For the past seventeen years, the Manic Street Preachers have been repeating their trauma, not only in the context of their songs, but also in the re-telling of their story. Particularly in the last seven years, via interviews in various media, anniversary edition DVD features, retrospective boxsets, and Nicky Wire’s Polaroid collection published by Faber, they’ve been reinforcing their history and legacy. More than most bands, they were born to do this kind of reminiscing and cataloguing. Their entire essence is built upon reflexivity and myth-making. Now twenty years after their debut album, Generation Terrorists, they are returning to the beginning. I’ve already written about my emotional and intellectual experience of the Manic Street Preachers’ first record at The Vinyl Villain, and I’ve written a bit about the band in the context of memory, archive, and monumental ruins, so I hope to achieve something slightly different in this post. On its twentieth anniversary, I want to revisit Generation Terrorists, my second favourite Manics album after The Holy Bible, and deconstruct the extravagant blueprint from which James Dean Bradfield, Richey Edwards, Sean Moore, and Nicky Wire built. There’s an element of the trümmerfrau in this work.
Unlike their two “masterpieces” The Holy Bible and Everything Must Go, which both received anniversary edition treatments one decade after their respective releases, the Manics’ debut album had to wait twice that amount of time. Most don’t consider it a masterpiece; it’s too long, it’s too ambitious, it’s too naïve, it’s too uneven. In his mini-essay, “Assassinated Beauty – An Appreciation of Generation Terrorists” for the twentieth anniversary collector’s edition, band biographer Simon Price observes: “The album you hold in your hand is not a ‘classic debut,’ nor anything so monolithic or museum-ready. It does not stand as an engraved marble edifice, immaculate and immovable, facing us down across the ages with its solemn, intimidating certainty.” In recent radio and online interviews, Nicky Wire has referred to Generation Terrorists as their folly. The architecture of Generation Terrorists is definitely on the side of absurd extravagance, but it’s purpose-built despite its hyperbolic ornamentation, perhaps fooling listeners into thinking the Manics were just another trashy hair metal band. Sham ruins that are, nonetheless, “4 real.”
Nicky Wire also lately stated that the Manics wrote their myth before they lived it, an element I alluded to in my observations about The Holy Bible. At the time of Generation Terrorists, they formed an ethos that took the idiotic idiom of cock rock hair metal and turned rock ‘n roll into something worthy of epiphany. They created a rock album and an image that paraded the iconography of the iconoclast, showcasing Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, Liz Taylor, crucifixes, and Marlon Brando. They were autodidacts in excelsis, and romantic nihilists. Their soundbites in those first interviews came at you like parallel telegraphing fragments, spoken like some sort of poetry slam contemporary art performance by disaffected zombies who had eaten too many brains—those of Guy Debord, Friedrich Nietzsche, Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Karl Marx—and eventually spat out Plath and Pinter. They managed to fit so many aphorisms into the songs themselves, including the phrase that was originally the title of the album (culture, alienation, boredom, and despair) that their songs actually emulated the pithy style of their interviews:
All we love is lonely wreckage
Nagasaki dolls are burning
Classified machines die misunderstood
Everywhere death row, everyone’s a victim
The only free choice is refusal to pay
Death sanitized through credit
You’re going to pay for my intelligence
Too much comfort to get decadent
Lips I kiss just another plague
Repeat after me, fuck queen and country
Richey Edwards and Nicky Wire melded the sloganeering of groups like the Futurists, Situationists, and Vorticists with the taglines of the globalized branding age. Whilst The Holy Bible is a challenge to memorize and sing along with, Generation Terrorists fully allows for breathless collective moments. Many of the songs from their debut are still in the setlist, and they often provoke the largest reaction. Perhaps this enduring appeal is because their first album is the one most built upon youth, and it’s the one with which the band seemed to have the most fun. Though they delivered the same adrenaline rush as Guns ‘n Roses, their rebellion felt more meaningful, more substantial. As much as the musical content is perceived as secondary to the cut-up lyrics, manifestoes, and DIY glam messthetic, it provides an essential backdrop for the incendiary ideas and internal logic of the band. James Dean Bradfield and Sean Moore proved to be more than competent musicians, creating anthemic music that preached anathema. Their sound wasn’t that of the defeated, nor was it the sound of perfection. It was the necessary emotional appeal to support the lyrical appeal to intellect. They were just as profligate in their music as in their ideas and objectives. For musical ambition gone nuclear, listen to the epic album conclusion “Condemned to Rock ‘n Roll,” which features one of the best howls of existential angst and one of the most blistering guitar solos.
