21 years old, in a new country, and here was my favourite band in the world, three nights in a row. Three nights which decided the course of the next 21 years of my life.
December the 1st, 1996, I stumbled into Heathrow at 6am. My aunt and uncle were there to greet me, ready to put me up for what was planned to be a three month holiday. However, I knew I didn’t want to go back to Perth. This was a make or break era, a time to decide where my future would lie. But first, there was a much more important matter to attend to: Manic Street Preachers gigs!
The first eleven months of 1996 which led up to this moment seem quite uneventful compared to its final month. I finished my BA with decent results, and despite some niggling health issues (probably early surges of life-long digestive problems) I felt a lot more equilibrium than the year before. Musically, I had no lightning bolt moments that year. Although there were many new bands who caught my interest, none grabbed my heart and squeezed it to its very core. However, though I didn’t know it, the band who’d provide my very last lightning bolt in April 1997 came into my life in September 1996. But you’ll have to wait ’til gig 11 to find out about them.
Before I can start talking about my first Manics gig, however, there is another lightning bolt moment to talk about. October 1993 is when they became my favourite band in the world. I was in the middle of a somewhat comatose six months, having quit my first attempt at university study at the Conservatorium of Western Australia in July, and needing to wait ’til February ’94 to start my second attempt at the University of WA. So I slouched around the house for months, staying up all night listening to music and writing angsty poetry, as 18 year olds do. Then one day I heard “From Despair To Where” on the radio, and everything changed.
Being a Manics fan through ’94 and ’95 was not the happiest of experiences, what with Richey’s numerous health issues and, of course, his disappearance. So when I found out that they were going to play three consecutive shows in London two weeks after my planned arrival date in that city, my joy knew no bounds. The fact that my first Manics show was going to be at the Brixton Academy was so perfect I could barely believe it. I owned live videos from many favourite bands at that venue – Faith No More from back before I discovered indie, plus Ride and Suede, two bands I still loved very much – and I revered it as a mystical hall of rock’n’roll amazingness. To think that I would get to see my favourite band of them all, for the first time, in that very venue was more than I’d ever hoped for.
And then I was there, staring up at the majestic facade of the Academy. The tickets had been bought for me by my aunt before I arrived, following a faxed request from my parents – no buying tickets over the internet then! On receiving the tickets she had expressed concern to my parents that the gigs I was going to were in very dodgy parts of town. So I assuaged their concerns by arranging to meet up with a few people from the Manics email list I was a member of at the time. However, I was, back then, not the most easily sociable of people, and the small gang of fans I met up with for this gig, while unfailingly polite and friendly, also in retrospect made it very easy for me to not hang out with them during the gig. Which, of course, suited me just fine.
“We tubed it to BRIXTON. As I’d discovered the previous morning when I’d gone there to make sure I could find the venue, Brixton is in fact quite fabulous and not murderous and decrepit at all. We went to the ACADEMY and joined the back of the queue half way round the building, and waited and froze from about 6.30pm when we got there ’til about quarter past seven when we were let in.”
Although we all had standing tickets for the gig, we were able to chill out in the seated section for the support bands – “the noisy Stereophonics and the one-good-song’d Super Furry Animals”. My opinion on the Stereophonics never really improved over the years, but my love for the Super Furries grew in leaps and bounds, and I’ve seen them live many more times following this night.
“Then, as spotlights were tuned up, guitars carried on stage and genral wandering about was carried out by roadies, I left my bag and jacket with the gang and made my way downstairs to join the thronging throng in their screaming and jumping excesses. My heart was certainly screaming and jumping as I weaved my way through the crowd, trying not to step on anything human.”
I was mere minutes away from seeing the one band who meant the most to me in the world, for the very first time. The band who, up until two weeks before that moment, had seemed impossibly far away on the other side of the world. The band who, only the year before, I’d feared would never make another record again. You know, I would really love, just for a moment, to swap places with with my 21 year old self, standing in the crowd at the Brixton Academy that night, and feel that unbearable excitement again.
“Soon enough the music stopped, and then began again, only this time it was the beautiful Stealth Sonic instrumental of “A Design For Life” with the backdrops of the video projected on the screen at the back of the stage. The crowd provided the words of the song in between screams and cheers. It seemed to last half an hour. I felt every gloriously agonizing second of it rattle every molecule of my body.”
