I am making my way to the rather grand environs of the Usher Hall in Edinburgh to see the Manic Street Preachers for the first time.
Re-re-wind, don’t say “bo” or “selecta”.
It is twenty-three years ago, almost to the day.
May 23rd, 1996.
I am in the penultimate year of my degree at the University of Paisley.
Britpop is a thing.
It may well be the only thing.
Where does the glittery thrills and breezy delights of this scene leave a band like the Manics?
They had arrived shortly before Blur released “Popscene” and so could easily have been subsumed/consumed by the cultural mass that was eventually to become Britpop but they didn’t fit…not in any way. They looked like kids who were auditioning for parts in a Motley Crue biopic, all hair and mascara. They sounded like politics or philosophy students, all strident opinions and left wing opining. The music was brash, outrageous, spiky, angular and punky…like the New Wave of New Wave bands who were to come but with better songs.
Their third album, “The Holy Bible”, arrived as Britpop became the biggest pop culture scene since the days of the Mods and Rockers. Blur vs Oasis. Cool Britannia. The Brit Awards becoming the Britpop Awards. Jarvis Cocker hosting Top of the Pops. But “The Holy Bible” wasn’t a record that celebrated the past, it wasn’t future retro, it wasn’t the sound of youth, it wasn’t funny, it didn’t have a brass section, it wasn’t written under the influence of white liiiiiiiiines…it was the sound of pain, heartache, malady, melancholy, misery, masochism, sadism, twisted nerves, nervous breakdowns, righteous indignation and desperation.
In very many ways “The Holy Bible” was the best record of the nineties.
And then it happened.
Leaving us all behind.
Leaving it all behind.
Where does a band go when a member “leaves” in the way that Richey did?
The Manics went somewhere nobody really believed they could.
They went to the sort of space reserved for the big boys.
They became the architects of one of the best selling albums of the decade, authors of a hit single that, along with the Britpop big beasts, came to define the era and they ascended to the position of stadium act.
The album that took them there was “Everything Must Go” and it was then that I was presented with my first opportunity to see them live. They were playing at the legendary Barrowland’s in Glasgow, a short train journey from my digs just outside of Paisley. My younger brother was now also enrolled at the same university and so we decided to go together. His interest in seeing them was directly linked to his burgeoning romance with a girl who was a Manic’s obsessive and she, along with one of her friends, would also be joining us.
Once we arrived at the venue we joined the line and as the girls handed over their tickets and entered I put my hand into my pocket to retrieve our tickets only to discover that they were, in fact, back in my bedroom.
That was that.
At least for a while.
After about an hour the bouncer told us that if we slipped him a tenner each he would let us in.
Between us we had exactly ten pounds.
For the sake of young love I let my brother join the girls while I waited outside for another hour or so for the gig to finish.
Despite other opportunities to see them live I have always resisted…haunted, perhaps, by the memory of that night and fearful that it might happen again.
But here I am.
Facing my demons.
The bulk of the set tonight is an almost track by track run through of the album that followed “Everything Must Go”, the mega-selling, stadium filling, “This Is My Truth, Tell Me Yours”.
Before the band make their way onto the stage I am filled with a terrible sense of disappointment…no feather boas, no leopard print, no glitter, no hair back-combed to the point of being lifted from the scalp. Maybe they are here, those Manics disciples and devotees, but they are huddled together, crushed against the barrier waiting for their heroes.
Or maybe they, like me, have seen the flame of youth which, at one point, we seemed sure could never be extinguished, flicker, splutter and then die. The glitz and the glamour replaced by jeans from Next and a smart polo shirt…or, worse, a band t-shirt and a pair of trainers.
That same process of sense consuming senselessness has worked its anti-magic on James Dean Bradfield and Sean Moore who, while still singing and playing like the balaclava clad firebrands of their earlier days now look like dads on the school run. There is something deeply comforting in this…it makes my own, near terminal, decline from hip to human parsnip seem inevitable and proper. But then there is Nicky Wire who is a glorious explosion of glitter, hairspray, sunglasses and Devil may care attitude…one glance in his direction and I feel like I’ve given up too quickly, too easily, and I should be heading to “Clare’s Accessories” first thing in the morning to find some cheap shades and sparkles.
The first part of the set is a, near, track by track run through of the album that spawned some of their biggest selling and most powerful moments like “The Everlasting”, “If you Tolerate This…”, “Tsunami”, “Born a Girl”, “SYMM”, “You Stole the Sun from my Heart” and the glorious “My Little Empire”. What is striking throughout this portion of the evening is how great the other songs are…what seemed, to my cloth ears, to be filler is revealed, in a live setting, to be a different sort of killer.
Then we are flung, almost violently, into a greatest hits set that reveals, or reminds you, just how incredible the back catalogue of this band of agitprop, agitpop, socialist sloganeers, friends of Fidel, masters of misery and mayhem really is…not just because of the songs they choose to play but because of the songs they don’t play. For every “Motorcycle Emptiness” I wanted a “Faster”. For every “You Love Us” I wanted “Kevin Carter”. But despite not hearing everything I wanted…I wasn’t left disappointed, I was left utterly thrilled and enthralled. Reminded of how good the Manics are…how great the Manics are.
As I leave the venue I have the offer of sharing a taxi home with a friend but I turn it down. I don’t want to get home quickly. I want to have time to think about the night. I want to remember the moments when, at my lowest ebbs, I have turned to the Manics for a bit of comfort, some reassurance…to hear voices that understand. The sun has gone down, the air hangs heavy with the scent of rain to come and the streets grow quieter as I draw further away from the venue…leaving me alone with thoughts and memories, about the night, about the band, about my life and about the ways in which they are all connected.