Manic Street Preachers: Soulboys In Hammersmith. Plus Photos From The Band

Manic Street Preachers last week launched new album _Postcards From A Young Man_ at the Hammersmith Working Men's Club. Al Denney explains why they're as relevant now as in his days of teenage fandom. PLUS the Manics have given us a gallery of photographs taken during the day.

A friend of mine schooled in the US recently confided in me that he never ‘got’ the Manics. "I think it’s the kind of thing you had to be around for at the time," he said, damnably suave in the face of my schoolboyishly earnest fandom. He’s right, though, I thought to myself. My only professional run-in with the Welsh agit-rockers had come in 2007, with an unkind review of eighth studio album Send Away The Tigers, hailed by many as a return to fist-pumping form for the band. Not for me it wasn’t. This was my moment of kill-yr-idols schadenfreude, and I looked on at the ensuing message board bunfight with a curious admixture of glee and near-Oedipal horror.

After that I didn’t think very much at all about the Manic Street Preachers, and then in 2009 came Journal For Plague Lovers, a record dedicated to missing band member Richey Edwards and built around lyrics from his notebook. It was their best album since Everything Must Go; their most fearsome since Edwards’ notorious swansong The Holy Bible, and it put me back in touch with a few of the things that made them so great at the first time of asking. At the height of my devotion to the group they had been an oasis of certainty, of essential rightness in a world of equivocators and shuffling blowhards. Like Downing Street press officer Jamie McDonald says in The Thick Of It:

Cliff Lawton: "That’s your thing, isn’t it? Everything has to be in absolutes, everything has to be black and white. You know, "I love you – fuck off". There are lots of shades of grey, you know."

Jamie: "I know that, I’m looking at fifteen of them right now."

Whatever its relative shortcomings – truthfully it wasn’t among my ‘most listened to’ of 2009 – Journal For Plague Lovers was a record recalling a time when bands either mattered or they didn’t. You were either nothing or you were something, a zero or a one, and let the Pitchfork dullards choke on their decimal scoring systems while we’re smoking out the unbelievers. Because let’s face it, beyond all the sophisticate sniping about conservatism, cock rock clichés and bargain-bin guitar wankery, at the end of the day you’re either a cunt or you’re not, and the Manics are not cunts.

Tonight the band plays a short-ish set to a throng of industry ‘heads in a Hammersmith working men’s club, and the scene is a joy to behold. Hardened music veterans are openly losing their shit, sloshing beers and pressing bodies to the front of the crowded venue. The band looks to be in fine fettle, too, with James Dean Bradfield kicking it barbershop-style as a slightly overweight 1930s footballer, and Nicky Wire absurd as ever in full sea captain regalia. Assisted at various points during the set by a rhythm guitarist, keyboardist, saxophonist and small string ensemble, they kick off with future single ‘(It’s Not War) Just the End Of Love’, from September-slated tenth LP Postcards From A Young Man. Billed by Nicky Wire as ‘heavy metal Tamla Motown", the record promises a return to the FM rock catharses of Everything Must Go and Send Away The Tigers (which maybe wasn’t as bad as some have suggested, natch).

Wire’s epithet is interesting because the Manics share strange affinities with the soul music of the 60s, and especially with its incarnation in the clubs of the Northern Soul era. The Manics’ love of early Guns N’ Roses’ blue-collar nihilism is well noted, their appetite for British working class sounds less so. But it’s there nonetheless, in the full-blooded commitment, in their sheer perspicacity and penchant for muscular, soap-operatic strings. The aforementioned new single actually recalls New York City’s ‘I’m Doin’ Fine’ in its orchestral arrangement, and they follow it with the equally soulful ‘Your Love Alone’ and ‘Everything Must Go’. ‘Motown Junk’ is even prefaced by a snippet from The Jam’s Motown homage ‘A Town Called Malice’, surely a nod to the latent irony in the song’s young-man tirade against saccharine soul.

As for the rock, well, they bring it. A dyamite take on ‘You Love Us’ is little short of revelatory. It’s often said of the early Manics that their music was a trite and largely nuance-free rehashing of cock rock tropes, but what’s apparent in a song like this is a desperation to be heard, that insistent strain in British pop which can be traced through superficially swaggering tracts in self-sufficiency like ‘I Wanna Be Adored’ and ‘Rock N’ Roll Star’. Maybe this is what my American-educated chum missed out on. In that New Eden of immeasurable expanse, you can imagine greatness might really come and seek you out. From Britain’s drizzly Atlantic perch, on the other hand, it’s as if you have to shout yourself hoarse so you might actually believe it. That desperation’s only a memory for the Manics now, of course, but with mojos seemingly relocated they’re at least free to give it both barrels, and it shows.

‘Motorcycle Emptiness’ trumps even that corker, arguably a more poignant summation of post-industrial malaise than Radiohead managed in an entire career devoted to making middle class people feel better about themselves. Lest we forget, it’s a song written when the band was still in school uniform. But for this fan’s part the evening’s biggest thrill comes midway through the set when Bradfield introduces ‘Faster’, that four-minute journey into the heart of darkness that was Richey Edwards’ worldview circa Holy Bible. It’s like open heart surgery performed at 1,000mph. I think it’s a shame that he doesn’t scream the word ‘SPELL’ like he does on the record, but as a singer those are the kinds of sentiments you couldn’t expect to get near nine nights out of ten, let alone want to.

They’re not immune from failure, of course, and ‘If You Tolerate This’ still resembles the same tired-sounding AOR it did in the late 90s, a period which still resonates to the perma-sodden sounds of Travis’ ‘Why Does It Always Rain On Me?’ in this writer’s mind. Meanwhile ‘Autumnsong’ showcases James Dean Bradfield’s writing at its Humpty Dumpty-ish worst. Of the new tracks, ‘Postcards From A Young Man”s minor-chord pop passes muster, but ‘The Descent’ (written on the tour bus, a "cardinal sin" for the band according to Bradfield) resembles Village Green-era Kinks or The Beatles in their pomp. Arch sophistication is assuredly not their strong suit.

It’s a mix-bag, in short, but with the band in gutsy form (Wire in particular gets in some choice digs at Radio 1 and Damon Albarn) you wouldn’t bet against them making it their own. As the last record proves, this isn’t only nostalgic fancy – twenty six years into their careers, and the Manic Street Preachers still count.

Click the image below to see a gallery of backstage photographs taken by band and friends during the day. Many thanks to the Manic Street Preachers and Robin Turner for the images

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