When roses were violet

One of the great LPs of the Post-Britpop warp is getting a re-release today to mark its 21st Anniversary. AOTGL is unusual in that it remains a cult classic to this day while at the time being a No.1 chart-topper, a bizarre mix of audacity and subversion, and granite-strength ambition. Here’s a short retrospective I did for (the late, great) State Magazine about a record that, along with In It For The Money by Supergrass, was a pinnacle of that era. 

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Mansun – Attack of The Grey Lantern
(1997, Parlophone)

IN 1997, as Oasis’s gluttonous Be Here Now euthanased Britpop, a mutation occurred in the UK rock gene that has since yielded great things. Two events signalled that lairy lad anthems and Wellerdom were to take a back seat in favour of art, perversity and tension. Radiohead’s OK Computer was one. Attack Of The Grey Lantern knocking Blur off the top of the charts was the other.

It’s hard to pick what was strangest about Mansun. Was it the chain of frantic, over-cooked EPs that preceded AOTGL? Maybe it was the lyrics about cross-dressing vicars, small-town deviants and the smut behind kitchen-sink England. And what the feck was this precocious mix of glam, goth and groove doing on a debut (a concept album if you don’t mind) by a bunch of nobodies from the UK’s armpit? The Beatles were an influence, but so were The Bee Gees, Prince and The Carpenters (or so they told us). Never-the-less, bombast and weirdness may be two-a-penny in today’s rock vista, but in 1997 it was only to be mocked, and Mansun’s precociousness went largely unsung by a music press who chose to throw stones at them for not fitting in.

Today, AOTGL resounds with relevance and weight. There’s no doubting that the quartet’s embrace of rock’s absurdities – concept albums, segueing, silly song titles – was leader Paul Draper’s artistic defence mechanism. In him, they had a dark-hearted pop writer, able to bleed swooping classicalisms (glorious opener ‘The Chad Who Loved Me’) into icy smoothness (‘Mansun’s Only Love Song’) and on to hard-nosed, arena-courting rock (the evergreen ‘Wide Open Space’). Elsewhere, ‘Disgusting’ layers clacking drumsticks over washes of synth and Draper’s softly spat accusations (“You’ve been disgraceful / it’s so regretful”). Melodically, it’s as strong as pop gets, but then Dominic Chad’s acrobatic guitar will haunt the ominous fringes alongside sequencers and samples. Hard to categorise, let alone describe, even all these years later.

The release of the progged-up Six in 1998 was proof Mansun were as bold and brilliant as they were stubborn. Band relations disintegrated following troubled third LP Little Kix and they split in 2003. But they’ll always have AOTGL. Like Television, they seemed to hover in when they were most needed, drop an essential record down to us earthlings before crash-landing spectacularly.

First published in State Magazine

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Hilary A White

Dublin-based arts journalist and reviewer, specialising in film, books, music and human-interest stories. Sunday Independent / Irish Independent / State.ie / RTE Radio 1 / Today FM

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