The lyrics are a critique of working class culture. The band's bass player/lyricist Nicky Wire explained the song's meaning in an interview with Q magazine April 2011: "It was originally a two-page poem. One side was called A Pure Motive and the other A Design For Life. The song was inspired by what I perceived as the middle classes trying to hijack working-class culture. That was typified by Blur's 'Girls and Boys,' the greyhound image on their Parklife cover. It was me saying, 'This is the truth. GET IT.'"
The line, "Libraries gave us power" came from the wall of Newport Library in Wales.
In 1995, Manic guitarist Richey Edwards disappeared. He may have committed suicide, but his body was never recovered and some people claim they have seen him since. The band carried on without him - this was the first song bass player Nicky Wire wrote after Richey disappeared.
Vocalist James Dean Bradfield recalled writing the song's instrumentation to Q magazine: "I remember being given the lyrics by Nick (Wire). We had come to a total standstill since Richey (Edwards) had disappeared. There was a long period of shock where we couldn't do a thing, I just really needed something to occupy me. Deep down, I wanted to know what it was like to write a song as a three-piece. That was the most daunting task facing as at that point - how would it work? I remember being incredibly nervous when the first proper set of Nick's lyrics arrived five months after Richey disappeared. I didn't actually start writing anything for a few days after they came, which is strange for me as I usually start pretty much the second I've torn open the envelope."
He continued: "I remember atomising the lyrics. It felt like there was a thread running through of anger and what I thought at the time was sarcasm. I think it was one of the quickest tunes I've ever written - it came fully formed in just 10 minutes. Up to that point, we were genuinely in limbo. By the time I called Nick, I was pretty sure I was onto something brilliant."
Wire added: "James called me up saying, It's Ennio Morricone, R.E.M. and Phil Spector."
This song is sometimes interpreted as a lament, but Nicky Wire considers it an empowering song. "It's almost heroic, in the sense that whatever is thrown at the working classes by the upper classes, we will always come through," he told Dazed & Confused. "That's what the lyric is about: we always come back with something better."
James Dean Bradfield revealed to the NME that the band nearly split after Richey Edwards disappeared in 1995, adding that the remaining Manics technically weren't together for six months that year. Explaining how they came back together, he recalled: "I was living in London and [Nicky] sent me some lyrics in the post. Two [sets] arrived; one was called 'Pure Motive' and one was called 'A Design For Life.' They both had a hint of violence and reaffirmation about them, what working class attitudes should have. And then I atomized the two sets of lyrics and wrote some music to it, which came really easily. I rang him up and said, 'I found the song that will give us reason to exist as a band!'"
Nigel from Bristol UkWho cares what its about? Its a great song, with great lyrics, intelligently written, a great guitar backing and a joy to listen too. And I'm really, really old.
Tryst from Wales, United KingdomThis song clearly describes the problems associated with a borgeoise/capitalist obsesed culture
Rob from Babylon, United KingdomThe song is a celebration of the welfare system. The line 'we don't talk about love, we only want to get drunk' refers to stereotypical views of working class. It certainly isn't a song that advocates drinking and lad-culture of the 90's, although possibilly mistakenly? panders to it. I wouldn't say it's a critique of the working class, it's more of a critue of other critiques.
Polly from Inverness, EnglandThe phrase "then work came and made us free" Refers to a sign in a concentration camp, but obviously in German :D Luvvin the Manics forever x
Dave from Cardiff, WalesThe period between 1996 and 1998 saw an explosion of Welsh acts coming to the forefront on the back of MSP's success earlier in the decade - Catatonia, Super Furry Animals, Gorky's Zygotic Mynci, 60ft Dolls all began breaking through, but the Manics were the only Welsh band of that era who went on to score a UK No.1 hit
David from Liverpool, EnglandA Design for Life was supposedly inspired by a Joy Division song called An Ideal for Living.
Nick from Norwich, EnglandThese geezers from Wales found some OK words to rhyme nicely with a nice catchy tune. Enough to make a popular chune for the summer of 1995 and an above average melody for the last 10 years. Congrats. But lets face it, it ain?t Shakespeare! There again, how many 3 minute pop songs are? If you?re looking for something more profound, OCS were of the same era, better and less pretentious.
