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.
"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.