Categories
Art Indie Rock Literature Poetry Rock And Roll

Manic Street Preachers – Secret Trilogy

I was reading Simon Price’s review of Futurology (Manic Street Preachers 2014 album) on The Quietus, & he mentions that, according to Bassist & lyricist Nicky Wire, the third song on the album, Let’s Go To War, is the “final part in the ‘You Love Us’/’Masses Against The Classes’ trilogy.” This was news to me, that a trio of disparate songs from disparate times of their career went together as a sequence. It’s difficult to believe that the “trilogy” was planned from the start. I suspect that Wire is referring to a sense of kinship he personally feels between the three songs. I thought it might be a good idea to cast a critical eye over the trio of songs from the point of view of them being a trilogy.

You Love Us (1992)

Quote used at beginning of You Love Us video

Back at the start of their career, Manic Street preachers were difficult band to pin down, ideologically speaking. Their artwork & lyrics were chock full of esoteric quotes & references. This was evidenced across the artworks of their records, music videos (see above) & even on their clothes or written on their skin in marker pen. New Art Riot, an early EP, had a several quotes printed on its sleeve. Karl Marx (“I am nothing and should be everything”) & a lengthy Andy Warhol one:

You can be watching TV and see Coca-Cola, and you know that the President drinks Coke, Liz Taylor drinks Coke, and just think, you can drink Coke, too. A Coke is a Coke and no amount of money can get you a better Coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking. All the Cokes are the same and all the Cokes are good. Liz Taylor knows it, the President knows it, the bum knows it, and you know it…

Andy Warhol

This observation of the ubiquitous nature of Coca-Cola was reworked slightly -via contemporary slant- in the lyrics of Slash ‘n’ Burn, the opening track on their debut album Generation Terrorists, as “Madonna drinks Coke and so you can too/Tastes real good not like a sweet poison should.” It’s unclear to me whether their image of Coke as a “sweet poison” is echoed in the Andy Warhol quote, but it seems as though the Manic Street Preachers viewed it that way.

Another early single, Motown Junk channels William Burroughs on its sleeve:

Rock and roll adolescents storm into the streets of all nations. They rush into the Louvre and throw acid in the Mona Lisa’s face. They open zoo’s, insane asylums, prisons, burst water mains with air hammers, chop the floor out of passenger plane lavatories, shoot out lighthouses, turn sewers into water supply, administer injections with bicycle pumps, they shit on the floor of the United Nations and wipe their ass with treaties, pacts, alliances.

William S Burroughs, Naked Lunch

This brief sequence from Naked Lunch, Burroughs’ seminal & nightmarish cutup masterpiece, seems to be ascribing qualities to the new generation of teenagers that he wished upon his own generation. This paragraph echoes, in my mind at least, what the German expressionist group of artists known as Die Brücke were saying in 1906: “We call upon all youth to unite. And being youth, the bearers of the future, we want to wrest from the comfortably established older generation freedom to live and move.” The group aimed to build a “bridge to the future” & I’m certain that Burroughs, writing in the mid ’50’s, could see the potential of the nascent youth-movement coalescing around the equally nascent Rock ‘n’ Roll genre of music, to fulfil this promise. To build this “bridge to the future.” The Manic Street Preachers not only printed this on their record sleeve, but the concept of throwing acid into the Mona Lisa’s face likely influenced the line in You Love Us: “throw some acid into your face.”

A slight diversion here but Die Brücke weren’t the only 20th century European art movement which influenced the Manic Street Preachers in their early days. The Situationists love affair with the art of The Slogan also rubbed off on them somewhat. It’s easy to draw parallels between early the slogans the band scrawled across their clothes in the early days with the slogans which the Situationist International scrawled upon walls throughout Paris of 1968. Something like “BOMB THE PAST”, written on one of Richey Edwards shirts in ’91, isn’t dissimilar to something like “AFTER ART, GOD IS DEAD” by the Situationists.

While Stay Beautiful quoted Burroughs friend & peer Allen Ginsberg, form his epic Beat Poem Howl!

