With their Holy Bible shows just announced, the Manic Street Preachers frontman talks Emily Mackay through his all-time favourite albums
Big Country - Steeltown
I'm gonna go for a topical one... Obviously Stuart Adamson came out of The Skids. John Peel called him the Scottish Hendrix, and I loved The Skids. Absolutely loved them. Then he went on to form Big Country. And first of all I had to take a step back from it, but I just loved the way he put myths and folklore - Scottish folklore - into music, but he also linked it up with the modern day era. All those myths and belief systems were very prescient of modern day culture: how people use music to deal with loss, how people use music to deal with lostness in society, with poverty, with trying to strive to remain above the dignity level. And I thought that was quite a noble ambition for a musician, really. Lots of musicians have done that in different guises, but because Big Country was wrapped up in a certain Scottishness in the music, and what some people have called the Celtic mist in their music, they were utterly pilloried in the press. I love the music press and I love music journalism, but sometimes the music press have to be called to account, and they should give the musical kudos and reparations to Big Country and Stuart Adamson, who's sadly not with us.
I also used to think, why is it that Billy Bragg's allowed to have a folk edge to him? The Men They Couldn't Hang had a folk edge to them; The Pogues were allowed to have a folklore edge to them, and people find it acceptable with The Pogues because they could get drunk to it. But Big Country were mercilessly slammed for being Scottish, whining, bagpipes… I look back and think it's a music journalism crime, what happened to them, and what happened to Stuart Adamson. You look at the album and you've just got so many songs which just touch upon the post-Thatcher unemployment that was going on in Scotland at the time... And the English-based press just absolutely slammed him for it; they just thought he was a man dealing in myth and outdated folklore and I think it's disgusting. I remember, in the sleeve-notes, he said he understood the power of music way before he understood its language, and that's what he was trying to do with Big Country. It was a noble, amazing achievement which was treated with… what would you call it? Just London-dominated disdain. I'd like to redress that just by picking it. A folk influence is very much allowed in English music today, whether it be fucking Frank Bloke or Mumford And Sons with their Cath Kidston version of it. It's allowed through the gate; it's allowed to sell millions; it's allowed to have a voice. So there is a symbolism there. It's enough to make you want to be independent, the way Big Country were treated by the music press!
Wire - 154
It's an album that had a massive effect on me when I was young. I remember on Steve Lamacq's Roundtable, there was a track from Journal For Plague Lovers which a member of Wire completely slagged off. So this shows how much I actually like this album, because he obviously hated us and thought were just plod-rocking, rock-dinosaur philistines. But despite that I'm still going to quote this as a really influential album for me. A lot of people pick Pink Flag and Chairs Missing as their favourite records, but for me this is the apex of their achievement: they're still fusing really blunt-edge experimental rock with really abstract notions and wild ideologues and monologues of different sorts. There's a song on there called 'The 15th' which is just an amazing song; there's another song called 'The Other Window', which has a direct lineage from some of the Velvet Underground narrated songs like 'The Gift', and it's about this guy travelling on a train and outside there's an animal dying in a barbed-wire fence. There's another song called 'Two People In A Room' which is just fucking brutal. A lot of people like Wire then they're bleak or when people couldn't get a handle on what they were saying, but I think on this you can pin down the emotion to the record, pin down the marriage of experimental edge with rock. For me, it's one of the great lost post-punk records. It's an amazing record that never really gets written about. It was produced by Mike Thorne who never did as good a record again. And I just love the cover: it's got a very… almost Mondrian kind of vibe to it. It's really strange and quite unsettling. I just love the record.
