All manner of stuff.
Captains, Leaders … But Not Legends
This post was originally a response to a Facebook post (and the inevitable subsequent descent into Liverpool/United argument) that pondered who was the better England captain: David Beckham or Steven Gerrard. As the word ‘legend’ started to surface through the Scouse/Manc scrapping, I was compelled to chuck in my two-penneth.
The last England ‘legends’ – a dubious term at the best of times when used in relation to football – were the 1966 World Cup winners. The last England team of genuine quality was Bobby Robson’s semi-finalists from Italia ‘90.
It’s been a progressive degeneration, with the occasional spike of foolish hope, ever since Waddle’s penalty blasted over the bar. Social change, ridiculous over-expectation and a colossal disparity between the wages/set-up/fans/ego-management of club football and its international equivalent have turned the national team into a wasteland of failure, each tournament an inevitable shattering of dreams – and each time, the number of supporters who care dwindles some more.
Steven Gerrard was a worse England captain than David Beckham in the sense that he didn’t pull them out of as many scrapes as his shiny-testicled predecessor, but you have to wonder why the various England teams of the 2000s, all part of the supposed golden generation, needed to be pulled out of scrapes by a player who was far from their best.
Beckham was not emblematic of the golden generation, even though his lifestyle reflected its excesses; Terry, Cole, Rooney et al were the genuine, uglier faces of it. Through no fault of his own, Gerrard – a part of golden generation more down to circumstances than attitude – is synonymous with the weaker teams that tried to avoid comparisons with their more illustrious, but no more successful, predecessors. He couldn’t lift his teammates above their station – but it’s hard to imagine Beckham doing any better.
Gerrard never really had any defining moments in an England shirt; Beckham had a bucketload – and even if they ultimately never led to anything more than heartbreak, this is the reason England fans will choose to remember him as the greater captain of the two. But neither are legends of their national team. History only remembers the winners.
The Very Days of Britpop
I’ve been thinking about the past a lot, lately. No change there, you might rightly say; but this time, I’m not alone. It seems that everyone of a certain age – and many more besides – have had their minds on the last century, specifically on a period of music, clothes, drugs and optimism now known by a vaguely rubbish name: Britpop.
Britpop has been everywhere recently – TV, radio, blogs, articles … Alex James has probably made a commemorative cheese called ‘There’s No Other Whey’ – but it was John Niven’s piece for the New Statesman that really got my cognitives turning.
John is one of Britain’s finest writers, but his article left me cold. Not because of the quality of the writing (which is as evocative and outlandish and visceral as his stuff invariably is) but because, as Morrissey said in an earlier era of British pop, before he became a beyond-the-end-of-the-pier racist comic, it says nothing to me about my life. My memories of the mid-’90s are not of London, the music business, cocaine and ecstasy. They’re of the Midlands, of school and the dole, weed and poppers. John’s Britpop sounds like headlining Glastonbury; in comparison, mine was akin to being seventh on the bill at the Princess Charlotte.
But that doesn’t make my memories any less potent, or the era to seem – in retrospect, at any rate – as glorious for me as it might have been for anyone else.
So when did it start? Everyone has their own Britpop timeline, their own bookends of the age, but the ‘Yanks Go Home’ edition of Select to which John refers is a fairly good base point. Spring of 1993 also saw the release of Modern Life is Rubbish, and while Blur and Oasis weren’t even close to being the best bands of the period, they have become totemic of Britpop; so if starting with Blur’s first genuine stab at glory makes sense, so does ending with Oasis’s final clutching at it. Their b-sides compilation The Masterplan, which came out in November 1998, is as good a point as any to bring down the curtain and put away the mirror and the razorblade.
That certainly fits for me at both ends. (Sorry. I’ve just watched the ‘Country House’ video.) In 1993, I was studying for my A-Levels and dreaming of rock ‘n’ roll glory; in 1998, I was working in a pub and my teenage dreams had been all but mothballed like unsold copies of a Heavy Stereo single. But in-between … Oh man, those were the very days.
From the glorious final terms of school to two years in a ramshackle three-storey Victorian end terrace, my friends and I orbited an electric hub of creativity: songs, poems, stories, novels, screenplays … All unpublished, most unperformed in public, many of them utter garbage, I’ve no doubt, but there was a bulletproof optimism about those days, an unshakeable believe in what we were doing, a sense that this was our time and the keys to the kingdom were there for the taking.
We swam unfathomable lakes of beer, burnt through a thousand acres of tobacco, and became temporarily deranged on Liquid Gold and weed in bulk (although the acid I bought from a festival dealer in 1995 still hasn’t kicked in to this day). I remember daydreams in dusty bedrooms, plans for world domination sketched on the backs of beer mats, lazy sunshine afternoons and midnight drives through black rain, The Holy Bible pulsating from tinny car speakers.
