Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Generation Terrorists

I remember getting 'Generation Terrorists' on cassette for my 14th birthday, which would mean I got it around 3 months after its release.  As it was 1992 that must have been the birthday where I also got the white vinyl 12" of Pearl Jam's 'Even Flow' and winded myself trying to recreate Eddie Vedder's dive into the crowd from the video for one of my friends (just a bit of context there!).

Cassette is a pretty underwhelming format to own, it isn't the size of vinyl and it doesn't have the smarter looking booklets and shiny discs of CDs, but it's how I owned the majority of my collection up until the mid 90s.  For this blog I dug out my old paper record of my early record collection and 'Generation Terrorists' was actually my 15th album and only my 3rd cassette (do I hear gasps at the back?).  For a little bit more context it appeared in between 'Boing!' by Airhead and 'Pretty Hate Machine' by Nine Inch Nails.

Given the smaller scale of cassettes, the sleeve for 'Generation Terrorists' was particularly big and foldy, plenty to get your teeth into with the quotes against every song, photo collages, the lyrics - this was obviously Richey's contribution.  Also at this point he has decided to call himself Richey James, maybe he just wanted a stage name like Nicky Wire, maybe both of them just wanted to sound less Welsh.  Whatever the reason, to me he was and always will be Richey Edwards, even though I seem to remember Jeremy Paxman giving an incorrect answer on University Challenge to someone who answered Richey Edwards to a Manics question (or was it the other way round?!).

When I started writing proper songs myself around 95/96, in a way I stopped hearing fully formed songs and instead heard a combination of vocals, guitars, bass, drums, maybe keyboards.  You might be thinking "what is he talking about?!", but there is a difference.  'Generation Terrorists' falls into that pre-songwriting period and so wasn't subject to having the instruments picked apart, the genres and sub-genres analysed and so was basically judged on whether it was good or bad.  Listening to it with fresh ears for the first time now I might hear all sorts of references, but it's too late....it's 'Generation Terrorists', it's one of my favourite albums of all time and I love it.  So there.  And so to the songs.....

18 songs - 4 already released as singles, 4 older songs resurrected or re-recorded, 1 remix, 1 cover and 8 brand new songs.  It's the monster album that they promised.  Starting off with one of those new songs, 'Slash N' Burn', it's like guitar riff, GUITAR RIFF, BOOM!  Welcome to 'Generation Terrorists'.  Note to journalists: it doesn't sound like the Clash.  It's a great choice for opening track, it's simple, it's immediate, it's fantastic.  "You need your stars, even killers have prestige"....sorry I'm babbling, did I turn 14 again?!

The production is immediately noticable as being very shiny, very slick, which is a sure-fire way of annoying the inkies, but they had plenty of warning!!  James has suddenly transformed into a guitar god, I mean he was always good, but this raises the stakes even more, and the drums sound massive.  Another thing that hits you is how ready for mass appeal they sound, up until this point it wasn't really something that people had taken seriously but it's just the perfect pop-rock song with a riff that stays in your head for weeks.  Have always loved Simon Price's take on it as well, being "the first rock song about the living hell that is cystitis".

'Nat West-Barclays-Midlands-Lloyds' carries on where 'Slash N' Burn' left off, but in a slightly more understated way.  It certainly proves that they can do good chorus, even though when you think about it it does sound faintly ridiculous now.  Like I said, I never used to think about what I was hearing or singing along to at the time, so it never really dawns on you that you're actually screaming along to a list of banks!  Nice sensitive piano outro too....

'Born to End' bounces into view next and was a little underrated by me previously, although lately (while doing my Manics Top 50!) it has been stuck in my head for days at a time.  It is beautifully melodic and I especially like the line "Can't afford it so I hate it all" for some reason.  James again shows his guitar prowess with the new-found shiny, crystal-clear production.