Putting Generation Terrorists into its 1992 context sheds more light on why it was a significant anomaly. The Manics appeared to come through a wormhole that bypassed the Second Summer of Love. If you agree with Joshua Clover’s thesis about music post-1989, music began to reflect a brave new world in which capitalism and the West triumphed as Jesus Jones’s vacuously jubilant “Right Here Right Now” played over top of endless footage of the Berlin Wall coming down. Clover argues that the political rap of artists like Public Enemy, which had aimed at external powers, was shifting into the gangsta rap genre that turned anger and violence in on itself; grunge took the anger of punk, and too, focused it inwards, documenting a more solipsistic struggle; and acid house kept revolution inside the head, producing at best apolitical resistance. I think it’s quite telling that the Manics chose to model themselves off Public Enemy and The Clash; they were wholly out-of-step with their times. They also clearly came out of the decade of Thatcherism and the post-punk/C86 genres it provoked, conveying independent ideals in a commercial package. “Motorcycle Emptiness,” arguably the album’s best track, seems like an uncanny hybrid of The June Brides’ “Josef’s Gone” and The Jesus and Mary Chain’s “April Skies.” Straddling the gap between Madchester and Britpop, which I would contend were also navel-gazing in their parochialism, the Manics were hardly celebratory, especially about their own country. Coming from a working-class, Welsh background and performing a less normative masculinity, they were outsiders, and championed underdogs of sexism, racism, and classism. In Generation Terrorists, the success of capitalism was not met with self-satisfied merriment. The Manics were kicking out in as many directions as possible with the desperate energy of those who may never get another chance.
Prostitution. Democracy. Suicide. Capitalism. Deception. War. Religion. Disease. Anesthetization. Debt. Discrimination. Incarceration. History. Impotence. Censorship. Alienation. The Manics covered an astonishing amount of ground in Generation Terrorists, using the rhetoric of the jaded and degraded to empower themselves. In the mesmerizing lilt of his Welsh accent, Edwards declared: “Our romance is having total power in that we’ve just got nothing to lose ‘cos we’re secure in the knowledge we already lost a long time ago.” This preemptive strike gave them the upper hand, and allowed them to oscillate between two seemingly opposite postures. They performed as spectators and aggressors, the useless generation and generation terrorists. Impulsion and repulsion alternated throughout every track, articulating imagined audiences and alliances, and drawing you in with inclusive pronouns whilst simultaneously addressing a second person enemy: “You are pure, you are snow, we are the useless sluts that they mould,” “We are not your sinners/Our voices are for real,” and “Find your faith in your security/All broken up at seventeen/Jam your brain with broken heroes/ Love your masks, and adore your failure.” The interesting tension extended to the friction between their decadent performance through meticulously crafted, self-conscious semiotics, and their naïve DIY authenticity and aspirations. Their stance was carnivalesque, but genuine. Working-class bright young things.
