Owen Bennett on the pain that went into the Manic Street Preachers’ fifth album
As music rivalries go, it was one of the strangest the UK charts had seen.
In one corner was a sort-of-singing, sort-of-dancing pop group under the control of Hit Factory svengali Pete Waterman. Steps, as the five-piece was known, had achieved a degree of ironic fame thanks to the techno-line-dancing mash-up ‘5, 6, 7, 8’, before Waterman took them under his wing to try to bear out his vision of ‘ABBA on speed’. In the autumn of 1998, Britpop was fading, and unashamed pop music was returning as the dominant musical force, with Boyzone, B*witched and Billie scoring huge hits. Step’s debut album, Step One, was set to continue this fightback and top the charts.
In the other corner was a self-proclaimed Marxist indie trio, still mourning the disappearance of a band member just over three years earlier. At the beginning of their career, Manic Street Preachers spent as much time on their hair, make-up and outfits as Steps, donning leopard print blouses and squeezing into tight, white jeans to add some amateur dramatics to their crafted polemics. But where there was once glitter was now a defiant non-image. Their fifth album, This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours, was the first to be released without any lyrics from Richey Edwards, the eloquent but troubled co-lyricist who had disappeared in 1995.
On 14 September 1998, Steps and the Manics offered their differing musical visions to the world. In an all-too-rare victory of eloquence over formula, it was the record featuring songs about the Spanish Civil War, the Hillsborough tragedy, and a set of twins who refused to communicate with anyone but each other in a secret language, which topped the charts. It was the first and, so far, last time the Manics had achieved a number one album. But the singularity of its success only further highlights its strangeness.
This Is My Truth… had been a long time coming. The Manics were a band who suffered for their art, and no one had worn that pain more openly and literally than Edwards. The poet who could barely play guitar was the emotional heart of the group for the early part of their career. Along with bassist Nicky Wire, he crafted lyrics which were unlike any others in rock music before or since. ‘From feudal serf to spender / This wonderful world of purchase power,’ the Manics cooed on ‘Motorcycle Emptiness’, while declaring on ‘Little Baby Nothing’: ‘Rock ‘n’ roll is our epiphany / Culture, alienation, boredom and despair.’
The early incarnation of the band saw them merging a glam rock aesthetic – white jeans, mascara-infused androgyny – with punk rock slogans (their spray-painted shirts proclaimed, ‘All rock and roll is homosexual’, ‘Culture slut’ and ‘Fuck me and leave’) and hard-rock riffs. In 1991, when NME journalist Steve Lamacq questioned the band’s authenticity, Edwards responded by carving ‘4 Real’ into his arm with a razor blade. The wounds required 18 stitches.
Emerging from the South Wales town of Blackwood, singer and guitarist James Dean Bradfield, drummer Sean Moore, Edwards and Wire vowed that their 1992 debut album Generation Terrorists would sell 16 million copies and the group would split up. Neither happened, and the album’s modest success confirmed the Manics as a cult outfit rather than bona fide rock stars.
The 1993 follow-up Gold Against the Soul saw the group move in more of a rock direction, but it is the 1994 album The Holy Bible that remains the band’s masterpiece. The vast majority of the lyrics were written by Edwards, who at this point was consuming vodka and literature at a breakneck pace. Graphic depictions of anorexia sit alongside an imagined gangbang in the Kremlin, while sex with transvestite prostitutes in Bangkok is detailed next a pro-death penalty anthem. Melody was often sacrificed for urgency, as Bradfield and Moore tried to turn these reflections on the darkest parts of humanity into post-punk songs suitable for sweaty gigs and beery festivals. With Britpop in full swing, the nihilism of The Holy Bible – summed up by the lyric, ‘I know I believe in nothing but it is my nothing’ – could not have been in greater contrast to the swinging Sixties-influenced swagger of ‘Live Forever’ and ‘Parklife’.
Five months after The Holy Bible was released, Edwards disappeared. A body was never found. The remaining trio coped with the departure in the only way they knew how – by making music. The subsequent album, Everything Must Go, propelled the band into the A-list of UK rock stars, while its lead single, ‘A Design For Life’, saw them finally encapsulate their manifesto of working-class identity into a radio-friendly, epic pop hit. The transition from soldiers to generals in the mid-90s indie wars was confirmed when the group picked up two awards at the 1997 Brits. In a sign of how the band had changed, Wire’s t-shirt at the ceremony bore a slogan featuring no sex or swearing. Instead, ‘I Love Hoovering’ was beamed into millions of homes, as Wire delivered his acceptance speech for the Best Group gong. ‘This is for every comprehensive school in Britain, which the government is trying to eradicate,’ he said. ‘They produce the bands, the best art, and the best everything – the best boxers too.’
But for all the awards, record sales and critical acclaim, the band had yet to reach number 1 on either the singles or albums chart. At a time when Blur, Oasis, Pulp and even Elastica were hitting the top spot, the Manics trophy cabinet was glaringly empty in this regard.
