My first ever Mansun gig. If I were pressed to name one gig and one gig only as the greatest of my life, it would be this one.
Mansun were my last ever lightning bolt: the last time I experienced that moment when a band suddenly and unexpectedly becomes the most important thing in the world to you. That moment when your heart is simultaneously shattered and rearranged anew. Previously these moments had happened to me with little warning: seeing David Bowie sing “Magic Dance” when I was watching “Labyrinth” at 13, for example; or at 18, hearing the Manics’ “From Despair To Where” on the radio. But with Mansun, that moment crept up on me stealthily.
I first became aware of Mansun in September 1996, when I was still living in Perth. I was obsessed with the UK charts, and even briefly had a chart commentary website, wittily entitled “Straight In At Number One… Again.” I used to wake myself at 2.30am on Tuesday mornings so I could hear Mark Goodier run down the latest UK chart on BBC World Service, via a fuzzy short wave radio connection. One week, a song called “Stripper Vicar” appeared at no. 19. I liked it. Here is a screen grab from my long-disappeared chart website:
I checked out a few Mansun websites – such as websites were in those days – but didn’t think much more about them then. But somehow, Mansun managed to weave their way into many moments of my coming move to London.
Another music-obsessed habit I had in Australia was to record Rage, the all-night music video programme that was on the ABC on weekends, and watch my tape the next morning, fast forwarding through boring vids, stopping and rewinding if something good came up. “Stripper Vicar” appeared on my tape on the 30th of November 1996, a date I remember very clearly, as later on that day, I flew to London. I watched the video, being impressed at how pretty and blond the boys were – somehow I hadn’t expected that – and mentally filed them away as a band to look out for in the coming weeks in London.
And it didn’t take long for them to cross my path again, as “Wide Open Space” hit the top 20 the very next day as I was sitting dazed and jet-lagged in my aunt’s flat in South Kensington. I liked it a lot – and this song means so much to me now that I find it hard to understand how I was not propelled into obsession there and then – but I had other things on my mind, like my upcoming three Manics gigs, and acclimatising to actually, finally, being in London, after longing for it for so long.
Then came 1997, and my first job as a part time clinic receptionist. I spent many afternoons dozing in my room in the hospital staff accommodation, after a blistering three hours of work, listening to Mark and Lard on my Walkman. “She Makes My Nose Bleed” was out, and was often played on Radio 1 on those afternoons. I was intrigued by its dark, seedy undertones, and also impressed by the sudden image change of the band in the video. Here were a band who cared about how they looked as well as making amazing music. This boded well.
Then it was February, and their debut album “Attack of the Grey Lantern” came out. I was still only a casual fan, and didn’t even bother to buy it on the day of its release, waiting instead til the following Saturday when I could get it a bit cheaper at Selectadisc, a shop that was if I remember rightly near Tottenham Court Road. And I came home that Saturday, listened to it, and fell in love.
But, despite listening to the album fairly obsessively over the following weeks, this was still not my lightning bolt. Mansun were a wonderful band to be sure, but they were not yet my band, my boys. Not until the 25th of April 1997.
Here in 2018 as I type this, I’ve just braved a sudden mini ice age to travel to Manchester to see Mansun’s Paul Draper live. Looking at my diary entry which leads up to my first Mansun gig, it seems as though inclement weather has been a long-running theme when it comes to seeing these boys live.
“The sky suffocates with grey clouds, it drizzles contemptuously, but I feel tonight is going to be great indeed. Even if I freeze / soak in the queue.”
It truly was great indeed. I remember walking towards the Kilburn National, seeing boys in shirts laddered with safety pins, girls in army gear and eyeliner, and realising that this was something special. This was a band who inspired devotion from their fans, and the desire to be something different, to risk looking ridiculous in the name of self-expression.
In terms of my actual memories of the gig itself – the things I recall without looking at my diary entry – I remember: Being crushed down the front, slightly to the left of Paul. Girls near me giggling about how much they fancied him before the band came on. The band coming on, and being overwhelmed. Screaming, reaching, desperate to connect with the aloof genius onstage. And actually connecting – but more of that later.
My diary entry, started the moment I got home, commences:
“Pardon me while I pause to gather the various million fragments of my head that are currently wandering dazed and confused, crazed and bemused, seeking something to cling to in awe and crying out at irregular intervals “I do not believe what I have just seen!”
As a teenager in Australia, unable to go to gigs, I would watch live videos from my favourite bands, hoping that I could capture just a tiny fragment of what the experience might be like. My favourite was the film of David Bowie’s final Ziggy Stardust concert in 1973, which gave me a vision of rock concerts as an altered dimension: iconoclastic, transporting experiences. When I finally got to see my favourite bands live, they never quite lived up to this, no matter how brilliant the gigs had been. Until I saw Mansun.
