As part of our 'Manics Monday' to mark the reissue of the Manic Street Preachers' first album, Marc Burrows talks us through the key tracks on Generation Terrorists...
”There is eloquence in screaming”- Patrick Jones
Slash N’ Burn
”Progress is a comfortable disease”- EE Cummings
It can’t be coincidence that the very first line of the very first song of the very first Manic Street Preachers album is ”You need your stars”: They’re bringing back sex and politics, they look brilliant, they say brilliant things, and everything is brilliant with them, fucking awful without them. ‘Slash N’ Burn’ has a lot of work to do - not only does it cue up a record that has to say all of the above, it’s also undoing the press perception dismissing MSP as faddy punk revivalists, establishing them as a proper stadium rock band backed by major muscle. It’s pretty fitting that Richey Edwards and James Dean Bradfield skived off a night's recording to queue for the midnight release of Guns N’ Roses Use Your Illusion I at Tower records as the preposterous LA rockers are all over Generation Terrorists. Nowhere more so than on ‘Slash N’ Burn’, I mean, it even name checks their guitarist in its title...
In order to achieve that mass accessible “driving record” the band were fixated on, producer Steve Brown opted to use virtually no live drums on the album, claiming that "James wanted a cheap sounding drum sound and I couldn't shoulder that". Instead, Brown and drummer Sean Moore used a drum machine on almost every song to create a rock-solid rhythm track to build around. To the bands’ undoubted horror, their US label not only commissioned a beefier mix but had a session player re-record the drums on four key songs, including the opener. The US version (released on the Stars and Stripes EP in Japan) isn’t included on the re-release but has found its way online. This one does - whisper it - sound a tiny bit better with live drums. Nevertheless ‘Slash N’ Burn’ kicks off the record with much riffing and attitude in spades- a fine beginning.
”I listen to money singing, it’s like looking down from long French windows at a provincial town. The slums, the canal, the churches, ornate and mad in the evening sun. It is intensely sad”. - Phillip Larkin.
The song that would presumably now be called ‘Natwest-Barclay’s-HSBC-Lloyds-TSB’ must have seemed an oddity at the time. Track one is about sex and politics and talks about Madonna, track two is about, er, banking and opens with ”Economic forecasts soothe our dereliction” . As it turns out, of course, it’s the most lyrically prescient song they’ve ever written, predicting global financial meltdown (”Death sanitised through credit”) a clear decade and a half before the world banking crisis.
The version on GT is a much meatier rock beast than earlier demos. Originally the track started with a guitar figure that hero-worships ‘Sweet Child O’ Mine’ to the point of embarrassment, and the earliest demo has more of a debt to the rock n’roll punk of perennial MSP favourites the Clash than the soft-metal/hard-rock hard-on on display here. The ‘House in the Woods’ demo completes the G'N'R effect with a monster solo outro that rivals the one on ‘Loves Sweet Exile’. The Steve Brown-produced album version is a tighter pop-rock affair with a glossed-up chorus which is remarkably catchy for a list of high street banks. For those curious, the original intro riff makes an appearance at 2.40. As with ‘Slash N’ Burn’ the American market got the bonus session drummer treatment.
”I Talk to god but the sky is empty” Sylvia Plath
At last December’s O2 show, where the Manics played all 38 of their singles, James Dean Bradfield intro’d an early-doors showing for ‘Motorcycle Emptiness’ with "there's songs tonight where some of you might go to the bar, but this one I think everybody stays for." He wasn’t wrong. If you don’t like much by the Manics chances are you like ‘Motorcycle Emptiness’.
It’s fair to say that few who heard ‘New Art Riot’, ‘Suicide Alley’ or even ‘Motown Junk’ in 1990/91 ever saw this one coming. ‘Motorcycle Emptiness’ is Manics mark one’s masterpiece. A glorious melancholic epic that would become a constant of their sets for the next two decades. It has a guitar figure most of the groups hard-rock heroes would kill for, JDB’s best-ever solo (the widdley-widdley bit at the end) and a gorgeous, sad, evocative chorus. Nicky Wire and Richey Edwards’ words are of sheer disillusionment, of distraction with trinkets and ephemera which can never, ever make us really happy. Marx’s commodity fetishism meeting Warhol’s “famous for fifteen minutes” maxim bound together in ”this wonderful world of purchase power”. Life sold cheaply forever. The song borrows heavily from Wire’s brother, the poet Patrick Jones, and his poem ‘Neon Loneliness’, another of his lines, ”shopping doesn’t make us happy” would have sat just as well.
