MANIC STREET PREACHERS
by Ryan Settee
It's a bit difficult to wrap my head around the fact that the 2012 reissue of the Manic Street Preachers' landmark debut, Generation Terrorists, has marked a couple of decades since its initial release. But the album's pedigree and the arc of its birth has never been an easy one to understand, either--the band was determined, and their reach had firmly exceeded their grasp. The band had came out in the press with the idea that their debut was going to be a double album as well as their only album, boasting that it would sell millions--going out in a blaze of gunfire like the Sex Pistols--only adding to the love 'em or hate 'em mystique/aura. The interesting thing is that the band has at least three albums that could be considered "career defining" (though the late period Send Away The Tigers/ Journal For Plague Lovers/Postcards From A Young Man displays a renewed spark, even if it's at the expense of revisiting the templates of their earlier works in composition). The more interesting thing is that those three early albums are all very different from each other--Generation Terrorists for being a mission statement of glam punk (or better put as "a mess of eyeliner and spraypaint" in the band's own words); The Holy Bible for being perhaps one of the bleakest albums in rock history (sounding in hindsight like a kissoff to the world by guitarist/ lyricist Richey Edwards and being more stripped down and consistently abrasive); and Everything Must Go, a Beatles/ Spector-esque take on pop with baroque flourishes, orchestras and huge production.
One thing is certain, though--their "us against the world" thing wasn't a put on. It may have been easy to dismiss them at the time or even now, but they had truly taken the hard road, and it really was them against the world--guitarist/vocalist James Dean Bradfield, bassist Nicky Wire, guitarist/lyricist Richey Edwards, and drummer Sean Moore. They really seemed like a gang that was united, where they all believed in the words and the songs. In the DVD that is included with the reissue of Terrorists, the band reflects on how they didn't fit into any scene--they weren't punk enough for the punk scene, as their '77 influenced sound was out of date and out of fashion with new strains of punk rock (hardcore, post-punk, emo). Also, they had felt like the odd band out, due to the overt political nature of their lyrics, but also because they absolutely hated almost everything that was coming out of the UK at the time (Nicky says in the DVD that they had to destroy bands, that it was "the Gore Vidal thing"), so they really had no other peers in their hometown or home country. The sounds coming out of the UK at the time were more along the lines of shoegaze (Ride, Verve, My Bloody Valentine, Slowdive--the latter of whom the Manics absolutely hated) and Britpop (Blur, Oasis, Stone Roses, etc), making the Manics' sound atypical of what was being marketed out of the UK at the time.
Timing is everything in the music industry, and this album had the unfortunate fate of being at the absolute tail end of the hair metal/arena rock era; never fully benefitting from the scene or surroundings of any remnants of the Sunset Strip. Not that the band would have found any peers there, either--they were against the reckless excess that those bands indulged in, and though the Manics' musical veneer suggested "party rock," the political lyrics betray what is happening in the music. That whole glam/Sunset Strip sound was on its way out, but the band mentions that they weren't accepted into any of that scene anyways (though Motley Crue's Nikki Sixx was apparently a fan of theirs). As well, the band having shed their indie punk roots came at the exact moment that raw, realistic independent rock was becoming all the rage in Seattle, Chicago, Washington DC and other places. As a result, the band found themselves in a bizarre predicament--they were too punk to be accepted by the '80's rocker and Sunset Strip types, but they were also too glam rock in their sound and appearance to really be accepted by the punks. But ultimately, their ambitions were destined for the majors; Richey and Nicky were a major label's and PR person's dream: outspoken, photogenic, and always interesting and intelligent in interviews. As well, seeing as that they were the odd band out with no real scene or bands around them to gig or tour with, signing to the majors seemed like a no-brainer--if you're already on the outs and disliked on the independent end, you might as well just sign the contract and become thoroughly hated through envy.
