Manic Street Preachers Will Always Matter

MANIC STREET PREACHERS WILL ALWAYS MATTER

Those were the words daubed across a huge banner, which was unfurled at their gig at Cork Opera House in August 1998. Never short of a soundbite, Nicky Wire was rendered speechless and temporarily forgot what he was playing.

That halcyon summer, the Manics were on top of the world. If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next was their newly crowned first No.1 single having sold 156,000 copies in its first week; on its way to achieving Gold status with in excess of 400,000 sales.

Inspired by George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia and Spanish Bombs by The Clash, it cannot be underplayed what an amazing feat it was launching a song about the Spanish Civil War to the top of the UK charts.

Incredibly, the band were initially more excited about Be Natural and Tolerate was thought of as B-side worthy until James Dean Bradfield and producer Dave Eringa devised its ‘comet shooting across the sky’ sound effect at Rockfield Studios. If You Tolerate This went on to become arguably the Manics’ finest moment, and the band’s performance of it on Las Ramblas is one of Wire’s most cherished memories.

Manics vs Steps

Also released on 24 August 1998 was Steps’ One for Sorrow, but it ended up stalling at second place as the Manics’ single ended up engulfing it by a huge 95,000 sales to secure the top spot.

Likewise, each song’s parent album were released within days of each other the following month, but the result was the same. Step One peaked at No.2, while This is My Truth Tell Me Yours remains their most successful record securing a massive 5 million sales and a string of accolades including BRIT and NME Awards.

Fast-forward 23 years almost to the day, and mind-blowingly the Manics and Steps were embroiled in another chart battle with The Ultra Vivid Lament vs What the Future Holds Pt. 2. With apparently just 300 sales separating the two in the mid-week charts, the Manics ended up taking first place again surpassing Steps by 2,000 sales on the way to shifting 27,000 copies with 91% coming from physical copies. The Ultra Vivid Lament also topped the UK Vinyl Charts with 6,300 sold.  

You Love Us

The Manics still inspire fandom like few others, and the sentiments of the above banner remain true almost a quarter-century later with their loyal legion of support snapping up multiple formats to ensure their heroes got over the finish line.

While the two sets of fans exchanged snipes, Steps (including the Welsh contingent of Ian ‘H’ Watkins and Lisa Scott-Lee) and the Manics remained dignified to the end – something that didn’t often happen in the chart battles of the 90s. Both sides exchanged respectful tweets, and there were no grandiose statements or vlogs from the Manics.

Instead, there was Bradfield’s heartfelt open letter to fans, and just a single photo of Wire grinning like a Cheshire cat holding the award flanked by his band-mates. At their headline slot at Jersey’s Electric Park Festival the following day, the band didn’t even mention it. In 2001, their reaction to their overwhelming success was to sabotage it with the Sandinista-like, sprawling mish-mash of Know Your Enemy, so don’t be surprised if they return in the next few years with an edgier and more subversive art form.

Chart success should never really be used as barometer for the actual quality of music. Seven of Stereophonics’ 11 albums have reached No.1, but they’ve never evolved anywhere near as much the Manics across their body of work. The Cwmaman band have never got close to the same level of critical acclaim especially after the furore caused in the music press in the aftermath of Mr Writer – a song Kelly Jones said took ‘10 minutes to write, and 10 years to explain.’ Conversely, Super Furry Animals should be recognised as one of the greatest bands of all time, but are they any less treasured for the fact they haven’t had a Top 10 single?

Regardless, it was brilliant to see a band like the Manics – 33 years after their debut DIY single Suicide Alley – reach the top of the mountain; much like Mogwai earlier this year with their 10th album As the Love Continues.

The Agony of Second Place

Nobody will feel more validated and relieved than the Manics themselves especially as it looked like it was destined to never happen again with five albums and four singles stalling at No.2. As far back as 1996, A Design for Life was stymied by Mark Morrison’s Return of the Mack, while its parent album Everything Must Go was thwarted by George Michael’s decision to release his first album in six years with Older. Plus, Eva Cassidy’s posthumous reissue of Songbird foiled Know Your Enemy in March 2001 despite the latter selling half a million copies.

