Manic Street Preachers; Carling Brixton Academy, London, Tuesday, December 11
Thrilling, conclusive proof of their Godlike Genius
There’s a moment in tonight’s show – four songs from the end, during the dying embers of the Manics’ ’92 single ‘Little Baby Nothing’ – where James Dean Bradfield steps up to his microphone, arches his spine, opens his mouth and wails “Rock’n’roll is our epiphany!” with such glee it’s as if he’s only realising it then and there for the very first time. Bradfield’s utterance embodies a beautiful truth; 21 years after they met and formed at Oakdale Comprehensive School in South Wales, two Number One singles, eight albums in and one man down, the Manic Street Preaches are as thrilling, sensational and outright important a rock’n’roll band as they’ve ever been.
The apex of an onstage triangle that also takes in drummer and cousin Sean Moore and gym skirt-clad, 6ft 3in bassist Nicky Wire, seemingly ad hoc, Bradfield extends the song by another couple of couplets, repeating said line over and over, as if to provide just riposte to any clueless bore who’s ever doubted the Welsh band’s relevance throughout the last two decades. This they’ve done all night; cherry-picking choice moments from all their studio albums, from ‘Generation Terrorists’ to ‘Send Away The Tigers’.
In-between they play songs laced with beauty (‘Roses In The Hospital’, ‘This Is Yesterday’), intelligence (‘Kevin Carter’, ‘A Design For Life’) and the fierce and glamorous working-class rage that’s peppered all the best moments of their career (‘Slash ’N’ Burn’, ‘The Masses Against The Classes’, and, segued into a ridiculously exciting half-stomp through The Cult’s ‘She Sells Sanctuary’, ‘Motown Junk’). Their skill at collating such disparate moments is akin to a masterclass in how a rock’n’roll band should act and behave – really, they should teach this shit in schools. It also makes it easy to forget, and even more terrifying to contemplate, that once upon a time Manic Street Preachers weren’t even supposed to have a career. “The most important thing we can do is get massive and throw it all away,”
said bassist Nicky Wire to NME’s sister paper Melody Maker back in 1991. “We only wanna make one album, one double album, 30 songs. That’ll be our statement, then we’ll split up. There’s nothing glamorous in having a 20-year career in rock,” he snorted. “That’s sick.”Ridiculous? Yes. Overtly righteous? For sure. Both are absolute prerequisites for great rock’n’roll bands. In the same interview they raged against the likes of lumpen, say-nothing baggy oiks Northside (“useless, boring and degrading”), The Charlatans (“fucking useless”) and New Order/Smiths supergroup Electronic (“fat, bloated, hideous bastards who deserve shooting”). Hold up a mirror to those bands 16 years later and what’s changed? You’re looking at their 21st century equivalents: The Pigeon Detectives, The Killers and The Good, The Bad & The Queen. You’re looking at cultural and moral anathema. You’re looking at no fun. Whatever the Manic Street Preachers’ reasons were for forsaking their initial claims and plowing forth a career; for reasons arguably more important that their wealth of tunes, you can’t help thinking we need their presence, their rhetoric, their voice more than ever.
It’s for this reason they’re to be given the status of Godlike Geniuses come February. The band are excited; almost blowing the announcement tonight by giddily telling the crowd to “buy the NME on Wednesday”, while Nicky Wire raves after the show that to be acclaimed in such a way means more to them than “all the Brits they’ve won, even the Ivor Novello”. Since their inception, it’s never been easy for them – for a band as fabulous and unique as they, it was never going to be. Yet they continue to struggle with disguising the scars they’ve picked up along the way. You can hear flashes of their underlying sadness during Bradfield’s beautiful, solo acoustic reading of ‘The Everlasting’ and its wistful utterance of, “In the beginning, when we were winning, when our smiles were genuine”, and the ever-poignant absence of Richey James Edwards; the man, heralded from the stage by Wire as the “greatest rock’n’roll star that ever lived”, who the band remember by keeping his spot stage right uncluttered by extra musicians or even by the Manic Street Preachers themselves.
“We know what rock’n’roll could be,” James Dean Bradfield told Melody Maker in the aforementioned 1991 interview. “That’s why so many people are repulsed by us. We really are the most modern, glamorous, rock’n’roll band today.”On nights like tonight, almost 16 years on, those words still ring out louder than war.