After the early demo of 'Go Buzz Baby Go', that song had never reared its head again until now.  Maybe they didn't think they could do it justice, maybe it didn't fit with the image they wanted to portray in the early days, but whatever the reason 'Motorcycle Emptiness' had finally arrived.  The Manics had steadily been blowing people's preconceptions out of the water as they progressed, but I don't think anyone saw this one coming.  It doesn't sound at all dated even over 20 years on, and despite clocking in at over 6 minutes you still never want it to end.

'You Love Us' then cartwheels by in its own inimitable fashion, almost like a footnote to the preceding track - "You hear what we just did THERE?! You MUST love us now!!!" - before 'Love's Sweet Exile' (with the addition of an acoustic Patrick Jones-narrated intro) graces us with its presence.  You get the feeling that, following the all-new songs kicking the album off, these two are giving us a bit of familiarity, putting a bit of fun back into the album.

As 'Little Baby Nothing' begins, like 'Motorcycle Emptiness', it's another blow to the head of anyone who still had them down as punk chancers.  Is this the most feminine song ever performed by an all male band? Yes, it features Traci Lords, but you know what I mean.  We all know the story about them wanting to have Kylie on this song, but I definitely agree that it worked out for the best in the end.  I've seen this described as fairly clumsy lyrically, like in a "boys trying to understand girls" kind of way but I've always really liked it.  There are some classic lines in here - "Paper made out of broken, twisted trees" and possibly THE most Manics-like lyric ever, "Culture, alienation, boredom and despair".

So, the original statement that Public Enemy's production team were going to produce the debut album didn't come true, however we did get a glimpse of how it could have been with 'Repeat (Stars and Stripes).  We'll let them off for their love of Public Enemy, they must have been really proud at the time, but now it just seems a little bit out of place.  I always did like it, but it seems to get in the way a bit now.  There are a few songs which could have been relegated to B-side status if they weren't insistent on it being a double album...this was one of them.

'Tennessee' had already been a B side, so presumably in the absence of any more new material they brushed it down, rocked it up and stuck it at the end of the first side (back when we had 'sides').  Maybe they thought the American reference would work on the American market?  Unlikely, and although it's not exactly one of my favourites it's a blast all the same!

My old stereo always used to dislike cassettes, it had a particular loathing for the first song on the B side, making the sound go all swirly and up and down.  This is kind of how I hear 'Another Invented Disease', even now on a CD.  This is quite possibly the most ROCK song on the album, custom-built for stadiums and 3 female backing singers swaying in unison.  Was this really four awkward, androgynous Welsh boys?!  Are they supposed to sound this huge?!

'Stay Beautiful' returns like an old friend and does its stuff, not quite the same sheen as the others, but all the better for it.  For anyone that was into the band before the release of 'GT', I love how the pre-album singles break everything up and make it all seem more fun, this one in particular.

'So Dead' is a very good song, but maybe one of those that would have been better suited to B-side status if they hadn't insisted on opening with a double album. Bonus points to James for managing to invent a new word, "su-ee-uck", though.  With 'Repeat' already having appeared in remixed form, it now gets itself a slightly amended title of 'Repeat (UK)', but see my previous comments about the singles, this has exactly the same effect.  The contrast in style between this and the likes of 'Motorcycle Emptiness' and 'Little Baby Nothing' was clear though, if they didn't split up as they promised, would the new material still contain the same mixture or would it head in the direction of the newer songs?

After all the bluster, energy and bad language of 'Repeat', we come down to the most mellow song on the album, a re-working of 'Spectators of Suicide'.  Breaking my usual rule of preferring the first version I hear of a song, I heard this before I went back over and discovered the Heavenly version.  While it's good, it's not as good as the Heavenly version, it just seems a little weak compared to the songs that surround it on the album and the general tempo, especially when you put it next to the shuffling original and take into account the apparent lack of bass. Love the jagged, watery guitar sound though.

