All the gigs of my life: Gig 18 – Mansun, Saturday, August 16, 1997, Hylands Park, Chelmsford (V97 Day 1)

My third Mansun gig, and my first ever UK festival. This was a special event indeed.

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Throughout my teens in Perth, the UK festival season always seemed a strange and magical thing. The concept of a summer full of successive whole weekends in which all the best bands in the world would come and play on the same bill together in a remote field was pretty alien to a country like Australia, which throughout the 90s had just one day-long festival each January, the Big Day Out. I’d leaf through the NME and Melody Maker during July and August (or more likely, September and October, as we got the issues several months late) and imagine how fantastic it would be to see, for example, Elastica, Pulp, Radiohead, the Manics and Primal Scream all on the same day, as at Reading ’94. And now in 1997 my chance had finally come: two weekends in a row of UK festivals, first V97, then Reading.

BBCA8B20-99FE-4961-9013-82611BCCB9AAI was going it alone for the fests, and I didn’t really feel confident about the prospect of camping, so I took the train to Chelmsford and back each day this weekend. As I stared out the window while hurtling towards Essex and towards my third Mansun gig, one of their songs was swirling through my head: “No One Knows Us”, a B-side to “Stripper Vicar”, which features a character called Scruffy. And I’m not sure why, but the name just seemed to fit me. I decided that day to be Scruffy, and it’s been a part of me ever since.

The train to Chelmsford took about 35 minutes and was followed by a 15 minute coach ride to the middle of some blistering countryside: Hylands Park. I was perhaps a tad overexcited, as I was on my way there before 10 in the morning. From my diary: “First rule of festival going: don’t turn up ridiculously early. I had a sun-induced headache even before I got into the field.” 

So I got in, and negotiated the bewildering array of food stalls, “probably more food stalls than bands playing.” Armed with a brie baguette and a bottle of water, I found myself a spot in front of the NME stage “to lunch to the sound of “Revol” and other indie hits. I then spent most of the first few hours seeking out shady places to lie down and shut my eyes and try to will my headache into oblivion, but no luck.”

At 2:50ish I went back to the NME stage to watch Silver Sun, who were “lots of fun during the familiar tunes “Julia” and “Golden Skin”, but rather unspectacular otherwise.” Afterwards I sprawled myself under a tree near the NME stage. “From this position I listened to the next band Embrace. Lying there in the shade, eyes closed, a gentle breeze blowing, hearing “All You Good Good People”, was the first great moment of the day. Shiver-inducing, to be honest.”

I had carrot cake and a cup of tea for dinner, and perhaps such a light meal was not my wisest choice when I was planning on spending the evening crushed in a crowd and screaming to Mansun, as we shall see later. However, there were still two bands ahead of them, and I wanted to secure a good place, so I  made my way back to the NME stage, close to the front this time, for Monaco. But my plan to spend the two bands before Mansun getting as close as possible was soon scuppered. “Monaco were fine, but they chucked out their two singles very quickly and then got a bit dull’n’worthy on us, and a posse of pissed shirtless moshing blokes had trampled me out of the front area, and the tea was beginning to take a hold of my bladder, so I weaved my way out and went to brave the chemical loos.” 

I returned to catch Monaco’s final song – “a startlingly good techno bass thrasher” – and at its end I sauntered to as close as possible to front and centre and waited for the Divine Comedy. “Thankfully the crowd was free from deranged moshers so we could all bop about quite happily to their tunes. And very enjoyable they were too, especially the ones I knew, and Neil Hannon was a very droll front person. “What, you mean you don’t want to see Kula Shaker?” he remarked.”

One of the great things about revisiting my diary entries for these gigs is rediscovering  fleeting encounters I’ve had with random people at the gigs. Sometimes, I’ve had my gig experience immeasurably improved by the kindness of a stranger, and at the end of the Divine Comedy’s set, I had one such experience.

“I was about three rows back, and began to wonder if I’d ever be down the front for Mansun again. Then DivCom ended and a tiara’d glamour girl at the front turned to go. I made a move forward. “Do you want to come in?” she said. “Here, get in!” and she personally saw to it that I got her place, even fending off other potential usurpers. For me, she was the woman of the festival, undoubtedly.”

Tiara’d glamour girl, if you read this, thank you so much for your thoughtfulness to this scruffy Mansun fan that night! And I hope you’re still wearing your tiara as often as possible.

So I found myself down the front, half an hour away from Mansun. I chatted to an Australian fan next to me, and she told me that while I’d been securing my place at the stage during the Divine Comedy, Mansun had been making an appearance at the NME signing tent. I was somewhat dismayed to have missed an opportunity to meet Paul Draper, who had very rapidly become something of an idol to me over the previous few months. And, to be frank, I had a universe-sized crush on him.

“Damn! Damn! and indeed, bugger. I could have met Paul! Spoken to him! Perhaps even touched him…”

Steady on, Scruffy!

“…stared into those eyes, close up, in person…”

And that’s just a little bit scary. Stop it.

“Oh shite. “Never forgive myself” is perhaps the best phrase. Still.”

