Pat Gilbert tracks the Manics through their early singles and finds some survivors of their first London gig.
Generation Terrorists. At the time, the idea seemed faintly absurd. Who was there left to terrorise in 1992? Most people were either tripped out on rave, consumed by Kurt Cobain's panda-eyed nihilism or out snowboarding somewhere in the Alps. The Manic Street Preachers were a band out of time, soapbox punks barking into an infinite vacuum.
Five years on, though, the world has finally caught up. The group's latest album, "Everything Must Go", a distillation of everything wonderful about their first three LPs, has now been surfing the charts for the best part of a year.
Last December, the Manics were joined onstage by Liam Gallagher and Kylie Minogue. Two months later, they scooped Best Band and Best Album at the Brits. Their acceptance speech was a sobering reminder of the tragedies they've suffered along the way: their awards were dedicated to their former manager Philip Hall, who died in December 1993, and guitarist Richey Edwards, still missing after his disappearance from the Embassy Hotel, Bayswater, 18 months ago.
The emotionally charged atmosphere of the Brits were a universe away from the group's early days in Wales. Back then, few promoters would book them, and when they did play, audiences were invariably hostile to their Clash-inspired cacophony. At one local gig at Blackwood's Little Theatre, they were canned off for wearing make-up and driving their Situationist slogans home with gravity-defying aerobatics.
Today, though, they've proved themselves as worthy successors to the Clash's politico-punk mantle - and interest in the darkest recesses of their early catalogue has never been greater. However, in a tradition of other epochal rock bands like the Who, the Sex Pistols and Nirvana, the history of their early singles has been shrouded in misinformation and controversy. Until now, that is.
Their recording career kicked off in the summer of 1988, when singer James Dean Bradfield and drummer Sean Moore were on the dole and bassist Nicky Wire and driver/sometime guitarist Richey Edwards were studying at Swansea University.
Originally, the group had been called Betty Blue, but with the departure of early guitarist Flicker, Nicky Wire moved to bass and the Manic Street Preachers were born. After several demo sessions at a local studio, it was decided to cut a self-financed 45...
Suicide Alley (SBS 002, 8/89)
The Manics' debut single was recorded at Sound Bank Studio, in the boys' hometown of Blackwood, Gwent, in June 1988. Their original guitarist, Flicker, had not long left the band and Richey was still their driver. Only 300 copies of the record were pressed, which were sold at gigs and sent out to journalists and fanzines. The band organised around 200 'proper sleeves', which reconstructed the Clash's first album cover pose. (Richey wasn't in the shot because he took it.) The remaining copies either came in plain sleeves or hand-made covers designed by Richey, with glued-on newspaper cuttings. The latter are extremely rare.
The record was issued in the late autumn, and took the best part of a year to filter through to the 'NME', getting thumbs up from an elated Steven Wells in August 1989, who quoted from Richey's accompanying letter. "We are the suicide of the non-generation," wrote Edwards. "We are as far away from anything in the 80s possible."
Sound Bank Studios (SBS), then based in an industrial unit in Blackwood, was run by a local musician, Glen Powell. "Suicide Alley" was given the catalogue number SBS 002 to give the impression there had been previous releases on the label. Powell's claim to fame is weightier than most: he once played with Jimi Hendrix in New York, where he lived for a couple of years in the late 60s.
GP: "We were talking about doing a single - I thought it was better than just making a demo tape. Nick and Richey were in university at the time, but we priced it all up and it seemed feasible. They paid for the manufacturing, and I paid for it to be cut at CTS in London. They organised the sleeves themselves - they came flat-packed, and they glued them together. They did them as and when they needed them.
"When I first met them, they were very Clash-based, and I helped them get that stereo guitar sound. They weren't particularly opinionated, they just bashed it down. They demoed about half the songs that later turned up on 'Generation Terrorists'. I also recorded the basic tracks for 'Bored Out Of My Mind', the B-side of 'Motorcycle Emptiness', which they took back to London to play with.
"Nick and Richey didn't play on anything - James did all their parts. They never professed to being musicians. In fact, they never even turned up for the 'Bored Out Of My Mind' session.
"They were a good bunch of boys, really, even though they used to look really aggressive. If they owed me £20 for a session, the next time they came in they'd put it downon the table before anything else. You could trust them."
The Captain Oi! label ownever and former Business bassist was the first person to review the single, in the January 1989 edition of 'Beat The Street' fanzine. Brennan concluded: "Makes a change from the glue-bag dirge that has passed for punk in the last couple of years."
