Admirably Crude: The Manics' Generation Terrorists, 20 Years On
, February 14th, 2012 07:56
Looking back on the twentieth anniversary of the Manic Street Preachers' debut album, Emily Mackay celebrates its "uncomfortable mix of braggadocio, melancholy, anger and ludicrousness"
Two decades on, and Generation Terrorists still doesn't make any more sense. Nothing around sounded like it in 1992, and still nothing wants to sound like it now. It's still a weird length, too long for a single album and yet neither long nor consistently strong enough to be a proper sprawling double epic. It didn't sell a million copies, the band didn't split up like they said they would. The record is still an uncomfortable mix of braggadocio, melancholy, anger and ludicrousness, resisting attempts to fit it comfortably into a narrative. It's still got bloody 'Crucifix Kiss' and 'Condemned To Rock N' Roll' on it.
And that's one of the best things about it; unlike The Holy Bible or even Everything Must Go, it'll never be credible to like Generation Terrorists. It'll always be marked with the gaucheness of youth, over-ambition and over-earnestness, vanity and imbalance. Thankfully. To paraphrase the Chuck D quote from the sleeve, it's sweet to have one favourite album that don't appear on no list features.
Still, it's amazing how often people still say to me, with distastefully curled lip, something along the lines of "yeah, but it just sounds a bit like bad Bon Jovi singing an A-level politics text book, doesn't it?" As if that wasn't the entire bloody point. It had to sound passé, it had to be overdone; if you're trying to bulldoze the shiny edifice of western pop culture, you can't do it tastefully or with subtlety, can you? You can't be trying to be cool. It wasn't for nothing that Richey originally wanted to repeat Guy Debord's witty trick of putting the album in a sandpaper sleeve so it would gradually destroy the carefully shelved records around it. The final, luridly pink sleeve, Richey's nipple staring you out perkily, the title done in tackily traditional tattoo art long before the sanctification of Sailor Jerry, is a far better wrapper for the Manics' magpie manifesto, than either that or the other, more tasteful plan of using Andres Serrano's sacrilegious 'Piss Christ' photograph. It's got just the right balance of romance and utter naffness, the visual equivalent of the cock-of-the-walk hair metal guitar strutting of 'Another Invented Disease' or Slash 'N' Burn. Generation Terrorists intentionally overplays its hand, overeggs its pudding and spunks its load at every turn, and that's what makes it so admirable and so enjoyable.
An interesting contemporary parallel is the Sugarcubes, who released their last album a few days after the Manics' debut. Though wildly different in style, the Icelandic punk-poppers juggled a similar mix of poltical radicalism, deliberate unpalatability (their self-founded record-label wasn't called Smekkleysa ('Bad Taste') for nothing), a wicked sense of humour and moments of thrilling, despite-themselves beauty. The most obvious lasting high-point of Generation Terrorists is of course 'Motorcycle Emptiness', the Manics song for people who don't like the Manics. It wanted to be their 'All The Young Dudes' and its elegiac grandness hit its mark. It's far from the only solid-gold keeper, though – 'You Love Us' and 'Stay Beautiful''s self-aware skewering of their own fans and image are cheeky and electric, 'Little Baby Nothing' anthemic and ideologically sharp. There's lesser-mentioned gems as well – James' anguished vocal, jagged, squiggling riffs and sassy "baay-haaay-beee" backing on 'Born To End' remains one of my personal favourites, and the two versions of 'Repeat' are short, punchy calls to arms.
The sloganeering of the album remains a stumbling block for many, but to me the politics are admirably crude, refusing dilution or measured delivery. They don't bother to round off the corners of their collages, to make the words flow better or sound cleverer, and that gives the songs a sharply arresting power. For years we might have winced at their yelled verbal placards, but 'Natwest, Barclays, Midland, Lloyds' doesn't seem quite as daft now, does it?
Not just to be valued for its audacity or as an anomaly, though, Generation Terrorists should be celebrated because among its messy feast of ideas it remembers to be fun. There's a cleansing and creative glee in its righteous rage and cultural destruction that's rarer in Gold Against The Soul and The Holy Bible. We should try to resist the mawkish or ghoulish tendency to deify the picture of Richey with his '4 Real' slashes and the most dead-end depressed lyrics of The Holy Bible above all else, and the video for 'Love's Sweet Exile' is as good a place as any to start with that battle. I don't put Generation Terrorists on (and I do still put it on) as an academic listening exercise or for the nostalgia trip; I put it on so I can be jump about, invigorated and giggling, on the nearest stable bit of soft furnishing like an absolute berk. I suggest you go and do the same.