Manic Street Preachers didn’t epitomise the era in the way that Blur or Oasis came to in later retrospectives, but they ran through rock’s underbelly like a rich seam of copper: a gift that kept giving long after the bigger bands had lapsed into irrelevance, ignominy or impenetrability. (There’s a fairly decent argument that the real bookends of Britpop are Gold Against The Soul and This Is My Truth, Tell Me Yours.) They were a regular presence in our lives and tape decks, particularly for the twelve months that marked the apotheosis of the age, between the summers of 1995 and 1996 – and if there’s any single song that can sum up Britpop, one all-encompassing statement that embodies the time without becoming indivisible from it, it’s not ‘Don’t Look Back In Anger’ or ‘Parklife’; it’s not even Pulp’s unfailingly wonderful ‘Common People’. It’s ‘A Design For Life’.
It wasn’t merely the Manics, though, just like it wasn’t all about Blur, Oasis and Pulp. Suede, Gene, the Boo Radleys, Elastica, the Charlatans, Menswear, Shed Seven, Supergrass, Echobelly, the Bluetones, Cast, Lush, even Dodgy … the list may read now like a list of lower-league journeymen than Premier League superstars, but all of them had at least one unstoppable, net-busting, thirty-yard screamer in their arsenal and some, like the Lightning Seeds with Jollification, had whole albums that still permeate my Nineties nostalgia like the trace memory of cigarette smoke in pubs and an electable Labour Party. (‘Three Lions’ is a half-remembered terrace chant; ‘Marvellous’, ‘Perfect’, ‘Change’, ‘Telling Tales’ and the rest are the soundtrack of an epoch.)
But all ages are finite – or, as a rejuventated Echo and the Bunnymen presciently put it at the time, nothing lasts forever. My dreams drifted into a coma of depression and impecuniousness, and when I came round, I was working behind the bar of my local. It was a refuge at first, but it gradually became a prison where time was added on for good behaviour; the counter was a cage.
This was in the middle of 1996, not too long before Oasis played to 300,000 people across two nights at Knebworth. It was the summit of Britpop, but the descent down the crags on the far side was protracted and painful. Be Here Now came and went in a bloated, wet fart of anti-climax, blazing a trail for a stream of ghastly Dadrock albums that forewent excitement for craftsmanship; Blur finally let Graham Coxon take a turn at the rudder and he steered them out of Britpop’s burning boathouse. Blur wasn’t anywhere near as American as was made out at the time, but it was continents away from very big houses in the country.
Some bands continued to flourish – the Manics, having lost guitarist Richey Edwards, released the storming Everything Must Go and the Verve, after another of the many splits-and-reconciliations between Richard Ashcroft and Nick McCabe, returned with Urban Hymns – but others floundered: Elastica went underground; Suede couldn’t build on the success of Coming Up; Ocean Colour Scene just wouldn’t fucking let it lie. But it was Pulp’s creepy, claustrophobic This Is Hardcore album, released in 1998, that finally closed the door on Britpop. It was a comedown set to music; the party was over. All that remained were the epilogues.
Two decades on, my memories of Britpop are fuzzy snapshots: faded prints from an age that predates the digital documenting of everything. (I even used a blog I wrote a decade ago on a defunct part of a dormant website for some points of reference – which ironically has been saved for posterity by the internet.) But I remember enough of it to resonate twenty years on: the times, the people, the music … the life, I guess. Britpop didn’t save the world; it didn’t even change it very much. But the fact that such things even felt possible in the years between 1993 and 1998 is what makes the period so eternally, universally, enduring.
Name’s still rubbish, though.
From Hiraeth to Eternity
It’s been 22 years and I can’t quit them. I’ve given up smoking, self-harm, the Midlands, meat, vegetarianism, vodka, discos, driving, writing poetry, working in pubs and a billion other things besides in the past two-and-a-bit decades. But I can’t let Manic Street Preachers go.
Some things, I still miss; others, I was glad to see the back of even before they were gone. I’m happier now, as I stumble towards my forties, than I think I’ve ever been before – and that’s mostly because of people and circumstances I’ve happened upon during the last few years. But a few things linger on from the past, happily: old friends, memories and the Manics. As I braved the Grand Theft Auto crowds at HMV on Monday (three people in a tent) to buy their latest album, Rewind The Film (on actual compact disc like in the old days), two thoughts came to mind: that I can cross-reference periods of my life with the contemporaneous Manics album with embarrassing ease; and what a fucking wonderful thing that is.
