Generation Terrorists - 20th Anniversary, Wales Music, 8th January 2012
By James McLaren
This Friday (10 February) is the 20th anniversary of the release of the first album by Manic Street Preachers, Generation Terrorists.
That simple fact is enough to make a lot of people exclaim something along the lines of, 'cor that makes me feel old'. Including me.
It wasn't their best-selling album, even though prior to its release they expressed a desire for it to sell millions before their imminent split.
Neither was it their most acclaimed album, that honour probably going to the caustic classic of psychological and political malaise, The Holy Bible.
So why celebrate this anniversary? Well, it provided six top 40 singles. It introduced four alien-looking, glammed-up Welsh punks to the world. The album's promotion put these eyeliner- and slogan-smeared young men, barely out of their teens, onto magazine front covers in an era in which 'shoegaze' and 'grebo' were genres of serious critical consideration. They talked antagonistically and passionately through a lens of well-read education.
Of course it was Richey's infamous '4Real' self-harm incident that brought them to wider public attention; luckily they had the musical and intellectual chops for this not to became their defining career point. It was a journo-baiting stunt of horrifying, cold, calculating clarity that was designed by Richey to prove a point.
That point was that they weren't a joke. Looking as they did, sounding like they did, it would have been easy to write them off as such. But no joke bands ever delivered a double album, 18 tracks long, that included Motorcycle Emptiness, Little Baby Nothing, You Love Us, Slash 'N' Burn and Condemned To Rock 'N' Roll.
As some of our interviewees admit, it's over-long and sometimes overblown, but it holds up as a Welsh classic. That's why, two decades down the line, we're devoting this week to Generation Terrorists.
' Simon Price, biographer
If there's one man who knows his Manic Street Preachers, it's former Melody Maker journalist, current Independent music critic and author Simon Price. Simon has written occasionally for us over the years about the band, and now, on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the release of Generation Terrorists, he gives his thoughts on their début.
"A damaged diamond. That's how, in a review for Melody Maker, I described Generation Terrorists in February 1992, and it's a description which the band themselves readily accepted. 'Everybody knows,' Richey Edwards later admitted, 'the first album would have been better if we'd left out all the crap'.
"Manic Street Preachers had arrived amid an especially moribund era for British youth culture, still dominated by the feckless fag-end of Madchester, the middle class self-indulgence of Shoegaze and the slumming-it slovenliness of Crusty. Their shock-tactic soundbites and their compulsion to distance themselves from other bands ('I'll always hate Slowdive more than I hate Hitler', 'You could go to any Levellers concert, shout "Jeremy" and 75% of the audience would turn around') were thrilling, and made these leopard-clad, eyeliner and spraypaint-covered, eminently quotable Welsh glam-punks feel like a cause to rally behind, rather than a mere rock 'n' roll band.
"Their deliberate desire to be as non-indie as possible was a key factor in shaping Generation Terrorists. Newly-signed to Sony and fond of issuing preposterous boasts to anyone who'd listen that they intended to 'make a double album, sell a million, headline Wembley Stadium then split up after a year', the Manics were on a kamikaze mission to burn brightly and disappear. It's that excess of ambition which drove the best - and the worst - aspects of Generation Terrorists.
Nicky Wire with Simon Price, Havana, 2001 Nicky Wire with Simon Price, Havana, 2001
"In retrospect, it's easy to see what the Manics should have done: recorded a short, sharp punk rock album, preferably with up-and-coming producer and unofficial fifth Manic Dave Eringa at the controls and probably released on Heavenly, comprising all the early singles and the more adrenaline-filled moments of their live set, presenting the curious with an opportunity to hear these mouthy upstarts they'd been reading about in the papers, and setting the scene for a slicker, more accomplished follow-up.
"Instead, they locked themselves away for 23 weeks in a studio in Guildford with experienced producer Steve Brown, whose varied CV included Wham! and The Cult, and delivered a début which confused everyone and satisfied no-one: a record which, sonically, could be filed alongside airbrushed metal muppets like Little Angels or Thunder, at the exact moment when rock fans were tiring of that stodgy stuff and turning to the raw sounds coming out of Seattle.
"Even if the hair metal brigade had bought into MSP, the lyrics - with opening lines like 'Economic forecasts soothe our dereliction' - were too unsexy and un-rock 'n' roll to fit the medium. Arguably, that was the point. The initial intention may have been entry-ism, the Trojan Horse approach of smuggling difficult ideas past listeners' defences by hiding them inside a commercial sound. But the 80s were over, and that FM-friendly sound wasn't commercial any more.
