I went to see the Manic Street Preachers in Manchester last week. They were good! Very good!
This is not a review of that show. This is more like a review of me.
I’m wondering why it took me so long to realise that this band’s incredible.
I went to this show because some dear friends were going, and because The Coral were supporting. So it was a chance to see two bands I quite like, back to back, in the company of dear friends. Unmissable!
I’ve never really considered myself a Manic Street Preachers fan. I’ve always liked them a lot, yes. I’ve always been comfortable thinking of The Holy Bible as a masterpiece. A teenage bedroom was painted in “Everything Must Go Blue” at my request. But I never really listened to them out of choice. And I never mentioned them when people asked me “what sort of music do you like?”
I think I know why. By the time I was old enough to notice, the Manic Street Preachers already had five albums and a number one single under their belts. This shouldn’t really matter. Almost every single musician I admire was long established by the time I started paying attention. But the Manic Street Preachers are more prolific and consistent than most other bands. This makes them very hard to ignore, but very easy to take for granted. They’ve always just been… there.
Plus, I’d seen them live twice before this show. They attract some passionate sorts in leopard prints and feather boas with smudgy eyeliner and lipstick. They know every single word to every single song, and they scrawl slogans on their arms. They know their stuff. One glance at them made me think – I will never love anything the way these guys love the Manic Street Preachers.
Take all this together, and the Manic Street Preachers have always felt like someone else’s band. I loved a lot of their songs, but they felt important rather than essential. And despite what that early single repeatedly insisted, I didn’t love them.
But all this changed in the weeks leading up to the show. I’m not exactly sure why, but by the time the long-awaited night rolled around, I was happily thinking of them as my band. I have finally realised that bands this consistent and this prolific are rare, and that it’s astounding for one band to have so many genuinely brilliant songs. I have finally come to understand that we’re very lucky indeed to have the Manic Street Preachers, and I’m now cursing myself for having effectively ignored them for so long.
The new album helped. Resistance is Futile appears to play on the idea that, when the world is in turmoil, the things that make you happy will still be there for you. It’s a collection of songs that encourage you to take comfort in your passions. Not as a means of blocking out the world, but as a means of reminding yourself that there are still things worth caring about and fighting for. It’s an antidote to despair, defeatism, and nihilism. And I think I heard it at just the right time.
It feels especially vital that it’s a veteran rock band exploring these ideas. This year, like every year, people have confidently declared that rock is dead. I’ve never understood why music critics always seem particularly eager for this to be true. Millions of people around the world still play and enjoy rock music, and exactly the same eulogies have been written year after year since about 1963. Rock isn’t dead. It isn’t even on life support. But it’s hard to shake the impression that some people think it’s somehow suspect to “still” care about guitar music.
I’m not saying I feel demonised or marginalised as a rock music fan, because I’m not insane. But I seem to have internalised all that sneering “rock is dead” droning to the point that, when yet another rock song has made me feel genuinely happy to be alive, my thoughts start to echo those of that young man who really likes wrestling: It’s still real to me, dammit!
But the songs on Resistance is Futile seem to say that it’s OK to care about the things you care about. If there’s something out there that gives you the energy to get up in the morning, then you shouldn’t feel ashamed to need it. Nobody can take that from you. So when your problems and the world’s problems feel insurmountable, immerse yourself in your passions until you feel ready to fight again!
Their story is one of survival against all odds. Richie Edwards, disappeared since 1995, still casts a long shadow over the band. His songs went to some dark places. His words were brutal. Visceral. Ugly. Nicky Wire, his lyrical collaborator, couldn’t hope to match them. So it’s a good thing he didn’t try.
Since he took over a chief lyricist – a role that was forced upon him – it’s hard to deny that the band’s softened. Gone are the songs about prostitution, execution, serial killers, anorexia, depression, self-harm, and the struggles of living with a bad credit score. But in their place are songs about dignity, resilience, survival, reticence, love, art, freedom, socialism, and identity. The Holy Bible is a compelling trip, but it’s a hard album to love. All that’s come since, though? It’s music that tells you that life is worth living.
