Who were the most important group in the world for the past year: U2, Oasis, The Spice Girls? No, it was the Manic Street Preachers, says George Byrne
There's a widely circulated misconception that music writers like nothing better at all than to pick on some promising band at an early stage of their career, gain kudos for ourselves by being seen to be first to spot their world-beating potential, praise them to the stratosphere and beyond through the lift-off period and then. when the real world where normal people with lives live cops on to what we always knew from the beginning the 'abort' button is pushed and said band become the target for mounting abuse and ridicule in proportion to their rising sales graph.
It's the old 'Build 'Em Up, Knock Them Down' theory and I'm delighted to say - it's a load of cobblers. If you genuinely love a band, then you'd have to be a complete idiot or an elitist nutcase not to want as many people as possible to share what they have to offer. They don't always deliver, of course - the turgid new Oasis album being a classic case in point - but there's something absolutely thrilling when a band you've supported since the earliest days make the connection with the mainstream public in it big way. Thus it was for me with REM. Blur. Radiohead and - particularly - the Manic Street Preachers.
All of those bands make a mockery of the notion that intelligence and sales arc incompatible bedmates, and they've all had different and equally bumpy rides to the limelight. but in the Manic's case it's been a tougher trip than most.
The disappearance of Richey James in 1995 still casts a huge shadow over the work of James Dean Bradfield, Nicky Wire and Sean Moore, but they fed on the grief and pain to produce their breakthrough and quite brilliant Everything Must Go album, the sales of which meant that they were able to fill Manchester's giant Nynex Arena a couple of months back.
'Manic on the Streets of Manchester ran the giant billboard across the street from the venue - a smart nod to The Smiths - as the wildly disparate elements of their 17,000 audience (a long way from Charlie's Bar in Aungier Street, a long way) shuffled through the doors of this cavernous ice hockey arena.
You could sense that the hardcore old-school fans - panda eye make-up, feather boas... the girls even made an effort too - and possibly disturbed adherents of the Richey cult weren't quite comfortable being shoulder-to-shoulder with the newcomers: A mixture of laddish beer drinkers and, gulp, couples.
The undercurrent was "They may like the Manics, but only we understand them." Sorry gang, after 'A Design For Life' the Manic Street Preachers belong to everybody.
How a band as uniquely focused and lyrically literate as the Manics would deal with the obligations of playing to their biggest-ever indoor audience without diluting their raging passion or succumbing to stadium rock cliche was the main worry... well, it was mine, anyway.
But as the orchestral intro of 'A Design For Life' kicked in and the huge projection screens began showing clips of football riots mixed with catchy slogans like 'A Sense of Belonging', 'Hope Lies With the Proles', 'When True Freedom Exists There Will Be No State', and (my favourite) 'Loneliness Is The Central and Inevitable Fact of Human Existence', all doubts were banished.
The Manics were still playing their own game, except at a much higher level. They now firmly established in the Champions' League, their Konica League of Wales origins a dim and distant memory.
They were dazzling, absolutely dazzling. Brute force (necessary in the circumstances) and beauty (need you ask?) are difficult opposites to marry, but from the opening 'Everything Must Go' to the final 'You Love Us' (the screens displaying still images of Richey as the song thundered towards its climax was moving beyond words), the Manics were completely in control of their new environment, surroundings they'd better get used to.
It's more than likely that at least half the audience didn't quite get the full impact of the MSP experience; although if the slogan 'Read the Dictionary Every Day' flew over anyone's head.. alien there's no excuse for them. The Manic Street Preachers aren't doing anyone's thinking for them, they're just encouraging them to think.
The opening line of 'A Design For Life' - "Libraries gave us power" - is more than just a snappy one-liner. it's a manifesto.
In the past year the Manic Street Preachers have provided half a dozen of the best Rock 'N' Roll moments I've ever witnessed. The Point, two shows at The Olympia, in a San Francisco pub in front of 120 people, to 17.000 of their own fans in an ice hockey arena ...oh, and let's not forget James Dean Bradfield's acoustic rendition of 'Last Christmas' on TFI Friday.
They have the lot: Great songs, great lyrics and an internal pride and dignity which is all too rare in contemporary music. They may never again click with the same number of punters the way they did with Everything Must Go, but I feel certain that they know that themselves.
What's really paramount is that for at least a year they've been the most important band in the world. It's not just down to numbers. The Manic Street Preachers really do matter. D'you know what I mean?