Here we are in an only negligible number of Hyde Park’s 142 hectares, with London shrouded in an impenetrable September gloom. We’re here to sip the last of the summer wine and, at £4.50 per 187ml, it’s seemingly becoming that bit more exorbitant as it matures. Having last been here for July’s decidedly dismal British Summer Time, it’s with exactly that now swiftly dwindling that we’re delivered chilling reminders of a now-onsetting winter – shifts that feel as though they’re finally beginning to settle in for the seasons to come. The ineluctable end of the self-styled festival season is nigh, if not already upon us, for with picnic sprawls and preordered hampers the order du jour, if this, the third BBC Radio 2 Live in Hyde Park may be optimistically proclaimed ‘a festival in a day’ – one which is incidentally set on Latitude’s Obelisk Arena stage – then there are none too many Worthy Farm regulars in discernible attendance…
Then again, neither are the so-called Treacherous Orchestra your average Radio 1-readied festival fare, for they favour sci-fi bagpipes, fluttering strings and fluid woodwind instruments in place of the usual arsenal of uncountable guitars. The ambience isn’t entirely in keeping with traditional British festival etiquette either, children with iPads as standard screaming verbatim: “Daddy, would you like some sausages?” against an English Country Garden adaptation rerouted via Celt Highland. And oddly enough, it’s a startlingly hands-on, if ears-off attitude advocated even by the endless litany of Radio 2 DJs that in turn grace the stage at every introductory turn. Folk godfather Mark Radcliffe, for instance, who entreats we enjoy the afternoon on tablets, smartphones, etcetera, and continue to text in unendingly. “There’s barely any point in me being here” he at one point intones defeatedly, and indeed the same could be said for those sat at the back scratching at their LCD screens. That, I think it’s fair to suggest, isn’t quite what a festival is primarily intended for…
Although if there are numerous moments at which the tagline dramatically comes undone, then at others the event is almost unerringly in keeping with the glorious likes of Glastonbury, Latitude, Reading and so on. (Such is their omnipotence in this particular field, Festival Republic surreptitiously pull the strings today, too, as Melvin Benn et al. orchestrate much of what goes on beyond the purely superficial.) The weather, for example, feels finely tuned to these sorts of shows, an early deluge unapologetically drenching those more avid attendees as the skies turn black, deteriorate and crack some twenty minutes in. Thus meteorologically speaking, and let’s just say it’s not entirely susceptible to this picnic-aplenty atmosphere, you can forget the 24-hour timeframe, for we’ve sun, rain and with that some fairly questionable lineup hierarchy all within the first thirty minutes or so. For Simple Minds, the first of a few peripheral figures to feature throughout the day, are impressively painted as outcasts so early on. Rainy and decidedly windswept, an incessant hum initially bodes ominous as those monochromic clouds now lurking unshakeably overhead. It’s the curse of the curt festival slot, and Glasgow’s foremost purveyors of pompous pop-rock – that strand which is best acclimatised to the interior confines of Wembley Arena – consequently suffer a couple of enervating false starts as a direct result. “King of Cardigans” Terry Wogan rallies the troops, his prescribed gags proving incapable of raising the mood, and this inevitable delay inexplicably rewards him with an improbable encore.
He froths further babble, before Jim Kerr & co. eventually emerge to a stage that’s visibly becoming increasingly slippery by the second. And Waterfront, with its lyrics recurrently imploring we “step in, step out of the rain”, seems a somehow treacherous introduction. It never was their greatest hit by any account, although if nothing else it proves that their idiosyncratic pomp and show is not only indwelling, but so too undying. It’s still very much Alive & Kicking if you will, the smash hit itself still very much a glitzy, quicksilver dream capable of inducing a vivid state of reverie to cloud over the cruel reality that, with clothing now clinging to tissue, you’ve been soaked through to the skin and there is no tent to which you might retreat. Its success resides in its nostalgic connotation of course, having soundtracked many a footballing moment right throughout the ’90s. (Pay lowly Aldershot Town’s Recreation Ground a visit, and you’ll likely still hear it post-sludge pie and prior to kickoff.) But that it has retained its every ounce of gloss – indeed, it feels glamorous as Bryan Ferry captaining a Stena Line cruise ship – intimates toward Simple Minds’ ability to kick on into the future. For aptly transporting, it whisks us away if not to its native mid-’80s, then to a soggy field somewhere rather more remote than here.
