British rock is in a feeble state, says Andrew Smith, who's sick of bland, why we need Manic Street Preachers - they may be earnest, but at least they have passion.
At school, I remember being fascinated by a Ted Hughes poem called The Martyrdom of Bishop Farrar. It was unusually gruesome, even for the Wes Craven of poetry, but there was more to it than that. A brief introduction read:
Burned by Bloody Mary's men at Caermarthen. "If I flinch from the pain of the burning, believe not the doctrine that I have preached." (His words on being chained to the stake.)
Like Hughes, I was intrigued by the thought that anyone could make such a commitment, to anything, and it came back to me when I ran across a quote from Nicky Wire of Manic Street Preachers in a music paper a month or so ago. He was being quizzed about the "un-rock'n'roll" nature of the lyrics he had written for his group's new album, This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours, and, in particular, the first single from it, If You Tolerate This Then Your Children Will Be Next. Outwardly, the song is a paean to the International Brigade, the idealistic foreigners who fought against Franco during the Spanish civil war. But, as with Bishop Farrar, there is a subtext to the song that makes it far more interesting than might at first seem the case.
Wire spoke about the heroism of the International Brigade, then, almost as an aside, added with deepening regret that his generation no longer seemed to understand that "literally millions of people had laid down their lives for us, just so we can be here now". He couldn't imagine many of his own generation being prepared to go away and fight for a cause, just because it seemed the right thing to do. "The purity of that ideal I find incredibly powerful," he concluded. "People say, 'Oh, George Orwell went there and didn't really get into the action,' but he still got shot. I doubt whether Douglas Coupland would go."
There have to be doubts as to whether Wire would make a very good soldier, either. This is a man with a passionate commitment to gardening and golf, who refuses to leave hotel rooms for fear of sunstroke and disease, and who admits to owning three Dyson vacuum cleaners - one for upstairs, one for downstairs and one spare . Nevertheless, his point was a good one and, though he didn't make the connection, it bears peculiar relevance to the fact that British rock music is in a more feeble, bloodless state than it has been for at least a decade, and quite possibly ever.
I'm not talking about "the industry", which is also claimed to be "in crisis". That's for accountants to worry about. At issue are legions of bland guitar bands, using the same tired sets of musical references, not as starting points from which to fan outward, but as ends in themselves, as templates to be copied as "authentically" as possible. To misquote a 1970s original, this ain't rock'n'roll, this is suicide: this is karaoke rock, and there are two branches, the first tending to ape the most workmanlike British groups of the 1960s and early 1970s (Small Faces, Animals, Spencer Davis Group, Traffic, with diluted echoes of greats such as the Who, the Beatles or Led Zeppelin), the second taking its cue chiefly from cult American artists such as Big Star, Gram Parsons and the Byrds. Some of the groups involved in this are undeniably proficient. You could call them "good groups". Yet, their enterprise is inherently, conceptually dull. They're going nowhere, and taking us with them.
Why has this happened? The single most important factor is probably the rave explosion of the late 1980s. The fact is that, in the style wars, disco won, and has been acting as a spur to brilliant pop music ever since, while white-boys-with-guitars Britrock has been limping along apologetically, with a few bright sparks - Primal Scream, Manic Street Preachers, Suede, Spiritualized, Blur, Radiohead - to light an otherwise bleak horizon. Many of today's rock bands grew up around clubs and raves and have an instinctive understanding of why they proved so popular. For a number of reasons (the seemingly invincible Margaret Thatcher and smug, bloated Live Aid being two), many people had grown tired of being hectored from stages by 1987, while they looked on as spectators, as consumers. Raves were uniquely democratic. The DJ was on a raised platform, but was answerable to the throng. Dress codes were casual, because if you were going to dance all night, you wanted to be comfortable. There was no need for vulgar "stars" on vulgar stages. The limelight was to be shared by everyone taking part. As Boy George has pointed out, wanting to be a rock star in that environment seemed ridiculous, absurd, and for a time it was refreshing. The trouble is, if you try to transfer these ideas - we might even call them ideals - to a rock arena, the results tend to look and sound anaemic.