One of the weirder songs in the Manics’ canon The Love of Richard Nixon was blocked in October 2004 by Eric Prydz’ Call on Me – a dancefloor hit sampling Steve Winwood’s 1982 song, Valerie. In January 2005, it even took a back from the dead Elvis Presley with a re-release of Jailhouse Rock on what would’ve been his 70th birthday to prevent Empty Souls from becoming the UK’s 1,000th No.1 single since the chart started in 1952.

After the commercial failure of Lifeblood, the band returned re-energised on a cracking duet with Nina Persson – a song which they claim saved their career. Regardless, Beyoncé and Shakira stood in their way with Beautiful Liar, while Send Away the Tigers was apparently kept off No.1 by 690 extra copies of Arctic Monkeys’ Favourite Worst Nightmare. In 2014, Futurology was swallowed up Ed Sheeran’s x, and an even bigger juggernaut lay in the path of Resistance is Futile in April 2018 as the soundtrack to The Greatest Showman spent 28 non-consecutive weeks at No.1.

Art Over Artifice

The Manics’ journey back to the top is a tale of art over artifice. Few can match their varied oeuvre across 14 albums and the near 30 years since the release of Generation Terrorists. Always blazing their own trail and going against the grain, the Manics’ 1992 double album debut was a hair metal record in a time of baggy and shoegaze. With 18 tracks included, it was certainly too long and contained some misfires, but you can’t fault its reckless ambition and with tunes like Motorcyle Emptiness, You Love Us and Little Baby Nothing; even the most hardened critics had to take notice.

Its follow-up a year later, Gold Against the Soul was a slick and concise collection including two of their best singles in From Despair to Where and La Tristesse Durera (Scream to a Sigh). Featuring a polished production by Dave Eringa and some of James Dean Bradfield’s best guitar work, it remains an overlooked record in the Manics’ back catalogue. For a band that had burst out of the traps with such nihilism though, they were perhaps playing it safe and the exorbitant cost of the residential studio the band recorded it in suggested they had bought a bit too easily into the excesses of rock’n’roll.

Therefore, the band next retreated to the tiny, cheap rehearsal space of Sound Space Studios with producer Alex Silva for their bleak masterpiece, The Holy Bible. Located in the back streets of Cardiff city centre and near its red light district, the album’s sound matched its seedy surroundings. From its Jenny Saville artwork to its coruscating lyrics; searing vocal delivery and blistering post-punk energy, it’s the Manics’ greatest artistic statement. Renowned as Richey Edwards’ magnum opus, the lyricist and guitarist tragically disappeared in February 1995.

After a year in devastating paralysis, the remaining band members returned with quiet dignity and the majestic Everything Must Go. Far from the ‘Nine Inch Nails meets Screamadelica meets Pantera’ template that had initially been bandied about, it contained 12 tunes of widescreen melancholia with stunning strings helmed by Mike Hedges at the production desk. Propelled by A Design for Life, the BRIT Award-winning album included four Top 10 singles and five songs featuring the lyrics of Richey Edwards.

This is My Truth consolidated their position briefly as Britain’s biggest band, but the wildly eclectic mix of styles on Know Your Enemy went some way to alienating their newfound, wider fanbase.

It was around the release of the latter that my obsessive fandom began. As a kid, I had been mesmerised by ads featuring The Holy Bible’s Stategy (South Face / Front Face / North Face) artwork with the cold, impassive gaze of its subject staring straight into my soul. Two years later at the age of 10, I knew even then that James Dean Bradfield’s raucous delivery matched with the brilliant slogan-heavy video for A Design for Life was really powerful.

By the time was studying my GCSEs, I had fallen for the divisive charms of Know Your Enemy, and I immediately loved the Stooges’ I Wanna Be Your Dog-esque relentless plinking piano and squalling solos on Found that Soul. A strange starting point for my Manics journey, Know Your Enemy and the subsequent Forever Delayed greatest hits compilation were my gateways to a world of discovery.

