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Live Report - Manic Street Preachers

Posted on Friday, 4 October 2013 | No Comments

For a band so well-established in the musical fundament, the Manic Street Preachers still provoke some unusually diverse reactions.
For a lot of people, they're that band who did that "we only want to get drunk!" song and that other one with the really long title. To others, a bunch of irritating loud-mouths and/or sell-outs. For their still sizeable fan base, they're the last truly great British rock band. Even after number one singles and arena gigs, there's still an uncertainty for many of just what the Manics really are: that they've fluctuated from arena-rock histrionics to subtle ballads, from nihilistic post-punk to airbrushed pop hits and consistently taken unexpected left turns merely adds to the confusion.

It's a confusion echoed by the crowd packed into the Manchester Ritz tonight. Even amongst those dedicated enough to grab their tickets for this tour of smaller venues in the brief window of minutes before they sold out completely, there's several different sub-fanbases within the crowd: the old faithful, still coated in leopard print and clinging to the Generation Terrorist days, the lager lads loudly biding their time before You Stole The Sun From My Heart makes an appearance, the indie intellectuals who reckon it's all been downhill since The Holy Bible (even though they likely only heard them through Everything Must Go), alongside a younger crowd brought into the cult after the career fillip of Send Away The Tigers. The point is that, ultimately, the Manics have always sought to be all of those things. They've always embraced the inherent contradiction of an openly socialist band that craves chart success, and so their strange career has lurched between the two extremes, landing in very different places as it went.
This all said, this tour in aid of Rewind The Film may mark one of those rare moments (alongside Everything Must Go) where the dual forces of subcultural integrity and mainstream aspiration weigh relatively equally on the band. A sombre acoustic record that eschews James Dean Bradfield's electric guitar almost entirely, it's an album that serves up Nicky Wire's most introspective and personal lyrics since This Is My Truth, Tell Me Yours. So it's one of their commercial ones, right? But apart from the Vegas-era Elvis horns of lead single Show Me The Wonder, there's nothing here to tempt the more casual fan. In its stark arrangements and unflinching lyrical details - the first lines you hear on it are "I don't want my children to grow up like me / It's just so destroying, it's a mocking disease" after all - it boasts a haunted quality reminiscent of the acoustic interludes of Journal For Plague Lovers. The question rising from this is, have they finally reached a kind of stalemate in their middle age?

Of course, with the Manics it's never quite that easy. Entering tonight to the strains of electronic instrumental Manobier from their new album, without any fuss they launch straight into Motorcycle Emptiness, Nicky Wire pulling off a catalogue of rock and roll poses while James leaps around the stage between verses, guitar held like a tommy gun. The crowd, needless to say, laps it up - one of the band's most iconic singles first up on a Friday night in Manchester is somewhat bound to go down well. Yet the rest of their set opening ping-pongs between the sullen (the gloomy natural disaster of Ready For Drowning, the self-defeating churn of Anthem for a Lost Cause) and the jubilant (latter-day sing-alongs Your Love Alone Is Not Enough and It's Not War (Just The End Of Love). Even with the former though, the sweaty confines of the Ritz just encourage the already enthusiastic rabble to lose the proverbial shit even more fervently.
A late-set appearance for Revol aside - always the most audience-friendly track on The Holy Bible - this tour is all about compressing the arena side of the Manics into cosier surroundings. Not to say that's there no fan service suited to the relatively intimate nature of the enterprise, like a rare outing for fan favourite Sleepflower and a Nicky Wire-sung burst of Some Kind of Nothingness (arguably the one real keeper from Postcards From A Young Man), but as might be expected of a band comfortably in their third decade of service, the edges aren't quite as sharp as they once were. There's a Manchester guitar medley from James during his solo spot to keep the crowd on board, and Wire's amusing Tory-bating is fairly tame by his previous standards.
Given Rewind The Film's subtext of admitting the loss of youth and the defeats incurred through age whilst choosing to continue the struggle, these arena hits do take on a different tone tonight. The isolation of Tsunami sounds more poignant than ever in the context of the longing for lost connection that marks As Holy As The Soil, while a climactic rendition of Motown Junk is placed in a very different context when placed in the same set as Rewind The Film's title track, a paen to youth that goes beyond nostalgia to express a desire to keep the fires burning. It's this subdued defiance that lends this new material, and allows their back-catalogue to remain fresh in a live setting. The Manics have always been in a process of re-writing their own history, permanently looking for a new way forward whilst keeping an eye firmly planted on their own past. What their detractors don't grasp is that their shifts in sound and aesthetics are a far better tribute to their initial restlessness than if they'd kept re-writing Gold Against The Soul over the years.
So there's the final new track of the night, played near the end of the set, that shows their left-wing beliefs undimmed with age - 30 Year War, a furious attack on the poisonous and largely unchallenged legacy of Thatcher that destroyed the kinds of working-class communities that the band grew up in that's no less vitriolic or powerful because of its reliance on an acoustic guitar, a song that their younger selves could have been proud of but could only have been written with the hindsight of age. And, inevitably, there's the concluding bow of A Design For Life. It's a track whose grand melody and taut, incisive lyric summarises the Manics ideally, yet by now it almost sits outside their own catalogue. Released at the height of Britpop pomp, the scale of the production might have fitted the mould, yet there's a genuine sense of passing, of fin de siècle. It's rarely noted what a truly sad song it is, the curtain closing on the post-war dream as the left finds itself co-opted by neoliberalism and the alternative tradition of British art rock immolates itself for an invitation to Downing Street.
Tonight, that sadness is still there, the sense of a better future we all could have shared if things had worked out right. Now though it's one of the closest things we have to a modern day folk song, a song whose potency as a counter-cultural mobiliser and common denominator can only be rivalled by Common People. So when the crowd of old-school devotees, football fans, young recruits, indie kids and middle-aged couples all below along to it...it's a rare moment when different tribes of British society all come together. The Manics have had to face their fair share of disasters and defeats over the years, yet when it all comes together for this song, their mission is revealed and instantly justified. What they do is to keep alive a spirit of working-class intelligence and rebellion that's been airbrushed out of the present day, and to keep it imprinted on their loyal following. Even if the days of changing the world are over, that minor victory seems enough on a night like this.

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