So, perhaps not quite convinced of the validity of their project, or perhaps having lost sight of what rock music can be, most new British groups have retreated behind a veneer of cool. In the 1990s, we've come to use that word as an expression of approval. Cool means good. Except that it's not, it's the most pernicious word in the English language. In its modern context, cool is simply a cool rebranding of an older word, taste. It means fear. What these groups have in common is an unwillingness to commit themselves, a mordant aversion to risk-taking, to putting themselves on the line, to reaching for something more beautiful, more astonishing than they know they can achieve. And maybe failing.
Dave Bates, the notoriously demanding A&R man who recently left PolyGram to set up his own independent label, points out that the short-termism of the money men who run most record companies now doesn't help with any of this. Groups know their worth will be questioned if they don't get hits, fast. At the same time, Bates suggests that rock musicians are more nakedly concerned with career advancement than they once were. Being a rock star is just a job with unusually favourable hours.
The Preachers' current commitment, on the first album to be made entirely without the melancholy input of disappeared guitarist/lyricist Richey Edwards, is to reality, to offering songs with roots in the Hillsborough disaster (Wire refers uncompromisingly to the deaths as "murder"), the drowning of a Welsh village to create a reservoir serving Liver-pool in the 1950s, the prevailing view and treatment of depression, Wire's own fantasies of being a girl, and his hatred of touring. As ever, many of the titles and key phrases are drawn from figures in literature and politics, ranging from R S Thomas to Winston Churchill. The album is named after one of Aneurin Bevan's favourite ripostes to opponents.
Wire is an intelligent man and a good lyricist, and if he and his group miss the wild, unpredictable edge, the acuteness, that Edwards gave them, singer James Dean Bradfield and drummer Sean Moore's typically rousing but increasingly sophisticated musical arrangements provide compensation. Their definitive statement is still the first album, Generation Terrorists, but this one is at least fit to follow 1996's highly charged, multi-award-winning "comeback" album, Everything Must Go. It will deservedly lie at No 1 in an otherwise impoverished chart this morning.
It should swiftly be pointed out that Wire's preoccupation with politics and issues is not the only one available. Commitment doesn't need to be literal, or even conscious. In aesthetic terms, its only value is to take the writer/performer out of his/herself, to a place where self-consciousness, detachment, cool, cannot exist. This is why despair has been a spur to so much great music, as have anger, fear, love, loss, ecstasy (and, for that matter, Ecstasy). Obviously, many of the best songs will subsequently provoke a wide range of responses in the listener, unlike the Tijuana Girls and Riverboat Songs of karaoke rock, which are in effect signifiers instructing us how to receive and understand them, leaving no room for ambiguity or subjective interpretation - for imagination. In this respect, the latter have more in common with television ads than with anything we would normally call art. They are safe and soothing and ultimately, essentially, pointless. They are boring. If rock musicians can't take risks, can't challenge us to follow them, who can?
When Manic Street Preachers arrived in 1991, looking wonderfully preposterous, with their slogans and agendas and penchant for taking the stage to a tape of Allen Ginsberg reading Howl, Wire claimed they were going to be "the most important group of the 1990s". Reminded of this, he now retreats to the assertion that they have been the decade's most important "rock group", which tells its own story, as does the fact that Jarvis Cocker insists on Pulp being known as a "pop group".
Which is also why you want to hug Bradfield when he soberly assesses his own band's progress by saying: "We've been inept sometimes, never quite walked it like we talked it, but we were never cowards." There are others like them, as upcoming albums from visceral rockers Placebo and P J Harvey will remind us, and the likes of Asian Dub Foundation and Mansun already have this year. But can the same be said for the myopic, self-regarding likes of Ocean Colour Scene? Or the Bluetones? Or Seahorses...or Oasis, Embrace, Reef, Shed 7, Ian Brown, Travis, Stereophonics, Teenage Fanclub, Hurricane No1, Three Colours Red, the Montrose Avenue, theaudience, Gomez...or any of the tasteful karaoke rock troupes festival bills have been packed with this summer? The last act were commended by the Mercury Prize jury for sounding like "authentic" tobacco-spitting Louisiana hobos. What kind of praise is that for a band from Ilkley?