The plan was ruthlessly clear: six simple steps. One: record a double album as their debut. Two: match the 16 million sales of Guns N’ Roses’ Appetite for Destruction. Three: headline Wembley Stadium. Four: instigate a cultural socialist revolution that brings down the monarchy. Five: set fire to themselves on Top of the Pops. Six (assuming they survive step five): split up.
The album was Generation Terrorists, released 30 years ago today, and the band was the Manic Street Preachers, a new art riot of eyeliner and spray paint that hit the early Nineties alternative rock scene like a stun grenade wrapped in leopard skin.
While their musical peers, yet to come down from the Madchester ecstasy boom, slouched, grooved and shoegazed along in a narcotic indie daze, these four Welsh-valley outsiders arrived with situationist slogans – “CULTURE OF DESTRUCTION”, “DEATH SENTENCE HERITAGE”, “KILL YOURSELF” – spray-canned across their shirts, roaring punk songs with fiercely intelligent lyrics resembling a Crystal Maze dome full of tabloid headlines and blackmail letters.
Their music-press bedfellows wore baggy shirts and celebrated The Byrds, The Rolling Stones, Hendrix, The Beatles and Love; they wore feather boas over bare chests, tight white jeans, and forests of fake fur, while namechecking The Clash, Guns N’ Roses, James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, Public Enemy, Karl Marx, Sylvia Plath, Harold Pinter and Malcolm X. They were the voice of cultural revolution, political alienation, small-town boredom and teenage despair. And, through beauty and bloodshed, they summoned an army.
The Manics’ fatalistic manifesto, and the monolithic statement of Generation Terrorists, might have been the grandest of alt-rock follies. But it was such o’erleaping death-or-glory ambition that set the band apart and made the album one of the boldest arrivals in rock’n’roll history. “It’s a one-off, they’re a one-off,” says Caffy St Luce, their PR back in the day. “Who else was writing anything like that at the time?” adds Dave Eringa, regular Manics producer and keyboard player on Generation Terrorists. “It’s mad, it’s all over the place, it’s scattershot… it’s like them.”
The Manic Street Preachers’ modest roots never stopped them thinking big – not just culturally and commercially, but in terms of the storm they could kick up. Singer and guitarist James Dean Bradfield, bassist Nicky Wire and drummer Sean Moore had formed the band as teenage schoolfriends in the small valley town of Blackwood, Wales, in 1985 (they would later be joined by schoolmate and co-lyricist Richey Edwards on a guitar he could barely play).
Inspired by a documentary on the 10th anniversary of punk in 1986, they watched their third gig descend into a riot when Bradfield lifted his shirt to reveal the words “I AM SEX” written across his chest.
They idolised the tragic figures of American cinema (Monroe, Dean), conceived local art collectives, and found power in libraries: they read voraciously, incorporating their literary, philosophical and political learnings into their formative songs. Gathering at the town’s Dorothy Cafe, imagining themselves modern-day beat poets, they constructed dense lyrics that seemed to squirm and struggle against melodies that could barely contain them: “Past made useless ’cause I’m dying now” jabbered early track “Motown Junk” – “Communal tyranny, a jail that bleeds our wrists”.
Self-releasing their raw punk debut single “Suicide Alley” in 1988, they showed a single-minded determination to get noticed that quickly paid off. Edwards’s handwritten notes to journalists helped bag the track Single of the Week in NME in 1989, and their DIY punk aesthetic of hand-sprayed slogan T-shirts, kohl-eyed desolation and (on Edwards’s part) wrecked guitars turned heads at early London shows, where bemused A&R men tried to work out if they really were the blinding future of rock’n’roll they proclaimed themselves to be.
“Their very first gig, they’d written to all the A&R departments in London and written each one of them an individual letter as to why every band on that label was s***,” says Eringa. “No one does that.”
Releasing an EP, New Art Riot, on the independent Damaged Goods label, and two firebrand singles with Heavenly records – “Motown Junk”, and an early version of “You Love Us”, arguably punk rock’s finest moment of brazen narcissism – the Manics swiftly found an avid army of disciples mustering around them. With each ferocious new dispatch of personal anguish and sociopolitical anger, the nation’s hidden legions of teenage outsiders discovered they weren’t alone after all.
With each take-no-prisoners interview about the dispassionate, say-nothing “cultural Chernobyl” of the early Nineties indie scene – “We will always hate [shoegazers] Slowdive more than we hate Adolf Hitler,” Edwards told NME in 1991 – their followers grew more singular in their devotion.
Key to their cult appeal – but perhaps to the detriment of their Guns N’ Roses aspirations – was their militant intellectualism. “Take me down to the paradise city where the grass is green and the girls are pretty” this was not. This was “Motown junk, a lifetime of slavery, songs of love echo underclass betrayal”. “It was like nothing I’d ever seen,” says Eringa. “It was so pinpoint and so intelligent, but with a don’t-give-a-f***-ness that’s really hard to fake. Their intelligence always stood them apart.”
“The Manics are the closest that we came to an alternative university,” says St Luce. “I learned a lot from them – there were things I wanted to read up and find out about.”
Having first encountered the band while assisting on the Heavenly singles, Eringa recalls the Manics’ mindset as one of “super-excitement, a sense that they were doing something that mattered and was really brilliant”. St Luce noted their “utter self-belief” but also found them “shy, well-mannered gentleman. I liked it that people would go ‘Oh, God we’ve got the Manics coming here… they’re going to trash the place.’ But they made their beds at hotels and things like that.” Yet there were undoubtedly dark undercurrents brewing.
While staying at their manager Philip Hall’s Shepherd’s Bush flat, Edwards would drink himself to sleep with straight vodka and would self-harm. During the photo shoot for their first NME cover in May 1991, Wire scrawled “CULTURE SLUT” on his chest in lipstick, while Edwards attempted to cut “HIV” into his own with a razor blade. And after a gig at the Norwich Arts Centre later that week, facing questions from NME’s Steve Lamacq about the authenticity of the band and its rhetoric, Edwards carved the slogan “4 REAL” deep into his forearm before the stunned writer’s eyes.
Journalist Jody Thompson bandaged Edwards’s arm and escorted him to hospital for 17 stitches, but not before NME’s photographer Ed Sirrs had asked for a picture of the wound. “Richey was more than happy to do it,” Thompson says, “unwrapping the bandage to expose his gory arm.” The picture appeared in the following week’s NME and, as St Luce recalls, “a whole new tone came into the Manics’ story. It all got a lot more serious, a bit more sad, a bit more scary.”
In the wake of this extreme – and extremely disturbing – statement of dedication to the cause, more intense pieces of fan mail began arriving. “They started being written in blood and things like that,” says St Luce. “I stopped passing it on.”
Meanwhile, a week after the incident, the Manics signed a 10-album deal with Columbia Records for a £250,000 advance – not the action of a band truly planning to break up in flames after album one, perhaps, but a further sign of their immense ambition: “We were willing prostitutes,” Bradfield said. Buoyed by the Top 40 placing of their next single “Stay Beautiful” (the expletive in its chorus replaced with a suggestive guitar riff), however, their debut album would end up costing twice their advance to record over five months of 1991 with producer Steve Brown. Only half the band played on it, too, with Edwards only contributing lyrics and Moore’s parts programmed onto a drum machine.