Friday, February 17, 2017

Memories of Mansun's Attack of the Grey Lantern

This is my copy of Attack of the Grey Lantern by Mansun. The album came out on the 17th of February, 1997 - exactly twenty years ago today - but I was only five years old back then, and I didn't get my hands on this CD until roughly a decade later.

It all started when I heard Wide Open Space on a compilation CD that came free with a 2006 issue of Uncut magazine (Legacy: The Best of Mansun was among the new releases reviewed in the mag that month). I had never listened to Mansun before that, but there was something intriguingly out of the ordinary about Wide Open Space that I just couldn't brush off. I loved the nervous two-note guitar riff, I loved the cartoonish yet vaguely nightmarish touches going on in the background, and I loved the song's circular structure - the claustrophobic way it went around and around, sounding (ironically, given the title) like it was gradually closing in on you.

As much as I enjoyed that one track, though, it took me quite a while to follow through and purchase its parent album. One fine day in the summer of 2007, I was digging through the bargain box at The Record Shop (a wonderful second-hand music store in Roath, Cardiff) when I stumbled across a copy of Attack of the Grey Lantern. The asking price was a mere £1, and so I took it to the till - along with a copy of Mogwai's Kicking a Dead Pig, which was priced at 10p because the owner had mistaken it for a single - and made the transaction.

I was captivated from the moment I first heard those stunning strings at the start of The Chad Who Loved Me, but it was during a brass band trip to Normandy (I used to play the baritone horn) that the album really got its teeth into me. I was fifteen years old at the time and secretly besotted with one of the girls in the band, so tracks like Mansun's Only Love Song and She Makes My Nose Bleed felt like the perfect soundtrack for my hopeless, all-consuming teenage crush. It also helped that the album was nice and long - I spent many a dull hour on a coach that week, and I lost count of how many times I booted up my portable CD player and took Grey Lantern for a spin. The sprawling likes of Taxloss and Dark Mavis never once failed to make those journeys through the French countryside go faster.

But that's just my memory of the album, forged more than ten years after its initial release. I wanted to hear about what it was like in 1997 when Attack of the Grey Lantern first came out and conquered the charts, so a few days ago I posted a message on Mansun's Only Love Song (a Facebook fan group with more than 12,000 Mansun-loving members) asking people to share their memories of that time. Here are some of the responses I received:


"I heard the opening track in my local record store - sadly long gone - and was blown away. I bought it there and then, which has only happened with The Smiths (How Soon is Now) and Neu! (Hallogallo).

"Then I collected the singles and early EPs and again, like The Smiths, amazing B-sides: always a sign of quality!" - Gavin Norman


"I was 14 when I saw the Stripper Vicar video on The O-Zone, but I didn't see who it was by or what it was called. I just knew that I loved it.

"A few months later, Channel Four used to show - I think - Babylon 5 at six o'clock. The show ran for fifty minutes, so they used to show music videos to fill the extra time. It was always brand new singles and, one day, it was the Wide Open Space video. I immediately recognised it as the band I'd loved, and now I knew their name.

"I saved my pocket money and bought all the Mansun stuff I could hold of: Wide Open Space, Stripper Vicar, Two EP. All in their many formats, with loads of B-sides (although the elusive One EP took me many, many more years to track down). Mansun and the Manics were the best for loads of dead good B-sides.

"Then began the long wait for the album, which took its time. But there was a whole other single to come first. Five EP came out in February 1997 and changed my world. On the day it came out, I bought the three formats I could actually play (CD1, CD2, cassette) along with Earthling by my all-time hero David Bowie.

"That night I sat with my headphones on and listened to Bowie's I'm Afraid of Americans for the first time (my reaction: 'holy shit!'). I also heard the weird and wonderful sounds of Flourella and, most importantly, the sheer, unbridled atmospheric joy that is The Holy Blood and The Holy Grail (my reaction: 'what the hell is this?!').

"Surely the album couldn't live up to this.

"I continued collecting as much as I could. I found Things Keep Falling Off Buildings, Mansun's Only Love Song, and The Chad Who Loved Me on compilations from Vox magazine and the like. And eventually, after a few weeks of saving even after its release date, Attack of the Grey Lantern was in my grasp at last.

"I bought the album on cassette - it was cheaper, which meant I could afford to buy it sooner - and it came with a huge, huge inlay booklet full of pictures and lyrics. I listened over and over and learned the words off by heart. It was my favourite album ever. I never thought that anything would ever, ever be better. Little did I know what Mansun had in store for the future.

"I discovered Mansun in the emotional white heat of youth - the point where all music seems like it's been written specifically for you and moves you in ways it perhaps never will again. 1997 was the year of Attack of the Grey Lantern, and because of this, it was also the year my obsession with music began." - Neil Larrisey


"I saw Wide Open Space on Top of the Pops towards the end of 1996. At that point there were a lot of indie bands jumping for attention, and I was sceptical, but I loved that song. I remember seeing the single for sale in HMV, but while I did briefly study it (Lemonade Secret Drinker - what a strange song title), I didn't buy it because I thought they looked a bit too much like a boy band!

"At the start of 1997, I recorded the band performing the same song on TFI Friday. This time I was convinced they were great because they sounded great live and, although they still looked pretty, they also looked mean. Chris Evans said that the album was out on Monday and he expected it to go to number one.

"That Monday I bought the album (along with Blur by Blur and Everything Must Go by the Manic Street Preachers), and hitting 'play' on my CD walkman, my expectations were confounded once again. I had not been expecting those strings, and I thought the way the songs segued together was complete genius. I still can't help but sing along to the first two tracks, and Taxloss (both the song and the video) was brilliantly outrageous.

"You, Who Do You Hate? is a brief moment of reflection, and then it's just great songs all the way to the finish. I adored the backing vocals on Stripper Vicar, as well as the way Paul stretched the word 'lie' to eight syllables. Disgusting is like a song Tears for Fears would have written on a good day (but with a goofy gothic verse), and She Makes My Nose Bleed was pure mid-'90s guitar cool with a great beat and those strings! Naked Twister seemed like a lesser track at the time but it has grown on me since; Egg Shaped Fred made me walk with a swagger; and the album couldn't have had a better closer than Dark Mavis. A total classic!" - Phil Baker

Thanks to all the Mansunites who shared their stories with me. If you're on Facebook and you like Mansun as much as I do, you'll definitely want to join the Mansun's Only Love Song group - click here to check it out.

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