"Part of the problem with Generation Terrorists was its sheer length. Eighteen tracks on an album is par for the course in the 21st century, but in 1992 it felt like an eternity. Padded out with two versions of the same song (Repeat, remixed by Public Enemy producers The Bomb Squad) and a cover version from one of their favourite cult movies (Damn Dog, from Times Square), it was a case of too few ideas spread too thinly. One has to admire their sheer nerve in stretching GT to four sides of vinyl, its very existence an audacious anti-indie statement, but the quality suffers, averaging out at 7/10.
"There is, unquestionably, a lot of filler. Opening track Slash 'N' Burn may have been a showcase for James Dean Bradfield's impressively fast fingertips, but the clunky lyrics ('worms in the garden more real than a McDonalds') needed more thought, not to mention the knots into which James had to tie himself in order to make them scan ('Third world to the furry-urst', 'Too much comfort to get decaduh-ee-yunt'), and the production feels strangely deadened.
"There are, to be honest, songs that I've always skipped when I listen to Generation Terrorists. NatWest Barclays Midlands Lloyds, Another Invented Disease, Tennessee, So Dead, Condemned To Rock 'N' Roll... Worst of all, they dropped the ball with a horribly sterile, Gn'R-ified re-recording of early single You Love Us which sums up exactly what the Manics got right (with Heavenly) and wrong (on GT).
"Then again, some moments on the album are absolutely immortal. A surprising aspect of Generation Terrorists is that its dominant emotional key is existential ennui rather than firebrand rage, often sounding like a musical representation of the glossy nihilism of Bret Easton Ellis' Less Than Zero (an inscribed copy of which Wire gave me at the time), and the single Stay Beautiful somehow managed to sound both rocket-fuelled and defeated, echoing the spirit of Richey's interview quote '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'. In a similar vein, live favourite Methadone Pretty, with its defiant opening line 'I am nothing and should be everything', would have made a great single (although the Generation Terrorists recording was peculiarly sluggish).
"And Little Baby Nothing, a Meat Loaf-esque duet with former porn star Traci Lords (who turned out to have an excellent bubblegum pop-rock voice in a Belinda Carlisle vein) about the objectification of women, was almost ridiculously anthemic. This was one of the two instances where the shiny production actually worked. The other was a six minute epic which would become a Manics signature for the rest of their career.
"When Motorcycle Emptiness appears, near the end of side one, it's like the sun coming out from behind the clouds and shimmering off rain-washed streets. An elegant elegy to the soul of a man under capitalism, with a heartbreakingly emotional guitar motif, it encapsulated the inescapable sadness of serfdom ('Drive away, and it's the same' being the killer line), and was in a different class to anything they'd written to date. Motorcycle Emptiness was the song that had even the Manics' detractors saying 'I never used to like them, but...'
"Generation Terrorists was compromised and imperfect in ways which go beyond the music. The band's original ideas for the sleeve included Andres Serrano's controversial Piss Christ and Bert Stern's legendary photos of Marilyn Monroe (defaced by the actress herself), but for various reasons - record company veto, financial prohibitiveness - they all had to be abandoned. Instead, they went with a shot of Richey's bare chest, torso, crucifix and tattooed arm, which came out in a horrible shade of salmon-pink rather than the mustard hue they had hoped.
"However, the array of literary quotations on the inner sleeve, from the likes of Larkin, Orwell, Camus, Rimbaud and Plath, plus the stolen dialogue from A Streetcar Named Desire and the poetry recital from Patrick Jones (Nicky Wire's elder brother and a huge influence on the band's formative years), amounted to an invaluable cultural treasure map, pointing their fans towards the wider world beyond rock 'n' roll in much the same way that, a decade earlier, The Smiths had done with their referencing of James Dean, Oscar Wilde and kitchen sink cinema.
"In so many senses, Generation Terrorists is the album the Manics made to prove that they could. But, for all its faults, it stands up surprisingly well two decades later. The once-daunting duration now seems to fly by, and there's something adorable about hearing what the young Manics were trying, and only partially managing, to do.
Perhaps the most glorious thing about Generation Terrorists is its failure. The fact that it didn't sell by the million meant the Manics were off the hook: their kamikaze mission was aborted, and they were free - they were forced - to carry on, to become the band they always told us they were going to to be. Two albums later, they would relocate their anger and their edge. But Generation Terrorists - the Manics' damaged diamond - still sparkles.