Man - Welsh-Connection
They're a funny band, Man, because they were always on the fringes of being really successful but they didn't really hit the big time. But they did well in America, and for this, the line-up had changed a tiny bit and it causes a lot of conjecture among their fans, but it's just beautiful. Actually, I've got a sneaking feeling that My Morning Jacket must be fans of Man, because there's stuff on Welsh-Connection which sounds very much like MMJ on their album Circuital. The cover is a mock-up of the French Connection movie poster, so you can sense the mood of everything, but the actual song 'The Welsh Connection' is just amazing. There's a certain 70s, deep-brown and depressed mood to it, but it kind of flies as well. It's what you imagine the 70s to be like; you imagine them being devoid of fantasy, so you had to lift yourself above the strikes and the power cuts and the joblessness and the overcooked beige food. You imagine that there's no fantasy for you to actually plough, and you've gotta just rise above it and try and dream. That's why I love this record; it feels like you're floating above reality and the brownness of the 70s, and it's trying to get somewhere. I've always found Man intriguing, because they're a west Walian band but they were making music that was very much competing with some of the best American West Coast prog-rock bands or rock bands, and I always find that intriguing - when a band tapped into something that was not of their typography or geographical situation. It's just a beautiful record, and a lot of their fans don't actually think it's their best, but I think it's their best by a mile.
Death - ...For The Whole World To See
They were a black punk band from America. I love this record because it's kind of… erudite in its expression but it's fucking brutal. It's razor sharp. It's also gloriously anarchic. It's kind of punk but it's got real rock & roll lineage to it. The titles are brilliant: there's one called 'Politicians In My Eyes', another one called 'Rock-N-Roll Victim', 'Let The World Turn', 'You're A Prisoner'. It's just a real lost classic, and it's got real power. I can't remember if they're from Detroit or not - it would make sense, because so much has come out of Detroit - but it's one of those records I've just picked up and been astounded by it. I was always really good at picking up stuff in the margins of punk history, but I'd never heard anything about this band, and I love the idea that there's still stuff out there that's going to get credit after its time; that people who didn't get credit in their lifetime eventually get it if they're good enough. You can tell this band could have gone on to be utterly amazing; there's an articulacy there, a brutality there, a real rock & roll lineage, but a little off-kilter jazz edge to little bits of the playing. And the cover's absolutely lovely, it's almost like art deco Buck Rogers. It's just one of those records that's a little surprise in life; to stay in love with music, you need to have those little surprises, something that's been locked in a vault and it comes at you and it's such a surprise. And if you're ready to take on those surprises, it just shows you're still in love with the romance of music, that something's going to hit you in the middle of the eyes. And that's what this record did to me two years ago. I found it in Spillers in Cardiff, which was good because I really don't engage in the digital world - not through any kind of arch Ludditeness or anything, I just can't be arsed. So I listen to lots of radio and read lots of press and that's how I get my new records. That's why I love going to Spillers; sometimes there'll just be that bit of advice behind the counter. "Why don't you try this?" I just love that moment.
Ice Cube - AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted
It's probably my third favourite rap album of all time. Again, I think it's a really overlooked record: I think it's so good because he was produced by The Bomb Squad. I remember being shocked by that at the time; for some reason I didn't think that Ice Cube and Public Enemy got on, so I was quite surprised that The Bomb Squad had produced it. But you could just tell that their production values were there straight away, and it would open up into some kind of expression, and then it would close back down, and you could hear all these things going on in the background. This was when Ice Cube was still kind of known as just being a rapper, and for me this was his peak. There are songs on there like 'The Nigga Ya Love To Hate' which is just amazing; the title track; and I think one of my favourite songs on there is 'Once Upon A Time In The Projects' which is just fucking brilliant. That was always the thing about Public Enemy: they always ruled because they had the best rapper in the world; Chuck D was the best rapper and everything bounced off that, and that's why this album is great - Ice Cube, here, is most connected and it feels so important that he gets his point across. He's not disconnected, he's not being arrogant, it's just pure aggression. I never see this listed as one of the best rap albums of all time, but for me it's just a brilliant record. It's up there with some of the Kool Keith stuff, it's up there with Public Enemy, it's up there with NWA. It's just brilliant. And it's really sad that he didn't go onto do more work with the Bomb Squad, because it was obviously a marriage made in the projects and it was fucking amazing. It's another lost classic that just doesn't get mentioned anymore.
