If you live in America, Welsh rockers Manic Street Preachers are one of the better rock bands you’ve probably never heard of.
As near as I can tell, it seems that 2010’s Postcards from A Young Man was the last album that had any physical distribution here in the United States. And streaming services are marginally better for what’s offered here in the states. Radio airplay has always been non-existent.
Suffice it to say, it’s not easy to be a Manic’s fan on this side of the pond.
Back in the 90’s, while America was in the flannel grasp of grunge and the UK was in the throes of the ecstasy riddled “Madchester” scene and the Brit Pop madness it would prove to be four childhood snarky punk friends from Wales — James Dean Bradfield (lead guitar, music), Nicky Wire (bass, lyrics), Sean Moore (drums, music) and Richey Edwards (guitar, lyrics)— aka Manic Street Preachers, who would prove to have the mettle to outlast all three moments.
When they first appeared, it seemed as though the Manics (as they are colloquially known) were armed with more hubris than talent. However, 25+ years on, they’ve proven time and time again it’s not hubris.
Even more than talent, creativity and longevity, they’ve offered up proof they have an almost unparalleled work ethic, especially for rock musicians. Excluding solo albums, ep’s, singles, covers, compilations or greatest hits, between 1992 and 2018, the Manics have released 13 original full length albums. Simple math proves they’ve released one album every two years. In today’s world, that’s unheard of.
In the beginning, the Manics were a bunch of Welsh punks who released a few singles on the independent label Heavenly Records. Based on their punk attitude, stylish looks and riffs, they captured a small core audience.
Their first single “Motown Junk” announced the Manics and with their next single, “You Love Us”, they made their presence known. When Nicky Wire dressed in drag as Marilyn Monroe for the video of “You Love Us” and Richey Edwards did some self-harming during an interview (that required a trip to the hospital), the press, and major labels, began to take notice.
Eventually signing to Columbia Records, Manic Street Preachers set out to record their debut album, promising to make “the greatest rock album ever”. They boasted it would outsell Guns-n-Roses debut Appetite for Destruction and when it did, the Manics would retire from music.
Their debut, 1992’s Generation Terrorists, was not “the greatest rock album ever”. While the record gathered favorable reviews and sold well in the UK, it did not outsell Appetite for Destruction. It spawned a few singles, notably “Motorcycle Emptiness” and “Little Baby Nothing”, a duet with former American porn star Traci Lords.
Generation Terrorists eventually received a Classic Album Q Award in 2012.
Where Generation Terrorists was politically punk-centric (think The Clash and Public Enemy) with its lyrics, their second album, 1993’s Gold Against the Soul, saw principle lyricists Nicky Wire and Richey Edwards begin to move towards slightly more introspective lyrics. And with it James Dean Bradfield and Sean Moore returned a more raw, and yes, grungy sound. It was the band’s one attempt to play ball by the market and record labels rules.
Gold Against the Soul got mixed reviews but the band soldiered on. It was clear some of the momentum was lost and they’d lost some of their fan base. It didn’t help that the pressure from the record label had been ratcheted up for the Manics to produce a hit album.
In 1994, as the band reconvened to discuss their make or break third album. It was clear things were changing. The band eschewed the labels suggestion of a posh recording studio in Barbados. They wanted to avoid the trappings of “rock stardom” and retired to a tiny dingy studio in Wales to begin recording. For inspiration, the Manics returned to listening to bands that had influenced them the most like Magazine, Gang of Four and Wire.
Not helping matters was the fact that Edwards, who had a history of depression, alcohol abuse and self-harm, had become more unhinged. While brilliant, the lyrics he brought to the recording sessions were really the journal of one mans psychological disintegration. The band admits that about 70–75% of the albums lyrics were written by Richey Edwards.
When the band finished recording, it was evident that Edwards needed help. In July of 1994 Edwards was admitted to a psychiatric facility in Cardiff to help treat him for anorexia. During the summer Bradfield, Wire and Moore toured as a three-piece, playing a few festivals that summer, to pay for Edwards treatment. By the time the album was released in late August of 1994, Edwards had been admitted to The Priory, a mental health hospital in London.
Even while hospitalized, Edwards was heavily involved in the graphic design and naming of the album.
This third Manic Street Preachers album, boldly named The Holy Bible, is a clear demarcation point for the band.
More than the previous two albums, The Holy Bible’s sound is more focused, urgent and consistent. It’s a punishing assault on the senses.
Unfortunately, lyrically, it’s also the sound of a man slipping into madness. Some of subjects here are not pleasant. The song “4st 7lb” (for us Americans, 4 stone 7 pounds = +/- 66 pounds) “is the weight below which death is reputed to become medically unavoidable for anorexics” and the song is preceded by an audio clip from the 1994 documentary about anorexia Caraline’s Story, “I eat too much to die and not enough to stay alive”.
Some of the other topics include the glorification of serial killers (“Archives of Pain”), prostitution (“Yes”) and the Holocaust (“The Intense Humming of Evil”). The album is a non-stop barrage of words accompanied by an audio assault about awful subjects, it’s amazing that James Dean Bradfield was able to sing at all.
Frankly, The Holy Bible is brilliant.
And what may seem annoying at first, after a couple listen proves to be the thread that pulls, and then holds,the songs together are the audio clips snatched from movies, interviews, etc. These audio clips that precede each song serve as a narrative introduction, providing some context to the song that follows. More crucially, they give the album a sense of continuity and fluidity that might be lost without them.
