January 6, 2012
Manic Street Preachers
The O2, London, December 17th
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What would the proverbial alien/person who has been living under a rock make of this spectacle, you wonder? Stage left there’s this lanky guy in a skirt/hooded top combo, with knee-protectors, make-up and a nice line in scissor kicks and sporadic, off-key backing vocals. To his right, centre-stage, is a more normal-looking gentleman in a sailor jacket, who is taking on all lead guitar duties and all singing. To his right, there is this weird gap at the front, with the other guitarist and the keyboard player instead hidden away at the back, next to the drummer, who is wearing fingerless leather gloves.
The projections behind them only confuse matters: there are fleeting images of the more sensible singer in a flamboyant pink blouse, covered in eyeliner, while the skirted bass player can be seen instead in a sensible shirt/combat trousers combo, chatting to… Fidel Castro? And then there is this other beautiful young guy who features in a lot of the clips. And the songs? Musically, they’re all over the shop, and more often than not, it’s very hard to make out what the hell they’re singing about, such is the velocity with which the words fly past. But every single member of the crowd knows every last syllable. The atmosphere is half family get-together, half arena fantasy.
With Manic Street Preachers – as we, the non-alien, non-rock-dwellers know – history is everything, and tonight is a celebration of every last colourful minute of that, for the fans, the faithful. It has been conceived with them solely in mind. It follows ‘Postcards From A Young Man’’s “one last shot at mass communication”, and jointly acts as a funeral for – as James Dean Bradfield puts it tonight – the “situationist express little pill that was the punk pop rock’n’roll single”. At the bottom of the posters that advertised tickets were the words: “NO REUNIONS. NO COMEBACKS. NO ENCORES.” The end of the set sees Nicky Wire smash his bass guitar, and rip down a stage prop. It may not be the sort of gleefully decadent full stop represented by Richey’s last ever Manics gig where, almost exactly 17 years ago to the day, £10,000 worth of gear was destroyed at London’s Astoria. But it is very much a full stop. Recent interviews have displayed a pessimistic Manics, with Nicky Wire mortified that their singles don’t puncture the Top 30 anymore, feeling like a band with nowhere left to go, who need to regroup and figure out what they’re all about in 2012 onwards.
But boy oh boy, if they needed any kind of re-affirmation that they still matter, and that they can still connect, and that their work is not yet done, then tonight’s gig is it. The older songs are all played with the fire and skill that birthed them, while the latter-day likes of ‘Postcards From A Young Man’ and ‘(It’s Not War) Just The End Of Love’ match them for energy and self-belief. As the night progresses, you can almost see the confidence seeping into the Manic Street Preachers’ brains, instigating new ideas, new theories. Their love for their own legacy is apparent in every chord change, but so is their desperate desire to still matter. And if the plan is to re-energise themselves for whatever the next phase of the band might be – ‘70 Songs Of Hatred & Failure’ or otherwise – then it’s effective.
Thirty-eight singles. Thirty-eight. Each one a little snapshot in time, each triggering different feelings, some unexpected. Who knew, for example that, from ‘The Holy Bible’, it would be ‘Revol’ that feels like a natural, good-dumb arena rock fist-pumper, and not ‘She Is Suffering’? Or that all ‘Let Robeson Sing’ needed to nudge it into the realms of true, true greatness was Gruff Rhys on lead vocals? Or that ‘Love’s Sweet Exile’ and ‘[/b]So Why So Sad[/b]’ – for so long absent from anything even vaguely resembling an MSP setlist – could hold their own so magnificently?
But there are also arena anthems aplenty, of course, and you sense that it’s these that make the Manics most happy. All the ‘Everything Must Go’ singles. ‘Motorcycle Emptiness’ (“There are many songs you might go to the bar for,” says James, “but for this one, I think, everyone stays”). The Nina Persson-featuring ‘Your Love Alone Is Not Enough’. When they’re having their stadium-sized choruses bellowed back at them by 20,000 people all with their arms in the air, they look like they’re having the time of their lives. This is where an alien/someone from under a rock could not fail to understand, whether they’re into leg-supports or not. One of the best things about Manic Street Preachers is that, for a band with one of the most dedicated, obsessive fanbases in history, they are always excited by the idea of playing to people not in it. And as long as that fire is still there, they should never, ever stop. Tonight is unavoidably all about the past, but it suggests that there is a future. And a bright one at that.
This article originally appeared in the January 7th issue of NME
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