Saturday, October 16, 2010

Autumn Songs

I went to see Manic Street Preachers last weekend. It's amazing that they're still around, still making music. Not just because of Richey, but that would be enough to break up most bands, or because they said they'd break up after their debut, "Generation Terrorists", but because they've always seem the unlikeliest of rock heroes. The concert was at King George's Hall, in Blackburn, a small, fantastic venue, which I last visited more than 20 years ago to see the Fall. It's the first time in years that they've eschewed the stadiums and arenas, and was all the better for it. I realised I'd not seen them live since "The Holy Bible" tour.

The Manics polarise. The Americans don't even release their records, they're too "rock" for some, and not "rock" enough for others. When I said I was going to see them, there were a few raised eyebrows, yet I've always been a fan of the band. "Motorcycle Emptiness" from that debut album, and one of the first songs they played last week, was the first song of theres which hinted they might be something special. It's still got a gorgeous melody, and that's the thing - throughout the years even their weakest albums have been peppered with good pop songs. Their "greatest hits" album "Forever Delayed" is one of the great singles albums. Yet this is the band that every time it hits the mainstream veers away a bit for the next album. I still cherish the time they appeared at Glastonbury and said "they should build a bypass over this place" - heroically ignoring the hippy vibe, and playing to their idea of rock and roll. Yet that idea of rock and roll is what has always kept them going. In the early 90s, it was highly unfashionable. I think that's what appealed. Here were a young "indie" band not afraid to mention Guns N Roses in despatches.

Yet, seeing them on Saturday reminded me of how skewed their idea of rock and roll was. They're not a band who will change peoples opinion of them at this late stage. Some people will always feel they are plodding, overblown, dull even - yet the setlist for the gig reminded me that as well as the big anthems and the darker avant punk of "The Holy Bible" and "Journal for Plague Lovers" there's a post-punk strangeness to many of their songs. Playing their first top ten hit, the cover version "Suicide is Painless" was such as strange choice when it was released, and doesn't get less strange after all this time. "Roses in the Hospital" could be an outtake from an album by Television, and the synth-driven "If You Tolerate This Your Children Will be Next" must be one of the strangest records to ever top the UK charts.

Ostensibly a 3-piece since Richey disappeared, they are augmented on stage by others, and it's a full sound. Picking songs from throughout their career, a new listener would have been hardpressed to work out the order. They were fully formed as early as "Motorcycle Emptiness" remember - it wasn't just "Everything Must Go" that saw them introduce anthems into their set. James Dean Bradfield remains an unusual front man - after all it's Nicky Wire (and before that Richy James) who write the majority of lyrics - both an everyman, and a powerful rock presence, like a rock Russell Crowe. His vocals are a remarkable rock scream, yet America has never taken to the Manics in the way they've lapped up misery-rock from Coldplay and Radiohead, or gone for out-and-out hard rockers. Thinking of intelligent US rock bands like the Hold Steady and Cheap Trick, one's tempted to think that the Manics are on the one hand too British, and on the other, not British enough for US tastes. More than that he remains a remarkable guitarist.

If the new album, "Postcards to a Young Man", is really "one last attempt at mass communication", you feel it's already failed. This was a fan's crowd, and the lead single has already disappeared down the charts. Whilst they are able to write good tunes like the title track, or "Send Away the Tigers"' highlight "Autumnsong" you feel there'll always be another album. Their records remain articulate, intelligent, but they've never forgotten the basic dumb pleasure of rock and roll.

I remember reading an articulate article about U2, years ago, where it made the point that staying together - remaining friends, remaining a gang - was, perhaps, their greatest success. With the Manics, there's the never-forgotten loss of Richey James, to remind them of roads not travelled. Its ironic that when Blur reformed last year it was proclaimed as one of the events of the year. Yet how many Blur songs, other than the singles, have lasted beyond their albums? The Manics, with a hit catalogue to kill for, have a far deeper treasure trove to pull from. They became an overground band in the early nineties, alongside Blur, Oasis and others, yet surely should have remained an awkward little cult?

Years ago, comedy legend, Alan Parker, Urban Warrior, was doing a set at Balham's Banana Cabaret. "Manic? Yes. Street? Cool. But Preachers? Preachers?" They've kept the faith.

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