[18 September 2013]
The imminent release of their eleventh album Rewind the Film and its accompanying shows and interviews appears to have brought Manic Street Preachers back into the limelight – but really, they have never left. Unlike the bulk of the British rock bands that came of age in the 1990s, the Welsh firebrands have never disappeared nor broken up and reformed for lucrative reunion tours. Their persistence has seen them survive the loss of troubled lyricist Richey Edwards, become one of the UK’s biggest bands in the mid- to late-‘90s, and celebrate the twentieth anniversary of their incendiary debut Generation Terrorists last year.
The passage of time has seen the Manics morph gradually from divisive upstarts to elder statesmen of British rock still maintaining a devoted fanbase. In the run-up to the release of Rewind the Film, fan Ian Lipthorpe took to Twitter to reach out to his fellow devotees, first asking them to submit a ranked list of their 50 favourite Manics songs, and later compiling the 60-plus responses into a master list that threw up some surprising entries. For this special List This, PopMatters explores the top 20 Manic Street Preachers recordings, as voted by fans.
Released in 1993, Gold Against the Soul is the album the Manics themselves and many critics have traditionally viewed most negatively out of the group’s whole discography. The band felt that they had gone “under the corporate wing” and taken on too many American influences on the album, but in one of the big surprises of the fans’ list, half of the album’s songs reached the top 20. Coming in at #20 is “Life Becoming a Landslide”, famed for the line “My idea of love comes from / A childhood glimpse of pornography”, but also notable for being an early attempt by the band at adding symphonic elements to their songs. In February 1994, the song opened the Life Becoming a Landslide EP, which featured “Comfort Comes”, a song that heralded the dawn of the dark, raw sound that would dominate the Holy Bible album.
Speaking of The Holy Bible, even that barbed-wire bundle of an album featured little as harrowing as “4st 7lb”, an alternately savage and beautiful take on anorexia nervosa named after the human weight below which survival is impossible. The song’s alarming lyrics are thought to draw on Richey Edwards’ own experience with the condition, and are still enormously relevant today, not least for their perceptive concern for body image. Edwards would disappear in February 1995, and “4st 7lb” was one of the songs most pored over when The Holy Bible became regarded as an essential, apparently final insight into the young lyricist’s state of mind.
Although it is one of the best examples of the slick, commercial rock sound that the Manics found so regrettable about Gold Against the Soul, the album’s opener “Sleepflower” has been a cult favourite among fans for many years. It is easy to see why—James Dean Bradfield’s guitar heroics here are matched only by his surprisingly angelic vocals during the clever middle section, and the song has lost none of its driving power over the 20 years since its release. Sleep would go on to be something of a recurring theme for the band, not least in the song “I Live to Fall Asleep” on 2004’s Lifeblood.
Amid all of the horror on The Holy Bible, “This Is Yesterday” is something of a moment of respite. Significantly, it was essentially written single-handedly by Nicky Wire, now the band’s primary lyricist but definitely the junior partner to Edwards in their songwriting efforts of 1994. The sad, regretful lyrics are undoubtedly one of the song’s main appeals (“I repent, I’m sorry, I regret everything”) but also of note is a brief, delicate but utterly superb guitar solo from Bradfield which is perhaps the closest thing to a happy moment on the whole album. Sadly, Tom Lord-Alge made some serious missteps on the US remix eventually released on the tenth anniversary edition in 2004, but the original is a deserving classic, particularly in its original context.
The Manics scored their second (and to date, most recent) UK #1 single with “The Masses Against the Classes”. It was a staggering achievement, and not only because it was the first new UK #1 of the new millennium—the song was a hard-rocking left-wing broadside against the establishment and was book-ended by quotes from Noam Chomsky (“The country was founded on the principle that the primary role of government is to protect property from the majority -– and so it remains”) and Albert Camus (“The slave begins by demanding justice and ends by wanting to wear a crown”). The single sleeve was emblazoned with the Cuban flag, foreshadowing the band’s controversial 2001 performance at the Karl Marx Theatre in Havana. When the band met Cuban leader Fidel Castro and warned him the show would be loud, he famously replied, “It cannot be louder than war, can it?”, giving them the perfect title for the live DVD on which a performance of this thunderous concert favourite appears.
The Send Away the Tigers record is still often seen as the Manics’ “comeback album”, even though 2004’s Lifeblood scored two UK #2 singles and has been increasingly well-received over time. In any case, the catalyst for the success of SATT was the enduringly popular"Your Love Alone Is Not Enough”. In place of the political invective of their earlier singles, the Manics titled the song after the last line of a suicide note written by a friend of the band and worked in references the Who and Pink Floyd. The real masterstroke was to draft in Nina Persson of the Cardigans for a rousing duet. Apparently, the Swedish chanteuse was so ultra-professional in the studio that she required only a few takes to nail the vocal; for the promo video, she was granted her female version of the Manics who were gradually reunited with the real deal by some obliging roadies. Like its parent album, the single narrowly missed out on the UK #1 spot.
