It was hard to pick a band to begin this project with. I have a long list of potential candidates to cover, but of course, I’d need to start off with something special to convince you all to keep reading. Today’s subjects operated almost entirely within Youth Groups’ 1997-2002 window, and achieved a lot during that time. And yet, there’s a good chance that many of my American readers will never have heard of them. Let’s go.
I first heard Mansun when they performed their song ‘Stripper Vicar’ on TFI Friday, a weekly show that attracted good bands, Ugly Blokes and, fairly frequently, Shaun Ryder’s pottymouth. I would have been 13 years old when Mansun first appeared on the show, and at that time, TFI Friday was one of the few places where I could actually hear all these “indie” bands. I wasn’t listening to Steve Lamacq on the radio yet and the internet was pretty much still in Al Gore’s imagination, so my only exposure to this music was this particular TV show, and the covermounted CDs that sometimes came with the NME and Select. I still remember reading about new bands in those publications and having to imagine what these so-called amazing songs sounded like. Truly, my inability to hear obscure bands made my life a living hell, not unlike those of orphans in Dickens novels.
Anyway. Something about ‘Stripper Vicar’ got my attention. Not just its lyrical content, which is certainly eye-catching, but the harmonies, the catchiness of the chorus, and the way it accelerates right at the end. I rewound and rewatched that clip many a time, and learned more about the band. There was something different about them, even within the scheme of all the guitar bands that were breaking through. Mansun had a single called ‘Egg Shaped Fred’, inspired by nursery rhymes and childhood insults. That song really did use the word “eggability” in its chorus. One of their earliest songs was called ‘Take It Easy Chicken,’ which as far as I can tell is about a roadtrip to Las Vegas and Kuwait and ends with vehicular homicide. (I never thought the recorded version of the track packed the same punch as it did onstage, and it’s a surprise that it replaced ‘Stripper Vicar’ on the album in the States).
The band’s debut album, ‘Attack of the Grey Lantern’, came out shortly after my 14th birthday. I remember buying it as a gift for a friend but making a copy for myself first. This was a time when you could buy a new release album on cassette for £4 – a bargain for kids like me. Draper described it as “half a concept album - a con album”. There are characters (the aforementioned Vicar, the mysterious Mavis, ‘Egg Shaped Fred’), but some really unorthodox instrumentation and prog-rock influences. Listening to the opening track, ‘The Chad Who Loved Me’, which all its atmospherics, effects, and scant lyrics about “desperate icons”, you can see that this is a band that sits uncomfortably alongside its peers like, say, Dodgy and Cast. So it’s all the more surprising that the album charted at number one, knocking labelmates Blur – the mighty Blur! – off the top spot. (Admittedly, it was Blur’s self-titled “Bollocks to Britpop, we’re an American indie band now” record, but you get my point.) It remains one of the more subversive records to reach the summit.
The other singles from the album included ‘Wide Open Space’, one of the first guitar-based songs to get a pointless but presumably lucrative “Perfecto Remix” (among others, Hurricane #1 and Embrace would also receive this treatment); and ‘Taxloss’, whose music video involved the band giving away £25,000 in cash at Liverpool Street station and filming the results. Despite their eccentric subject matters, these were relatively straight-forward guitar-driven songs, and so it wasn’t a surprise to hear them on daytime radio. I got really into the band, seeing them a handful of times around London, and becoming a regular poster on alt.music.mansun. (Hopefully, only a small minority of you will appreciate how sad that is). That first album ends with a secret track entitled ‘An Open Letter to a Lyrical Trainspotter’, which basically tells people not to get too hung up on lyrics; they don’t really mean anything. Keep that in mind as we move on.
That debut album took the band around the world, and so Draper wrote the band’s follow-up in fragments while travelling. (In the interim they put out the ‘Closed for Business EP’, where the title track was outshined by the vastly superior ‘Everyone Must Win’.) I read somewhere that he was struggling for song inspiration so he turned to the books that mercurial guitarist Dominic Chad carried with him on the road. I mention these points because the band’s second album, ‘Six’, is fucking insane. I can’t think of a cogent way to get across all that’s going on here, so I’ll try and make a list.
