This book is about a single, serpentine fact: late in 1976 a record called ‘Anarchy in the UK’ was issued in London, and this event launched a transformation of pop music all over the world. Made by a four-man rock ‘n’ roll band called the Sex Pistols, and written by singer Johnny Rotten, the song distilled, in crudely poetic form, a critique of modern society once set out by a small group of Paris-based intellectuals.
First organised in 1952 as the Lettrist International, and refounded in 1957 at a conference of European avant-garde artists as the Situationist International, the group gained its greatest notoriety during the French revolt of May 1968, when its slogans were spray-painted across the walls of Paris, after which their critique was given up to history and the group disappeared. The group looked back to the surrealists of the 1920s, the Dadaists who made their names during and just after the First World War, the young Karl Marx, Saint-Just, various medieval heretics, and the Knights of the Round Table.
‘My conviction is that such circumstances are primarily odd. For a gnomic, gnostic critique dreamed up by a handful of Left Bank cafe prophets to reappear a quarter-century later, to make the charts, and then to come to life as a whole new set of demands on culture – this is almost transcendently odd.’ Greil Marcus
Some people say that a record or a film changed their life. In my case, it was a book. Greil Marcus’s Lipstick Traces did that back in 1990. It really was that important.
My hardback copy has a biro inscription in it: “To Nick love Richey, James and Sean, 28th September 1990”. Its position as a pivotal text for myself and my band, Manic Street Preachers, really was sealed when they bought it for me. We’d all read a review in the NME and knew immediately that it was exactly the kind of thing we’d been searching for. Something to link music, art, culture and protest; an alternative history that segued those seemingly disparate elements into one text. It persuaded us that we could attempt to create art that just might deeply resonate with people in the way that the book had resonated with us.
The shape of the book itself – oddly outsized, not quite fitting with others on a shelf – emanated importance. Diving into the writing, it led me down a path into such a different universe to the one I inhabited. Historical traditions were twisted and turned on their head and deemed to have always been infinitely connected; the book took you to the heart of a multitude of radical art movements and helped to explain the lies and truths of the twentieth century. Marcus makes a great point about how the Pistols were never co-opted by society, how you’ll never hear “Bodies” or “Holidays in the Sun” on the radio. That still rings true today. Their actual records still exist on the peripheries of mainstream culture.
The bombardment of ideas in the book became a massive and defining influence on myself and Manic Street Preachers: on our slogans, on our lyrics, on our outlook, the way we thought we were leaving cultural traces that may not be respected in their time. I think that idea really played with us. We knew we wanted to be this amazing shooting star that went out in a blaze of glory, we did see things as a mission, an educational tool. I genuinely believe that Lipstick Traces and England’s Dreaming (very much its British equivalent) should be taught in school. They are alternate histories; both books elevate rock ’n’ roll to the level of intellectual importance that it deserves.
My copy still has all the original folds that I’ve made, places I wanted to return to when I first picked it up. I remember Richey’s copy as a riot of underlining. I still try to reread it every year. The book never fails to instigate a lyric, an idea, an interview quote – it’s as relevant as it was ten years ago, 500 years ago … it expertly travels through time. And as it’s bristling with so much knowledge, it genuinely makes me fearful when I haven’t read it for a while.
If you’re in a band and ever lacking motivation, Lipstick Traces is the perfect encyclopaedia of ideas. We’ve taken so much from it; we even stole the title for a compilation album. It definitely holds a benign influence over us; you can hear echoes of it in our early lyrics where we tried to shoehorn the ideals of the Communist Manifesto and thoughts on Lettrism and the Vorticists into three-minute songs, it’s a pretty impossible ambition but it seemed slightly more achievable after reading that book.
Without resorting completely to cliché, it’s the band’s Holy Bible; our cultural equivalent of the Good Book, if we have one. It’s the one book I will always turn to for inspiration.
– Nicky Wire