You Love Us?

Vague ramblings about Manics fans, soon to be published in a Real Book

by Hannah

There's a bit of a story behind this one, so bear with me for a moment. In July I made the mistake of spending £40 on seeing the Manics for the third time, with some vague hope that this time they would actually give me my money's worth. The gig, though enjoyable, was nothing special. The next day I sat down to write a review, which turned into a ten-page rant about why-are-they-so-shite-now and why-did-I-have-to-be-born-in-1986-and-miss-all-the-good-music and lots of irritated/ing rambling.

Once I'd written a few pages of crap I started to be less annoyed and started thinking about the things I'd enjoyed about the gig; and the thing that came to mind straight away was the fans. Their in-jokes and funny stories, the atmosphere of being surrounded by people who understand (cheesy but true), watching a boy in a white sailor suit, fake fur coat and glitter on his face sneering at the tedious indie support bands. So I went back to my incoherent ranting and started changing it around, changing the angle to concentrate more on the fans. Because we are, simply and egotistically, very fucking cool people.

Manic Street Preachers fans are cynical, idealistic, funny, humourless, irritating, brilliant, socialist, reactionary, introverted, outgoing, clever, not-so-clever, creative, (self)destructive, argumentative, peaceable, bitchy, sugar&spice sweet, Sartre lovers, Big Brother fans, working-class, middle-class, any nationality from German to Welsh, male, female, gay, straight, bisexual and everything in between. They can be the most sensible and emotionally balanced people in the world, or they can casually let slip in everyday conversation that they spent two years on a psychiatric ward. They are beer-swilling rugby players and sensitive 8st girls with pink glitter in their hair, and the divide between which musical 'era' they love is not always as clearly defined as you might think. They are obsessives who listen to nothing but The Holy Bible... and they are fans of any kind of music from Avril Lavigne to the Murderdolls. They go to every gig and signing and cover their walls with photos of them drunkenly hugging James... and they declare they never want to meet the band because that's stupid. They think 'The Everlasting' is a beautiful song... and they view Everything Must Go as the biggest bastardisation of a band's original ideas and sound in the history of music. They are in love with James/Nicky/Richey (not usually Sean)... and they call anyone who fancies a band member an immature groupie who should grow up and get a real boyfriend. They believe that Richey jumped off the Severn Bridge in February 1995... and they are convinced that they saw him in a park in Hunstanton in June 2003. In short, we're all different.

All different, but somehow united, because of the enormity, importance and history of what we have in common.

When a band like the Manics come along, people tend to divide very quickly into two distinct groups: dedicated fans and sneering unbelievers. A band with some good pop songs and not much else can gather large numbers of casual fans, people with very different ideas, tastes, attitudes, clothes; only united in their agreement that "The chorus of Yellow is great, isn't it?" At the extreme opposite of the musical spectrum, there are bands who have a manifesto, a look, a determination to do more than write coffee-advert tunes that don't challenge or question anything. Bands like this tend to draw towards them like-minded people, people appalled at the banality of the mainstream music scene, people who see the band's politics, challenges to authority and bloody-minded individualism as a way out.

When there seems to be only one band in the world that can offer all this, people - particularly young people - can have an almost frightening capacity for obsession, obsession with what is, after all, Just A Band. Just a few people, almost certainly men, probably only a few years older than their fans, with as much musical talent as is required to play the guitar (insert your own joke here) and, if you're lucky, a gift for writing songs.

And just as all Manics fans are different, our attitudes towards the band are all different, ranging from obsessive love to frustrated hatred, often within the same person. I'm going to illustrate this point mainly with my own experiences and feelings - just because I know what I think and feel more than I know what's going on inside another person's head.

It all started in 1999, when I was 13. My friend sat me down in the school playground, shoved a pair of headphones over my ears and said, "listen to this." It was Generation Terrorists, and it was simply the most incredible thing I'd ever heard in my life.

This set me off on the obsessive love thing. Bidding on eBay for obscure early singles, listening to The Holy Bible five times before breakfast, creating the collage of pictures on my bedroom wall that I call, only half-ironically, my Manics Shrine. Scouring NME for articles, video-ing every crap ITV documentary, spending hours on the internet looking at pictures; reading reviews, interviews and horrendously bad fanfic (though never writing any of my own. I never sunk that low). Spending amounts of money I don't even want to think about on gigs. Seeing a skinny dark-haired bloke in sunglasses walking through Camden market and being convinced it's Richey.

But gradually the obsessive love turned into that other staple attitude of Manics fans towards the band - a mixture of irritation, dislike, resignation and tolerance. Frustrated hatred, if you will. The attitude that comes over you when you realise that the band who once claimed "All we've ever wanted is the reality of oblivion, to get jack-plugged to hell... We distance ourselves from everybody so we can always completely hate them... Parliament is more ugly than a gas chamber, money controls..." now write songs with lyrics like "I'm losing all my innocence... I know I've stopped making much sense" (um, yes.) Nicky Wire, the man who once horrified the liberal press with his comments hoping Michael Stipe would die of AIDS, now gets his picture in the NME for saying that one of The Hives is too fat to be in a rock band. Excuse me while I gasp at the controversy.