Through the aching chasm of years, I can now say with absolute certainty that even if I had known that Mansun were doing a signing, I would have come up with some excuse to tell myself of why I shouldn’t join the queue to meet them, because that’s what I did two years later at Reading ’99. It is in fact what I did at every opportunity to meet Paul Draper that came my way right up until his Rough Trade signing in August 2017, when I finally got over my shyness with the help of half a bottle of wine. Hooray!

So there I was down the front, and quite deranged with excitement. The evening sky seemed appropriately dramatic as we waited for our boys to come on stage. “Twilight, ever-darkening sky, huge orange moon, nearly full. Pandemonium. The festival (the country, the world, the centre of the universe…) is theirs. Five minutes before they walk on stage the crowd goes barmy as one. The sky is alive with a thousand airborne bottles and cans. It is a truly ludicrous, deranged, beautiful sight. It is moving, strangely.”

And then the orchestral flourish announced Mansun’s arrival on stage, and I screamed like there was no tomorrow. “They come on (Stove and Andie shirtless, Paul in a black shirt, Chad leather-jacketed and blue stripey trousered). They are greeted with a bombardment of bottles. They step to the front of the stage and encourage this frenzy for several moments. Then: “The Chad Who Loved Me”, “Ski Jump Nose”, “Open Letter”. With the crowd positively screaming with Mansun freaks, they are just as awesome as at Kilburn. The difference is, this time I am not a casual fan about to be converted to major idolatry. I am the convert, the obsessive, and here they are, being so brilliant it seems to justify everything I ever believed in.

Through that opening sequence and onward to “Stripper Vicar” and “Mansun’s Only Love Song” especially, I was overwhelmed and in complete awe. “Close to tears, predictably. I can only stare at Paul and scream along. “Mansun’s Only Love Song” nearly did me in then and there. If that soaring, sinister riff slicing its way through our hearts and souls was not enough, then hearing Paul sing the song, right there in front of me, elevated the song not only to the pantheon of Greatest Live Songs Ever (already overflowing with Mansun tunes) but, for then at least, to that of Greatest Moments Of My Life.”

I noted that Paul looked “resoundingly beautiful tonight. Do Mansun bring out the adolescent in me or what? When it came to the “I love you” line, I must admit to making extravagant gestures in his direction as I sang along. But then, so was the rest of the front row.”

Over the course of my teens I’d had two idols – David Bowie and Richey Edwards – and now in my early twenties Paul had joined their exalted ranks in my personal pantheon of heroes. However, at that point I hadn’t yet seen Bowie live, and I never did see the Manics with Richey. “So I guess the thrill of seeing Paul live is intensified by the vast non-existence of experiences of being in the presences of Bowie or Richey at the appropriate time.” Getting to see Mansun live while the obsession burnt so bright was a new and overwhelming experience for me.

Up next was the strident rocker “Drastic Sturgeon”, “utter rawk’n’roll, I start head-banging like I think I’m at Def Leppard or something, and it’s bliss, believe me.” But perhaps I overexerted myself somewhat, because after after a wonderful rendition of “Naked Twister”, I felt things were not quite right as they launched into “Taxloss”.

“The indescribable joy that this song brings in live form was complicated somewhat by some vague inklings and tinklings in my limbs that suggested I was quavering on the edge of the path towards unconsciousness. The very thought of it a disaster beyond measure, I waved frantically at a random selection of security blokes ’til one of them notices and – praise be to the Deity of Security Blokedom – brought me some water. Still it rather disrupted my concentration on being totally rocked out of my head by “Taxloss” and I had to be a bit wary during the next two songs “Wide Open Space” and “She Makes My Nose Bleed” and perhaps only screamed and rattled the barriers only half as much as I would normally be inclined to.”

And so we were into the final song, “Take It Easy Chicken”, undoubtedly one of the best live songs I’ve ever heard.

“It was somehow a darker, dirtier version than usual tonight, but still one of those moments to live for. Their finale was perhaps less manic than on other occasions, no strange mutilations of instruments, just a total barrage of noise, Paul leaving first, sauntering off without a second glance to the crowd though we were all howling for him. Then Andie and Stove were off, leaving Chad to strangle the last few notes out of his guitar as though it were some poisonous snake with which he were grappling. He left slightly more cordially with a wave and a wall of feedback echoing around the empty stage.”

And so ended my third Mansun experience, which at the time I decided was my “third greatest gig ever, after the Nynex and Kilburn,” ie, the other two Mansun gigs I’d been to. Four months of Mansun obsession and they’d taken over my entire musical world.

“I staggered away and rejoined some kind of reality. I could not believe the moon, nearly full and ghostly orange in the deep violet night sky. It seemed too perfect after such a momentous spectacle.”

I had planned to watch the remainder of Blur’s set once Mansun were done, but it was not to be. “As I strode painfully along I recognised the strains of “To The End” from the main stage and half-heartedly made my way there. But to watch anyone at all after Mansun would have been an insult. So I coached, trained and tubed it home.” 

So I was back in London, and home from my first UK festival experience. I was “tired in mind, body and soul, but well, y’know, really happy and all that.” And I collapsed in a heap, planning to do it all again the next day.

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The NME gave Mansun’s V97 performance a sniffy review – “Suede gone metal” (what’s wrong with that??) – so I cut this picture out away from the offending words and stuck it in my diary. 🙂

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