Released on: A Design For Life (Single #17) Epic Records, 15 April 1996
Peak UK Chart Position: #2
Band Ranking: #2
Also on: Everything Must Go (Album #4) Epic Records, 20 May 1996
It had always been clear that Manic Street Preachers were a working-class band – their upbringing in working-class South Wales was a key part of their collective identity and a key basis for their socialist political views. In their music, however, it was the political rather than the class aspect that had always come across most clearly; that was, until ‘A Design For Life’, very much a song about class, became by far their most successful single to date in April 1996. The song was the very first that the band had written following Edwards’ disappearance.
The band had written big, ambitious songs before – not least [A25] ‘Motorcycle Emptiness‘ – but what made ‘A Design For Life’ special and so ideally suited to being a lead single was that it was the first attempt the band had made to record a true, populist anthem. The song’s soaring strings, somewhat waltz-like timings and Bradfield’s classic descending guitar figure all contribute to this feel, which in turn helped make the single such a tremendous success (even if it did fall short of actually reaching #1, it shifted 92, 648 copies in the first week). The outro is also significant – featuring nothing but Moore’s drums, it is one of the closest things to a drum solo he has ever recorded (in one of a growing series of subtle connections to the Beatles, Ringo Starr was also infamously opposed to drum solos, recording only one on ‘The End’). The string parts were recorded by The Venomettes, a four-piece female string group that producer Mike Hedges had worked with since the 1980s who were known for working on a number of punk records from that era.
The song’s lyrics are usually thought to be themed around working class solidarity, and make specific reference to the value of libraries, which have historically allowed poorer people to learn on their own terms through books – by contrast, owning books has historically been the preserve of the educated rich (and books of course remain expensive today, particularly factual ones). This line was directly inspired by the band’s time in public libraries when they were young. The lines “we don’t talk about love / we only want to get drunk” are a play on upper class assumptions about poor people – the idea that the lives of “the proles” are dominated by idle pursuits like drinking and that they ostensibly don’t have a capacity for philosophy or independent thought. Naturally, the Manics rail against this narrow-minded idea. By contrast, the song was famously misunderstood by some at the time, who saw the song as a kind of laddish drinking anthem.
Like ‘Motorcycle Emptiness’ before it, ‘A Design For Life’ began as two songs – one written under that title designed to play up the positive aspects of working class life and another, named ‘The Pure Motive’ which was about the darker side and was inspired by ‘To Be A Somebody’, a 1994 episode of Jimmy McGovern’s crime series Cracker. In the episode, Robert Carlyle plays a killer working to avenge the deaths of those who died in the Hillsborough disaster in 1989. This event would itself be the inspiration for a later Manics track, ‘S.Y.M.M.’, the closing track on This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours. Parts of ‘The Pure Motive’ were absorbed into ‘A Design For Life’, resulting in the final version.
In June 2009, the Manics were were invited to officially open the new Cardiff Central Library. At the event, Wire spoke about how he used libraries often when he was young and how his time spent in them and the fact that his wife once worked in them were among the inspirations for ‘A Design For Life’. The Manics were chosen for the event specifically because of the first line Wire had written for this song.
‘A Design For Life’ has gone on to be by far the best-known song from Everything Must Go and one of the most famous Manics songs in the minds of the general public. This is matched by its significance to the band and to fans: the song has been used as the closing number at most shows since 1996, making it integral to the Manics live experience.
The song’s promo video was directed by Pedro Romhanyi and is particularly closely connected to the song’s theme. It depicts the band playing on an indoor stage in an apparently industrial location – and a cold one, as the members’ breath can be seen – while various slogans are shown on screen or projected onto the walls. The slogans generally espouse the capitalist ideals of abundance, reflected in archive footage mainly from the 1950s, that the Manics seek to challenge with the song.
Owing to its major impact on popular culture, ‘A Design For Life’ was memorably referenced in the final track of The Man Who, the very successful 1999 album by Scottish band Travis. The song, ‘Slide Show’ refers to the song in the first line of its chorus, which also alludes to ‘Wonderwall’ by Oasis (which it is actually musically based on to some extent) and ‘Devil’s Haircut’ by Beck. Musically, ‘A Design For Life’ was also reflected in the Manics’ own much later single ‘Indian Summer’ – the band initially hesitated to release the song due to it sounding similar, but eventually decided to release it for exactly that reason.
Although it is arguably a little harder to enjoy now due to the enormous airplay it has received over the years, ‘A Design For Life’ is still undoubtedly one of the key Manics singles, a live staple, and a significant touchpoint in their discography which opened the graceful, cleansing period that was the Everything Must Go era.
Choice Lyric (Full Lyrics)
“what price now for a shallow piece of dignity”
Libraries gave us power – a reference to the inscription “knowledge is power” which once appeared over the door of the public library in the town of Pillgwenlly, near the Manics’ childhood home of Blackwood, South Wales.
Then work came and made us free – a reference to the inscription “Arbeit macht frei” which appeared over the gates of Auschwitz and was previously referenced in the song [T73] ‘The Intense Humming of Evil’.