For all their deliberate effort to antagonize and shock, the Manic Street Preachers came at the British charts in the early ’90s with a strongly traditional pop sound — which they quickly outgrew. If the band got a lot of bat-biting mileage out of an early episode in which rhythm guitarist Richey James razored “4Real” into his arm in bloody response to a rock critic’s impertinent question about the band’s sincerity, that was nothing to compare to the cliffhanger with which he bowed out of the rat race — and likely off this mortal coil — several years later.
Initially, the mascara-lined Welsh glam quartet essentially hijacked the old new wave and dressed it up with nouveau arena-rock cynicism. Right before the UK was overrun by copyists, revivalists and dated attitude- mongers, the Manic Street Preachers made it their mission to update the great rock’n’roll swindle for a clientele that considered the Clash and Sex Pistols golden oldtimers. In fact, there’s nothing on Generation Terrorists that Generation X (and, earlier, Mott the Hoople or Slade) hadn’t done with greater élan more than a decade earlier. Admittedly, Billy Idol never thought of dissing American music institutions in his song titles, as the Manics did with “Motown Junk,” one of the five UK single sides compiled as Stay Beautiful.
Less terrorists than cat bandits, the Manics are so concerned with cutting dashing figures that the loot nearly gets left at the job. Still, the debut album gets by on chunky singalong rock anthems (melodies by singer/guitarist James Dean Bradfield and drummer Sean Moore) and credibly sharp topical lyrics (written by James and bassist Nicky Wire). The songs concern consumerism (“Slash n’ Burn,”), exploitation of models (“Little Baby Nothing,” with sections sung by Traci Lords), youth culture (the particularly insightful “Stay Beautiful”), drugs (“Another Invented Disease”) and politics (“Democracy Coma,” “You Love Us”). “Condemned to Rock’n’Roll,” one of the record’s most metallic numbers, offers a most uncontemporary vision of history: “The past is so beautiful / The future like a corpse in snow.” (The original British edition omits “Democracy Coma” but contains five songs excised from the US release, including “Spectators of Suicide,” “So Dead” and the provocative “Methadone Pretty,” all of which fall short musically but stress the complicated — or is that just confused? — intelligence of the band’s soapbox.) The Little Baby Nothing EP uses the song’s single version and adds lame live takes of “You Love Us” and two other songs, recorded in a Japanese club in mid-’92.
Wisely moving forward from its self-conscious sourcing (but erroneously choosing to indulge the Sunset Strip glam-metal side of its heritage), the quartet returned a year later sounding like a British Guns n’ Roses on Gold Against the Soul. Luckily, Bradfield’s no Axl, although roses are used both in the cover art and as the lyrical motif of the dismally depressed “Roses in the Hospital.” The blasting Americanized riff-rock record wallows in misery (“From Despair to Where”) and self-abuse (“Drug Drug Druggy”), with random acts of violence against — get this — those caught looking backwards (“Nostalgic Pushead”). The sardonically sympathetic treatises on childbirth (“Life Becoming a Landslide”) and those afflicted with a rare and bizarre disease (“Symphony of Tourette”) are even harder to reckon. Making grim and pretentious use of music that betrays no imagination at all, the Manic Street Preachers come off a lot like their name: unfocused, didactic and too lost in their own world to convince anyone of anything.
The Holy Bible is an entirely different story. The music is back to straightforward glam-pop rock, only without melodic distinction. (Mark Freegard’s fadeaway mix gives a clear field to the vocals by tightening the instrumental attack into a compressed electric force field that’s appealing but indistinct.) The lyrics, however, are some of the most articulate, upsetting and brutally decadent in pop memory. With unidentified spoken-word sound bites used as introductions, the band tackles anorexia (the first-person “4st. 7lb.”), political correctness (“P.C.P.”), impermanence (“Die in the Summertime”), genocide (“The Intense Humming of Evil”), sex for sale (“Yes”), assassination (“Archives of Pain”) and radical politics (“Ifwhiteamericatoldthetruthforonedayit’sworldwouldfallapart ,” “Revol”). Some of the hallucinatory revulsions defy categorization: “I am an architect, they call me a butcher / I am a pioneer, they call me primitive … I am idiot drug hive, the virgin, the tattered and the torn / Life is for the cold made warm and they are just lizards.” For all the fever burning on paper, the album’s music is completely out of synch, creating a tragic dissonance between incendiary words and hit-parade sounds that squanders the worth of both. At no point do the intensity levels come within spitting distance of each other, which does irreparable damage to the entire effort. As probably befits its title, The Holy Bible can be absorbed without a word being actually understood.
On February 1, 1995, Richey James (Richard J. Edwards) — who had been institutionalized the previous summer to treat a long history of alcohol abuse, depression and anorexia — left a London hotel, drove to his apartment in Cardiff and vanished, leaving behind his passport, Prozac and credit cards. His car was later found abandoned at the Severn Bridge, a popular suicide spot near Bristol. Although he was initially declared missing, the official police search was eventually called off and James was presumed dead. Later that year, the three remaining Manics decided to continue and began working on Everything Must Go, an unfortunate journeyman-like epilogue to the band’s tragedy. Despite Mike Hedges’ feverish overproduction (nice harp arpeggios, dude), the album, which employs some vestigial James lyrics for morbid measure, is sorely deficient in spirit, imagination and adventure.