February 1997: Attack of the Grey Lantern, the twistedly witty debut album by one of Britpop’s oddest (and final) bands, scales the number one position in the UK album charts. September 1998: The very same band unleash Six, an album far, far further away from the Britpop ethos than Blur’s barbed self-titled effort, or even Pulp’s elegiac This Is Hardcore. Indeed, with the audacious Six, Mansun Went further than any of their contemporaries in musically savaging the boisterous trend that gave them their original platform. Alongside OK Computer and Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space, the album also signalled a new progressive and alternative direction for mainstream British rock as the decade drew to a close. And yet for all their idiosyncrasy, innovation and unit-shifting, Mansun are now seldom mentioned among the highest echelons of 1990s British guitar bands. Neither is their genre-bending pinnacle, Six, extoled as it really should be. If Mansun, so popular at the tail end of the 90s, have been inexplicably erased from the history books by Britpop revisionists, it now seems fitting during this reassessment of the decade to call for an end to such dumfounding neglect. So, as God Is In The TV celebrates the 1990s, time for some affirmative action; what follows is a brief history of Mansun, their bizarre rise and fall, and an examination of Six – their most remarkable record and one of the finest long-players from the topsy-turvy, transformative decade it belongs to…
The amateur nature of Mansun’s origins makes the story of their speedy rise even more extraordinary. Formed in 1995, less than two years before their number one, Paul Draper’s collective – (re)named after Charles Manson – were complete novices. Almost unable to play their instruments together as a band, the prospect of a number one, gold-selling debut album would have seemed laughable to Messrs Draper, Chad and King. But of course, by the mid-90s, ‘anyone could play guitar’; with the top ten song “She Makes My Nose Bleed” as well as other hit singles to boot, Mansun achieved a real, instant pop status in the do-it-yourself environment of mid-90s guitar music. Such a beginning makes the challenging complexity of Six even more baffling to comprehend. An album of brilliantly absurd experimentation, well-constructed bombast and operatics, it’s hard to believe the men who wrote and recorded it had only been properly musically active for little over three years.
Before you immerse yourself in the weird and wacky world of Six, there are hints at what kind of an album lies before you. Max Schindler’s depictive cover art contains cryptic clues as to the album’s recurring themes (including a book on Dianetics, Whinnie-the-Pooh and a Tardis), while to-the-point song titles, half of which are single words, strike a completely different tone to the titles on their debut (brutal “Shotgun” and “Cancer” in place of jovial “Stripper Vicar” and “The Chad Who Loved Me”). The album itself kicks-off with sheer intent. Title track “Six”, clocking in at over eight minutes, is really a series of little ditties glued together, and is almost a microcosm of the album; starting off (almost) conventionally with piano-led atmospherics followed by jabbed guitars, it evolves into a sprawling, spaced-out soap opera. The cyclical lyric (“[my] life i[t’]s a [series of] compromise[s], anyway”) reflects the equally cyclical nature of the music. Complete with imagery of the Jabberwocky and purgatory, the title track perfectly embodies the crazy album it introduces.
What follows is a blistering and truly insane set of songs by a band that nevertheless retains a real knack for clear melody. “Negative” is raucous, assertive anthemia; “Shotgun” has everything from punk to funky grooves to space rock and Pooh bear; by the time the listener gets to Dominic Chad’s simplistically morose “Inverse Midas” (your CD player will tell you it’s track four, though really you’ve already heard at least two-dozen songs), it feels as though you’ve already gone through a rollercoaster of all kinds of sonically different musical directions and polar opposite emotions. “Inverse Midas” leads, with perfect cohesion, into “Anti-Everything” and it’s ultra-cool, animatedly screeched guitar intro. After the one song that could have fitted perfectly fine onto their debut comes the song that is most distant from their original, nascent vision; the one with that Tchaikovsky sample. The song, “Fall Out”, rages from its outrageous Nutcracker sample and panicked, warped electronics to raw guitar riffs and camp, Brett Anderson-esque vocals… and unashamedly so, too! The following “Serotonin” and “Cancer” are poles apart. “Serotonin” provides a tongue-in-cheek and self-deprecating lyric set to a deep, bass-driven rumble, while “Cancer”, the longest song on the album, perhaps predictably also boasts Mansun’s longest space-type jam(s). The latter also features the cracking line “I’m emotionally raped by Jesus”, perfectly and succinctly summing up Draper’s obsession with religion and dissent on the album.
