Rhian E. Jones finds a militant melancholy in the video for ‘Rewind the Film’, the title track from Manic Street Preachers’ new album.Tweet
Today, when all parties are betrayed, where politics has debased everything, the only thing left for a man is the consciousness of his solitude and his faith in human and individual values. - Camus
In my capacity as a recovering Manics fan, I read about and around the release of the title track from their eleventh (!) studio album long before I got round to listening to it. Despite the talk of a new, more reflective direction, ‘Rewind the Film’ in fact echoes much of their previous output in its cinematic slow burn and swooning melancholy, not least 1998’s This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours. Both wistful and valedictory, ‘Rewind the Film’ has the same chapel-hymn qualities as ‘Ready for Drowning’ or ‘If You Tolerate This…’. The mournful weight of its strings and Richard Hawley’s baritone lullaby is leavened by a vocal counterpoint by James Dean Bradfield that opens up the song like a break in the clouds.
The video for ‘Rewind the Film’, an affecting portrayal of the community of Trehafod, moves the song’s lyrical concern with resignation, remembrance and loss from the individual level to the collective. The video is not inextricably tied to Trehafod or even to the Rhondda – its imagery and narrative will be familiar to many post-industrial places – but one could argue that there is a distinctly Welsh aspect to it. Does this particular presentation of the former Welsh coalfield seek to remind the world, as did ‘Ready for Drowning’, that life there endures despite the area’s consignment to the scrapheap by successive governments? Or is the video’s subject merely cloyingly romanticised, all ‘noble decline’, rain-swept past glories and humbly objectified inhabitants?
‘Rewind the Film’ begins with motionless pit machinery, looking almost like a specially-commissioned civic sculpture or the kind of mantelpiece ornament sold at heritage museums. Its abandoned uselessness turned monumental, the apparatus of a dead industry now functions as its own mausoleum. In turn, the serried ranks of miners’ terraces and artlessly framed locals call to mind the subtly uncanny Valleys portraits and landscapes of David Carpanini.
This post-industrial frame of reference, however sentimental, does not necessarily lament the displacement of a romanticised past by a degenerate present. Max Boyce’s ‘Duw it’s Hard’ – bear with me here – may be a suitable point of comparison. Boyce’s ballad of how ‘the pit-head baths are a supermarket now’, despite the gentle lilt and croon of its delivery, is a wry and clear-eyed reflection on the always-precarious nature of manufacturing, and the subjection of those who depend on it to the whims of economists and politicians. For all its flowery folksiness, the song is anything but rose-tinted, and it forms part of a certain shrewd tradition of burying unpalatable barbs in treacly sentiment.
The parent album of 'Rewind the Film', meanwhile, promises a closing track called ‘30 Year War’, which, according to Nicky Wire, is about:
the establishment across the last 30 years […] government, Murdoch, the police, Hillsborough, this stupification of the class I grew up in, which I think all stems from Thatcherism really. The idea that if you break down any power that we had we’re going to be fucked forever…
It is not quite wishful thinking to suggest that this video is suffused with the same frustrated despair and banked fury. The bathetic contrast between past and present, the loss of purpose and the sense of being abandoned to rot and decay, of living as best one can among industrial wreckage, seems informed by a less sentimental anger, an attempt to grant pride and nobility to a community denied it. The video’s poignancy lies partly in the inadequate, unilateral nature of this attempt. Such considerations lend a sharper edge to the lyric’s ‘busted flush’ and ‘broken records’, suggesting the narrator’s awareness of his own powerlessness and limitations. This might support one observer’s contention that ‘Rewind the Film’ is more about ‘how futile sentimentalism is all that's left rather than futile sentimentalism itself’.
In the video, pictures of WWII servicemen, as well as sporting heroes and film stars, occupy the walls of Trehafod & District Social Club. Old soldiers are a persistent theme of the Manics’ more elegiac endeavours, from the veteran reduced to selling his medal in ‘La Tristessa Durera’ to the former Spanish Civil War volunteer at the close of ‘If You Tolerate This…’. The band’s attempt to assert the residual dignity of working-class communities, especially by lionising their abandoned or unappreciated elderly, is also nothing new. This perspective positions Trehafod’s inhabitants, old and young, as veterans – not necessarily victims – of a thirty year class war who will never be granted the memorial they deserve.In this, ‘Rewind the Film’ is a stark departure from the more prevalent sensationalised depictions, currently rife in both media and politics, of post-industrial communities as Dickensian pits of benefit-scrounging depravity. If our choice is between sentimental commemoration and wilful amnesia, then better this video’s glimpse of militant melancholy than a continued averting of the eyes.