“We were always losers anyway.”
— “Decisions, Decisions,” I Can Only Disappoint U single, 2000.
Last month, while waiting at the bar for a couple of drinks before The Libertines came onstage, I noticed that there were an alarming number of British accents in my immediate vicinity. This was Atlanta — only a ring of suburbs removed from the deep South. What on earth were so many disheveled Brits doing here on a Thursday night? Whether they were groupies following the band around on their U.S. jaunt or simply a few ex-pats residing in Atlanta, one thing became abundantly clear: The Libertines appealed to the British in ways few bands have since Oasis articulated the working class frustrations of mid-’90s England. These people were here to prove it.’
I had always known that the British were passionate about their rock stars, even willing to cross oceans for them. But little did I know that they are every bit as passionate in their dislike of certain other artists. With just a few minutes to go before the Libertines set, I ambled toward the stage, handing my friend his drink. As we are prone to do during the downtime between sets, we got into a bit of a spirited debate. I had recently given my friend a copy of Mansun’s Six, my self-proclaimed favorite album of all time. Although my friend certainly enjoyed it, he couldn’t fathom how I considered it superior to anything Radiohead had released.
“It’s easy,” I explained. “Mansun had a sense of humor. They understood the silliness of a concept record even as they pulled it off. They took a lot of the irony and daft humor of Britpop and convincingly applied it to more ambitious material. What other band would turn the Nutcracker Suite into a rock song? Frankly, their music was far more daring and progressive than anything attempted by Radiohead.”
At this point, a blond, shapely British woman spun around: “What did you say?”
“My friend and I were just having a bit of a disagreement. I like Mansun more than Radiohead and he likes Radiohead better.”
“You’re serious?” She raised an eyebrow in my direction to make sure I wasn’t just trying to get a rise out of her. “Mansun better than Radiohead? That’s a good one.”
“They’re terrible,” she snapped. “Everyone in England hates them.”
A voice came from behind. “What’s this?”
Her burly boyfriend, who had returned from the bathroom, gave me a sidelong glance.
“This poor boy thinks that Mansun is better than Radiohead. His friend is trying to talk some sense into him.”
Cue long, incredulous stare from burly boyfriend. He then draped his arm over my friend’s shoulder. “Well at least I can be sure your friend washes after he flushes,” he bellowed as he slapped my friend’s chest. “I don’t know about you though.”
It’s not surprising why Mansun should provoke such feelings of antipathy. At a time when most bands meant something with a capital S, Mansun seemed almost fatalistically lost. They had a mostly mute guitarist (Dominic Chad) who appeared to be so terrified of performance that he grew his hair far enough down his face as to render his eyes useless. They had a bassist by the name of Stove who was fond of wife-beaters. And the band even occasionally dressed in identical boiler suits. Mansun often seemed to be mocking, not just the trappings of rock stardom (which had become commonplace in the Britpop era), but themselves-the whole ridiculous notion that four kids from Chester could possibly be cut out for this monumental task.
And yet perhaps Mansun’s biggest mistake (or bizarre achievement, depending on how you look at it) was actually succeeding despite themselves-if only for a brief, fleeting moment. In 1997, Attack of the Grey Lantern, Mansun’s suitably weird debut, packed with fictitious characters like Skinima Nosebreak and Fatima Toothpaste, dislodged the more conventional chart offering from Blur from the number 1 spot. Suddenly, this was no laughing matter. Paul Draper and his unlikely band of eccentrics had become what they never thought possible: bona fide rock stars.
The reaction was quick and the success short-lived. How long was England expected to tolerate this foursome from Chester who treated its most hallowed office so cavalierly? This was no job for grown men in boiler suits or who had the gall to proclaim “lyrics aren’t supposed to mean that much”; only bands with confidence enough to change the world need apply. Mansun were unceremoniously banished from the top of the charts forever.
Yet Mansun’s brief dalliance with success would come to define the rest of their career, although in ways few would have predicted at the time. Six arrived in 1998 to confirm what detractors had already suspected: Mansun were not in this for your or me, let alone the adulation of millions. Six was a colossally — some would say intentionally — difficult record. Comprised of 27 different sections cobbled together into songs and referencing Scientology, Marx, and the Tao of Pooh, Six seemed a ludicrously extreme reaction to their unlikely charting. Mansun retreated even further into their cocoon, morphing their symphonic post-brit pop into head-spinning prog landscapes, replete with operatic interludes, a guest appearance from Tom Baker, and an excerpt from “The Nutcracker Suite.” It’s hard to imagine a record better designed to ensure public ridicule and shunning, even as it simultaneously solidified the band’s status to as a creative force to be reckoned with.
Normally, this is where things would get very interesting — the big third album transition, etc. But then, normal isn’t a word that has ever applied to Mansun. Instead, Little Kix was released in 2000. Although it was touted as the band’s bid for U2-type mega-stardom, most apparently saw right through that. How could a band that had made such a mockery of its own success be taken seriously at this juncture? The answer was swift and resounding: there was no fucking chance. There would be no duping the record-buying public twice. The jarringly serious band promo shots from U2 photographer Anton Corbijn, the hiring of a famed producer Hugh Padgham (The Police, XTC) — none of it convinced the public that Mansun was finally ready to become proper rock stars. Their overproduced mess of an album certainly didn’t help matters, coming off more like Seal than U2. Although in the context of Mansun’s career, Little Kix still adhered to some sense of logic, skewed as it was — here was Mansun’s vision of mainstream and it couldn’t have been further removed from what the mainstream actually was.
