It was one of those moments. One of those pull the car onto the kerb and listen in stunned silence moments; a moment where a song seemed more important than everything else in life.
I’d been a fan of the Manic Street Preachers pretty much since day one. Their mix of politicised intelligence, lipstick trash glamour and literacy stood out in a time when most bands were more interested in ‘avin it large than listening to songs about culture, boredom, alienation and despair. Lad culture was on the rise and the progression from the second summer of love by way of the Madchester scene to the vulgar Loaded-mag / coked up end of Brit Pop and all its vulgarities was unavoidable. Yet from day one the Manics had been different – they were a band to obsess over and to embrace wholeheartedly – a band whose fans were more likely to discuss the works of Camus than how they could party their arse off.
The Manics weren’t perfect either – guitarist Nicky Wire’s comment that “In this season of goodwill, let’s pray that Michael Stipe goes the same way as Freddy Mercury pretty soon,” was inexcusable, despite his protestations after that the quote hadn’t come out how he had intended. Their first two albums didn’t fully realise their potential, both being flawed in places, although both also had songs of brilliance. “We’ll release one double album that goes to number one worldwide. One album, then we split. If it doesn't work, we split anyway. Either way, after one album, we're finished,” they claimed, but that didn’t come true.
But it was after the first two albums that the Manic Street Preachers became something else. The Holy Bible was the sound of the band descending into the darkness of hell. Written in the main by guitarist Richie Edwards before he was hospitalised for depression, self-abuse, alcoholism and drug-use, The Holy Bible is a bleak piece of work full of self-loathing and narcissism. It dealt with subjects such as anorexia, the holocaust and a call for capital punishment and was released at a time when Blur were getting cheery and beery singing about holiday sex and park life whilst Oasis were about to proclaim that you and I were going to live forever. It was a compelling listen.
On 1 February 1995, a year after the release of The Holy Bible, Richie Edwards walked out of the Embassy Hotel, London and was never seen again. His car was found empty at a service station, near the Severn Bridge, a well-known suicide spot. Fans, including myself, loved Richey for articulating their shared feelings of us-against-the-world confusion. His disappearance affected me much more so than the death of Kurt Cobain – I could identify with the Manics in a way that I couldn’t with the other media-overloaded death of a rock star story of the early 90’s – that of Kurt Cobain of Nirvana.
After Richie’s disappearance I thought that it was the end of the Manic Street Preachers – Richie had been one of the most important creative parts of the band. Yet two years later, they returned as just a three piece – with a solid union of friendship and sadness amongst them. I remember exactly the first time I heard this song. I was driving my car towards Woking to catch a train for a gig in London. The radio announced an exclusive play of the new Manic Street Preachers single. Then they played A Design for Life. That was the moment I had to pull over. Sometimes the power of music is just too much to bear.
A Design for Life can be appreciated on two levels.
First as a life-affirming stadium anthem for the masses - beer swilling lads can bawl along to it no problem.
But it can also be appreciated with a sense of history - the back story is important. A Design for Life is a hugely dignified, bittersweet and poignant moment, where the Manic Street Preachers achieved everything they said they were going to do. Listen to those lyrics “Libraries gave us power then work came and made us free, what price now for a shallow piece of dignity? I wish I had a bottle, right here in my dirty face to wear the scars, to show from where I came. We don't talk about love we only want to get drunk, we are not allowed to spend as we are told that this is the end.” A Design for Life is an utterly compelling song about working class identity and conflict that is both brilliantly moving and powerfully intelligent. It was arguably the bands finest hour. It was a huge hit in the UK and paved the way for the band to have commercial success and find the mainstream.
I’m pretty sure Richie Edwards would have been very proud indeed.