HMS Manics is ready to set sail...
Back in September, I wrote a blog about why The Holy Bible by the Manic Street Preachers is, in my opinion, the greatest album of all time. You can read it here if you haven't already (and you really should, purely to marvel at how many times I describe the album as "smacking me in the face"). On Tuesday 16th December, I squeezed into my sailor dress and headed to Camden Roundhouse to hear my beloved Manics play the album live in full. To say I was excited is an understatement. To say I was ridiculously emotional would be perfectly true. To say I was dressed like a wally... Well, the picture speaks for itself. And yes, I was wearing copious amounts of eyeliner and glitter. I'm a Manics fan.
A Manics fan whose bad hair day meant I required a wig.
First things first, I have two things to say about the pre-gig experience.
1) Never drive to Camden and expect to be able to park. Seriously, it's not worth the detrimental effect it's going to have on your blood pressure. After hours of driving around side streets with "maximum stay 2 hours" signs dotted along them, I was ready to drive into the Roundhouse itself, smashing through the walls and landing in a crumpled heap in front of the stage. I was in Urban Hell. I wanted to destroy rock and roll venues.
2) Manics fans... Oh guys, time and again, you surprise me with just how awesome you are capable of being. Many a frustrated word is written about fan elitism and how Manics fans don't talk to each other in the queue, because they're too focused on getting to the barrier at all costs. Yes, there is fan elitism. No, the people at the very front of the queue didn't have a single word to say to any of us. But just a few places down, we found ourselves amongst the nicest people you could wish to meet. People who brought newspapers for everyone to sit on, so our bums didn't freeze on the cold London streets. People who shared chocolates and crisps with hungry fans who'd been standing around for hours. People who rushed to get a copy of Time Out for everyone, because the Manics were featured in it (thank you Claudia!). People who played Manics songs on their phones and encouraged everyone to sing along. People who held our place in said queue for an hour whilst I had a breakdown trying to find somewhere to bloody park (still not over that, Camden Town Council...). I've had some bad experiences with Manics fans, I'm not going to lie. But Tuesday was a great one and right now, I'm bloody proud to be a part of such a warm, welcoming community. Stay beautiful, guys and girls.
Okay, onto the gig...
Having fast-walked through the arena and crash-landed against the barrier in a joyous display of relief (I always panic that I won't make the barrier and my stupid asthma will mean I have to stand at the side so I don't stop breathing in the crowd), I was able to finally take in my surroundings. In a nod to their original 1994 Holy Bible tour, the band had decked the stage with dark green, military netting. It was instantly urgent and yet nostalgic. Now and then. Music was piped into the venue courtesy of a DJ. The night we were there, it was the same guy who DJ'd for the band at the legendary Astoria gigs (the band's final performances with Richey Edwards) almost 20 years ago to the day. Although that fact provided a nice sense of symmetry and added to the emotional weight of the evening, I can't say having a DJ play a set was that much preferable (if at all) to having a support band, although I can see why the band chose to do things that way. Kirstie (my gorgeous gig buddy) and I were hoping the DJ would further invoke a sense of nostalgia by playing the kind of stuff he might have done back in '94. We were hoping for some Suede, maybe The Smiths or The Clash... Instead, I can't really explain what we got, but it was loud and long. It didn't really set the pulse racing.
What did set my pulse racing was when the lights finally dimmed, the stage was illuminated with a ferocious red light and we heard the Chemical Brothers' remix of Faster. The band were on their way. We were about to witness something spectacular...
And I don't *just* mean the sight of Bradders dressed as a sailor...
As mentioned at the top of this blog, one thing I passionately love about The Holy Bible as an album is that it's not something you can passively listen to. It grabs you. It smacks you around the head a few times until you give in to it. So it was fitting that the Manics seemed to literally tear into Yes at the start of this anniversary showcase. The soundbite quote from the beginning of the song was played loud over the PA system and James Dean Bradfield's twangy guitar riff had never sounded more urgent.
