Today's daily look at the music we were listening to two decades ago features this single from the extraordinary Mansun. This entered the UK singles chart at number 7 exactly 20 years ago today.
By 1998 Britpop was starting to feel like a memory, yet all of the bands involved in it were still releasing music and enjoying chart action. But the buzz had worn off, as had its mood of optimism and celebration. Bands were now making darker and more challenging music, which was making the mainstream a more interesting place. But Britpop's mood and sense of mass appeal was dimming. There were so many classic LPs released during the previous four years, yet 1998 was relatively short on new music from the major British bands. What we needed was a classic album full of massive hits. Aside from Pulp and the Manics, the only other contenders were the Chester four piece Mansun.
A year earlier in 1997 they had a Number 1 with their debut LP 'Attack Of The Grey Lantern' as well as a string of hit singles. A lot of us had our hopes pinned on Mansun to deliver something massive that would reinvigorate the indie scene and take them to the top. It was a good sign that they announced the release of their second album just one year after their first. Maybe they were coming up with so many incredible songs that they couldn't wait any longer to unleash them on the world. So when they released 'Legacy', it certainly wasn't the sort of triumphant, humorous, character-based freak anthem that many of us expected. At first it sounded more like the sort of thing they would've left as an album track. But repeated listens to Legacy revealed a depth unlike any of their previous work. It also features some of the greatest chord changes: That killer moment as they hit the line "I wouldn't care if I was washed up tomorrow", and the unexpected brightening at the end of the chorus. Dominic Chad's guitar evoking echoes in the cosmos and Paul Draper's vocal hitting spectacularly emotional highs, enhancing the slow building beauty of its melody.
It may be one of the bleakest Top 10 hits of all time. According to the lyrics, no matter what you do with your life or how much money you make, you end up in the same place as everyone else, and when you're dead, nobody gives a shit. How very cheerful. Yet this actually turned out to the most accessible track from 'Six', which wasn't exactly packed with potential hit singles. What else were they supposed to choose from? Let's face it, they were never going to make Top Of The Pops with the lyric "I'm emotionally raped by Jesus" or Tom Baker narrating over harpsichord and opera.
It's fair to say that there was always a darkness at the heart of Mansun: they were, after all, named after a notorious serial killer. But not only does this song concern death, it even makes life itself sound futile and worthless as you spend it having to "prove your worth to people that you call your friends". Even the greatest joy in the world is dampened with the recurring line "all relationships are emptying and temporary". It struck me just how downbeat this sounded for a band who had just hit the big time. Despite the success and growing fame, this song was not the work of a healthy, happy mind.
I remember thinking that 'Legacy' was an odd choice for a comeback single at first. But I just assumed that there were more instant and catchy songs to come on the album. Then I heard the album. I can't think of any other band or artist who followed a number 1 LP with such a challenging record. It's almost like Paul Draper's creativity and talent naturally developed at a much faster rate than all other musicians. Way ahead of usual standards, I also cannot think of any other band or artist who managed a debut full-length as accomplished and eclectic as AOTGL. And most bands don't make their experimental odyssey until far into their careers. Mansun did it on their second album. It made a lot more sense when heard in the context of 'Six': the natural choice of lead single that would act as a bridge between the darkly melodic yet strangely familiar Mansun of AOTGL and the utterly baffling puzzle that was their second LP.
Was Draper way ahead of the rest and operating on a more advanced level, or had he just lost the ability to write accessible hits? The answer (and the missing hits) can be found on the EPs that accompanied the singles from 'Six'. Along with 'Legacy' itself, the tracks that joined it across the various formats of the single arguably make up one of the all-time greatest EPs in musical history. In an era when different formats meant a lot of bands were churning out half arsed filler or lazy remixes, Mansun were well known for giving their fans real value for money.
'Can't Afford to Die' is immediately striking, travelling urgently down winding pathways and diving into a paranoid headrush of a chorus. Not just a surprisingly great b side, but stronger than the material that many bands and artists were releasing as singles. Did they make the wrong choice by throwing potential hits onto B sides while making a record that the mainstream clearly wasn't ready for? "I certainly could have gone all out poptastic for the second record" Draper stated in a 2013 interview with RW/FF. "I don't know if that was a good or a bad move, I just did what I did without too much thought for the ramifications. I don't think we thought about success or failure in that sense, it was chaotic... "
With a very tasty drum sound, and lots of fun being had with guitar pedals, the oddly infectious 'Spasm Of Identity' adds a spiky chanted lyric to deepened Bowie-like backing vocals, while 'Check Under The Bed' finds a delicate and pretty verse making way for another intense, surging chorus, again demonstrating the versatility and dynamics of the group as both musicians and a formidable artistic force. Make no mistake about it, all of the tracks spread across CD1 and CD2 well and truly define the term "lost classics". Even the punky throwaway 'G.S.O.H' is essential for providing balance and a bit of much-needed light relief. Each track has a unique drum sound, highlighting the superb production work of Draper and Mark 'Spike' Stent. This is especially evident on the atmospheric post-punk trip hop instrumental 'Face In The Crowd', a soaring, futuristic piece of music that would've made a fine album opener.
Maybe the band's methods of recording was what resulted in such impressive creativity. "The idea was to do enough material to make an album where we could have some relatively straight forward pop songs in case it all went tits up with ‘Six’," Draper told XS Noize. "That was made at the same time, we didn’t come back later and just throw together the B sides, it was all done together. We had been piecing together the ‘Six’ project and then we would come off it for a day and record those songs. The very first one we did was ‘King of Beauty‘ and I thought I don’t want to do another album of these pop songs, so the second thing we did was the song ‘Six‘... I was just trying to piss off the record company."
Following his long awaited return to the music world and his acclaimed debut solo album 'Spooky Action', Paul Draper hits the UK later this year for a special, intimate acoustic tour. As well as songs from 'Spooky Action', he will be playing Mansun classics and rarities in addition to previewing brand new material from his next LP. Info can be found here.
Meanwhile, an exemplary reissue of Attack Of The Grey Lantern was released last month, reaching number 28 in the UK album charts and number 2 in the vinyl charts. You can pick up a stunning purple vinyl edition of the LP, or the lavish 3CD and DVD deluxe package, which features a 72 page book containing an in depth look at the making of the album. A similar treatment will also be given to 'Six' at some point in the future, with remastering work currently underway.
The perfect time to discover or rediscover this most fascinating and underestimated of bands.