John Cale - Slow Dazzle
That moment I had when I was young, listening to White Light/White Heat by The Velvet Underground… I mentioned there's a song called 'The Gift', and John Cale narrates it. It's about a man who mails himself to his girlfriend as a present. She opens it, and she fucking kills him. I remember… I didn't realise John Cale was Welsh when I was 15. I remember listening to that song and I was like, "Fuck me! That sounds like a Welsh voice!". My mind exploded: one of the pivotal members of The Velvet Underground was a Taff! Anything is possible baby… I really got into John Cale from that moment onwards. I think if you get into John Cale you go to Paris 1919, which is an amazing album and some would say his best, but Slow Dazzle really pushes it for top spot. Number one, it has one of the best covers of all time: he does a cover of 'Heartbreak Hotel' which is a brilliant, brilliant cover. And he goes from that to 'Ski Patrol', and there's another song called 'I'm Not The Loving Kind', which is almost like a Harry Nilsson, beautifully orchestrated, melancholic plea to a lover. So he goes from serrated acuteness of 'Heartbreak Hotel' to the lushness of 'I'm Not The Loving Kind', which is just one of the great motivational songs of all time. In a strange way it just motivates you so much. This is where John Cale got his game together: he realised he was an experimental musician who could also write amazing tunes. And this is where you actually hear him not scared of his voice anymore. This was the start of his true greatness. As a solo artist he's nearly unsurpassable to me.
Roy Buchanan - Roy Buchanan
He was a kind of blues/country artist from America - obviously Scottish lineage - and I remember, the first time I heard a bit of his music was a long time ago when I was very young. It was a cover of 'Sweet Dreams' by Patsy Cline; it was an instrumental version and I thought it sounded amazing. I'd just bought an acoustic guitar, and I heard it on the radio and remember thinking… I'm gonna preface this by saying we live in an age where I'm sick of seeing so many people saying, "I'm glad the guitar solo is dead, anybody can play like that" No they fucking can't! I see so many idiots in indie bands try to play solos and they can't fucking do it, because they haven't got the bravery to do it. They haven't got the fucking blood and guts to do it. You have to spill your guts if you want people to believe a guitar solo. That's why I always go for people like this; you can tell, if a Roy Buchanan song comes on, in any obscure station on the world, as soon as the solo comes you know it's him. And that's a really special gift to have. Not many people have that; as soon as he plays one note of a solo, you know it's him. It's beautiful. He always starts off a solo in a beautiful manner, almost slightly depressed, and then it just goes apeshit and he really loses it. It's almost like the guitar's having a fit. He goes from beautiful to really disturbed in one solo. I remember I went to see The Departed in the cinema and this song, his version of 'Sweet Dreams', came on in the end, and I was like, "Fuck me I forgot to buy a Roy Buchanan record!" I meant to buy one 20 years ago and I never did. I went out the next day and bought Roy Buchanan's entire back catalogue. The best one is just called Roy Buchanan. There's some beautiful stuff on it. There's one song called 'The Messiah Will Come Again', with a spoken word intro, and you can tell it's him doing it, and it's just beautiful. There's an old Phil Lynott and Gary Moore song called 'Parisienne Walkways', and you can see it was inspired by this song. I challenge somebody to listen to this song and not actually rethink their prejudice against expression on the guitar.
Julian Cope - Fried
It's really weird: I kind of had a bit of a problem with The Teardrop Explodes. I really didn't like them as a group, and it's very strange because our recording desk in Cardiff… I think Kilimanjaro was recorded on it. But as soon as Julian Cope left Teardrop Explodes I just completely turned onto him, and especially this record, because it's brilliant. There's some benchmark songs on here, which are hard for anybody to top. There's one called 'Bill Drummond Said' which is just fucking brilliant, and there's a song called 'Reynard The Fox', which is just… he does such a brilliant job of having a narrative of why he disagrees with something but pitching it in such a beautiful way. And there's 'The Bloody Assizes'; Julian Cope, now, has this afterlife of being this writer who seems to mix the high-rise block of ideas in his head with reality. It's really amazing. And he's become some sort of historian about myth and Krautrock, and I loved one of his quotes when he did an interview for this book: "I only look like this because I feel like such a cunt when I'm crying inside all the time." This record shows why he's such a brilliant solo artist. It's got a lovely, bucolic flintiness to it. There's something about it; you realise he's detached himself from his previous life and The Teardrop Explodes, and he's just out there in the woods doing something. And you cannot like a record which has a cover of the artist's… you know. Naked inside a big turtle shell on the cover. I remember it got really mixed reviews, but I think a lot of people do consider it a classic. I do; he's done other good stuff, but it's his best record.
