Perverse, provocative and populist: why we still love the Manic Street Preachers

Dec 4th, 2013 | By | Category: Uncategorized

By Stephen Lee Naish (author of the forthcoming U.ESS.AY: Politics and Humanity in American Film)

The winter of 2010 was, for a large majority of young people in the United Kingdom, the Winter of Discontent. Students rallied in their thousands against the Coalition government’s drastic policy decision to allow universities to increase their tuition fees to up to nine thousand pounds a year.  The prospect of the working-to-lower middle class sending their offspring to university was looking very bleak.  The protests that transpired were for the most part peaceful, but the sense that a whole generation’s future had been torn up provoked deep anger that only echoed the disillusion with capitalism that was being felt the world over. At the Occupy Wall Street sit-ins, well-known left–wing writers joined the hordes to offer support and encouragement, even impromptu lectures.  Noam Chomsky, Chris Hedges and Slavoj Zizek all attended and informed on the evils of capitalism gone rogue to eager crowds.  Occupy was even sound tracked by members of political stalwarts Rage Against the Machine, whose brand of out-spoken rap/rock/funk had been railing against the mechanisms of globalised power for decades.  When we needed them most, our own stalwarts of socialism were to be found knitted out in sharp suits and ties plugging a pretty dull single on one of Britain’s most popular and monotonous television shows.

The Manic Street Preachers have never been one for grand gestures, or for making crowds salivate at political rallies with cries of union style slogans (though their early lyrics and spray-painted t-shirts put situationist style slogans to brilliant use). However, their decision to play Strictly Come Dancing during the most politically turbulent month in recent British history is mindboggling perverse, even for a band whose sense of irony is well intact and greatly acknowledged. The song they performed was “Some Kind of Nothingness”, a gospel tinged duet with Echo and the Bunnymen front man Ian McCullough, which came from the album Postcards from a Young Man (2010). The band proclaimed this album to be their ‘last shot at mass communication’, an album dedicated to trying to please as many listeners as possible with every track having radio play, and stadium anthem potential. The fact that Some Kind of Nothingness was the bands lowest charting single in over fifteen years, reaching number 44, proved that the band simply could not appease the majority. The Manic Street Preachers have had a history of schizophrenic attempts to be a snarling and provocative band at one instant, to a courteous and pleasing band at the next opportunity.  However, my disgust with them playing the corporate game had no real grounding; after all, I was not holding the frontline of the protests myself, and the Manic Street Preachers have been trying to sell out to the masses from the very beginning. I should have expected this moment from the very beginning.

The Manic Street Preachers first record Generation Terrorists (1992), was a sprawling sixteen-track mosaic of “culture, alienation, boredom and despair”, that nonetheless defined the bands agenda setting vision and audacity (“we’re a mess of eyeliner and spray paint, DIY destruction on Chanel chic” – “Stay Beautiful”). Despite the fact that such an album of complex ideas was never going to be fully embraced by a mainstream audience, the band were convinced the record would sell in its millions and be the first and last record they would ever need to record. This was not the case. The bands audaciousness in the face of grunge made them stand out from the plaid shirts and torn jeans, but it only worn over a minority. The band's toned-down second album Gold Against the Soul (1993), featured a slim ten tracks of straightforward hard-rock, with lyrics that didn’t require a degree in cultural studies to fully comprehend. In fact the lyrics dealt with the personal instead of the political (”I write this alone in my bed, I’ve poisoned every room in the house” – “From Despair to Where”). The band ditched the slogan t-shirts and eyeliner for a more mature attire of pinstriped suits and designer stubble. In some respects, Gold Against the Soul won over a more mainstream audience, including readers of the metal magazine Kerrang as well as a support slot with MOR rockers Bon Jovi. but the record was far from setting the world alight. Their next album The Holy Bible (1994), a record containing so much vitriol and anguish, that any casual rock fan fled back to the safety of their Skid Row records, and swept away any popular ground the band did gain.  The Holy Bible’s musical discordance matched with deeply personal unbroken prose style lyrics and mismatched military uniforms that the band adorned themselves in remains an epoch of the bands intent. The Holy Bible’s poor sales, at the time at least, and lack of major hit singles have not diminished the fact that most fans and critics still feel this was the bands most musically potent, lyrically astounding, and adventurous record.

