Of course, in the person of Richey Edwards, who dominated their image if not their music, that nihilistic promise was finally fulfilled in 1995, when he mysteriously disappeared, presumably drowning himself by jumping into the Bristol Channel. But the other three members of the Manics have proved to be a solid, long-running proposition. If, as Japanese urban legend has it, Sony puts a timer in its products to make them expire just past warranty, they obviously forgot to do so with the Manics, one of the bands on their roster.
The truth is the remaining trio are as hard as nails, especially the band's focal point and musical powerhouse, James Dean Bradfield (vocalist and lead guitar), who has the chunky, powerful build of the tough, little miners of their Welsh homeland, as does his cousin Sean Moore, who fills the drum stool. One could quite easily imagine them in some imaginary Welsh village of the past donning pit helmets and taking the elevator down to the coalface.
But rather than Stakhanovite discipline, it is the romantic ideal of rock and roll destruction and wasted youth that is still key to the image of the band, so, when they emerge at Studio Coast, the left side of the stage (the Richey side) is left empty, while on the right side there's Nicky Wire. The tall, gangly, cross-dressing bass player -- obviously a bad fit in the coal mine of the imaginary village of the past -- comes across more as the sinister minister from the chapel (with a not so secret fetish for feather boas), and, indeed, whatever lyrical message and ideology is appended to their songs is mainly his doing.
They kick off with You Love Us, a song from their 1992 debut album Generation Terrorists. Punchy and uproarious, the first impression is of a tight, hard-working band, keen to put in a good, hard shift. You almost feel you're at the coalface again. Not for nothing did The Independent's music critic and Manics fanatic, Simon Price, refer to them as the last great British working class band!
The ascendant verve of Your Love Alone heightens the mood before they launch into early classic Motorcycle Emptiness, with its incendiary yet strangely reassuring riff and feedback wail.
After this initial climax, they change gear with the rather plodding The End of Love and the erratic melody of the awkwardly named Jackie Collins Existential Question Time. The latter song, with its blank verse lyrics and pseudo-intellectual musings shows the Manics' readiness to squeeze un-rock sentiments and un-roll phrases into rock songs, a bit like watching Nicky Wire wander down a tunnel dug by Bradfield and Moore. Sometimes this creates something interesting, sometimes just a lot of bruised brain matter.
Roses in the Hospital is not exactly Welcome to the Jungle either with its overwrought, angst-ridden lyrics, but the Sixth Form poetry is propelled at us with full conviction by Bradfield over a funky riff that leads to some Slash-like guitar pyrotechnics. It's almost as if he feels pricked by the over-intellectualized lyrics to show that the Manics are actually a straight-forward G N' R-style rock band, and not Sylvia Plath. It's this tension between the down-to-earth, straight rocking Bradfield and the over-read sophistry of Nicky Wire that makes the Manics still such an interesting band after nearly two decades in the limelight.
Next song This is Yesterday as usual veers dangerously close to the saccharine lilt of Sorrow, a well-known song from the 60s, once covered by David Bowie. However, the audience seems inclined to forgive this plagiarism, sensing that the "boyos" are only getting the wind back in the sails for the next big push. This is Everything Must Go, the title track of the 1996 album that segued so well into the Britpop mood of the mid-90s and greatly widened their popularity. Combining an elegiac vibe with a sweeping expansiveness, the epic pop-rock goes down well.
A kind of mutual comfort zone has now been established between band and audience. Recent ballad Some Kind of Nothingness, the punchy pop of You Stole the Sun From My Heart, and the chugging pleasantry of Ocean Spray unfurl on the sunlit uplands of the concert, as the audience graze on the music like a herd of contented sheep.
Well worked versions of La Tristesse Durera (Scream to a Sigh) and Suicide is Painless a.k.a. The Theme from Mash pass the same way, adding to the creeping mood of complacency, despite Bradfield's soulful vocal, conveying tenderness and pain. Sensing this, the guitarist tries to rock it up with some more Slash-like guitar breaks. But whenever the Manics feel they're losing their edge, they can always invoke the spirit of Richey Edwards, and they do this on the next song.
"I remember Club Citta nearly twenty years ago," Nicky Wire tells the audience by way of introduction. "I think of the neon loneliness. I think of Mr. Richey Edwards."
Motown Junk, a punkish squall then blows through the venue bringing back the febrile excitement of their early days, then right on its heels one of the Manics' true classics – If You Tolerate This, with its soaring, evocative melody and odd ironic undertow. These two very different songs in such sharp conjunction together produce an almost chemical reaction in the audience which erupts.
The next few songs show similar but less successful attempts to juxtapose their punkish, incendiary roots with their more mellow pop sensibilities. The speed-metal of Faster is ironically dedicated to support act Carl Barat, who is going through something of a non-rock phase, while Golden Platitudes, a track written for the UK general election earlier this year according to Bradfield, is a lovely song, but one that Susan Boyle will probably cover in the near future. As Bradfield wails, "Where did it all go wrong?" over the kind of sing-along anthemic chord changes that Oasis were masters of in their glory days, I reach for my imaginary glow stick.
A slightly tired sounding version of Tsunami relying a little too heavily on effects from the support musicians, tells us that we're near the end, and of course the Manics don't do encores. Nicky Wire then describes Bradfield as a mix of Slash and Steve Jones before the band say goodnight and launch into a finishing-post version of A Design For Life. But would Slash and Steve Jones ever start a song with a lyric like "Libraries gave us power"? Of course not, but that’s what makes the Manics so unique and precious.
9th December, 2010