ALBUM: Mansun - Six revisited 20 years on...

20 years ago today on 7 September 1998, the brilliant and unique Chester combo Mansun released their extraordinary post-punk prog masterpiece 'Six'. Reaching number six in the UK album charts, the record baffled listeners at first, but has gone on to be regarded as a cult classic. You can listen to the album via YouTube below, and if you appreciate the music, go and buy yourself a copy. 

A few years ago I wrote an article for a Mansun fan convention. Part of it was recently used for the recent deluxe edition of their 1997 LP 'Attack Of The Grey Lantern'. Read it HERE. The following article features extracts from it, along with pieces from an interview with the band's Paul Draper, and other memories of 'Six'...

The brilliant Chester-based four piece Mansun were a world apart from the other guitar groups of the 90's. Despite being unusual, darkly humorous and distinctly non-Britpop, their excellent debut LP 'Attack Of The Grey Lantern' hit the top of the charts in 1997, a golden year for music. An odd mixture of absurd lyrics, exciting melodies, string sections, singalong choruses and drum loops, it quickly converted me into a fan the first time I heard it. The 1998 follow up 'Six' was a hugely ambitious thing for a mainstream group to release in the late 90's, a fascinating piece of work that had absolutely nothing in common with the musical landscape of the time. In fact, it's very much a record that stands on it's own, like nothing ever made or ever heard before in any musical era. It confused and bewildered many, as well as putting their chances of being the next biggest mainstream phenomenon back a few steps. But artistically it may have been the greatest achievement of the late 90's. 

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. 

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 weird puzzle that was their second LP.

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 an amazing bit of post-punk, but back then I thought it was a very odd choice for a single. 

The single version of the track is a brief 2 minute excerpt which makes up the first part of the epic, eight minute album version, which lifts off into astonishing space rock territory instead of finishing abruptly like the single version does. What the single does give us is a brilliantly self-deprecating view of male insecurity and the mask of masculinity, as well as some fearsome drumming from the band's engine room, Andie Rathbone. Kicking off with some nice hi hat action, it's all about the snares in the second half of each verse, before the whole kit gets a thrashing during that explosive, angsty chorus. "'Being a Girl' was an allegory for not being happy in the situation I was in, and wanting something different" said frontman Paul Draper"It was the last thing written, recorded and mixed during the sessions". Interestingly and rather hilariously, the ever-so-slightly homo-erotic video features none other than a young Danny Dyer, in his first major acting role. 

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.

A few years ago I interviewed Mansun frontman Paul Draper and asked him about the LP.

When you released 'Six', did you have any idea that it would go on to be a cult classic?
Paul: "Not at all, although people at the time always said to me people will like this record in the future. I never quite understood that, I always asked why didn't they like it now! But, weirdly that seems to be true, it is the future and people always tell me how much that record means to them, or its their favourite record ever, so I guess they were right, people may even like it more further into the future. Mansun were always described as a cult band, 'Six' is always described to me as a cult record and most people always thought I was a bit of a cult anyway."

After a number one debut album and a string of hit singles, you could have followed trends and made a deliberately commercial second album, which may have pushed Mansun into the big league with Blur, Oasis, Pulp and Suede. Instead you stayed true to yourself, followed your instincts and made 'Six', a record wildly out of step with the era which is now regarded by many as one of the greatest artistic achievements of the time. Any regrets? Or are you proud that your music had an impact that runs deeper than mere record sales?
Paul: "Well, I certainly could have gone all out poptastic for the second record. 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 and not thought out properly, particularly the controversial artwork because we simply weren't friends when we made that record and no meetings were held between us to sort anything out or organise anything properly, the artwork, the finances, personal issues etc etc... You have to work together as a band to get anything done properly but unfortunately we never worked together, if we had have been it would have been a very different outcome for the record and the band. I just thought we were doing something genuinely good and a bit different at the time, but other people will decide in time if that's true or not. As for it being regarded as one of the greatest artistic achievements of the time I personally would have traded any of that in to just be mates to be perfectly honest, that's all I wanted really, to just be mates in a band. When the band started I thought we were mates, we used to hang out together and dream about being in a band, hang out in the grey house in Chester, listen to music together, go to rock clubs together, hang out in Dominic Chads pub The Fat Cat and stuff like that but to this day I'm not sure exactly where and how things changed and what happened, thats what bust Mansun, not Six. That's my only regret, not Six, I don't care about that. If we could have sat down in just one meeting together things would have been different... I don't care about record sales any more, that's my regret."

This interview was conducted a decade after Mansun had split, and few years before Draper returned to the music scene with his Top 20 debut solo album 'Spooky Action' in 2017. I asked if he would ever consider playing the album in full for its 20th anniversary, which was a few years away at the time. 

Paul: "For myself I can only be as honest as possible and say it would be mind blowing to perform that record in its entirety for the 20th anniversary. I can say that because Mansun doesn't hurt me any more, or not so much anyway. It was the thing that meant the most to me and it was taken away, but I'm cool with it now. So I say it from a removed position so to speak, I'm desensitised to it now. I remember the best review I read about 'Six' said something like "Never has so much bilge piled forward since the Herald of Free Enterprise burst its bows" or something. Reviews always hurt me back then but now I just laugh because I've been through the hurt. People can snigger at me, or Six, or whatever they want to do or say, it says a lot more about them than it ever will about me. I just don't care anymore, i feel lucky to be alive. I think it would be awesome to play that entire record that was was so laughed at back in the day, in its entirety, with that review projected behind us in massive letters. I think it would be great, hilarious in fact."

Since, he has toured his own material as well as playing Attack Of The Grey Lantern in full at a series of rapturously received shows. A remastered, expanded deluxe version of 'Six' is currently in the works and due for release in the near future. Meanwhile, Draper and his band face the challenging task of recreating 'Six' live when the album is played in full on a tour planned to coincide with the upcoming reissue.

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. 

One of the greatest albums of all time? I'd answer that with a certain and resounding "yes"

There are many article on this site about Mansun and Paul Draper, including a look at the singles from Six and their brilliant B sides. Find those and more HERE:


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