It would be no exaggeration to say that the Manic Street Preachers changed my life. From galvanising my leftie views to encouraging me to seek out art and literature, they came crashing into my world when I was a hormonal teen and they still have permanent residence in my affections now that I’m a hormonal adult.
As a result, when I heard that Marc Burrows was releasing a book, charting the band’s career – with fourteen writers producing essays on each of the Manics’ albums – I was very much in.
Whilst books about the Manics are not an entirely new phenomenon, this one manages to tread old ground in a new, intriguing way. It features a timeline between the band’s albums, tracking what the Manics were doing in the run up to – and following – each release. For someone like me, this is utterly fascinating; I may like to tell myself that I have an almost encyclopaedic knowledge of my favourite band, but reading about their career in this format brings everything into even sharper focus and I find myself poring over every detail.
We all know the story by now – four friends, bonded by a fierce intellect, a mutual love of music and pop culture and a desperate sense of claustrophobia in their small hometown in South Wales – formed a band and took on a post-punk glam aesthetic that made them stand out like sore thumbs against a backdrop of early 90’s grunge. That fascinating combination of political fury, perfectly applied eyeliner, shirts spray-painted with slogans designed to speak to a similarly disenfranchised youth, plus the kind of guitar riffs that would make Slash weep, resulted in a cult following and – far from the “sell 16 million copies of our debut album and split up in a blaze of glory” hype – an illustriously long and celebrated music career. But the timeline between the release of each album, slotted neatly before and after beautifully written, often poignant essays by fans of the band, tells that story in a way that feels somehow more tangible and, at notable points in the Manics’ history, incredibly raw.
The essays that punctuate the release of each album throughout the book are a glorious snapshot of what the Manics mean to their fans, as well as provocative pieces that bring each record to life in such a visceral manner that you can almost hear the songs playing as you read. Every single one is written with such passion and enthusiasm that by the end of each essay, not only did I want to luxuriate in whichever album I’d just been reading about – yes, including the ones I’d have lower down in my personal ranking – but I was filled with a deep desire to buy each writer a drink and sit with them, swapping gig anecdotes and chatting long into the night about this band that unites us, even when they manage to divide opinion. In fact, I frequently found myself nodding frantically or chuckling softly as I read sentence after sentence that resonated perfectly with my own experiences of being a fan. Call it tribalism if you will, but we are woven together by such delicate threads – having felt like an outsider as a teen, perhaps, or having had our feelings of anxiety and depression so eloquently expressed through lyrics – that reading some of the stories presented in the book could easily equate to reading an old diary entry. “These,” I thought on several occasions as I made my way through the essays, “are my people.”
Anything written about the Manics is usually done so with several heaped spoonfuls of melodrama. Theirs is a story of genuine triumph in the wake of tragedy and it’s easy to fall into the usual heartstring-tugging tropes as a result. What is wonderful about this book is that by using a timeline of events – literally a day-by-day account of where the band were in the world and what they were doing – we are simply presented with the facts. There is no need for flowery prose. The actual truth of what the band went through in the loss of co-lyricist and mouth-piece Richey Edwards is laid bare in all its starkness and is actually all the more powerful for it. The emotional language comes from the essays breaking up the timeline, when opinions step into the spotlight alongside the facts and deeply personal anecdotes are shared. This very plain split between “this is precisely what happened” and “here’s how I feel about it as a fan” makes this book in many ways all the more moving than others on the subject.
The Manics are a band who’ve dipped their toes into various musical styles and whose career can be easily split into neat “stages.” Similarly, the essays within the book run the gamut from fond recollections of youth, to searingly honest descriptions of individual traumas. As is so often the case with anything to do with this particular band, you come away from reading the book with a heightened awareness of the importance of the Manic Street Preachers, not only as a cultural, musical touchstone, but as a powerful symbol to anyone who has ever felt alienated or despairing. That the band released some of their most anthemic, dare I say joyous-sounding songs after the darkest period in their professional and personal lives is testament to their brilliance. Anyone who says the Manics are “only for depressed people” have never known the thrill of singing yourself hoarse to A Design For Life whilst the confetti cannons go off all around you.
The Manics always described themselves as a band that liked to contradict themselves and history certainly shows that to be true in the most wonderful way. In a sense, this book and its journey through the band’s career, punctuated with fascinating stories and what can only be called love letters to each individual album, highlights their uncanny ability to adapt and change, whilst remaining stubbornly the same at heart. It’s one of the reasons we love them. And it’s one of the many reasons you should read this book.