‘Cherish the past. Adorn the present. Construct for the future’
When Clough Williams-Ellis set about composing a manifesto for the realisation of his heavenly Italo-Welsh dreamscape in a now iconic quarter of North Wales, he also inadvertently wrote the template for a band that would most recently come to headline the unique all-consuming music and arts festival that now descends upon his sequestered pastel-shaded idyll each September.
Manic Street Preachers, a band for whom the notion of manifesto is second nature, ride into Portmeirion on a wave of fevered anticipation and creative renewal, the village’s fairy-tale turrets and ornate spires acting as a de facto launch pad for their new album Rewind the Film. It is the Manics’ latest ‘last shot at mass communication’ and one radiating a sepia-tinged sense of brooding reflection.Though its enigmatic title is just as likely to reflect bassist Nicky Wire’s obsession with domestic order as it is a yearning to relive and replay one’s life from the start, it is the cinematic imagination of the album’s twin lead songs that best reflects the core essence of the Manics’ being.
The promotional films for both ‘Rewind The Film’ and ‘Show Me The Wonder’ act as a twin celebration/requiem for the Welsh valleys, its vandalised industry, and its indefatigable populace, whilst at the same time reflecting the safety and sanctity of childhood and the comforting indulgence of personal nostalgia – a recurring theme since the band’s inception, and one presented in this context by the recreation of a 1970s valleys rugby club in full hedonistic flow.Though eyebrows were raised at the ‘big reveal’ of the former’s vocals having been assumed by the almost universally revered Richard Hawley, a man whom singer/guitarist James Dean Bradfield will welcome onto the festival’s main stage as ‘the man who put the ‘Man’ into Manic Street Preachers’, this can hardly be viewed as an avant-garde move for a band for whom vocal collaborations – be they with Traci Lords, Gruff Rhys or Nina Persson – are a longstanding convention.Whilst the message remains resolutely precious, this is not a band that is in any way precious about the means of its delivery.
‘A still tongue makes a happy life’ – (Portmeirion) village maxim, The Prisoner
Sporting a jacket formed of scattergun pop culture patchwork, and tight white jeans, the latter a subtle nod to their explosive beginning (elsewhere reflected as ‘when we were winning’), bassist Nicky Wire bestrides the stage of the festival’s big-top tent like a Cheshire cat high on the after effects of Lambrini and Hanoi Rocks mix-tapes, his notorious mouth at perpetual risk of career implosion, his untethered battery of opinions acting as a box of unguarded Swan Vesta placed precariously upon an open biscuit tin crammed full of fireworks.
‘This is a song that wouldn’t even have been written,’ he gleefully spits, during his introduction of ‘If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next’, ‘if Michael ‘wanker’ Gove had had his way and made me do maths for twenty hours a fuckin’ day.’The song forms part of a set that draws heavily from the slick commercial pool of This is My Truth Tell Me Yours, a selection potentially influenced by the nearby Black Rock Sands having formed the sweeping backdrop to that album’s sleeve. It is a shoot that Wire fondly shares the memory of with the assembled throng: ‘A lovely old day full of life, laughs, ice cream and chips.A great old working class day.’
Having opened the show with a lusty ‘Motorcycle Emptiness’ – a self-assured premature discharge of one of their most potent pop weapons – it is fascinating to observe the numerous layers of the Manics’ diverse artistic guises fusing into a single live proposition. This is a band that sees no contradiction in, or cares not about, introducing the album’s brass-heavy celebratory lead single ‘Show Me the Wonder’ as an homage to ‘the inexplicable greatness of life’, yet at the same time including it within a career-straddling set that also spits impenitent venom about how ‘your love is like a holocaust’ and paints pointedly sinister mental images of ‘disco dancing with the rapists’.
