1996 – A Design For Life, Manic Street Preachers

While you could never claim that the Manic Street Preachers were a Britpop band – certainly not the way that Blur, Oasis, Pulp, Suede et al were – there’s no denying that their fourth album, Everything Must Go, slots terribly well into that genre. Right place, right time, right approach. It stands in stark contrast to the Manics previous album, The Holy Bible, which was full of bleak, disconcerting lyrics and stark, under-produced songs. It’s a strange, distant and powerful piece, and is an excellent summary of one phase of the band.

With the disappearance / probable suicide of Richey Edwards, who was most responsible for the guiding tone of the previous album, the Manic Street Preachers returned with a lusher sound, a fuller sense of politics and class, and a wider embrace of what the band were capable of delivering on. The album is full of big, swaggering anthems which fitted perfectly with the music scene of 1996, where being able to stand in a field and belt out the lyrics with 50,000 other people was seen as being one of the key indicators of success (see, or rather listen to, Pulp’s “Sorted for E’s and Wizz” for more on this). It’s those type of songs that Everything Must Go is chock-full of. And thus it was that the first single from the album, “A Design For Life”, was propelled to the Number 2 slot.

Here’s the thing about “A Design For Life” though. It’s a good song right up until the moment you start thinking about it, after which it becomes… well not less good, exactly, but it’s very much a case of once you’ve seen behind the curtain that’s pretty much it. It’s a grandiosely anthemic song that aims for big and never for anything else. The sweeping strings draw you in, James Dean Bradfield’s vocals are undoubtedly captivating and there’s a layered, textured approach to the production that helps carry the song along on a sonic wave. But… there’s something ever so slightly hollow about it too. The first line – “libraries give us power”- is an absolute classic, a fantastic statement of purpose and just a phenomenal opening for the song. It’s followed by “then work came and made us free” which, while a play on “arbeit macht frei” from above the gates of Auschwitz is somewhat less than enlightening. And so the lyric goes on, flipping between things which sound like they’re striving to mean something and then.,.. kind of not.

“We don’t talk about love / we only wanna get drunk” is straightforward enough, in a quick “working people don’t talk about their feelings” or “men are repressed” sort of way, and it’s an effective couplet, but how much it genuinely connects with anything here is open to question. In fact the video does a better job of communicating the class conflict at the heart of the song, with old-fashioned advertising slogans being juxtaposed against scenes of hunts and polo matches, with the contrast being left to make its own statement. The title is gnomic in the extreme – it also doesn’t particularly connect with anything else in the song, but it sounds good belted out at full volume in a stadium full of other people also belting it out at full volume. The strings are all over the song but they’re just a little bit… well, too much is maybe overstating it, but there’s a sense of a fairly simple song here that’s been produced into the middle of the next century. It’s most noticeable in the couple of lines before the chorus and the chorus itself, where the production and strings sound like they’re straining terribly hard to drag feeling out of a song where less may well have been more. Sean Moore is doing excellent work on drums and percussion – indeed the percussion is a highlight not just of the song but the album – and Nicky Wire has some great bass as well. But… yeah. It’s a lot.

Which isn’t to say that “A Design For Life” is a bad song, because it’s not. It’s not the best song on the album – it’s not even the best single from the album (that would be “Kevin Carter”). And for anyone who appreciated the starker, bleaker and altogether more considered tone of the previous album, it’s something of a shock – it’s positively lush. “A Design For Life” was the lead single from the album and all four singles that were released cracked the top ten in the UK so it’s not like the revised approach the band took didn’t work – quite the reverse. But, ultimately, the strength of the song is less in how it’s put together than what it represents, and what it represents for the Manic Street Preachers is a way forward.

Which is to say that it was the first song they managed to write after Richey Edwards’s disappearance and the band have often credited “A Design For Life” as being the moment the band was saved. By finding a way to write again, despite the pain of losing one of their founding members, the Manic Street Preachers were able to develop in a new direction – one which clearly lines up with one part of the band’s past (their first album, Generation Terrorists, is a deeply political piece of work) but one which is also necessarily separate from it. This is addressed directly on the second single, “Everything Must Go”, where they talk specifically about the fact that this is a new direction and that “we just hope that you’ll forgive us” for the change.

It’s fair to say they were indeed forgiven. But that process began with “A Design For Life” and that’s why the song carries so much power. It clear listening to James Dean Bradfield’s impassioned vocal that the song means more to him than just the lyric. It’s a light in the darkness that threatened to overwhelm the band. If Nicky Wire’s lyrics aren’t directly addressing that on this song it’s still there in the performance, 100%. That’s why the song matters so much. The class and political consciousness of the band will continue to grow and develop now that Wire has become the principal lyricist and that solidifying of the bands left-wing, socialist agenda is restated here and remains a core part of what the band does, right up until now. The personal approach that was characterised more by Edwards’s contributions will gradually fade – they will never disappear but equally will never again be dominant. “A Design For Life” is a fundamental restatement of the band, grounding them in what will be business-as-usual going forward, but doing it in a sweeping, mainstream and fundamentally more accessible mode. The first single to be released post-Everything Must Go, the excellently-named “If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next”, will see the band top the charts with their first Number 1. This approach sticks, and this approach works. And having navigated the change, the band are still going strong today. “A Design For Life” could have been a death-knell. Instead, it saved everything.