My biggest regret as a Manics fan is that I was simply too young to experience massive moments in their career. I missed the mess of eyeliner and spray paint of their early days and the Apocalypse Now-like claustrophobia of their Holy Bible gigs. Also lost to time was the moment when Britain’s biggest cult band came overground with the triumphant Manchester Nynex Arena gig in 1997, as well as headlining Europe’s biggest indoor gig at the Millennium Stadium in the final seconds of the 20th century.

Welsh A-Level coursework, 2004
38 out of 40!

Yet, nothing can match the excitement of discovering your new favourite band and delving into their entire back catalogue especially those hard to find B-sides in a pre-digital age. Tracks found on the flip-side of singles offered an alternate history of the band, and Comfort Comes being so intrinsic to the sound of The Holy Bible was just one of the stories tucked away on the 2003 rarities compilation Lipstick Traces. I devoured the biographies, the online encyclopedias devoted to the band’s references, and painstakingly went through recommended reading lists.

The first time I ever saw the Manics was unconventional – in the familiar surroundings of the Millennium Stadium, albeit performing on the pitch before the Wales-Italy Euro qualifier in October 2002. Following renditions of You Stole the Sun from My Heart and A Design for Life, an appearance from the great John Charles and Bryn Terfel’s goosebump-inducing interpretation of Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau; the roof then came unglued for Craig Bellamy’s winner to cap one of the most celebrated nights in Welsh football history.

Inherent Outsiderdom

A couple of months later, I saw the Manics’ Forever Delayed show at Cardiff International Arena. At the same venue a week earlier, my first proper gig had arrived with Oasis. The occasion had hung in the balance until the last second after Liam Gallagher had his teeth knocked out by German police following a drunken brawl in Munich. Likewise, Ian Brown’s support slot with the Manics was cut short by security two nights running for his oafish behaviour. The fact that the Manics’ subsequent set featured a visual bombardment of literary quotes from Dennis Potter, Picasso, Plath and Pinter further underlined their inherent outsiderdom.

The elegiac synth-pop of Lifeblood in 2004 confused critics and fans alike especially when the lead single was a rare appreciation of Richard Nixon with the band wearing masks depicting his appearance. Yet, it could all have been so different if 1985 was the first song released. Reaching No.13, it was an experiment that didn’t work on the back of the unpredictable Know Your Enemy project.

The fan base was perhaps yearning for a return to material akin to Everything Must Go and This is My Truth. Plus, Nicky Wire’s soundbite of Lifeblood being ‘The Holy Bible for 40-year-olds’ was misleading especially when the 1994 album was reissued for its 10th anniversary and then unfairly compared alongside their latest work. Nevertheless, Lifeblood is an underrated gem which has aged well as it’s now viewed in context with other experimental albums like Journal for Plague Lovers, Rewind the Film and Futurology. In fact, some fans have now rebelled against the Manics’ more commercial fare like Send Away the Tigers and Postcards from a Young Man.

Any time I hear Lifeblood it transports me straight back to my first year studying English at uni in Bristol with its wintery feel befitting the cold, dark nights upon its release in November 2004, and the aching sense of ‘hiraeth’ I had at times for home in Cardiff.

Likewise, any of the Manics’ albums since vividly take me to moments in my life. Send Away the Tigers was the soundtrack to both loving and hating the sheer level of literature involved in completing my degree in 2007.

P.S. I didn’t write that shit headline!

Journal for Plague Lovers – the Manics’ poignant tribute to Richey Edwards – takes me back to my first year working at Media Wales. Just before its release, I was lucky enough to cover James Dean Bradfield’s acoustic in-store set at Spillers with my colleague and friend David Owens, and 50 lucky competition winners.

A theme of Postcards from a Young Man in 2010 was the band’s love of West Wales, so it was the perfect soundtrack for regular holidays with my girlfriend and our dogs. The same could be said of Rewind the Film – the Manics’ most quintessentially Welsh album along with This is My Truth – and it was an especially fitting accompaniment to visits to the beach at Manorbier (the location that lent its name to the album’s penultimate, instrumental track). Futurology coincides with the start of my time working at St David’s Hall, while Resistance is Futile and particularly the track People Give In were a real source of comfort when I went through a difficult patch briefly in 2018.

