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.