If your favourite band were a building, which building would it be?
While you ponder that, I'll propose that a working men's club bedecked in fairy lights – the setting for their secret comeback gig – is as close to a representation of Manic Street Preachers' DNA in architectural form as we're ever likely to get: proletarian pride and cheap, trashy glamour in equal measure.
Three hundred invited friends, industry types, journalists and competition winners plus, for some obscure reason, Chris Tarrant and the silky-locked celebrity hairdresser Nicky Clarke, gaze expectantly at a stage dressed in the familiar (an amp covered in stuffed tigers, a microphone stand braided with boas in Welsh red, white and green) and the new (an unsettling mannequin coated in mirror shards, a backdrop of a topless Tim Roth brandishing a Polaroid camera).
The Manics' "one last shot at mass communication", as Nicky Wire has trailed the campaign for the forthcoming Postcards from a Young Man, looks doomed when the lead single "(It's Not Love) Just the End of War" collapses after 10 seconds because Sean Moore's click-track is out of sync. It's the first of four or five such incidents in an uncharacteristically shambolic set, singer James Dean Bradfield's red shirt turning deep purple as much with the sweat of embarrassment as of hard work. "That was a severe radio edit," jokes a besuited Wire. "It's as much as they'll play on Radio 1."
It's a night of circularities and historical echoes. This is the smallest venue I've seen the Manics play since the tiny Diorama theatre in 1991. That night was all about 15-year-olds with "4 Real" scrawled on their arms in Biro, and the first hint that something was happening. Tonight, during "Motown Junk" (prefaced with a snatch of The Jam's "Town Called Malice"), I find myself at the bar next to the person who sent that song to me two decades ago on a promo 12-inch, catalysing a 20-year love affair.
In addition to launching their 10th album, this set is calculated to remind everyone why they loved the Manics in the first place, unashamedly going for the jugular with anthems like "Your Love Alone Is Not Enough", "Motorcycle Emptiness" and "A Design for Life", as well as an absolutely searing rendition of the departed Richey Edwards masterpiece "Faster".
The four new songs on show, augmented by the Vulcan String Quartet, live up to Wire's promise of "heavy metal Tamla Motown". Particularly outstanding is "Some Kind of Nothingness" which, on record, features the vocals of Ian McCulloch. You only need to look at pictures of the teenage Richey, replete with Bunnymen hairdo, to know he'd have loved that.
Despite everything, it's a triumphant comeback, but Bradfield is mortified by the mess-ups and, unusually, doesn't come out to socialise afterwards. Wire, however, is more inclined to cackle at the chaos. "Remember when people said we could be the Welsh U2? This is why we couldn't ...."
I'm watching a singer called Kyo, his hair bleached lemon-yellow, wearing a lacy crop-top and vinyl skirt and looking like a Kabukicho streetwalker, prowls the stage in front of an outrageously effeminate band who look like The Sweet, if they had been beautiful androgynous Japanese youths rather than brickies in drag. But the place is Shanghai, the year is 1997 and the medium is YouTube.
Dir En Grey are, or at least were, exemplars of Visual Kei, a theatrical form of goth-rock that emerged in Japan and Korea in the 1990s. Imitating the tropes and ciphers of Western heavy metal, there was a fascinating disconnect between signifiers and signified. Since the advent of the internet, nothing so strange can grow unnoticed.
At Koko, Dir En Grey still sport song titles as splendid as "Agitated Screams of Maggots", guitarist Kaoru remains a fiendishly impressive shredder, and the now black-haired Kyo can still switch from death-growl to operatic scream; but apart from standing on a red-lit cage, a Derek Smalls-style cucumber bulging inside his kecks, the theatre is over. For the ears, Dir En Grey undeniably pack a punch. For the eyes, it's like expecting Busby Berkeley and getting Becket.
Simon defies nature by taking it easy at The Big Chill