A triumphant end of an era for the Manic Street Preachers.
Day two of my first ever Reading was the Big Day for me, with the Manics headlining. It was to be my sixth time seeing the band, all in just over eight months. It was also the band’s last gig of the “Everything Must Go” era, which had seen them emerge from the tragedy of Richey’s disappearance to deliver their most successful album to date. So I felt it was a pretty crucial event to be present at.
The day, however, did not start particularly well for me. Having crashed into bed at 2am, worn out after Suede’s headlining set the night before, I had a rude awakening. From my diary:
“Not thrilled to be woken at 8am by the clanking of the construction site across the road. In pain. Stomach dodgy. The concept of not going back flickered across my mind. For about 0.0000002 seconds.”
But at 2pm, after some rest with trashy telly, I was feeling much better with the worst of my stomach problems seemingly over. So off I set for Reading again. I had initially planned to make my way back much earlier in order to see My Life Story, who were on at 1pm, but I had not fathomed just how knackering this festival life was going to be. I didn’t even make it for the beginning of the next band I wanted to see, the Super Furry Animals.
“At least I could hear them as I made my way back into the field. When I finally got up to the main stage, they were just launching into one of the most wonderful tunes I’ve heard all year, “Demons”. I suddenly realise the singer has one of the most gorgeous voices I’ve ever heard, as he bravely a capellas the opening lines. The tune! It twists and dives and swerves round unexpected corners before crashing into the sort of chorus Noel Gallagher could not even dream of. Ah yes, as I stood there thrilling to this and the rest of the Furries’ tunes, I just knew that Saturday was not going to hold the disappointments of the day before.”
Alas, my dodgy stomach made an unwelcome return and I had to make a couple of hasty retreats to the loos during the Super Furries’ set, which prompted a small reverie about the Reading facilities. “Proper toilets! that flushed! and had paper! well, some of them. Thank god for that too, considering the state of my stomach.”
As I was not quite in top condition, I rested for most of the afternoon in the tea room, “just soaking in the atmosphere, the tunes, the ‘toons, and of course, the tea.” Eventually it was dinner time, and unlike the day before I did record for posterity my gastronomic choice: an apple and cinnamon crepe. Sensible as ever.
At five to seven it was time for Space! I was looking forward to seeing this intriguing new band, and hearing their jaunty, off-beat tunes live. “There was a time, many centuries ago, that I had them vaguely categorised with Mansun as New and Darkly Interesting British Bands. That was before I knew what they looked like, of course. Mansun: dark, moody, sinister, blonde, beautiful. Space: a complete mess.” They may have failed to capture my heart in the way Mansun did, but they were “still quite fab“. Starting with “You And Me Vs The World”, which was “a suicide pact disguised as the seaside tune from hell”, I found myself properly impressed by their “expert mixing of guitars with electronics”.
And it seems, I wasn’t quite so disappointed with the visual aspect of Space as I had previously been. “The singer was an excellently skinny whirlwind of writhings and twistings. And let’s face it, anyone who can inspire pissed halfwits to yell out “you’re gay!” must be doing something right.” I was definitely converted to tentative fandom during their energetically whimsical set. “By the time “Female Of The Species” bounced icily about the field I was making my 23rd mental note to definitely go and see them next time they tour.” Which I did – though my gigging life had altered drastically by the time that gig rolled around in February 1998. But that’s a story for another post.
Once they were done I weaved my way towards the front and found my place for the Manics “in the second row Nicky-side. I was not exactly in front of the stage, more in front of a huge sign saying “Reading ’97”, but this turned out to be the perfect place to stand.” Exactly why will be revealed later, but at this point, there was still The Orb to get through. “The Orb, of course, are not people, they are a series of blue and orange lights pulsating round a pyramid. Their ambient / techno / disco / bigbeats / whatever the bloody hell it is was impressive enough, but did tend to go on. And on. And on.” Despite this, I enjoyed the Orb well enough, particularly the two songs I recognized: “the tinkling floaty “Little Fluffy Clouds” and the demonic “Toxygene” which closed the set”. Overall I deemed them “an excellent prelude to the MANICS!”