Moloch whose Soul is electricity and banks!
Moloch whose Poverty is the specter of Genius
Moloch whose fate is a cloud of sexless oxygen
Moloch whose name is the Mind. Robot apartments

Allen Ginsberg, Howl! (1954-1955)

These sections from Howl! about Moloch are pure Manics. Moloch [from Wikipedia] “is the biblical name of a Canaanite god associated with child sacrifice, through fire or war.” Ginsberg was drawing connections between death, war, child sacrifice & relentless march of technology & modern society. While not directly pro-communist, it’s difficult to argue that Howl! isn’t anti-Capitalist. “A cloud of sexless oxygen” seems to me, to be one of the most beautifully poetic descriptions of boredom I’ve ever heard.

This quotational diarrhoea, while being hugely appealing to a 13/14/15 year old version of me, was a bit of a red flag for the band’s well meaning, left leaning but confused ideology. This same confusion/contradiction was as visible in the band’s music & artwork too. Musically, & You Love Us is a prime example of this, Manic Street Preachers didn’t know whether they wanted to be Punk or Hair-Metal. Songs were short, aggressive & spiky but James Dean Bradfield’s excellent singing voice & virtuoso guitar playing often lent them a ‘big Rock’ sound which seemed to shave against the grain of the Punk lyrics & rhythms. Most songs included the ‘big Rock’ moment: the impressive guitar solos which were inspired by the bands love & dedication to US hair-metallers Guns And Roses.

You Love Us seems to be a coalescence of these diverse influences & confused ideologies. There is a preoccupation with sin in You Love Us, “we are not your sinners/our voices are for real.” To sin is to be inauthentic in their minds. The latter line has an uncomfortable (& prescient) relationship with the infamous “4Real” incident. In a strangely 2020 couplet at the beginning of the second verse “’til I see love in statues/your lessons drill inherited sin.” This could almost have been written for the ‘controversy’ surrounding the destruction by protestors of statues to infamous slave traders & Confederate generals. “Inherited sin” in this case being the slave trade, the uncomfortable & shameful foundation stone supporting much of modern, western society.

There are lines which seem to express frustration with Neoliberalism (Thatcher was still in power & Reagan had only recently being replaced by Bush senior when these lyrics were written) “PR problems,” “Parliament” being a “fake life saver” & poisoning “mineral water” (a drink associated with the Yuppy movement in the early ’90’s) “with a strychnine taste.”

The other thing the Manics were unable to escape during their early years was The War. The Second World War, that is. The Holocaust in particular. The “Death Mask uniforms” of the first verse are a pretty clear reference to the skull-logo of the SS, including senior staff of concentration camps & use of the word “holocaust” itself in the second pre-chorus.

& then the final piece of the puzzle is the self-centred arrogance of the songs title itself. The Manic Street Preachers were famously arrogant in their early days. At least in the press. It was obviously all an act & designed to get good press, but it informed this song heavily. “We won’t die of devotion,” they sing in the first pre-chorus, “understand we can never belong.” Is this a hint of resignation, pessimism? Admission that they will fail at their stated plan: to sell 16 million copies of Generation Terrorists & then split up completely. This hyperbolic bravado certainly succeeded in garnering masses of attention from the music press, so job done in my opinion.

The Masses Against The Classes (2000)

“Went to Cuba to meet Castro…” Manic Street Preachers meeting Fidel Castro, 2001

Before discussing The Masses Against The Classes in any detail, it’s worth noting a cool piece of Rock n Roll trivia. The Masses Against The Classes was the first new UK number 1 single of the 21st century. It’s a hell of an achievement & one which the Manic Street Preachers will always hold over their detractors.

The Masses Against The Classes (named for a quote by 19th century British Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone) was described in terms of a return to an earlier version of the Manic Street Preachers. Writing in NME, Victoria Segal described it as “an attempted return to the primordial punk slime of their birth.” Journalist Martin Power likened it to the “raucous, guitar-driven […] Pop-Punk” of Nirvana’s On A Plain. Nicky Wire claimed they wanted an “Iggy & The Stooges vibe.” It’s important to remember that The Masses Against The Classes was released in the wake of their commercial peak: the polemic powered proletarian Rock of Everything Must Go which bled into the chart-bothering late-’90’s Indie Pop of This Is My Truth, Tell Me Yours.

