Let’s Go To War

When the Manics released Futurology earlier in the year I wrote that:

The aesthetic and publicity of Futurology seems to have blinded many to the fact that it’s a continuation of (obsession with the past, with nostalgia) – and one which draws far more heavily on the Manics’ musical past. In its way, then, it also understands and plays with this post-nostalgia age. It offers a frictionless return to previous highs, mixing nods to a more aggressive and radical past with a distancing from (and sometimes apologising for) it (this distancing has been crucial to the Manics’ success with a particular kind of critic, who could never have stomached their early belligerence without that gap). It offers nostalgia under the guise of modernity, drawing on the past to present a comforting, easily-digestible image of a future. “We’ll come back one day… we never really went away. ” This is Futurology.

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The since-announced tour reviving The Holy Bible (to mark its 20th anniversary) fits in perfectly with this. Lest we forget, THB is an aggressive, uncompromising album which acts as a chilling testament to humanity’s brutality in the 20th century. It features song about the holocaust, the violence of the British Empire, serial killers, eating disorders, suicide, racism. More than that, it deliberately baits the liberal sensibility to distance onself from this bleakness and believe that it’s the fault of people ‘over there’ – who’s responsible, you fucking are (it also more directly baits liberals with its pro-gun, pro-death penalty lyrics and its ambivalence towards violence in general). While it’s inevitable that its unsettling power has dimmed with familiarity, we should be under no illusions that this album would be met with a chilly and/or bewildered response from many critics today. We live, after all, in an age where ‘music critic’ is viewed as an aspect of your broadsheet-friendly brand which easily lends itself to writing about fashion or Disney or yourself – all done with the same ironic wink at the audience. THB deliberately tries to shut down this distance, directly addressing the listener and implicating them in its litany of horrors. The band’s performance of Faster on Top of the Pops famously garnered the most complaints in BBC history – there was to be no easy escape and no backing down.

It’s been widely noted that THB came out on the same day as Oasis’ Definitely Maybe with the comparison invariably contrasting the former’s desolation with the swaggering optimism of the latter. Yet both had their roots in almost two decades of a largely-successful war against the working-class. The 1984 miners’ strike has become emblematic of this and it’s notable that (what remained of) the mining industry was fully-privatised at the end of 1994. In retrospect we can easily see this act as cementing the defeat of the working-class, yet at the time it was subsumed beneath the 20-point plus leads which Labour were enjoying over the Tories. There was a real sense of optimism that real change was coming – the first Labour government in almost 20 years. Definitely Maybe captured this zeitgeist but we can now see that THB was a more accurate harbinger of what was the come. Blair’s New Labour may have become almost comically demonised in recent years but, if it did some good, it certainly confirmed that the powerful forces represented by Thatcherism had won.

The left still hasn’t come to terms with this comprehensive defeat – one which stretches around the world and largely ensures that any government attempting to pursue radical left-wing policies is swiftly and aggressively punished (as Labour were in the late-70s). 20 years later we have another Tory government (let’s ignore the Lib Dems) which is widely viewed as being more Thatcherite than Thatcher and a left which is not in good shape. Fragmented, directionless and defeatist, much of the left prefers to dwell on the so-called glory days of the Spirit of ’45 (ignoring the unpleasant aspects of the context in which this happened, not least Empire) and pin its hopes on a Labour Party (or SNP for many in Scotland) which it hopes will be left-wing…just because. An analysis of power, the pressures which position political parties and the need to organise are frequently replaced by a blind optimism.

It’s into this context which THB is being re-born. The many pieces marking its anniversary may have paid lip service to its radicalism but they are steeped in nostalgia – a force which creates the crucial distance necessary for listening to the album without personal discomfort. There is often a sigh at the fact no band in 2014 could be envisaged releasing such a work, an attitude which bears comparison with the Spirit of ’45 nostalgia (we could draw a line from the complaints about the latter’s lack of acknowledgement of race and Empire, for example, to the notion that because no British white men with guitars are singing about politics it is currently absent). The fact that THB gigs were the fastest-selling ones the Manics have done in many years is testament to the power which the album holds over many people around my age and also an uncomfortable reminder of how easily we seek solace in sentimental reminiscing. In 1994, a BBC performance of Revol would have felt dangerous – now it feels like a crowd-pleasing offering to an audience who’ve just put the kids to bed and are relaxing with a drink. That’s what happens – we age and in doing so we hark back to when we weren’t sure who we were, when everything seemed more vivid and when life exploded with possibility (real or imagined). Yet we aren’t defeated until we stop trying and nostalgia is ultimately the enemy of progress. The Manics’ current playing with the past, both in straightforward reliving and in Rewind The Film/Futurology’s more experimental playing, risk obscuring the really important message here:

Working class skeletons
Lie scattered in museums
And all the false economies
Speak falsely of your dreams

Let’s go to war
To feel some pureness and pain
Let’s go to war
We need to go to war again

‘We Were Here’

Last night we watched ‘We Were Here’, a documentary about the arrival of AIDS in San Francisco and the devastation it caused for the next 30 years. It’s impossible not to be moved by it. There is a real sense that the interviewees who lived through the epidemic are survivors of something unspeakable – the analogy of war is used several times throughout. I found myself thinking that these people were remarkable but was reminded of something I have often thought about in the past, namely about how events can conspire to force people into being ‘remarkable’. One of the interviewees notes that people were amazed that he could endure not only his own illness but the deaths of his partner and close friends in quick succession. As he observes, however, what else could he possibly do? He wanted to live. He had to. I suppose when more and more people you care about are disappearing each day the opportunities for self-pity are rare.