It was primarily Richey Edwards’ unique lyrical efforts and his exhausting, intellectual interviews that secured his cult icon status—he was never a true musician. While compiling their first album after his 1995 disappearance, however, the remaining band members included a portion of his guitar playing in “No Surface All Feeling”, the record’s final track. This fact alone has helped the song remain a fan favourite all these years later, but it’s hardly the most noticeable part of the piece. Instead it’s the Manics’ toying with a quiet/loud dynamic that entertains the most, as they slot quiet, regretful verses against an explosive chorus. “It was no surface but all feeling”, sings Bradfield, “Maybe at the time it felt like dreaming”. As with so much of the Everything Must Go album, it was full of the sense that the band were ending one phase and beginning a new one—both personally and creatively.
For however long Manic Street Preachers last, little they can ever expect to do in the future will match the glorious achievement that was smuggling a song about the Spanish Civil War with an ungainly title to the very top of the British charts. In the heady days of 1998, the Manics were at the very peak of their commercial and cultural influence, and this was the song which had finally secured them their first UK #1. Fifteen years later “Tolerate…” is still a beguilingly strange and unique record, a song that drags up messages from the distant past while still sounding in some way like a thing of the future. Amazingly, Bradfield’s vocal part was completed in just three takes, during which he walked around the studio with a handheld microphone. The song, which had originally been envisioned as b-side material, sold a massive 156,000 copies in its first week on sale.
Written by Edwards about “the idea of something beautiful in a decaying place”, “Roses in the Hospital” is arguably one of the key centrepieces of the Gold Against the Soul album. In 2002, the song was a subject of a somewhat cruel twist when a phrase from its lyrics was used as the title for the greatest hits collection Forever Delayed yet the song itself was not included on the tracklist. Sean Moore puts in a tremendous drumming performance, especially on the song’s extended outro which is interspersed with random interjections from Bradfield (including a nod to Manics icons the Clash).
Despite being for the most part an extended plunge into the very blackest depths of the human experience, The Holy Bible actually ends an amusing note—“P.C.P.” may be jet black in its humour, but this barnstorming rocker about political correctness and censorship is also very funny. One or two of the lines in this Edwards-penned effort are so esoteric that even the most hardcore of Manics enthusiasts aren’t necessarily entirely certain of their meaning. What is clear is the quote from a genocidal autocrat from the 2000AD comics series “Nemesis the Warlock”, an efficiently brief but blazing Bradfield solo and the immortal line “Systemised atrocity ignored as long as bi-lingual signs on view”. After 1994, the Manics would never again record anything quite as deliriously furious as this classic.
Especially when it was originally released as a single on Heavenly Records in 1991, “You Love Us” was a brilliant early missive from the Manics propaganda machine. Far from being loved by the critical establishment and record-buying public, the band were then one of the most divisive groups in the UK music scene. Today, the song is such a live favourite and so integral to the Manics live experience that it’s actually surprising it didn’t place a bit higher in the list. Besides its many enthralling live outings, the ultimate version of this effort is the 2012 remastered version of the original 1991 Heavenly single. That track includes terrific sound and hilarious backing vocals, and is book-ended by samples of Krzysztof Penderecki’s “Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima” and Iggy Pop’s “Lust For Life”—perhaps the best possible demonstration of the Manics’ mission to aggressively smash together high and low culture.
Even the most bitter detractors of the Gold Against the Soul album tend to celebrate “From Despair to Where”, one of two well-regarded singles released to promote record voted into this list’s top ten. While the song itself claims that “Words are never enough / Like cheap tarnished glitter”, it’s the lyrics—particularly those about the numbing reality of life under capitalism in the late twentieth century—have done much to secure the track’s reputation. Of course, James Dean Bradfield’s vocal and guitar heroics have their part to play, too.
It’s a testament to how vast Generation Terrorists is that a song as gripping as “Stay Beautiful” was placed all the way back as track 11 (of 18). The song has remained so iconic to the Manics and their faithful that its title has become a common phrase, often used to sign off missives from Nicky Wire. The most memorable moment of the track—in which the phrase “fuck off” is silenced and only a squealing guitar is heard—was a result of studio tinkering by producer Steve Brown. He excised the offending phrase apparently without consulting the band, and today fans are often only too happy to re-insert it. By hitting #40, the single opened a record-breaking run of Top 40 singles for the band.
