The Manic Street Preachers used to be a great band. They made great albums. This is the story about how it all went just a little bit Warrant.
The Manic Street Preachers were formed in 1986 by Oakdale Comprehensive schoolmates, James Dean Bradfield, Flicker(on bass), Nicky Wire(on rhythm guitar) and Sean Moore(Bradfield's cousin). After assuming vocal duties, James had tried to his hand at songwriting, but became discouraged and Nicky Wire was entrusted with all future lyrical tasks.
As brother of famous poet Patrick Jones, Wire came from good writing stock, and this is clearly evidenced by his songwriting, invariably political in nature. Nicky took over bass duties when Flicker left the band in 1988, and the band soon recorded their first single, Suicide Alley, penned by Wire. The album cover was shot by another schoolfriend, one Richey James Edwards, who was soon asked to join the band, filling the void left by Flicker's absence, and quickly became the band's chief lyricist.
Edwards also wrote highly-charged, political lyrics, but also had a deep love for English literature, which was reflected by the wide-ranging influences he encompassed in his lyrics. A staunch socialist, like the other three band members, Richey was brought up by his grandmother, as his parents were too poor to give him an adequate upbringing. Nonetheless, his childhood was one of poverty, he saw the great miners' strikes of the Thatcher era alongside his bandmates and this surely solidified his views. The band, as a whole, wears its working-class roots as a badge of honour.
Their debut album, 1991’s Generation Terrorists
, was intended to outsell Guns N’ Roses’ Appetite For Destruction
, leading the band to play a 3-night run at Wembley before their imminent break-up. Unfortunately for them, and fortunately for the fans, things didn’t go to plan and the album bombed upon its release. Released as grunge began to take over the US, the album couldn’t have suffered from worse timing. Their neo-glam image hurt the band irreparably, as did their music which combined their two biggest influences, the Clash and Guns N’ Roses.
It is perhaps surprising then that on their follow-up album the band should follow the path not towards the anti-commercial punk aesthetic which the scene now embraced, something which the band shared in many ways, but towards the more commercial glam-rock typified by Bon Jovi and their ilk. Bradfield would later confirm that the band was encouraged to write more radio-friendly rock in order to break America. As a result, the band now regards it as their least accomplished effort.
Released in June of 1993, Gold Against The Soul
, made a small commercial splash but ultimately proved no more inviting to their target audience than the debut had been. The majority of the lyrics were, as usual, written by the band’s sleeper member, “rhythm guitarist” Edwards. The political charge which had been unavoidable of Generation Terrorists
had been toned down considerably. Perhaps this was a result of the pressure to achieve commercial success in a country hostile to their message, but it was more probably a result of Edwards’ increased personal problems, including a dependence on drugs and alcohol and anorexia nervosa.
Opening track, ‘Sleepflower’ dealt with one such problem; Richey’s inability to sleep without the aid of chemicals. He relied on vodka to put him to sleep at night, though the term “sleepflower” refers to the opium poppy, the scent of which can potentially put one asleep.
I feel like I'm missing pieces of sleep/A memory fades to a, a pale landscape
From Despair To Where
You were an extinction, a desert heat/A blind illness of my anxiety
is an anthem for the downtrodden, the confused, the vulnerable, the humiliated. Richey speaks as he has hit rock bottom and begs the question, “where do I go from here?”
I try to walk in a straight line/An imitation of dignity/From despair to where?
Wire’s impassioned story of a forgotten war hero, La Tristesse Durera
, follows. Borrowing a line from Vincent van Gogh’s death note, “la tristesse durera toujours” (the sadness continues, always), the lyrics draws a parallel between the life of the artist and the soldier, particularly and generally, as both were ignored in their lifetimes and find honour only in death.
I am a relic/I am just a petrified cry
Wheeled out once a year/A cenotaph souvenir
The fourth track, Yourself
, is another of Edwards’ lyrics, written about his experience with anorexia and the desire to conform. He expresses the self-disgust he feels every time he looks in the mirror and the self-abuse which he’s driven to.
You look at ads all day/Everyone’s so perfect and you’re so lame
Free scent burns your skin/But no scent can really cover sin
What binds these 4 songs is not just the tragic lyrical theme but the fact that they’re all put to music in the most reverent and fitting manner. While stadium rock may not initially seem the ideal setting for tales of woe, self-hate and self-abuse, but they are treated so respectfully and performed so passionately by guitarist/singer Bradfield and drummer Sean Moore that the lyrical beauty is perfectly evident, if not central, to the song’s appeal. Bon Jovi this is not. Bradfield exhibits a real emotional attachment to each lyric; his voice cracks as he screams “There’s nothing nice in my head/The adult world stole it all away” in From Despair To Where
, while his soft, (not unsurprisingly) sleepy vocal portrays perfectly the desperation of Sleepflower
Unfortunately, the quality of music here ceases to match the quality of the lyrics. Roses In The Hospital
, an ode to those who hurt themselves just so they can feel begins well, set against an acoustic guitar melody lifted from David Bowie. Inexplicably, it morphs into a stadium rock song, culminating in Twisted Sister of a breakdown as all but drums and bass leave for a painful chorus repeat. The song finishes strongly, with an extended chorus with changed lyrics, those words which the later greatest hits package would bear, “Forever-ever Delayed.” However, it becomes clear that the quality is in decline.
is for all intents and purposes a Duran Duran cover (albeit with better lyrics) immediately evident even before the synth arrives for the chorus, which rips off ‘The Reflex,’ appropriately. Symphony Of Tourette
is just that; Tourette’s Syndrome in action. The lyrics have the potential to be powerful, but the drab music cheapens any effect they would have had.
It is followed on the CD by the self-explanatory Drug Drug Druggy
, which opens with John Squier-esque guitars. Bradfield’s passionate vocal overshadows what is an average and sometimes overblown track musically. Final track, the album title, Gold Against The Soul
again explains itself in its title. It tells how gold/money corrupts and “erodes” the soul. Specifically, the song is a tirade against the major players in Thatcher-era Britain on both sides of the social spectrum.
Far and away the album’s best track is Life Becoming A Landslide
. As Richey explains:
”It comes from the idea that the first thing a baby does is shriek at the horror of it all. And as when you get to adolescence, the rewards of being older don't really give you any satisfaction whether it's getting a car or a *** or a CD player. It's also about the fact that, if you go into newsagents and see pornography on the shelfs at an early age, it becomes very difficult to reconceal that with the idea of 'love' that you're presented with later. I think we're romantic people in some ways, but when it comes to relationships it's not a question of 'Can you trust another human being?', so much as a question of trusting yourself. The animalistic nature of man seems to mean that you're bound to find another people physically attractive. And there's something dishonest about shutting those feelings off - it seems puritanical to deny yourself that. The idea of sin is still so widely pervading.”
The lyrics are aesthetically superb, as ever, and are sung which such care and precision that each line is etched immediately into the listener’s mind. ”My idea of love comes from/A childhood glimpse of pornography/But there is no true love/Just a finely tuned jealousy”
Gold Against The Soul
is a fine, and certainly underappreciated, album which fell victim to the weight of expectation generated by its predecessor and fell well short of the standard set by its successor, The Holy Bible
, released the following year. The album has many flaws – it’s rushed; it’s formulaic in parts; the music was sometimes compromised in the search for a hit, but behind these flaws lies a solid rock n’ roll album with a deeper, more profound edge than most any other rock album you’ll hear.