This being the last Manics concert of their most successful era yet made it “a fairly monumentally important show before they’d even come on stage.” I was thrilled to be there to celebrate this triumphant era of my favourite band. On top of this though, I can’t deny that there were troubling thoughts in my head, that they may decide not to continue after this gig. That being the Manics without Richey just wasn’t working for them. If this was the case, then there was no way I could miss the final curtain call for my boys.
“So for the final time, their show began with the Stealth Sonic version of “A Design For Life”, the video images on the screen behind, not that I could see more than a fraction of it.” I was feeling pretty emotional before the band even appeared, but I was not prepared for what I saw when they did.
“They come on stage and Reading is in raptures. Nicky, on the other hand, is in a dress. NICKY’S IN A DRESS!!! A gorgeous camo print SEE THROUGH dress! I have never seen anyone looking more beautiful. I could barely believe my eyes.”
If I’d been worried about the band being on their last legs, this surely was the first indication of their continued fervour. Prior to Richey’s disappearance, Nicky had often appeared on stage in a delightful frock, but all through the EMG era, he had stuck to muted blokish garb. To see this little bit of the Nicky of old returning that night was a complete joy, a joy in which Nicky himself partook. “He was in fine form that night, posing about the stage, playing bass lying down, grinning almost non stop, singing along to every word.”
And so they drove into the first song, “Australia“. “Fifty or so thousand people go wild as one.” And then straight into “From Despair To Where”, the song that made me a Manics fan, “glory of glories”, though there was no time to pause and feel nostalgic, just to scream at the wonder of our boys on stage as they blasted through classic after classic. “It was followed by “Kevin Carter”, trumpet-free this time, but it was not until the following frantic “Faster” that things got really ballistic.”
But I had one “truly heart stopping moment” ahead of me.
“THEY PLAYED A NEW SONG!!! Yes! Total confirmation that the Manics are to Live On and carry on strongly for a long time to come. After focusing on the past set-wise all year, finally The Future!”
It’s safe to say that being a Manics fan over the previous two or three years had been a difficult and sad thing. When Richey disappeared, I had felt sure the band would split up. The joy of them returning with “A Design For Life” and “Everything Must Go” had been indescribable, and now, we were given this glorious evidence that there was more still to come. I can’t have been the only one in the crowd feeling this elated relief at that moment.
The song was “Ready For Drowning”, a resolute yet haunting song which would appear on their next album “This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours”, and I likes it immediately. “The most surprising thing about this song was how much it resembled EMG material when it’s been reported that they’re heading away from that sort of sound. Still it sounded good. One thing is for certain: I must get a recording of this gig as soon as possible!” Which I did, thanks to the ever-reliable Camden market stalls.
After this, the classics kept on rolling by, and I was living for every moment. “La Tristesse Durera” began “with some particularly warped and spacy keyboard noises, evidently unscheduled as both James and Nicky were laughing at it.” As with at all the Manics gigs I’d seen so far, this song was backdropped with quotes of Manics lyrics. “I could just make out the quotes as they sprang onto the screen at the end, definitely for the last time this time, and it was just as powerful as it was at the Brixton Academy eight long months ago.”
They carried on with “Roses In The Hospital”, “Enola Alone” and “Motorcycle Emptiness” which “featured a particularly impressive pre-chorus scream from JDB.” And then there was “Yes”! “Oh yes. Half my MSP experiences have included this song now. I wonder whether in future they’ll reintroduce other “Holy Bible” songs into their set. I hope so.” Little did I know that one day they’d tour the whole album in full!
(Even littler could I have guessed at 22 that when they did tour “The Holy Bible”, I wouldn’t bother to go. But such was the folly of my 30s.)
