doing a storm with the crowd. But the crowd are wrong. Jump a bit. Have a laugh.
If this is your favourite band, as you tweeted next to me... why are you going to the bar? Why are you having a conversation loudly during the whole. Fucking. Gig? There are a million rooms in this town alone the band aren't playing. Go in any one of those, kindly. Now.
Especially when the band are playing songs like “Further Away”. It's rarely played (and, alongside several other songs from this album) and often goes 15 years between performances. Pay attention to this stuff.
The second half of the set is more exciting. There's rare live airings of “Natwest – Barclays Midlands – Lloyds” (that I last saw them perform 24 years ago) and “You're Tender And You're Tired”. Both songs are, in their way, glorious, but not exactly solid 100% setlist staples. But The Manics have become a band they never quite thought they would... they've become not just A Band That Could Change The World, but just another Very Good Band. Sandwiched around this are the great newer songs “This Sullen Welsh Heart”, “Walk Me To the Bridge” and “Show Me The Wonder”, as well as a normal greatest hits set. What is clear though is that the band aren't the same thing they once were. The films that accompany the songs, once chosen with great care, are now... vaguer. This may not mean much, but it means that the band want to mean less than they once did : whereas once the visuals would be chosen to complement and enhance the songs, now they are vague, abstract... meaningless. But never meaningless. The band themselves roar through these songs. And whilst revisiting “Everything Must Go” on it's twentieth is a case of celebration, revision... and at the same time, a case of comfort without a necessary reward (I'm baffled as to why, apart from the ego pleasing element of headlining arenas again after a ten year absence)... you can't say The Manics are back, because they never went away.
Elvis Impersonator: Blackpool Pier (An American Trilogy)
A Design for Life
Enola/Alone (Safe European Home)
Everything Must Go
Small Black Flowers That Grow in the Sky
The Girl Who Wanted to Be God
Interiors (Song for Willem de Kooning)
No Surface All Feeling
This Sullen Welsh Heart
Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head
Walk Me to the Bridge
Your Love Alone Is Not Enough
You Stole the Sun From My Heart
Roses in the Hospital (Sound And Vision)
You're Tender and You're Tired
Show Me the Wonder
(Feels Like) Heaven
You Love Us