Tuesday, 5 June 2012

Suicide Alley

So this is it.  The big one.  The first release proper, the first 7".  I've had CDs produced before and know the feeling of holding a copy in your hand for the first time (I liked mine so much that I kept almost all the copies that were pressed...or was it that no one wanted one?).  So in 1989, when vinyl and cassette would still have ruled, the feeling of having pressed a record would be multiplied, the feeling of achievement magnified.  Like something a 'proper' band would do.

And the Manics were on the way to becoming a proper band.  They had moved on since the early demos, having their first (and second) lineup change with the introduction (and subsequent ejection) of Flicker on bass, and they had started playing gigs locally.  This was where it all started to get serious.

I have to admit straight away that this is not one of the original 300, as you can probably tell by the pristine condition of the sleeve.  I certainly don't claim to have been a fan at the time (I had just turned 11) and even though I have spent some silly money on Manics memorabilia in the past I draw the line at £1000-plus for a 7" record containing songs I already have elsewhere.  So, off the top of my head, 'Suicide Alley' and 'Feminine is Beautiful' (coming up in the next blog) remain the only proper Manics releases I don't own,  although as I mentioned the songs crop up elsewhere.

This particular 7" is one of those that used to crop up on Ebay where the buyer was offered the choice of either black or red vinyl.  So I was under no illusions that it was a re-press as we all know that the originals were never printed on red vinyl.  I obviously went for the black to keep up the pretence.  It's numbered as 063/480 which is another give-away as there were only 300 made - whether this number has any bearing on how many were re-pressed or if it was just a random number added for attempted authenticity is open to debate.  As an aside I now have another copy through the National Treasures box-set in a strange sepia-like shade, but that's for a much later blog.

No matter what anyone says you have to admit the cover is pretty hilarious, Nicky pouting at the front, Sean trying to look hard (it's never going to happen Sean) and James actually living up to his name with his best James Dean pose.  But it's probably the uniform white shirts and trousers and black leather jackets that do it, a million miles from their imminent switch to panda eyes and big girls' blouses.

The sleeve also features the first of many quotes, not credited to anyone in this case so may even be their own (I'm sure someone will correct me on this):

"Young people pose the only effective challenge to established authority.  Established authority is well aware of the challenge.  Established authority is moving against young people everywhere, it is now virtually a crime to be young ! !"

This is highly likely to have been the first Richey input to the band.  Also printed down one side is an address in Pontllanfraith, presumably James' house.  I wonder how many fans have been to this address!

Oh yeah, there's some music on it too....I love 'Suicide Alley', it's not likely to come in anyone's top 10 Manics songs, but I'd have it on any best of album any day, it's just two and a half minutes of energy.  I first heard it, as I expect many fans did, on the B-side of 'Little Baby Nothing' and it seemed like this funny little tinny punk song (which I suppose it is).  My brother once met James in HMV in Middlesbrough before the first Manics gig I went to on the 'Life becoming a Landslide' tour, and I'm sure I remember him telling me that he told James that 'Motown Junk' and 'Suicide Alley' were his favourite songs.  How to endear yourself to a musician, lesson number 1 - tell them that their earliest and most primitive material is the best when they are going through a bit of a muso phase!

Compared with the demos discussed in previous blogs the music has improved immeasurably, Sean in particular keeps things much tighter.  Your band really is as good as your drummer - have a crap drummer and you can write the best songs in the world and they'll still sound awful.  And while it's by no means particularly flashy I've always loved James' lead part at the end - it shows that all their rehearsing and their live outings were starting to pay off.

The flip side, 'Tennessee (I Get Low)' was never really one of my favourite 'Generation Terrorists' tracks, although it immediately sounds more mature than 'Suicide Alley'.  On the whole it is very similar to the album version, although with different lyrics and the production making it sound a lot more jangly. Picking up on the earlier point about musicianship there is an amazing outro led by Sean, which could easily fall apart and sounds even more impressive given the limited recording time and therefore limited number of takes.

Both songs also turned up on the 'Underground Rockers Volume 2' compilation, a record I bought a couple of years ago mainly to complete my Senseless Things collection rather than for the two Manics songs, but two birds, one stone and all that.  Other highlights include The AB's with 'Englebert Humperdink's Racing Pigeon' - that's highlights in spelling and grammar rather than music (note the misspelling of Tennessee also).  It seems like a strange title and cover for what essentially seems to be a punk compilation.

Around the same time that 'Suicide Alley' was coming out in August 1989 the Manics ventured out for their first London gig.at the Horse and Groom, which is captured for posterity on the trusty old 'Tortured Genius' bootleg.

Kicking off with 'New Art Riot' they sound really good and really together given their inexperience.  Something tells me that if there were pictures to go alongside the music they might tell a different story, the bravado of the music balanced out by the slightly awkward, self-conscious soundbites between songs, such as 'Every time we turn to have a drink it isn't rock and roll, it's just we need one'.  Delivered in a classic Wire sneer that might just about work, but it comes from James like a mouse reading from a piece of paper...if mice could talk obviously.  And read.

As the first song ends there is a burst of what sounds to me like genuine applause, on this evidence I'd have to disagree with Simon Price's description of it being 'polite - if bemused'. The bemused looks may have greeted them as they set foot on the stage, but they do seem to be going down well.  'Ta, that's the most applause we've ever had' replies James genuinely as all readers inwardly sigh and say 'Bless'.

Next up are a couple of future B-sides - 'Soul Contamination' and 'Dead Yankee Drawl'.  Unlike some other early songs which turned up later on they're pretty much the same as the recorded versions and I can't help being surprised by how good they sound.  If some journalists were put off by their image at first, then hearing them without this distraction it's clear that they're already on form.

The next song 'Anti-Love' never turned up anywhere else other than this recording (apart from this same version on the 'Lipstick Traces' bootleg), however I expect it would have made a decent B-side, something the Manics would never be short of.

'Strip it Down' follows and this seems to be the first example of your classic clash between the Manics and an over-enthusiastic soundman - audible Richey guitar!  Listening out for it is always a fun sport to play, especially on live tracks where James momentarily stops playing.  The same thing happens again on the next song 'Destroy the Dancefloor', where you can hear Richey scratching away behind James' solo.  Another track which doesn't turn up anywhere else (again, apart from the 'Lipstick Traces' bootleg) it's preceded by James' claim of 'Can't sing this one'.  Like 'Anti-Love' it would have made a decent B-side and allows James to showcase his improved guitar playing with plenty of widdly bits.

'Sorrow 16' is next and makes you think what good songs they had even at that early stage.  In the early days of a band it's surprising how many good songs can get lost as a B-side just because the song was used too early (in the absence of anything else).  The Manics were obviously aware of that as a few of them ended up being re-used further down the line.

'Faceless Sense of Void' is the stepping stone between 'Just Can't be Happy' and 'Love's Sweet Exile'.  It's much faster than both of those songs and the lyrics have changed completely from the former, much closer now to the latter, although without the chorus from which it took it's final title.  It's an excellent version, making you wonder what prompted them to hold it back before recording it properly in its new state.

The show closes with 'Suicide Alley', a fitting set closer being the single and all, and oh look I think I can hear Richey again!  The song ends pretty abruptly, presumably before the Manics actually left the stage, but you imagine the applause from throughout carried on.  All in all it's a cracking set, which is even more impressive given that it's predominantly made up of future B-sides and is their first London gig. The Manics now had one foot in the door and were well on the way to making people sit up and take notice.

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