Perhaps the most bizarre moment on Six comes deep into the aberrant belly of the record, with Tom Baker grimly narrating a conspiratorial version of Brian Jones’ death over a harpsichord on “Witness to a Murder (Part Two)”. (N.B. – there is no ‘part one’ on the album). Oh, the song’s also got opera singers, too. And honestly, it works! Used as the ‘Interlude’ between the album’s ‘part one’ and ‘part two’, the song also marks the band’s nod to the vinyl format with its interlinked yet separate sides. If ever there was a rock album made in the compact disc era that demands the proper vinyl experience, with its eight minute mergers and abstractions, Six is very much it.
Part two kicks in with another daring (prophetic, even?) line: “On the top of the hour/I see my life through Sky news”. The hypnotic “Television” is another huge, sample-heavy and extensive song that possesses all manner of highs and lows. The following “Special/Blown It” begins in Pixies-esque fashion with muted bass creepiness, before Draper’s vocal hits and the song morphs into a memorably raging and self-analytical rant (“I’ve fucked it up/shot my load” etc.). After the soaring “Legacy”, the extended version of the album’s lead single and their biggest hit (it reached UK number seven; probably the only top-ten song to ever name-check Marquis De Sade), comes album closer “Being A Girl”. Up there with 1996 single “Wide Open Space”, it is one of their very best songs in the kinda-conventional mould. As instant and memorable as the impishly tuneful melodies of Attack of the Grey Lantern, it nevertheless does eventually continue the über-odd tradition of their sophomore long-player. The album track clocks in at around eight minutes, while the single version was cut straight off two minutes in; chart radio listeners would have missed out on the “only pureness left is preached by Marx” refrain, as well as the necessary and numerous changes in musical direction. After the song’s mysteriously chilling coda (a child babbles over an eerily picked guitar and hushed drums), Six is ground to a definitive halt.
With lyrics referencing the likes of B.P, Scientology, Mormonism and Karl Marx, alongside wild loops, effects, and samples, Six should by rights be a daunting listening experience, if not hilariously flawed. This is simply not the case. As a complete album, it is more conceptual than concept; bustling with heaps of ideas, references and motifs, all intermittently interlinked but never the same from one song to the next. Even in the post-“Paranoid Android” climate such an album, with its conceptual sentiment and deranged, baroque tones was incredibly leftfield, so to speak. If anything needs to be said about this record, it’s that it is a massive ‘fuck you’ (complete with two-fingered salute) to all conceivable expectations. Six just feels completely schizophrenic, almost like the ‘Schizoid Man’ that influences it; packed with fractured songs loosely linked together, stopping and starting and changing in direction, erratically and emphatically and exasperatingly. It is at once perversely unsettling and absurdly comical, yet at no point does it go too far; rather, it goes far -really far – very successfully. Few since have effectively replicated the Six model.
Two years later, Mansun’s third record Little Kix was released to less lofty expectations than its predecessors. It hardly made any waves, but this was not purely down to commercial circumstance; save for top ten single “I Can Only Disappoint U” and a couple of album tracks, Little Kix was, itself, an astounding disappointment from a usually consistent band. But, then again, those were the times of ‘difficult third albums’. It wasn’t to be a damp ending though. After the band split in 2003, Draper prepared Kleptomania (finally released in September 2004); a mega trawl through Mansun’s fourteen (!!) E.P.s, rarities, and the impressive material that was mooted for a fourth long-player, the three-disc collection provided a fitting closure for the band’s loyal fan base. Since then, Mansun have – like Charles M. – remained locked up, though Paul Draper does make the occasional live solo outing. As of yet, there have been no signs that the band is ready, or at all willing, to regroup in the wake of various 90s reunions.
The music of the 1990s is not so far away and perhaps it’s still a little too soon to give a fair and balanced historical account of it, especially in the midst of copious reunions and revivals, although of course it’s great fun and wholly necessary to revisit the music itself. I like to think in years to come, with more distance from the decade in question, Mansun’s impact and significance will be projected more accurately in the music press and among listeners. For now they remain – as they were when they first appeared in 1995/6 – a bit of an oddity in a movement that produced “Roll With It” vs. “Country House”. But really, all that matters is this: Six is an incredibly fucked-up/fucking incredible album. So, just for once, bring the outsiders in from the cold – all hail Mansun, and hail Six. Tous ensemble!