Manic Street Preachers
UK music barometer follows directions as unpredictable as its weather, which is probably the cause of the obessional tendency to classify music genres into separate, impenetrable boxes in a similar way they classify tomorrow’s forecast. It is reassuring for both kind of customers.
If you have browsed a UK record shop (yes there are still few around) you don’t waste your time to find what you’re looking for.
Pop, metal, classic rock, punk, country and folk, world, soul and R&B, dance-elettronica, easy listening, indie, jazz, blues, urban & hip-hop. Everything has it shelf just like every kind of sky has its weather icon.
Good thing is that if you are afraid to adventure, pick the CD next to your favourite band and be sure you’ll like.
Bad thing is that if you desire to listen to a different harmonic progression, beat or a general mood it can be difficult to discover something new. Unless you feel rich to invest 10£ on an album picked from one of the unfamiliar shelves.
This goes beyond music (and forecast) and expands into fashion, books, magazines, haircut, make-up, shoes and so on. Music lovers secure themselves into “tribes” which go much beyond the mods vs punks fights of the Brighton beaches in the 70s.
Have a stroll in Glasgow and you’ll recognize the hip-hop fan from the art-rock lover. The Metal rebel and the plastic pop listener. Without listening a single note of the ones streaming on their i-Pods, the only gadget shared by this hi-tech generation.
Another long intro to say that rarely from such a monolithic situation oblique realities emerge. It is rare that bands can put together different “gangs”, usually they disappoint all of them. The artists that manage to fuse without getting lost are few and, for the ones in search of reassurance, inconvenient.
The band that for 20 years is coherently carrying out this idea erupting in storming live performances, keeping an envious following throughout is Manic Street Preachers. And they probably are also one of the most hated bands around. For the exact same reason, unclassifiable. Unsettling.
Proud of their Welsh, popular origins, Manics since the end of the 80s bring on stage everything from the real punk energy to a literate political rhetoric, rare technical skills and an unmatched ability in songwriting.
In a (United) Kingdom lead by Tories, trendy and “new-romantic” the arrival of four guys with black eyeliner, an incendiary sound and lyrics attacking the big banks, (nat west-barclays-midlands-lloyds), the monarchy (repeat), youth apathy (motorcycle emptiness) couldn’t go unnoticed.
Which box do we put them? This is the problem for the classifiers.
Assign them to post-Bowie Brit-Pop (the shelf with Roxy Music and Suede) and you can’t match Nicky Wire radical, socialist approach to politics.
Leave them with the politics, revolutionary bands, many couldn’t explain, justify, cope with and even tolerate their light-hearted pop-ness.
Richie Edward goes well with post-punk dark-nihilistic image but the rest doesn’t suit with the declared and devoted passion for the most desecrating and colourful conceptual art. Jeremy Deller (years before his Turner prize) made a project together with Manics’ fans which ended in a book “The Uses of Literacy”. Jenny Saville painting had been on the cover of Holy Bible (and more recently on Journal of the Plague Lovers) much before she became one of the most quoted contemporary artists.
Bradfield and Sean Moore always took the composition duties mixing three unmixable passions: Clash, Nirvana and Guns’n’Roses. All of this in the pinnacle of Brit-Pop. Go figure.
From Generation Terrorist the bold double album debut to Postcards from a Young Man, their tenth out now, Manic Street Preachers have constantly been through several passages in which they wrote thesis, antithesis and synthesis in subsequent albums.
Pair Generation Terrorist with Gold Against Soul, Holy Bible with Everything Must Go and recently, Journal For the Plague Lovers with Postcards From a Young Man and you see what I mean.
Raw, coarse guitar, Albini analogic recording versus strings and orchestral pop. Anger and real politics versus “lipstick traces”. Covering Clash, Chuck Berry, Nirvana and then Frankie Valli, Wham and even Rihanna.
No surprise they have fans but also detractors. The world they talk to doesn’t accept a perceived lack of integrity but does not question if this is really a lack or just a clever mask that makes them much purer than most of the indie-orthodox hipsters out there.