This Is My Truth, Tell Me Yours, named for a quote by the great Labour politician Nye Bevan, came dangerously close to falling into the beige subgenre of late-90’s Indie where you’d find things like The Verve, Travis, Coldplay etc. Despite the slowed down, polished up sheen of This Is My Truth, it still provided the band with some of the most compelling music of their career. Lead single, If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next, with its flanged guitar chords & dense keyboard soundscapes, became (probably) the first UK number one single to address fighting Fascists during the Spanish Civil War.

The Indie music press, though, had written the Manics off as just another commercially successful band in the sea of beige. Contemporaries of Chris Martin & co. So, The Masses Against The Classes was seen as a rebuttal of that safe, smooth image. It was supposed to be a roar of anger against the band’s detractors & a reassuring gesture for fans that they may have lost (or come close to losing) in the post-Richey years. It is a downtempo, heavy guitar driven slice of Alternative Rock. The Nirvana comparisons are probably about spot on. The “ahh ahh ahhh ahhhh” intro is a nice enough throwback to the early days of Rock n Roll (specifically the Beatles version of Twist And Shout), which was obviously on their mind a lot at the time because one of the b-sides was a cover of Chuck Berry’s Rock And Roll Music.

Lyrically, The Masses Against The Classes feels a little shallow at first glance, especially fresh from listening to You Love Us with its dense web of references. It is however bookended by a pair of quotes. The song opens with a quote from American dissident linguist Noam Chomsky: “The country was founded on the principle that the primary role of the government is to protect property from the majority, and so it remains.” Stick a heavy reverb on that & we’d almost be in Choking Victim/Leftover Crack territory. The song closes with James Dean Bradfield screaming out an Albert Camus quote: “The slave begins by demanding justice and ends by wanting to wear a crown.” The choice of quotes seems to muddy the waters of what the song is about rather than offer any clarity. This is compounded by the quotations printed on the record sleeve. Mao Tse-Tung on the 10″ vinyl (“We should support whatever the enemy opposes and oppose whatever the enemy supports.”) & Kierkegaard on the CD (“Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be read forwards.”). Profound these quotes may be, but it’s hard to tie them into The Masses Against The Classes lyrical content.

“Hello it’s us again,” the opening line states, “we’re still so in love with you.” I suspect that the “us” here is the same “us” that “you” loved back in ’92. This backs up the idea that The Masses Against The Classes is reaching out to lapsed (or betrayed) fans in some way. “You” can still love “us” because “we’re still so in love with you.” It’s quite simple & transparent. On the nose. I personally miss the opacity of earlier lyrics, like You Love Us. To confuse things slightly though, the end of the first verse seems to insult the same lapsed fans they were just trying to appeal to: “You thought you were our friends/ Success is an ugly word/Especially in your tiny world.” Even in transparency, the Manics embrace contradiction.

The chorus is also quite contradictory. “The masses against the classes/I’m tired of giving a reason/When the future is what we believe in.” In the final chorus, the song echoes You Love Us completely by declaring that “we’re the only thing left to believe in.” I take from these lyrics that the band are becoming increasingly uncomfortable in explaining their politics. It’s a classic dilemma of the left. Left-wing politics based on theory, history & dialectical analysis. By contrast, right-wing politics appeals to nothing other than greed, selfishness & hate. There is no future through Neoliberalism. The masses should, logically, be always against the classes because that’s the only way they have a future. The band are tired of “giving a reason” why they’re “against the classes.” They believe in the future, that’s why. The final lines of the chorus seem to me to be a bit of copy/paste Manics mythology trivia. I distinctly remember (although have failed utterly to find) an interview in which the band state that they prefer winter to summer. The reasoning, as I recall, was along similar lines to “we love the winter/It brings us closer together.”