Dan from Sydney, AustraliaI strongly disagree with the last few comments .... richey once quoted on MTV that this song was in fact about massive ball sacs attacking old ladies
Constantine from Athens, GreeceMy opinion is that the song is about how, not just the elders, but mostly the society and the power structures that are
inscribed in it, and reflect on its cultural industry, economic system, and ways of education(in libraries for example), are all used as
mechanisms to manipulate and supress the idea that one has for his/herself, in order to make the person fit into a stereotype ( a
role, if you want, created by the system) that only serves to help it sustain itself. So, "libraries gave us power", huh? But what kind of power is that? A library (in Newport), built with coal-miners'
money but filled with books written by bourgeois intellectuals (at that time there was no other form of discourse) serving only as a
"knowledge" gateway into the realm of the upper class - teaching people the sort of knowledge that will only create a false
conciousness. The inscription on the library (Knowledge is power) means tha anyone MAY get his share of power, but only if he
incorporates that particular knowledge (and its conditions) ... "Then work came and made us free" I love the irony of the manics! Why should anyone need to work in order to be
free?! Any marxist you may read, will point that a dominating system (such as capitalism) needs to create false conditions of life, in
order to then come as a "saviour", impose its rules, and give you "deliverence" from misery... the misery of survival, which the
dominant oligarchy created in the first place. Just like in Auschwitch,one of those workhouses/purgatories-built-on-earth, where
nazis exploited the jews until their death, because they needed cheap working hands ... Then the third line comes, and its not surprising that after the first two it makes the most obvious remark: "what price
now for a shallow piece of dignity". Dignity, that is lost through all these filters of modern society. And what dignity can one have
when one has no option but to being forced( no sorry, "tought") into living a life that is simply undermining his/her liberty? As for the title of the song, i think it confirms all these thoughts. Throughout the song, which is filled with ironic lyrics
("we only want to get drunk"), the only words that are not in this frame of thought, is where James sings "i wish i had a bottle.."
and "a design for life". Instead, these lyrics may be seen as complaints about the situation. At first, the title didn't mean that much to me (no, i think its not a reference to Joy Division, or a mockering of a Ford
ad). That was until i found out about Alfred Adler, a socialist-psychologist that wrote in the 30's-40's, who spoke of a "Design for
Life", that everyone creates individually, and gives a person his "purpose" in life. Adler believed that, as children, everyone forms
a set of beliefs, about the world, about oneself, and about ones position in that world, and in the social relations that exist in it.
And that those beliefs guide a person in his life, as the base of his reasoning for his actions. I hope i am making some sense by now?! To make it a bit more clear, you can see that by controlling those aspects of
life, which many people see as obvious, as another "law of nature" and given, (working conditions, educational system) those who
hold power can form ones' image-of-self. Literally by ordering what you can or can't do (and by assigning signs that tell you that on
buildings, making it explicit) they drive people (people who have lost control over their own lives) into alienation and loss of
self-awareness. It is they who are the authors that "draw" the "design for life" instead of the real subjects. That is the state, that the manics suggest, the working-class finds itself in,today, and the reason why this song is meant
to expose this lie - that we live in a classless society.
Robert from Bergen, Norway"Libraries gave us power" is followed by the line "then work came and made us free" which is a translation of the slogan "Arbeit macht frei" which was seen on the steel gates of Auschwitch. Probably Nicky tries to express the paradox of evolved cultural nations like Germany and England being capable of keeping people in slavery and ignorance. Not only the Holocaust but also sending the bigger part of the male population in Wales down in the darkness of the mines to slave away their adult life. The darkness of the mines can also be seen a metaphore for the general ignorance that's encouraged for the lower parts of the British class system. This line; "I wish I had a bottle right here in my dirty face to show the scars.." refers to the miners, a wet bottle will leave a white "scar" in the coal dust when a miner coming from work drinks from it.
Matt from Romford, EnglandThe chorus lines 'We don't talk about love, we only want to get drunk,' and the line' I wish I hada bottle right here in my dirty face,' refer to the prevailing 'lad-culture' in mid-'90s Britain with the Brit-Pop band Oasis being it's main front (Liam Gallagher has alot of front himself); Nicky's lyrics always were more simple than Richey, which require more of an explanation.
Jonathan Taylor from Keighley, EnglandI song's chorus echoes real life and how our elders believe we should live it- get a job, get ammried, have kids and what the media says life should be and how u should be---a life without religon
Paul from Cardiff, WalesThe line 'Libraries gave us power' is actually inspired by the phrase 'Knowledge is Power' which is on the door above the library in Pill, Newport. Apparently, Nickys wife used to work there.
Rian from London, United StatesAww, Nicky Wire is so clever. I do prefer Richeys Lyrics but, i do love all the band so i guess i like this song