What few at the time realised was how genuinely brilliant the Manics were at being sad. For all their raging polemic ‘Motorcycle...’ is about quiet, restrained acceptance of this miserably commercialised life (”Ego loaded, and swallow”). A good chunk of the best MSP material fair drips melancholy, and that all began here. With one song the band were about to prove a lot of people very wrong indeed, and the Manics knew it too, "It gave us a belief that everything was gonna be fine,” says James on the DVD documentary accompanying the new re-release, “that song was everything we'd been talking about in every kind of way". He was echoing the words of his colleague Richey two decades earlier, ”even when people were dismissing us as a tossy two-chord imitation of the Lurkers we knew we had ‘Motorcycle Emptiness’’ he told Deadline magazine in 1992.
In fact ‘Motorcycle...’ had been in the Manics repertoire since their earliest days. In her mostly-rubbish memoir ‘In The Beginning...’, Jenny Watkins-Isnardi, one-time girlfriend of Nicky Wire and very briefly singer in a proto Manic Street Preachers, remembers them rehearsing it as far back as 1987 (their voices ”blended together like cream” apparently), and a very scrappy home-demo of the song recorded under the name ‘Go Buzz Baby Go’ has been a cherished curio among bootleg-savvy Manics fans for years. The band credit Steve Brown with rescuing the song (“Brownies crowning moment - the one record that could never be bettered no matter how else we did it” says Nicky on the DVD) at the point most in their camp wanted it off the record. Brown himself remembers the eureka moment coming late one evening when he came up with a new beat for the song on the same night that James, as Paul McCartney did with 'Yesterday', wrote the guitar part in a dream. The middle-eight was borrowed from another song in the MSP scraps pile - the Bradfield penned ‘Behave Yourself Baby’. While it’s possible we can take some of Brown’s claims with a pinch of salt (that dream story seems off for starters), he clearly knows his way around a rock ballad, and the resulting six-plus minutes is pretty stunning.
In 2002 the band attempted to remix ‘Motorcycle...’ and re-release it with a theramin and added strings. In the end the plan was scrapped- it’s hard to see how the original could be bettered. With astonishing lack of foresight, the American release of Generation Terrorists drops ‘Motorcycle Emptiness’ altogether.
You Love Us
“Regard all art critics as useless and dangerous” - Manifesto of the Futurists.
Easily the bolshiest bit of their early career and originally written to turn the Rolling Stones’ sycophantic ‘We Love You’ on its head, ‘You Love Us’ is usually described by the band as a “sarcastic valentine”, a phrase that pops up whenever the song is discussed across the last two decades. It makes sense though - when ‘You Love Us’ first reared its head in 1990 very few people actually loved them at all - they were actively hated by swathes of ‘serious’ music fans and completely unknown to more. At that point ‘You Love Us’ was intentionally ridiculous, and a well-aimed attempt to wind up their detractors.
Of course, by the time the track was re-recorded for Generation Terrorists (one of three, alongside ‘Tennessee’ and ‘Spectators of Suicide’ that had been included on early singles) a lot of people did love the Manic Street Preachers, and ‘You Love Us’ became less sarcastic and more celebratory. Nowhere else is their transformation from “plastic punks”(sic) to hard-rock band writ quite so large. Steve Brown supercharges the guitars and strips the backing down to its essentials. Compared to the version released on Heavenly a year earlier this is a much leaner, louder beast. Most telling of all is the outro - gone is the ‘Lust For Life’ sample that closed the earlier version, gone too is the plea for the “passive electorate” to “Die! Die! Die!”. In it’s place is a proper hard-rock wig-out, nodding to Guns N’ Roses’ similarly gonzo closing of ‘Paradise City’. Again the supercharge wasn’t quite enough for the American market- this is another one that got the drums overdubbed and a beefed up mix for its US appearance. Meanwhile, back in the UK, the song became the band’s first Top 20 hit and gave them their debut Top of the Pops appearance.