Controlled Glacial Beauty

It’s hard to gauge yet where The Ultra Vivid Lament will rank in the Manics’ canon. While it’s probably safe to say that the Manics have released better albums that haven’t reached No.1, it’s still a remarkable record.

The first Manics album written primarily on piano – a century-old Leipzig upright which James inherited from an elderly neighbour during lockdown – there’s definite echoes of Lifeblood in its controlled glacial beauty. With a musical framework spanning ABBA’s Waterloo in 1974 through to the Bunnymen’s Bring on the Dancing Horses in 1985, Wire has also indicated nods to the ‘high futurism of Futurology and the sanguine, reflective lyrics of Rewind the Film.’

Always obsessives about music from evenings spent glued to Top of the Pops as kids to revelling in the C86 days to obsessively collecting from the NME’s greatest albums of all-time list; the Manics’ myriad influences shine through on The Ultra Vivid Lament like no other. Plus, the uplifting melancholia that they have chased for much of their career comes straight out of their parents’ record collections. As Wire told Patrick Clarke in The Quietus: ‘Whether it was Glen Campbell or ABBA or The Carpenters, so many of the world’s biggest pop songs were the saddest and most heart-wrenching of all time.’

Upon hearing the lead single Orwellian, the album’s blueprint timeframe of 1974-1985 appeared entirely spot on. Although, I baulked at the song’s title – a term that can be weaponised by the far right and conspiracy theorists, who have never read a word of Orwell – there’s a real Bowie meets Bunnymen vibe along with hints of Roxy Music and The Smiths. It’s topped off with unashamedly poppy chorus, while still managing to examine this present era of cancel culture and cultural revisionism where ‘the future fights the past’ and ‘words wage war with meanings being missed.’

The second single is even better. Along with Orwellian and Happy Bored Alone, The Secret He Had Missed were the first songs written for The Ultra Vivid Lament in the long distant days of pre-COVID in late 2019. Having played ABBA’s SOS as a warm-up many times at studio sessions, an icy Scandinavian pop vibe eked its way through Bradfield’s piano track, which ended up flavouring the album. Described as a ‘cousin’ to The Girl who Wanted to Be God – while also echoing Empty Souls and their cover of Fiction Factory’s Feels Like HeavenThe Secret He Had Missed revolves around Tenby siblings Gwen and Augustus John, and the entirely different lives they painted for themselves.

It features a sublime vocal from Sunflower Bean’s Julia Cumming, but the Manics’ duet with Cardiff singer Cat Southall was a highlight of their socially distanced show at St David’s Hall, and both gigs at Cardiff’s Motorpoint Arena. Cat’s improvised wailing – akin to Pink Floyd Great Gig in the Sky – also adds an astonishing layer to Into the Waves of Love.

The Secret He Had Missed is another in a long line of collaborations dating back to Little Baby Nothing, but there’s been an increasing number of great all-male duets in recent years and Blank Diary Entry can be added to that list. Starting with the intriguing line ‘In a garden full of locusts, pain was a crying man’, it’s a slow-burner featuring a cracked Tom Waits-like vocal from grunge icon Mark Lanegan with guitar fills reminiscent of The Cardigans’ Peter Svensson on You’re the Storm and For What It’s Worth.

Given Lanegan’s low register, the song reflects other duets where Bradfield has effectively taken the higher ‘female’ vocal like on Some Kind of Nothingness with Ian McCulloch and Rewind the Film with Richard Hawley (and to a lesser extent with Green Gartside on Between the Clock and the Bed). A little and large duo (or ‘R2D2 and Chewbacca’ as Bradfield called them), their relationship goes back to the 90s when the Manics were part of the support bill with Screaming Trees for Oasis’ ill-fated US tour. Richey Edwards loved their song Dollar Bill, while Bradfield chose Lanegan’s Bubblegum as his favourite album of 2004; before appearing with him at a John Cale-curated celebration of Nico at Royal Festival Hall in 2008.