Traci Lords, guest vocalist
Twenty years since the release of Manic Street Preachers' Generation Terrorists, we caught up with Traci Lords, the guest vocalist on Little Baby Nothing, one of the best-known tracks on the album.
"I think it was a record exec by the name of Benjie Gordon whose idea it was to put me together with the Manic Street Preachers. I was 20-something, living in Hollywood and racing from audition to audition trying to launch an acting career and get a music career happening.
"I remember meeting this cool but bizarre man, Kim Fowley, and singing for him. Somehow the word got out that I was interested in music. I met Benjie and then ended up in London with the Manics.
"I remember Richey in particular. He was a very soft spoken sweet boy. It was very weird, later when I heard he had disappeared... makes me sad.
"I still listen to Little Baby Nothing. I love that song and I absolutely love the tone of my voice on that track. I would love to sing it live with the boys one day!"
Steve Brown, producer
As we celebrate the 20th anniversary of the release of Manic Street Preachers' Generation Terrorists, we ask producer Steve Brown about his recollections of the album and its recording.
"I got the job with the Manics because they liked the work I did on the Love album by The Cult. I was working at the time in the States, so I'd not heard anything by them, although I had seen the press. On the record, I wanted to achieve what they wanted to achieve - and they wanted to be the biggest band in the world.
"They had full control of their creative direction, but I steered them on the singles front. Creatively, they were - and I think still are - very unique.
"It's not true that only James [Dean Bradfield] and Sean [Moore] recorded material used on the record. The whole band had a major input into the writing and playing of the album.
"I don't think the double album format detracted from the record; I love everything on Generation Terrorists, and so do a whole lot of other people!
"My favourite track on the record is Condemned To Rock And Roll, I think. There's nothing on the record I'd change and I'm very proud of my work on it. Lots of people have told me it's a classic.
"I'm glad it's regarded as being important in UK music history; we all worked very hard on it. I love the fact that I did it, and I least like the fact I'll never be able to do it again for them."
Dave Eringa, session musician
As we celebrate the 20th anniversary of the release of Manic Street Preachers' Generation Terrorists, we ask session musician Dave Eringa about his role on the album and his friendship with the band.
"I was the assistant engineer on the first couple of Heavenly singles and played a bit of Hammond organ. The band were kind enough to ask me to play on the album too, so I was just an extra musician back then - I didn't start engineering for them until I produced and engineered [second album] Gold Against The Soul.
"It's hard to remember exactly what got used! I know I'm on You Love Us and Spectators Of Suicide and I definitely tried Motorcycle and Little Baby Nothing but wasn't good enough for the piano parts. It's all a bit of a blur because when I went on tour with them in 93-94 I would play organ on a lot of Generation Terrorists songs that didn't have it on the album so it's all a bit hazy.
"The band had this romantic idea that, like the famous Rolling Stones session musicians, I'd be their Ian Stewart and that someone else would be their Nick Hopkins. The truth which they discovered was that when I said I was a bit crap on the keyboards I wasn't being self deprecating, I was being truthful! Luckily they tried me out producing and engineering and the rest was history.
I was the tea boy on Motown Junk and You Love Us and we really hit it off over a shared love of Guns N' Roses. They were so kind to me, sending me postcards from tour and things like that, so I was already a massive fan and a friend by the time they got their deal with Sony. I had never met a band like them - so intelligent but so visceral too - they were a brilliant antidote to a lot of the sessions I was doing at the time and I was hooked.
"The band are always in control of their direction - the manifesto sonically, politically and lyrically has always come from them. The producer Steve Brown obviously had a very big impact too though with his radio sensibilities.
"I'm not normally a fan of double albums but I can't imagine any other way for this band to announce their arrival - what an amazingly over-ambitious statement it is.
"Sonically I guess some of the drum sounds haven't aged so well, but it's a great record anyway and given the choice would I really change any of it? Probably not! Bands these days don't get a chance to develop in the way the Manics did. I like the fact it's imperfect in some ways; it's more romantic that way.
Is it true that only James and Sean actually recorded material that was used on the record? Not at all - Nicky played all the bass. Richey was much more of a lyricist than a guitar player and James is such an astounding musician I guess there seemed no point in Richey playing.
"Two years later I insisted that Richey play one part on Gold Against The Soul, so he did the power chords behind the chorus of La Tristesse Durera and as far as I know I was the only guy to ever get to record him. I'm proud of that.
"It's definitely a classic in that it announced the arrival of a truly important band. Lyrically it's a classic, but I think it wasn't until The Holy Bible and Everything Must Go that you could call them classic albums in all the usual ways.