Then the band walked on stage. “James says something, introduces “Australia” and we are off into undoubtedly the best concert I’ve ever been to and quite possibly the best 90 minutes of my life.” “Australia” had never been one of my favourite Manics songs, but that hardly mattered of course – everything was wonderful that night. I couldn’t help but find it slightly perversely amusing that the first Manics song I ever experienced live was all about wanting to run and frolic freely in Australia, when I had just escaped that very country, mainly in order to be able to see the Manics live.
It was impossible for me to be remotely objective about this gig. Everything was “soul shatteringly brilliant…“Faster”, the one “Holy Bible” track, had us screaming along to the screen… “Kevin Carter” got a huge cheer; so, in fact, did everything.”
I was impressed by the visual elements of the show, especially during “La Tristesse Durera, which “ended with various lines from Manics songs through the ages being projected on the screen. For some reason this was almost the best moment of the whole show. “Libraries gave us power”, “The centre of humanity is cruelty” and several others which I can’t recall. It was the most powerful thing I’ve ever seen.” I couldn’t pinpoint exactly why it moved me so much that night, but I would over the course of the next two concerts.
James’s acoustic rendition of “Raindrops keep falling on my head” evoked adjectives such as “brilliant” and “godlike” while his version of “Small Black Flowers That Grow In The Sky” was “beyond adjectives”. I wrote my diary entry about this gig the day after it, and at this point I was compelled to break from my report to exclaim “Oh GOD I can’t believe how lucky I am to have two more nights of this ahead of me!” There was more hyperbole to come when I wrote about the band coming back on stage for the next song “Elvis Impersonator: Blackpool Pier”: “when the whole thing crashed in with “American trilogy!” the combined leap of 2000 people plus the three gods on stage must have shattered the earth’s inner core.”
The gig then continued in this earth-shattering fashion. ““No Surface All Feeling” gave us some respite during its mellow verses only to thrash us about mercilessly during the choruses. A similar situation occurred with “Everything Must Go” whose almighty menacing chords seared through the venue as though it were aflame.”
Being in the presence of the three boys I’d revered from afar led to several revelations about their various qualities. “How beautiful Nicky was, for example, leaping on the spot in that tall manner of his, preening and taunting the audience during the “Stay Beautiful” choruses, not saying anything whatsoever. How brilliantly James sang and played, spinning round the stage with demonic fervour and a ballerina’s grace, not leaping quite as much as Nicky though there was an excellent synchronised scissor kick at one point. The amazingness that was Sean’s drumming, particularly at one point in “La Tristesse Durera” where he nearly drummed the whole venue down. Even a mad obsessive such as I was impressed, no, astounded by their actual technical brilliance as a live band. Nothing got lost in the mix.”
“Motown Junk” was “a screaming thrashing monster of a live experience”, “Stay Beautiful was “another major highlight amongst highlights, so ridiculously fast and frenetic that I swear I nearly touched the ceiling whilst shrieking “ALL WE LOVE IS LONELY WRECKAGE!” “
At this point in the Manics’ career, there was a definite split in their audience. There were the old fans, who lived for the eyeliner, glitter and despair aesthetic of the first three albums, and possibly idolised Richey a tad more than is healthy. And then there were the newer fans who came along with the more straightforward and unglamourous “Everything Must Go”. I was definitely in the old fans camp, and I touched on this distinction as I describe the last few songs of the gig.
““A Design for life” was the one all the new fans had been waiting for and was received with appropriate rapture and many outstretched arms in the chorus… to finish off we had “You Love Us” and the crowd went WILDER as the song throttled us to pieces and an early video of the song was projected on the screen, complete with Richey. An excellent and fitting touch, reminding us that Richey may be gone in body but definitely not in spirit.”
And that was the riotously exhilarating end of my first ever Manic Street Preachers gig. I went to find my gig companions to retrieve my bag and jacket. One of my new mates had many Manics anecdotes to relate to me, and she “told me of her meeting with all four Manics in ’92 which made me thoroughly envious, though considering what I’d just seen I did not really feel deprived.” My new gig companions disappeared suddenly at Brixton station, possibly because they found me unutterably strange and awkward – which I was – or maybe because they were just able to run down the stairs quicker than me, “but it didn’t matter. I made my way home without being attacked or murdered.”
And then I was back in my aunt’s spare room, and reflecting on what had just happened.
“I thought I had tinnitus for sure and I don’t know if I actually slept at all but I was happier than I’ve ever been in my life.”
With two more nights of Manics ahead of me, it’s safe to say, life was pretty good, just then.