Monday, May 18, 2015

Manic Street Preachers 101: No love songs!

I wrote and formatted this entire post already then Blogger deleted it for reasons unknown. So, I am feeling completely miserable about starting again from scratch. I will try anyway. I recently became re-enamoured with a favourite band, Manic Street Preachers. In the UK, they are a pretty major act but here in North America, they are not well known with only a cult following. Since the bulk of my legitimate site traffic is from Canada, the US and South Asia, I am going to guess that most readers here will not know the Manics. This is my messy, half-baked attempt to introduce Manic Street Preachers to those who are unfamiliar and list a representative sample of their music, followed by my own experiences as a fan.


top left: Richey Edwards, Nicky Wire, James Dean Bradfield and Sean Moore in 1992. top right: 1994. lower left: 2006. lower right: Moore, Bradfield and Wire in 2013.


The Manics story is an extremely interesting one. Here are the basics  from NME's artist biography:
Manic Street Preachers are a Welsh rock band. [...] The group originally consisted of James Dean Bradfield (lead vocals and guitar), Nicky Wire (bass guitar, lyrics), Sean Moore (drums) and Richey Edwards (rhythm guitar, lyrics). However, Edwards went missing in February 1995 and the remaining members have continued as a trio since. The band, who are commonly referred to as The Manics, formed in Oakdale Comprehensive School, South Wales in 1986.

...During an interview with NME's Steve Lamacq, Edwards responded to questions about the band's sincerity by carving the phrase '4REAL' into his arm with a razor blade; he was treated in hospital and received 17 stitches. The Manics signed with Columbia Records to release their debut album 'Generation Terrorists': the band themselves claimed that the LP would be the "greatest rock album ever" and sell 16 million copies worldwide. Instead, the album sold an estimated 250,000 copies around the world upon its release and peaked at Number 13 on the UK Albums Chart, but it was given a 10/10 review by NME who declared it "nothing short of a modern miracle". The band's second album, 'Gold Against The Soul', was released in 1993, while their career-defining masterpiece 'The Holy Bible' followed in 1994. NME have described the album, which unflinchingly explores Edwards' emotional and mental struggles at the time, as a "work of genuine genius". The album, however, also reflected on Edwards' continued problems: by early 1994 he had been admitted to The Priory mental health hospital. On February 1, 1995, Edwards disappeared: he checked out of the Embassy Hotel in London at 7am and his car was later found abandoned near the Severn Bridge service station. He has not been since and was declared presumed dead on November 23, 2008, by his family.

After his disappearance the band considered disbanding but later decided to carry on, although they have kept a percentage of their royalties aside should he ever return. The band's fourth album, 'Everything Must Go', is considered one of their most triumphant: recorded in the wake of Edwards' disappearance, it was released in 1996 and became a critical and commercial success, partly due to the popularity of the single 'A Design For Life'. The band continued their success with their next album, 'This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours', which was similarly well-received upon its 1998 release. Since then, the band have released the albums 'Know Your Enemy' (2001), 'Lifeblood' (2004) and 'Send Away The Tigers' (2007). Their 2009 album 'Journal For Plague Lovers', meanwhile, featured lyrics left behind by Edwards before his disappearance, and they released another album, 'Postcards From A Young Man', in 2010. In 2013, Manic Street Preachers released their album 'Rewind The Film': a sparser, more acoustic-based record. Less than a year later they released 'Futurology', a more experimental and expansive record which has been hailed as one of their finest yet...
If that is a little much for you to read, try this two minute clip instead.

The band's music has shifted through so many styles through the years. It is safe to say that they specialize in the 3.5 minute guitar rock song with a straightforward verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus format. The music, written by James Dean Bradfield and Sean Moore, often has an unexpected key or melody. Lyrically, the themes are politics, history, art, philosophy, social issues, economics, feminism, despair, and later, more introspective topics. Twisted or grotesque imagery was frequent early on. One detail that is somewhat unusual is that lead vocalist James Dean Bradfield sings lyrics written by other band members. Initially the words (oh so many words) were written mostly by Richey Edwards and Nicky Wire but after Edwards's disappearance, Wire has written almost all of the lyrics. His writing is more sparse which allows Bradfield's voice enough space to stretch out. Bradfield seems to be a good sport about singing the often very personal lyrics (eg. Edwards on self-mutilation and self-starvation, Wire and "I wish I had been born a girl not this mess of a man"). Note: there are essentially no love songs! Well, a couple tracks come close but at least they aren't ballads. Even songs with the word 'love' in the title are not about romantic love. I really like this aspect of the band. Also, they occasionally smash their instruments, which is a delight.