After the disappearance of guitarist and chief lyricist Richey Edwards, the band reassessed their provocative stance, and, fourteen months later, came back with the gloriously sweeping “Design for Life”, a song that distilled the working-class psyche in evocative couplets (“Libraries gave us power, then work came and made us free”).  The bands image, record design and live performances were intentionally blank and nondescript, allowing none to read any significance into the bands actions, or draw sympathy from fans and critics. At this point, the band was very much about the music. Although beautifully produced and hugely successful the album Everything Must Go (1996) gave the band a convenient platform in which to prod and provoke its listeners, and talk openly about their socialist leanings, it was a platform they choose not to use, especially in the absence of the bands main provocateur Richey Edwards. The Manic Street Preachers instead played it fairly safe, and whilst two years earlier they appeared on Top of the Pops dressed to the nines in terrorist style balaclavas ploughing through a raucous version of The Holy Bible single “Faster”, they now appeared regularly on TFI Friday in cord jackets and jeans being matey with host Chris Evans. The lyrics on Everything Must Go, although rich with emotion and circumstance, were the least political the band had ever written - although, in the era of laddish Brit-pop, the band's natural intelligence rose high above the more mundane and dumb aspects of that musical excursion. Wanting to perhaps address this situation, the band followed up Everything Must Go with This is My Truth, Tell me Yours (1998), an album that maintained the populist production and anthem-driven choruses of the previous record, but injected a political bent missing from the bands recent output. The political jurisdiction of This is my Truth was predominantly that of the Welsh valleys. From the album’s Aneurin Bevan quoted title to the song “Ready for Drowning”, which mirrored the intentional flooding of a Welsh village with that of the Welsh tendency to drown sorrows in alcohol (and one could point out the much-discussed fate of Richey Edwards). When the album's political content did step further afield, it tended to disappoint, such as the song “S.Y.M.M” (South Yorkshire Mass Murderer), a song about the Hillsborough disaster, which failed to tackle its tragic subject matter in any emotive sense, the title being the most confrontational element. The album contained the bands first number one single, “If You Tolerate This, Your Children Will Be Next”, a slow and thoughtful lament to the members of the British working class who volunteered to fight against fascism in Spanish Civil War.

Garnering a middle-class populist audience with Everything Must Go and This is My Truth... seemed to place the band into an antagonist mindset, and they went on to record an album that jumped from aggressive punk rock to disco to breezy west coast rock, that the bands new found mainstream audience found baffling.  The album Know Your Enemy (2001) was as antagonistic and full of bile as The Holy Bible, songs like “Royal Correspondent” and “Wattsville Blues” seemed particularly potent with utter resentment (“Don't you understand that I fucking despise every single living organism” – “Wattsville Blues”). To promote the album the band played their first concert at the Karl Marx theatre in Havana, Cuba.  The Manic Street Preachers aligning themselves with Castro’s Cuban socialist paradise was a brave and perhaps in retrospect foolish move, and the band's blatant disgust at America ended the band's chances of ever cracking that elusive market. The band seemed to be revelling in the fact that the record split critical and fan opinions. The Manic Street Preachers were wearing their socialist hearts on their sleeves. The accompanying documentary Louder than War, which saw the band meeting Fidel Castro himself and showed a thrilled James Dean Bradfield playing Cuban style guitar, seemed to point out a new and eclectic future for the band’s music.  Therefore, it was even more infuriating that the band followed up Know Your Enemy (after a mid career hits package Forever Delayed) with the hollow and lifeless Lifeblood (2004). The record dispensed with the furies and in some songs cases even the guitars (“The Love of Richard Nixon”) and attempted an album of glimmering electro pop, , apart from a few glorious moments, really was all surface, no feeling. The band had returned to the blandness and almost apolitical stance that had followed The Holy Bible’s militant aesthetics.

When it seemed like the Manic Street Preachers had finally lost their vigour, they entered into a period of incredible creative and commercial potency. With the release of Send Away the Tigers (2007), the bands most joyous recordings since...well ever, and then followed two years later by Journal for Plague Lovers (2009), an album made up from Richey Edwards’s harrowing last writings.  Journal’s dissonant production, courtesy of American noise-smith Steve Albini, was in deep contrast to Send Away the Tigers anthem heavy and polished content. The Manic Street Preachers even regained their political epicentre with songs like “Rendition” and “Imperial Bodybags”, From Send Away the Tigers, commenting on the current war in Iraq.  In comparison, the content of Journal seemed somewhat dated (“a hundred thousand watch Giant Haystacks in a Bombay fight” – “Me and Stephen Hawking”), but it proved to be a mile stoke in terms of regaining critical creditability and respect.

Then what followed was Postcards from a Young and the performance on Strictly Come Dancing, and I what I thought to be the end of my love affair with the Manic Street Preachers.  However, after their last shot at mass communication, the Manic Street Preachers have recently returned to being provocative, perhaps not politically, but at least in terms of grating against the current dire musical landscape. There is the release of two records (one acoustic and released in October 2013, entitled Rewind the Film, one electric, which has a rumoured title of Futurology and scheduled for early 2014). The first song that people heard from Rewind the Film (also titled “Rewind the Film”) was a six-minute duet with singer songwriter Richard Hawley, in which James Dean Bradfield does not even appear until after the three-minute mark. The song itself is a tender lament to youthful nostalgia, a move that goes against the grain of shallow and forgettable three-minute pop songs about fleeting love affairs. The video that accompanied the song was short film about a rundown old working men’s club in the Welsh valleys. The two subsequent singles from the album “Show Me the Wonder”, and “Anthem for a Lost Cause” returned to the same theme of nostalgia and working class culture. The “Show Me the Wonder” video harks back to the working men’s club 1970’s heyday, whilst “Anthem for a Lost Cause” involves the 1984 miners strike, and what the director of the video Kieran Evens calls “a modern British civil war”. The Manic Street Preachers may not speak of socialism and protest as much as we would like, their songs may bake in their own nostalgia and sense of what hope, magic and of course, tragedy, that the past held. Nevertheless, by infusing their audio and visual aesthetics to look back on themselves, their class, and their cultural/personal history, it reminds us of what a remarkable band they have always been, and thus it reminds us what they have always stood for, a quiet and dignified socialist stance.

U.ESS.AY cover

U.ESS.AY: Politics and Humanity in American Film by Stephen Lee Naish will be published on January 31st 2014

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