Friday, 15 April 2016

A Design for Life at 20

On 15 April 1996, Welsh rock band Manic Street Preachers released their nineteenth single, the first from their fourth album. They were a low-to-mid ranking British band, having achieved modest success with their first three records but by no means were a household name. Compared to the biggest bands in Britain at the time - Oasis, Blur and Pulp - they were minnows. Their record company had decided to keep them on by just one vote a few months earlier, and big things were not expected of them. Their previous album, The Holy Bible, had been dark, complex, "difficult" but highly rewarding in critical and artistic terms. However, it had sold like a damp squib.

The Manics were recovering from the biggest catastrophe of their careers and maybe their lives. A year earlier their rhythm guitarist, lead writer and "propagandist-in-chief" Richey Edwards had disappeared without a trace. His car had been found abandoned at the Severn Bridge, a notorious suicide spot, after Richey had been suffering from a prolonged period of despair, depression and frustration. Although suicide was suspected, a number of eyewitness reports (including a detailed one of him taking a taxi around Cardiff) suggested that he might still be alive. But he was never seen again. The remaining members of the band - guitarist and singer James Dean Bradfield, drummer Sean Moore and bassist and co-writer Nicky Wire - spent three months waiting for news and then reconvened to discuss their future.

The band had already been preparing their fourth album, with Richey having contributed several lyrics. James had played demos of a few of these for him the day before he disappeared. One, "The Small Black Flowers That Grow in the Sky", based on a Richey lyric about animal cruelty, had reduced him to tears. With work in full flow, the band were reluctant to abandon the promising record but also did not want to disrespect Richey's memory. However, the band were encouraged to proceed by Richey's family, who hoped that hearing his songs on the radio might encourage him to get in contact. Work resumed but the band initially found getting into the swing of things difficult. Nicky Wire, who had to write more lyrics than normal, found himself suffering badly, producing lyrics he could only describe as terrible.

Out of this period he did produce two songs that seemed to hold some promise. "The Pure Motive" and a short, atypically (for the Manics) lyric-light song called "A Design for Life". Wire had come up with the title by taking Joy Division's "An Ideal for Living" and just substituting different words. The song wasn't even really a song, more of a short poem about the Welsh working class. James Dean Breadfield liked the title and some of the lyrics, but felt others were a little too dark and a bit too "Holy Bible-ish" for an album that was already more positive in its outlook. They combined the two songs, moved some lyrics around and then Wire produced the new - and now iconic - opening two lines: "Libraries give us power" (taken from the inscription outside Pillgwennly Library, Newport: "Knowledge is Power") and "Then work came and made us free" (possibly darkly inspired by "Arbeit macht frei", a Nazi slogan most famously found over the gates to Auschwitz). The rest of the song fell into place quickly. Bradfield declared he had to write "the best tune ever" to fit the lyrics. He played the finished demo down the phone to Nicky who was dumbstruck. Drummer Sean Moore, who also plays a major role in the composition and fine-tuning of the songs, then came on board and provided the song's time signature, as well as its drum solo outro.

The song was played for the first time at support gig for the Stone Roses (who were in the middle of self-destructing) in late 1995 and proved popular with the fans. Radio stations began playing it in March 1996 and it picked up an enthusiastic response, rapidly being A-listed by most stations. When it was finally released, it sold 100,000 copies in a week, a figure that dwarfs modern single sales (well, any not by Adele, anyway). The band prepared for their first #1 single but missed the top sport by only about a thousand copies, with the smooth swingbeat track "Return of the Mack" by Mark Morrison pipping them to the post.

The song received enormous sales, acclaim and airplay, paving the way for Everything Must Go, the album, on 20 May. At the Brit Awards in February 1997, the band won two Brit Awards. The band also received two NME Awards and were shortlisted for the Mercury Music Prize. In the summer of 1998 they repeated the award trick with their fifth album, This Is My Truth, Tell Me Yours, but that outsold Everything Must Go by two-to-one and gave them their first #1 single with "If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next". But it was "A Design for Life" that became their signature song, the closer at almost every single set they'd play for the next two decades and their most euphoric and life-affirming moment: a song about the working class being set free by education.

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