Love’s Sweet Exile
”Modern capitalism, organising the reduction of all social life to a spectacle, cannot offer any other spectacle than that of our own alienation” - Kotanyi, Vaneigem
Easily the most metal Generation Terrorists gets, ‘Loves Sweet Exile’ is another one that grew substantially under the steady hand of Steve Brown (it was “easy to commercialise” he says on the DVD). Originally demoed under the name ‘Faceless Sense of Void’, which frankly is an absolute belter of a title and survives in the lyrics of the second verse, ‘Loves Sweet..’ started life as a likeably straight Jones/Strummerish punker. By the time Mr Brown’s boys had done with it the track was a trad-metal monster, and featured James Dean Bradfield’s most OTT solo. One oft repeated story sees Richey bursting in on Nicky and Sean’s SEGA session in the studio to tell them ”James has just done a solo faster than Stevie Vai!”.
Perhaps the biggest compliment, given the songs musical intent, is that the US record company didn’t see the need to remix it at all. The band, however, cooled on this one noticeably. Within two years it was out the setlist, not to return until 2011’s ‘Singles’ show meant it couldn’t be avoided. James, it should be noted, can still nail that solo.
Little Baby Nothing
”The male chromosome is an incomplete female chromosome. In other words the male is a walking abortion, aborted at the gene stage. To be male is to be deficient, emotionally limited; maleness is a deficiency and males are emotional cripples” - Valerie Solanos
If you force a Manics fan at gunpoint to whittle Generation Terrorists down to one song, the smart money would be on ‘Little Baby Nothing’. ‘Motorcycle Emptiness’ is the crossover anthem, but ‘Little Baby...’ has a special place in the hearts of FMF’s (“FUCKING MANICS FANS”), its’ closing mantra of ”Culture, alienation, boredom and despair”, a working title for the album, is the heart of the Manic Street Preachers, and is arguably at the heart of everything they’ve done since.
The Manics, like spiritual cousins Suede, The Libertines and Nirvana have always had a 50/50 gender split in their fanbase, Richey Edwards’ perspective was largely feminine, and mostly feminist (if you gloss over his habit of sleeping with groupies and the occasional Thai prostitute.) Feminine viewpoints fuel a lot of his best lyrics (‘4st7ib’, ‘Yes’, ‘Life Becoming A Landslide’) and ‘Little Baby...’ is the mummy of them all, from the quote that accompanies it in the liner notes (taken from radical feminist treaties the S.C.U.M - the Society For Cutting Up Men - Manifesto) to the sample from ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ that originally started the song before rights-issues demanded it be removed from future pressings (“Nobody, nobody was as tender or as trusting as she was. But people like you abused her and forced her to change."). It’s an anthem of abused and exploited women, and the power they can still hold (in Richey’s view, all women were abused, exploited and powerful) nowhere is this more evident than having former teen porn star Traci Lords duetting with James. Manics folklore has it that the bands first choice was pop princess Kylie and for obvious commercial reasons that route was indeed pursued, though word never made it to Ms Minogue herself (though she would eventually sing the song in 1996 during her ‘indie’ phase, leading to James and Nicky writing songs for her Impossible Princess album). Arguably though, Traci Lords was always the obvious choice - according to Simon Price’s definitive Manics biography ‘Everything’, Richey had partly written it about her anyway.
Of all the tracks remixed for the American market this is the one that’s most butchered. Frankl,y it was Springsteeny enough as it was - the US version sounds like Lita Ford fronting Skid Row.
Repeat (Stars and Stripes)
”Elvis was a hero to most, but he never meant shit to me... most of my heroes ain’t appeared on no stamp”. - Chuck D
The Manics spent the first few years of their career saying there were only three bands on the planet worth listening to: Themselves (natch), Guns N’ Roses and Public Enemy. Arguably there’s more Guns N’ Roses on Generation Terrorists than there is Manic Street Preachers, but this is the only place outside of the lyrics where Chuck D and co get a look in- Public Enemy producers The Bomb Squad remixed the Manics most primitive and politicised song. The band apparently “loved it” at the time, though it’s dated horribly. On the new DVD Sean Moore speculates it was probably “tossed off in a lunch break”.