On 24 August 1998, the band sought to put that right with the first single from This Is My Truth…. As they had done throughout their career, the Manics did not deviate from their self-imposed model of writing about unconventional subjects. Taking inspiration from The Clash’s ‘Spanish Bombs’, the song that got them to the summit of the single’s chart, defeating Steps on the way, was ‘If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next’ – a pro-war song inspired by Welsh volunteers who fought for the Republic in the Spanish Civil War.
To even write a lyric on that theme, let alone use it for the lead single from your highly-anticipated new album, shows a devotion to artistic principles that most bands would never even contemplate. How many other musicians would include the line ‘If I can shoot rabbits, then I can shoot fascists’ in a song they hoped would reach number one?
The album featured other lyrical flourishes and thematic adventures that would leave listeners reaching for the Encyclopedia Britannica (these were the days before Wikipedia, remember). The album’s title was taken from words frequently attributed to Aneurin Bevan, the firebrand Welsh socialist who helped create the NHS. It was a public callback to one of the leading figures of Old Labour at time when New Labour was at its zenith.
‘Tsunami’ was inspired by Jennifer and June Gibbons, twins who used a secret language to communicate with each other. After embarking on a petty crime spree, the pair were locked up in Broadmoor psychiatric hospital, alongside criminals such as the Yorkshire Ripper. ‘Disco dancing with the rapists / Your only crime is silence,’ Wire wrote.
‘S.Y.M.M.’ was a lament for the Hillsborough disaster, at a time when many still believed ‘The Truth’ as portrayed by The Sun, and not the truth as borne out by reality. ‘Born A Girl’ was seemingly 20 years ahead of its time, with Wire writing: ‘I wish I had been born a girl / Instead of what I am / Yes I wish I had been born a girl / And not this mess of a man.’ For a group that had attracted a lad-culture fanbase thanks to the success of their previous record, this lyric was startlingly brave.
Yet, despite these highlights, as well as the pogo-inducing ‘You Stole The Sun From My Heart’, This Is My Truth… is one of the patchiest of the band’s 13 albums to have been released to date. If Everything Must Go was an attempt at running off the injury of Edwards’ disappearance, This Is My Truth… is the moment the adrenaline drains away and the pain kicks in. The emptiness at the heart of the record reflects the gap in the band’s internal dynamic.
The opening track, ‘The Everlasting’, is as weak as your Nan’s tea, and sets the tone for much of the album. Half of the songs are ballads and, musically, Bradfield and Moore sound tired. There are some moments of gorgeousness – the beautiful ‘Black Dog On My Shoulder’ floats on air; the piano-driven empathy of ‘You’re Tender And You’re Tired’; and the delicate guitar work on ‘My Little Empire’ – but every time the music quickens the pulse, the band use a couple of songs to calm down again.
When Wire turns his pen towards the personal instead of the political or historical, an exhausted numbness is revealed. The heart is broken, the tear ducts are empty, and sleep is dreamless. ‘No parachutes, no dismal clouds, just this fucking space,’ goes ‘I’m Not Working’. ‘All of my sins are attempts to fill the voids, all of my voids they are filled with sin,’ laments ‘My Little Empire’, which also features the lines, ‘I’m tired of being tired,’ and ‘I’m fucked with being fucked.’
The album ends with the frankly dreadful ‘S.Y.M.M.’, in which Wire keeps threatening to write about Hillsborough, but can’t seem to bring himself to do it (‘The subtext of this song / I’ve thought about it for so long / But it’s really not the sort of thing / That people want to hear us sing’). Bradfield and Moore contribute less actual music and more random soundscapes. It is the sound of a band exhausted – exhausted by grief, exhausted by work, exhausted by success.
The dissonance of finally achieving the goals the band had set themselves as four teenage friends in South Wales in the 1980s, but only after – or perhaps because – one of them had disappeared, weighed heavy on Wire, Bradfield and Moore. Despite Edwards’ absence, 25 per cent of all royalties were put into a bank account for him should he return.
This Is My Truth… was the commercial highpoint for the Manics, and it took them almost ten years to truly fall back in love with themselves again. The follow up album, 2001’s Know Your Enemy, saw the band test out a range of styles – alt rock, acoustic folk, and even disco – as they tried to work out what to do next. They settled on synthpop for 2004’s Lifeblood, an underrated album that only reached 13 in the charts. It wasn’t until 2007’s Send Away The Tigers, featuring a flawless duet with The Cardigan’s Nina Persson on ‘Your Love Alone Is Not Enough’, that the band seemed to enjoy themselves again. In 2009, the trio became a creative quartet again when they decided to write music to lyrics left behind by Edwards before he disappeared. The resulting album, Journal For Plague Lovers, was divine.
This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours may not be a perfect album, but it is a testament to the power of art, in whatever its form, to help process trauma. This was the Manics’ truth and, for a brief moment in the late 90s, songs about fighting fascism, battling black dogs and living in secret worlds were our truth as well.