Manic Street Preachers, April 27th 2015, Danforth Music Hall

Lucky Toronto, we were one of only seven North American cities to see the Manics in 2015 (or actually, in the past 5 years). The same week as the Toronto show, the Manics had (hard to believe) their first American TV appearance. They opted to perform their massive comeback single from 19 years ago, but with a bit of a lounge crooner delivery:



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I wish I could share these as audio only. With the exception of the first one, I think videos distract/detract from the music. This is a long list but it covers 24 years of music, albeit unevenly. Headphones in!

You Love Us -1991
"We won't die of devotion, understand we can never belong." This is just brazen fun: acting out rock star bravado although they were only on their first album. Pretty, young things Nicky and Richey fashioned themselves into instant icons.

If you liked the song itself, try this one which is much better. If you seek more Richey and Nicky yaoi frolic regardless of song quality, step this way.

Motorcycle Emptiness - 1992
Everything about it is so early 90s but this anti-consumerism anthem really catches my heart.


Faster - 1994
NME said of The Holy Bible,  "Originally their MO had been to subvert from within, sugar-coating disturbing ideas in a radio-friendly glam-rock shell, but by 1994 it was their response to the resultant tectonic shift that set them sonically free. What emerged was an album [The Holy Bible] that seethed. Its labyrinthine lyrical concerns of collapse of the self set against the worst depravities of the 20th century was an equal and unholy marriage of militantly abrasive lyrical content and punishing music."

'Faster' is very much an exemplary track from The Holy Bible album. Some of the band's most quoted slogans are in here.

I love this one even more. So menacing.

Everything Must Go - 1996
And here's the big change.

The disappearance of Richey Edwards in 1995 remains one of the biggest mysteries in rock'n'roll. His absence and the lack of answers must have been beyond devastating for his family and friends. Eventually, the three remaining Manics found a way to write music again and decided to continue as a band. This song expresses that resolve directly: "freed from the memory, escape from our history, and I just hope that you can forgive us, but everything must go".

The big single from this album was 'A Design for Life', the song from the American TV performance posted above. And hey, Sony Music UK have shared the entire 'Everything Must Go' album over on YouTube, right here.

If You Tolerate This Then Your Children Will Be Next - 1998
From XFM: 'The band's first number one single was about the Spanish Civil War that took place between 1936 and 1939. A group of Welsh miners travelled to Spain to join in the fight against General Franco's troops, and the title was taken from a propaganda poster of the time. One line from the song is a genuine quote from a Welshman: "If I can shoot rabbits, then I can shoot fascists." Nicky Wire later claimed that the ideology behind the song was that political issues seemed to have lost their relevance in modern society.'  

The 'This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours' album is sometimes wistful and sometimes dispassionate. Elegant, with a meticulous, almost glazed-over sound but so beautiful. I still genuinely love 11 of the 13 tracks on this album, however, I can totally understand why fans of Manics from the punk-pop beginning would hate it. Likewise, I became a fan of the band from this album so it was a shock to discover the earlier heavier, rougher sound.


MANIC STREET PREACHERS if you tolerate this from WIZ on Vimeo.

Ready for Drowning - 1998
I have been playing this song for 16 years and only learned today that it's about Welsh identity and the flooded village Capel Celyn. *shrug* Stunning vocals by James Dean Bradfield and that early unexpected key change is so Manics-y.


The Masses Against The Classes - 2000
Respect forever to them for managing to make this a #1 single. Starts with a quote from Chomsky, morphs through 'Twist and Shout' then a Nirvana-esque verse, but the epic chorus is all Manics. Sorry for the low sound quality.


Found That Soul (Live in Cuba) - 2001
MSP were the first western band to perform in Cuba since the 1959 revolution.


To Repel Ghosts - 2004
I was unaware until very recently that Lifeblood is the most hated album by the band, critics and many fans, too. This is a little hard to take because I adore it. I understand it was recorded in a different way from the other albums, with generous synthesizer and millions of layers. I think it is gorgeous in its own way and some of the better Nicky Wire lyrics are on this album.

In February, I went to a major retrospective on the work of American Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat. It was already a captivating experience but when my eyes settled on this piece, I could only say OHHHH. There are so many art references in Manics songs: Basquiat must have inspired this particular favourite of mine.

I also have a lot of love for this one.

