“America was (and still is) impervious to the Manics’ charms. Probably seen as an English ‘haircut band’ by tight-arsed lo-fi pundits or too plain weird for the rock heads, the Manics don’t stand a chance.”
This frank assessment of the Welsh rock band Manic Street Preachers’ inability to breach the mainstream in the United States was written by British music journalist John Robb in 1999. Almost 20 years later, Manic Street Preachers are still standing, and Robb’s words more or less still stand, too.
Back then, the US market was so unmoved by the Manics that the most anticipated album of their career didn’t come out here until nine months after it was first released everywhere else on September 14, 1998 - 20 years ago today. So while technically it might not yet be the 20th anniversary of This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours in America, for the rest of the world it is.
This wasn’t the first time the band had difficulty sending an album across the pond. Generation Terrorists and Gold Against The Soul, their first two, were put out in the US by Columbia in 1992 and 1993, but The Holy Bible, their third, could only be gotten ahold of here as an import for years. Of course, that record’s hard-to-get nature only helped to seal its status as a cult favorite among American fans.
Their fourth, Everything Must Go, did receive a US release, by Epic, in 1996. This was their “comeback” album, largely written in the aftermath of the disappearance in February 1995 of their intellectual lyricist and nominal rhythm guitarist Richey Edwards (whose case remains a mystery), although some songs were started before he vanished and five on the record feature his lyrics. In the UK and Europe, elements of both anticipation and sympathy from pop audiences familiar with the story of Edwards awaited Everything Must Go, and the album’s tone of defiance in the face adversity, carried on Wall-Of-Sound wings, won over a new audience. It also left some old-school fans, those who were drawn to the iconoclastic polemicizing Manic Street Preachers had been known for up until then, feeling displaced from a band that had theretofore kept them from feeling displaced in general society. Where once it was their statements in the press that were bombastic, now it was their Spector-fied sound.
The chances for Everything Must Go’s success in the US were probably as good as they could have been. Oasis had broken through in a big way the previous fall with “Wonderwall,” and even lesser-known Britpop bands like 60ft Dolls and Marion would come to find their debuts on American record store shelves. Manic Street Preachers were by then becoming regular openers for Oasis, who brought them here in 1996 and put them in front of arena-sized audiences (the Manics also did some of their own much smaller club shows on this tour). By all rights they should have connected, but they didn’t, and it isn’t a stretch to wonder if that wasn’t because they were a band whose surefire hit was a song about working class struggle that began with the lines “Libraries gave us power/ Then work came and made us free.”
This was one of the most important qualities that Manic Street Preachers brought to the pop table. They were from almost their very beginning a Trojan Horse of radical ideals and intellectualism snuck through the mass media fortifications under the guise of entertainment. They called out everyone and everything, from the big banks to individual responsibility, from social injustice to personal pain. Richey Edwards and bassist Nicky Wire shared lyric-writing duties, and though Edwards’ words may have burned more furiously, the band did not just start writing love songs once he was gone (though they did write their first, “Further Away,” the penultimate track on Everything Must Go). Wire continued to address serious, significant issues, and singer/guitarist James Dean Bradfield and drummer Sean Moore continued to write big, catchy rock songs around his lyrics to sneak them into the charts.
Two years on from Everything Must Go, that much hadn’t changed. Heralding the arrival of This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours was the album’s first single, “If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next,” released in August of 1998. As music journalist Simon Price points out in his Everything (A Book About Manic Street Preachers) from 1999, one of the more insightful band biographies out there, it became the first UK number one single about the Spanish Civil War since ABBA’s “Fernando” from 1976, and the longest-titled chart-topper there since Scott McKenzie’s 1967 hippie hit “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair).”
In a cover story on Manic Street Preachers for Select Magazine in November of 1998, John Harris, on the scene at a taping of Top Of The Pops in which the band were set to perform, wrote:
Think about it this way: since they have reappeared, the Manics have had hit singles with a song that surveyed the history of the British working class, another about the death of a traumatised war photographer, and two concerning the vexed fall-out from their own messy history. Today, meanwhile, the piercing mewls of teenage hysteria must be momentarily silenced for a song that says “If I can shoot rabbits, then I can shoot fascists.”
Clearly the Manics’ ideological fire was still bright, but there were those who were no longer convinced of their strength. That December, UK music weekly Melody Maker smelled a bit of blood in the water and went after it in a two-page spread questioning whether Manic Street Preachers were still vital or had sold out. “We should begin with what is, for most, the basis of the problem,” writes Daniel Booth, “namely a change in how the Manics sound. According to their detractors, the explosive insurgence of old - meaning both the punk militancy of ‘Faster’ and the anthemic sweep of ‘A Design For Life’ - has been substituted for something less immediate and more mellow, plagued by overelaborate production.”
