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Manic In The Streets - Record Collector, April 2001

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Title: Manic In The Streets
Publication: Record Collector
Date: April 2001
Writer: Gemma Courtney
Photos: Rankin, Tom Sheehan

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Their new album Know Your Enemy signals a change in direction.

31st December, 2000. As the 20th century became the 21st, many remarkable events were taking place across the world to mark this unique moment in history. In Cardiff, Wales, 60,000 people were gathered in the newly-built Millennium Stadium to cross the millennial precipice in the company of the Manic Street Preachers.

It was an emotional evening as the band once again under-lined that they - not Oasis or the Stereophonics - were the people's champions. The following month, the Manics issued a new, stand-alone single. "The Masses Against The Classes" was an incendiary blast of indignation that recalled their early days of punk riffs and radical rhetoric. "We're the only thing left to believe in," screamed James Dean Bradfield - thereby reaffirming the band's stance as outsiders, a position which their recent mainstream success had threatened to undermine.

The single wore its influences on its sleeve (which, incidentally, bore the Cuban flag) - right down to it being deleted after only a week on the shelves. Remarkably, it still topped the charts. Their credentials regained, the band reconvened to record their sixth album determined to strip away the excesses of their sound.

The band's first live show since the Manic Millennium extravaganza was announced as taking place at the Karl Marx Theatre in Havana, Cuba. It was designed, the band admitted, as a tribute to the Castro administration. The communist leader himself even found time to come and watch the spectacle of the first western artists to play in the country since Billy Joel in 1979, with tickets priced at the local equivalent of 7p each.

Equally audaciously, two new singles were released on the same day. Designed to represent the "different sounds and textures" of the new album, the choice of tracks certainly achieved that. "Found That Soul" is a bruising rocker with impassioned Bradfield vocals, while "So Why So Sad" is almost the flip of the musical coin. Sounding like an homage to Phil Spector's production - complete with high harmonies, bells and a theremin solo - it's possibly the Manics' boldest release since "A Design For Life".

There was a feeding frenzy on the internet when four of the tracks were stolen from Sony's server and posted on the Napster file-swapping site. Within hours, Sony had managed to remove the files from fan sites but the furore just underlined the fans' desire to be the first to hear the new material.

And now "Know Your Enemy" has finally been released. Like any good album, it took a couple of listens to fathom, but soon revealed itself to be the richest musical landscape the Manics have ever produced. The "different sounds and textures" claim is certainly well-founded, with tracks ranging from the disco of the Ibiza-trashing "Miss Europa Disco Dancer" to the acoustic melancholy of "Ocean Spray" (Bradfield's first lyrical composition) to the to-ff "Wattsville Blues' (featuring another first: a vocal performance from bassist Nicky Wire).

Meanwhile, the discernible influences range from familiar sources such as the Clash and Joy Division to Spector and even the Stones and the Byrds (particularly the gentle 60s-stylings of "Let Robeson Sing"). There's even a secret track at the end - a cover of "We Are All Bourgeois Now" by McCarthy (the B-side of their "Should The Bible Be Banned"). Yet another throwback to their earlier selves - they covered the 80s agit-rockers' "Charles Windsor" on the CD version of the "Life Becoming A Landslide" single back in 1994.

In all, "Know Your Enemy" is almost the antithesis of their debut, "Generation Terrorists". But then it's hard to reconcile the mouthy young politicised punks who emerged from Blackwood at the beginning of the 90s with their current incarnation. Most obviously, the loss of guitarist Richey Edwards has changed the band irrevocably. That much was evident as they went from the white-noise oblivion of 1994's "The Holy Bible to 1996's polished but passionate "Everything Must Go".

The very fact that there was a Manic Street Preachers in the wake of Edwards' disappearance is, in one sense, nothing short of miraculous. The band has stated since that it was the closest they have ever come to breaking up. That they returned with the most critically and commercially acclaimed album of their career is a testament to their strength of character.

They cleaned up at the 1997 Brit Awards and became arena-straddling giants on the back of four successive Top 10 hits. 1998's "This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours" built on the success of its predecessor, with "If You Tolerate This Then Your Children Will Be Next' becoming their first No. 1 single. The album also topped the charts.

Yet it seemed as if the band were being dragged inexorably into the very mainstream they once derided. Despite the controversy surrounding the closing track, "S.Y.M.M.", which pointedly fingered the police with the blame for the Hillsborough tragedy, the Manics seemed to embody the listening choice of the coffee-table classes. Despite its obvious high points, the album was dragged down by too many ordinary songs like the single "Tsunami' and the well-intentioned but trite "Born A Girl". "Know Your Enemy" is a riposte to those who say the Maoist finally cashed in their credibility chips.

