Me and the Manics

 

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Ever since I set this blog up I’ve wanted (but struggled) to write a post on the Manic Street Preachers and I guess more specifically my relationship with them and what they mean to me.  This week I’ll be going to London to see the Holy Bible gig at the Camden Roundhouse (thanks Phil) and I’m excited beyond belief and certainly perhaps more than a man of my age should be but that in itself is testament to the band, their longevity and relevance.

When the Mancis burst onto the scene in the early 90’s proclaiming they were going to be bigger than Guns N Roses and Public Enemy many (especially those in the music press, yes Steve Lamacq I’m looking at you) sneered and dismissed them as fake but what I heard was ambition.  Ambition was an important attribute in South Wales, not in the naked greed sense displayed by the plastic spray tanned idiots paraded on our TV screens on a daily basis, but in the ‘I don’t want my kids to have to work in the pits type of way’.  ‘I want you to get an education and get a good job’.  Good jobs were often seen to be teachers, lawyers, ministers and to this day if you walk into any secondary school in England there will be a good chance you will find teachers of Welsh heritage.  It was recognised that to escape the manual labour and better yourself then education was important.  This had been the case in South Wales right from the early days of industrialisation through the formation of the strong trade unions, miners welfare and institutes that established principles of looking to improve both yourself and your community along lines of equality and social justice.  Many left leaning leaders came out of this approach none more so that Nye Bevan, founder of the National Health Service. Libraries did indeed give us power.

When the Manics started releasing incendiary recordings chock full of pride, passion, emotion and intelligence I felt a clear lineage through to the likes of Bevan using the microphone in a different way but still using it for powerful oratory, strong messages and vision.  They were light years ahead of any other band at the time and picked up the gladioli dropped by Morrissey and breathed some Welsh fire back into the music scene.  It’s impossible in a simple blog post to cover all of the themes, authors, philosophers, cultural and political reference points that make up so much of their music because to do so would require the writing of a book.  Suffice to say that for me it is so good to have a band writing songs that actually mean something, have been thought about and that provide a fantastic education in their own right.  Having an intelligence in your lyrics however is irrelevant unless you can back them up with brilliant tunes and scorching, visceral live performances which the Manics do in spades.  I’ve been lucky enough to see them in all sorts of venues over the years from tiny sweat stained clubs to Glastonbury declaring they should build a car park over the lot of it.

I grew up in Newport in South Wales, and after stumbling through school travelled north each day up the Gwent valleys to go to Crosskeys 6th Form college.  This was at a time when my home area was being decimated by the Thatcher government and the miners strike was honing my political education.  The year below me at that college were the individuals who would, a few years later, emerge as the Manics and I understood where they’d come from and what they were singing about.  Over the last 20 odd years I’ve aged along with them, but also hopefully changed and developed along the way as they have.  Whenever I hear them, and particularly when it is live, I am transported back to where I’m from and I experience feelings of pride, passion and emotion that no other band can provoke within me.

The Manic Street Preachers – original, intelligent, controversial, ambitious, exciting – simply one of Britain’s greatest ever bands.

Manic Street Preachers - 02 Arena, London 17/12/11 | Photo by Jason Williamson

A ride less ordinary

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When we told friends that we were going away for Easter and taking the bikes, everyone assumed we meant either Scotland, the Lake District or somewhere equally as scenic with lots of mud and hills to climb.  Imagine their surprise when we said we were taking Mountain Bikes on the train down to London and staying in a hotel.  Comments ranged from ‘You’re mad’ to ‘What on earth do you need mountain bikes for in London’ however we refused to be deterred. A recent article on a blog I follow had inspired me, the author spoke about riding through London crossing the river Thames on all accessible bridges.  This set a chain reaction off in my head and I began to hatch a plan……

I wanted to ride out to Greenwich to play in Greenwich Park

I wanted to ride through the financial district when the normal machinations of the city had shut down for the weekend

I wanted to explore the Thames path and use in for normally unseen vistas of famous London landmarks

I wanted to ride through the royal parks and explore Hampstead Heath, and finally to the exasperation of my long suffering riding partner in crime Al

I wanted to climb the hills around Highgate to prove that hill climbs are possible in London

So did my plan come together? – Yes it did

We explored the sights and sounds of London that we have never encountered on our normal city breaks.  We rode out to Greenwich, exploring backstreets and unknown paths on the way.  We returned via the city using the empty streets, like something out of a horror movie as a giant playground, cutting through alleys and ginnels normally heaving with city workers.

