For a band who only released three full albums during their eight year lifetime, Mansun continue to inspire a devotion among their fanbase rarely seen outside of Numanoids and Marillion obsessives.
Their line-up strengthened with the arrival of superlative drummer Andie Rathbone, Mansun emerged from Chester towards the back-end of Britpop, they grabbed the attention immediately with a refreshing approach to commercial guitar rock, a clutch of great EPs and an ever-shifting sartorial sense which seemed to change from release to release.
Such was the buzz around Mansun when they released their debut album, Attack of the Grey Lantern, it immediately hit the top of the album charts, knocking off Parlophone label mates Blur, before relinquishing the top spot the the Spice Girls debut. Being such an unexpected transition between two huge cultural icons of the 90s seemed to matter little to Mansun, they were just pleased that their debut, produced by frontman Paul Draper, sounded as good as it did.
Listening back at Attack of the Grey Lantern now, it’s still one hell of an album and easily one of the most original to appear from the murky mire of Britpop. Kicking of with John Barry-esque strings, featuring some of the best tunes with the best riffs of the era, the whole album unfolded as some bizarre semi-concept album that nevertheless maintained its dynamic and sense of unity. Untroubled by a weak-spot (even the the tiresome 90s cliche of the hidden track was a stunner), Attack of the Grey Lantern featured the lead tracks of four of the band’s previously released EPs and boasted a sense of ambition that none of their peers could match.
This ambition would almost swamp the band on their follow up album. Having had such an unexpectedly huge success on their hands the first time around, all that Mansun had to do was record a loose facsimile of their debut album to keep their fans, the press and their record label happy. Instead of this safe approach they released Six, a frankly bonkers album that featured few obvious singles, a spoken word interlude by Tom Baker (years before Doctor Who would enjoy it’s expensive, but devoid of charm reboot / facelift) and seemed willfully uncommercial. Released barely a year after Radiohead’s OK Computer, Six pre-dated the lumpy nu-prog movement by at least five years.
Needless to say, Six was not the album that either the press, or their record label wanted Mansun to release. The press in particular were aghast, especially as they had built up the band as the saviours of British guitar rock. Even their fanbase was temporarily thrown (I know I was!), as Six was a definite move away from the accessibility of Attack of the Grey Lantern. In retrospect, it’s a hugely ambitious album, and it smashed the shackles of the Britpop they had previously been chained to. Despite it not selling as well as their debut, it featured their biggest hit single in “Legacy” and is thought of fondly by Mansun’s fanbase.
The lack of instant sales impact didn’t go down so well with their record label though and they demanded a more commercial follow-up, to the point of insisting that the band use an outside producer for the whole album rather than Paul Draper. If Mansun had enjoyed bigger commercial success earlier in their career, they may have had the clout to reject these demands, however at this point in the late 90s, guitar music was falling out of favour in the UK, music sales in general were on the wane and record labels were ruthlessly dropping huge swathes of their less commercially successful acts. Despite Six being an artistic success, it certainly hadn’t been a commercial one and Mansun were up against the ropes. The shackles of Britpop had been reattached without their consent.
The album that resulted from all this was Little Kix, a rather sad and soggy release which didn’t please anyone. Lead single “I Can Only Disappoint U” sold well enough, but the album saw the band fail to crack the top ten for the first time. The more commercial approach that the record label demanded had effectively neutered Mansun’s collective ambition and the whole album sounded like the band were having an off day, even the normally stellar guitar player Dominic Chad and Andie Rathbone. Oddly, though much of Little Kix material fell flat on the album, it translated well on the live stage, indicating that the problem was not so much with the band, or the songs themselves, but the production that their own record label had foisted upon them. Whatever the case, the writing was on the wall.
When Mansun reconvened to record their fourth album, they were a fractious and argumentative lot. A whole album’s worth of material was recorded, however the band acrimoniously split before it was could see the light of day. The press swam with rumours and the various members of the band put out accusational press-statements over the following few months and it became clear that none of the other band members wanted to be in the same room as bass-player Stove King for a variety of reasons.
Over the course of three albums and an impressive cache of hit singles (only two of their early singles / EPs charted outside the top 40) Mansun had carved their own little entry in the annals of British Guitar music. They could be commercial, they could be challenging and sometimes they could be downright frustrating. They remained interesting until their record label decided to try to steer their career away from their less commercial impulses.
After the band split in 2003, Parlophone snuck out Kleptomania, a three disc selection of b-sides, rarities and oddities. The big selling point though was the inclusion of the sessions from Mansun’s unreleased fourth album. Fan-friendly to the last Paul Draper tidied up the sessions and ensured that some semblance of quality control was maintained. For some of the band’s fanbase, this was a generous leaving gift. For others, it was a desperate move by a record label that had caused the disillusion of one of its most creative acts and wanted to milk their still-loyal fanbase one last time by emptying the vaults of everything usable. Oh and then in 2006 they released a limp best-of with an unreleased track, just to catch any last coins.
For those unfamiliar with Mansun, they should approach their albums chronologically, as the best-of compilation fails to give an accurate reflection of the band. Make sure that you seek out the UK versions of their first two albums, as the versions released in he USA were lesser beasts. Little Kix is nowhere near as good as the first two albums, but it still has its fans and only completist really need Kleptomania.
Mansun were a band whose scale of ambition would eventually lead to their downfall, while they were with us though, they released some of the best guitar music to come out of the UK in the 90s.