It was sad yet strangely fitting that the final show of the original Richey line-up ended in a hail of instrument-smashing at the close of the last of three nights at London's Astoria in 1994. Talking about his hospitalisation for depression during his last interview in Japan in 1995, Edwards remarked that "I got lost somewhere". Within a matter of weeks, he'd ensured he couldn't be found again.

Ever since the release of the "Suicide Alley" single back in 1988 (handmade copies of which are now worth a impressive £600) right up to Edwards' disappearance, there was a definite sense of a grand masterplan. Despite the band's much-vaunted claim that if their debut album didn't sell as many copies as Guns N' Roses' "Appetite For Destruction" they would split up, they remained. Successive albums - the lush "Gold Against The Soul' and the angst-ridden "The Holy Bible" - revealed that they weren't about to go away quietly.

The early Manics were definitely iconic - getting porn star Traci Lords to sing on "Little Baby Nothing". dressing in guerrilla gear while blasting through "Faster' on Top Of The Pops, deriding Glastonbury as a "shithole". Theirs was a cut'n'paste assimilation of influences - from Kafka to the Clash, and from Guns N'Roses to Che Guevera. Even the packaging of their early material was arguably an homage to their punk roots - their first three albums were all released as picture discs.

Often, the music seemed to be overlooked in deference to their image, which was a criminal shame as the band made some of the best singles of the decade. From the sneering "You Love Us' through the aching "Motorcycle Emptiness" right up to the bitter resignation of "The Everlasting", they melded their lyrical ideal-ism with an acute pop culture sensibility. The band are also almost unique in the sense that each successive album has brought on board a new cross-section of followers, while alienating a proportion of their hardcore supporters. Yet the fact that the prices of their early singles continue to rise is testament to the fierce devotion they inspire.

Their early days were characterised by heart-on-sleeve moments. Richey carving '4 Real' into his arm after having his credibility questioned by then-NME journalist Steve Lamacq is the most notorious. But there were other less-publicised events. For instance, their embracing of fanzine culture, which even led to the donation of the track "UK Channel Boredom" to a flexidisc single given away with Hopelessly Devoted. Interestingly, Nicky said in a recent internet webchat that he still prefers fanzines to their online counterparts.

Their next recorded output was founded on a handshake deal with the punk-ethos indie Damaged Goods. The "New Art Riot" EP was the result, and original white labels of which there were only 100) now change hands for £35. The band's early "one-off' deals meant that five different labels released their material within the space of two years. Indeed, the rarest Manics item from 1991 is a 7" released on Bob Stanley's Caff label, entitled "Feminine Is Beautiful", which couples "Repeat After Me" (which later surfaced on their debut album as simply "Repeat") and "New Art Riot".

Once they had inked a major deal with Columbia, sceptics envisaged that their outrageous tendencies would be curbed. Instead, they were exacerbated, with Richey's self-mutilation and Nicky's proclamation from the stage of the Kilburn National in December 1992 that "in this season of goodwill, let's hope that Michael Stipe goes the same way as Freddie Mercury".

Musically, the band was still a living, breathing example of the punk ethic - both Wire and Edwards never bothered to fully master their instruments while their live shows were splenetic blurs of punk high-kicks, sloganeering, feather boas and no encores. With the loss of Edwards, some of the original reactionary spirit seemed to disappear as well. "Know Your Enemy" has the Manics sounding vital again.

However, the album will no doubt polarise the fans once again. Some will complain about the inclusion of more experimental tracks like "So Why So Sad" and "Miss Europa Disco Dancer". Others will doubtless bemoan the return to a harder sound at the expense of more radio-friendly fare. Indeed, it's interesting to note that "Found That Soul", despite being released on the same day as "So Why So Sad", has received virtually no airplay.

It's been a long, hard road from Blackwood to Havana, but ultimately the Manics have survived because they believe in what they are doing. That much is evident by examining two quotes from polar ends of their history. Back in 1991, following their signing to Columbia, the fanzine Spiral Scratch asked them if they were going to stick to their plan of just releasing one album. Their reply: "Our first LP is going to be the most important benchmark for rock this decade". Two months ago in Q, Nicky Wire declared that "Know Your Enemy" was "one of the best albums of all time". Welcome to a new chapter in this unique band's enthralling history.

SHOOTING FROM THE FLIP: Manics B-sides & Bonus Tracks

It's interesting to trace the Manics' musical development through their choice of cover versions down the years. Guns N'Roses' "It's So Easy" and a heavy cover of the theme from TV series M*A*S*H, "Suicide Is Painless" (recorded for the NME 40th anniversary album "Ruby Trax" and released as a single). emerged during the "Generation Terrorists" era.