This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours was certainly the least abrasive batch of tunes Manic Street Preachers had recorded up to that point. The walking pace of songs like “I’m Not Working” and “Be Natural” required patience to reward, and even some of the upbeat songs had weary titles like “You’re Tender And You’re Tired” and “You Stole The Sun From My Heart.”
The album’s introspective and contemplative mood fit well with the burgeoning post-Britpop spirit, and in hindsight it was indicative of a general mellowing of the band’s music that went on through the first half of the 2000s until they reclaimed their vigor with Send Away The Tigers in 2007 and Journal For Plague Lovers, the album they wrote around the long-unused last batch of lyrics Edwards left behind for them, in 2009. Price writes about how, “The stadium-rock-with-violins formula was ditched, and unusual, un-rock instruments - sitars, Wurlitzers, omnichords, tampuras, melody horns, yang ch’ins…accordions, mellotrons - were brought in…. The traditional instruments are twisted and distorted into sometimes unrecognizable new sounds, an approach the band described as ‘organic futurism.'”
Manic Street Preachers were now putting maturity and texture before youth and power, but the thrust of Melody Maker’s simplified argument was that they did not sound like the same vitriol-fueled gang that made The Holy Bible, and their songs were now featured on television programs, so that meant they had sold out. This conclusion seemed to ignore the fact that from their earliest interviews the Manics’ own media manifesto declared that they would embody a combination of Guns N’ Roses and Public Enemy, release a massive multi-million-selling debut, and then call it quits. It didn’t play out that way, but the band had always plainly stated that they wanted to get their ideas out to the largest audience possible, and if you pull The Holy Bible out of their catalog that commercial intent becomes even more clear. Their most passionately loved album is also really the odd one out.
Still, This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours is not without plenty of its own passion, and 20 years on it has also proven to be perhaps their most prescient work, beginning with its title. In the 20th century, the idea of truth being in the eye of the beholder wasn’t necessarily the pervading understanding of the nature of “truth.” Fast forward a couple of decades, and we now live in an Internet-clouded world where the “truth” can be whatever you want it to be. Wire, who came up with the title after hearing the line in a recorded speech by Welsh Labour politician Aneurin Bevan, actually had a different intent behind it. Price calls it a “declarative, antagonistic, confrontational title,” but Wire himself said “It’s quite an inclusive title. It’s saying: I’m open to other ideas.” Different, then, from how so many people now publicly cover their ears and hum their own truth to themselves.
Then of course there’s that number one single. The sense of urgency in its message might have gone over the heads of listeners back in the contented days of the late 1990s, but “If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next” could hardly be a more on-point sentiment in the current political climate. Though it might first read as an attack on people who don’t act in the face of injustice, Wire’s perspective was actually one of understanding how hard it is to fight inertia and do more than just watch tragedy unfold in real time. This conflicted sympathy translates well today, as we all face the uphill battle of knowing what’s right and actually doing something productive about it rather than just being passively outraged.
Elsewhere the album gets into topics like refugee crises (if a little simplistically, on “The Everlasting”), cultural identity and erasure (in this case the Welsh, on “Ready for Drowning”), and isolation and mental health (“Tsunami,” “Black Dog On My Shoulder”). “Born a Girl,” the album’s most quiet and spare track, is Wire’s honest wrestle with issues of gender and masculinity. “Yes I wish I had been born a girl/ And not this mess of a man” Bradfield sings in the chorus. Apparently some folks back in the day mistook the song as suggesting that women have it easier than men, but that wasn’t the case at all. Wire, married to a woman but also fond of wearing women’s clothes both at home and on stage, was being earnest.
Perhaps too earnest at times. “S.Y.M.M.,” the album’s closing track, was always understood to be about the Hillsborough disaster in 1989, in which 96 people lost their lives in a crowd crush in Hillsborough Stadium at a match between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest. The lyrics, though, are less about the tragedy itself and more about the difficulty of writing a song about the tragedy. If not for the chorus of “South, South Yorkshire/Mass murderer” and the mention of Jimmy McGovern, who wrote the 1996 television drama Hillsborough, the song’s subject matter wouldn’t really be apparent. Some chided the group for not being more bold with their choice of words, but still the song evokes how painful it can be to even bring up the subject. Here, too, This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours remains timely. Twenty years later, justice for the Hillsborough victims remains an ongoing concern.
Looking back, after everything they had been through together, it is hard to fault Wire, Bradfield and Moore for easing up on the righteous confrontation and looking for an easier way to get their point across. The softening of their edges, the trading of their former skinny white jeans for new baggy white trousers, may have ultimately been their most subversive act. Watching their appearance on BBC Breakfast earlier this year to promote their new album, Resistance is Futile, there is something mutedly off-putting about the realization that Manic Street Preachers are still here, writing stadium-ready songs about things that truly matter: war, Brexit, social inequality, environmental degradation, fine artists, and, again, more directly this time, Hillsborough. Broadly speaking, America may continue to resist the Manics, their best chance to connect having passed long ago in the era of This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours, but it’s never too late to catch up.