The Student Playlist

Showcasing the Best New Music, Curating the Classics

“Under Neon Loneliness” – A Beginner’s Guide to Manic Street Preachers

Generation Terrorists (1992)

The twin terrors of Edwards and Wire agonised for months over the contents of their debut: at the time, it was intended to be their one and only mission statement, a 16 million-selling double album that would see them split up at Wembley Stadium. In the event, they fell a very long way short of that heroic ambition. Generation Terrorists, for all its obvious flaws, retains some value because it’s pretty much the only musical document of the Manics Mk.1: the politics of The Clash played to the music of Guns N’ Roses while wearing the New York Dolls’ clothes. It was an intoxicating mixture, but the timing of its release was unfortunate – just as the world was gravitating towards Nirvana and grunge, the shiny FM heartland rock sound that Generation Terrorists was aiming for became resolutely unfashionable.

At 18 tracks in length, it could have been a lot more disciplined and taut, with obvious B-sides and filler becoming trying at times. The entirely unnecessary Public Enemy / Bomb Squad remix of ‘Repeat’ stuck out like a sore thumb. But it still houses no fewer than six charting singles, including the perennial crowd favourites ‘You Love Us’ and ‘Stay Beautiful’, the feminist duet with former porn star Traci Lords ‘Little Baby Nothing’, and the beautifully posed ennui of ‘Motorcycle Emptiness’. The sloganeering, the rock-star posturing, the eyeliner and glamour, were all gloriously out of step with Madchester-loving Britain in 1992, but Manic Street Preachers offered you something to believe in with their flawed manifesto of a debut. That, ultimately, is Generation Terrorists’ greatest legacy. (6/10) (LISTEN)

Gold Against The Soul (1993)

Manic Street Preachers Gold Against The Soul

A second Manic Street Preachers album was something that was never supposed to even happen, but the sense of ambition was still there. Retreating to the lavish environs of Outside Studios in rural Oxfordshire and with comparative rookie Dave Eringa behind the production desk – someone who still works with the band to this day – Gold Against The Soul was a much more economical and focussed affair. But, unfortunately, a deeply compromised one. The highlights, it must be emphasised, are superb. The churning anxiety of opener ‘Sleepflower’ and three of the album’s four singles – the smooth FM rock of ‘From Despair To Where’; the quasi-baggy ‘La Tristesse Durera’; and the intimate confessional ‘Life Becoming A Landslide’ – remain some of the best moments of the Manics’ early career.

However, GATS also houses a lot of their most overcooked and cringeworthy moments. The ugly characters described in the twin songs ‘Yourself’ and ‘Nostalgic Pushead’ are backed up by some equally ugly arena rock; the lame Bowie pastiche of ‘Roses In The Hospital’; the pointless thrash of ‘Symphony Of Tourette’; and some dated political references in the bloated closing title track mean that Gold Against The Soul is dreadfully inconsistent, with the bad moments balancing out the good ones and very little in the middle of the spectrum. The Manics’ visual aesthetic was also all over the shop at this point in time, the glamorous androgyny of their debut jettisoned in favour of a mismatch of dyed hair, vintage suits and pork pie hats. Ugh. But all that would change… (5/10) (LISTEN)

The Holy Bible (1994)

Manic Street Preachers The Holy Bible

Put simply, The Holy Bible is one of those extremely rare artistic achievements that come about so infrequently that they make all those that hear them think and conceive of pop music in a different way. For starters, it’s close to perfect in every objective criterion by which you could measure an album’s quality: musically, lyrically, structurally, conceptually. Subjectively speaking, if you want your music to convey deeper meaning, the album’s political and social themes are some of the most thought-provoking of the twentieth century, more at home in a book or a film rather than something as seemingly lowbrow as a rock album. In retrospect, The Holy Bible also gained additional meaning as Richey Edwards’ epitaph, when he disappeared without trace only six months after its release on the eve of an American tour.

Edwards took the lion’s share of responsibility for the lyrics (about an 80:20 split between him and Wire), but also for the band’s image during the promotional tour (army surplus chic, reminiscent of early Clash), the album’s artwork and design. He pored over books and visited museums until he picked a striking piece by Jenny Savile, depicting a morbidly obese woman in her underwear from three perspectives and entitled ‘Strategy (South Face/Front Face/North Face)’. The back cover featured a shot of the band in their ‘military chic’ get up and a quotation from Octave Mirbeau’s ‘The Torture Garden’. Edwards’ contribution is a harrowing, fiercely intelligent tour de force.