I was taken back to how I felt when I read Edmund White’s ‘The Farewell Symphony’, which covers the same ground. It’s the final book in a trilogy and a sense of dread slowly crept up on me as I progressed further into it. I knew AIDS was going to arrive and destroy the world of the characters I had loved for the previous few weeks. Even armed with this knowledge, however, its arrival knocked the breath from me. In a matter of pages, beloved characters have contracted a mystery illness and died and many of their friends have also fallen. There is a very real sense of a generation being wiped out. It was a hugely powerful novel that stayed with me for a long time. The cruelty of the disease was almost impossible to comprehend.

When I think about this period, I have a very strong sense of existing on a continuum of gay people. Being part of a ‘gay community’. I think we easily forget that this community was forged in adversity. It had to exist. Gay people were hated, they were attacked and then they were left to die. Closing ranks was about survival and it was the only possible response. As we now know, it led to great things. Events conspired to make many remarkable and, hell, some of them were probably remarkable already. To be a happy gay person today is to follow in the footsteps of many who fought bitter battles and to whom we should be forever thankful.

I think this response is a natural one for gay people to have when learning about this past. A correct one, even. What I’ve noticed, however, is that it can lead to a sense of nostalgia for the community that undoubtedly existed back then and a desire to re-affirm this in the present day. Around the time when ‘Milk’ was in cinemas, I saw many gay people expressing their desire to be more ‘politically involved’ (which meant gay activism) and this undoubtedly played a role in the attempts to formulate ‘gay’ responses to events in East London. Perhaps there is a sense that this is part of the continuum, part of the greater fight for equality. Undoubtedly there is a desire for belonging and to be a part of something noble, something greater than oneself.

The fact is, however, that the world has moved on. To be gay in 2012 bears absolutely no relation to what it meant in 1976. That isn’t to say that everything is fine for everybody (and clearly there are places where there is still a long way to go) but today the efforts to push a ‘gay response’ to anything which is seen to affect gay people are invariably counter-productive. We take the history and strip it of its context, leaving what tend to be overwhelmingly privileged white men claiming a sense of victimhood and seeking to exclude anyone who does not fit into/buy into this narrative. It’s about exclusion. I’ve written at length about the ‘homophobia’ controversies in East London but suffice to say that it was clear that agendas were being pushed and this historical notion of gay people under siege was exploited. There was no sense of any other politics, any other power relation, any other identity, other than a very specifically subordinate ‘gay’ one.

This extends into our responses to the wider world. I wrote previously about how a few positive words about homosexuality from Obama/Clinton served to completely obscure the human rights record of that administration and the grotesque National Defence Authorization Act. Wider political issues, ones that affect us as human beings and not as homosexuals, become (at best) of secondary importance. Everything must fit into the narrative that we are a community under siege.

Even amongst people who push this agenda, there seems to be little reflection anymore of what this ‘community’ actually means. At one point in ‘We Were Here’ one of the interviewees notes that he could see the gay community splintering into countless sub-cultures and he didn’t feel that he belonged to any of them. This was just before the arrival of AIDS, which pushed everyone back together. In the years since, these sub-cultures have been commodified and sold back to us and, again, they are now arguably as much about who doesn’t belong as anything else. There are specific gay identities, each with their own traits, uniforms and belief sets. They invariably involve two things: what you consume and who you sleep with. As such, the gay community is both hopelessly reduced and greatly splintered.  The wars which forced everyone together have largely been won and this has afforded the ‘freedom’ to be gay in a myriad of different ways. It’s like an identity menu, and if you don’t like any of the choices then things are going to be that bit more difficult for you.

So, there is no over-arching ‘gay community’ these days in any meaningful sense. It exists as a marketing group, yes. It exists as concurrent pockets of people who use the term to refer to their own ‘groups’. It exists as a neo-liberal identity where individualism is all and consideration of our interacting and intersecting identities, and how these relate to the world, is obscured. This is what many interpret as following in the footsteps of the generation that fought for the right to be gay and was ravaged by AIDS. Yet these people by and large wanted to be treated equally and to be treated with respect. They were forced into ghettoisation, they didn’t actively seek it out. For me, honouring the previous fights means looking outward and taking a place in society as a human being.  Actively claiming victimhood is a grave dishonour to those who came before. We respect them by being happily gay and acknowledging what this means (and what still needs to be done) but also by understanding that this is but one aspect of our being (and not necessarily the most interesting one). In 2012, ‘We Were Here’ should be a rallying cry for a recognition of our common humanity and the struggles that affect us all, not an inspiration to rush back to our boxes.