Some of the audio clips include an interview with transgressive author Hubert Selby Jr., the Nuremberg Trials and a clip from the documentary Hookers, Hustlers, Pimps and their Johns. They add a punch to the tone of The Holy Bible and help elevate it from just another rock album into something different. A great piece of art.
And like so many great pieces of art, I can’t tell you why it works so well or why it resonates with me. I can only say that it does. The Holy Bible is nothing short of a masterpiece.
In what seems so typical of masterpieces, when the album was released it was met with a deafening shrug. Only charting in the UK and Japan, peaking at #6 in the UK.
It would take the disappearance of Richey Edwards for people to notice the album.
In February of 1995, the morning of a planned PR trip to the United States with James Dean Bradfield to promote The Holy Bible, Edwards checked out of his hotel at 7am.
Edwards has never been seen again.
Richey Edwards car was discovered near the Severn Bridge, which is known to be a suicide spot. A car park attendant reported that his car had been there for three days. A police search of the car revealed that it appeared to have been lived in for a few days.
It’s the tragedy of Richey Edwards apparent mental illness and untimely disappearance that helped the Manic Street Preachers find their voice and their audience. Doubling up on the tragedy was that even though The Holy Bible is a true-blue rock and roll record, it went virtually unnoticed. And of the three Manics albums up to that point, this is the one that deserved the most attention.
When it comes to great third albums that have helped break bands to larger audiences, The Holy Bible is on par with Born to Run, London Calling, OK Computer, The Queen is Dead, etc. But here again, it just didn’t happen.
In 2004, a double CD 20th anniversary edition of The Holy Bible album was released containing a re-mixed version of the album by the legendary Tom Lord-Alge (U2, Simple Minds, Peter Gabriel). This was intended for an American release as the band felt it was far superior to the original mix. According to James Dean Bradfield, “For once we got something back from the American record company — who we despised — and it was brilliant.” Interestingly, it was never released, as Bradfield says “for well-documented reasons.”
I’m just guessing here, but openly admitting you despise your record label probably sours a working relationship.
Even though The Holy Bible was from that time it was not of that time. By late 1994, the anger of grunge had been usurped by the oblique musical styling of The Dave Matthews Band and benign bro-rock happiness of Hootie and the Blowfish. Like so many things in life, especially rock and roll, timing is everything.
After the disappearance of Edwards and the disappointment of The Holy Bible, Manic Street Preachers found themselves at a crossroads. They re-grouped and with the Edwards family blessing, they soldiered on.
The band followed The Holy Bible with Everything Must Go. A much less erratic and more mature sounding record than its predecessor. It even contained a first for the band, an acoustic song, “Small Black Flowers That Grow in the Sky”. Everything Must Go was a creative leap forward that few bands have the intestinal fortitude to even try, let alone accomplish.
Everything Must Go was a massive success in the UK and was shortlisted for the respected Mercury Prize.
But again, here in the United States, crickets.
They continued their string of success with This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours in 1998 and Know Your Enemy in 2001 and Lifeblood in 2004. Which were all met with aggressive indifference here in the United States.
For me, an artistic pivot point for the band was 2007’s release Send Away The Tigers. Maintaining the distinctive Manic’s sound, lyrically there is maturity that replaces some of the angry idealism of their earlier work. “Your Love Alone Is Not Enough”, a duet with Cardigans singer Nina Perrson, is a highlight (and should have been a massive worldwide hit).
Throughout Send Away The Tigers, the band shows growth while retaining its political ideology and distinctive sound. Songs like “The Second Great Depression” are particularly interesting; as is their vitriol for American policies (a consistent theme for the band).
Of the song “Imperial Bodybags”, bassist and lyricist Nicky Wire said, “Imperial Bodybags” is another view of America. “We castigate Americans as thick, evangelical idiots and it’s unfair. So the song is just about the obvious — when an American soldier comes home from Iraq in a coffin, his people feel it just as bad as anyone else’s. Not everyone is an American idiot.”
Sadly, evidence suggest that the number of idiots may have increased, but, yes it’s true, Nicky Wire is correct, we’re not all idiots.
I’m guessing the Manics career spanning criticism of American politics and policies, and loathsome attitude towards their former American record label might play a role as to why the band has never been able to get a foothold here in the United States. The fact they rarely tour here doesn’t help.
But to be fair, at this stage in their career I am not sure breaking into America is much of a priority for them. If it ever was at all.
Of course, die-hard American fans, like myself, might like to see them on this side of the pond more than once every ten years.
All said, 13 studio albums later, loads of compilations, solo albums, a host of singles, ep’s and covers later, the band has maintained, and grown, their success in their homeland and all of Europe. Manic Street Preachers have also produced the type of consistently excellent music that any band would kill to have one or two albums of.
For reasons that confound me, they haven’t reached the kind of world-wide success that their work warrants.
The band continues to stay true to the pugnacious push and pull of music and lyrics as they continue to expand their creative horizons. It’s what makes Manic Street Preachers one of the more interesting and exciting rock and roll bands.
Manic Street Preachers have ever tried to re-invent the wheel.
They’ve never needed to.
They still have not made “the greatest rock and roll album ever” or one that sold as well as Guns-n-Roses Appetite for Destruction (although they did work with Guns bassist Duff McKagen on 2010’s Postcard’s From a Young Man) but that’s okay. Aside from losing their friend Richey Edwards, something tells me Manic Street Preachers are quite alright with where they are.
If you’re here in America you probably have never have heard them.
And if you have, you probably like them.
And if you haven’t, it’s not too late.