The following is an edited excerpt lifted from Stephen Lee Naish’s recently published book ‘Riffs & Meaning: Manic Street Preachers and Know Your Enemy’ (Headpress, 2018), which is available for purchase in the US here and pre-order in the UK here.
The last song I heard as the world said goodbye to the twentieth-century was “Motorcycle Emptiness” by the Manic Street Preachers. I was jammed into Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium along with 57,000 complete strangers. Over a million more viewers worldwide had joined in as the performance was broadcast live across the globe on the BBC. It was a massive event, and the knowledge that so many had either turned up or tuned in was an extraordinary thing to realize.
It was fitting that this song played out the closing moments of the century. “Motorcycle Emptiness” summed up an era of perplexing narratives and outcomes: intense global warfare, political brinkmanship, American cultural and militaristic supremacy, and the ideologies of fascism, communism, democracy, and capitalism all fighting it out for dominance. The downward trajectory of late twentieth-century mankind was all but encapsulated within the verses and chorus of “Motorcycle Emptiness.” Yet locked within that gigantic arena with no recognizable faces around me (my friends were long lost to the crowds), the world could have ended as the prophecies had foreseen and I’d have accepted it without much resistance. It was a perfect way to go quietly into the night, or headfirst into oblivion.
But the world didn’t end (obviously), and a few moments after the bells had tolled for the new century, the handsome form of Manic Street Preachers’ vocalist and guitarist James Dean Bradfield strolled back out on-stage with an acoustic guitar slung under his arm and began strumming the opening chords to Frankie Valli’s 1967 hit “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You.” If “Motorcycle Emptiness” had been the final significant curtain call of the twentieth century then “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” was the flip side. The dawning of a new era was utterly irrelevant, yet also brilliant.
And here lies the contradiction of the Manic Street Preachers: a socialist rock band from the Welsh valleys whose every song lyric radiates in class politics, capitalist critique, historical significance, and personal circumstance, yet they have been, as entertainers, always well attuned to the ridiculous pomp and irreverence of rock ’n’ roll.
Manic Street Preachers started out in the late eighties as eyeliner-clad politicized punk rockers. Tight white jeans and stenciled slogans sprayed across their mothers’ blouses read things like “All rock ’n’ roll is Homosexual” and “Terminal Young Thing.” With their 1992 debut album Generation Terrorists they announced they would become instantly famous, sell sixteen million records, play Wembley Stadium (then the benchmark of success) and split up in “a mess of eyeliner and spray-paint.” This would be a grandly artistic, yet also nihilistic gesture.
Musically, the band mixed The Clash and Guns N’ Roses with their sharp political lyricism borrowed from Public Enemy’s critical stylistics. They crammed each of their songs with high impact cultural cues that brimmed with fury and intelligence. The band’s upbringing was deeply working class and rooted in strong socialist ideals that resonated from the 1984/5 Miners strikes that shook the community of Blackwood, Wales, from which the band originated.
Their second album, Gold Against the Soul (1993), was a more straight-ahead and sober hard rock affair. Songs like “From Despair To Where,” “Life Becoming A Landslide” and “Yourself” fell into MTV’s Headbangers Ball-endorsed outlook of rocking riffs, heavy drums, and growling vocals. Yet the lyrical content of Gold Against the Soul dealt with a sensitivity that would have made most metalheads puke. The aesthetics changed too, the eyeliner, feather boas, and stenciled shirts were decommissioned, and in their place a more subtle attire of pinstriped suits, designer brands, mature facial stubble and gentleman hats prevailed.
The band’s monolithic third record The Holy Bible (1994) saw them once again dramatically shift styles. The sound was compressed, cold apocalyptic postpunk, matched with vicious polemic style lyrics and a militaristic aesthetic of mismatched sailor suits and camouflage attire. Songs such as “Faster,” “PCP” and “Revol” sounded like nothing else at the time.
But tragedy struck. The band’s chief lyricist and rhythm guitarist Richey James Edwards vanished just prior to a brief trip to America to promote The Holy Bible. The band remained in hiatus for months following Edwards' disappearance. They finally broke radio silence in the spring of 1996 with the elegant indie anthem “A Design For Life.”
