At the end of 1992 the most exciting band in the world was Manic Street Preachers. When they made their debut on Top of the Pops earlier that year, the singer’s bare chest was smeared with lipstick, spelling the words ‘You Love Us’, the title of the song they were playing. It was a deliberate provocation to a studio audience they had correctly surmised would hate them. Large sections of the rock press hated them too at this point, having misunderstood the band, and, crucially, underestimated their intelligence. The Manics, all too aware they were active in a post-postmodern age –that everything in pop had already been done – decided to use their first major exposure on television sending the genre up. In three hectic, hilarious minutes they managed to include every cartoon rock shape ever thrown, including bassist Nicky Wire going down briefly on singer James Dean Bradfield’s Gibson, the Ronson-Bowie move. Yet at the same time they were in deadly earnest, gave their all: they played ‘You Love Us’ on Top of the Pops as if it was the last appearance of their lives.
I fell for them that night: the Clash influence, the eyeliner, the melancholy, the contradictions, it was all just right. As was their stance of despising absolutely everything. Their anger was revitalizing, and boy were they angry. Festivals, shoegazers, crusties, even some of my favourite bands (notably REM) took a kicking. The Manics were the definitive, nihilistic outsider band, yet somehow they seemed to be ‘life-believers’ as DH Lawrence puts it. The band member I felt most affinity with was Richey Edwards, their second guitarist, lyricist and ideologue.
A key to understanding their stance is an Edwards’ line from the early single, ‘Motown Junk’, where he admits that he laughed when Lennon was shot. I knew he didn’t mean a shocked, inappropriate reaction to hearing about a death, or even my giddy excitement on the morning after John’s assassination – the sort of secret thrill people have watching catastrophic news events on television, heightened by the safety of distance. No, Richey didn’t give a damn. The whole retro, Lennon-worshipping, vintage amps and guitars mind-set, that Oasis would soon turn into an industry meant nothing to him. Yet the line was also an index of the group’s contradictions. Despite their disdain for almost all canonical rock – preferring instead a bizarre mix of Guns n Roses and eighties indie underachievers such as McCarthy – the Manics were the ultimate portal band. They were super-fans, ardent followers. (As evinced by James Dean Bradfield’s fan letter to Mike Scott. In 1985, Bradfield wrote to the Waterboys’ singer; Scott discovered the missive years later in a loft clear out.) But instead of the usual list of influences, their enthusiasms were for writers and artists, jumbled with high and low culture icons. The sleeve notes for their Greatest Hits, Forever Delayed, includes a catalogue of their reference points. Plath, Picasso, Elvis, Van Gogh, Hughes, Dennis Potter, Kierkegaard, Tracy Emin, Edward Hopper, Valerie Solanas, Orwell, Becket, Burroughs. The last page of the booklet bears a quotation from Group Material, a New York based arts collective who explore the relationship between politics and aesthetics: ‘We invite everyone to question the culture we take for granted.’
The Frank and Walters they were not . . .
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