Halfway though this, the final Manic Street Preachers gig of this most triumphant year for the band, I had what you might call A Moment. There I was, right where I belong: second row Nicky-side, hollering along to “If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next”. So far, it had been a brilliant night, starting with a blistering support set of mesmerizing electro rock from Public Service Broadcasting, then a warm up tape of 80s new wave classics, before the lights dimmed and the yearning beauty of ABBA’s “Eagle” resonated around the arena with a quote from Jack Kerouac on the screen:
My eyes were glued on life and they were full of tears
The Manics came on with “Motorcycle Emptiness”, as they do, and rocketed through a typical set, the classics stirring and spirited, the recent singles sparkling and fresh. A couple of surprises snuck in: the anthem to grumpy solitude “Happy Bored Alone” from the latest album, and their early ode to defiant alienation “Love’s Sweet Exile”. As with all the other Manics gigs I’ve attended this year, in Cardiff, Cambridge and Kingston, James was powerful and energetic vocal form, and Nicky a grinning, glittering, stage-striding delight. So far, so standard – which is to say, of course, completely brilliant.
Then came “Tolerate”, and my mind was suddenly full of the Manics gig of October 2017 at the Roundhouse which I have revisited recently on this blog. I remembered that ‘shock of pure elation‘ when the streamers had exploded during this very song, and felt sad that such frivolous yet joy-inducing aspects of gig-going seemed to have been abandoned of late. I assumed this was for environmental reasons, or who knows, perhaps streamers pose a virus-transmission risk? All of which made me feel a pang for a lost time as I sang along to this most magnificent song.
So when that bang did happen, and blue and yellow streamers started descending onto the Wembley crowd during the final chorus, the elation went into overdrive. I actually found myself crying with a sense of shock and joy and relief that I couldn’t quite explain at the time, but hey, when you find yourself screaming and crying at a Manics gig, you have to just go with it, don’t you?
The truth is, during the week leading up to this gig I’d felt a creeping sense of tension and anxiety. After an autumn in which normality – or some semblance of it at least – had almost seemed to be back for good, we had been plunged back into uncertainty in the name of Omicron. The nebulous notion was pervading our lives once again that our freedom is in the balance if we don’t follow certain logic-defying rules – possibly even if we do. I spent every day of the week leading up to the gig wondering if it would go ahead at all. Part of me would even have been slightly relieved if lockdown had been announced, as it would at least have removed the queasy uncertainty that has crept back into our lives since the new variant was announced.
Given this apprehension, just being there at Wembley was wonderful in itself. And in that moment of sheer adrenaline-spiking euphoria when this silly silly thing happened – that huge bang as strips of pastel coloured paper exploded from the ceiling and wafted down to us, punctuating the song’s emotional crescendo – I felt all the tension of the week break. For a moment, it seemed that all may not be lost. We can still be as free to celebrate our lives, and being human, and the music that we love, as we were back in 2017 when that Roundhouse gig happened. After the last two years, to be standing in a crowd of Manics fans, screaming and singing as one, letting all notion of social distancing go by the wayside as we frantically reached up to grab a lazily descending streamer, felt like an act of defiance.
As if that weren’t enough, this month marks 25 years since I arrived in London in December 1996 and went to my first ever Manics gigs. And for the rest of the gig, it felt as if every moment of those 25 years was bearing down upon me. From this point on it’s safe to say that I was full of a turmoil of emotions, laughing and crying and hollering at the boys for all I was worth.
The cover of the Cult’s “She Sells Sanctuary” was a delight, and “Motown Junk”, resurrected from those earliest Manics days, was even more of a thrill, even if its rock’n’roll intensity was slightly diluted by the distraction of half the streamers now being stuck in the ceiling, waving gently like some huge yellow-and-blue-tentacled sea creature and occasionally breaking free to float serenely to the ground as the Manics played.
Perhaps surprisingly however it was the newer songs that found me in tears yet again in the second half of the gig. With “Afterending”, I thought back to the first weeks of September and the first time I heard this song, with its stirring chorus defiantly optimistic in the face of apocalyptic world events. I imagined then how epic and emotional it would be to hear it played at Wembley at the end of the year, singing “sail into the abyss with me” along with the boys, and yet all the while wondering if gigs would still be going ahead in December. Actually being here in that moment, it was just as powerful as I’d imagined. And then a few songs later, “Complicated Illusions” felt like an anthem for the Manics Massive, a hymn to our collective joy in the band: “in the rhythm of your voice, I find space to rejoice”.
“Slash ‘n’ Burn” and “Tsunami” were full of shout-and-point glee, and the final two, as always, were the riotous thrills of “You Love Us”, and then of course “A Design For Life”. Drowning in a sea of confetti at its end, I was full of memories of the band returning with this song following Richey’s disappearance. They may no longer have been the same band that I had fallen in love with in 1993, but this is when they became the band that I would go on to see live for the first time in December 1996, and for the 25 years following that, and who were standing in front of me now as I screamed and, yes, cried once again.
Leaving Wembley, I felt a sense of undiluted happiness that I recalled from moments in years gone by, as I left that same venue following incredible Manics gigs in 1998, 2002 and 2004. For me, this gig had been a truly fitting celebration of the past 25 years of my life in which screaming and crying and hollering and laughing my way through a Manics gig has been such an important part. But perhaps even more importantly than that, I also felt a sense of hope restored. For all the uncertainty of the times we are living through, I knew one thing for certain after this gig: the need that so many people feel for the joy, connection and celebration that live music brings has not been quashed. And it is absolutely, unquestionably worth fighting for.