Sanctify Yourself, meanwhile, sounds camp enough to engender festive sensation – Christmas is, as ever, coming in the back of an armada of Coca-Cola lorries, after all – and is all too anodyne, if expectably so. It lacks that unanticipated euphoria prompted by Alive & Kicking, and is instead equal parts U2 and Depeche Mode, both of whom prove to be somewhat problematic touchstones. For whereas these, their onetime contemporaries managed to sustain their respective status in order that they may become overlords of stadia worldwide for some while, Simple Minds ironically never really kept themselves kicking on creatively for long enough to perpetuate a prolonged run at that same species of enormodome. It’s the exact sort of venue their sound was so patently hungering for all along, and Kerr’s insatiable thirst for performance so evidently remains, as he struts the sodden walkway down toward the early afternoon masses. It’s quenched magnificently during a barnstorming Don’t You (Forget About Me) – the song made perhaps most famous by John Hughes’ ’85 cult breakout, The Breakfast Club – that to this day sounds suited to digestion morning, night or, as it just so happens, noon.
“Rain keeps falling, rain keeps falling/ Down, down, down” Kerr recurrently hollers, his cascading declaration adding to the afternoon’s forbidding aura, but unabashedly anthemic, they in fact banish the downpour with this vibrant reminder of a waning potency past. “It’s been a real pleasure to play for you – thanks for letting us” Jim croaks sounding almost browbeaten. Sweat and tears have themselves been beaten into these twenty-odd minutes, and even though they’re rendered invisible by the incessant lashing of rain, they resonate loud and clear from deep within the song itself. Yet whereas this could well have seen their light reignited, it overall transpires to be something of a damp squib: their humble billing, and consequently abbreviated set, essentially therefore serves to elucidate all that could’ve been, when it really ought to have been their very own Mandela Day.
And the brevity most artists are this afternoon afforded distances the event from a festival to instead liken it to those “pop-tastic” Party In The Park debacles of yore. Though long since gone, themselves exiled to memories best disremembered, Hyde Park has of course continued to host various musical carousals of wildly differing standards and sorts in more recent times. From Madonna’s desecrating of her very own discography just last summer to this year’s aforesaid British Summer Time, if the shows have varied greatly in timbre and tone alike, then they’ve been universally lambasted for their detrimental impact on the area. Whether that be the noise pollution to infect those vertiginous nearby penthouses, or the ruination of Hyde Park’s hence never-verdant turf, residents have repeatedly found much to condemn. The same can’t be said of this one I oughtn’t imagine, with volume levels kept decidedly unobtrusive throughout, and the earth only visible in sparse patches beneath a plethora of officiously positioned picnic blankets.
They provide the perfect spot to snooze through hotel lobby jazz muzak practitioner Jamie Cullum although conversely, there’s never a dull moment when it comes to Sharleen Spiteri’s Texas, who illustrated their inimitable aptitude for filling up setlists with sure-fire hit at July’s Latitude. Alas, they have nowhere near that long this afternoon, and erased is most of Spiteri’s trademark effin’ ‘n’ blindin’. It’s a family affair after all, or alternatively a festival for those less than likely to grimace and bear a weekend spent mucking out and about in Suffolk, although their every biggie still rings out with lucid pop lustre.
For a band having sold some 30,000,000 records, as we’re so reliably informed prior to their arrival, they’ve flogged more songs than there are native Texans, and as such you sense that they’re more than capable of valiantly battling an initial apathy. They indeed do, soon winning over the indifferent with Halo: if its levels may sound more than slightly kooky (another intrinsic difficulty with these sorts of shebangs), then it remains an incontestable classic and the same goes for a swelling, if seasonally inopportune Summer Son. Yes, it lacks the euphoria afforded it by a Latitude tent steaming at the seams in every sense of the adjective, and you feel that were there time – which of course there ain’t – they may not feel quite so compelled to perform some impromptu encore this time around. But Say What You Want again proves itself to be strikingly worthy of bringing down any which curtain whenever it so fancies: a wan triumph with one foot already set in autumn, it’s an evergreen accomplishment of haute feat and refined songwriting, the like of which contemporary pop music desperately lacks, in short.
We’re prompted by song names redolent of TOTP scrawled across two vast screens, and although a lacklustre singalong should be scarcely audible beyond the despotic perimetric fencing, a strangely discordant denouement certainly should be that bit more discernible. A bit Bondian when it likely oughtn’t be, Spiteri’s wide-eyed blues only infrequently come into harmonious contact with the boisterous rhythms that lie beneath as they create a less than becoming ruckus, before Black Eyed Boy subsequently goes the whole hog when it comes to corroborating the band’s deserved carving of their very own “space in time.” With her Telecaster at the ready, Sharleen cuts an imposing figure, not least for such a self-evidently familial showing. “Don’t sound so ‘appy – fuckin’ hell!” she at one moment sneers in deep Scottish distaste, vocally disapproving of the creeping disinterest. In typical BBC timidity, ‘We apologise for the bad language’ flashes up onscreen, as does the one and only Richard Hawley.