"I remember Steve Brown writing 'Jon Lord Woz 'Ere' on a bit of masking tape stuck to the Hammond that I did You love Us on. James had tipped him off that John was my favourite keyboard player - I thought it was such a nice thing to do to put me at my ease and make me feel like they wanted me there.
"I always remembered the way he made me feel when I came down to the sessions and have always tried to make musicians that come and play on my sessions feel the same way. Steve Brown is a dude!
"When I heard Motorcycle Emptiness I knew they had a stone cold classic that would prove to people that there was classic song-writing and amazing musicianship behind all the punk proclamations. It wasn't until people heard that song that they got taken seriously as musicians - there was even a ridiculous rumour that went round at the time that Jeff Beck played all the guitar on the album because people couldn't believe that these make up smeared Welsh punks could play so good!
"I didn't know how long they'd last as a band though - they were promising to break up after one album after all.
"My work with the band has continued ever since. What's not to love? They are the most fiercely intelligent band of the last 30 years, they are outrageously inventive musicians and amazing songwriters who have a very specific vision for their music. They are a gift to any producer and it has been an amazing privilege to work with them for so long."
Matthew Olivier, studio engineer
As we celebrate the 20th anniversary of the release of Manic Street Preachers' Generation Terrorists, we ask sound engineer Matthew Olivier about his work on the album at Black Barn Studios in Surrey.
"At the time I was the in-house engineer for Black Barn where the album was recorded. I think the studio must have persuaded [producer] Steve Brown that I was good enough.
"I read the NME at that time and so knew of them and their reputation. I guess I was a bit apprehensive, not knowing quite what to expect and it being just after the photos of Richey were in the magazine. I liked what they were about and the way they were going about it. I had bought Motown Junk so knew their music already.
"I suppose the album is a bit long! But I guess that was part of what they were about, releasing a double album as a début. I remember them wanting it to be a triple album but I think that was a bit too much for Columbia. Oh and there are some great guitar sounds on it.
"I think my favourite track always was Little Baby Nothing but I really like the Bomb Squad remix of Repeat. Being a fan of Public Enemy and the Bomb Squad productions it was great to hear what they would do with one of their tracks.
"It's very difficult for me to comment on whether it's a classic. Having been closely involved in it I think that I listen to it in a different way. I seem to remember that we spent many, many weeks in Black Barn working seven days a week so it's impossible to distance yourself and not hear it without all the stuff that went along with the making of it.
"I am proud of my work on the record. I think I worked hard on it. When you work on something like that you do get very involved and thinking back to it now I certainly have some really good memories of those sessions and that time.
"Being in a residential studio for that amount of time is bound to create certain incidents. One thing I remember very clearly was managing to break the headstock off of James [Dean Bradfield]'s Les Paul Gold Top by knocking it off its stand. A little bit awkward!. He was very good about it but I still remember feeling really bad. It was fixed though and I imagine he still has it.
"Maybe a better memory was driving the band to London to buy Guns N' Roses' Use Your Illusion I and II. They were released during the sessions and Tower records on Piccadilly Circus opened at midnight to allow people to get it as soon as it was out.
"It probably seems a bit silly now as I'm sure the CDs could have been sent down to the studio for the morning but that wasn't really the point. So we drove up to town in whatever old car I had at the time, queued up and bought the CDs. As a thank you they bought me a CD. I think I chose Metallica's 'black album' just to be different. We drove back and immediately listened through to both Illusion albums all the way through. I can't quite remember the reaction. Mixed I think!
"Is it important in UK music history? I guess it is! Personally, as I said, I don't or can't listen to it with any real degree of objectivity. It was certainly important for the band and they have obviously gone on to bigger things with a 20 year career behind them.
"But when I look back at these sessions I just remember it as being a really good time. I was young and working as an engineer in a recording studio with some really nice people. It is difficult to see it or listen to it in any other way. I mean you do hope that everything you work on will be well received and there was obviously a lot of talk and anticipation about the album. Some obviously think it is important and hence this 20 year anniversary thing, but for me I'm just really glad to have been a part of it."
Sally Margaret Joy, journalist
In 1992 Sally Margaret Joy interviewed Manic Street Preachers for Melody Maker. We talked to her about how the group of young, politicised Welsh nascent rock stars seemed to her as they released their début album, Generation Terrorists.
When did you first come across the Manics?