Musically, The Holy Bible departed from the Manics’ classic, shiny rock sound to incorporate rougher, sharper-edged post-punk and industrial sounds inspired by Nine Inch Nails, Public Image Ltd., Wire and Siouxsie & The Banshees. The change in sound can be seen as a reflection of the change in surroundings: the Manics had eschewed the luxurious surroundings in which they made their overblown second album Gold Against The Soul, instead opting for the tiny, cramped environs of Cardiff’s Sound Space Studios to motivate and focus themselves.

But these superficial alterations are only a starting point for a much deeper shift in nature: Bradfield and Moore turned these influences and worked them into something that was much more than merely ‘angular’, or ‘choppy’, or any adjective used to commonly describe post-punk: the music on The Holy Bible is relentlessly, intensely bleak. When combined with the subject matter, dealing with human suffering and politics, taking in everything from anorexia (‘4st. 7lbs’), mass murderers (‘Archives Of Pain’, ‘Of Walking Abortion’), prostitution (‘Yes’), political correctness (‘P.C.P.’), the female body (‘She Is Suffering’), faded youth (‘This Is Yesterday’), American foreign policy (‘ifwhiteamericatoldthetruthforonedayitsworldwouldfallapart’), dictators (‘Revol’) and the Holocaust (‘Mausoleum’, ‘The Intense Humming Of Evil’), the experience as a whole borders on voyeurism. You just feel a little unclean for having heard it, but it’s designed to force the listener to confront the darkest corners of (in)humanity, the capacity for cruelty that lies at the centre of our existence.

Full lyric sheets of The Holy Bible are available in the sleeve notes or online, as they are far too dense to discuss here. Suffice to say, Edwards’ lyrics are so packed with reference that Bradfield often finds it hard to make them scan and fit them in to the confines of regular pop songs, which partially explains why the music sounds so twisted and distended and why the syntax is so strange.

Sitting at the thematic core of The Holy Bible is the lead single ‘Faster’, Richey’s ultimate song of self-justification. It’s a track of alarming, frenetic urgency that sounds like the Manics are playing for dear life. Edwards’ lyrics (as barked by Bradfield) flicked between outrageous boasting “I am stronger than Mensa, Miller and Mailer / I spat out Plath and Pinter” and brutal introspection “self-disgust is self-obsession honey / and I do as I please” and “I’ve been too honest with myself / I should have lied like everybody else”, betraying an underlying mania reflected in his deteriorating state of mind and erratic external behaviour at the time. The performance of ‘Faster’ on ‘Top of the Pops’ drew a record number of complaints, with Bradfield singing through a paramilitary-style balaclava as flaming torches flanked the stage: a unique performance of a unique song. But it means that Edwards’ story is inextricably tied to the experience of The Holy Bible, a kind of soundtrack to a personal apocalypse where the horrifying references double up as metaphors for the author’s mental state.

We could go on, but the ultimate authority on this album is Simon Price’s excellent biography ‘Everything (A Book About Manic Street Preachers)’, a book that we wish he would update to take account of everything that’s happened with the band since the turn of the millennium. We’ll simply finish by stating that The Holy Bible is the clear pinnacle of the original Manics line-up, winning universal rave reviews and impressing those who had stuck with the band long enough until this point. Because of the band’s subsequent career arc, an appreciation for The Holy Bible has become something of a badge of honour for the hardcore Manics fan: to distinguish themselves from the Fred Perry-clad fanbase that they attracted post-Everything Must Go.

Unfortunately, any description of it automatically makes it seem like an imposing, doom-laden monolith, and for sure, it is a rather challenging album to initially get to grips with. You may never have heard the Manics sounding like this before: the fourth word you hear is ‘c***s’, for goodness’ sake. But if you give it time, you’ll find that The Holy Bible is one of the most rewarding and distinctive listening experiences in the history of recorded music, a prime example of pop transcending its origins as entertainment and becoming an art form. (10/10) (LISTEN)

Everything Must Go (1996)

Manic Street Preachers Everything Must Go

There are comeback albums, and then there’s Everything Must Go. Not many people would have backed Manic Street Preachers to continue without Richey Edwards, their chief lyricist and propagandist as well as all-round figurehead, even though he couldn’t actually play guitar. But absolutely nobody outside of the band’s immediate circle could possibly have predicted that the new album would be as totally brilliant as it was.