When Generation Terrorists came out in 1992, I was 16, skinny as a hat-stand, with a mane of hair long and thick enough to smother Ian Astbury – and I was already smitten with MSP. My only copy of the album was a second-generation cassette (although in mitigation, I did buy all 77 of its singles on multiple formats, thanks to Sony’s £1.99-or-less pricing policy), I had no idea that Sean Moore had been excised in favour of a drum machine, and couldn’t make their gig in Sunderland because it was too far to go on a school night (even though, thanks to the Guardian, I was on the guest list) but I did make it to their Leicester University performance, being part of the stage invasion during ‘Repeat’ that saw the plugs pulled. I can’t see myself on this video, but I’m in there somewhere.
Gold Against the Soul is the chronological anomaly in this list; its associated memories are from a little later in life. My early infatuation with the Manics faded when I joined the sixth form and I never bought the album when it came out in 1993. In fact, my affection for the band didn’t resurface until I saw them play as a trio at the Reading Festival the following year – by which time they were about to release The Holy Bible. Christ, what a record. Its compelling darkness hung over the glory years of Britpop like the choking comfort of cigarette smog; my most pervading memory is of listening to ‘Archives of Pain’ during a late night car journey in pissing rain en route to that epicentre of glamour and culture, Melton Mowbray. It’s more pleasant a recollection than it sounds.
Everything Must Go – the most glorious transitional album ever made – came out as I went through some fairly hefty upheaval of my own. Depressed at being dumped and bewildered by all kinds of things, I left the house I shared with my friends, got a bar job, and spent the first few years of my twenties in a haze of alcohol, fruit machines and football that was sometimes fun, frequently tedious, often terrifying. The Manics were all over the compilation tapes I made for the pub stereo over the next couple of years – not just the big hits from Everything Must Go but songs from Gold Against the Soul, which I finally got my hands on in the autumn of 1997.
Twelve months later, the pub closed for refurbishment and the Manics released This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours. The album was preceded by a BBC programme about the band that memorably opens with James Dean Bradfield tersely instructing an intrusive cameraman to ‘get the fuck away’. This documentary, This Is My Truth's standout tune ‘Black Dog on My Shoulder’ and Stephen King’s Bag of Bones form an uneasily evocative triptych of what was a mostly gloomy period.
Eventually, things perked up. The millennium came and went; I moved house, drank vodka by the oblast-load, started seeing a gay girl and became a DJ (of sorts). Life was pretty unManic and so was the music I was listening to, but a couple of songs from the otherwise forgettable 2001 album Know Your Enemy slid into the soundtrack of the time – most notably ‘The Year of Purification’, ‘Intravenous Agnostic’ and the grand funk rail crash of ‘Miss Europa Disco Dancer’. Say what you like about it, there’s nothing quite like hearing Nicky Wire intoning ‘brain dead motherfuckers’ over a quasi-Chic riff.
A couple of MSP compilations came and went in the early part of the new decade before Lifeblood landed in 2004. It’s a long way from their finest hour, but the insidious electro revisionism of lead single ‘The Love of Richard Nixon’ still harmonises perfectly with the October and November of that year. The Manics always sound their best in Autumn (no other season is as befitting of their synthesis of futility and optimism, their unique knack of looking backwards and forwards at the same time like a Welsh pushmi-pullyu), and even the weakest songs gain an additional layer of quality from the falling leaves. The following album, Send Away The Tigers, was vastly better than its predecessor but suffered from an unseasonal release in May 2007. Perhaps the Manics secretly knew this, as the best song is named ‘Indian Summer’.
Lyrics left behind by Richey Edwards formed the basis of 2009’s Journal for Plague Lovers. I was ill for a long time that year, had given up smoking (almost entirely) and drinking (temporarily) when the record was released, and was also two years into writing a series of novels that’s still waiting to be discovered. The combination of sickness and composition seems in retrospect to fit perfectly with the album’s title, but I didn’t notice any coincidence at the time because I was too excited about my stories. I still am.
The following year, the Manics belatedly remembered the mysterious power of the equinox and September saw the release of Postcards From A Young Man. I was writing full time (for the time being) and cautiously optimistic about the future. But I was also 35 and frequently consumed with a bittersweet nostalgia for my distant youth. The album chimed perfectly with these feelings, and I listened to it often as I wandered old haunts on grey afternoons, trying to get a fix on the past. I spent the next couple of years trying to look forwards and backwards at the same time, but everything was too blurry to make out. I don’t know how the Manics manage it.
But in the end, I found the future – or maybe the future found me. I met a girl, fell in love, moved to London and got a grown-up job on the side. If the Manics (and me) are still going in another 22 years, Rewind The Film will presumably form part of the soundtrack of 2013 – even though its pervading air of resignation fits my present mood about as well as a crop top does a giraffe. The skinny teen of 1992 is long gone, the hair no longer a threat to members of the Cult, and if the adolescent obsession with Manic Street Preachers has matured into something more like a lifelong comradeship, well … that’s no bad thing. Old friends, memories and the Manics, all rolled into one – and no letting go.