The Manic Street Preachers are avid students and past masters of rock mythology. It enabled them to survive the likely fatal disappearance of their talismanic lyricist and friend Richey Edwards in 1995, an enduring personal loss they fully understood in terms of the band’s legend. It has also let them find a way past mid-career shakiness.
Postcards From A Young Man (2010) and Rewind the Film (2013) added middle-aged ruefulness at the appropriate moment to their initial flaming, short-fused punk spirit. Most importantly, the Manics are still a passionate rock band. And they insist on an old, not quite broken idea of what rock’n’roll is for: to steel you to resist injustice throughout your life, even as middle-aged compromise creeps in.
Brighton was always a core town for Manics disciples. They’re treated to a high-class support act, Scritti Politti, essentially Green Gartside.
Having only returned to performing after 26 years’ stage-frightened absence in 2006, Green’s legs stay tensely braced, but he does tentatively dip his honeyed voice into his stock of polished hits. “Wood Beez (Pray Like Aretha Franklin)” and “Absolute” are the sort of intellectually rigorous 1980s pop the Manics grew up on, making their fellow Welshman a fitting guest.
The Manics make their own entrance with one of their biggest hits, “A Design for Life”, and its undebeatable opening line: “Libraries gave us power,” But 2010’s “(It’s Not War) Just the End of Love” is where they come into focus for me tonight. It’s both epic in sound, and as intimately close in spirit as an idealistic friend. It’s fuelled by singer James Dean Bradfield’s individual take on the rock guitar’s classic wail,
“Rewind the Film”, a low-down, Lee Hazlewood-style Welsh valleys ballad from last year, is helped by video footage of rust-red collieries, abandoned rugby goalposts, and miners’ strike newspaper cuttings. “I want the world to see it all,” Bradfield sighs. With these images, the song becomes an elegy to Welsh communities buried by Thatcher, and laid out straight here. Bradfield’s mournfully slow, solo acoustic version of “From Despair to Where” is similarly affecting.
The feather boa draped on a mic-stand left eternally ready for Richey Edwards’ return has been quietly retired. But he isn’t forgotten. “This one’s for you, Richey!” Nicky Wire yells, introducing “Bored Out Of My Mind”’s Zepellin-heavy rock. The crowd are inevitably older and more passive than any Edwards witnessed in his time in the band, when it was impossible to be indifferent to them.
The massed, raised fists when they burn through that era’s anthem, “Motorcycle Emptiness”, shows, though, that these fans do still have faith in the Manics. Last year’s Motown-mainlining “Show Me the Wonder” is just as thrilling. “If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next”, a 1998 number one hit based on a Spanish Civil War slogan, is a fine way to finish. We still love them, and they still love rock, and the rebel visions it allows them.