Everything Must Go is a testament to the human spirit’s endurance: wounded, grieving, but still alive. The ringing, treble-heavy production and the arena rock strings with which producer Mike Hedges embellished the mix denote not triumphalism but defiance. Wire’s key lyric is in ‘Enola/Alone’“all I want to do is live / no matter how miserable it is”. It’s this stoicism that provides the bedrock and key theme of the album. That said, it opens with a particularly strange Edwards song – the strange seasick qualities of ‘Elvis Impersonator: Blackpool Pier’ – before it settles down. ‘A Design For Life’ must rank as one of the all-time best ‘comeback’ singles: stirring, passionate orchestral sweeps and lyrics about working class consciousness over a bona fide ¾ riff that the milkman could whistle along to, this was the Manics’ meal ticket. It rocketed to Number 2 in the UK Singles chart, and three other Top Ten singles followed it before the year was out.

Everything Must Go’s real versatility lies its uneven structure, an aspect that’s often a criticism of MSP albums. Here, it’s used as a strength. Edwards’ authorship of five of the twelve songs makes them stick out as plain as day. Lyrically, they don’t scan particularly well or feature broken, twisted syntax. ‘Kevin Carter’, released as the record’s third single, is the most well-known of these. The harp-based, hushed glory of ‘Small Black Flowers That Grow In The Sky’ is probably the best, about the mental tortures of caged animals but serving as an allegory for Edwards’ declining state of mind. These trickier tracks nevertheless sit nicely with the gorgeous, Wire-penned tracks like ‘Australia’, the album’s final single that represents running away as far as you can from your misery, and a metaphor for the heartbreak Wire had suffered. Wire’s songs are a lot easier on the ear, but no less stirring and passionate. Check out the loud-quiet dynamics of the panoramic closer ‘All Surface No Feeling’, or the barely held-together emotions of the title track.

Everything Must Go marked the start of Manic Street Preachers Mark II in more ways than just their line-up. It saw them clothe their political messages in a radio-friendly, accessible exterior, in a kind of sugar-coated pill effect, rather than continue to denounce from the sidelines as a cult concern. The success of the album was totally unexpected. Everything Must Go went triple platinum, spending an incredible 82 weeks in the UK Top 75 Albums chart, and was still in the Top Five in May 1997, one year after its release. It’s one of the biggest selling albums in British chart history never to hit Number 1. The 10th and 20th anniversary editions, if you can find them, are great rock artefacts crammed with videos, B-sides and essays that are well worth the money. (10/10) (LISTEN)

This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours (1998)

Released to a mixed reception, This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours is overdue a critical reappraisal in our eyes. It was Nicky Wire’s first time writing a full album, and it holds together remarkably well despite its long running time. Having spent virtually their entire career up to this point spurning their Welsh origins, This Is My Truth… saw the Manics make a reconciliation (of sorts) with their homeland as well as with the disappearance of their bandmate. Its heart is firmly in the South Welsh valleys, reflected in the quiet majesty of its production and its sombre (but not mournful) tone. Opener ‘The Everlasting’, beginning with a diary-like intimacy and unfurling into widescreen cinematics over its six-minute length, signals the Manics’ intentions. Take the beautiful organ motif of ‘Ready For Drowning’, the processed zither used for the riffs of ‘Tsunami’ and ‘I’m Not Working’, the picked folk guitar and brushed drums of ‘Black Dog On My Shoulder’, and the whistling on ‘You’re Tender And You’re Tired’: a broad and unusual smorgasbord of instruments used in a traditional rock format with the production wizardry of Mike Hedges.

A couple of more traditional MSP moments were present – the single ‘You Stole The Sun From My Heart’ and the hugely personal ‘Nobody Loved You’ were the only occasions that saw the band rely on volume – but the instrumentation suits the lyrical themes. Wire is reflective, introverted, anxious, but not defeated. It’s an album about lethargy, rather than a lethargic album. Following on from the commercial triumph of Everything Must Go, the album was a huge success also, and is to date the Manics’ only UK Number 1 album. Its lead single ‘If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next’ provided them with their first of two UK Number 1 singles (the second was ‘The Masses Against The Classes’ in 2000), and is to our knowledge the only chart topper about the Spanish Civil War. Along with The Verve’s colossal seller Urban Hymns, it placed the Manics at the top of the pile in the aftermath of Britpop in the late ’90s. (7/10) (LISTEN)

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