And, like many, this is where my own fandom begins. I am one of those so-called “new” fans that the Manic Street Preachers raked up as they returned in 1996 as a three-piece and embraced a more accessible sound and style. Their first “post Edwards” album, Everything Must Go (1996), took until the record’s fourth single “Australia” to work its magic on me. When I bought a copy of the record from the HMV in Leicester, the thing didn’t leave my CD player for six months solid. I was utterly mesmerized by the lyricism and the sheer scope and beauty of the music. It was only replaced by copies of Generation Terrorists, Gold Against the Soul and The Holy Bible.
From this point onward a large portion of my life was devoted to being a follower/fanatic of the Manic Street Preachers. It has not just been the consumption of their albums, singles, music videos, interviews, and live performances that took up so much time, but the countless cultural, political, literary, philosophical, and historical reference points and quotations that have littered the band’s lyrics and adorned their record covers. The lyrical content of a Manic Street Preachers song is akin to a found collection of footnotes and citations in which the main body of the thesis has been ripped out. Using these footnotes, it requires the listener to seek out the original source material and piece together the main text and build the narrative back up from scratch. A task that might appear arduous at first, but in the theatre of rock ’n’ roll, it’s an awesome pleasure to undertake.
Often the lyrics of a Manic Street Preachers record concoct an alternative narrative where the losers still lose the war, but the battles rage on internally. For example, the first single from the band’s fifth album This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours (1998), the grandiose and epic “If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next” contains a lyric that details the ragtag band of Welsh farmers who took up arms and joined with the International Brigade to fight against fascism in the 1936–39 Spanish Civil War. After absorbing the song’s lyrics and reading interviews the band gave around the time of the single’s release, I felt obligated to discover more about this aspect of twentieth century history and why the band felt that this conflict from another country and another time was worthy of bringing to the attention of a contemporary mainstream audience.
When I discovered that writers such as George Orwell and Ernest Hemingway had documented their personal experiences of the war in Homage to Catalonia and For Whom the Bell Tolls respectively, it only added to the romanticism of that conflict and the nobility of those who selflessly fought in it. Of course, the victors of the war were still Francisco Franco’s Falangists. A totalitarian fascist dictatorship was installed and reigned until Franco’s death in 1975. The song was a clarion call about history repeating itself. Thus, a sunny holiday destination from when I was kid was revealed as a complex and fraught society of survivors with a living memory of dictatorship.
Manic Street Preachers shone a light on figures and historical events that were mere annotations in the triumphalism of the neoliberal age. Through quotations on record sleeves to name dropping them in song, the band have restored or reassessed cultural figures such as Paul Robeson, Valerie Solanas, Kevin Carter, Sylvia Plath, Jean-Paul Sartre, Dennis Potter, Karl Marx, Harold Pinter, Albert Camus, Octave Mirbeau, Chuck D, Vladimir Lenin, and Richard Nixon, back into the popular discourse.
It is important that these figures remain in the cultural lexicon, because, let’s face it, we need them. We need to learn from their mistakes and their misjudgements, and where there are any, revel in their victories. Their voices, the words they wrote, the actions they took, the lives they lived were often against the grain of what is perceived as the established order. Even if they failed to live it out, they created an alternative, and a different understanding to everything. We need to know that their failure is also ours. For it is us who have failed to take heed of the wisdom, the alternatives, and the warnings from history. This is a metaphor for the Manic Street Preachers themselves. A band that often placed themselves counter to the current trends in popular music and politics, but persisted with their version of events nonetheless.
And this is where Know Your Enemy (2001) comes in to play. This album is the eccentric and untameable child of Manic Street Preachers’ records. Yet it conveys almost all of the above mentioned musical and lyrical directions into one digestible format. One could even argue that a song like “The Convalescent” packs more pop culture figures and references than the entire Manics back catalogue. What song has the gall to place middle distance runner Steve Ovett and golfer Payne Stewart alongside Pablo Picasso and Werner Herzog? When the band were out promoting Know Your Enemy in the various music magazines, they talked it up as the most extreme and rabble-rousing record of their career. This would have been a fair assessment if only they had stuck by it. Yet when asked by Noisey to rank his own records a few years later, James Dean Bradfield put it second from bottom (above 2004’s Lifeblood) as his least favorite. It often appears hovering in the final numbers of most fan-made lists as well.
