Tilly Foulkes tracks a journey of national identity – from her initial rejection of Wales to her final embracing of it – through the music and lore of the Manic Street Preachers.
I doubt I’d have ever felt truly at home in Wales without the Manic Street Preachers. As a queer, working-class kid who felt entirely alienated by Welsh culture, the Manics offered something that made me feel connected to my roots in a tiny, angry way. The unashamed pride of Nicky Wire, the brash honesty of Richey Edwards, and the genuine belief they had in themselves drove me to feel more comfortable in my identity (the Welsh part included). They embody a particular brand of Welshness that only they have mastered; a little bit weird, a little bit arrogant, intellectually ambitious, and undoubtedly Welsh.
For me, they’re the best band to come out of Wales. I was thirteen when I discovered them; a die-hard My Chemical Romance fan, bitter about the great bands that came from everywhere but here. We were driving over the Severn Bridge when a family friend asked if I’d ever heard ‘Motorcycle Emptiness’ – I shook my head, so he told me the story; the make-up, the leopard print, the lore, The Holy Bible. Once home, I watched the music videos in awe – the faint homoeroticism and layers of eyeliner in ‘Love’s Sweet Exile’ and the alienation that radiates from ‘Generation Terrorists’ made me feel connected in a way I hadn’t before. The Manic Street Preachers, in the glory of their pink feather boas, were the coolest people I had ever seen. That feeling struck me so intensely that, for a moment, I forgot they were even Welsh.
From the ashes of Thatcherism and the miners’ strikes, the Manics built themselves into a defiant act against Conservative politics and anti-working-class rhetoric. At their angriest they rejected everything – Wales included – capturing the frustrations of young Welsh people growing up in the late ’80s and ’90s. Unemployment, alcoholism and deprivation were rife; it seemed Wales offered few opportunities to its young. It’s no surprise, then, that some young Welsh people – often from English-speaking families – went through an initial phase of rejecting Welsh culture. Edwards, the original lyricist of the Manic Street Preachers, said of their hometown, ‘If you were to build a museum out of Blackwood, all you’d be able to fill it with is rubble and shit’. It’s certainly a sentiment that I and thousands of other young Welsh people have identified with.
Growing up, the number one aim for my friends and I was to get out. Liverpool, London, Manchester, Bristol – these places were full of life. Wales, by contrast, seemed barren; a wasteland of lost potential caught on the rusty nail of how things used to be. Too often Wales seems fixated by its own history, struggling to look to the future. The Manic Street Preachers capture this feeling distinctly in their music; it’s one of the things that draws them into the canon of great Welsh art. That sense of dislocated emptiness runs throughout so many Welsh works, whether it be the poetry of RS Thomas and Dylan Thomas, or the grey landscapes of Kyffin Williams. The uneasy displacement of being Welsh – the confusion of feelings towards Wales – is a recurrent theme cross-medium.
The Manic Street Preachers embodied the miserable, stone-face nihilism of Welsh communities for more than thirty years. The themes in their early lyrics – no better captured than in ‘Little Baby Nothing’ with the line ‘Culture, alienation, boredom and despair’ – spoke profoundly to my experience of being Welsh and working class. Alienation, boredom and despair are the bare bones of their sound, the key components of what they represent. The culture they consumed as teenagers is condensed into their albums, whether that be quotes from Albert Camus or artistic iconography; their alienation is articulated with acute accuracy. From their earliest demos to their latest LP, despair and boredom have remained thematically entrenched – but, crucially, it is their attitudes towards these concepts which have shifted.
That outlook first underwent a serious change on 1998’s This Is My Truth, Tell Me Yours. Throughout the album – the title of which is a quote from Nye Bevan – the Manics make several references to Welsh history, including its tragedies. There’s further evidence of their softening on 2013’s Rewind the Film – a soft, melancholic acoustic album influenced by the scenic views of the Valleys. This is a far cry from the Manics of the ‘90s, with lyrics including, ‘We may write in English / But our truth remains in Wales’. The band’s U-turn from rejecting their heritage to embracing it parallels the trajectory of many Welsh people, myself included.
The songs I would pore over most as a teenager were those that bemoaned Wales, those that branded it a cesspit of nothingness. I related to this. But, over time, I came to realise that what bound me to the band initially – their refusal of Wales – would have been impossible without our shared Welshness. The Manic Street Preachers thrive in their boredom now; songs like ‘Mr Carbohydrate’ openly praises being boring, and Nicky Wire recently told Chris Moyles: ‘I do enjoy being bored. I think boredom’s an essential part of life.’ That feels Welsh. They remain honest about the mundanity and disappointment of everyday life, but now they revel (rather than despair) in that feeling.
Call it mellowing with age, call it a consequence of teenage angst, but it’s certain that the Manic Street Preachers have grown to love Wales, including its tedium. This changing relationship is one familiar to English-speaking Welsh communities. At school, my peers hated being Welsh and its culture – today, most of them are proud members of YesCymru, the campaign for an independent Wales, fighting to take control back from Westminster. Their attitudes, just like the Manic Street Preachers over thirty years of making music, have shifted dramatically.
If I hadn’t stumbled upon the Manics nearly ten years ago, my relationship with my home nation would likely still be frustrating and fractured. In their ruthless determination and bold vision, they have crafted a community from the people who felt misplaced in their identity. From being openly dissatisfied with the constraints of Wales initially, to their growth into a model of Welsh pride, the Manic Street Preachers have, for me, finally turned Wales into a homely place.
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Tilly Foulkes is a fiction and music writer currently studying English Literature at Liverpool John Moores University.