Facing Page: Top Left - 2009
Writings left behind by missing Richey Edwards in 1995, set to new music. So, not standard rock lyrics. 'Journal for Plague Lovers' is an amazing album.

Also this one sounds great.

Rewind The Film - 2013
Below, I explain that there were three Manics albums between 2007 and 2013 that did not pique my interest. The main exception is this song which I think is exquisite. A slow burner. The guest vocalist Richard Hawley adds interest and a point of contrast to James Dean Bradfield. 

Let's Go To War - 2014
New 'Futurology'. I'm happy to say there's an arch sense of fun here and lots of style too.


From the same album, this song is very simple/repetitive but effective. An ode to the EU.

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Here's how being a Manics fan has played out for me:

-In 1995, I was given a mix tape with one Manics song by my friend Meghan (she was very clued into the UK music scene). The song was 'She Is Suffering'. The only line of the lyrics I could really understand was... "she is suffering" but I did appreciate the song's tempo and the way the lead guitar works around the bass structure. Although I liked the song, I didn't investigate further.

Phoenix 96 shirt

- In the summer 1996, aged 18, I visited Meghan in the UK and we went to one of those massive music festivals (Phoenix). Manic Street Preachers performed the day we were there. I clearly remember when they played ‘A Design For Life’, which I liked. But again, I wasn't inspired yet to go out and buy the music.

-Mid-1999, I first heard 'If You Tolerate This...' when MuchMusic played the video. I was immediately taken with the song. I scrambled to write down the artist info and bought the CD at my local HMV right away, then I played it constantly. (It was released, like, a year later in Canada than in the UK.) The ‘This Is My Truth’ album was all over alternative rock radio in Toronto that summer. At the time, all I knew about the band was 1) they were from South Wales 2) they were big on leftist politics. So, I was not aware of the band's backstory or the meanings of most of the songs. I thought it was weird to have only three members in a band, not knowing that it was really (four minus one) members. Of course, in the late 90s, you couldn’t just hit up Google or YouTube to learn everything about a band. In those days, I was lining up for the university library computer terminals to check my e-mail twice a week. I wasn’t spending time on fan listservs to decipher the meanings of lyrics! I didn't have access to the British music press like NME, either. This does represent an uncharacteristic lack of curiosity for me, though, and it took me years to find out the heartbreaking truth of songs like ‘Tsunami’ and ‘Nobody Loved You’. I guess I was used to songs having meaningless lyrics?

-I spent the summer of 1999 on excavation in Pompeii with a large group of British students. I ended up talking music with one guy who told me a lot about the Manics and the Richey story. He also lent me his ‘Everything Must Go’ cassette. To this day, that album always reminds me of summer in the ancient city and the looming atmosphere of death that nobody else seemed to notice (especially ‘Small Black Flowers’).

MSP 1999 Toronto

-In September 1999, Manic Street Preachers came to Toronto and I went to the show (alone, none of my friends were interested). I don’t recall much about the concert to be honest. I do remember that a large proportion of the audience was in Wales rugby tops but I was really caught off guard by the girls up the front wearing light-up devil horns and feather boas. At the time, I was unaware of the Manics’ early 90s glamour-punk era: I had only seen the button-downs and boiler suits Manics!

- I investigated the older Manics stuff several times but none of it stuck with me. The 1996, 1998, 2001 and 2004 albums remained very important to me over the years but my interest slumped after the 2007 ‘Send Away The Tigers’ album revealed a new, bland adult-contemporary sound. With the exception of one or two songs each and a few B-sides, the 2007, 2011 and 2013 albums are not listenable for me. I guess I didn’t read The Guardian the week in 2009 when ‘Journal for Plague Lovers’ was released because that’s new to me and I definitely love it. In 2009, I also somehow missed hearing about another concert in Toronto, 10 years after the one I did see. I still feel completely gutted to have missed this. Heartbroken, really, because I hear it was a fantastic show. Being a Manics fan in Canada is a bit of a solitary situation.

- I’m back in the fold these days, loving much of the 2014 ‘Futurology’ album. Still, I almost managed to miss another Toronto show this April, being alerted by my brother only 10 days before. There were still tickets available despite the venue capacity of 1500. This was The Holy Bible 20th Anniversary tour and they played the whole album in order. After hearing ‘The Holy Bible’ performed in full, I gave the Richey-era Manics stuff another chance and discovered that I genuinely love it now. I would like to wind time back three weeks so that I could appreciate the show more, line up earlier, be more familiar with the older music. Is it weird that it took me until age 37 to embrace pop-punk and overwhelmingly bleak rock?

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