Riffs and Meaning: Manic Street Preachers and Know Your Enemy

Know Your Enemy1

Know Your Enemy, so often dismissed or overlooked, finally gets the critical treatment it deserves. Naish delves deep into one of the Manics’ more experimental and confused hours and presents a rich, insightful and compelling case for its reconsideration.” J.D Taylor, author of Negative Capitalism and Island Story


Riffs and Meaning


Considering the level of high and low brow pop culture references the Manic Street Preachers have bequeathed upon their lyrics, sleeve art, and in interviews, there has yet to be an concise in-depth study of the band. Whilst The Holy Bible, Everything Must Go – or even Generation Terrorists – seem like obvious albums to cover, I want to pull focus on Know Your Enemy as a pivotal point to explore the band’s political stance, musical directions, and artistic intentions, past, present, and future (from the perspective of the KYE album). Know Your Enemy encapsulates of all previous incarnations of the band and acts as a pointer towards their future as a band who, for good or ill, flirt with the idealism of leftist politics. The record was a real attempt by the band to explore new avenues in sound, embrace their socialist political views, renew their stance as music industry outsiders, antagonize other bands, and basically be the band we really wanted them to be!


Chapter Outline


This chapter will briefly examine my own introduction and eventual obsession with Manic Street Preachers music and the cultural reference points included within their lyrics and artwork. The chapter will also set the premise for the book, and why it is important to focus on Know Your Enemy as the pivotal Manic Street Preachers record.

Chapter One: A Short History of Manic Street Preachers

Know Your Enemy came at a unique juncture in the career of Manic Street Preachers. The record acts as full-stop to their early career, and a catalyst of all the band’s previous incarnations (scatty political punk, stadium rock, absurd grand gestures). In order to fully comprehend the political and cultural importance of Know Your Enemy, it is important to first understand the band’s political and cultural upbringings that point towards the record. In this chapter I concisely explore the band’s origins as teenagers courting the highbrow works of Albert Camas, Friedrich Nietzsche, Karl Marx, and the supposed lowbrow work of Morrissey and Marr, Chuck D, and Axl Rose. The early rumblings of the punk infused singles ‘Suicide Alley’ and ‘Motown Junk’, through to the release of the debut record Generation Terrorists, a mosaic of “culture, alienation, boredom and despair” and the dark monolithic The Holy Bible, the tragic disappearance of guitarist and lyricist Richey Edwards, the commercial redemption and critical praise of Everything Must Go and This is My Truth Tell Me Yours, to the final curtain call of 20th Century and the band’s sell out concert at the Cardiff Millennium Stadium on New Year’s Eve 1999. The chapter will also be an opportunity to explore the cultural shifts and how they affected the band: the 80’s miners’ strike, the demise of Thatcherism, the rise of the Madchester music scene, the early Britpop explosion, the optimism of the New Labour government.

Chapter Two: Knowing Know Your Enemy

This chapter will explore Know Your Enemy by breaking down and unpacking each of the records sixteen tracks as micro-essays exploring politics, music and culture. Like most Manic Street Preachers albums, Know Your Enemy comes steeped in circumstance, but in this case the band took a far more antagonistic approach, ridding themselves of a general listener and basically ending their tenure as the UK’s biggest band. For a start the music was abrasive and raw (‘My Guernica’, ‘Let Robeson Sing’), the lyrics were defiant and accusatory (‘Royal Correspondent’, Freedom of Speech Won’t Feed My Children’), the artwork loud and dangerous. Not since the band’s debut album had the band been so chaotic, dynamic, in charge of their own destiny, and in danger of letting it all fall apart.

Chapter Three: Our Manics in Havana

Perhaps the boldest move Manic Street Preachers made during this era was launching the record in the socialist hotbed of Cuba. During the jaunt they played to an enthusiastic crowd of young Cubans unaccustomed to the band’s brand of political rock, or any rock for that matter, the Cuban government had deemed it decedent. They also rubbed shoulders with the country’s long term dictator Fidel Castro. This chapter offers a justification as to why the band partook in such an obviously flawed, yet brilliantly defiant endeavour.

Chapter Four: The B-sides of Know Your Enemy and the Alternative History
of Manic Street Preachers.

This chapter will explore the importance of the B-side in Manic Street Preachers back catalogue. The Know Your Enemy era is a fertile example of how the band strived to use the form as a means to experiment in versatile sounds (‘Locust Valley’)and incorporate leftist political views (Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel’) and personal confrontations (‘Little Trolls’).

Chapter Five: Consuming Know Your Enemy

This chapter takes a critical perspective on Know Your Enemy by opening up the dialogue with fans of the band and tracking their journeys and reactions to the record. It also takes into account Know Your Enemy’s importance as a pivotal and vital Manic Street Preacher record, one that reflects the band’s passion and vigour.

Chapter Six: In The Aftermath of Know Your Enemy

This chapter continues the narrative of Manic Street Preachers career in the wake of Know Your Enemy’s triumphs and failures. The commercial and critical letdown of Lifeblood, James Dean Bradfield and Nicky Wire’s solo records, and regaining the rock sprit with the joyous Send Away the Tigers, the Richey Edwards penned Journal for Plague Lovers, the sombre Rewind the Film, and the krautrock influenced Futurology.


The postscript concludes the book and delves into the contradictions, compromises and failures of Manic Street Preachers. In many ways the band have failed to live up to their own expectations and aspirations as a leftist political entity. Despite the massive antagonistic swing to the left with Know Your Enemy, the band have continually courted the idea of selling out their ideals from as far back as the debut album. A decisive moment came in 2010 when the band performed the single ‘Some Kind of Nothingness’ on the immensely popular British television show Strictly Come Dancing during the week of the UK student protests.



Author Information

I am a writer, independent researcher, and cultural critic. Originally from Leicester, UK, I now live in Kingston, Ontario, Canada with my wife Jamie, a third year PHD student in Cultural Studies and our son Hayden.
I studied media and filmmaking at Leicester College. I then set up a one man video production company called FrameDropFilms which produced music video, music documentaries, and video art installations for local, and visiting bands and artists. When the smell of stale beer and cigarette smoke got too much, I turned my attention to writing about film and pop culture. at the age of twenty-seven I went back to school and studied with The Open University in the fields of creative writing, essay writing, and contemporary politics.
My writing explores film, film memory, politics, music and pop culture and the places where these entities meet. My writing has appeared in numerous journals and periodicals, including Candid Magazine, The Quietus, 3:AM, Empty Mirror, Gadfly, and Everyday Analysis. I also write book reviews for Review 31, Hong Review of Books and LSC Review of Books.
I am the author of three books, the essay collection U.ESS.AY: Politics and Humanity in American Film (Zero Books, 2014), Create or Die: Essays on the Artistry of Dennis Hopper (Amsterdam University Press, 2016), and Deconstructing Dirty Dancing which was published by Zero Books in April, 2017. I’ve had essays published in a number of anthologies, most recently in Everyday Analysis’s third volume of essays entitled Politactics, and a short story in Centum Publishing’s 100 Voices Anthology, which was published in 2016.


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Publication Date

Autumn 2018