Mansun - Attack of the Grey Lantern
or better or worse, we here at Stylus, in all of our autocratic consumer-crit greed, are slaves to timeliness. A record over six months old is often discarded, deemed too old for publication, a relic in the internet age. That's why each week at Stylus, one writer takes a look at an album with the benefit of time. Whether it has been unjustly ignored, unfairly lauded, or misunderstood in some fundamental way, we aim with On Second Thought to provide a fresh look at albums that need it.
Mansun were an odd one when they flourished at the tail-end of the Britpop boom. Emerging with a handful of EPs in 1996, they may have cribbed their name from The Verve (it’s taken from early b-side “A Man Called Sun”) but the rest of their influences (don’t start that debate again) didn’t exactly sit in line with the prevailing mid-90s Beatles/Faces/Kinks/Slade pantheon that reigned supreme over the likes of Oasis and Blur (but not, lest we forget, Pulp or Disco Inferno or Orbital or Prodigy or The Spice Girls or any of the other brilliant and/or massive bands who made great music in the 90s which significantly contributed to the cultural topography of “British pop” but who get conveniently forgotten when people write retrospectives focused on boys with guitars). Instead Mansun made no secret of their admiration for the likes of ABC, Talk Talk, Duran Duran, Tears For Fears, and Prince in interviews, even while the press (Melody Maker were particularly keen if memory serves) painted them up as a punky, glammy adjunct to the retro guitar thing that was sweeping the British Isles.
Even so Mansun managed a string of top ten singles during 1996/97, regularly sold out decent-sized tours, and even managed to propel their debut album, Attack Of The Grey Lantern to number one in the album chart when it was released in February 1997. Admittedly it was probably a quiet week, and seemingly at that time anyone with a fringe could squeeze into the upper reaches of the charts (The Bluetones had claimed a number one album almost exactly a year previously, and Kula Shaker six months after that, plus Northern Uproar, Shed Seven, Catatonia, Ocean Colour Scene etcetera etcetera ad infinitum had all impacted on the charts far more than should have been allowed), or so it seemed, but it’s still going some for a band who were so deliciously, deliriously, and deliberately at odds with the zeitgeist.
There is history in this country of snappily dressed bands with pretensions to subvert pop, genre-hopping boys with guitars from art schools who like films and books and ideas as much as they like girls and booze. Mansun didn’t quite fit that type either though. Guitarist Chad styled himself after Brian Jones. The bassist was called Stove and appeared to be there only because they couldn’t find any else who could actually play. The drummer had a dubious labourer’s beard and arrived after a string of Spinal Tap-esque moments to previous drummers. And the singer—well, Paul Draper was an enigma, to say the least. He wrote all the songs and lyrics, sang, played lead guitar, and seemingly directed the band’s image and musical aesthetic with an iron hand that would have had such notorious control freaks as Trent Reznor and Mark E. Smith gasping with envy. Mansun was his baby, and he raised it as he saw fit.
My housemate at university loved Mansun. I didn’t. He took a lot of drugs and I drank a lot. The two don’t sit very well together, hangovers and comedowns being two different forms of psychosis that grate when put into close proximity. I was convinced, for a while, that his love for Mansun was somehow symbolic of the ecstasy generation—they seemed hollow to me, an exercise in the postmodern remove, in style over substance, sensation over sincerity, in temporary semblances of feeling, much like the E experience itself seemed to me as an outsider. Mansun refuted emotional content, said they’d never write a love song (“Mansun’s Only Love Song” not actually being about love at all, you see), dressed in kilts and safety pins one minute as eye-liner covered post-Manics angst-poseurs at a Bay City Rollers gig, then turned to New Romantic sharp suits the next and Loaded-friendly jeans & Adidas casuals a second later. They inspired the same cultish fan-worship that the Manic Street Preachers found themselves beset with during and immediately after the Richie era, but you couldn’t nail Mansun, because they didn’t want to be nailed. I didn’t understand how anyone could really connect with them, how they could be anyone’s favourite band. And yet they were, massively so.
Attack Of The Grey Lantern was mooted vaguely by uber-fuehrer Draper as a concept album about the bizarre inhabitants of a fictional English village, or some such thing, all centered around Dark Mavis, the object and title of the album’s final song. In truth, apart from the tunes segueing into one another (for some reason the US release of AOTGL changed the running order and dropped “Stripper Vicar” in favour of early single “Take It Easy Chicken,” thus completely screwing any notions of a running theme and also making the transitions between tracks into an ungainly mess) the concept was pretty much unnoticeable, Draper’s lyrics deliberately nonsensical on most cuts, and veering so far into platitudinous hollowness on the deliberately by-the-numbers Britpop anthem “Wide Open Space” as to seem like a parody.
