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Manic Street Preachers: 30 Years Holding Wales' Moral Compass - The National Wales, 4th September 2021

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Manic Street Preachers: 30 Years Holding Wales' Moral Compass
Publication: The National Wales
Date: Saturday 4th September 2021
Writer: Dylan Moore

Twenty five years ago last month I was one of 125,000 people standing in a field in Hertfordshire watching Manic Street Preachers.

Of course, we lucky ones who obtained tickets for Knebworth (famously, about five per cent of the UK population had applied) were there to see Oasis.

The Manics were a late afternoon warm-up act, squeezed between Ocean Colour Scene and The Prodigy on a bill that captured the zeitgeist then and looks even more impressive in retrospect.

“This is history,” declared Noel Gallagher, and on this rare occasion he was right. Even at 16 I knew the gig was the proverbial one you’d tell your grandchildren about.

Now widely regarded by pop culture historians as the final mass gathering of British youth before the digital age, its memory has a sweet poignancy for those of us who really were there – a couple of years before mobile phones and the internet changed everything forever.

But while Oasis were always a nostalgia trip (their first pick on the bill at Knebworth were The Bootleg Beatles), Manic Street Preachers have remained resolutely relevant to the time across more than three decades.

This month sees the release of yet another Oasis documentary no doubt featuring familiar talking heads reminiscing about Knebworth and the halcyon days of the mid 1990s.

Meanwhile, for the only band to have a support slot on both nights on that famous weekend there’s the small matter of a 14th studio album, The Ultra Vivid Lament.

I’ve never self-described as a Manics fan. I don’t have the obsessive stamina nor the encyclopaedic knowledge, and would never have been able to pull off the eyeliner, feather boas and leopard print.

But as a Welshman who was just eight years old when the band released debut single Suicide Alley, the Manics have simply always been there: wallpaper, but so often at crucial junctures of our national, and my personal, life.

In my first year at Cardiff University I saw Patrick Jones’ play Everything Must Go at the Sherman theatre amid the buzz of excitement as the playwright’s brother – Nicky Wire – made his way through the auditorium to his seat.

The following year, the band released This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours, an album titled after a speech by Aneurin Bevan, its lead single the first and only number one hit to concern the International Brigades of the Spanish Civil War. I had not known about the Brigades until then.

The Manics led me to George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, which led me to Barcelona, and eventually – years later – to living in Valencia.

As for many people across Wales and far beyond, the band were a constant source of historical and political provocation – their frame of reference prompting my further interest in cultural and political figures from RS Thomas to Paul Robeson, Albert Camus to Noam Chomsky, the miners of Tower Colliery to Fidel Castro.

And just as the band from Blackwood loomed in the backstory of my flight to Spain, it was they who soundtracked my journey back.

By that time they had released Rewind the Film, and I have a vivid memory of sitting in the air-conditioned classroom where I worked, at a school in a small town just outside of Valencia, floors tiled white against the azure heat of a Mediterranean summer, watching Kieran Evans’ video for the title track on YouTube.

I held my breath as Richard Hawley intoned his guest vocal over shots of a Welsh landscape and familiar valleys scenes: colliery wheels, terraced housing, an empty social club, a bingo night. When the unmistakable voice of James Dean Bradfield kicked in and the song began to soar, I wept. I knew it was time to go home.

Back in Wales I would occasionally see members of the band in mundane situations. James outside Next on Queen Street, or having a coffee in Pret a Manger; Nicky sauntering through Sports Direct opposite the Westgate Hotel in Newport, not long after the band released a song about the bullet holes left there by the Chartist Rising of 1839. I don’t think I’ve seen Sean out and about but I reckon he’s pretty good at maintaining anonymity.

In Wales we take the band for granted. But the Manics’ back catalogue stands up against any rock band of their era, and also against social commentary on modern Britain in any art form.

30-Year War is a searing piece of insight on what many now call the ‘Disunited Kingdom’ over the period of the band’s existence.

From the “lies of Hillsborough” to the “blood of Orgreave” and “the endless parade of old Etonian[s]”, the lyrics are uncompromisingly rooted in working-class life and historical and political traditions that have elsewhere been watered down by the rising tide of neoliberalism. No wonder their singles collection was called National Treasures.

Sometimes, when we have been in danger of forgetting who we are and where we’ve come from, the Manics have held the moral compass of the nation.

I can’t remember who played at the opening of what was then the Welsh Assembly (although I could have a good guess), but I do remember the Manics refused to play in front of Mrs Windsor.

I wasn’t in the Millennium Stadium on the last night of the 20th century, but the bars of St Mary Street resounded with A Design for Life. It became an alternative national anthem that took on new meaning over 10 years later at the Seaside Social and Labour Club during Michael Sheen’s Passion of Port Talbot in 2011.

Yet another decade on and the band’s latest single, Orwellian has JDB offering to walk us through the apocalypse.

Twenty five years ago at Knebworth, Oasis might have momentarily captured the zeitgeist, but a full 35 after they came together at Oakdale Comprehensive School in Blackwood, Manic Street Preachers are still riding it after 30 years.

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