“All I can say is just over an hour ago I TOUCHED PAUL DRAPER!!! Whilst being drenched in champagne! He was just a metre away!!! Oh christ indeed.”
Buckle up, kids. It’s going to be THAT sort of a gig.
Here we are, at the end of my 1997 Mansun gigs. Six months since they’d turned my world upside down at the Kilburn National, this gig felt to me a bit like a homecoming. Although it was my fifth time seeing Mansun, it was my first since that Kilburn National gig that had been in London.
And it was – as with all Mansun gigs – one of the greatest gigs of my life.
“I joined the queue at 5.30pm. I’d had a mild sore throat for a few days, and the thought did cross my mind that one and a half hours standing in the rain and cold with no jacket was perhaps not the wisest action of my life. But how little did I care! When the shivering throng was finally let in I was quite ecstatic to be able to sprint straight up to second row Stove-side. But before the first band even comes on, the three girls in front of me decide they’re not in the mood for the massive crush and make their way back! So I’m down the front for Mansun at the Astoria!!”
When I think back to my gigging life in 1997, it’s Mansun who shine the brightest, and who epitomise everything that was wonderful about that year. The sheer, untouchable excitement of being 22, and down the front at the Astoria, waiting to see Paul Draper and the boys tear the universe apart with their rock’n’roll fury, is something I will never forget, and that will never be replicated.
“After half an hour of their alternating Abba and Beegees intro tape, it is TIME… I had decided earlier not to scream and sing excessively due to my dodgy throat. I have never executed a swifter change of mind as when I saw the four of them walk on, Andie blowing us a kiss.”
When you discover a new favourite band, as I had done with Mansun six months previously, the world is changed. Everything explodes into a cacophony of new thoughts, feelings, interests, before resolving into a new focus, and you are a slightly different person, with this new band in your life. There is nothing more exciting in the world than that. Apart from, of course, being down the front, witnessing said favourite band being utterly, astoundingly brilliant.
“And from the moment the underworldly opening riff of “Everyone Must Win” pierced the air with blue lights slicing through the atmosphere, I knew that we were in the presence of something even more utterly incredible than usual. It was the chorus that really got everyone going, that desperately frightening cry of “everyone of us can win at last! like in the future like in the past! everyone of us can win at last…” For the slowed, shattering “aaah”s of the ending, Paul had kept to his safe lower register at Manchester. Last night, however, he went all the way. As he finally let his mic get the full blast of that scream, and then contort it into the most achingly divine series of wordless, agonising cries, the whole crowd instantly erupts in recognition of unutterable brilliance on display. Yes Mansun have surpassed themselves and it’s only the first song.”
All previous times in my life I’d fallen in love with a band, I’d been continents away from where the gigs were happening, and I was acutely aware of everything I was missing out on. With Mansun, it was my first and only time of experiencing a new musical obsession live, close up and in person, while the fire burned like a million suns. To have been able to see this most amazing band five times in my first six months of infatuation, while still young enough – just – for a band to be EVERYTHING, is the experience I treasure most out of all I had in 1997.
“Paul finds a guitar and launches into the singalong frenzy of “Stripper Vicar” and by this time it was clear that the sound was not going to encounter the same demons as it did on Saturday. It was “Mansun’s Only Love Song” next, and just refer to everything I wrote about the song at V97, basically: Greatest moment of my life. Quadrupled. “Taxloss” next. As joyous as ever. “Ski Jump Nose” was tremendously well received, and tremendously brilliant as well.”
And one of the most wonderful things about being there, seeing the band multiple times that year, was that I was able to witness before me the changes the band went through over that time. I imagine that seeing David Bowie live in 1974, as he was in the process of finally throwing off the last vestiges of Ziggy Stardust as he morphed into the Young Americans soulster, would have been something like this. For the first time, I felt I was taking part in the history of my favourite band, rather than witnessing it from miles away, reported in three month old imported NMEs.
“The “Open Letter” bit provided us with yet another aspect of New Mansun. Paul began jerking about a bit, seemingly mocking the song’s sarky jauntiness, and when it came to the “you’re a bigger fool than me” he was very nearly dramatising the song for us, as he wilted at those last words with hand on chest and head bowed in shame at his foolishness, before screaming back into the “Ski Jump Nose” monster. And “KIdoubleSING”, if I recall correctly, was when Paul (with a few flicks of the imagination) was very nearly dancing! I have the ever-increasing suspicion that we witness a band in mid-metamorphosis. Which is very exciting.”