"When I first encountered the band I wasn't a journalist but was in a band called Furniture, on the road, promoting our single Brilliant Mind. Riffling through the press I came across their photos: black spiky hair, smudged eyeliner and attitudinous sneers. Fearfully, I noted they were prettier than our band, and two of us were girls!"
Did any of their qualities or personality traits strike you in particular?
They were un-intimidated by the media. They sported with it it like toreadors. They were irreverent, witty, and traded Nietzsche - the Welsh accents helped endear them, put them within reach. Yes, they shone a little brighter than others. In that sense, they were intimidating.
"But then when I interviewed them in 1992, I realised they had that quality so many apparently rebellious, revolution spouting artists have, which was they could get you to do whatever they wanted by just smiling at you in an amused, conspiratorial way. They had an incongruity about them.
"They were recording their first album in this grand castle - or was it a manor house? - and living like rock stars, yet insisted we do the interview in a bedroom where, plumped down on these little single beds adorned with children's duvet covers (pale blue with little red aeroplanes?), and me sat uncomfortably on a chair, we talked. Burrowing into their duvets, they seemed to me like vulnerable young men, unsure where it was all heading. Or maybe they were just knackered. Who knows?"
How did they differ from other bands of the time? Was there any sense that this band and album were going to be important?
"You know on X Factor when contestants go, 'I really want this!'? Well, the Manics were nothing like X Factor contestants but it was clear that unlike most of the shoegaze-y, depresso type bands of the time, the Manics actually wanted success. We were still in a post-punk, 'kill your idols', morose, grey knitted cardie-infested era of authenticity.
"It felt like they had studied success, its geography, its pitfalls, and were ready to get out there. Perhaps one of their built-in story lines was that success might not turn out to be what it seemed, that under the eyeliner and cool stares, they were a little naïve? That's not a bad thing. If you aren't naïve, you won't try anything."
They were always criticising other bands who were Melody Maker cover stars, like The Levellers, Slowdive, Ned's Atomic Dustbin and so on; was this manna from heaven for music journalists at the time?
"They were very funny criticising other bands for being boring! I think the Manics escaped having a sell by date because they remained peripheral to any scene. They emphasised their differences by slagging other bands off. But they were never mean."
How much was their Welshness a topic for remark?
"As a half Filipino woman in the music press at the time, I was very aware that the music press had its share of racists, sexists and bores. Yes, some of them felt compelled to go into a cod Welsh accent when talking about the Manics. But I don't remember people remarking on the Manics' Welshness very much, because, being primarily a musician, I didn't hang around with music journalists.
Adam walton: Generation Terrorists and me
I was 20 and living a dissolute student life in Liverpool when Manic Street Preachers' Generation Terrorists came out 20 years ago.
My housemate - a bath-phobic fellow North Walean - and I queued outside HMV in Liverpool that morning, eager for it to open. No one else was queuing. Despite the band coming from a whole other cultural universe from my hometown of Mold, I remember being excited that a Welsh band had managed to create such a kerfuffle. As someone in a Welsh band, it felt like a battlement (of ignorance and petty prejudice) had been breached. Maybe there would be fewer 'Cwm Dancing' jokes from now on.
(There weren't, really.)
So we got the number 80 bus back to our freezing house on Ullet Rd, poring over the quotes on the gatefold sleeve all the way home: Plath, Rimbaud, Camus, Nietzsche... they were appealingly intellectual to a literature student with his head up a hundred different backsides.
We moved enough roach-encrusted plates and empty Thunderbird bottles to find the record player and stuck side one on; put a hooky 50p in the meter and sat back for a fag and a listen.
I remember being excited. Despite my flared trousers and floppy fringe, there was something titillating and rather thrilling about the Manics. They were different. They had an androgynous glamour that reminded me of Bowie. They said more interesting things in interviews than all of their peers sub-edited together.
But I didn't have that Valleys rock background or indoctrination. If you sounded - and looked a bit like - Mötley Crüe or Guns N' Roses, you were already a bit rubbish, to my heinously prejudiced ears.
I wanted more Public Enemy, less Tigertailz.
So, ultimately, it was a disappointment. I played Motorcycle Emptiness a few dozen times and that was it. It's the only track on the vinyl that exhibits any wear. But despite being nonplussed musically, there's no doubt that it changed expectations within Welsh bands. The Manics galvanised everyone. They were the punkest band Wales ever produced, because even - maybe, especially - the bands who couldn't stand them were inspired to give it a go.
So the Situationist message rang true. A phenomenally important Welsh album. Just not a very good one.