Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Manic Street Preachers - an introduction.

(I began to review the recent Manic Street Preachers Toronto gig and found myself taking more time and words than anticipated explaining exactly who they were. As a result, I decided to post a separate blog entry with a short history of the band focusing on their almost too-strange-to-be-true earlier years, along with a few musical samples. Consider it my own little condensed Wikipedia write up.)
Manic Street who? Some 13 years after being introduced to this brilliant Welsh band by a friend it pains me, pains, I say, that virtually no one in North America knows who they are. It's not exactly wide-scale success I'm wishing for them - I'll cop to being greedy and possessive enough to not want to share them with the whole world. But still, a little name recognition would be nice, perhaps a song of theirs most contemporary music fans could identify. I've tried to pass on their musical goodness to others, only to be met by indifference. Part of me understands why - their lyrics are, to put it mildly, challenging. After 13 years of consuming their music on a regular basis (I'd anoint them status in a list of my top five favourite music artists), I remain fairly clueless as to what lead vocalist/guitarist James Dean Bradfield is singing about most of the time. And part of that is what fascinates me about the band, along with a host of other reasons.
The words in their songs deal with weighty and unconventional (for rock and roll) subject matter: classic literature is a recurring well from which the band often draws, historic events such as the Spanish Civil War, political themes, religion and art. More traditional "alt rock" (whatever that means nowadays) lyrical explorations of alienation, culture, and occasionally just the odd straightforward love song make their way into the mix as well. Critics have accused them of being overly intellectual or pretentious, a slam that I'd have to back at times. But I've always been a "music first, lyrics second" type of guy and the band's music has captivated me since I first heard it. There's a complexity and depth to it that is truly unique.
Manic Street Preachers, consisting of Bradfield, bassist Nicky Wire, drummer Sean Moore and guitarist Richey Edwards, released their debut album, Generation Terrorists, in 1992. Their sound was a broad mix of punk, Appetite For Destruction-era Guns N' Roses and alt rock, with a proclivity for highly melodic moments, such as from the song "Little Baby Nothing". This song was notable both for its future status as a Manics live staple and the vocal appearance of infamous ex-porn star Traci Lords. Gold Against The Soul served as the follow-up album in 1993 and The Holy Bible was released just a year later. Controversy was never in short supply with the Manics, as they frequently adopted the punk ethos of bluntly speaking their minds about social and political issues, with a further specialty in discussing the lacking merits of numerous other British bands.
No discussion of the band's history would be complete without mentioning the enigmatic Richey Edwards. Edwards split most of the lyrical duties with Wire on the band's first two releases and assumed the bulk of the lyrical work for The Holy Bible. To say his guitar abilities were limited (particularly early on in the band's career) would be a huge understatement. No, Edwards functioned more as the band's wordsmith, shaped their visual look and contributed heavily to their musical direction.
Edwards suffered from severe depression, anorexia, alcohol abuse, and was prone to cutting himself. He famously carved the words "4 Real" into his forearm in 1991 after having the band's authenticity questioned by a journalist (click here for a picture of the result, though be forewarned it's not pleasant). Despite his troubles, Edwards was a highly intellectual person, as is evident from his lyrics or interviews. He also suffered from bad insomnia, which contributed to him reading up to six books a week, with some of the digested words or themes ending up in a Manics song or as a quote in an album's liner notes. In 1994 he spent time in psychiatric hospitals, until disappearing in early 1995 on the day he was supposed to accompany Bradfield on an American promotional tour. His car was found abandoned near a bridge known as a popular suicide spot, but a body was never recovered. Some who knew him speculate that even with his demons he was incapable of taking his own life. Elvis-like sightings have been reported worldwide over the years, though nothing ever proved conclusive. The cult of Richey, which had gained traction even before his disappearance, soared to new levels. His case remained open with him classified as a "missing person", until he was officially declared "presumed dead" in November 2008.
The band later continued on as a three piece with the blessing of Edwards' family, even continuing to put aside his royalties, should he one day resurface. Everything Must Go came out in 1996, containing five songs with Edwards' lyrical input. The album received rave reviews as the band expanded its sound, incorporating orchestral elements and more accessible songs than the previous bleakness of The Holy Bible. Manics fans commonly cite one of these two albums as their high water mark (I personally favour Everything Must Go by a wide margin). The album peaked at number two on the UK charts, matching the performance of first single "A Design For Life".
I hate to now condense over a decade of great music to a single short paragraph, but here it is: five more studio albums have followed since 1996, all of them strong except for the spotty Know Your Enemy. Additionally, they've released a couple of compilation albums and in 2001 became the first western rock band to play Cuba (with Fidel Castro in attendance). The latest album is this year's Journal For Plague Lovers, with all of the lyrics coming from a notebook Edwards gave to the band shortly before his disappearance.
Despite his absence, the ghost of Edwards has hung over (or perhaps "among" might be a better choice of word) the band for years. His work has shown up here and there on Manics songs over that time, but Journal For Plague Lovers shows the band giving him a prominent voice once again, thus bringing another chapter of closure to the tragic, weird history of the Manic Street Preachers and Richey Edwards.
"Little Baby Nothing" (1992, audio only)
"The Everlasting" (1998)
"A Design For Life" (1996)
(YouTube disabled the embedding feature for the video so click here for link)
"Your Love Alone Is Not Enough" (featuring Nina Persson from The Cardigans, 2007)
(YouTube disabled the embedding feature for the video so click here for link)

5 comments:

  1. Never heard of them.

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  2. FINALLY! Another North American Manics' fan! You don't know how happy I am right now! Woohoo!!!!

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  3. We're out there, Candice...there's not many of us, but we're out there. :>)

    Can't wait for the new album!

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  4. i think they deserve an decent british film about richy and the manics

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