Listening to AOTGL today is an odd experience. Mansun sound both dated and futuristic compared to the luddite manoeuvres of The Libertines, the elaborate, alienating pop sheen of the album’s production coming across like a previous generation’s attempt to imagine the future. The audacious string hit that opened “The Chad Who Loved Me” (check that self-referentialism, Baudrillard fans) was like something John Barrie might concoct on a day when he felt like showing off. “She Makes My Nose Bleed” was like an android version of something left over from the baggy / Madchester era, so smooth and airbrushed that you’d slip off it if you touched it but still, somehow, a rock song rather than a pop song. No one individual in the band was a particularly great musician, but Draper’s vision combined with the technical expertise of producer Mark “Spike” Stent, the two of them creating an unreal yet lucid soundworld full of airbrushed and manufactured samples, technological flourishes, and ostentatious arrangements. This sonic ambition covered up some fairly uninspired songwriting as well as some mediocre musicianship, Mansun songs being about dynamic swoops and studio-constructed grooves rather than outstanding melodies.
The video for “Taxloss” had the band dropping the £25,000 Parlophone promotional budget they’d been given in a very public place (Liverpool Street Station, if memory serves), filming the ensuing crush as members of the public attempted to get at the cash with a camcorder or suchlike as cheaply as possible (the band, as in all their early videos, were nowhere to be seen), while the tune itself started as a dark piece of glam for the 90s (strangely enough referencing Donny Osmond) before mutating fantastically into something approximating its own remix (two years before Blur would do something similar on 13 with “Bugman”).
Even today you’ll find rabid Mansun fans on messageboards raving about how you’d never hear another band singing about “vicars who strip”, as if a; The Kinks never existed and b; Draper wasn’t taking the piss when he wrote the lyric for that song (even if it is allegedly the true story of a female friend, the daughter of a church minister, who found S&M equipment in her father’s wardrobe).
And yet the hidden track tacked onto the end of “Dark Mavis,” ostensibly called “An Open Letter To The Lyrical Trainspotter,” tore apart the whole artist/fan relationship/influence thing better than anything Marilyn Manson ever produced, debunking concepts, themes and thousands of hours of amateur adolescent lyrical analysis in one fell swoop. Here’s a snippet of how;
“The lyrics aren't supposed to mean that muchBut no one seemed to notice that he was trying to tear down what he was constructing as he went along. If, indeed, that was what he was doing at all.
They're just a vehicle for a lovely voice
They aren't supposed to mean that much
Lyrics mean nothing, don't right any wrongs
In fact I'm not having them on this
You say they mean nothing just gobbledy-gook
But just look at yourself you're not clever enough
Understanding the truth, you are so out of touch
You believe all of this, you can't see it's a spoof
Understand all the words when they don't even rhyme
And I'm losing the rhythm and the whole thing's getting weirder and weirder
They all believe me
It's all so easy now”
The dichotomy comes when you ponder Draper’s intentions. Was he deadly serious about what he was doing, or were Mansun played for kicks? Was it all some kind of art-pop statement, a K.L.F. style incident of mass semiotic pop cultural terrorism? When one considers that Mansun more effectively did what Cliff Jones sought to do with Gay Dad, before Gay Dad existed, it almost seems as though Paul Draper’s arch vision was prescient rather than just manipulative. Or it would, had either band managed to live up to their potential / very public boasts of ambition.
Not much more than 18 months after AOTGL Mansun pumped out Six, which took the postmodernist angst and flamboyant musical eclecticism and showiness to levels unheard of since Marillion released Misplaced Childhood. It made Radiohead look like The Ramones. Every song seemingly had a dozen sections including a techno coda (or middle 8 or something) and was 8 minutes long. There was an (ill-advised) intermission voiced by legendary Dr Who Tom Baker (supposedly reading from his autobiography). But amid the awful lyrics, bad hair (far more blonde highlights than were strictly necessary), ridiculous over-production, wildly uncontrolled pretension and hideous prog-indulgence lay some thrilling moments of music and even one or two great songs, not least “Legacy,” which rewrote and inverted Nick Drake’s career-long prescience in six-minutes of anthemic rock unorthodoxy. “Nobody cares when you’re gone,” sang Draper.
Nobody cared when Mansun released their third album, Little Kixx, which stiffed when Draper refused to promote something he saw as a record-company-pressure-induced compromise. He knew Little Kixx was poor and knew it would fail; he even had the gumption to release a lead single entitled “I Can Only Disappoint U.” Mansun sank into ignominy, split, and abandoned sessions for a fourth album before anything could be finished. (Songs from this era, plus a selection of b-sides and rare material, would eventually be released as the Kleptomania box set after Mansun fans, ever rabid and obsessed, lobbied Parlophone.) There were rumours from the beginning that Draper and Chad were lovers, that Mansun fell apart as their relationship did. I’m not sure that even those involved would know the truth. Mansun were a blip, a bizarre anomaly that could have altered the gene pool had they been strong enough to survive. But they weren’t strong enough and they didn’t survive. Attack Of The Grey Lantern isn’t quite a lost masterpiece, but it’s a classic diversion.