Recording a dramatic feminist rock ballad and bringing in former porn star Traci Lords to complete a duet about exploitation of women was exactly the kind of thing the Manics were all about in 1992, and “Little Baby Nothing” remains one of the key moments on the mammoth Generation Terrorists. Although the song is probably one of the most dated Manics recordings, the lyrics are priceless; the description of money as “paper made out of broken, twisted trees” and the Manics manifesto-of-sorts “culture, alienation, boredom and despair” are particularly memorable. Lords’ efforts weren’t bad either—one wonders how bemused she would be to learn about how popular this track is with today’s Manics fans.
“Motown Junk”, a song so thrilling and iconic to Manics fans that it is played at every show, and yet so iconoclastic that the Bradfield never sings the controversial line “I laughed when Lennon got shot” any more. The sheer abandon of the playing on this, the Manics’ first “proper” single, reflects their youthful anger, self-belief and supreme confidence. The Manics would go on to state that they would release a debut album, sell millions of copies, pack out Wembley Stadium, and then break up—in the fury of “Motown Junk”, you hear the sound of a band that really believed it. In many of the other songs in this list, you can hear reasons to be glad it didn’t happen.
The highest placing Gold Against the Soul track is another single from that album and another enduring live favourite. It’s also a lyrically quintessential Manics work, in that it is titled after Van Gogh’s fabled last words and written about the bitter feelings of an elderly war veteran. Amidst all the thrilling hard rock bluster, there are also (as with other GATS tracks) flashes of the greatly increased intellectual and instrumental palette that would be demonstrated on subsequent albums. The song also helped open a long-running interest in art and painting for the Manics, something they have maintained ever since—the closer on Rewind the Film is partly concerned with the paintings of T.S. Lowry.
Serving as the unforgettable opener to The Holy Bible, “Yes” makes clear from its very beginnings that what will follow is an album unlike any other. The song is Richey Edwards’ harrowing, propulsive treatise on prostitution both of the literal kind and of the metaphorical kind—of the way people “do something you hate to get something you don’t need”. With its wiry, exposed feel “Yes” is perhaps the Manics at their most post-punk, a musical approach that helps listeners feel they are being truly immersed in the depths of the human spirit this singular song depicts. Indeed, the band stated that they often felt the same—1994 was a dark time for them, one during which their personal lives were under the glare of a media gaze they could not always control. Surprisingly, the profanity-filled, five-minute “Yes” was once considered as a single, but as it stands the song is the most popular album track in the fan poll.
There was no room for surprises in the top three of the fan poll. The songs that hit those spots are undoubtedly the one which have attained the most legendary reputation amongst not only fans but also the musicians themselves –- when the Manics ranked their own singles for NME in 2011, “A Design For Life” came in just a touch higher at #2 (also its UK Singles Chart placing). The song in which the Manics most eloquently defend the dignity of the working class and best showcases their sweeping, muscular sound of 1996 was also the first track they recorded after Edwards’ disappearance. Having considered ending the band, Bradfield, Wire and Moore instead decided to return in spectacular style with “A Design For Life”. Exemplifying the song’s enduring impact, the Manics were present recently when its opening line (“Libraries gave us power”) was unveiled on a plaque in Cardiff’s new Central Library.
Only one song kept “Motorcycle Emptiness” from the very summit of the fan poll, but the origins of this song are surprisingly modest. The six-minute elegiac meditation on what Manics biographer Simon Price called “the soul of man under capitalism” began as two very early demos called “Behave Yourself Baby” and “Go, Buzz Baby, Go”. The Manics have said that the knowledge that they still had “Motorcycle” in their war chest kept them going through some of the tougher times in their very early days. Now, almost everything about the song has passed into legend, from its apparently “Dancing Queen”-derived coruscating riff and lyrics about the hollow, crushing nature of capitalism, to its iconic video shot in Japan. To a significant portion of the British population specifically, “Motorcycle Emptiness” is almost synonymous with the band – they are unlikely to feel bad about that, as they ranked it #4 among their singles.
Beating out the #2 track by a fairly comfortable margin, the placement of the incendiary post-punk explosion of “Faster” further confirms its huge esteem in the Manics fanbase. A significant part of the towering reputation of The Holy Bible is owed to this song, a piece that simply could not be accommodated on any other album, nor recorded by any other band. What made the song’s impact even greater was that it was released as part of a double a-side single (with “P.C.P.”, #11 on our list) in advance of the album, making it the world’s first taste of the new, lacerating Manics sound. The fact that the release took place on the fiftieth anniversary of the D-Day landings tallied with the band’s new militaristic aesthetic and further underlined the significance the song would have on the band’s discography. A crushing performance of the song on the BBC’s Top of the Pops programme in June 1994 provoked a record-breaking 25,000 complaints due to Bradfield’s “IRA-style” balaclava emblazoned with his name. The Manics have said that this moment had made them feel “completely ostracised” from the rest of the world, but it’s the four minutes many people have spent with this utterly unique song that made them Manics fans.