After watching the Manic Street Preachers play at the Ancienne Belgique in Brussels, I was left with some food for thought and took out a pen and paper. Below is the transcript of my scribblings.
The meeting point between politics and music can be a funny old place. The desire for empiricism and rationality doesn’t always sit easily with the search for emotional resonance and artistic expression. I was raised on Christy Moore, a great folk singer with an activist’s heart who has a particular talent for interpreting songs from across the world and relating them to one’s own experience. Sitting in my father’s van on the way to school, Christy’s exhortations to the listener to get up and be counted resonated in a very special way. So too did the songs of Billy Bragg and Bruce Springsteen, as they sang of their people. At the same time, Radiohead brought the world of music to new frontiers, taking their fans on a journey fraught with risks of disappointment and disillusionment, but ultimately achieving the exhilaration of musical discovery and creativity.
The Manic Street Preachers have always occupied an unusual place in this continuum. I encountered them as I entered a phase of my teens wherein I sought answers to explain the world around me, as well as the correct questions to ask. I was a fairly bookish kid with a love of music and a nascent interest in how the world was run. For a kid with too many questions, the Manics had something to say. They demanded that we take up arms. Yet this arsenal was not to be composed of bullets, batons or blades. One felt compelled, rather, to build and borrow from armaments of ideas; to read and become better; to cultivate the mind in such a way as to understand the world but still have an emotional resonance with it…
Much of this came back to me last night as the Welshmen performed at the Ancienne Belgique in Brussels. I had not seen a live Manics show in at least eleven years and I took the opportunity to go along for old times’ sake. In the end, I revisited those old times in a far more lucid and vivid way than I had anticipated. I felt such a spectrum of contradictory feelings as to genuinely appreciate the contradictions in their art: the visceral exhilaration when they opened with Motorcycle Emptiness was still tinged with a lonesome undertone. There is an upbeat tempo to many of their songs that masks a dark and reflective underbelly. This becomes an uncomfortable juxtaposition during James Dean Bradfield’s ode to his mother’s battle with cancer, Ocean Spray, as the crowd danced to their hearts’ content. I felt genuinely sorry for Bradfield during his acoustic set when some in the audience began to clap along during the tragically sad This Sullen Welsh Heart, perhaps all the more because of the resonance it has with some of the more depressed parts of Ireland during darker days.
Beyond this, when Nicky described The Holy Bible as an “anti-Britpop masterpiece” and Richie Edwards as an “esoteric genius” I wondered whether there were contradictions in how the bands art and politics mix, and how I should relate to them. Working in the European Quarter of Brussels, it is unsurprising to become keenly aware of accusations of ivory tower elitism. In the ‘Brussels bubble’, there is sometimes a sense that technocrats seek recourse in esoteric assumptions so they can tell people they know better and that their interpretations are of a higher order. One could wonder whether this was Nicky’s intention last night, or Richie’s back in 1994. But that would be a gross misrepresentation.
So what was (and is) their intention? Do the Manics see themselves as a force of emancipation or more as documentarians of the working class condition? If they are emancipators, then who are the emancipated? Ultimately, I could only figure that they demanded the same of other listeners as they did of my friends and I as we searched for meaning in our adolescent night-journeys. There is no predestination in their worldview. Instead, they lay down a challenge for us – as lovers of music and as seekers – to build a well-stocked mind. This became most evident when they sang If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next. In a time when Europe crackles at the flames of a far right that is growing in influence, this famous quote from a republican leader during the Spanish Civil War is once again a call to arms, and to equip the mind. Behind it is a desire to read and write and learn and research ideas, to help others to do the same, and to face down those who deride the expansion of human thought. If this is their purpose, then it is indeed emancipation!