“Every single unearthly second of this concert lived up to the idolized euphoric notion I had as a teenager of the twisted, otherworldly rock’n’roll dimension that concerts should take place in. Most of all I thought of the Ziggy movie, dragged kicking and howling into the 90s. The beauteous Chad and the other two are convincing Spiders From Mars substitutes, and while Paul may not have Ziggy’s complete alien deviance and genius, he is nonetheless the greatest Frontperson As Star that I have ever witnessed live. The microphone cowered before him.”
On top of this, it was also one of the most intensely physical gigs I’ve ever experienced. “The crowd gave mayhem new meaning. The most total constriction, the most life-threatening lurches, the most constant stream of bodies hauled from the throng by the burly security blokes.”
One thing that struck me that evening was how different the Mansun live experience was to what came on CD.
“Mansun, then, were totally LEGENDARY, totally NOW rock’n’roll brilliance. They may be pop on record but live, oh my god they are rock… It was not a trawl though the latest album with every tune identical to the recorded version. It was an explosive, inspired reinvention of their startling collection of precious/throwaway rock/pop trash/almighty genius.”
Every song was astonishing, that night. I tried to maintain coherence as I described what I had just seen, song by song, and occasionally managed it.
“The opening instrumental of “The Chad Who Loved Me”, apocalyptic strings giving way to a fearsome guitar frenzy. The lights blind, flash seizure-inducingly through a satanic rainbow, it overwhelms… “Taxloss” reshaped so that all the hooks came screaming out at you like deranged demons, a possessed high speed ending throttling us gloriously… “Mansun’s Only Love Song” wonderful, wonderful, wonderful… “Stripper Vicar”, a snarling shout of the first verse for an intro before that tune crashed throughout the venue and we all scream “plastic trousers!”… “Drastic Sturgeon” mosh frenzy “Egg Shaped Fred” na na na na na na na mosh frenzy.”
The Bowie references continued as I tried to come up with adequate descriptions of what I had just experienced:
““Wide Open Space” may be rock’n’roll suicide for we give them our hands and nearly have our heads kicked off by lowflying crowd-surfers… “Naked Twister” is immense. Paul sings like an angel with a taste for S&M… “She Makes My Nose Bleed” mosh frenzy, arms outstretched, loss of lung capacity etc. Leads directly into the final “Take It Easy Chicken.””
And here it was. As the band powered through “Take It Easy Chicken”, the lightning bolt was about to hit me with the power of 100 million volts.
“The thundering hell raising head fucking BLAST of the song itself, the stars colliding, the earth speeding into the sun, was followed by the almighty atonal racket of total rock god riot status. Paul’s guitar is on the floor, but he soon decides playing it with the mic stand is what’s called for. And then. He approaches us. Waves his guitar above our heads, just out of reach, though I did touch it briefly. But then. He lowers it a little. About ten thousand hands grab hold. Including mine! It is now us vs the security blokes as they pull our desperate fingers off the instrument. And Paul looks so serious as he evokes the very devil of rock’n’roll. And so he should. Our lives, the band’s and the fans’, depend on it, after all.”
I’d just spent an hour being spellbound and shaken by the brilliance on stage, with no communication from the band, no chat or banter. I could feel the press of the crowd behind me as we clamoured towards Paul and the other boys, desperate for some word, some acknowledgement of our presence. That moment when he leaned over us offering his guitar, and I grabbed hold, finally making a connection with that life-changing brilliance I had just been witnessing, well I can only imagine that religious conversion feels something like this. It was more of a meteor strike than a lightning bolt.
“And as he reclaims his guitar, rejoins the musical mayhem on stage that has been seriously shattering our fragile psyches all this time, and as I scream, shake, rattle the barriers and dodge the 258th pair of airborn DMs for the evening, I am in that laughing, crying, trembling, hysterical state caused by the overpowering realization that THIS IS THE BEST GIG I HAVE EVER BEEN TO IN MY LIFE. And that this night of glorious turmoil has been a major night in my life.”
That may read like hyperactive hyperbole, but well, that’s what rock music should inspire, isn’t it? And it was genuinely how I felt, in the early hours of the Saturday morning, recovering from the gig in my tiny Chelsea room. It was one of the greatest moments of my life. I would kill to swap places with my 22 year old self and experience it again.
And it was indeed a major night in my life. This gig elevated Mansun to being my favourite band in the world, perched precariously at the top spot along with the Manics. They were firmly a huge part of my life now. And there were times to come when I sank into terrible mental states, and nothing got me through them more than Mansun. Their music has been like a fortress around me all these years, as I’ve stumbled through perplexing times and difficult days. I am so, so glad I had the opportunity to see them live several times. They were beyond a doubt the best live band I ever saw, and I feel incredibly lucky to have been there, to witness the glory days of one of the greatest bands of all time. And it all began for me here, on this incredible night in April 1997.