Friday, February 10, 2012

Manic Street Preachers - Generation Terrorists

Generation Terrorists was released twenty years ago today, and like the young Manic Street Preachers themselves, it was shot through with apparent contradictions. It was revolutionary yet depressive, punk yet stadium rock, testosterone-charged yet played by 'feminine'-looking men, uncommercial yet pop. And precisely because it was all those extreme things, it was absolutely bloody great.

Great, but not their masterpiece. That would come in 1994, as talismanic lyricist Richey Edwards stared into his personal abyss. There were enough hints of those heights (depths?) on the first half here though, and the Manics quickly established themselves as the ultimate Marmite band.

When you listen to Generation Terrorists, you hear Thatcher's children coming of age. The band had formed - and spent their formative years - in the town of Blackwood in South Wales. The locale had a radical history dating back to the Chartists, but in the 1970s and 80s it was devastated by the closure of nearby coal pits, and was left as a pile of "rubble and shit", as Edwards famously described it.

In other words, the teenage Manics had already lived through the destruction of a hyper-masculine way of working life, and represented the post-industrial working class wreckage peering out into the world. They had been radicalised by events such as the miners' strike, and had read their share of Marx and other philosophers, but these seemed to make little sense in a time when the Berlin Wall had just fallen, a "new [capitalist] world order" had been promised and "the end of history" was about to be declared.

The album opens with the Guns n' Roses-alike sounds of Slash n' Burn, a raucous invitation to personal destruction, paralleling the capitalist system's ferocious appetites. Guitarist and lead vocalist James Dean Bradfield is on particularly fine form living out his metal fantasies. Then it's Nat West - Barclays - Midlands - Lloyds (which would be RBS - Barclays - HSBC - Lloyds these days), which similarly denounces the economic machinations of the ruling class, condemning "Prosperity" as being "Mein Kampf for beginners". But rather than following this with some kind of revolutionary manifesto, Born To End instead introduces the band's nihilism, before the absolute classic of all classics Motorcycle Emptiness mournfully reconciles the fiery radical with the lonely self-harmer. "Each day living out a lie", it despairs, "Life sold cheaply forever".

Manics circa 1992 (left to right: Despair, Culture, Alienation and Boredom)
Then we're onto the punk fury of You Love Us, which slags off basically everyone who isn't the Manics in an almost infantile way, yet also contains one of the band's most visually impressive lines ("'Til I see love in statues, your lessons drill inherited sin"). Another metallic effort follows, in the shape of Love's Sweet Exile, one more alienation anthem. Then it's the somewhat tender Little Baby Nothing, which is a duet with porn star Traci Lords, in which she denounces 'her' own industry, and all men are written off as "useless sluts". Which could hardly be a greater contrast to the chest-thumping of Repeat (Stars and Stripes), with its slogan-heavy playground (but still great) assaults on royalty and nationalism.

From here, the quality noticeably dips. The Manics had told the press they'd release one double album, it would sell eighteen million copies, the world would be changed forever, and the band would split. They did the double album, and padded it out with what - when compared to Motorcycle Emptiness - is very definitely filler. Damn Dog - a cover of some band's very mediocre song - is particularly unworthy. But there are still some superb moments. Stay Beautiful is a fitting tribute to their obsessive fans, Spectators Of Suicide gives us an balladic introduction to situationism over weird bongo rhythms, and Crucifix Kiss nails Christianity from a decidedly Marxist perspective. For all its bombast, final track Condemned To Rock 'n' Roll is a technically brilliant slice of metal pie. But the main action was in the first half, and the second is a compendium of a sensational band on an off day.

I had my first proper kiss to Generation Terrorists - a few years later I hasten to add - and on some level it's deeply shocking that this soundtrack to my youth is two decades old. In a way I prefer the working title - Culture, Alienation, Boredom & Despair - because the Manics certainly brought the culture to the alienation, boredom and despair of my late teenhood.
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