The Gentle Good - Y Bardd Anfarwol
I'd gotten into The Gentle Good after hearing his previous record, which was called Tethered For The Storm, which was lent to me by one of my neighbours back in Cardiff. That's how I switched onto him. I still love the accidental way you sometimes just get into music. He made this record when he took a trip to China because he'd become obsessed with the story of a Chinese poet called Li Bai. So Y Bardd Anfarwol is the immortal poet, basically; he has that west Walian edge to his music. He is a folk musician, even if I don't know if he'd like to be described as such, and this album has lots of Chinese musicians on it and it really is dealing with the myth and reality of this poet, and when he becomes a hermit. There's songs on there which are absolutely lovely. I like it when someone buys into a record; they jump into it, and they travel to another country, and they think: "I have to do this. I have to follow the path of this record." I'm not a great lover of world music - I'm not a great authority on it - but this was sometimes I could buy into; it was a smash-up which was enchanting. I love the fact he went from The Gathering Storm to this; it was a lovely seamless step that he made, and it's that kind of thing where I'm so entranced with this album, and it is a record that relaxes me, which is rare for me. I'm intrigued to see where he goes next, and that's lovely - it's the feeling you had when you're 15, and you go out and buy a third album from an artist and as soon as you finish digesting it you think, "God, I wonder what they're gonna do next." I kind of have that feeling with this guy.
Alice In Chains - Dirt
Now the heaviness comes! It's up there with Sehnsucht by Rammstein: just pure molten lava, classic metal. Alice In Chains were such a weird band: losing their singer, when he had gangrene and was addicted, and they went and did a record with fucking Elton John… just a truly bizarre band! Jerry Cantrell was the guitarist, and Layne Staley was the singer who sadly passed away. If you look at old footage of Layne Staley, he really was one of the most doom-laden, foreboding metal presences you could ever wish to see. Look at old footage of him and he'll just stand there, stock still, with his glasses on and he always had his arms covered because there was always something bad going on with him, but his voice just came out of him like the eternal cracking of the oldest oak in the mythical forest. His voice was just wipeout, it was so low and had so much meaning. And Jerry Cantrell was such a pointed, furious, lumpen but spry guitarist, and there hasn't been a classic metal album for a long time I think. This is a bit of a shit muso point, but I think a lot of that is down to modern day metal musicians tuning down. They do this drop, this detuning where everything is just 'du-doom du-doom du-doom'. That's why you don't get this kind of music anymore, because all the guitars are tuned too low. But Jerry Cantrell obviously has a classicist's mind when it comes to metal, and the song 'Them Bones'... it's a simple rudimentary chord, but as soon as it comes on there's a spectral, dying scream in the background, four chords going up in semitones, and it's just like, "Fuck me… how do people find this erudition out of simplicity?" That's when rock & roll is at its best, when it finds that complexity in simplicity, and power in loss or whatever you want to call it.
R.Seiliog - Doppler
It really gave me inspiration when we were finishing Futurology - this was flying around in Cardiff before its release. Because there was quite a big Krautrock influence on 'Futurology' itself, it was just nice to be reminded of how other people were still ingesting those influences and making use of them. I'm not very good at researching people on the internet so I never know the background to many people's stories really, but this album Doppler is seamlessly out of the box. Just a great record. You hear it and you think, "This guy, one day, is gonna win an Oscar for best soundtrack or he's going to launch the best inspired pop synth duo of all time." There's just something there; there's a song called 'Dollygluten' and another song called 'Neigwl Vacuums' and another song called '23.4'. Just all classics. I love it when there's a sense of mystery about a record. I don't know what his MO is, I don't really know what the songs are about, there's no narrative from the vocal, but he's one of those people who's just popped out fully formed and said, "Hey, look what I'm doing!" I don't really know what he looks like - I don't know how to switch the computer on. But it's just one of those records that I absolutely love. And there's something endless about that Krautrock catalogue that allows people to reinvent the near future, which is great, I think.