When Bradfield performs the acoustic, and magnificently titled ‘This Sullen Welsh Heart’ it only accentuates the band’s inverse portrayal of fatalistic despair: ‘I don’t want my children to grow up like me / It’s just so destroying, it’s a mocking disease’.In this sense, Manic Street Preachers stand determinedly defiant in their self-imposed pariahdom as the ‘anti-U2’, or as Wire best positions it in a recent interview with John Doran of The Quietus, ‘like a version of The Fall that just happens to play arenas’.Where U2 have perpetually revelled in the earnest mythologising of triumph over adversity, and the supposedly redemptive power of love over hate, the Manics still see no justifiable reason to deviate from their time-honoured palette of turning boredom, alienation and fatalism into an art form; the emancipating gift of personal autonomy, to ‘love your masks and adore your failure’.Similarly, it is somehow comically apt to hear Wire shift gears in an instant and declare it time for some ‘nihilistic, narcissistic, shit-arse, fucking rock’n’roll!’ as the quasi-industrial glam of ‘You Love Us’ kicks in and bludgeons the preceding subtleties and haunting Hawley vocals of the album’s lead track deep into the soft wet grass.The Manics’ days of presenting themselves as ‘a mess of eyeliner and spray-paint’ may be long gone but the identity in which they still so clearly revel, that of an incongruous ball of confusion and contradiction, lives on unabated.
Whilst the release of a new Manic Street Preachers album does not necessarily carry the same degree of cultural insurgency that it once did – an assertion that says as much about the prevailing pop culture as it is does the band – the scrutiny to which the component parts of Rewind the Film have been subjected (its title, its sleeve, its prevailing theme) evidences a seismic distinction between the acute expectations that exist of this band, and those of the formulaic procession of anodyne empty vessels that constitutes the contemporary British alt-pop scene. It is a defining reality not lost on the Manics themselves.Speaking recently to Wales Online, Bradfield expressed his wish that erstwhile guitarist Richard Edwards were still around to expose today’s ‘branded bands’, saying: ‘It would have been the perfect time for him to have been a musician, a lyricist and a quote machine. You wish he was still around so we could just set Richey loose on them.’
Onstage at No. 6, as at the Newport Centre warm-up show only two days previously, the band’s eagerness to honour the memory of their friend, his cultural impact and towering artistic legacy, is palpable.In trailing the thrilling, syntax-mangling stream of gonzo consciousness that is ‘Revol’, Wire eulogises the ‘wit, beauty, eloquence and cheekbones’ of his one-time Siamese glimmer twin, a proclamation of eternal fraternal devotion that strays into profoundly personal and fragile terrain: ‘Wherever we are in the world, whether it’s South Korea, Toronto, or Croatia, I’ll always look over to the right of the stage, and think…’, his voice now cracking, ‘aw, fuck, I wish you were still here, Richey.’It’s as achingly vulnerable a public acknowledgement of both an absent friend and an AWOL fellow combatant as I’ve ever seen Wire make, the enduring manifestation of a wound that refuses to heal, a story without end, a permanent fault line beneath an otherwise impenetrable fortress.
The momentarily awkward pause that precedes the inevitably heartfelt roar of feverous appreciation ultimately gives way to a thunderously metallic rendition of one of Edwards’ most spikily mutant creations, an exhilarating celebration of incendiary rage and idiosyncratic compulsion that bursts hearts and raises hairs: ‘Lebensraum – kulturkampf – raus! – raus! – fila! – fila!’ A frenetically chaotic scene played out by a cabal of forty-something family men whose healthy bank accounts (and dodgy knees) could have easily seen them abdicate their throne on numerous prior occasions; a scenario that when it eventually plays itself out will surely create a cultural and artistic vacancy with few, if any, truly credible candidates.
With a critically acclaimed album of reinvention and renewal in the bag however, and its spikier, angrier half-brother Futurology in the latter stages of prolonged gestation, it may well be the case that, even now – at a point in time when Bradfield openly opines ‘I can’t fight this war anymore / Time to surrender, time to move on’ – we are still some way away from the final chapter of this particularly weighty book of revelations. Yet, the nagging doubt remains that this crusade, this calling, this weight of history and expectation that presses down hard upon their collective shoulders could only be alleviated by the emergence of a worthy set of heirs upon whom to bequeath it.To be in a position to somehow pass on this glitter-strewn baton of inspirational rage and celebratory working class defiance to a younger, equally furious, yet less battle-scarred version of themselves.To have successfully constructed a future that no longer demands their directive urgency or obsessive focus.
Only to discover, in a befittingly fatalistic way that merely intensifies the Manic Street Preachers’ interminable solitary refrain, that there is nothing but a nagging void, that there is no-one.
Banner illustration by Dean Lewis