Saturday, 23 August 2014

What Mansun mean to me by Ben P Scott

Today, August 23 2014 is the day that Mansun fans have been waiting for, as a convention celebrating the legendary band's music takes place at The Live Rooms in Chester. The event is sold out, and as well as a CD of Mansun covers by various artists entitled 'We're In This Together', a programme is also available to purchase. Along with the likes of Mark Beaumont, Damien Jonez, Paul Lester, Simon Price, John Robb and Zoo Zero frontman Tom Pinnock, I have contributed a short piece to the programme. Here is that edited article in its full glory...

Mansun were without a doubt one of the most interesting and unusual group to grow from the Britpop era of the mid 90's. While Oasis sang about being a rock n roll star, and Blur were observing British culture, this four piece from Chester were collaborating with Doctor Who's Tom Baker, sampling 'Dance Of The Sugarplum Fairy' and writing songs about cross dressing clergymen.


When did I first discover Mansun? Not as early as most of the devotees, since I was only 12 at the time. After sending away one of those mailing list cards that came with a Blur CD, I started receiving the regular 'Flavour Of The Month' newspapers that Parlophone Records used to send out. It was here that I first read about Mansun, back in early 1997. A short while later me and one of my few school friends were discussing the Liverpool band Space, when he mentioned that Mansun's album was great and that I should listen to it. In retrospect, rather alarming that they'd be mentioned in the same bracket as Space, but I suppose both groups shared a dark quirkiness. Except Mansun turned out to be well beyond "quirky", as I found out when my mate brought into school a taped copy of the album for a few of us to listen to in the music rooms at lunchtime. Hard to believe kids doing that sort of thing now. 'Stripper Vicar' was hilarious, rousing and strangely energising. Immediately this music sounded rather mad compared to a lot of the other stuff that was being released before 1997 saw some inventive and inspired music making a big impression on the mainstream. But 'Attack Of The Grey Lantern' was one that stood out in particular, a bizarre twist on British guitar pop that consisted of a diverse mixture of sounds put to freak anthem choruses, absurd lyrics about small town weirdos and a style that was refreshingly out of step with the rest of the British guitar scene. There was Paul Draper with his twisted and instinctive talent for maverick pop songwriting, Dominic Chad with his intergalactic guitar solos, and the resonant rhythms of the band's "engine room" Andie Rathbone, one of the greatest and most underrated drummers to have ever picked up a pair of sticks. Then there was bassist Stove King, who just had a funny name. I'm tempted to say that Mansun were ahead of their time, but they weren't. They weren't even symbolic of their era, more like something that was being beamed in from a parallel universe. They were if you like, of their very own space and time, something I'm sure fellow Doctor Who enthusiast Paul Draper is happy to know. 


I spent months listening to that taped copy of the album, and bought a proper copy when I could afford one. Even now, I will always associate the word "graceful" with that sweeping intro to the stunning opener 'The Chad Who Loved Me', which soars with majesty before exploding into the heavy, sensational Bond-esque epic that its title suggests. 'Mansun's Only Love Song' sounds like it's designed to be a musical definition of the term "soulful". They dive deep into these styles and deliver them with effortless perfection. 'Taxloss' was the first of their singles that I purchased, in fact it was one that I bought prior to upgrading my C90 tape copy to the CD version. I didn't buy it thinking the b sides were also going to be superb, but I was in for a surprise. And who could forget that 'Taxloss' promo video where £25,000 in cash was thrown from a balcony at Liverpool station as both an experiment and a statement. A lot of people forget that 'Attack Of The Grey Lantern' was a number one album, and a truly classic one too. Hot on the heels of the LP came the standalone single 'Closed For Business', released as an EP across two CD formats that again featured some remarkable b sides. It was then that I realised this was a band who didn't just churn out any old garbage to fill the spaces on CD single, but a group who valued the importance of never letting the quality slip. They would approach non-album tracks like they were simultaneously recording a separate album that ran parallel to the main one, a contrast to lazy groups trotting out poor remixes and below-par fillers. And surely enough when I started buying all the subsequent Mansun CD singles, I'd compile the b sides together on to a cassette, all in the sequence that they appeared on the CDs. I also made sure that any remixes, live tracks or alternative versions were separated from the actual b side songs, so the result would flow better as an album. 