MB: "They sent me about five copies, because I had a record company at the time, Link, which did mostly punk stuff. I thought it was great, and said, do you want to go on this compilation album we're doing ("Underground Rockers Volume 2")? We ended up including both sides. I spoke to Sean a lot on the phone, and a few months later, I rang to ask him who to pay the royalties to. He said, 'Give 'em to charity.' Which is exactly what we did."
U.K. Channel Boredom (Hopelessly Devoted 001, 3/90)
In early 1990, the Manics donated a demo to a flexidisc given away free with the indie-zine 'Hopelessly Devoted'. The track had been recorded at SBS studios the previous year, and caught the band in an explosive, atonal mood. Originally, 1,000 copies were made, but it's widely agreed that the flexi has either been re-pressed or possibly bootlegged. Chances are, though, that any copy coming with a fanzine is an original.
'New Art Riot EP (Damaged Goods YUBB 4, 6/90)
Having seen the group's first London gig, upstairs at the Horse & Groom in Great Portland Street in 1989, Ian offered to put out a second Manics single on his Damaged Goods label. A gentleman's handshake led to the "New Art Riot EP", issued in June 1990 in a limited edition of 1,000 copies. Since then, there have been several re-pressings with different colour labels - originals are black-and-white, with "Distributed by 9 Mile Cartel" on the back sleeve - but the rarest version is a 12" white label promo, in a plain sleeve rubber-stamped with the legend "Made In Wales".
IB: "Mark Brennan had told me they were really good, so I sent away for the single from the back pages of the 'NME', and then went down to see them at the Horse & Groom. I thought 'Suicide Alley' was great. It had a real punk attitude at a time when 'punk' was a dirty word, because people associated it with mohican idiots like the Exploited.
"I asked them whether I could put out a single, and after a couple of phone calls, they came round my house in Walthamstow to suss me out. Basically, I was being auditioned to see if I could do their single! We sat around playing video games, as you do. James and Richey did most of the talking - they were very straight-forward and down to earth. They recorded the tracks at the Workshop in Redditch over two days. It was the only studio I knew about."
Motown Junk (Heavenly HVN8, 1/91)
You Love Us (Heavenly HVN10, 5/96)
Heavenly's Martin Kelly and Jeff Barrett signed the Manics in late 1990, though after just two singles, the group were lured away by Sony. "We were willing prostitutes," Richey later claimed of the deal, which netted them £250,000. Their second Heavenly single, "Motown Junk" was promoted with a 500-only 7" promo, including a splenetic radio mix of the song, which many fans consider to be the definitive version.
MK: "We went to see them at the Rock Garden. There were about 15 people in the whole place, it was completely empty. They played the most amazing set ever. Nicky trashed his bass at the end of the set. It was a Rickenbacker, worth god knows what, and he totally smashed it pieces. In front of ten people!
"We were completely blown away. We went up to them afterwards and said, can we sign you to our label? They went, 'Ahh! Fakk off!' They weren't in the slightest bit interested. In fact, they were really abusive, but it was like a really good attitude! But when we told them we ran Heavenly, they all simultaneously stood up and shook our hands. They really loved Flowered Up and St. Etienne, and I think that swayed it.
"We paid for them to record about ten songs, and we chose the singles. 'Motown Junk' stood out a mile as a good track. They were brilliant blokes."
Feminine Is Beautiful (Caff CAFF 15, 7/91)
In October 1989, 'Melody Maker' printed the first Manics live review to appear in the mainstream music press. It had been written by St. Etienne's Bob Stanley, who went on to profile the group in that paper's 'Sidelines' section the following August. The interview saw Richey set out the band's iconoclastic manifesto: "We're now. All you can do with the past is never want to be like it." Nicky was so taken with the piece he sent Stanley a thank you note - the first he'd ever received.
Later, Bob was given the nod to release a 500-only 7", featuring two demos from an early Manics demo cassette. These raw recordings of "New Art Riot" and "Repeat After Me" were issued under the banner "Feminine Is Beautiful".
BS: "After seeing them at the Horse & Groom, I got Richey's address and wrote to him for about 18 months. He sent me these instructions for making your own Manics T-shirt, by cutting out 'Melody Maker' and 'NME' capital letters. When St. Etienne went on tour with them we did our own: one said '48 Crash' and the other one said 'Ballroom Blitz'. We wore them on stage and thought they were really good, but I think they thought we were taking the piss out of them. They didn't look remotely impressed.