Humbled, Mansun then proceeded to limp to ignominy. Following their embarrassingly short tour in support of Little Kix, Mansun took an extended break. When they finally emerged in 2002 to play a string of dates around the UK ostensibly to road-test some new material, their guitarist had ballooned by a hundred or so pounds and they found themselves playing to half empty clubs. It was apparently too much, even for the usually unflappable Mansun to bear. Their bassist disappeared following the tour’s conclusion and after several studio attempts to record material for their long-delayed fourth album, the band gave up, announcing their breakup in April of 2003.
But their fans — and make no mistake, there were many mascara’d followers attracted by the band’s odd position on the popular music spectrum — refused to let the band quietly slip away into obscurity. Due to a petition that garnered over 2000 signatures, Parlophone Records contacted Paul Draper about releasing the aborted fourth album sessions as part of a generous three-disc career retrospective, which would include a CD of b-sides from throughout their career as well as a rarities disc.
The package arrived in late September in the UK under the title of Kleptomania. The discs are terrifically packaged with a thirty-two page booklet featuring candid shots of the band as well as liner notes penned by Paul Draper, in which he comments on all 36 tracks that made the final cut. Not surprisingly, he devotes quite a bit of ink to apologizing for the sound quality and the unfinished state of many of the previously unreleased tracks. Although some of the sloppiness is apparent, the tracks actually sound quite closer to completed form than most fans might have expected.
Sadly, with notably few exceptions, Kleptomania is likely to further tarnish a legacy that had already suffered considerably since the release of the band’s third and final studio album. Even in their “uncompleted” form, most of these songs reveal a band that had lost its internal compass. In an interview with Mark Beaumont, who contributes a band bio to the Kleptomania, Draper admits that part of the reason the band split was because the songs were taking much longer in gestation. Whereas the band might have banged out an entire song in an afternoon in the early days, some of the fourth disc’s songs were taking weeks to write. “Everything was taking ages to do and we didn’t have any perspective on whether it was any good or not,” he explains.
Songs like “Getting Your Way” and the set’s single, “Slipping Away,” reflect Mansun’s growing tentativeness. Although both flaunt the most stripped-down hooks since the band’s first few EPs, much of the energy seems sapped-as if the band can’t quite commit to the direction and is merely going through the motions. Later tracks offer rather extreme counterpoints; Draper piles on idea after idea on songs like “No Signal/No Complaints” and “Good Intentions Heal the Soul” until they collapse beneath their own weight. These tracks sound like Draper is attempting song structure via happy accident, which proved a workable strategy on Six. However, the songs here drift aimlessly where the ones on Six always had the good grace to offer some sense of completion. “Cry 2 My Face” and “Harris” don’t fare much better, especially since the band doesn’t appear to have learned from the Seal-phase fiasco that was Little Kix. These lumbering, hideous tunes should have been left in the vaults away from public view.
The second disc should be a treasure trove those few buying the album who are unacquainted with the band’s superlative collection of b-sides. I’d be lying if I said this was the perfect tracklisting, but it certainly satisfies. Present among the 15 songs are the two co-written by ex-Magazine songwriter and sometime Buzzcock, Howard Devoto-which find Mansun at their most eccentrically brilliant with Chad marshalling what seems like an endless army of effects pedals. The disc showcases a great number of tracks from the Six era, which demonstrates quite astute judgment on the fans’ part as the best b-sides came from those sessions. (The tracks that appear on disc two were voted on by the fans in an online poll.) In fact, the Six b-sides represent an interesting flip side to the album itself. One could almost say that there were two albums birthed from the sessions for Six — the one with the long, entangled songs that eventually comprised the final album and another one with far poppier and aggressively lean songs. Sometimes I think Mansun would have been better off simply holding many of these songs for future release as a proper album; they deserved better than their ultimate fate as single-fillers. The best of the lot are the ode to déjà vu “Been Here Before” and the horror-filled house-of-mirrors that is “I Care”.
Disc three is a more uneven affair; however, it also features the two most outstanding unreleased tracks of the entire set. Both “Drones” and “It’s Ok”, recorded in 2000, on the immediate back end of Little Kix, find Mansun momentarily regaining form. Chad coaxes all sorts of otherworldly tones from his pickups as Draper spills two gut-wrenching tales of estranged lovers; it’s an unlikely successful marriage of Little Kix‘s lyrical directness and Six’s gnarled melodicism. The disc is capped by a scorching cover of Magazine’s “Shot by Both Sides” — as if Mansun’s indebtedness to Devoto’s off-kilter punk sensibilities wasn’t explicit enough — and an extended, monstrous live take on “Taxloss,” from Grey Lantern. Here, Mansun demonstrates that the band was every bit as chaotic and unwieldy live as they were surgically precise in the studio.
Where this ultimately leaves Mansun is anyone’s guess, assuming it is indeed their parting shot. Kleptomania is unlikely to convert those still seething over the band’s unwelcome chart visit. Likewise, the hardcore fans’ devotion will remain unshaken, despite the obvious unevenness. Mansun’s legacy will probably endure the same inevitable decline as their recorded output. Shame it had to end this way. Such beautiful losers.