Simple Minds - Sons And Fascination
I don't want to sound like a broken fucking record but I've gotta go Simple Minds and Sons And Fascination. I've always picked Empires And Dance, but I keep switching to Sons And Fascination. If I remember rightly it was produced by Steve Hillage, so you could see the direction they were going in: he'd been and gone and was a real mainstay of the 70s prog scene, and it just shows the ambition of this band at that point in time. They'd been Johnny & The Self-Abusers, the quintessential proto-punk band, and then they'd done their first album which is kind of still punk-ish or punk-inspired. And then you realise there's a sea change, where they realise it's not the language they wanna speak. Sons And Fascinations comes after Empires And Dance, and working with Steve Hillage was symbolic of them wanting to explore something in themselves. I think if a posh lad reinvents himself and explores avenues he gets a plaudit for it, but rock & roll history is littered with lots of working class lads that have really reinvented the wheel and reinvented themselves and they've searched for things which should have been out of their reach. And they never get the credit for it. Simple Minds are another band that happened to. This album is full of pure, post-abstract expressionism. 'In Trance As Mission', 'Sweat In Bullet', '70 Cities As Love Brings The Fall', 'Boys From Brazil, 'Love Song'. 'Love Song!' Amongst all that! A fucking amazing white Scottish pop-dance record with an industrial backbone. Not many people achieve that kind of mash-up or fusion in their lives. They were concurrently making Sister Feelings Call at the same time. Another band who got pilloried for being pretentious. But they were working class boys who were just reaching for pretension and saying, "No, we will not be fucking defined by you. This is what we're doing. Go fuck yourselves." I've been listening to Sons And Fascination again, and it's just a crowning, towering achievement for a bunch of working class boys from Glasgow, because they weren't allowed to do it; they weren't supposed to do it. People told them to fuck off and they said, "No, we're gonna do it, and we're gonna do it better than anybody else."
The Blue Aeroplanes - Tolerance
It's not quite finished, and that's why it's a classic example of what they were becoming, and that's why I love it. I love coming across a record when you can hear what the band could become. Unfortunately with them, I don't think they really ever got there. For me, they could have been the British R.E.M.. I remember myself and Nick saw the band at WOMAD fest in 1986. We decided we had to go to one festival to see what everything was about - it was either '85 or '86 - and we saw James, when they'd just come out with 'Hymn From A Village', when they were a completely different band, and they were brilliant to be honest. We saw Siouxsie And The Banshees and Arrow, and I think The Housemartins were there, and we also saw The Blue Aeroplanes. They were fucking amazing; one of the best live bands I've ever seen. It was pre-Bez and they had a dancer with them onstage; he was called Wojtek [Dmochowski] and the singer was just scatting poetry over the music. For a band that made quite delicate music they were full-on, they were moving lots, it was just pure fully formed erudite freneticism. It was just lovely. We came away thinking, "Wow, we'd love to be in a fucking band who connect onstage like that, with what's in their music and really physically trying to impose yourself on an audience." I love this record because it's got a song on it called 'Arriving', which has the line: "I saw the sun shimmering on a broken breeze." Nick was obsessed with that line when he was young. There's another song called 'When The Wave Comes' which is beautiful, the actual song 'Tolerance' is just brilliant. It's not a perfect album but you can hear this promise of what this band could have been. Me and Nick went to this festival and we fucking hated the experience of going to this festival, we hated people were trying to sell us drugs, but we loved seeing The Blue Aeroplanes. It was a little Damascene moment which made us really, truly believe about how physical a gig could be. We were determined to not be a band that stood still and just looked at our feet or guitar fretboards after that; we were determined that we would move round shitloads. We walked away quite loftily saying, "We're never coming back to a festival unless we play one," which just shows how snotty and fucking deluded we were.