Those tracks perfectly embodied the primal rock'n'roll instincts the band harboured throughout their early career. Their much-professed admiration for Guns N'Roses, for example, was an interesting choice given Axl Rose's homophobic w racist imagery on the track "One In A Million". The Gunners had none of the hip talk of the Manic but their uncompromising vision was something the Welshmen obviously deeply admired.

A version of the Happy Mondays' "Wrote For Luck" appeared on "Roses In The Hospital". By the time of "She Is Suffering", the last single featuring the original line-up, they were tackling Suede's "The Drowners" and the Faces' "Stay With Me". By the time of "Everything Must Go", their choices included Art Garfunkel's "Bright Eyes", "Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head" (featured as their contribution on the "Help" charity album) and Andy Williams' "Can't Take My Eyes Off You".

That isn't to say, though, that the band have just chosen easy listening classics to remould. The "Australia" single featured an affectionate rumble through Camper Van Beethoven's anti-fascist anthem "Take The Skinheads Bowling" and Primal Scream's "Velocity Girl", while the band finally satisfied all the cynics by covering a Clash song, a live "Train In Vain", to be precise, on "You Stole The Sun From My Heart".

However, the cover of McCarthy's "We Are All Bourgeois Now" on the new album could be interpreted as another sign of their willingness to signpost a less well-known influence of their youth. McCarthy, who numbered future Stereolab member Tim Gane among their ranks, infused their work with a polemic based on Marxist theory.

Gane has actually been involved with the Manics directly, remixing "Tsunami" on CD2 of the single release. Other luminaries tackling the band's work include the Chemical Brothers, who liked their version of "A Design For Life" so much they included it on the "Brothers Gonna Work It Out" compilation, and Lionrock, who reworked "Australia", originally as a DJ 12", of which a mere 20 copies were pressed. The Manics' covers and collaborations certainly display a breadth which their more vitriolic detractors don't seem to take into account.

WORD ON THE STREET: The State Of The Manics' Collectors Market

When we first looked at the Manics in 1992 (can it really be nine years ago?), the price of picture sleeve copies of their debut 45, "Suicide Alley", seemed decidedly steep at £80. In fact, some dealers predicted that such a price-tag could do little other than tumble. Nearly a decade on, those doubters have been proved resoundingly wrong. The earliest issue of "Suicide Alley", with Richey Edwards' handmade sleeve, now fetches a cool £600.

Other early Manics singles have escalated similarly in value, most notably "Motown Junk-, the 12" and CD of which we valued at £8 each in '92: they now fetch £40 and £80, respectively.

Interest in Manics' vinyl has grown steadily, despite the increasing popularity of their CDs - just look at the prices in their discography - and has, no doubt, been boosted by a plethora of limited 12" editions and picture disc versions of their first three albums. The band themselves would, most likely, be pleased about this. having always professed a preference for the black stuff.

Apart from the standard UK collectables, there are plenty of overseas rarities for Manics fans to get stuck into and, as usual, the Japanese are way ahead of the rest. Most sought after is the promo-only compilation "Manics DJ Copy" issued in 1998. Featuring typically beautiful packaging, this 17-track 'Best Of' collection will set you back a whopping £250. If you aren't feeling quite so flush, there are other exclusive Japanese packages which will enhance any Manics collection.

The numbered four-track "You Love Us" CD (ESCA 5580) is a tasty item, as it includes the so-called 'Heavenly Mix' - not the version on the original Heavenly issue. but a slightly different take from the same sessions - as well as a live cut of "It's So Easy", while a double-pack edition of "Gold Against The Soul" (ESCA 5785-6) includes an exclusive "Live In Japan" CD featuring five tracks taped at the Club Citta Kawasaki on 13th May '92. Other sought-after Japanese issues include the exclusive compilation "Stars And Stripes - Generation Terrorists US Mix" (ESCA 5630) and a six-track "La Tristesse Durera" CD (ESCA 5821). All these issues include the obligatory obi.

Promotional memorabilia is extremely popular among Manics devotees, and items such as the £40-rated custom make-up compacts issued to promote "Stay Beautiful" and "You Love Us", and 1992's "Slash 'N' Burn" £60-rated chrome zippo lighter are few and far between these days. Other unusual promo items include a German Epic in-house mag, Epicmag, which includes a compilation CD boasting a unique sleeve shot of the Manics and featuring "If You Tolerate This...". Back in the UK, meanwhile, don't forget the four-track flexi, "Verses From The Holy Bible". issued in conjunction with the NME in 1994. Items like these may not be as desirable or valuable as the promo box set circulated to plug "This Is My Truth", but record collecting has never been merely about investment, something which Manics fans particularly appreciate.

These offerings are merely the tip of a very large iceberg and, with the latest album "Know Your Enemy" riding high in the charts, you can expect another kaleidoscopic array of collectables to emerge onto the market in the coming months. Keep those eyes peeled...