The reasons for this negative consensus towards Know Your Enemy are varied, but if we took a quick glance, the musical styles of the record are certainly diverse yet also incoherent with no previous pointers, no set pattern or path to guide the listener though. We get straight-up punk rock with songs like “Dead Martyrs” and “Intravenous Agnostic,” melancholic anthems like “Let Robeson Sing,” breezy west coast rock signified by “So Why So Sad” and “Year of Purification,” and of course the disco song “Miss Europa Disco Dancer,” and some slumbering blues in the aptly titled “Wattsville Blues.”
The politics of Know Your Enemy is also messy, the band seemed to want to revive the vibrant mood and social/cultural protest of Generation Terrorists and The Holy Bible, but the idealism of youth was now absent. The band launched the record in the communist hotbed of Havana, Cuba, dangerously flirting with the Castro regime and bloody revolutions. It was a bold move, yet also one they took a lot of heat for in the home press, especially as documentaries and photos emerged of the band shaking hands with Fidel Castro.
This leads to another point. The band members were indeed older; their reintegrated political idealism came across as stubborn and grouchy in interviews from around this era. Yet, despite all of this, I believe that Know Your Enemy holds more relevance and significance than fans, and even the band themselves, give it credit for. It was a brilliant, defiant statement against the boring and non-political atmosphere of music at this point in time.
Another point to make is that the record is also as raw as the Manic Street Preachers had been in a long while. Not since their earliest Blackwood demos of the late 1980s recorded in Bradfield’s parents’ living room, or the scratchy bombast of “Motown Junk” and “You Love Us” from the Heavenly Records era, have we had such a potent, instinctive and unrefined version of the band. After the polished sheen of Everything Must Go and This is My Truth… it was shocking, yet also exhilarating to hear the band impose a new set of rules upon themselves and endeavor to accomplish something entirely different to the band’s past recordings. There is spontaneity and fuzzy rawness to the recordings of “Intravenous Agnostic” and “My Guernica” for example that signify the loose nature of the band’s approach to making Know Your Enemy.
Know Your Enemy is a critical album because it acts as a pivotal point to previous incarnations of the band and as an indicator towards their future as a band that for good or ill identify with leftist politics and continually reinvent themselves musically. Know Your Enemy was a requirement. It needed to be made, it needed to reference the past, yet also set the future in motion. Without it (and in some respects, Lifeblood) the reinvention and ambition seen on Send Away the Tigers (2007), Journal for Plague Lovers (2009), and Futurology (2014), might not have existed.
Whilst some tracks on the record do not fall into what might be considered a “classic Manics” category of anthems like “Faster,” “Motorcycle Emptiness,” “Australia” or “Design For Life,” the record was a genuine attempt by the band to explore new avenues in sound, embrace their base political views, reinvent themselves away from the shadow of Edwards, renew their stance as music industry provocateurs, antagonize other bands, and basically be the band I, and many others, really wanted them to be at this point in their career.
This is why Know Your Enemy appears to me to be so important.
But there are other more personal reasons as well. I wasn't around firsthand to witness Generation Terrorists or The Holy Bible, but I was there when the first singles from Know Your Enemy were played on the radio and when the record itself was released. Memories of walking into HMV on the Monday evening, purchasing a copy and then impatiently riding the bus home with the record in my hand are clear. So are my memories of arriving home and skipping dinner and heading straight to my bedroom and slipping the CD in the player and hearing those bursting chords of “Found That Soul” erupt from the speakers. The track itself acted like a mini-manifesto to the experience of listening to Know Your Enemy as a whole. It seemed to set the standard of the experimentation and the brusqueness of what lay ahead. We weren’t getting a typical Manic Street Preachers record.
Yes, there were severe disappointments at first (“Miss Europa Disco Dancer,” “Wattsville Blues”), but there was also amazing surprises (“Ocean Spray,” “Baby Elian,” “My Guernica”). Eventually the disappointments morphed into grim fascination, and after requesting “Miss Europa Disco Dancer” at the local indie disco a few weeks later, and then dancing to it happily alone, they became sources of utter defiance: yes, it may sound like nothing, but this was my nothing.
There are certainly positive and negative experiences of Know Your Enemy. I've sweated over this record; I have lied for this record; I've dismissed friendships for this record; I've danced alone to this record. The sheer audacity of Know Your Enemy has shaped me politically. I’ve listened to more bands, read more books, and learnt more about modern history and political ideology because of Know Your Enemy than any other record before or after it. If there was ever a record that explained our own current political and cultural mishaps (no matter where you live right now) then Know Your Enemy might just be it.