No surprise to know that despite the november rain (ops) the fans are queuing in front of Cambridge Corn Exchange since 9am on the morning of the gig.
It is the closing night of the Postcard From a Young Man tour, the album they admittedly wanted to use as a last attempt to conquer the world. Difficult to see if they succeed surely with all dates sold out well in advance they haven’t failed in UK.
The long time legacy of the band with their audience is reciprocal. You see not only how the make-up and the accessories of the people in the first two rows match Nicky Wire stage costumes. The first two song, You Love Us and You’re love Alone is not Enough, recorded fifteen years apart and played one after another, become a statement well engraved with loud guitars.
With ten albums there wouldn’t be a problem to put together a 20 hits setlist to satisfy even the less interested person in the audience, but Manic Street Preachers always claimed their right to not self-celebrate. They had embarrassing low points throughout the years and they used clever come backs to get out of the corner, but never lost coherence.
The concert flows taking skilful turns. An evergreen riff, Motorcycle Emptiness, then the catchy chorus of It’s Not War (Just the end of Love), the first single from Postcards. They play Jackie Collins from the beautiful and not enough played live Journal of the Plague Lovers and fish out some old treats as Roses in the Hospital e Tsunami.
Seek the apotheosis with If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next, to date their biggest success, a song which in the land of political correctness opens with:
“The future teaches you to be alone
The present to be afraid and cold
So if I can shoot rabbits
Then I can shoot fascists”
A live classic La Tristessa Durera, which I never liked, introduces Some Kind Of Nothingness, the new single, which stands out as the best track of the night at least until Faster will blow the venue up twenty minutes later.
Before that, two intimate solo moments. Nicky Wire starts trying to get an indie sound off his guitar to go with his renowned out of tune singing, so lo-fi Sebadoh will be proud of. Than James Dean Bradfield with an acoustic version of You Stole the Sun From My Heart shows why he’s the singer and the pop heart of their indieness.
The end of a Manic Street Preachers gig is a well-known story. I saw them many times and it always close with Design For Life, never followed by an encore.
Now, I appreciate and back the no-encore rule. I don’t see the point of stopping something which is approaching the peak, stop, wait 3 minutes, come back trying to get back to where you left! It is better to keep the high get to the climax then close. Isn’t this the way making love goes, after all?
But I can’t understand why Design For Life must close every gig? Yes I know it’s anthemic, is their most known, its powerful but it also would be better getting something different for a change, and they have better songs than that.
Photographying Manics is a pleasure and a challenge. The behaviour and the appearance of Nicky Wire and James Dean is so different, seeing a muted video you could think they belong to two different bands.
They also don’t interact a lot during the show. Manics full band shots are quite rare.
Nicky Wire, in sunglasses, leopard-skin coat and fancy dress stay mostly close to his feather-boa-scarf-wrapped microphone, Welsh Flag covered amplis full of fluffy teddy bears on it. Always on the right.
James Dean Bradfield, centre of stage, military shirt, white Les Paul, pirouettes on one leg during solos.
Sean Moore is far on the back, quiet and hidden behind his drumkit.
The left side has been left empty since Richie Edwards disappearance. Even the added guitarist and keyboardist on stage are on the back in the shadow, but don’t occupy Richie place.
When you have a band that shows different characters on the same stage, the option is to go for them singularly, problem is to know which is the right moment to be after one or the other.
Nicky Wire jumps everywhere and he is fun to try catching him flying. To do that you have to know the song, use a wideangle, ignore everything else and be lucky. Check him if he jumps in a precise moment, likely he’ll do again the next time that moment arrives. Usually 3 or 4 times in the same song.
James Dean Bradfield is a problem when he sings, because he hides behind the hated microphone, and is a problem when he plays, because he runs everywhere often far from the front stage. Catching him soloing is the right moment and once again reading the setlist, knowing the song and watching some performance on youtube before the gig is of help.
Telephoto aren’t of use, I shot this entire set with the 24-70mm the lens you need for concert photography if you can afford only one. Apart from this last one from the back of the venue, of course.