There was little time to catch your breath afterwards before the band launched into IfWhiteAmericaToldTheTruthForOneDayItsWorldWouldFallApart - a song whose lyrics JDB spat with an intensity that belied the "Christmas bug" he announced he'd been suffering from the night before.
There was little communication from the band during the Holy Bible set, besides a few quips from Wire and a little background info to one or two songs. It was more important to let the music do the talking, however much of a cliche that may sound. Here was a band playing their lost lyricist's masterpiece in full for an audience who knew every word and rejoiced in shrieking them back at the stage.
For an album recorded twenty years ago and considered by some to be bleak and inaccessible, The Holy Bible, played in full from start to finish, sounded fresh, vital and as relevant today as it ever has been. The band played the set as a three-piece, with no additional musicians on stage, which felt right. The space Richey once occupied remained empty, save for the few times when James wandered over during some of the incredible guitar solos he's famous for. When the singer told the audience that it was "more important than ever" to remember Richey during these gigs, the crowd went wild. The cheering that ensued for the band's missing mouthpiece lasted for several minutes, with James encouraging everyone: "Come on! Fucking MORE!"
It's hard to say what it meant to me, hearing the album that changed my life played live in full. Yes, it smacked me in around the head just as much as The Holy Bible always does, but it felt exhilarating, angry and deeply, deeply poignant.
During This Is Yesterday - the song that always makes me cry when played live - it was hard not to focus on that empty part of the stage and wonder what became of the beautiful,ferociously intelligent, but troubled man who once occupied it. After all, this album will forever be entwined with Richey Edwards and it was largely his words we were passionately singing along to.
And yet the evening never descended into doom and gloom. Here were a band who had experienced huge triumph alongside enormous loss and it showed. The set - dark, angry and poignant though it was - was played with such a burning enthusiasm that even a song like Die In The Summertime, with lyrics that nobody in their right mind could call "chirpy," sounded fiery and passionate, rather than depressing or morbid.
For me, a highlight was The Intense Humming of Evil. A song that sounds so industrial and stark, I sometimes used to skip it when listening to The Holy Bible at night, when it was dark. The song was eerie, it was frightening and played live, it was bloody fantastic. That guitar solo at the end was worth the ticket price alone.
As was the close proximity of the guy playing it...
I often joke to myself that if I'm going to listen to The Holy Bible, I can't listen to anything else afterwards, because nothing can top it (besides going straight from that to Everything Must Go for the sheer poignancy of it). So it was understandable that the band had a bit of a breather between the final throes of PCP and the beginning of the second half of the show.
On their return, James looked rather dashing in a suit and he treated the crowd to an acoustic rendition of Anthem For A Lost Cause, from the band's Rewind The Film album.
Michael Buble eat your heart out...
What followed was the inevitable Greatest Hits style set, with tracks like You Stole The Sun From My Heart and Motorcycle Emptiness being thrown out for not only the fans, but any casual listeners who might have been dragged along for the night. But it didn't really matter what the band played (although playing 1993 B-side Donkeys was amazing!). We'd already had our minds blown with The Holy Bible. Or, to rephrase: We came for The Holy Bible. We stayed for Design For Life.
That's not to say I didn't love the second set. They played amazingly, Nicky looked glamorous, I sang my heart out and, as with all Manics gigs, I didn't want it to end. But for me - and I suspect for most fans - this tour was never about the second set, however good it was. It was about those first thirteen songs, played one after the other in a blissful orgy of rage and triumphalism.
By showcasing an album that's twenty years old, some bands could be said to be too busy looking back and not thinking about the future. But the Manics proved this year, with their incredible album Futurology, that they are continually moving forward and finding new ground. This wasn't about a band stuck in the past. This was about giving the past the respect it deserves. This was a band proving that twenty years later, they can still be as energised, raw and exciting as ever.
This was a band cementing themselves in my heart forever. To James, Nicky, Sean and of course Richey... Thank you.