From the Vaults:
Manic Street Preachers
There used to be this great newsstand on Bank Street in the Glebe neighbourhood of Ottawa. In my early undergrad years, I used to go there to get the British music press, the NME and Melody Maker. I was always disappointed that the music samplers that came with the magazines in the UK didn’t make it to Canada, but this was how I learned about British and Irish music, the music that didn’t get played on MuchMusic (Canada’s MTV), let alone the commercial alternative radio stations in Canada. So, I knew all about the Manic Street Preachers. They were the next big thing, after the Stone Roses, which the NME and Melody Maker had obsessed about for seemingly forever; their début album came in 1989, and here we were three years later and England’s music journalists couldn’t let them go. The Manics blew all this up.
To say that the UK music press hyped them is an understatement. They were the subjects of epic spreads in not just the NME and Melody Maker, but the other British magazines, too. They were loud, brash, and unrepentant. All of this on the backs of a single song, ‘Motown Junk.’ They were also incendiary, and declared they wanted to bring the revolution back to rock, arguing it had been lost in shoegazer and acid-house. And then guitarist Richie Edwards carved the words ‘4 Real’ into his arm during an interview with the NME. I mean, holy shit!
The Manics were hyped as the last great punk band, and remember, this was 1992, the year after Nirvana blew up. Punk had an expansive meaning in the early 90s, covering everything from the Sex Pistols and the Clash to DOA and the Dead Kennedys to Nirvana and, apparently, the Manic Street Preachers. They loudly proclaimed that Generation Terrorists was going to be the greatest album ever, and it was going to sell 16 million copies, after which they’d retire.
Holy shit, did I ever anticipate this album. And…I hated it. It sucked. It was one-dimensional and the lyrics sucked even more than the music. And life went on.
Edwards was a troubled soul. He suffered prolonged bouts of depression, and engaged in self-harm before self-harm was really something we were aware of. He cut himself (obviously), put out cigarettes on his arm, and so on. And in early 1995, he drove across the Severn Bridge connecting Wales and England, and disappeared. His car was found two weeks later, on Valentine’s Day, with a dead battery and evidence it had been lived in. He hasn’t been seen since. All of this registered with me, but I was done with the Manics, their sound had evolved and I liked them even less, even after giving their first post-Edwards album, Everything Must Go, a listen.
Last week, there was an item in The Guardian about Edwards’ disappearance 23 years ago. For all these years, his family had thought he crossed the Severn Bridge at 2.55pm, based on a toll booth receipt in his car. It turns out, though, that the toll booth operated on the 24-hour clock, and so he had actually crossed the bridge at 2.55am. His family hopes this leads to new leads into his whereabouts (or if he did, in fact, jump off the bridge as many have speculated).
And so, for some reason, this made me nostalgic for an album that, in 1992, I couldn’t stand. So I cued it up and blasted it. I hadn’t heard anything from the album since that summer, 26 years ago. And, well, I loved it. What happened?
I realized that the Manics were never going to live up to the hype, Generation Terrorists never did sell 16 million copies. It hasn’t even sold 1 million copies in the UK, where it has been certified gold (100,000 copies). And it was never going to live up to the hype for me. It could have been the second coming of the Clash’s London Calling, and it wasn’t going to win.
But part of the problem I had in 1992 was my view on musical genres and where things fit. Generation Terrorists wasn’t punk (their original bassist, Miles Woodward, had quit the band in 1988 because they were no longer punk). It was glam. Certainly, the band looked like glam rockers, something that was supposed to be dead in the wake of Nirvana. Maybe their problem was that they came along at the wrong time? But, as I listened, I realized that my problem with them in 1992 is that they didn’t sound punk, they sounded like Mötley Crüe. In particular, they sounded like Crüe’s 1990 masterpiece, Dr. Feelgood (well, except for the track ‘Repeat (Stars and Stripes)’, which sounded more like Big Audio Dynamite II).
The difference was that rather than singing about drugs and a good time, frontman James Dean Bradford was singing about all the ways in which my generation was fucked (if you’re wondering, we were fucked in the same way the Millennials were, there just wasn’t enough of us for anyone to notice) and a generalized critique of capitalism that doesn’t sounded dated today. Other songs were more quotidian, of course, but they were still vicious.
The first single was ‘Stay Beautiful.’ It was a catchy track in the early 90s, it sounds absolutely transcendent today. In fact, most of the album sounds brilliant all these years later. It is mostly crunchy guitars, high-pitched vocals, the bass and drums buried in the mix. I found myself wondering what a re-mixed and/or re-mastered version of this album would sound like today? Would the drums and bass be more prominent? The guitars less polished? It doesn’t matter.
In 2018, Generation Terrorists sounds like a breath of fresh air, and it sounds like a kick in the ass. It almost makes me want to dig through the rest of the Manics’ ouevre to see if there’s anything else I missed.