One of the problems, in hindsight, is that the band was trying to be American in their sound, but they were still far too much a product of their Welsh upbringing, and that reflected itself in the overall sound too. For example, Black Sabbath reflected the doom and gloom and the dead ends of working class Birmingham. Roger Waters reflected on the strict and totalitarian school system in The Wall. Neither Floyd nor Sabbath were particularly well received in the U.S., until they'd stuck it out and toured endlessly to stand behind their vision. The melodies and overall vibe of a track like the Manics' "Motorcycle Emptiness" is thoroughly from the UK in its delivery. The bonus video that's included on the reissue DVD shows a somewhat sparsely attended and unenthusiastic gig in Chicago, and the band admits that the U.S/ tour was where they started to realize how difficult it was going to be to crack the U.S/ market. The same thing happened to The Wildhearts- also from the UK and the odd band out with their melodic and anthemic rock/metal/glam rock sound in the early 90's, a sound that was American in spirit, but was far too British to really take over North America.
The Manics' earlier sound was rawer sounding and more punk based, though despite the band's anarchist anti-establishment stance and rougher delivery than most audiences were used to at that time, their earliest material and demos were never really that close to the Clash or the Sex Pistols; instead, they sounded more like a cousin of the Mega City Four ('80's indie punk pop with definite shades of Minneapolis influence more than anything else). The demos and earlier Heavenly Records versions on the deluxe reissue of Generation Terrorists reveal a different band than the glossy glam punker sheen that the eventual finished product would suggest. The Minneapolis thing bears a reinforced mention; the demo of "Nat West-Barclays-Midlands-Lloyds" displays a noticeable resemblance to Husker Du's "Don't Want To Know If You Are Lonely" at times, whereas the Generation Terrorists version has a decidedly more metallic, arena-rock sound. In general, the Marcus demos retain more of the band's earlier indie punk sound, and the House In The Woods demos serve as the missing link between the earlier sound and the all-out commerciality of the versions on the actual album. Some of the demos on the reissue sound like first or generation cassette dubs; dropouts, and tinny, thin sound would indicate this.
Starting out with a double album is never an easy thing, and in most cases, is a fairly ill-advised idea. You have to wonder what the record company had thought about the Manics' idea for this, when they were mulling around ideas. "We're gonna do a double album!". You can imagine Columbia's bewilderment. From the creative side obviously as a band and as musicians, you want to display all of what you're capable of, but the problem is that (most of the time) there's just simply not enough time on the listening end for the audience. Speaking personally as someone who has way more records than can be really appreciated, the dilemma becomes that unless you have a handful of really favorite bands that you're dedicated to, a double album even by an established band becomes a dubious proposition, because of the aforementioned reasons, but also because the issue also becomes a matter of quality. Unless you keep the writing quality really high, it can quickly become a chore on the audience's end, because you have to wonder as creators, whether the music is really necessary and whether the material is interesting enough. You could quickly lose an audience that way. When the industry switched to CD's (and even during the cassette heyday), filling 50-80 minutes' worth of blank space became somewhat routine, and with that came extended releases that didn't often warrant the extra running time. If you look at the average length of an album in the '70's, more often than not, it was about 10 songs (give or take a song) and from about 35-42 minutes. Anything past the 40 minute mark, i've noticed, can quickly seem a bit long, especially if the album isn't strong enough. Though some of those artists were releasing two albums a year and some of the material on those records was certainly filler, those relative time constraints on a record really forced artists to re-think and shelve grand concepts in favor of stronger material.