Nicky Wire’s probably another reason why it took me so long to start loving this band. With his notoriously snarky approach to interviews, he’s always been a bit much. But even Nicky Wire seems to agree that Nicky Wire used to be awful. Now I see as a passionate, provocative, beautifully-dressed lover of life. He understands the power of words, and so many of his lyrics, taken out of context, stand as striking slogans and aphorisms. Yes, his writing can be a bit on-the-nose sometimes. But subtlety isn’t always the best approach. When you’re aiming for “mass communication”, it pays to be direct.
James Dean Bradfield is a genius at setting words to music. His arrangements of Richie’s impossible words into solid melodic structures is the work of a virtuoso. Nicky’s words have never been quite so unwieldy, but it’s still marvellous how James always manages to work these raw materials into something so catchy and engaging. He seems capable of crafting hooks out of anything, and he’s an expert when it comes to the sort of empowering choruses you can shout back with gusto after just one listen.
Some find his earnest everyman voice off-putting, yet he’s more versatile than he’s often given credit. With his singing, you can feel the bile behind Richie’s lyrics, and the yearning behind Nicky’s.
And apart from anything else, he’s a total guitar hero. He’s a master of both rhythm and lead. He can do anything, from delicate finger-picking, to crunchy driving rhythms, to awesome stratospheric solos, to the sort of riffs that feel immediately iconic the very first time you hear them.
They’re a proper band, rather than an egotistical front-man and a group of backing musicians. Their songs are the results of collaborations between lifelong friends, and the resulting music is almost always uplifting, relatable, intelligent, compassionate, and deeply, deeply human.
MSP are accepting MOZ refugees – any former Morrissey fans in search of something less dispiriting after his latest thick racist grumbling might find solace in the Manic Street Preachers. As an added bonus, rather than misanthropic trawls through the soggiest slogs of a second-rate solo career set to a backdrop of horrific abattoir footage, Manic Street Preachers shows are actually fun to attend! They’re communal parties, and you’ll leave feeling warm and happy rather than nauseated.
The Manic Street Preachers seem to know what people want. Their setlists are invariably career-spanning, with enough big hits to keep everyone happy, and enough deep cuts and surprises to keep their hardcore fans coming back.
As is fitting for one of the finest singles bands of our time, almost everything they play is a single. This makes watching them perform multiple tracks from their newest releases a genuine pleasure, as you know you’re watching them play material that’s unlikely to survive beyond this particular tour.
I think that, were I to make a point of seeing them as often as possible from now on, this approach to their live shows would eventually start to irritate me. I’m difficult like that. I think I’d eventually start to wish that they’d take the Pearl Jam approach to setlists – completely different every single night, with old album tracks getting just as much attention as the reliable crowd pleasers.
Since getting deeper into the Manic Street Preachers a week or two ago, I’ve not really been able to listen to anyone else. I’ve listened to each of their 13 albums in full, one after another, on near constant repeat. I’m not bored yet. When I hear amazing semi-obscurities like Rendition, Intravenous Agnostic, I Live To Fall Asleep, Donkeys, and Ready For Drowning, my first thought is – I’VE BEEN MISSING OUT! But after that, I start to feel that it’s a shame that these songs may never be performed again.
But we’ll save that lament for another day!
Right now, it feels like the end of a #problematic and horrifically-dated romantic comedy, in which for far too long I ignored my true love as I was so distracted by my pursuit of another. Even the songs I’ve heard thousands of times are taking on new significance. Like… how did You Stole The Sun From My Heart manage to fly over my head so many times rather than hitting me with the full force of its incredible power?
I’m regretting all the times I passed up seeing them, and all the hours I could have spent listening to them. But at the same time, it’s wonderful feeling when something that seemed so familiar takes on new significance. It’s like finding a new room in your house, behind a hidden door, full of thick books and fascinating curios, with some remarkable pictures hanging on the walls.
I’ve a lot of catching up to do!