Faceless Sense Of Void: Generation Terrorists At Twenty Years Old

The classic Manics album gets a well deserved 20th anniversary re-release today. It's a masterpiece, and one of the most important records of my life...
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After getting over the initial shock of realising 1992 was twenty years ago (a concept I'm still not entirely comfortable with), it was balls to the wall excitement from there on out. Generation Terrorists is due for an anniversary reissue, joining its successors The Holy Bible and Everything Must Go. The reissued version comes complete with a bonus CD including alternative versions of every track (live versions, demos, session tracks) as well as a few extras and a DVD of live performances, documentaries and unseen home movies. At release, I was nine years old and therefore a little too young to appreciate it. But by the time I got to thirteen years-old, it was there; fully formed, waiting for my teenage angst to catch up. Since that time Generation Terrorists has remained one of my favourite records. As yet, the reissue has not hit my doormat, so here follows a quick retrospective of the album and what we might expect...

1992 was a very different time. A Conservative government was riding roughshod over the public sector, a Mancunian football team was coming into ascendancy as a dominant force… Very different times indeed. Music was largely baggy on this side of the Atlantic and whiney on the other side. As fun as it might have been, it didn't really mean anything: the rave scene typified self-gratification and having a good time, and the grunge movement reeked of introspection and too much self-interest. Into the middle of all this exploded a band from Blackwood called Manic Street Preachers. This was a band that really meant something: that made you think and that polarised opinion dramatically.

On paper, it should not have worked. Here was a band combining the raw punk ethic of The Sex Pistols, the androgyny of Marc Bolan, the guitar sounds of Guns 'n' Roses and the intelligence of a philosophy text book. But it did work because The Manics had on their side one of the best guitarists these Isles have ever produced, and one of the most intelligent lyricists also. Right from the moment you open it up, it's pretty clear that this is a record set in firm opposition to The Happy Mondays and their ilk. The inside cover contains a picture of a burning European flag and the lyric book ascribes a quote to each track from the likes of Orwell, Nietzsche, Rimbaud and Sylvia Plath. Opposite this are portraits of the band members, swathed in leopard print and slogans; looking the very archetype of male beauty in the middle of a world that was just starting to take to lad culture in a big way.

This was a band that really meant something: that made you think and that polarised opinion dramatically.

As for the music, there's something on this record that doesn't exist anywhere else. The DIY punk ethic and intelligent lyrics are set over James Dean-Bradfield's incredible rhythm-and-lead-at-the-same-time guitar work. For a punk record, it's incredibly well produced, but this is part of the plan. This is a band who grew up idolising Slash (alongside Charles Buchowski, obviously) and so the production values are high and the music is heavy on the solos and fills. It's punk filtered through a decidedly non-punk membrane.  The screaming, grinding guitar of You Love Us is closer to Bon Jovi than it is the The Clash. When Kylie turned down the chase to sing on Little Baby Nothing, they hired Traci Lords, one of the world's leading pornographic actresses, to sing lines such as "My life just an old man's memory".

Lyrically, Richey Edwards put together an incredible combination of sloganeering, catchy refrains and occasionally reflective interludes. One of the greatest pleasures I found in listening to this record was that it was so important to listen to the lyrics: to read them from the accompanying booklet and to write them on my pencil case, exercise books, t-shirts and anywhere else they would fit. It made you think. It made you want to read the Marx and Camus they referenced. All these delivered in James' voice, which has the tone (and occasionally the pitch) of a choir boy. A choir boy who had no problem with epithets such as "From feudal serf to spender / This wonderful world of purchase power".

Then there was the band's image. Tight jeans, ripped shirts with "Spectators of Suicide" sprayed on the back, women's blouses. Leopard print. Military garb. Make-up. The word "Slut" written across pale chests in red lipstick. They looked incredible. At once shabby and downright gorgeous. Challenging accepted notions of masculinity and heterosexuality at every turn, Manics fans, even today, are easy to spot. At the time, when the focus was on baggy jeans and Global Hyper-Colour t-shirts, this was a look born from bricolage that said it was OK to wear what the hell you pleased as long as you made it your own.

They walked it like they talked it, whatever anyone says.

Mouthy as you'll find anywhere in the history of music, they were as well. At their first Glastonbury set, James strode onstage and confidently announced that someone should "build a fucking bypass through this place". At another festival appearance, he described prog-wank noodlers The Beta Band as "a bunch of cunts" before arguing with a fan in the front row who was pushing a smaller concert-goer. While dressed as a sailor. There was of course the unfortunate business with Nicky Wire and Michael Stipe (unforgivable) but overall their brand of rebellion was agit-prop writ large. When asked about the current state of the music scene, Richey once announced that "We will always hate slow dive more than Hitler". They spat slogans as though it was the easiest thing in the world. They did not do shades of grey.

And all this is why Generation Terrorists remains one of the most important albums of the 1990s, if not of all time. The myths around the album are well known and (almost uniquely in this field) largely true. They wanted to sell a million copies then disappear. They wanted to have the album's cover made of sandpaper so it would destroy all the other records in the rack. 4 Real. They walked it like they talked it, whatever anyone says. It may now have successfully made it through those difficult teenage years, but this record is no less relevant now to those of us who found it at the right time. It's no exaggeration to say that this album shaped my life more than possibly any other and, although the Kohl has been consigned to the past, the emotions Generation Terrorists stirs inside me are still very much there. If you've never heard it, now's your chance. If you have, you know.

Our epitaph reads like your sin
Subvert, destroy, beat derelict

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