Manic Street Preachers - Generation Terrorists (Cover Artwork)

Manic Street Preachers

Generation Terrorists (1992)

Columbia Records

The Manic Street Preachers aren’t a band you would often associate with punk rock, not in the slightest. The Welsh outfit’s work has generally ranged from upbeat pop rock to moody arena rock over the years. However, it’s the groups unsung debut, Generation Terrorists, which is arguably one of their best works. Generation Terrorists is one of the great mysteries of early '90s rock. With a sound informed by hair metal heroes Guns ’N Roses, but with a lyrical sensibility that owed itself to The Clash, the Manic Street Preachers found themselves in quite a conundrum upon the release of this monstrosity. To top it all off, the album features the most blatant usage of a drum machine this side of your average electro-pop duo. But somehow, the Manics managed to tie it all together and produce one of the most perplexingly brilliant debut albums of the '90s.

“Slash ’N Burn” kicks the album off in fine style, with a chugging hard rock riff layered underneath some damn fine sloganeering lyrics. “Worms in the gutter more real than a McDonalds / Drain your blood and let the Exxon spill in” spits singer James Dean Bradfield with all the bile and disgust of a young Joe Strummer. “Nat West, Barclays, Midlands, Lloyds” continues in the same vein, while also featuring a strong glam rock influence The beautiful thing about Generation Terrorists is despite the songs sounding like they were ripped from the Mötley Crüe handbook of rock ’n roll, the group had enough smarts and wit to let the songs rise above the hard rock clichés of their contemporaries. Richey Edwards had a real penchant for writing biting lyrics that contained a sharp undercurrent of sadness with them (even if he did seem allergic to rhyming at times). Power ballads “Motorcycle Emptiness” and “Little Baby Nothing” seem like a cheap attempt at radio airplay on the surface, but underneath reveal themselves to be some of the most mature and introspective songs on the album, with the “under neon loneliness/motorcycle emptiness” chorus in the former song being repeated like a mantra, while the protagonist seems to delve further and further into an existential wreck.

“Motorcycle Emptiness” might well be one of the most heart-wrenchingly beautiful songs of the '90s, an ode to the dangers of commercialism and how money can buy lots of things, but happiness isn’t one of them. On paper, it sounds quite juvenile and rudimentary, but when Bradfield’s heavenly guitar shredding makes its presence known and those backing strings appear, none of that really matters. It’s got that very British sense of sadness to it, that hearkens back to the glam era, channeling Mark Bolan and the New York Dolls in equal measure. “Little Baby Nothing” rivals Jawbreaker at their most wistful, and features dual vocals from former pornographic actress Traci Lords, fitting considering the song’s harsh criticism of prostitution and the effects it has on both the male and female psyche. Singer James Dean Bradfield’s voice fits the album quite well. He hasn’t got the harsh bark of Joe Strummer or the cocky swagger of Axl Rose, but his high pitched rock ’n roll posturing works wonders in the context of the groups anthemic, glammed up approach.

The album isn’t without its faults though. At just over 73 minutes running time, Generation Terrorists contains a fair amount of filler that in retrospect, doesn’t quite measure up to the hits. The Bomb Squad remix of “Repeat” (known funnily enough as “Repeat (Stars and Stripes)") is a dated piece of early '90s turntablism that just sounds laughable by today’s standards. The original version doesn’t necessarily fare much better, with the Manics attempting a Crass-esque political spiel, but with the end result being so cringeworthy it’s no wonder they got Public Enemy’s backing band to remix the bloody thing. “So Dead” and “Damn Dog” are punk-by-numbers songs that sound like they were ripped from Give ‘Em Enough Rope and given the dated reverb and drum machine treatment. Similarly, album closer “Condemned To Rock ’n’ Roll” sounds like it’s going for the same approach as “Motorcycle Emptiness” and “Little Baby Nothing,” but just ends up sounding like a worse rendition of the Crüe’s “Wild Side." The production might frustrate you to some extent, with its over-reliance on drum machines and and synth pads making it seem as if it time warped from 1987, as opposed to 1992.

The band expected Generation Terrorists would be “the greatest rock album ever,” and fully predicted it to sell over 16 million copies, wherein the band would disband immediately upon cashing in the album's cheque. Unfortunately, this plan didn’t quite fully come to fruition, with the album barely selling over 100,000 copies in the UK, forcing the band to drastically re-think their strategy. The dull arena rock of the follow-up Gold Against The Soul lead to a backlash against the band, which caused them to go on to craft the dark and despairing post-punk indebted The Holy Bible, regarded by many fans as their magnum opus. Following this, rhythm guitarist and primary lyricist Richey Edwards disappeared on the 1st of Febuary, 1995 and never appeared again. After being presumed legally dead in November of 2008, this lead to a critical re-examination of the Manic Street Preachers early work and a cult of personality to form around the late Edwards.

Generation Terrorists may not have become the era-defining album that the band wanted it to be and in retrospect it seems like such a silly prospect to consider. After all, what’s the big deal about a bunch of Welsh kids trying to sound like The Clash by-way-of the Sunset Strip? However, it’s important to never judge a book by its cover and in Generation Terrorists' case, that sentiment rings truer than ever. On the surface, while it just sounds like a bunch of kids engaging in cock-rock posturing, underneath reveals the brutally stark and honest lyrics, which no doubt contributed towards Edwards' supposed sainthood. Prior to the album’s release, Edwards caused controversy when a music journalist accused him and the band of being bandwagoners, failing to stick to their punk ideals and simply performing under a charade. Edwards response was to carve the words “4 Real” into his own arm with a razor blade he happened to be carrying at that moment, which required 18 stitches to fully heal. While this arguably more about Edwards mental state than the band’s music, you can draw a fine line between Edwards psyche and the unhinged intensity and ultimately fragile nature of the band’s music. When Bradfield sings “Rock ‘n roll is our epiphany/culture, alienation, boredom and despair”, you get the feeling it’s not a cheap attempt at a hook, but rather an honest sentiment coming from a group of young outcasts, desperately trying to get their voice heard. While it might not show up on any ‘best of the '90s’ lists, let it never be said that Generation Terrorists isn’t one ballsy debut by a band who for one brief moment, felt the greatest rock ‘n roll band on the planet.