Nevertheless, Generation Terrorists has a lot of material that really works in its 18 song, 74 minute running time. Most of it does, actually. The flow of the record is a bit choppy at times, but there's no denying the excellence of songs like "Love's Sweet Exile," "Stay Beautiful," "So Dead," "Slash N' Burn" and other songs like "Little Baby Nothing" (with ex-porn star Traci Lords on vocals). Everything has a majestic, uplifting, reckless quality to the music, and despite the pessimistic nature of the political and barbed lyrics, the music itself usually suggests something optimistic in overall feel. Even amidst the sweeping minor chord changes, there's always the sense of triumph. It's not always the easiest thing to do, but the Manics do it well. The band has four different modes--punk rock mode ("Damn Dog," "You Love Us," "Repeat"), cock-rock mode ("Slash N' Burn," "Another Invented Disease," "Condemned To Rock N' Roll"), reflective mode ("Motorcycle Emptiness." "Little Baby Nothing." "Spectators Of Suicide") and up-tempo rocker mode ("So Dead," "Tennessee," "Stay Beautiful").
That being said, Generation Terrorists has some material that could have been left off, and that probably has more to do with the four different modes that they're in on the record. Usually, audiences aren't used to this much intelligence, insight, and tenderness mixed with their rock music, and there are different influences all over the record that make it perhaps a little too diverse at times for some people. "Repeat (Stars and Stripes)," for me at least, has pretty much always facilitated a prompt trip to the stereo to skip through it. One could maybe claim "Spectators Of Suicide" as filler, but for me, it has a nice, laid back ballad feel to it that gives a bit of diversity to the second half of the record. In hindsight, tracks like "Another Invented Disease" and "Condemned To Rock N' Roll" seem a bit too much like an attempt to sound like Guns N' Roses, given the rest of the album's successes at vulnerabilty and melody even at it's most raging. The band had taken the Americanized sound as far as it would go on the generally disowned (band included!) 2nd album in Gold Against The Soul. In particular, drummer Sean Moore did not like the harder '80's rock direction that the band was going in and was vocal about it, and one could envision the trouble that bassist Nicky Wire would have with the more complicated arrangements in "Another Invented Disease" and particularly the more difficult almost prog-like riff-a-thons of "Condemed To Rock n' Roll." Nicky's rudimentary punk-based skills were barely adequate in the live domain to pull off the simplicity of "You Love Us," let alone the weird timing shifts of some of the more complicated material.
Producer Steve Brown was hired by the band because of his work on The Cult's Love (also a pivotal transitional album to secure new audiences), as well as his work with Wham, and there's two camps of fans/detractors: 1) those that think that he did a great job of taking an unpolished band and getting the most commercial appeal out of them that were headed that direction anyways or 2) those that think that he'd ruined the credibility of the punk side of the band and/ or had ruined the band, period. My opinion is that the band were nudging themselves in a more commercial, anthemic direction, and in particular, Nicky and guitarist/lyricist Richey Edwards seemed to revel in the messy mascara and leopard print garb. Brown did an exceptional job of getting the most out of the band in terms of melody, rhythm and arrangement, as the House In The Woods demos display a band that was still rough around the edges and not quite sure yet of how to go about combining their underground ethics with their ambitions to be the biggest band in the world. Those demos even suggest, at times, that the band wasn't quite sure if they were alright with making their anthems into complete fist-pumping rockers, as there seems to be a bit of tenacity and drive missing from them, compared to the released versions.
Even the best musicians in the band at that time--Sean Moore and James Dean Bradfield (who were also cousins)--were still somewhat rough around the edges. An Alesis SR-16 drum machine was used on the album, and to my ears (having spent enough time on one in that I consider myself an expert on its reverb heavy power ballad sounds), it sounds like it was used on most of the record. As a result, the record sounds dated and stuck in chilly sounding reverbs from the late '80's; in stark contrast to Butch Vig's rawer and more intimate sounding Nevermind. The only songs on the final version of the record that really sound like they're real drums is "Little Baby Nothing," "Stay Beautiful" and "Damn Dog." Even on those songs, it's tough to tell, because there's so much drum triggering and drum correcting on the record that the actual drumming is meant to sound like drum machines anyways. I'm not entirely sure why the SR-16 was used so much on the record--did Brown think that Moore wasn't a good enough drummer, or did Moore dislike the band's '80's rock direction that much? One thing is certain, though--James had really upped his game for the making of the record, as his guitar solos' phrasing and control had increased exponentially from the demos to the record. He'd really became the guitar god that was needed to pull off the guitars on a record that is as big sounding as this. Richey, as more dedicated fans know, never played any guitar on the record, despite being listed as so. Richey simply wasn't a skilled enough guitarist, and though he played guitar live, his guitar was usually turned down very low in the mix, or mixed right out. It's unclear whether he was alright with this; eventually, it must have been inevitable that he'd felt like his guitar and presence in the live circuit was that of a visual prop or something of a mime. The Sex Pistols had done the same to Sid Vicious; though in his case, a bass player was sometimes playing the parts offstage.
