Libraries Gave Us Power: notes on the Manic Street Preachers and class
So I liked Owen Hatherley’s piece on Pulp, and I knew reading the comments would spoil it all, but reader, I read them. The majority were bafflingly wet-blanket in nature, wildly and wilfully missing the article’s point, if studded with bits of valid and interesting discussion. Specifically, though, I was surprised to encounter in both the article and the responses a lack of any mention of Manic Street Preachers. Surely you can’t reach back into the 90s, grasping for lines to describe the sociopolitical here and now, without burning your fingers on the white-hot irony of ‘A Design for Life’?
‘We don’t talk about love,
We only want to get drunk
And we are not allowed to spend
As we are told that this is the end’
If Pulp were the last art-school band (and I’m by no means convinced of that), then surely the Manics were the last artistic gasp of a certain breed of late 20th-century industrial working class?
The Manics are something apart from Pulp’s putative artschool/suburbia/starving-bohemian axis, being raised in the south Wales cultural cellar and, fed on intermittent and disparate drips from the ceiling – Plath, ‘Howl’, McCarthy, Solanos, Baudelaire, Bret Easton Ellis, Big Flame – fashioning around themselves the kind of resolutely odd proletarian glam aesthetic that gets you beaten up in pubs before it gets you feted in Camden. But 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 – at 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’ Bevanite workingmen’s-club socialism, a grand tradition 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 it 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. ‘SYMM’ commemorates Hillsborough, mawkishly perhaps, but a necessary analysis and reminder of how the state and media institutionalised fear and distrust of mass proletarian engagement and how it led to people being caged and corralled like animals. And thus the song did slightly more for the working class than, oh I don’t know, the collection of self-satisfied coke-addled Primrose Hill muppets that perpetrated fucking ‘Vindaloo’. Ditto ‘If You Tolerate This…’, or ‘Ready for Drowning’ – essentially dignified expressions of indignation whose existence in a world and in charts which also contained that cover of ‘Cotton-Eye Joe’ seemed almost incredible. About as odd, outdated and exasperating if you didn’t get it, as socialism seemed to Tony Blair.
You’ll have read about Blue Labour, yeah? Just thinking that the Manics could, in a song like ‘Archives of Pain’, display a Mail-esque outrage which their metropolitan liberal contemporaries found indigestible. Because you know, that happens. People do want to bring back hanging even if you think they’re meant to embody a Genet-esque strain of petty-criminal nobility. There are right-wing and chauvinist elements to the working class and I can’t help that. We aren’t a homogenised mass awaiting articulation. We speak to varying extents of articulacy already, it depends on who’s listening and how. And quite a lot of us are cunts – in fact, in many ways, we’re just like everyone else. But there are ways in which we aren’t, and those ways count.
While their conditions of production invariably informed what they said and did, the Manics only occasionally wore class on their fake-leopardprint, 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 come up with the line ‘Close the pits, sanctify Roy Link, an OBE / Shareholding a piece of this fucking country’ unless they were going 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 Link was. He said I was too young to know, because contrary to the fond suppositions of the bourgeoisie, respectable working-class men don’t use the word ‘cunt’ in front of children.) Being Dead Working Class Right wasn’t the raison d’etre of the band 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 was great to be a fan of the Manics, like it was great to be a fan of the Libertines, especially a female one. It was life-affirming, and inspiring, and escapist, right up until the media began to take an interest. That’s another post though.
I haven’t listened to the Manic Street Preachers for years, by the way, but I don’t feel I need to. They were a good decade older than me, but we grew up together. They remain the band who most accurately represent where I came from, and they also represented the preposterous methods of escape one had to employ: the uses of literacy, the uses of glamour, the uses of consciousness and, perhaps, the uses of a slow, soft slide into bands never being quite as fantastic as they seemed when you were thirteen.
(Post written during my lunch-hour, hence its skimming-the-surface nature. Got lots more to say about this.)
I really enjoyed reading that, unlike Hatherley’s article, which annoyed me immensely, mainly because it smacked of the exceptionalism which so often comes into music journalism out of ignorance (a tendency particularly notable in commentary on Bob Dylan and Morrissey). Also, I’m unconvinced that Pop has become any more the preserve of the middle classes recently, epsecially as most of those who benefitted from grammar and art school were middle class anyway.
I agree that the Manics disprovee the idea that Pulp were/are the Last Working Class Gang in Town. I can’t remember who I first heard saying it, but ‘A Design For Life’ is a brilliant riposte both to the patronising mockney of Blur and the anti-intellectualism of Oasis, certainly something hugely valuable at the height of Britpop:
It’s odd that while ‘Common People’ is still a club staple, ‘A Design For Life’ seems to have slipped from popular memory. Perhaps it’s because the Manics have plodded on regardless for the last decade, releasing mainly mediocre material. Had they split in 1999 or 2002 and then reformed last year, we would probably be seeing a slew of articles celebrating their intellectualism. Sadly, the closest modern equivalet to them is probably The Enemy.
The other working class band (or working class-fronted band at any rate) that is always overlooked in these discussions is Suede, despite the fact that, before anyone had heard of Oasis, they were in the top 10 singing about sex in council houses.
It’s odd that while ‘Common People’ is still a club staple, ‘A Design For Life’ seems to have slipped from popular memory. Perhaps it’s because the Manics have plodded on regardless for the last decade, releasing mainly mediocre material.
Entirely possible, and then there’s also that fact that ‘Design For Life’ is simply much harder to dance to. There’s so much banked fury and dignity to it that it’s barely even moshable, I think the best I might be able to manage is some sort of waltz. There’s also the fact that, as necessary and incisive as the song was, the chord that it struck isn’t one that lends itself to the kind of ironic celebration that’s possible when dancing to ‘Common People’ (if you’re the sort of person who mostly dances self-consciously, which patently I am).
I was never sure about Suede, you know, although I think your point is valid. We come back to whether the working class in question is from council houses or miners’ terraces…