Don’t Let Those Boys from Eton Suggest that We are Beaten

The catchy double-header of Complicated Illusions and Don’t Let the Night Divide Us were wise setlist choices at the St David’s Hall show to preview the new album. Inspired by Jacques Derrida and Jill Lepore, Complicated Illusions further mines the album’s themes of existentialism and the nature of truth, while also including the wonderful line in tribute to Nicky’s late mother: ‘And in the rhythm of your voice, I find space to rejoice.’

Likewise, in Don’t Let the Night Divide Us there’s the memorable lyrics ‘Reject all propaganda’ and ‘Don’t let those boys from Eton suggest that we are beaten.’ It’s a song that would’ve been delivered with ferocious punk spirit in their early days, but here it’s conveyed with a bit more ‘humourous abandon.’ As Bradfield explained to NME’s Andrew Trendell: ‘It’s not just us saying, “Hey you guys over there, don’t forget we’re backstreet kids and still stood here so watch your fucking step, mate.” It’s more a nod and a wink. It’s us saying, “Don’t think you’re going to have your own way because we still have something up our sleeves.” The working classes will still give you an amazing band, they’ll still give you an amazing writer.’

Amongst the more upbeat sounding tracks, Diapause jars initially, but within a few listens its genius reveals itself. A cinematic soundscape with a dream-like aura and an ethereal, distant vocal, its combination of Nick Cave’s Jubilee Street and Low era Bowie is perfectly placed at the album’s halfway point.

The Ultra Vivid Lament is also bookended by two epic tunes. Splicing together Talk Talk and The Cure’s In Between Days comes Still Snowing in Sapporo, which bursts into life after an ambient start. Japan has provided touchstones throughout the Manics’ career from the video of Motorcycle Emptiness to Mitch Ikeda’s spoken word intro to Ocean Spray to (I Miss the) Tokyo Skyline to their love of Yukio Mishima. The song reminisces about their 1993 Japanese tour, but they haven’t revisited Sapporo since – a moment still vividly captured in the mind of Nicky Wire. As he said to Dan Cairns in The Sunday Times: ‘We were on this long tour of Japan flying from Osaka I think – all glammed up and it was snowing and frightening. I can still smell Richey’s hairspray and see our Rimmeled eyes. We had our leopard-print coats on. That feeling of unity – it was insane and delusional, but it felt so strong. I can just taste it.’

As well as musical comparisons with SYMM and Bradfield’s own Recuerda, it includes the heartbreaking lyrics: ‘It couldn’t last without the hurt…How could four become so strong, yet break and leave too soon? The four of us against the world.’ The final line brings to mind two other classic Manics opening tracks in The Everlasting (‘In the beginning, when we were winning, when our smiles were genuine’) and 1985 (‘In 1985, my words they came alive, friends were made for life, Morrissey and Marr gave me choice’); recalling the days when they dreamt big from their Blackwood bunkbeds.

Sail into the Abyss with Me

The finale to the album sees Afterending added to the pantheon of great Manics closing tracks. It addresses the BLM protests and government deception during lockdown, but also a recurring Manics motif of hope through unity. Its chorus line of ‘Sail into the abyss with me’ not only links with Orwellian’s lyric ‘I’ll walk you through the apocalypse where me and you could co-exist’, but also one of the band’s favourite Albert Camus quotes: ‘Don’t walk behind me; I may not lead. Don’t walk in front of me; I may not follow. Just walk beside me and be my friend.’

With some songs dating back to 2019, the Manics have been keen to emphasise that The Ultra Vivid Lament is not a COVID-19 album. Ironically, its working title of Intimism ended up becoming the total opposite of this age of social distancing. Yet, the shared landscape of lockdown provided us with the time to explore our ‘internal galaxies’; to re-engage with family, reconnect with nature and not take the small things in life for granted. Although tinged with the shadows of aging, grief and sadness, The Ultra Vivid Lament is nevertheless a beautiful collection of uplifting melancholia with love and warmth beating at its heart.

Neil Collins.

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