The deluxe reissue DVD has some insight from Steve Brown, including how he initially brushed the band off and where James had continued to contact him, but most notably in where Brown tells the story of where he'd told the band to take the "fuck off's" out of "Stay Beautiful" in order to maximize radio play potential. In hindsight, this was a brilliant move, as the final version has a guitar lick in place of the "fuck off" in the chorus, and it suggests vulgarity rather than actualizes it. But ultimately, the album's masterpiece (in the eyes of many) is "Motorcycle Emptiness" and Brown's worth to the album and project may be best judged on the criteria that he'd pretty much solely rescued the song, after the band had demoed it and were unhappy with the results. Lyrically and musically, the band no longer liked the song and were ready to abandon it. Brown tweaked the song a bit to be more danceable and advised Bradfield to expand and elaborate on the guitar solos and something had clicked--the song's somewhat sad, rueful and reflective tone had combined to make it become one of their signature songs, even to this day. The song, along with the video (filmed in Japan) has become iconic in their extensive back catalogue.
Despite the front that the band was a gang united against the world, there were definete cracks in the group. As previously mentioned, Sean Moore detested the '80's arena rock direction that the band were taking, and James admits in the DVD that he "never believed in the one album thing," apologizing to Nicky, with Nicky having to reassure him that it was okay. It's difficult not to think of Generation Terrorists as the end of an era though, because my real gut feeling is that once the band had veered from their original one album plan and decided to continue on with making music past the first album, there was a certain lack of direction that the band had for awhile. Gold Against The Soul--the followup to Generation Terrorists-- had some solid moments, but displays the traditional sophomore slump. It was as if the band had threw everything they had into the first album, and didn't quite know where to go. The cliche is that you have your whole life to make the first album, and it's really true. But in particular, Richey never seemed quite the same--somewhere between the band abandoning the glam punk image (realizing that its expiration date had passed), and between poorly attended US shows--Richey had realized that the dream was over, that he'd already seen the peak of his dream come and slowly pass. The Holy Bible was the last album that Richey was involved in, and as the band admits, by that time, they were anti-everything, even "anti-ourselves." Richey may have realized that he'd become a part of the system and had became much like one of the products that he so very despised, and it's tough to rationalize with your conscience on what you cannot undo. It's tough to really say, though. He had mysteriously disappeared in 1995, and was finally listed dead in 2008, though there is no concrete evidence of any actual death.
There's a song on 2010's Postcards From A Young Man called "All We Make Is Entertainment" that deals with the Manics' resignations to the fact that they've never actually really made as much of a social difference as they'd have liked to make, back when they'd started as a band and had the naivety to make bold statements that they'd never perhaps have the willpower to make nowadays. It is true that music is entertainment in the end, but even 20+ years on, their enthusiasm, politics and intelligence are best served by the melodies on Generation Terrorists, and the album is proof that just because rock music may be accused of being dumb and disposable, that one look at the lyric sheet reveals that not every band adheres to that same set of rules. The Manics are still fighting the good fight as of the time of this writing in 2013; a little older, but still combining socially relevant lyrics with rock n' roll. Slash N' Burn indeed.
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