• There’s a persistent lyrical theme that runs throughout the album of a singer who’s fed up with his lifestyle and worried about what his legacy will be. The first single from the record is even called ‘Legacy’, and it’s a great song with lyrics like “all relationships are emptying and temporary”; “I feel so drained, my legacy – a sea of faces just like me” and the coda of “Nobody cares when you’re gone.” And this was the single! There’s a companion song on the album called ‘Special/Blown It (Delete as Appropriate)’ which contains even more loathing, as the protagonist looks back on success that was supposed to, but never quite managed to, happen. The lyric “Just one more greatest hits tour for the devotees / The same old faces came, they love their summer spectacular” pretty strongly suggests that this was autobiographical. So he’s in a fragile, uncertain place.
• There’s a harpsichord-driven, operatic interlude with a monologue from Britain’s Grandpa and former Doctor Who Tom Baker.
• Four of the album’s songs clock in at over eight minutes, and just about every song veers off in multiple different directions. The album’s opener and title track, for instance, stops and starts and speeds up and slows down and gets drenched in heavy reverb and then comes up and has the refrain “Life is a compromise, anyway” and then goes back to the way it started and eventually it stops.
• There are references throughout to authors like the Marquis de Sade, L. Ron Hubbard, George Orwell, Richard Orwell, and the Book of Mormon.
• The other pre-album single, ‘Being a Girl’, was a catchy two-minute rocker with a charmingly homoerotic video, and on the album it has an extended six-minute outro which is basically a whole other song.
• The album’s two pre-release singles are the last two songs on here.
• I suppose I should mention the lyric “I’m emotionally raped by Jesus”, which is a big catchy hook.
• There’s a song that samples Sky News.
• There’s a piano ballad that clocks in at under two minutes.
• Just look at the album artwork on the left below. Incredibly, this was the aspect of the album that was changed in America (right) to make it more marketable. (They also excised a track and cut down a couple of others).
Here’s the thing though. For all of that, for all the pretentiousness and for all the insanity, ‘Six’ is still a pretty great record. I mean, yes, a lot of it is borderline unlistenable, but there’s plenty that shines through. The band’s four singles from here all made the top 30, and led to plenty of TV appearances. It’s fun to think about someone who enjoyed ‘Six’ on Top of the Pops, and bought the album, only to get home, put it on, and have their brain explode. ‘Special/Blown It’ meanders for a while, then gets going, then slows all the way down, then really picks up for a thrilling conclusion. ‘Negative’ is terrific. There’s a handful of songs on here that I still genuinely love. What can I say - it’s a fascinating trainwreck. Apparently Paul Draper sent out a very detailed “Making Of…” write up to people on his mailing list a few years ago, but there is no sign of it, or even an active website, on the internet. If anyone sees it, let me know.
Not surprisingly, ‘Six’ did not top the album charts as its predecessor had done. It peaked at – where else? – number six, and the band took some time off. The record label didn’t want another ‘Six’, so they forced the band to work with an outside producer for the first time, and the resulting album ‘Little Kix’ was universally seen as a huge disappointment. This can’t have been much of a surprise considering that the lead single was called ‘I Can Only Disappoint U’, and it again came with a Perfecto remix that nobody was crying out for. The album is more polished, more catchy, and therefore more generic, and just wasn’t what fans of Mansun were hoping for. It was recorded on a houseboat, though, and that’s pretty cool. Listening to it now, it hasn’t aged well – singles ‘Fool’ and ‘Electric Man’, with the canned strings and bland choruses, are especially mediocre.
After a couple of years of recording, occasional touring and extensive infighting, the band was dropped by Parlophone, and eventually announced a split in May 2003. After that, an extensive box set came out with the unreleased songs, plus b-sides and rarities; and a singles collection followed that. The latter is a decent introduction to the band, but as I’ve said, their songs need to be heard in their full, insane, expansive glory, so I’d recommend picking up the band’s first two records and getting lost in the mayhem.
(Afterword: Wow. I don’t plan on all the entries to this project being nearly this long. And I’ll try and make them more personal in the future. But, I hope you enjoyed this. See you next time.)