"They were really quite odd. When I did that first interview, they had to go back to Wales the next day. We had quite a big flat, so we invited them to crash on our spare matresses. They said, no, it's alright, we're going to sleep in the van. It must have been freezing. We'd done the interview in the pub, and none of them drank. They put all their money into the fruit machines - a kind of nihilistic thing to do. James was saying to me, I've just turned 20 and I'm thinking of quitting the group. I totally fell for it, because he must have been at least 21 by then.
"For the Caff single, they'd pooled their giros and recorded two songs live the previous Christmas. They didn't buy the mastertape, and it was taped over, so the vinyl had to be cut from a third-generation cassette copy. That's why the sound quality's so shit. It's still a great record, though. They agreed to do it just before they signed to Heavenly, so I was quite lucky."
Melody Maker's review of the Manics's first London gig in 1989
Manic Street Preachers
Horse & Groom, London
Uptight, everything's alright. Fresh from their "Suicide Alley" debut single, this is the first London date of Manic Street Preachers. Bluntly, they are a four piece from South Wales with a '77 fixation and more than a few cutting melodies - I'd hesitate to call them angry young men because I don't believe the drummer was even born in 1977. They also have a natty line in shirts, all spray painted with slogans like "suicide beat", "classified machine", "England needs a revolution now", reminiscent of primetime Age Of Chance but I'm sure they'd smash my face if I suggested it. They look so intense as they hurtle through the barbed-wire jagged "New Art Riot" (so much snarling and synchronised kicks in the air, detractors could claim them as a triumph of attitude over content), I feel like shouting "lighten up!" But they do anyway: after the first song the singer - with regulation sharp haircut - shyly stammers "Th-thanks, that's the most applause we've ever had." And I'm won over. As for the rest of the audience, some are almost hysterical but then that could just be nostalgia.
Right now, Manic Street Preachers are too reverential, they've got to loosen up and translate their undoubted ferocious potential from their shirts to their guitars. As it stands they already have the attitude, tunemanship and hungry youth to show laff punch merchants like The Family Cat and Mega City 4 where to get off. Given enough rope they could become champions.
Where were you hiding when the storm broke?
On Friday 22nd September 1989, the Manics travelled to London to play their first gig in the capital. The venue was the Horse & Groom, a quaint Victorian boozer in Portland Street, W1, with equestrian pictures covering its tiled walls. The bands played in a small room upstairs. Hammersmith Odeon it wasn't.
The gig promoted by music writer Kevin Pierce, author of 'Something Beginning With O', a superb anthology of post-punk heroes. Richey had been pestering him for a gig for some time, and in late September he finally found the group a support slot with melodic Mod-rockers the Claim. Admission was £2 and the Manics began playing at around 9pm.
No pictures were taken that evening, but an audience recording survives. The setlist was: "New Art Riot", "Soul Contamination", "Dead Yankee Drawl", "Anti-Love", "Strip It Down", "Destroy The Dancefloor", "Sorrow 16", "Faceless Sense Of Void" and "Suicide Alley". There ws no encore.
Ian Ballard (Damaged Goods boss)
It was really quite exciting, just a little room upstairs in a pub with not many people there. There was no stage, and they were just playing through their little amps. It was a bloody row, to be honest, but they were all jumping up and down in white gear with slogans painted on them. It was one of those gigs you went to where you thought, God, this is reall good. They did 'Suicide Alley' at the end - They didn't do an encore, they just went off. There were a handful of people who'd come down in a van with them from Wales.
Terry Banks (Frontman with jangly U.S. indie-popsters Tree Fort Angst, then guitarist in Sarah Records signings, St. Christopher)
I went to see the main band, the Claim, who were like this Kinksian, Postcardian group. The Manics came on first, and they reminded me of the Clash, they had writing on their shirts. Before the gig, the bands would sit on the stairs, which was the closest there was to a dressing room. I think they shared a drum kit with the main band. There was a lot of screaming and jumping around - they seemed to be into punk in a destructive way. It wasn't a particularly cool thing to do, especially as most bands at the time were '60s influenced, and didn't move around much. The Claim left more of an impression on me, to be totally honest.
Bob Stanley (Journalist and one-third of St. Etienne)
There was no stage, they just played in front of these pictures of jockeys. They were wearing their old school shirts - the actual ones they'd worn at school, not ones bought in a junk shop or anywhere - with slogans stencilled on them. Those shirts were terrible, but you appreciated what they were doing. The presentation was total Clash. We were laughing, but only because it was so unexpected. There was obviously something there, because the tunes were so good. I'd heard 'Suicide Alley' before the gig, but it hadn't really grabbed me. But live they were really intense, and really charming as well. After the first number, they said something to the effect of, thanks, that's the most applause we've ever had. We were totally won over.