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We rode through paths to Hampstead Heath to play on its grassy hills fueled by fantastic coffees and bagels from Brick Lane.  I swear I even saw Al smiling as I pedalled away from him uphill on secretly discovered road climbs.

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A surprising side effect of our adventures was discovering restaurants and cafes away from the normal tourist beaten path that sated our hunger from all the miles in our legs, places that we would otherwise not have discovered.

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3 days. 68 miles ridden, we both now feel like we have seen a side of London that we want to explore more and so the planning begins once again….

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Buying a new Mountain Bike (aka Project Snail goes full bounce)

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After a few years of rattling around on my battered hardtail the time has come for a serious upgrade into the world of proper mountain bikes, the only question being what to choose.  Actually as I discovered when I started to look around there is an awful lot of things to consider when you are parting with a sizeable chunk of your own cash.  There is no such thing as ‘a mountain bike’ as there are different styles of bikes for the innumerable branches of the mountain bike family tree (actually someone should draw that it would be ace) broadly categorised by Cross Country (XC), Trail, Enduro, Downhill.  So the first thing to think about was ‘What sort of riding do I do?’ or perhaps more importantly ‘what riding might I be doing over the next few years?’ and this would narrow things down a touch.

The answer to what sort of riding do I do is really slow not very good riding ! (check out my Project Snail posts) which I do mainly on XC terrain with a nudge towards some trail riding.  Trail riding is what I’d like to be able to confidently ride so with that future in mind I started my search for suitable bikes, looking at reviews, narrowing brands down, asking people and trying to come up with some sort of vague shortlist.  Once you begin this process though other thorny questions arise, how much travel do you want (or require), what about wheel size, and what level of spec do you want (or can you afford). With regards to wheel size I’d have quite happily stayed on 26 inch but there are less and less to choose from so I decided to look at 29er over 650b as I’m unlikely to be able to ride the very techy tight stuff where 29ers perhaps struggle.  I looked at a range of travel but decided that 120-140mm would be ample for what I do and give the growth in case I ever get any better at this lark.  Spec, ideally wanted to go with Shimano over SRAM and come in around the SLX / XT mix, I wanted to have the option of going tubeless and I wanted to have a dropper post.  Never did I ever think I would write the last bit of that sentence but having had a go with a dropper post and spoken to others who ride them they all say they would never go back.

So I had my rough ‘wish list’ of what I wanted, now to find the bike that would deliver this and fit me within the budget that I had, which while decent was going to rule out the super marques.  Once I started going round bike shops, having a look and trying out bikes I quickly came to one conclusion, the geometry and sizing of bikes is so different that for me getting the right fit by trying a lot of bikes was going to be essential.  I’m a stumpy Welshman, some bikes that were technically the same size as I ride now were too big others too small so while I did consider the elephant in the room of direct sale bikes I ruled it out very quickly as there was no way I was going to spend decent money on something I had no idea what it felt like to ride.  This would be my one biggest tip, unless you really understand geometry and your body size, don’t buy a mountain bike unless you have tried it and compared it to others.  I was starting to despair a little as many of the bikes I tried out just didn’t feel right, didn’t fit or didn’t deliver what I wanted, even taking certain compromises with the spec into consideration.