A formal intro and a Nicky Wire count-in heralds the start of 'Damn Dog', the only cover on the album, which is entertaining enough, but like 'Repeat (Stars and Stripes)' seems a little bit out of place.  With retrospect another one that would have been more suited to B-side status, although its length means it certainly doesn't outstay its welcome.

And so to the last triumvirate, the final furlong.  Whenever I used to get this far into the album I think I would get bored by this point as I never used to particularly like 'Crucifix Kiss' and 'Methadone Pretty'.  Why?! Am I an idiot?!  I have now seen the error of my ways.  'Crucifix Kiss' is probably THE most 'Generation Terrorists' song on the album if that makes sense, it seems to be all the songs rolled up into one.  'Methadone Pretty' is almost unchanged from its previous outing within the 'Lipstick Traces' demos, a rarity in itself given the changes many of the other early songs went through before their final release.

With an album this big, this bold and this brash, we needed a scorcher to finish it off.  "Lumberer" may be a more apt word, but 'Condemned to Rock 'N' Roll' fits the bill perfectly, although I'm aware that others aren't overly keen on this song.  This was my favourite Manics song back in the day, maybe because my tastes were getting heavier, maybe not.  Regardless, loads of other songs have overtaken it in the pecking order now, even from this album alone, but it's still an amazing album closer.  From the main part of the song itself with one of my favourite lines, the incredibly bleak but perfectly written "The past is so beautiful, the future like a corpse in snow", to James leaving us in no doubt that he has now turned into a bona fide guitar god during the last couple of minutes, the album eventually comes to a close with "There's nothing I wanna see, there's nowhere I wanna go'.  It's like that moment at the end of a horror film where everything has seemingly resolved itself only for the viewer (listener) to catch a glimpse that it hasn't quite gone away yet, there's still more to come....but in the words of Bob Mortimer's 'Detective in a Wheelbarrow', this time it's personal.

Given that Richey contributed nothing to the musical side of things, he was probably responsible for overseeing the packaging.  From the iconic cover with the doctored tattoo to the collage of pictures of the band posing and playing, from the lyrics to the quotes tailored to every song, there was obviously a lot of thought put into it (although not on everyone's part if the story about getting the colour of the cover wrong is to be believed).  Image-wise it's probably the point where they had the most classic look of that era of the band, the images in the booklet framing each member perfectly - the pouting, preening Richey, Nicky having to put a bit more effort into his glamour, the slightly dishevelled but still cool James and the dark mystery(!) of Sean.

A bit later on, in my Ebay period of the early 2000s, I managed to pick up one of the vinyl picture disc copies of 'Generation Terrorists' (limited to 5000), one disc presumably showing what the colour of the original cover was meant to look like.  I also picked up a regular CD to give my old cassette a rest and allow me to hear the likes of 'Another Invented Disease' as it was intended.

So what of the reviews, how was it received?  NME decided to go with "Rocket to Blusher" and centred around the fact that yes, what they're doing may be unfashionable, but they're daring to do it so good luck to them - "..the Manics have not compromised their abrasive, agit-pop, scratch-mix slogan-choked lyrical style one iota despite having realised (presumably) that the Yanks won't understand one word of what they're saying".  Barbara Ellen concluded that the album was a "10 and stuff the marking system".

It obviously wouldn't all be plain sailing though, it never was.  Select gave the album 3 out of 5, describing 'Little Baby Nothing' as "Tiffany making a record with REO Speedwagon" and coming to the same conclusion as many journalists at the time that they had vastly overstretched themselves.

But let's give the last word to Simon Price shall we.  Despite the headline "Guns N' Daffodils", it's everything you would expect a Simon Price Manics review to be - it speaks in their language even as far as having a classic put-down of an indie band of the time, "The sleeve alone...has more aesthetic merit than the entire recorded output of Kingmaker".  The final words sum the album (and the band) up perfectly and are a fitting end to this piece - "a damaged diamond".