If you gave me the name of a song and asked me to recount the first time I heard it, I probably wouldn’t be able to tell you. That’s the case for nearly every song I know, even those that I identify as most integral to my development.
But there’s one I remember distinctly. Sometime at the beginning of 10th grade, I put Manic Street Preachers’ “Australia” on my iPod — I liked the band’s distinctive name and the possibilities that the song’s title offered. The track first came up on shuffle while I sat on the train home from school, staring out a dirty Metro-North window at the marshes of Milford, Connecticut, swaying in the wind, growing golden in the half-light of the setting sun. I remember hearing it all: the wobbly, distorted opening chords; the tautness of the lead singer’s strained voice; and the slightly madcap chorus, full of grand visions of escape, of flying and running and hopping on the next freight ship across the Indian Ocean.
“Australia” was the first song I heard from “Everything Must Go,” Manic Street Preachers’ fourth album. The Manics released the record in 1996, only a year after guitarist and lyricist Richey Edwards disappeared. It was the peak of a movement, but also the beginning of its decline: Oasis played to a quarter million people at Knebworth that year, but shortly thereafter descended into a cocaine-fueled rut of mediocrity and constant infighting between the Gallagher brothers. Britpop had its impact across the Atlantic, too: “What’s the Story (Morning Glory)?” did break into the top five on the Billboard charts, after all.
But somehow we’ve all remained unexposed to Manic Street Preachers, the band that swept the United Kingdom throughout the 1990s with its brash, uncontrollable form of rock ’n’ roll, drawing on the wild legacies of the Sex Pistols as much as the literary depth of the Smiths and the punk ambience of the Stone Roses. Nobody I’ve spoken to has ever heard of the Manics. And maybe that makes sense, that the popularity of a band of Red Labour stalwarts from South Wales would remain confined to their native country. “Everything Must Go,” though, is a deep, heavy work, worthy of renewed consideration.
Britpop spoke the language of optimism. Sure, Oasis and Blur and the lot knew that Britain had no real future and the working class might as well disappear, so insignificant was its cultural standing. But Britpop remained unfazed: How else can you explain the blindingly clear vision of Oasis’ “Live Forever” or the sheer fuck-all of Blur’s “Girls and Boys”? The entire genre was one of hope — it found flashy exuberance in the stultifying routine of daily life and expressed it all in the liberating joy of rock ’n’ roll.
“Everything Must Go” expresses none of that optimism. This is an album of defeat — triumphant defeat, perhaps, but defeat nonetheless. And whereas Britpop reveled in its defeat, the Manics recorded an entire album devoted to the never-ending search for meaning in a world in which people like them feel they have no agency. The Manics fall on the wrong side of Thatcherism, the side that saw its mines closed and its interests subordinated to those of the Oxford-going upper-middle class. As they see it, the entire system has failed them: “The libraries gave us power / Then work came and made us free,” sings James Dean Bradfield on “A Design For Life,” referring to the gates of Auschwitz in an opening line which inspires terror from its lightness of touch. Later the song becomes a maddening portrait of a conquered class: “We don’t talk about love / We only want to get drunk,” Bradfield yells as his band thunders in the background. On the album’s opening track, Bradfield sings with disconcerting urgency about a miserable middle-aged man who spends his days impersonating Elvis on Blackpool’s quintessentially British seaside pier. Bradfield’s lines come quickly, delivered in a high-pitched monotone. Paranoia slowly creeps in, and the song fades away to the haunting, barely audible strains of “Dixie.”
The record’s one flaw, if it has any at all, is that it reaches its emotional peak with its fifth track, only about sixteen minutes in. Coming right after the longing desperation of “Enola/Alone,” the title track, “Everything Must Go,” is massive, cinematic on a level that most other bands of the era never even bothered attempting. The percussion takes on a brutal industrial character; the confrontational guitar sounds bigger than it has any right to sound; and a regiment of violins backs the ensemble, lending the song a necessary element of grandiosity. In its ominous aura, its overwhelming sense of impending doom, this might be the soundtrack to a fascist rally, or perhaps the first salvos of the class war the song itself prophesies. Space becomes constrained as the song progresses, and Bradfield’s lyrics come off as deliberately pointless attempts to flee. “Freed from the memory / Escape from our history,” he sings early in the song. Later, he modifies the line: “Freed from the century / With nothing but memory.” The song’s expanse, so hopefully vast at first, becomes claustrophobic, constraining, leaving you with the uncomfortable feeling that escape never had a chance at success to begin with.
“Everything Must Go,” both the album and the song, reflect the twentieth century’s tortured history. The Manics’ music inhabits a 1930s world, starkly divided between good and evil, in which right-wing totalitarianism seems a constant threat and working-class socialism a legitimate political agenda. It’s the world of the Cambridge Apostles, of British spy rings in Soviet employ; the Manics share the attitude of the historian Eric Hobsbawm in his younger days, when he joined the Communist Party because nobody else actively opposed the Fascists. That’s the universe in which the Manics live — where the Right is winning, class conflict is a bitter reality and only radicalism can combat the forces of oppression. And in the grand 1930s tradition, this group once released a dark parable concerning the Spanish Civil War: they named that song “If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next.”
As far as politics, I doubt the Manics are right. But I can understand where they’re coming from: disillusionment with the suffering of the silent working class, caused by the neoliberalism of their youth, has turned into seething middle-aged anger, and they see the apparently oppressive system they live under as an unequivocal evil. Merely listening to Manic Street Preachers is not enough: We must confront and consider the perspective these three Welshmen offer, as unpleasant as the truths they suggest might be.