A couple of people had mentioned having a look at Cube bikes and also mentioned EscapeBikes nr Ingleton as a good shop that stocked Cubes.  They had a welcoming approach when I contacted them about the Cube Stereo (the bike in their range that I thought might best meet my needs), ‘Yes come on up swing your leg over and try it out’ and I’ll just point out that not all bike shops adopt this approach, some seem genuinely surprised that you might want to you know actually ride and try the bikes in their shops.  Sam up at Escape was great taking time to talk knowledgeably about the range (again not all bike shop staff can do this) and get the bike set up for me to try, including adjusting the sag in the shocks.  The bike felt great as soon as I got on board and crucially for me the fit was good and I felt instantly comfortable.  It did of course feel odd looking down at big wheels but I’m sure I’ll get used to that.  The spec and value for money looked excellent, SLX / XT mix, dropper post, Fox doing the suspension all wrapped round a carbon front triangle – way too good for me :-)

So after months of searching and trying numerous bikes the Cube Stereo (see photo above) is what I’ve settled on and I can’t wait to pick it up and get used to it.  Hopefully we’ll have many adventures and smiles over the next few years and who knows I might even get to the stage where I ride it to it’s full capability and even if I can’t I try to have as much fun as I can trying.

Flyposting 3 – The Art of the Gig Poster

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When I think back through time and consider how and when I became aware of art I think that it was initially first through music and specifically album covers.  A long time before I’d come across Rothko’s signature use of colour I had been impressed by the stark minimalism of AC/DC’s Back in Black album cover.  There have been a string of great artists and photographers who have designed album covers including Andy Warhol, Annie Leibovitz, Peter Saville, Robert Mapplethorpe, Raymond Pettibon, Banksy, Damien Hirst, Sir Peter Blake and Jean-Michel Basquiat to name just a few.  Many of the iconic images are burned into my consciousness and I can remember flicking through racks of records sometimes simply buying a record based solely on the cover design.  This was not always the best policy of course but did sometimes turn up some gems.  As we have moved across to the digital age the art design associated with a record has reduced and I don’t remember covers in the same way I used to which I find a bit sad.

Alongside the album cover artists were also involved in designing flyposters for gigs, often a gig poster didn’t display much other than name of band and venue and this is still often the case today but sometimes beautiful images were produced and at the moment in Gallery Munro House there is an exhibition of lovely original screen printed gig posters (all of which are available to buy at very reasonable prices).  I loved the vibrancy of many of the designs, particularly those of the Manic Street Preachers, Queens of the Stone Age and Public Service Broadcasting.  I liked the way, wondering round the exhibition, that in the same way album covers remind me instantly of the sound of the band these posters transported me to the live venues where I’d seen many of the bands on display.  The exhibition finishes on Saturday I believe so you’ll need to be quick to catch it now but if you are in Leeds over the next couple of days, like your art and music then it’s well worth popping in.

Click through the gallery and let me know which ones you liked and also which album covers made an impression on you.

Daisy’s daily pics!

At the start of this New Year I decided to take a photo everyday of something I had done, experienced, a place I had been to etc. It was my nod at being more mindful about what I was doing day to day (I’m terrible for running from one thing to the next) and to create some record of cool things I had done, and it worked!

This month has been ace, I’ve been road tripping to Welsh Wales to see chums, over the water to The Big Apple to see my brother and had a pretty good few weeks at work. Many of the images do contain food I confess, a few home made creations as well as trips out to favourite haunts, both new and old. Can you guess where I’ve been?

It’s been great and I’ve realised how important connecting with people is to me, and that focusing on something good every day made me feel more positive. If I did ever feel fed up a quick review of the photos made me feel better! How could you not smile at a heart froth cappuccino, a sickly Greggs cake from your work pal, the hail stone storm you got stuck in, the beautiful Kirkstall Abbey, and an all star American breakfast?

Join me in April when I will be doing the photo a day project again, I’ve already roped my welsh chum and big sister in!