What Else Happened in 1996?
Somewhat unexpectedly – to put it mildly – the Sex Pistols announce they’re reforming for a 20th anniversary tour, appropriately enough named Filthy Lucre. Phil Collins leaves Genesis, as if anyone cares at this stage in the game, and the Spice Girls release their debut single, “Wannabe”. It is, it’s fair to say, a pretty big success. The very first single to be issued digitally by a major record label, David Bowie’s “Telling Lies”, is released, while The Ramones play their final gig. Tupac Shakur releases All Eyez On Me in February, one of the most important hip-hop albums ever, and later in the year is shot and dies from what is apparently a drive-by shooting. Madonna somewhat gets back on track with the whole Evita thing, while Oasis play the largest gig in UK history by playing to 350,000 people at Knebworth. Tori Amos releases her best album, Boys For Pele, and the Fugees release their second (and final) album, The Score. Beck breaks through with Odelay and American indie band eels arrive with their first album, Beautiful Freak. Influential Scottish band Belle & Sebastian release their deubt, Tigermilk, and Jay-Z debuts also with Reasonable Doubt. Jamiroquai hits the mainstream with Travelling Without Moving and R.E.M. release their final album with the original line-up, New Adventures In Hi-Fi. The biggest single of the year is, depressingly, “Macarena” though the fifth-biggest is the exceedingly unlikely instrumental “Children” by Robert Miles. Volume 2 and 3 of The Beatles Anthology are released, which means its perfect time for The Rutles to return with the excellent (and greatly under-appreciated) Archaeology. And the Queen Of Jazz, Ella Fitzgerald, dies at the age of 79.

What Did We Nearly End Up Discussing?
Some years it’s a struggle to find interesting singles to write about, some years not. 1996 is slightly unusual in that there’s quite a few solid singles in the Number 2 slot, none of which are particularly inspiring to write about. Take, for example, The Bluetones and their hit (singular) “Slight Return”. It’s an excellent slice of mid-90’s alternative music and a thoroughly enjoyable song – catchy chorus, jangle guitars, propulsive backing. Anything more to say about it? Nope. Mark Snow got to Number 2 with The X-Files theme (!) which is sort of historically interesting as the peak of The X-Files as a cultural force but what is there to say about a theme that suits its TV show well? Not much. “Born Slippy”, too, is more interesting because of its connection to Trainspotting as a piece of pop culture but as a song… Eh. It’s fine but it’s pretty much just straightforward techno. Peter Andre seems like a nice lad, and it’s faintly surprising that he has any cultural caché beyond one-hit-wonder status, but “Mysterious Girl” is a deeply uninteresting song however you slice it. And so it goes. 1996 is the year that gave us “Macarena”, which scraped its way to Number 2 in the UK during the autumn, but all the jokes about old men dancing badly with conspicuously younger-looking models have already been made. Back in 1996, in fact.

Rankings:

1. The Beatles – “Strawberry Fields Forever” / “Penny Lane”
2. Stevie Wonder – “Sir Duke”
3. The Kinks – “Lola”
4. Jean Knight – “Mr Big Stuff”
5. Eurythmics – “Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This)”
6. Kylie Minogue – “Confide In Me”
7. Ultravox – “Vienna”
8. Elvis Costello – “Oliver’s Army”
9. The Animals – “We Gotta Get Out Of This Place”
10. Sly And The Family Stone – “Everyday People”
11. Pulp – “Common People”
12. Pet Shop Boys with Dusty Springfield – “What Have I Done To Deserve This?”
13. The Beautiful South – “Song For Whoever”
14. The B-52’s – “Love Shack”
15. Luciano Pavarotti – “Nessun Dorma”
16. Adam And The Ants – “Antmusic”
17. The KLF with Tammy Wynette – “Justified And Ancient (Stand By The JAMs)”
18. James – “Sit Down”
19. The Sweet, “Ballroom Blitz”
20. Suzanne Vega-DNA – “Tom’s Diner”
21. Manic Street Preachers – “A Design For Life”
22. The Bangles – “Manic Monday”
23. Petula Clark – “Downtown”
24. 4 Non Blondes – “What’s Up?”
25. Queen, “Killer Queen”
26. Blondie, “Denis”
27. Dire Straits – “Private Investigations”
28. Elton John – “Rocket Man (I Think It’s Going To Be A Long, Long Time)”
29. Tom Jones – “Delilah”
30. Gloria Gaynor – “Never Can Say Goodbye”
31. Cyndi Lauper – “Girls Just Want To Have Fun”
32. Eddie Cochrane – “Three Steps To Heaven”
33. Bonnie Tyler – “Holding Out For A Hero”
34. Wings – “Let ‘Em In”
35. The Troggs – “Wild Thing”
36. Jimmy Dean – “Big Bad John”
37. Terence Trent D’Arby – “Sign Your Name”
38. Chubby Checker – “Let’s Twist Again”
39. Billy J Kramer And The Dakotas – “Do You Want To Know A Secret”

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