The fierce ambition of the Manic Street Preachers is such that they’ve never shied from working with The Man. When they moved from small independent Heavenly to Columbia Records in 1991 and happily posed signing to the suits they faced howls of indignation and cries of “sell out”. Their goal was to shift seventeen million albums and if that meant signing to a major and talking to Nobby The Sheep on Saturday morning kids’ TV, then so be it.
Their sales target is now more modest but a week ahead of their eleventh album, Rewind The Film, they’re publicity hungry enough to play a Hyde Park gig for Radio 2 on Sunday - performing down the bill to Jessie J and James Blunt – and follow it with a tiny corporate show for Absolute Radio at the 100 Club show on Tuesday; it’s all part of their original philosophy. They’ve never sought indie credibility. Appearing on Strictly Come Dancing was a recent enough reminder of that.
There was an obvious appeal to play the 100 Club for the first time and my old mate James Dean Bradfield mentioned how he’d sound checked that afternoon with tracks from Never Mind The Bollocks; Steve Jones’s guitar parts he’d learnt off by heart in the Blackwood bedroom he shared as a kid with cousin Sean Moore. “It’s an honour to be stage on the same stage as Jonesy. Fuck the rest of them”. Although JDB was his usual affable self and Sean sported a pair of punkish tartan trousers, a make-up free Nicky Wire – despite a Sex Pistols sticker on his bass - was glumly going through the motions and looked like he’d sooner be cleaning his kitchen. The sound engineer wasted his time setting up Nicky’s vocal mic (no feather boas or decoration to the stand) as not once did he use it – not even to sing his lines on “Your Love Alone Is Not Enough” and there wasn’t even a glimpse of his loveable Cheshire Cat grin.
Whatever the cause of Wire’s moping I did feel some sympathy for him. The pairing of the Manics and the 100 Club is in theory perfect: standing in the footsteps the Pistols and their early stencil slogan template the Clash. Personally it brought together the band I’ve seen more than any other to the venue I’ve attended more than any other. They’ve both been – and remain - such an intrinsic part of my life that being able to experience them together was very special and I felt honoured to be there, made all the more extraordinary as there were so few genuine Manics fans in attendance. Admission was strictly invite only for Absolute staff, guests, music industry types and a small smattering of competition winners so it created a subdued atmosphere in a half empty club (doubt there was 150 people).
The band stepped on stage to a ripple of polite applause but from Bradfield opening “Elvis Impersonator: Blackpool Pier” it was immediately apparent how terrible the sound quality is at most big gigs. Being able to see the band in the smallest venue I’ve seen them in since 1991 and able to hear them properly – crystal clear and with all the little nuances in Bradfield’s voice - was a rare treat, as was being stood only a few feet away; a far cry from the 02 Arena gig two years ago. They were – grumpy bollocks on bass notwithstanding – of course, magnificent.
The sixteen song set contained some obvious choices, one or two less predictable ones, and four tracks from Rewind The Film: Richard Hawley wasn’t there so the title track was sung in its entirety by Bradfield; the brassy soul shuffling single “Show Me The Wonder” sounded wholly appropriate in the venue I’ve attended northern soul all-nighters for longer than I’ve seen the Manics, the renown “Mod Corner” to the left of the stage had been commandeered to hold a rack of twelve guitars so I had to position myself, for once, to the right; and the live debut of two previously unheard acoustic led folk numbers “Anthem For A Lost Cause” and “This Sullen Welsh Heart”. Bradfield’s delivery of that last one was stunning; even Wire was moved to applaud his friend.
The casual listener can always sing along to “A Design For Life” but even diehard fans can be excused for miming a few words to “Revol”. The new material is a long way from the fire and energy of “Revol” and “You Love Us” which were highlights (as was “No Surface All Feeling”) but the band have aged with dignity. I’m the same age and there’s no way I’d throw myself around at gigs any more so don’t expect them to write songs for me to do that. The robe barrier protecting the stage from the audience (the only time I’ve seen it here) didn’t feel necessary in the circumstances but had this been a “proper” Manics gig things may well have been considerably different. It was a real shame more fans couldn’t have been invited.
The Manics’ new found willingness to experiment with different styles is welcome (I never thought I’d see the day I could cut some northern soul moves to one of their singles); the early results speak for themselves and I can’t wait for the new album on Monday. In this wonderful world of purchase power, the Manic Street Preachers have made another sale. That should make even Nicky Wire smile.
My sincere thanks to Mark Thompson and Sean Moore for their generosity and kindness.
Set list: Elvis Impersonator: Blackpool Pier, Motorcycle Emptiness, Ocean Spray, Anthem For A Lost Cause, You Stole The Sun From My Heart, No Surface All Feeling, Rewind The Film, Tsunami, If You Tolerate This You’re Children Will Be Next, This Sullen Welsh Heart, Your Love Alone Is Not Enough, Revol, You Love Us, A Design For Life.
Rewind The Film by Manic Street Preachers is released on Monday 16th September 2013.