For fans of: Radiohead, Blur, Manic Street Preachers, Super Furry Animals, Placebo, Eels, My Life Story
Influenced: The Delgados, The Beta Band, At The Drive-In, My Vitriol, The Coral, The Cribs, British Sea Power, Hope Of The States, Menace Beach
Influenced by: The Kinks, Pink Floyd, David Bowie, The Cure, Kate Bush, Prince, ABC, Nirvana, Suede, Manic Street Preachers, The Boo Radleys
As with all cultural trends that outstay their welcome, the death of Britpop happened quickly, and the fall-out affected everything around it. Within the space of a month in August 1997, the British music industry’s gravy train hit the buffers, and a brutal cull of the country’s guitar-wielding second-raters, chancers and hangers-on was enacted. Sure, the Oasises, Blurs and Verves were okay, but as the zeitgeist tacked sharply, careers that had been supported by major labels were considered untenable virtually overnight. Some were swept away almost immediately, others failed after their next album cycle, as the likes of Cast, Shed Seven, Northern Uproar, Kula Shaker, and Menswear all fell by the wayside. Sleeper’s Louise Wener has affirmed that, in their case, it literally happened within a week, celebrating being on ‘TFI Friday’ with their comeback single ‘She’s A Good Girl’ and then being as good as dropped by their label when it stalled at no.28. Just a year before, they had gone platinum with their second album The It Girl. And they were a good band! Artists who had hitherto been achieving Top 20 singles were dropped faster than Joe Hart from the England team.
Artists who survived or avoided being thrown onto the landfill were few and far between, but one of the most curious and unfair cases was that of Chester’s alternative rockers Mansun, borne up and then disposed of by the logic of a media phenomenon they wanted little or nothing to do with in the first place.
Right from the beginning, there was something different about Mansun. Although they were four blokes with guitars, and so therefore got lumped in with Britpop in the popular press, they were always outsiders to that scene. Cerebral and thoughtful, they were one of the few British bands of the mid-Nineties who were watching Suede’s cues, rather than those of Noel Gallagher or Damon Albarn. Rather than opting for sing-along populism, Mansun aimed for the conceptual; their music was for the theatre kids and the weirdos, rather than the Ben Sherman brigade. They had a tendency to disguise their singles as numbered EPs rather than release them under the lead track’s title – for instance, ‘Wide Open Space’, certainly their most famous hit and one of five UK Top 20 singles within 13 months between 1996 and 1997, was released as Four EP.
That fundamental oddness was reflected in their debut album Attack Of The Grey Lantern, released in February 1997. It topped the albums charts in its first week, representing a bright spot in an otherwise frankly moribund time for British guitar music.
READ MORE: The Top 200 Albums of the Nineties
British guitar debuts of the time tended to follow a similar structure, starting off loud and fast, dropping some of the big singles early on in the tracklisting, before slowing down for a few token ballads or slower songs. Mansun, however, weren’t frightened of not grabbing the listener’s attention at first, trusting them to follow them into the strange, murky landscapes and world of subtle, self-effacing humour that lyricist Paul Draper and his three bandmates explored. Of its small army of singles – all five reached the UK Top 40 – most of them were placed near the end of the record.
Attack Of The Grey Lantern’s first three songs were a gothic, orchestral swirl with lyrics like “Am I a God or am I Jesus? / You can’t deny that your shit just tastes as sweet as mine” (‘The Chad Who Loved Me’), a six-minute serving of soulful indie with ‘Mansun’s Only Love Song’, and the seven-minute ‘Taxloss’ that somehow manages to mix glam-rock with house. As an opening salvo, it simply towers over virtually every other British band’s output at the time in terms of ambition, and its slightly overly sincere execution made it all the more fascinating.
What follows is a grandiose and seductive blend of goth, new wave and ‘90s indie rock, a mixture of reverberating guitars, orchestras and drum machines that virtually nobody else on the British scene could have held together like Mansun. A loose concept album in which all 11 songs segue together (do avoid the disastrous American version with the re-arranged tracklisting!) Attack Of The Grey Lantern concerns the titular imaginary superhero ‘Grey Lantern’ – a character Draper dreamed up to help him deal with on-stage anxiety – who encounters a number of immoral but fascinatingly vague characters who populate a fictional English village: Egg Shaped Fred, Albert Taxloss, Chad (maybe a reference to guitarist Dominic Chad), the Stripper Vicar and the mysterious Dark Mavis, the latter two of whom turn out to be the same person.
‘Stripper Vicar’ is the album’s poppiest moment and most obvious single, combining a beat reminiscent of the long-dead ‘baggy’ / Madchester movement with rock power chords and a somersaulting vocal performance in which Draper gives us his full vocal range, from falsetto to throaty snarls and side-eye sneers. ‘Egg Shaped Fred’, with its elongated final syllables at the end of each line, is the track that most conforms to the Britpop template with its chanted chorus; Top Ten single ‘She Makes My Nose Bleed’ manages to be both light and breezy yet completely despondent.
Elsewhere, there’s plenty of dark psychedelia and progressive thinking going on, particularly in the sprawling closer ‘Dark Mavis’ and the aforementioned whimsy of ‘Mansun’s Only Love Song’. When Draper steps out from behind the masks of his characters, he’s still a very revealing songwriter. The alarming self-loathing and self-effacement of mid-album track ‘Disgusting’, the transcendentally gloomy ‘Wide Open Space’ (given an unlikely but very successful club makeover by Paul Oakenfold) and the mysterious ‘Naked Twister’ are all testament to his versatility.
While Mansun’s sheer oddness protected them against the immediate effects of Britpop’s bursting bubble – their wildly ambitious second record Six, although it underperformed in sales terms the following year, still generated great reviews and three Top 20 singles with its array of Tom Baker spoken-word sequences and ‘Nutcracker’ samples – it just wasn’t a good time to be a band like them. 2000’s weak third album Little Kix ultimately did for them in terms of their public profile and reputation, particularly as Draper refused to tour or promote it, but Parlophone never actually dropped them.
It must also be acknowledged that they suffered some extremely bad luck, with Draper requiring a course of chemotherapy to treat a malignant tumour and guitarist Chad injuring his hand falling onto a fire grate, both of which led to the delay and ultimate abandonment of a fourth album as Mansun called it a day in 2003. However, a fan petition led to the release of the unfinished material as part of the 3-CD collection Kleptomania in late 2004, the sessions grouped alongside a plethora of B-sides and assorted rarities and demos.
In another era, Mansun could have enjoyed a much longer career and left a greater legacy (pardon the pun…). But there are signs that the traditional view of Mansun is changing, evidenced by the success of Paul Draper’s recent solo album Spooky Action and the very well-received British tour that accompanied it last year. The success of the new Kscope 21st anniversary re-issue of Attack Of The Grey Lantern, which reached the UK Top 30 in its own right in June 2018, also demonstrates this. To be honest, the new re-issue doesn’t add a great deal to the exhaustive 2010 3-CD Collector’s Edition box set, which raided the archives pretty thoroughly and collected all of the eras B-sides, remixes and acoustic versions, but it does serve as a handsome and long-awaited vinyl re-issue for one of the Nineties’ most intriguing debuts.
Listen to the 21st anniversary re-issue of Attack Of The Grey Lantern by Mansun here via Spotify, and tell us what you think below!
Tags: 21st anniversary, Andie Rathbone, Attack Of The Grey Lantern, cult '90s, Dominic Chad, Kscope, Mansun, Parlophone, Paul Draper, Stove King
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