When I first started listening to the sprawling eighteen-track album, I found the lone cover song “Damn Dog” to be jarring in its simplistic, stripped down lyrics and riffs, and believed it to be filler. But then I watched the 1980 cult film Times Square from whence it came, as befits the typical education arc of a Manics fan (there’s an extensive reading list as well). The film, which stars Robin Johnson and Trini Alvarado as teenage runaways in New York City in the advent of the Times Square clean-up, is just as significant an influence as the myriad theorists and writers the Manics favoured. Conceived of as a punk rock Saturday Night Fever, the film seems easy to mock, along with the earnestness of the two main characters, Nicky Marotta and Pamela Pearl, the former, a street kid with a criminal record and a passion for electric guitar, and the latter, the depressed daughter of the city official who is spearheading the regeneration of Times Square. With its offbeat spoken word poetry, scenes of urban decay, use of bandit eye stripes, escape from shiny consumerism into a fantasy world of rock ‘n roll fame, and gestures of glamorous (self)destruction, it becomes easier to see the connections between the film and the Manics’ early incarnation. There is definitely more to mine in Times Square, not least the lesbian subtext, which was subsumed and suppressed in the final cut. In addition to pushing boundaries of gender, sexuality, and class, the film interrogates the representation of young people, especially girls. It depicts attempts at their containment, and the pathologization of youth itself (the two protagonists meet at a hospital where they are being monitored for mental illness). Another invented disease, indeed. Nicky seemingly poses a threat and challenge to the status quo because she willfully breaks down the division between private and public spheres, toting a boombox rather than a walkman, living on the streets rather than in a house, playing guitar solos in back alleys rather than attending school. Dubbing themselves the Sleeze Sisters, Nicky and Pamela are essentially generation terrorists. Nicky, who sports a haircut reminiscent of Ziggy Stardust and prescient of Nicky Wire’s, says, “Once you’re famous, you can’t just disappear.” It’s a sentiment that the Manics would come to embody in more ways than one. The final scene of the film in which Nicky Marotta gives an illegal rooftop performance of “Damn Dog” to her adoring female fans, who have dressed themselves in bin liners and excessive make-up, echoes the kind of effect the Manics had and have on hardcore fans, who are very often female.
The twentieth anniversary collector’s edition of Generation Terrorists features four discs, including the original album, b-sides, demos, and a DVD, along with other bonus material like a replica backstage pass lanyard and a photograph of Richey Edwards’s “You Love Us” collage. In my opinion, the most valuable items in the box set are a vinyl 10” of their BBC Radio 1 Rock Show Live Session, and the DVD, which includes a documentary about the making of the album; the rest of the material is another case of underestimating the dedicated fanbase. I would think that many fans would already have collected these b-sides and demos as I did. The DVD itself also features a fair amount of re-packaged material, including official music videos and television footage that most fans would have likely already seen, purchased, and/or recorded. In fact, fans probably have a larger, more diverse archive than Sony would ever release. At this point, the more interesting material might be what those outside of the band collect and create. Maybe there needs to be a sequel to Jeremy Deller’s The Uses of Literacy.
The Manics often say that they inspired more dissertations than bands, which is apt, but also unfortunate. I desperately wish for a contemporary band that could match the kind of intelligence, outrageousness, naïve passion, and self-belief that Manics espoused in 1992, but it seems that newer bands who strive to build a more complex, intelligent musical concept either fade into obscurity before they get anywhere, or they struggle on without even a cult following. There are some interesting bands with cult followings and distinct, eccentric images, including the likes of British Sea Power, who has swapped politics for nature obsessions and a quirky antiquarian sensibility. However, the closest to a current band who can offer a lifestyle choice, so to speak, is The Indelicates, who combine intelligence and politics with accessibility, producing a complete world and set of ideologies unto themselves. Interestingly enough, they are in the process of releasing their own musical commentary on social pathologies: Diseases of England. A recent interview with Saint Etienne highlights the lack of contemporary bands to come with an entire worldview, manifesto, and aesthetic. The boring bands who could only talk about their effects pedals have been replaced by the boys in their bedrooms hitting keys on their laptops. You would expect that the current climate of global economic crisis, rampant neoliberalism, mind-numbing, patronizing entertainment, and ongoing threats to freedom and access in the digital environment would produce more bands with an overreaching agenda of anger and passion. Where are the regeneration terrorists? I don’t want an innocuous rock band named after inoculation. I don’t want bands to sing about the fact their generation has nothing to say. In the landfill indie landscape of the recent decade, the Manics’ rubbish looks positively beautiful.
Generation Terrorists wasn’t about being wise and mature, it was about youth and stillborn energy. It was absurd madness proselytized in public. Folly can be defined as mania and rage, sin and harm, glamour and foolishness. Folly is most often associated with the young, and unnecessarily discounted or excused for that reason. Despite this, follies also often remain timeless attractions.
Motorcycle Emptiness – Manic Street Preachers
Generation Terrorists (Live at Hull Adelphi, 1991) – Manic Street Preachers (earlier version of “Stay Beautiful”)
Damn Dog – Robin Johnson