Texas’ comeback album, The Conversation, was partly recorded at Hawley’s South Yorkshire studio, and the woebegone don of melodramatic chamber-pop song indeed contributed a couple of songwriting credits to its conception. The epiphanic waft of Dry Your Eyes, one such song, certainly does its utmost to wipe away the drear sensed in some, if not most – as Hawley asserts, “It’s like a morgue” – his vocal smokier than his native Sheffield and his guitar just as smooth as the nearby Serpentine. A little more like dressing room mockery, he and Spiteri then unnecessarily mess around with Billy Edd Wheeler’s Jackson a while. Hawley’s rugged drawl of course befits it bloody well, and whether onstage or in the shower will doubtless have recited it umpteen times previously, but it’s when he sticks about to see out Texas’ climax that he and the afternoon’s third Glaswegian ensemble really click into gear.
“Can you take one more?” Spiteri quizzes, the response to which is distinctly undecided on behalf of both audience and broadcaster alike, in light of that earlier expletive. But thank fuck they go for it anyhow, for Inner Smile could scarcely feel more ecstatic. It once again harks back to a time at which pop musicians could seamlessly hem a jocularity into an ornate sense of sincerity: this was then reflected in a video in which Spiteri played the part of Elvis Presley impersonator, and is this afternoon redressed emphatically in her boundless energy. She is, lest we forget, now fast approaching her fifties, and exerts more verve than Cullum, Jack Johnson, Josh Groban and James Blunt combined.
Hawley gazes on adorably awestruck during Ally McErlaine’s slipperiest of slide guitar solos, though there’s no such virtuoso nonchalance from Hawaiian Johnson, whose soporific surf dross prompts the next of the darkening afternoon’s numerous prerequisite bar trips, before a drawn Janice Long materialises. She’s visibly enthralled to be introducing a band she’s loved “right through from Generation Terrorists to Rewind The Film” and she looks as though she’s wholeheartedly adored every second of it. The same can’t exactly be said of the Manic Street Preachers, who’ve had their ups, downs and inconsequentialities across a career now spanning going on three decades, but wouldn’t it be great were the perennial sceptics-cum-vehement propagandists to open with Nat West–Barclays–Midlands–Lloyds? Right at the heart of the City of Westminster, and well within earshot of the banal commercialist blitz of Oxford Street, the Generation Terrorists heck-raiser couldn’t be better suited to the occasion. Instead, they unveil the slightly more conservative You Stole The Sun From My Heart and, the band having ostensibly been drafted in “to take the rain away”, the highly perceptible throngs here for the Manics, and the Manics only, begin to positively beam.
Lifted from their most commercially viable recording to date, This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours of 1998, it’s a song of innate contrast: its mainstream credentials musical cannot be cogently questioned, and yet the song – this afternoon gently rephrased as a whiplash thrash – begins with a quick affront to celebrity starvation tactics. “Drinking, water to stay thin/ Or is it to purify?/ I love you all the same” smirks a seemingly rejuvenated James Dean Bradfield over elementary drum machine and hallmark guitar tones, their take on anorexic technique and our blind adoration of they that promote it so truer today than when it was first composed.
Of course the song itself was first written as a documentation of Nicky Wire’s aversion to conventional touring patterns and the instability they incur within the individuals involved, though not only is this afternoon’s revival for an apparently nervy first UK show in nigh on two years very refreshing in essence, but it witnesses the trio return to rerun the straight and narrow at full pelt. And they do so with aplomb, Your Love Alone Is Not Enough having grown into itself with time. It’s a neat juxtaposition, not least given the latter’s explicit referencing of the former: “You stole the sun straight from my heart, from my heart, from my heart” Bradfield cheers buoyantly, as the Manics indeed do just the opposite of that for the nth time in my twenty-four years, shedding yet more light on the enduring infatuation. Though since I first saw them in support of the (at least subjectively) exceptional Lifeblood back in a similarly grizzly January of 2005, they’ve remained almost entirely unchanged. Nicky Wire might well have subdued his caricatured extravagance somewhat, and gone are the luminous boas, tawdry bracelets and other bits of charity shop bric-a-brac that once suffocated his mic stand nightly. But his bluish drainpipes stand as something of a knowing wink toward that more flamboyant previous of his. Otherwise, however, they’re roughly unchanged: Sean Moore still drums in fingerless gloves; Bradfield’s badinage is even now in need of further fine-tuning; and they’re back in blazers.