I’m fairly certain that the first part of the second verse is addressing the absent Richey Edwards. “So can you hurt us anymore/Can you feel like it was before/Or are you lost forever more/Messed up and dead on alcohol.” This is addressing the pain which his disappearance caused the band. There’s a probing quality, like a tongue poking at an aching tooth. Will this return to our roots hurt? Will it bring back the pain of your loss all over again? The second couplet addresses Edwards’ reliance on alcohol & wonders aloud if he’s dead or alive. The second half of the verse feeds back into the You Love Us continuation. “Hello, fond farewell my dears/I hope you hear this nice and clear/Our love is unconditional/Our hate is yours to feed upon.” Is the “fond farewell” a signalling of the end of the original version of the Manic Street Preachers? The Punkier, angrier nihilists who wrote You Love Us & Motown Junk? It seems to read that way to me, though their following album, 2001’s Know Your Enemy, included several rawer, Punkier songs, like lead single Found That Soul.

Let’s Go To War (2014)

“…here in my safe European home…” Manic Street Preachers, 2014

Let’s Go To War is the only song in the secret trilogy to not have been released as a single. It is also the one I am least familiar with. As a fan, I was left slightly disappointed by the scrappy effort that was 2001’s Know Your Enemy, & I lost touch with the band for a long time. I remember someone playing me Lifeblood & I enjoyed it, but it didn’t excite me the way their older material did. Recently, I have decided to try & catch up with everything they’ve released since Know Your Enemy. Futurology is definitely the highlight of the bunch. Recorded at the legendary Hansa Studios in Berlin (of Bowie/Iggy fame) & channelling a love of European culture & music, Futurology is thought of by many to be ‘their Krautrock album’. That’s a little simplistic & inaccurate though. While it’s clearly inspired by Krautrock, Futurology is still very much the Manic Street Preachers we know & love.

The influences actually do a lot to bring the percussion to the front of the composition process, making Futurology, perhaps, Sean Moore’s album his time to really shine. The motorik, propellant beat of Let’s Go To War is definitely aided by having as accomplished a stickman as Moore on the drums. The walking bass & steady drumming almost bring to mind Faith No More’s powerful We Care A Lot to mind. There’s even a little guitar lick before the chorus which is eerily similar to a certain slap bass lick from We Care A Lot. Not to mention the similar choruses, composed from the same number of words & syllables. I sort of wish I hadn’t noticed that similarity.

Lyrically, Let’s Go To War seems to be almost resigned to a coming conflict. One which was both anticipated in the lyrics to You Love Us & The Masses Against The Classes, & which the Manics hoped to avoid. It’s almost like spending all of your time & resources trying to win elections, to save lives through official/proper channels, only to realise that you’ll actually have to build those guillotines & spill a little blood after all, even though avoiding that was the entire reason for your legitimate campaign.

The song lists things, in the first verse, which could be references to the legitimate campaign & the hostile opposition it faced. “All the complications/All the deviations/All the holy edicts/All the broken subjects.” James Dean Bradfield sounds almost defeated in this verse, downhearted, downcast. There’s a sense of resignation. That things are not getting better. & then you have the Faith No More lick which leads into the chanted chorus of “Let’s go to war.” “To feel some pureness and some pain […] we need to go to war again,” it continues. This certainly seems to me to be the resignation I mentioned before.

The second verse, which speaks of “working class skeletons” which “lie scattered in museums” seems to be addressing the futility of war, as well as the reality of it; that those who do the killing & the dying are from the working classes. The First World War is often viewed as mechanised slaughter of the working classes by a cabal, on each side, of bloodthirsty toffs. The “false economies” which “speak falsely of your dreams” are both the justification & the rewards of war. And all of these ‘rewards’ generally go to the rich. The “working class skeletons” rarely, if ever, see any benefits from the wars they fight in.

In the bridge section of the song we get a continuation from The Masses Against The Classes. An affirmation that despite all of the “knives they will now sharpen,” the Manics still love you. “So don’t forget we love you still,” James sings. It repeats through echoes several times, as if to underline the point. The point being that You Love Us & we love you.

& that, I believe is what the secret trilogy of Manic Street Preachers songs is about. Love & War. They love us, hope/want us to love them & will both lead us & stand by us in the vaguely defined war. Another takeaway is that despite their blurred & confused ideology, the Manics definitely mean what they say & say what they mean. Even if they don’t understand it. Or know how to properly articulate it.

Buy Tom a coffee?

Tom loves coffee. If you’ve enjoyed any of the content he’s created then please consider donating a few quid to buy him a cup.

£3.00

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s