When the release of their second album was announced in 1998, I was excited and curious to know what direction the band would take next. I expected either songs with ridiculously funny lyrics and even catchier choruses, or a set of sombre epics like 'Closed For Business'. So when I eventually found out what 'Six' was like, I was baffled to say the least. But first came the marvellous 'Legacy', anthemic certainly, but in retrospect a haunting and poignant insight into the mind of an evidently troubled songwriter, who was now writing from a brutally personal angle. Shortly after the single went top ten, it was announced that the band were to preview tracks from the new album on the very first edition of the Radio 1 show 'Lamacq Live', an extended Monday night version of 'The Evening Session' that featured a live set from the BBC's Maida Vale studios each week. I had read in the music press that the new record was a lot darker, but nothing could prepare me for the ferocious live debuts of 'Shotgun' and 'Negative'. At that point, all I could think was that the studio versions might be more accessible and less rough-edged than the raw, abrasive and shape shifting oddities that the band fired out during that performance. If anything, the album versions were even more startling. 'Being A Girl' was amazing, but back then I thought it was a very odd choice for a single. Then I heard the rest of 'Six' and realised that any of the tracks would have been odd as singles. With lyrical passages referencing failure, self destruction, Taoism, Winnie The Pooh, 'The Prisoner' and the death of Brian Jones, there wasn't a jovial 'Stripper Vicar' singalong anywhere in sight. It was like having a handful of songs divided up by lots of segueing movements rather than an album full of potential hits. I can only begin to imagine what the people at their label thought of it. It was and still is hard to believe that a commercially successful band had followed up a number one debut album with this sprawling jigsaw of insane ideas and uncompromising, multi-directional song fragments. It's a post-punk prog masterpiece that didn't make any sense in the indie rock scene of 1998, because it wasn't meant to. Railing against the musical complacency of the surrounding mainstream climate, one of the reasons 'Six''s appeal hasn't worn off is because it doesn't sound dated. You can't put a date on the genuinely one-off sound and style of 'Six'. Although it has influenced a number of people, nothing quite like it has been made since. It isn't relevant to 1998, and neither is it relevant to any other year before or after it. It is a remarkable, incomparable and timeless musical oddity.


One of the important things that 'Six' taught me is not to dismiss an album just because it sounds unusual and confusing on the first listen. It's impossible to take in, absorb and understand such deeply revealing music on the first listen, which is why I wondered what the fuck Mansun were playing at. They must have known those songs were too bizarre and out of step to continue their mainstream ascendancy. After a short while I realised that perhaps staying true to their artistic instincts was far more important to this band than fitting in and running on the commercial treadmill. Years later, many albums from 1998 aren't really played in my house, even the very best ones. Why? Because even though they're great, I've heard them all too many times for them to reveal anything new. Wheras 'Six' still fascinates and intrigues my senses 16 years on, while my ears still manage to find new things to focus on every time I hear the album. 


Back in the late 90s, I was the writer of my own handwritten and photocopied fanzine called 'Supernova', which I used to give to local record shops to stock. When it came round to reviewing 'Six', my 14 year old self found it an overwhelming task to describe the sounds of such an extraordinary record in words. I realised I had to raise my game. This record challenged me to become more imaginative with my writing, and pushed me to become better at what I did. And since I eventually returned to writing about music in 2010, the album still remains something that helps inspire my mind to flow more creatively whenever I suffer from writer's block or fatigue. One of the greatest albums of all time? I'd answer that with a certain and resounding "yes".

When the band returned in 2000 with the incredible 'I Can Only Disappoint U', I had high hopes for the third album. 'Little Kix' sounded the result of being told by Parlophone "you've had your fun, now it's time to deliver some hits". With a lot of the edges smoothed away, the music was still great but undeniably restrained, especially in hindsight. Despite classics like 'Love Is' and 'Comes As No Surprise', I'm not sure if anyone who's heard all the albums would choose the beautiful but flawed 'Little Kix' as their favourite. It's more likely that many fans would have preferred some of the splendid b sides from that period: the majestic Bowie-esque 'Decisions Decisions', Chad's 'Golden Stone' and the infectious 'My Idea Of Fun'.


The band's existence pretty much mirrored and ran alongside my love affair with indie guitar music in the 90s and early 2000's. By 2003 the scene that defined my youth had become tired and uninspiring, a situation caused by most of my favourite bands slumping to bad form or splitting up. Mansun falling apart that same year was like a symbolic example of that era coming to an end. My love of music hadn't died though, instead I immersed myself in the punk rock scene. One of the first songs that made me want to start investigating punk music a bit more? Magazine's 'Shot By Both Sides', which I discovered after Mansun covered it for a b side.


Our memories of the band haven't been tarnished by bad records or half-arsed reunions, instead their legacy has been left fully intact. As the possibility of them ever reforming becomes less and less likely, the fans have the music itself and the memories of those years to treasure. If one of Paul Draper's ambitions was to leave a deep and lasting impact on people, then job done. However, despite the impression they've left on the people who remember them, it's undeniable that Mansun's achievements should be recognised more often by the mainstream media. It seems that standing out from the crowd, and crafting a style at odds with that typical of the era have meant that music journalists can't easily include the band in nostalgic celebrations of alternative music from the 90s. They don't fit conveniently into pigeonholed visions of pre-millennial indie rock. 

They taught me to be proud of being different, and that given the chance, you have to do what you believe in, even if you risk initial failure. They taught me that even the greatest bands in the world can't last forever, and that those bands sometimes leave behind music that has the ability to sound alive and vital for many years to come...

If you go HERE, you can read an exclusive interview that I did with Draper himself...

Go HERE to read lots of other Mansun/Draper-related articles.


1 comment:

  1. Fantastic piece and as you know, I'm right there with you in Mansun fandom. They mean as much to me now as they did 15 years ago when I first heard them and became a lifelong devotee. I'm so glad you got to go to the convention this past weekend...I'm gutted I couldn't make it but from everything I've seen, looks like it was a tremendous time. What did you think of Paul's new track? I think it sounds great and I cannot wait to FINALLY (hopefully) have a new album from him!

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