Daisy x

December Photo Fun – Week 2 – Warmth

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Warmth, a lovely word I think that conjures up deep seated feelings of comfort and satisfaction in me and I suspect all of us, after all since we crawled out of the swamps and into the caves and lit our fires we have understood the comfort and life affirming qualities that warmth provides.  There is of course another element to warmth which again we would have felt back in those caves as our family and friends gathered around and that is the emotional warmth of friendship, kinship and love.  These feelings are universal and both elements have been displayed beautifully by the contributors to this weeks photofun theme.  Fires, food, warming drinks, clothing and a hot bath are well presented alongside the human emotions of friendship, sympathy, kinship.  The photo at the top manages for me to pull in all elements, the gent is wrapped up against the winter cold, but the smile of friendship is as warm as anything you can think of.  As always thanks goes to all who submitted an entry, watching them come in was in itself a thing of warmth and felt like a big hug as all these people we don’t know join in around our communal twitter campfire.  Click on the gallery to scroll through the photos and do let us know which ones you liked.

Shellac – A sound so angular you can see the corners

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I’ve no idea how many bands I’ve seen and gigs I’ve been to over the years but it will run well into the hundreds and while it’s a long time now since I pretty much lived in gig venues seeing several bands a week, I still enjoy getting along to the odd gig and feel the fissure of excitement at seeing a live band as when a live band is good they produce pure alchemy.  Much as I enjoy the whole experience of a live gig it’s not often that I feel real excitement and anticipation before a gig in the way that perhaps I did when I was younger, after all I’ve seen most of the bands I want to see or can see and as ‘new’ musical styles come around I often find myself remembering the bands who did it first and invariably did it better.  A couple of Sundays ago however saw me very excited as I was going to see Shellac, a band for who the word seminal is rightly used, but who I’d never seen before.  They were also playing at the Brudenell, arguably the best small venue in Leeds. For those not aware Shellac contain Steve Albini who’s sound engineering fingerprints are all over some of the great bands and sounds over the last thirty years including Nirvana, Pixies, The Breeders, Godspeed You Black Emperor, Helmet, Robert Plan, The Stooges, Mogwai, The Jesus Lizard, PJ Harvey, Manic Street Preachers, Jarvis Cocker, The Cribs, The Fleshtones, The Wedding Present, Joanna Newsom, Superchunk, Low, Dirty Three, Veruca Salt, The Auteurs and along with fellow sonic engineer Bob Weston on base and Todd Trainer on drums create a fearfully sharp and angular sound, a sound so powerful it made me question why any band would need more than three people in it.  There was no slack and no hiding place, every chord, note, noise, crack and beat could be heard and differentiated.  I couldn’t help but compare it to bands where there are sometimes numerous bodies on stage that it has me wondering what they are all doing and what they bring to the sound.  In Shellac’s case it was clear that each member was bringing something unique to the party.

I liked that way the band was set up, democratically with no one ‘fronting the band’, guitar on one side, drums in the middle, bass on the other side.  Todd Trainer on the drums I found mesmerising to watch, he seemed to have arms that went on for ever and I can’t recall any other drummer producing a crack on the skins quiet like it and he would often go completely limp and slump over the drums as if asleep before rousing himself and ploughing his energy into the next furious beat.  With Shellac you don’t get a traditional song with a clear verse chorus arrangement or even one steady rhythm, instead songs will ebb and flow around numerous different rhythms within the same song which creates a jarring intensity and tension as you are never quite sure which corner the track is going take next or which band member is going to grab it by the scruff of the neck but whoever does they are going to do it powerfully.

Within this fantastically chunky sound Albini barks out biting lyrics of humour and sarcasm and then the band stop for a Q&A session with the crowd.  Yep you read that right, questions are shouted out and answers pinged back “did you bring your own drum mikes with you?” “No Nerd”.  What’s the best thing to see in Chicago? “The Bean, a piece of public art in one of the parks” etc.  Few questions later then then launch into the next crunching track.  Another thing that I found unusual was the way Albini played his guitar, low slung a la Hooky, but with the strap strapped around his waist and not over his shoulder.  Try it it’s not easy.

I left feeling really privileged and it was the best gig of the year for me and unlike many times over the years when you build up a band only to be disappointed when you see them I could go and watch Shellac every night and never be bored.  My ears might not thank me though.