Exactly 21 years ago today, I went to my very first gig at the Manchester Arena. It was a truly monumental night, with my two favourite bands in the world on the same bill: Manic Street Preachers and Mansun.
There I was on the 24th of May 1997, at the summit of what I had come to think of as the Weekend Of The Century. This gig was a big deal in the life of the Manics fan. It was their first headlining arena show, the triumphant pinnacle of their successful return to the musical stage following the disappearance of Richey Edwards. As such, I was hugely excited to be there. But the band had seemed to be treading water for a bit. There’d been some lacklustre TV appearances, and gigs where it seemed like they really didn’t want to be there. And then, following the religious conversion experience I’d had seeing Mansun at the Kilburn National the previous month, this gig had an extra significance for me. Would my old faves be toppled by these new upstarts supporting them?
Having learned my lesson the previous night about how downright stupid it is to dehydrate yourself before going to a gig, I made sure to eat and drink sensibly all day, and thus was able to sprint down to a second row place where I stayed for the whole gig with no fear of passing out. The first band were Embrace, who I described as “retro rockers of the Oasis mould.” I was not overwhelmingly impressed: “the world is already overflowing with bands who can only cope with those same dull riffs and chord sequences.” But I did enjoy their big hit of the time “All you good good people”. “An epic in the “Live Forever” sad/uplifting style, it was already quite moving but will forevermore be even more so, an eternal reminder of the opening throes of That Night.”
Next up were Audioweb, “a sort of techno/rock/reggae fusion and very musically interesting, though not overly appreciated by the alternoguitar crowd. As for me, all I could think of was “Mansun next! Mansun next!” and mentally hyperventilate.”
And here was the moment I’d been eagerly anticipating for the last four weeks: my second chance to see Mansun, the band who’d so breathtakingly rearranged my musical world when I saw them in April at the Kilburn National. I was, in truth, almost more excited to see them than I was the Manics, and they did not disappoint. I’ll let my 22 year old self tell the tale.
“Mansun! After this month of obsession I could not believe I was finally going to see them again. With memories of their Kilburn glory still fresh in my mind it was rather odd to see them as a support band, just walking on without fanfare (aside from the frenzied shrieks of the many Mansun freaks present,. including me!) Stove was in his army gear, Chad in a frilly red shirt but Paul (PAUL!!!) was in a baggy white t-shirt! What in mascara’s name was the thinking!? Ah well never mind, for he was still Paul Draper, still a spine shakingly brilliant STAR even in crap clothes. He was in tremble-inducingly astounding vocal form too, the best vocalist of the night, it must be said.
They launched straight into “Stripper Vicar”, a fairly straight version. I can’t have been the only one singing along and clinging to their every word but there was undoubtedly a certain amount of indifference. Not that I cared, but with only part of the crowd on their side they couldn’t really make the storming heights of the Kilburn show. Still, even if they were only half as stunning as at Kilburn, they still burned holes through the universe. And the sound quality was the best of any gig I’ve ever been to, so clear, so pure, it just rocketed straight through you.
Next up was “Mansun’s Only Love Song”, divine though my enjoyment was marred slightly by the need to somehow make way for dazed moshers now trying to escape in increased numbers as the crowd got increasingly hectic. “Taxloss” is undoubtedly one of the greatest live songs ever, the definite high point of the night so far and the best received Mansun tune, with everyone singing “come baaack to me WE WANT YOUR MONEY!!!” it almost felt like their gig for a moment. Even though all their songs were cheered wildly, with Paul bowing in recognition like the star he is, there was too much anticipation in the air for the atmosphere to be truly theirs.
“Naked Twister” was next, and then “Egg Shaped Fred” with its dark’n’dirty riff defiantly daring us to believe Mansun weren’t the greatest band in the universe, that minute. “Wide Open Space” was inevitably also well received and divinely played and sung as ever, with Chad enticing a strangled falsetto from his guitar at its end which morphed effortlessly into the opening notes of “She Makes My Nose Bleed” once Paul had swapped instruments with a roadie. They played that song, not quite the mosh monster it’s meant to be, but still wonderful, and like before leading directly into “Take It Easy Chicken”.
Chad played the opening riff for about a year while Paul leisurely changed guitars, wandered about, took swigs from his water bottle and basically kept the whole universe waiting for them to get on with it. I could see the impatience of the staunch Manicheads nearby and fell even more hopelessly in love with Mansun for their brazen audacity. Despite everything that followed, I can still state what I realised then: “Take It Easy Chicken” is the greatest live song by anyone ever. It verily courses through your body like 10000 volts of rock’n’roll electricity. This version was particularly inspired, Paul chucking the tune about but always catching it effortlessly in time for the choruses and the tauntingly subdues “take it easy” moments. Paul took a few more leisurely sips of water between the first chorus and the second verse, keeping us all waiting again.
