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Europe isn't their playground
on 27 January 2015
One thing that always appealed to me about the Manics was their obvious and undeniable sincerity : they came from South Wales (so do I, incidentally) and consequently had a better understanding of recent political history than any of their peers, were genuinely interested in geopolitics (and not in a crass way -and yes, that's also a pun referencing another band) and all read voraciously in all spheres of modern (not contemporary) literature - fiction, biography, aesthetics, politics. They wanted to speak to the people, change the world and bring back some genuine original punk rock attitude back into post-indie music.
On the down side, they were hamstrung by an admittedly lovable non-musician whose tragic disappearance has overshadowed the probability that his sixth-form poetry lyrics held the band back musically and aesthetically as much as giving them an edge (sometimes shoehorning his words into conventional rock meters worked, sometimes it really didn't - when it worked, the Manics were like early Blue Oyster Cult at their best a la 'Secret Treaties' - using lyricists who didn't sing gave a spiky edge to the natural tendency of the band towards melody and vertiginous if conventional rock dynamics). They were equally limited by the fact that their singer, James Dean Bradfield, while arguably the hardest working man in rock, has a limited range of expression -he became singer by default, in my view -and as a guitar player he is technically gifted to a certain standard but conventional in his approach (an original stylist on six strings James isn't). Wire as a bassist was simply only ever OK - he looked great, was an important conceptual, lyrical and spiritual element of the band - leaving Sean the drummer as the only musicianly musician in the group. The Manics were consequently only ever about songs, rather than music, and once you have three or four straightahead rock albums behind you and are struggling to keep yourself interested, all you can do is bring in different producers and add guest keyboard players, isn't it? And therein lies the problem with this album, which is supposedly 'influenced by Krautrock' and is if to back this up, was recorded at Hansa by the Wall studios, where Bowie's "Heroes" was recorded by Tony Visconti, with a lineup of Dave, Eno, Fripp and the Alomar/Davis/Murray rhythm section. The album was recorded with experimental approaches, new technology and individuals who were either stylistic or session-level musicians first and foremost. Also, If you want to talk 'Krautrock',do you mean Neu!, Kraftwerk, La Dusseldorf, Can, Cluster, Harmonia, Novalis or Hoelderlin? It's a bit of a blanket term that is being bandied about without definition that its becoming a lazy cliché....but my point is that most 'Krautrock' was produced by stylist/experimental musicians, not straight-ahead songwriters.
...and therein lies the problem with 'Futurology'. Manic Street Preachers are (and always have been) a straight-ahead rock band whose primary messages are lyrical and in that polemical. They're not the sort of band you can imagine doing lengthy instrumental pieces, recording instrumentals or relying on style: they are about content and as good as they can be musically- and at their best they are almost front rank -their songs are musical constructs acting as vehicles to deliver their lyrical messages. When this works, they are unbeatable - as I've said, they have sincerity, authenticity, passion and intelligence. Although they've never really delivered an album that is consistently brilliant throughout as their best songs, they have recorded many masterpieces. They half-laid Richey to rest with the magnificent step forward that was 'Everything Must Go' (the title song was a brilliant manifesto about stepping out of his shadow, celebrating his life, bemoaning his death, but bravely telling the audience that they were clearing out house and moving on) and aesthetic and commercial success followed. One caveat here: having felt that the Manics were better and more mature for leaving Richey behind, they included some songs on 'Everything' that featured his lyrics and they were the worst pieces on the album, save "Kevin Carter" a superb track. They also returned to his unrecorded lyrics a few years ago on one album and 'Futurology' contains a cut entitled "Walk Me To The Bridge" which clearly references/addresses their old friends - and sad to say, this harping back to Richey could be interpreted as a cynical move. After all, the legend of Richey has reached mythological status and boy, don't rock bands usually benefit from tragedy? Don't get me wrong, I'm sure the Manics don't mean to exploit Edwards' legacy, the fanbases' feelings towards the man and so on and I'm sure he does haunt them, but it's starting to look a little tasteless at times maybe? Just a thought.
I stuck with the Manics from the start up until 'Know Your Enemy'. Like I said, they never entirely satisfied me. Eventually, they produced a near-flawless masterwork, the much maligned, misunderstood (and perhaps too subtle for much of its audience) 'Lifeblood', an album that was unafraid of the weight of history (what other band after around 1983 would release a single like "The Love of Richard Nixon", when most of their younger audience might not even know who Nixon was, while revelling in the ambiguousness of their feelings about an ambiguous geopolitical figure), had sterling melodies, fabulous contemporary production, genuine adult emotion and only one questionable point- the less than stellar (in melodic terms) title hook of 'Cardiff Afterlife' - and even that conquered me eventually. Of course, almost everyone hated 'Lifeblood' as it was too subtle for them, while the likes of 'Send Away the Tigers', a more formulaic record was showered in undeserving praise.
Since then, I've given each album the band have done a listen and found them all wanting to awful. I was hoping 'Futurology' would address that European thing it claims to but when I slotted in the CD I noted thirteen tracks in 47 minutes I frowned. By the early 90s, bands were giving us 70 minute albums (and these were indie guitar groups) that outstayed their welcome by half that time, when it was long ago established that for a limited form like rock music 35-45 minutes works best, even if you're Prog. The "excesses" of Yes and ELP didn't seem to over the top when a four piece bass/gtr/drums/vox band would come out with hour-plus sets. Sigh....
The fact is, for all their European credentials (get John Cale to produce you, boys, he invented Eurocentric art-rock with Nico and Lou Reed), the Manics don't come close to capturing a true, authentic Eurosound - nor do they even come up with a convincingly inauthentic postmodern one, which would have been permissible (try listening to "Revolt Into Style" by Bill Nelson's Red Noise, guys). Why? They're not stylists as musicians, they don't really know how to experiment (think JDB's conventional guitar playing, too influenced by heavy rock - after all, he listened to GnR in adolescence, not Fripp & Belew, Hugh Cornwell, Robbie Krieger, John McGeoch, Keith Levene or Rob Dean) and their lack of genuine, emotive feeling for the Eurocentric shows - the Manics do not possess the heavy, decadent romanticism of (or toward) European art, literature and culture in their souls. When you look at their voracious reading, you realise it is just that - voracious. It's not focussed on any one or two traditions that sum up or encapsulate the Eurocentric approach to life and style that is in the backgrounds of bands like early Roxy Music, Bowie, The VU, Kraftwerk, Japan, Magazine, The Stranglers, all of whom are/were deeply Eurocentric in their thinking and writing even when referring to American aesthetics such as the Warhol scene.
I mention Suede as I think it's a generational thing. After the early 80s, few rock musicians were ever convincingly European - the early indie scene (apart from the Goths) owed as much to The Byrds as it did the VU (and then it was the later Velvets sans Nico and Cale) and the likes of the Manics were too taken in by the faux agit-prop of The Clash and the hard rock of GnR and the rap of Public Enemy to develop a feel for the Eurocentric. The result is an album that at best sounds like a Simple Minds tribute (the instrumental, the best thing on the record, is simply an homage to the Minds' "Theme For Great Cities" from 'Sister Feelings Call', the Minds' last great album), with flashes of pre-digested influences like the later Skids and post-McGeoch Visage. It's NOTHING like any Krautrock album I've heard (and I've owned dozens for decades) and totally lacks the organic experimentalism of Bowie's Berlin trilogy. It's straightahead, sheeny and brief, lacking the great textures and feel of genuine European Romantic Rock. Listen to Japan's 'Quiet Life' album for the true sound of Eurocentric sophistication, depth and intelligence that only this kind of music can reach and speak to in the European sould. Simply having one sound with the word 'European' repeated endlessly and a chorus line in German sung by a lady (think "Fade to Grey" and Anna von Stern's breathy English language vocal on The Stranglers' "Paradise" for authentic examples of this gambit) will crack it, think again. This is barely even parody.
To end with Suede: when they released the original version of "Europe is our Playground" on the B side of "Trash" circa '93 (the cut without guitar, dominated by synth), I thought 'They've got it - the next album will be a full-blown Eurocentric offering,'. I was wrong and instead we got a light but excellent Glam Rock record marred by a few dull ballads. But 'Head Music', bar a few naff cuts, came closer to hitting the euro-nail on the head than anyone has since. What Suede understood was that their obsession with city/suburban dichotomy Britain was a deeply European as anything else once viewed through their Glammy spirit (inherited from Bowie and Roxy). The Manics, however, for all their Glam element, have never really embraced their European side to make an album with a concept like 'Futurology' feel authentic and true to its intended spirit. Shame, as they're good guys, but they are not of the generation that remembers a time when Britain was still overshadowed by the spectre of the twentieth century world wars and their attendant cultural decadence and glamour.
We need a new band to resurrect Eurocentric rock for new generations, a band who can see the virtue and fascination of a 21st Century Europe that is unafraid of its heritage, culture, history, art and promise. The Western Tradition, for all its faults, is a great, humanist, secular culture and it needs celebrating. The Manics, sadly, although they have the sharpness, don't have the feel to pull this off. Shame!
....and therein lies the problem with 'Futurology'.
...and therein lies the problem