11 Dec 2014: Albert Hall Manchester, UK
Nietzsche, through his character Zarathustra, coined the idea of a “superman”, a being that is, with other attributes, capable of artistic brilliance. He is a person able to offer insights beyond what the usual mortal can countenance. Given their reputation as a fiercely literate band, it was not surprising that I found myself considering this idea while watching The Manic Street Preachers’ performance of The Holy Bible at Manchester’s Albert Hall.
Before you assume that I am calling these three Welsh rockers modern day Clark Kents, allow me to assure you, doubtful reader, that I will not do that. From the minute the band takes to the stage to perform The Holy Bible in full, the musicians’ body language suggest that they feel only too keenly the pressure to do justice to the superhuman intellect of Richey Edwards tonight. Edwards, prior to his disappearance and presumed death, had left his words—challenging, verbose, visceral. The remaining three members were left to work out how to perform them, for a crowd to whom they mean everything.
Fortunately, the band did its homework.
Manchester’s Albert Hall is fittingly gothic for an album that not only dwells but carves a home in the darker shades. The intimate standing area, beneath windows emblazoned with crosses, has an air of sanctity about it—or, at least, it did until the beer began to flow. The stage, bathed in red light and mist, and the amps draped in heavy netting, all have an air of heaviness about them too. Even before the Manics set foot onstage, the crowd sings the band’s songs, roaring along to a rousing mix of “Faster”. Men in Manchester City shirts scream, “I am a pioneer / they call me primitive”.
Without a word of greeting, the Manics arrive onstage, and with their heads down, they tear into opening track “Yes”. Concentration bears itself on their faces, concentration as intense as the strict guitar lines on this most post-punk of albums. It is only as the first chorus erupts that I realize what a powerful gig this is going to be. Edwards, thanks to his feverish consumption of culture and literature, wrote lyrics for this album that capture the human condition with ruthless honesty. Think Peep Show offers us some home truths about modern living? Consider the lines, “I eat and I dress and I wash and I can still say thank you / Puking - shaking – sinking / I still stand for old ladies”. Who offers a more compelling insight into contemporary rituals? On this night, the Manics combine such sentiments with rousing performances. To play that song in a way that creates generates mass catharsis is an even greater achievement.
The Manics, with clenched bodies, rip their way through the album’s songs in order. Bassist Nicky Wire looks lost in his own private reverie, fully immersed in the porous boundaries of each song. With his occasional smiles of private pleasure, he looks as if he is entering into some sort of mysterious communion with Edwards through the performance, just like we are. Singer and guitarist James Dean Bradfield appears more bemused at the mass outpouring of emotion. He doesn’t address the panda-eyed aesthetes and beer guzzlers, choosing instead to divert all his energy into the performance. As the audience moshes its way through the set, stewards hand out water to the sizzling masses. The crowd seems to exercise a certain civic pride in the way it dutifully passes the bottle around. Yes, this is that sort of a gig.
They’re an interesting bunch, Manics fans. A this show, “dem fans” tend to be dressed in some private bodily tribute to the Manics. Spray painted t-shirts, etched with some beloved lyric, are in abundance. The glamour quotient of the audience decorates itself in leopard print, glitter and lip-gloss. They turn the public consumption of this high art into a seductive spectacle. Richey Edwards is hauntingly apparent not just in the haircut, frame, and manner of auxiliary guitarist Wayne Murray, but also in the unusual blend of intensity and shyness evident in many around the room. It is very strange to be celebrating an album in public, due in large part to that album’s main architect being apparent only in fleeting reflections. Edwards is in everything: the words, the sound, the stage set, and, in a sense, the audience. All of this is much like the scene in The Talented Mr Ripley where Ripley keeps seeing flashing images of a departed man.
The band surges through the album’s trickiest moments without fluffing a line. The metallic chug of “She Is Suffering” is imbued with an elegant melancholy. The satirical geo-politics of “Revol” are savage and kinetic. A spectral “This Is Yesterday” charms and saddens us. I overhear fans wondering how Bradfield could possibly sing the chorus to “Mausoleum”, a lyric that requires him to not take a breath for about 120 seconds. How does he do it? By snatching, terrier-like, at each phrase in the bridge. Goosebumps shimmer over the crowd in waves.
In the chorus, some masterful phrasing hides the stitching. Only in the funereal death march of penultimate track “The Intense Humming Of Evil” do we get a flicker of doubt about how the Manics could render this song live. The song is the only point in the album where Edwards’ brilliant combination of private and public trauma seems temporarily out of reach. It is almost as if the song is refined by a person who’d become too removed for us to empathically comprehend.
At this point, Bradfield speaks for the first time, paying heartfelt tribute to Mr. Richard James Edwards. The audience roars.
A final, triumphant “PCP” proves the band still has the appetite to finish the job. As the final note of the album rings out, I feel as if I finally understand why the album is so special. The line “yours, unconditional, love and hate, pass the Prozac” demonstrates just how unflinchingly Edwards describes the late 20th century on this record, all with a wit, intellect, and an eye that was, if anything too sharp. Has a record ever been made which is so honest, so unyielding, so accurate?
The band returns after a ten minute break, the weight of the world lifted from its shoulders. Bradfield, now resplendent in a smart black suit, plays a solo acoustic version of “Running Out Of Fantasy” from recent album Rewind The Film. When the band joins him to carouse through the hits, they appear more relaxed. Wire is more ready to wheel around in circles, his decorated coat sparkling in the light. Bradfield is happy to let Murray do some of the heavy lifting, guitar-wise, allowing him to focus on delivering those powerful vocals. It is only during “Divine Youth”, when Wire shakily applies balm to a plaintive arrangement, that we see what a fine instrument the Manics have in Bradfield’s voice. Hardcore fan favourites, such as “Donkeys”, are performed dexterously.
It is only in the second act that it becomes apparent what a range of textures the Manics have in their back catalogue, from the bleak Sarah Kane aesthetic of The Holy Bible, to the tarnished glamour of “Donkeys” via the melancholy of “1985”. There were echoes of Edwards’ final shows at the London Astoria in 1994, with a brief rendition of George Michael’s “Last Christmas”.
Bradfield banters about Manchester’s divided footballing loyalties and then, true to form, he leaves us to sing “Design For Life”. The audience, this glittering tide of devotion, sings those eloquent lines at the top of their lungs. We all, as one, wish we could “Wear the scars / to show from where I came”. Wire, draped in tinsel, sashays offstage.
We know better than to ask for an encore. If the second act is a bit of a victory lap, the first has more than merited such indulgence. With this concert, the Manic Street Preachers of 2014 took the most sunless of records, and placed it under the spotlight. Under such harsh scrutiny, it doesn’t flinch. Private agony turns into public pleasure.
Edwards was a superman, wasn’t he?
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