As the Manic Street Preachers’ ‘Generation Terrorists’ prepares for a deluxe edition, Martyn Young discusses its relevance 20 years on.
‘Generation Terrorists’ was always destined to be an important album. In the eyes of its creators, it was the album. This was their definitive statement. All or nothing.
Manic Street Preachers formed in the late 1980s and arrived like an atom bomb exploding over the largely staid and faceless UK indie scene in the early 1990s. James Dean Bradfield, Sean Moore, Nicky Wire and Richey Edwards were four young kids from the small town of Blackwood in South Wales with a fierce intellect and a relentless appetite for self-mythology. The Manics instantly created their own world. They were a band in worship to romantic ideals of rock n roll or, as the lyrics to early single ‘Motown Junk’ proclaimed; “We’re a mess of eyeliner and spray paint.”
Driven by the boundless creativity and cock sure confidence of Edwards and Wire, or the ‘Glamour Twins’ as the music press called them, the Manics set about carving their own singularly unique rock n roll legacy. Their debut album was central to this. Telling anybody who would care to listen, the band said that they were going to sign to a major label, make one debut double album which would sell 16 million copies and then promptly split up, with their place in rock’s firmament firmly assured. Anyone who would question the bands validity would be met with a withering putdown. Sometimes they took this devotion to their cause to chilling levels. For example, Edwards’ notorious carving of the maxim “4REAL’ into his arm as a riposte to questioning by NME journalist Steve Lamacq. This striking combination of chutzpah and belief established them as a band unlike any other. They swiftly developed a cult following as fans and the media lapped up their mix of grandstanding, iconoclasm, and vitriol. The Manics had a firm disgust for any music that did not fit their ideals; their mission was to blast away the dominant sounds of shoegaze. As Richey Edwards put it in one interview: “We will always hate Slowdive more than Adolf Hitler.”
The album that did finally arrive in 1992 was everything about the early Manic Street Preachers captured on one epochal debut record. ’Generation Terrorists’ is perhaps one of rock’s ultimate flawed statements. There are innumerable faults with ’Generation Terrorists’. It is far too long, suffers from poor sequencing and a lack of quality control and there is a preponderance of rock posturing and noodly guitar solos derived from their much loved idols, Guns n’ Roses and The Clash. The flaws just add to the package though, they make the album what it is.
The Manics always placed more of an emphasis on lyrics and imagery than musical proficiency. The only member of the band who is certain to play on the album is guitar virtuoso, James Dean Bradfield. Wire and Edwards were the driving force and it’s their lyrics that give ‘Generation Terrorists’ heart and soul. Songs like ‘Stay Beautiful’ and ‘You Love Us’ were impossibly thrilling rock songs. These songs established the Manics manifesto. It was music to truly believe in. Any disenfranchised youth could revel in their: “Culture of destruction”. The album sleeve featured quotes from Kierkegaard, Camus and Chuck D. This is no ordinary rock band.
There was also tenderness and subtly to go along with the rage and aggression. ‘Little Baby Nothing’ is a beautifully empathetic song about femininity; famously the band approached Kylie Minogue to sing the female section of the duet with Bradfield. There is one song that towers above anything else on the record. ‘Motorcycle Emptiness’ is unequivocally one of the greatest rock songs of all time. Carried along on a heroic guitar riff from Bradfield it is a perfect combination of intellect, melody and soul that has endured for decades since.
Despite all the bands assurances ‘Generation Terrorists’ never did sell 16 million copies and they did not split up. They always reserved the right to be contrarians and change their mind at a moments notice. The Manics would go on to become one of the UK’s greatest ever bands over the following 20 years although that success has been tempered by tragedy with the disappearance of Edwards in 1995. Edwards was legally pronounced dead in 2008. You wonder what he would make of his bands grand statement being given the nostalgic reissue treatment in a vastly changed musical landscape of 2012.
20 years later ‘Generation Terrorists’ sounds ever so slightly dated at times but mostly it sounds immeasurably thrilling. There is also a strong sense of sadness that not one new band has even an ounce of the excitement and sense of glamour of the early Manics.
‘Generation Terrorists’, in terms of the Manics grand plan, would go down as a failure. It did, however, introduce a set of ideals and principals that the band have held true to ever since. Anybody who looks upon the Manics now as irrelevant and tired old men would do well to remember that the passion and fire of their younger selves forged by this album is still as strong as ever. Never has an album that achieved so little gone on to mean so much.