Apparently four other mixes were submitted, but have never seen the light of day.
”I saw some piglets suckling their dead mother. After a short while they shuddered and went away. They had sensed that she could no longer see them and that she wasn’t like them any more. What they loved in their mother wasn’t her body, but whatever it was that made her body live”- Confucious.
Before agreeing to produce Generation Terrorists Steve Brown became something of a penfriend and mentor (Pentor?) to the young James Dean Bradfield. One of his letters contained a very succinct piece of advice: "For godsake don't put "fuck" in the middle of a chorus". This as good as guaranteed it was going to happen - though when Brown eventually got his hands on the song he artfully snipped out the expletives and replaced them with a slightly cheesy lead guitar lick at the eleventh hour.
The Manics debut single for Sony has more in common with their earlier indie-label records on Damaged Goods and Heavenly than it does with its parent album (no small irony - the working title of the song was ‘Generation Terrorists’), ‘Stay Beautiful’ is a straightforward punker that places the Manics manifesto of sex and politics, glamour, decadence and a certain bleakness (all summed up in ”We’re a mess of eyeliner and spray paint, DIY destruction on Chanel Chic”) front and centre, and tells you to fuck off in the chorus for good measure, tieing with ‘Repeat’ as the most pure punk record in their arsenal. The Manics camp felt it was a breakthrough, and the demos show it stayed remarkably true to its earliest origins- to Nicky it “felt like an American driving record", to Steve Brown it was a record you could "jump in the car and drive to it, jump on the floor and dance to it, and jump on the missus and make love to it".
”This one’s for Brian Jones and all the other dinosaurs that got kicked out tha’ band. 1-2-3-4”- Sleez Sisters
Notable for two reasons. Firstly because it showed that, despite all the bluster about a “double album that would sell sixteen million” the band didn’t actually have a double album’s worth of songs- resorting to covering a cute track from overlooked cult classic ‘Times Square’. Although in their defence Guns N’ Roses had included covers on both ‘Use Your Illusion’ albums, and ‘Damn Dog’ is a far more interesting and likable choice than massacring Bob Dylan or Wings.
Secondly this is apparently the only place on Generation Terrorists where Sean Moore plays live drums.
Condemned To Rock N’ Roll
”To all who pass that they may see, Rock N’ Roll was a part of me”- Nik Cohn.
Uniquely, there’s no demo or live versions of ‘Condemned To Rock N’ Roll’ on the otherwise exhaustive Generation Terrorists re-release- the song was entirely a studio creation and it’s never been played in concert*. It’s also Steve Brown’s favourite song on the record.
You can see why the band have never bothered to add it to their live repertoire- it starts straightforward enough with a chugging soft-metal riff, but somewhere around the three minute mark splinters off into another of those hard-rock wig-outs so beloved by late 80’s metal bands, and then it just keeps. On. Going. It’s a rare song that is made up almost entirely of ‘outro’- every time you think it’s going to end James Dean Bradfield hits yet another spiralling riff and the whole thing takes off again. ‘Lord of the Rings’ has less endings than ‘Condemned To Rock N’ Roll’. It’s as if the Manics never want their record to finish, like they’ve put so much into the proceeding hour or so, there’ll be nothing left once its over. They’re going to keep playing until someone closes the bar and turns the lights on. This sadness MUST go on. The song seems to close on two of Wire/Edwards starkest kiss offs, “Sterile like a line of piss, motherfucker/ Review with avant garde lips, you're just a motherfucker”, shouts bradders over some pretty furious riffage that finally fades away. It’s another false stop though- there’s a storm of (artificial) tom-toms to come before Bradfield revs up yet another monster and another bout of shredding before finally, finally letting it fade to the final couplet of the record. Having accomplished everything they had set out to achieve- a major label double album debut that they claimed would be their last Generation Terrorists closes with an exhale- “There's nothing I wanna see...There's nowhere I wanna go”.
*Yes, okay - the first bit was played on the Send Away The Tigers tour as the intro to ‘Motown Junk’. I know that. It’s not important. Stop being such a pedant. Fucking Manics fans.