Rhian E Jones on what the Manic Street Preachers said, and who listened
Manic Street Preachers were, before most other things, a curio and an anomaly. Throughout the 1990s – a queasy time of class confusion, class drag, and class erasure – they were a band characterised by a particular and peculiar brand of politics. They were also the band with whom I felt the strongest sense of shared political identity – one which seemed increasingly out of step with the era. If Pulp were, as recently suggested, the last of the art-school bands, then surely the Manics were the last artistic gasp of a certain breed of late 20th-century industrial working class?
The Manics stand slightly apart from Pulp’s putative artschool/suburbia/starving-bohemian axis. Raised in the south Wales cultural cellar and fed on intermittent and disparate drips from the ceiling – Plath, ‘Howl’, Solanos, Baudelaire, Bret Easton Ellis, Big Flame – they fashioned around themselves the kind of defiantly odd proletarian glam aesthetic that gets you beaten up in pubs before it gets you feted in Camden. But the band and their music was always shaped by and rooted in class and class politics.
The Manics were class-conscious – that is, they were unable to avoid being conscious of class – in a time and place where the signifiers of class were becoming abstracted, simplified, stripped of meaning and scattered ready for appropriation, while at the same time those who’d happened to be born with the same signifiers involuntarily bolted-on were vanishing from public view. In the 1990s the Manics’ distinct brand of Bevanite workingmen’s-club socialism, a grand tradition subtly but surely drilled into every Valleys child, was a baffling throwback – less palatable, because less plausible, and certainly making you work harder to understand it, than the cartoonish outrage of S*M*A*S*H or Oasis’ lumpen-aspirational swagger.
What their body of work wasn’t, despite the rose-tinted political ideals sometimes on show, was a romanticised view of actual working-class conditions. It wasn’t sexy and it wasn’t Poor Is Cool. And in something like ‘Archives of Pain’, a heartfelt and clunky advocacy of capital punishment, the band could display a liberal-baiting outrage – ‘pain not penance, forget martyrs, remember victims’ – which touches on elements of working class thought that more squeamish or apologetic commentators might have kept swept under the carpet.
Elsewhere, South Yorkshire Mass Murderer [below] commemorates the Hillsborough dead – mawkishly perhaps, but providing a necessary analysis and reminder of how state, police, and media institutionalised fear and distrust of mass proletarian engagement, and how this led to people being caged and corralled like animals. And thus the song does slightly more for the working class football fan than, for instance, the set of self-satisfied Primrose Hill muppets which perpetrated ‘Vindaloo’.
Similarly, the swooning Spanish Civil War salute ‘If You Tolerate This…’, or the post-industrial cri de coeur ‘Ready for Drowning’, were atypical, essentially dignified expressions of indignation whose existence in a world and in charts which also contained that cover of ‘Cotton-Eye Joe’ seemed incredible. About as offbeat, outdated, and exasperating if you didn’t get it, as socialism seemed to Tony Blair.
While their conditions of production invariably informed what they said and did, the Manics only occasionally wore class on their leopardprint-clad and spraypaint-spattered sleeve. They didn’t have to, because it was so blatantly bred in the bone. Absolutely no one but a working-class lyricist would have come up with the line ‘Close the pits, sanctify Roy Lynk, an OBE / Shareholding a piece of this fucking country’ unless they were angling for a job doing Billy Elliot, the Slightly More Obscure Musical. (I heard that song in the days before Google and even I had to ask my dad who the hell Roy Lynk was. He said I was too young to know.)
In contrast to a handful of their peers and successors, being Dead Working Class Right wasn’t the Manics’ raison d’etre, because they were secure enough in the authenticity of their origins not to be constantly at pains to point them out. Even while everyone else was doing so, with varying degrees of validity. For the stylish, book-smart and culturally savvy proletariat, the weary stoicism of ‘Working class cliches start here / Either cloth caps or smack victims’ does as much to anticipate the 21st century as to sum up the late 20th. And it remains impossible to reach back into the 1990s, grasping for lines to describe the sociopolitical here and now, without burning your fingers on the white-hot irony of ‘A Design for Life’.
It has, incidentally, been years since I’ve listened to the Manic Street Preachers. I’m happy to leave them to their photographic retrospectives and their status as mock national treasures. They remain the band who most accurately represented where I came from, and, in their uses of literacy, uses of glamour, and uses of consciousness, they also represented the sometimes preposterous methods of escape one had cause to employ.
Rhian E Jones is a writer of fiction, satire, and nonfiction on the subjects of music, history, and politics.
Her blog is http://velvetcoalmine.wordpress.com
- Clampdown: pop-cultural wars on class and gender (Zero Books) Rhian E. Jones: