If You Tolerate This...
An addendum to the MSP post: after the excellent (and purely coincidental) posts from Emmy Hennings and Owen Hatherly, there was something else that struck me about the Manics. I was just looking around Youtube this morning, when I did a search for Manics videos, and what should come top of the list but the videos for ‘Revol’ and ‘Faster’ – bizarre, as I didn’t even know ‘Revol’ had a video – and, just below them, the video for ‘Motown Junk’. And as I watched, my first reaction was simply ‘How did they get away with this?’ It seems incredibly alien, now, the idea of a band being confrontational in the way the Manics were: the sheer scouring assault of ‘Revol’, the relentless pounding and chopping of ‘Faster’; referencing politics, or philosophy, or history; the series of pop-up messages on ‘Revol’ attacking audience complicity in the spectacle (or at least I think that’s what they’re for.) I mean, yes, there are confrontational bands these days, but there is nothing anywhere close to the world of populist culture that is anywhere close to this. It’s actually astonishing to me now that anything even remotely like this might get near the Top 40, let alone on Top Of The Pops, or even near The Holy Bible’s peak slot of No. 6. (In fact, thinking about it, how on earth did Nirvana, who made some of the most emotionally terrifying music of the century, who at times actually do sound as if they were fronted by a mentally ill heroin addict (especially the vocals on ‘Scentless Apprentice’, and the entirety of ‘Heart-Shaped Box’ and its video), get into the charts at all?)
Even more odd to 2007 eyes is the Manics’ presentation: on ‘Motown Junk’ they wear ordinary jumpers, stencilled with the usual crude political slogans; in 2007 they would be expected to be decked out in the very latest, most ridiculous fashions; their resurrection of glam’s gender-bending and theatricality seems so utterly weird compared to contemporary ‘rock ‘n’ roll’’s obsession with ‘authenticity’ and the boring, stodgy men who apparently personify it. Looking at these things I didn’t see the first time round, it seems that the Manics were the last great chance music had of dynamiting the rock ‘n’ roll myth, a mission they took on from punk and post-punk – girls were just as much (if not more) a part of their fanbase as boys; intelligence had just as much to with their music as sweat. Their cold, destructive dynamics, the deathly negation of their sound, made probably the biggest hole in the spectacle since the Sex Pistols; you could think of them as the last chance we ever had of wrenching the means of expression back from the ‘official’ culture, of stealing ‘rock’, like the Promethean fire, away from the corporations and the middle-class.
I don’t know, is it stupid to mourn for a cultural moment you were never part of? The history of music is too littered with examples of brilliance and cultural autonomy – 60s free jazz, the Crass collective, post-punk and the DIY explosion, early techno and rave culture, riot grrrl, jungle and garage – to completely despair, but it seems that’s the only course of action when there’s literally over 100 million bands on MySpace and at best a handful of decent things to listen to, and when independent labels are giving rise to stuff like this, rather than stuff like this, when all sense of importance or value seems to have disappeared from music. (There is, of course, the whole thing of music becoming so prevalent it has changed into aural wallpaper, something k-punk has argued is a central point of sonic hauntology – but that for another time, perhaps.) In fact, the Manics seem to have made this point well enough themselves – one can’t help but feel their slide after Everything Must Go was the result of a sense of waning importance, the realisation that the revolution had failed, and, like all failed revolutionaries, they were to forever lurk, embittered, in the shadowed sidelines of history. It's this that lends such a heartbreaking poignance to a lot of their later work (which, I have to admit, I was too harsh about. Oh well.)