And I was right. By the time my next Mansun gig came along in October 1998, they were almost unrecognisable from even this gig – mostly down to Paul’s performance, which by that point had morphed from a relatively static, reserved poise into a hip-swaying, crazed-dancing fervour, while losing none of his untouchable vocal presence. But all that was yet to come.
” ‘KIdoubleSING’ was vastly superior to the version on the EP, basically ‘cos the guitars were turned up to 11, and ‘cos, let’s face it, Paul was RIGHT THERE wasn’t he? Singing ‘I love you, you love me, K-I-double-S-S-I-N-G…’ “
Well, what can I say. We were all a bit in love with Paul Draper back in the day, weren’t we? Yes, even you, reading this. Don’t try to deny it.
” ‘Naked Twister’ was shiver inducing. I just stood there soaking in the overpowering deviant gorgeousness of it all, ’til “Egg Shaped Fred” flung us all into mosh frenzy again. “Wide Open Space” was unbelievable. Quite possibly as glorious as it was on Saturday, but hard to tell as about half the entire audience has decided to fling itself atop the other half. How did this agonising ode to alienation become a call to come forth and crowd surf?”
You know, I never did figure that out. But “Wide Open Space” was always amazing live. Even when experienced with my arms over my head, bent double over the barrier, as a massive security bloke pulled an endless stream of crowdsurfers over the top of me.
“But the truly glorious moment was still to come. As Chad starts up the “Take It Easy Chicken” riff my first impulse is to scream “NO!!!” for as we all know, it signals the end is nigh and I felt I’d inhabited this realm of utter genius for far too short a time. But then the band blast into the song, and after Saturday’s version of mangled dissonance, here it was fully reinstated as Greatest Live Song Ever and just shook the cosmos down to its knees, really.”
And this gig had to end like all great Mansun gigs ended: in chaos, screaming, and a clamouring for connection.
“Paul thrashed his guitar about the place, writhing upon the floor for many minutes, torturing the instrument before discarding it entirely and disappearing momentarily. He reappeared with a bottle of champagne. I willed him not to go Chad-side with it. He did not. He crouched down at the edge of the stage shaking the bottle. I am quite deranged at this point in time. You know what I’m screaming and in which direction I’m frantically reaching. Then he gets down off the stage! He is between the stage and US, about a metre to my left! He lets the champagne rip! At some point here, as my black shirt is drenched and and I get a mouthful of the fizzy stuff, my desperately clamouring hand makes contact with his. Yes I touched Paul D! Not his guitar, HIM! Touched him. Drank his champagne. And indeed wore his champagne. Oh god he was so close!”
Yes, I know I was 22. I was old enough to know that these were just ordinary boys who I could probably have met in a civilised manner at any number of signings or after-show parties. But when you have found someone who has the ability to articulate life’s most fleeting, imperceptible, insidious troubles, and who writes lyrics which afford your stumble through life with a degree of grace, a staid handshake and autograph will not do. I had a deep need to scream, to idolise, to clamour towards Paul as he brandished a champagne bottle, desperate for a tiny bit of recognition, of connection. And I’m pretty sure everyone else in the front row, that night at the Astoria, felt exactly the same way.
“He chucks the last few drops of the drink onto the exhilarated crowd, flings the empty bottle onto the stage with a shrug and follows it back up. He says his last words to the crowd, he may have said something about it being their best gig in two years (and who could disagree??) Andie chucks his drumsticks into the throng, Stove saunters off, Chad concludes the cacophony and says something that sounds like “see you in ten minutes” but obviously we did not. It takes about 20 minutes to get out of the place, such is the packedness of the throng. I staggered tubewards and homewards to crash knackered into bed.”
When I think about these late ’97 gigs now, it’s hard not to feel a sense of the party being over, for me. It would be a year before I saw Mansun again in October 1998, and a very, very horrible year at that. My carefree days of just revelling in the mere fact of being in London, of living for the next gig and the newest songs by my faves, were drawing to a close, and my mental health was about to take a serious tumble at the end of the year. But when things were at their worst, there was always a new Mansun song around the corner, waiting to drag me out of the darkness.
And this night at least, as I staggered from the Astoria to my tiny Chelsea room, where I collapsed into bed with my champagne soaked shirt on my pillow next to me, I was very, very happy.