And whilst they might have been “bricking it”, they needn’t have worried for absence has only made the heart – one that felt appositely sunless in their truancy – grow forever more fond. So aptly, as they sing that very line aforesaid, a radiant warmth perforates the clouds and rains down. “Raindrops keep fallin’ on my head” James begins in transparent continuation of that meteorological theme aforementioned, as though a blue-collar bruiser exposing a more tender side to Sunday night in a sombre Newport boozer, before they break out latest single Show Me the Wonder. Indeed, a swanky, ’70s take on that exact sort of haunt can be seen in its accompanying video, a slicked-back Bradfield existentially posing: “Is Heaven a place, where nothing ever happens?” Now, at my late grandfather’s funeral, my mam implored we oughtn’t mourn as “Heaven is just like Wales.” And while the country’s cultural outpour may not be commemorated in the same way as that of, say, London, that the Manics are able to continue producing such wondrously suave, acoustically conditioned pop as this suggests that there is plenty of inspiration still to be mined for way out west.
Thus if they may well have mellowed in decades long gone, the fire and fervour for their motherland has been kept aflame throughout even those most tempestuous conditions. They may be that bit more genteel than they were around the release of 1994’s spectacularly conflictual The Holy Bible, its nihilistic missives a far cry from the likes of Rewind The Film, but they’re outcasts to this day, their emotive message passionate as the combustion forever poised on the tip of the dragon’s tongue. It’s this mythic figure which is still draped adoringly across Wire’s not insubstantial wall of bass amplification.
And taken from the same album as their opener, the 435,738th (approx.) airing of If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next proves just as epiphanic as it did when heard of a very first time. It was then the decrepit car tape deck; it’s today thumped out across central London, this communiqué on generational decay resonant as ever. If it might have been written with regard to the Spanish Civil War that afflicted a 20th century Spain subsequently tortured by Francisco Franco for thirty-six arduous years, its ultimately universal import remains pertinent: these are transitory, uncertain times in which most prefer to keep their head down (gravity, “or is it maybe shame?”) rather than to put it above the parapet. We pacifically stand, watch and accept where our forebears would likely have stood up, spoken out and reacted to political inertia. Rarely before has the present so staunchly taught us to feel “afraid and cold.”
Those more privileged members of society meanwhile continue to pump coneys full of lead, while simultaneously upholding the basic principles of Fascistic politics: an extreme sense of entitlement, needlessly authoritarian in stance, and intolerant of any member of society alien to their own elitist sect. And James Dean Bradfield seems cognisant of this enhanced relevance, taking half-marathon run-ups that look as though they can only end with him ceremoniously hurling his ivory Les Paul across a now-abandoned photo pit so that it should land headlong in a prepackaged hamper.
Thus although the middle eight segment to (It’s Not War) Just the End of Love may have gone rusty to the point of becoming seemingly irreparably wonky, rarely have the Manics appeared so able to connect with those outside of the population’s upper societal echelons, and A Design For Life can still instil a sense of insurgence – that latent sensation within us all – like nothing else. Within spitting distance of that vulgar capitalist mile aforementioned, it’s a song better suited to the liberal splurges heard on Speakers’ Corner. It’s here where the praying old man cited during that impassioned If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next of earlier can likely now be found clutching the disintegrating “newspaper cuttings of his glory days”; here where we now barter “for a shallow piece of dignity.” The Manics are tomorrow to take to the 100 Club – the adopted punk outpost that, situated a little further along that perpetually grotesque Oxford Street, has somehow ensured its own survival in spite of the truly ghastly company with which it keeps. It is, in a sense, not dissimilar to the Manics on a bill which also comprises Groban, Blunt and Jessie J, for whom many could find a better use for a bottle than the washing of that dirty, scarred face specified. But the Manic Street Preachers are once again themselves sounding pristine, their six-song setlist if far too concise, then consummately spotless. “Thanks for being beautiful” gushes Bradfield come its untimely conclusion, but it’s they who’ve stayed truly beautiful throughout these grubbiest of times.
And as substantiated, for the remainder of the day “we only want to get drunk.” This is, after all, a festival designed for that incessantly frenzied London life…