My first Manics gig since the turn of the Millennium, on the eve of a turning point in my own life.
Since I’d moved to London at the end of 1996, my life had settled into more or less the same routine for just over four years. I was a receptionist at the Royal Brompton Hospital and lived in a tiny room on the fourth floor of the Nurses’ Home. My spare time was – with a few blips – mostly spent listening to music, thinking about music, going to gigs, and writing about them in my diary. But things were about to change for me in 2001, and this weekend of two Manic Street Preachers gigs is where one huge life change started.
It didn’t start on this night, however, The Friday gig at Brixton was pretty much more of the same, when it came to the Manics – which is to say, it was a stunning, life-affirming gig full of everything that makes the Manics matter so much. My diary entry begins:
“And then, just after a jagged, abrasive, soul embracing “Yes”, James says “this next one’s called “The Intense Humming of Evil” and us poor, gullible hopeful Bibleite types scream our little hearts out even though, on reflection, it is the least tuneful thing on “THB” and it was probably much better that James laughed at us and sang the gorgeous “Let Robeson Sing” instead.”
“Let Robeson Sing” was a plaintive yet stirring track from their recently released sixth album “Know Your Enemy”. I was at first cautious with my love for this new album – my diary entry upon buying it says little more than the fact it “has some good tunes on it” – but gradually its lo-fi energy and caustic commentary on the world we lived in sneaked its way into my heart, helped not a little bit by this wonderful, wonderful gig. But before I could talk in depth about the songs in my diary entry, I had to get the important information out of the way:
“Nicky Wire’s in a tennis skirt! with 1. sports jumper emblazoned “GIRLIE” 2. unfeasibly girly pink top and gold sparkly cap 3. mad girly school-uniform shirt’n’tie 4. with pastel knee-length blue + pink striped socks that were just beyond all sane notions of ‘girly’. As you can imagine, he looked amazing.”
Essential reporting on the amazingness of Nicky done, I could get back into the amazingness of the tunes.
“Well they start with “Found That Soul” and it’s stormin’ and I’m in second row Nicky-side and we go wild and then James says, “Something old something new but not borrowed” and God help us it’s “Motorcycle Emptiness” my god, the last thing I heard last millennium. And it’s total euphoric chaos and the gig’s barely begun and I’m already knackered.”
There were hits like “You Stole The Sun From My Heart” and “Kevin Carter” and “La Tristesse Durera”, but they were not the absolute highlights of this night. “Despite the solid gleaming brilliance of all this, it was tunes from the new album that made this gig so awesome. Like the dark, threatening “Freedom Of Speech Won’t Feed My Children”. Like, especially, the unfeasibly groovy “Miss Europa Disco Dancer”, with Nicky leading us in a call and response chant of “Brain Dead Motherfucker!” before the previously unembellished backdrop lit up with a thousand gleaming disco stars and we were in the Marxist Disco from Mars. Nicky’s shouty bits were especially fab. And then they did HIS tune, or as he put it, “tuneless dirge”, and he rooled.”
There was “Motown Junk”, which included a prelude of a little bit of “Sweet Child O’ Mine” from James, which is interesting to recall here in summer 2019, where it has become a staple of the Manics’ festival sets. “Motown Junk” however included something far more crucial for my young Nicky-worshipping self. “Nicky climbed up onto the speaker stack in front of MEEE! during “Motown Junk” and did the one leg up rawk pose and I saw right up his skirt and god, is he blessed.” Yes, this was quite a night.
James’s acoustic interlude carried on with the Guns’n’Roses theme with “a few choruses of “Paradise City” and we LOVED it.” Then after “Baby Elian” he introduced “This Is Yesterday” as “a song from “The Holy Bible” which prompted “massive obsessive screams”. James took this opportunity to gently scold some of the more fairweather fans. “He said ‘Maybe you lot down the back might like to buy it sometime… it’s by the same band.’ ” I was very happy with this seeming expression of preference towards us old-school fans. “Yes! We win!”
The gig ended with “If You Tolerate This your Children Will Be Next” and “You Love Us” followed by “a truly godlike, soaring screaming arms aloft-waving “Design For Life” and James thanked us all for being so brilliant and at the end shouted something at length into the mike and Nicky trashed things as usual but I couldn’t really see him except for his final triumphant wave.”
Then they are off “and we hear that strangely moving spooky mini-track from between “Epicentre” and “Baby Elian” on the album that sounds like it’s saying “happy birthday yes yes the summer” but probably isn’t.” It was, in fact, “happy black days, here’s the summer” as I would learn when the full version of the song appeared as a B-Side to “Let Robeson Sing” called “Masking Tape”.
And like so many times after Manics gigs, all felt a little bit more right in the world. I found myself recollecting how I’d felt just over four years previously after my second ever Manics gig : “Home is where the Manics are“. I concluded my entry with these words:
“And I feel so untouchably happy that it’s almost unbearable, ‘cos it’s so hard to hold.”
The next day I would take my first stumble down a path towards a more difficult and tiring world, full of pain, doctor’s appointments, hospital admissions and lifelong medication, all of which I’ll talk more about in my next post. But at least for those few moments before these difficult times began, I felt that untouchable happiness that only comes with a brilliant gig by your favourite band, where everything is okay in the world and every corner of your life seems to beam with unimaginable possibilities. When your life contains moments like that, you can endure almost anything.