And yet so many of us still love them, love them as they are now rather than retrospectively love them as they were years ago. For every 'old fan' who's given up in disgust at the Manics' abandonment of their original sound / ideals / dress sense, there are hundreds of dedicated fans who travel all over the country to gigs and signings, spend ridiculous amounts of money, generally go to unbelievable lengths for a band who have long passed the point of being interested in their fans as people.

Even more oddly, there's the emotion that seems to be confined pretty much to Manics fans: a mixture of love and hate, dedication and irritation, and overall half-amused, half-disappointed tolerance: as if they're middle-aged parents and the Manics are their child who was really cute when he was born and has since grown into an annoying football-playing little hooligan, but you gotta love him anyway because, well, he's your kid, isn't he? You'll meet people at gigs who queued for seven hours just to get to the front of the arena, but once there would happily spend just as many hours slagging off the very band they've paid £40 and hitchhiked across the country to see. One guy I know of, Holden, has spent years writing Manics fan fiction and slash stories that contain details about the band members' characters, likes and dislikes that only an obsessive fan would know, but his website disclaimer includes the phrase "I actually hate the Manic Street Preachers, so don't email me about them. I won't reply."

The thing is, there's just too much emotion, too many ideas, too much sordid tragic twisted beautiful fascinating history. The Manics never were and never will be Just A Band. The history, the controversy, the memory of it all keeps people dedicated to them now. But why? Because they still play the old songs at gigs? Because as long as they're still together there's the possibility of them reclaiming some past glory? Because once they were so great? Because they still are? Why can't I stop listening to their albums; why did I buy the 'Greatest Hits' CD, why will I probably end up buying the new screw-some-more-cash-out-of-the-fans venture, B-sides and covers collection Lipstick Traces? Why have I spent over £100 on two gigs in the last eight months? Why are any new bands with an ounce of political knowledge and lyrics that are about more than sweet pop song love inevitably described as 'The New Manics'? Have the last 10 years of pop music really been so devoid of originality that only ONE band stands out as being political, inventive, creative?

It's the politics, inventiveness, creativity, glamour, history, tragedy, etc etc etc, that makes being a Manics fan much more than being a Coldplay fan. An odd kind of solidarity and cliquishness seems to exist between Manics fans: they make jokes about the band or fan culture that only other fans will get, when they talk about the Manics they sound like they are discussing their friends or acquaintances, not a bunch of millionaire rock stars who they may have met once or twice along with hundreds of other fans at a signing. Manics Forum user Prufrock refers to the band as "my babies". We know their opinions and quirks almost as well as we know our own families. Fans can spot each other at other bands' gigs or in the pub - it's the clothes - and often go out of their way to talk to each other in a way that two people who happen to both be wearing Foo Fighters t-shirts probably wouldn't bother. My sister and I even made a game out of it: Spot The Manics Fan.

But why do this? Maybe we assume that other fans will be more interesting than anyone else, maybe we feel we should stick together because of this amazing story - The Story of Manic Street Preachers, or is that a book by Simon Price? Ooh, cliquey fan joke! - that we know in detail, maybe we just like to feel superior because we share love for a band who are about more than just the music, and it's so much easier and more fun to feel superior with another person than on your own...

Ted Kessler, in his introduction to the NME's 'Genuine Article: Manic Street Preachers' (the let's-cash-in-on-this-whole-Greatest-Hits-thing-and-pretend-we-loved-them-all-along special issue), wrote: "The Manic Street Preachers' story has the plot, pathos and twist of a cracking work of fiction... Struggle, glory, loss, valediction... some drama alright." I recently found myself trying to explain the early 90's Manics and the details of Richey's disappearance to a friend who knew nothing about the history behind a band she'd seen on Top of the Pops once or twice. Not easy, especially at 10 p.m. when you're slightly the worse for vodka and your bus is about to leave. It's easier when you're with other fans because you don't need to go into these impossible explanations. You're on the same wavelength from the start, even if you have very different ideas and opinions.

Of course it doesn't always work this way. I know people who deliberately avoid other fans because they find them irritating, or dislike the idea that there's any reason why people who have nothing in common and just happen to like the same band should speak to each other. I also can't help thinking there's something just slightly unpleasant about the whole notion of being a Fan, the way it seems to imply obsession and worship, an inability or reluctance to create art or music of your own because you can't or don't want to do any better than your idols.

But hey, these are all just my opinions. Any other fan would probably disagree. And none of my cynical ideas spoil the fact that Manics fan culture is active, fascinating and best of all, full of weird, brilliant, creative, argumentative people. All together now: "WE'RE ALL INDIVIDUAL!"

Skinny black-haired kid in eyeliner and leopardprint at the back of the room: "I'm not..."