“Despite the darkness of this song it could not dispel the overall mood of the show, which was, as far as possible for MSP, light-hearted, even fun. At least James and particularly Nicky seemed to be having as great a time as the rest of us. What a glorious way to conclude this chapter of their career.”
The first half of the show was brought to a close, as ever, with “Motown Junk” and “a typically wonderful” “No Surface All Feeling”. Then, as ever, it was time for James Unplugged. “Small Black Flowers that Grow In The Sky” was “particularly stunning“, and “This Is Yesterday”. was “a joy to hear. I found myself staring at the sky and closing my eyes at the appropriate points in the song.” The second half began with “Elvis Impersonator” which “exploded into life as the rest of the band came back on stage.”
There followed a comedy exchange between James and Nicky. “Nicky spoke! For the first time that evening! “So what crap have you got to watch tomorrow then?” he smirked as James was out of view changing guitars. James stormed back up to his mike. “Oi! I like Metallica! I like a bit of metal, me!” he shot back. “So where’s your dress?” Nicky asked the sensibly clad James. “Ooh, just because he’s got a dress on”, he replied, not to be out-bitched. The population of a small city fall apart laughing, before being blasted apart by an overwhelming “Everything Must Go”. And then they DIDN’T do “Stay Beautiful”!! Bastards! Oh well.”
Then it was time to introduce the band. “James said “He’s got hips I would kill for, a figure to die for…” yes it’s Nicky, and christ do we deafen the universe with screams as Nicky preens and pulls up his dress around his hips. Then, the usual gradually decreasing hysteria for “Seanus Moorus” and the keyboard player, whose name I still cannot recall after six gigs.” This introduction had a slightly different twist to my other Manics gigs however, for finally James got his moment of glory too. “Nicky introduced James! “The fastest guitarist this side of Ritchie Blackmore” he proclaimed as James launched into a hilarious series of wank-metal twiddlings, and the fans finally got to cheer wildly at the great, great man.”
And now it was almost over: first a joyous “A Design For Life”, “and then: “Thank you very much, You Love Us, goodnight”. I couldn’t really see the video on the screen but it did not matter a bit, it was as breathtakingly joyous as ever, ending “Lust For Life”-style, 50,000 shrieking die! die! die!”
And then came the moment that made up for being to the far side of the stage all this time.
“At its squalling cacophony of a close, Nicky chucks his mike stand to the floor and strides out into the ledge at the side. DIRECTLY IN FRONT OF ME! He poses about like a drag queen, pulling up his dress and flashing his knickers (not that they hadn’t been visible the whole night) and blowing us all a kiss. Everyone in the vicinity is in total frantic worshipping rapture, stretching our arms to him even though he’s still a good three metres away. Nicky swivels his hips and is off, leaving the final bursts of feedback to rocket round the festival. What a finale. Bloody hell I love them.”
As I wandered back through the field, in that shaken, overwhelmed post-Manics state, I heard a familiar voice emanating from the stage. “Who else should pop out onto the stage but our friend Steve Lamacq. “A gig to be remembered for many years to come” he reckoned, “the Manic Street Preachers!” and we all cheer once again as we stumble out way out of the field.” In that moment, I just felt so lucky to have witnessed this as well as the Nynex gig, which I felt were “surely to be recalled as two of the most legendary performances of the Manics’ career.”
I made it home, somehow, and spent the next few days recovering.
“Reading verdict: definitely, defiantly, 100% worth it. But remind me to get in early with booking a B&B next year.”
My first ever Reading had truly been fantastic, with so many moments of joy and excitement. And it had one more moment in store for me, the following Tuesday.
“A slightly heart-stopping moment this afternoon: Down to the newsagents after work to pick up the music press. To the top row of their outside racks where NME and MM are always displayed. It is ablaze with multiple images of the frocked-up and beautiful Nicky Wire. The two papers have chosen nearly identical images for their covers to capture the spirit of Reading! It’s insanely wonderful.”
And there are no better words than that with which to sum up my Reading ’97.