Not so much of a feedback frenzy to end tonight, Paul just thrashed the switches on the amp a few times, put down his guitar, thanked us and left, leaving Chad’n’co to drive the rawk beast into submission. And thus ended my second Mansun experience. And may there be many many more!”
I must admit that there was a little tiny part of me, that night, that wanted Mansun to blow the Manics off stage and fully topple them as my favourite band. But it was not to be: the Manics just owned too many shares in my soul for that to happen. And certainly not on this night, when the Manics returned to form in a heartstoppingly stunning style. Again, 43 year old me can’t do justice to this tale, so I’ll hand over to my younger self’s report.
“But now we must turn to the Manics. I really did not know what to expect. After the Royal Albert Hall, I did not expect the greatest gig I’d ever been to. But as James, Sean and Nicky bombarded us with the opening “Everything Must Go”, and everyone went utterly wild, I knew instantly that this would be the most brilliant MSP gig that I’d ever witnessed. And by the time “Enola Alone” and “Faster” had had grabbed us by the heart and shaken us to pieces, I knew that this was, in fact, the greatest gig ever. How could I be so wrong? How could a band that seemed to have been dulling round the edges with frightening rapidity deliver a show so blindingly wonderful?
Nicky wore his hoovering shirt, dodgy blue eyeliner and a tiara which he chucked into the crowd after a few songs. He spoke little, James said a fair bit but really I can’t remember much apart from the overflowing reaffirmation of not only this most godlike of bands but life in general as well. With such brilliant sound quality everything was stunning. “Kevin Carter” now a shiny pop masterpiece, “Removables” darkly gleaming, “La Tristesse Durera” bouncing us off the walls and each other. Breathtaking highlight: “Roses in the hospital”! Oh god it was just too much, yelling “we don’t want your fucking love!” and “forever ever delay-ay-ayed!” along with the 15000 and one James Dean Bradfield. “Motorcycle Emptiness” was not heart-breaking, it was an affirmation of everything we ever loved too much for our own good. It was possibly the greatest moment of my life. But it’s hard to tell, surrounded by so many others vying for that position. I felt so incredibly lucky to be there.
“No Surface All feeling” brought the first half to a crashing close as ever. The acoustic bit: “This Is Yesterday”, “Small Black Flowers”, “Raindrops”. The latter is practically a Manics anthem now, everyone was screaming for it an clapped and sang along joyfully.
And then Nicky and Sean return. It’s “YES”! How eternally lucky am I to have twice experienced this song live in the post-Richey age? And yet, like everything else tonight, even this darkest of songs was devoid of depressing overtones. It was, if I haven’t used this word too much already, an affirmation. Of what? Of everything that fucking MATTERS in the world, that’s what.
“Australia” was next, then “Stay Beautiful”. The band is introduced then. I don’t think I have ever heard such screams as Nicky was greeted with, Sean’s were only marginally less throat-rupturing and even the keyboard player must have felt like a megastar when we cheered at him. You’d think Nicky could then go on to introduce James but well, you can’t have everything.
The distress at the realisation that there were only two songs left was blasted out of existence with the most stunning version of “A Design For Life” I have ever heard. Overwhelmingly emotional, howling along with eyes threatening to overflow, that’s all I remember. “Thank you Manchester” – mighty roar – “you love us!” Once again that sudden image of Richey staring out at us from the huge screen just does my heart in. Especially knowing that this is probably the last time “You Love Us” will be done this way. At this point, the Manics are greater than any feeble god the human mind could ever hope to invent. Nicky sings along, as do we all, despairing that this ever has to end, which it does with “die! die! die!” but no stage-trashing. Then, it is just “Dixie”, with some bloke called Elvis singing.
I weave my way through the crowd of shattered, weeping people, wishing I could find someone I knew, so that I could throw my arms around them shrieking “that was the most brilliant thing I’ve ever experienced!” For the first time in months I once again have total faith in MSP. I’m ecstatic to realise I have not lost them after all. And to know that they can undoubtedly go on for many years to come being this brilliant, this important, this downright essential, and yes, this life-affirming, makes the future seem so bright it blinds.”
And what a fabulous thing, to revisit this exactly 21 years on, and know how right those words were. Over the course of these 21 years, the Manics have released nine more albums and played hundreds more gigs, some of which have been just as soul-shakingly brilliant as this one was. The Manics are still here, still essential, and still life-affirming. Thank all deities real or imaginary for that.
“Weekend of the century? Make that the millennium.”