To kick-start the promotion for their upcoming eleventh studio album, the Manics have just released the new record’s title track, ‘Rewind the Film’. It’s a great song, and the addition of Richard Hawley is a perfect touch, but the real emotional weight lies in the accompanying video. The film depicts a day in the life of Trehafod in the Rhondda Valley, and is described by Michael Cragg in The Guardian, somewhat brazenly and patronisingly, as ‘[following] an elderly man around a dilapidated village, before he and the locals enjoy a cheery game of Bingo.’
It’s poignant stuff, and as someone born and raised South Wales I can’t deny I’ve had a lump in my throat each time I’ve watched it. Despite that, however, the most prominent feeling I have is one of unease at the depiction of Wales and ‘Welshness’ featured here. As someone mentioned on Twitter, “it’s sentimental tosh like this that gives the beautiful valleys a bad name.” I’m not sure I fully agree, but I feel there’s a case to be made that the video’s overt sentimentality can be more damaging than invigorating, despite the undoubted power the images possess in conveying a sense of heartbreaking decay and loss.
While I don’t doubt that the video portrays places, issues and themes that the Manics hold dear to them (as do I), I fear they have fallen into the trap of adding a romanticism to the ‘noble decline’ of the industrial heartland of Wales. There should be nothing romantic in portraying how working class communities have feebly clung on to life after being chewed up and spat out by a succession of neoliberal governments. This portrayal of life in the post-industrial Valleys – while hinting at the tendency for poetic, romantic self-destruction that some say is inherent to Welsh self-identification (Manics lyricist Nicky Wire among them) – serves little purpose beyond aestheticising the everyday mundanity of Valley life, not to mention paying little mind to the vibrancy and human spirit that still remains.
I’m a long-time fan of the Manics, and hold a special affection for them in ways that I don’t for any other band; but they’ve always been at their best – both aesthetically and politically – when their glam-punk, escapist sensibility shines through, particularly in their early work. I feel this is the most effective way in which the Manics express their politics, rather than the cloying (albeit powerful) sentimentality of ‘Rewind the Film’.
Rhian Jones has written far more lucidly than I on the subject of South Wales and its cultural identity, again through the prism of the Manics, in her excellent Little Empires series. Richard King and Robin Turner’s collaborative blog also discusses similar issues, and is well worth a read.
While researching this article I stumbled across a small photo-esssay published in Vice earlier this year. It’s a brief tour of Newport’s pubs and bars, many of which I’ve spent time in, and it had a similar effect on me as the Manics video discussed above.