At the beginning of the 90s, Manic Street Preachers stated that they would make only one album, that it would sell 10 million copies, and that the band would then split up, their agenda complete. And in the end, nothing could have been further from the truth.
Generation Terrorists, the Manics’ debut album, was not the huge success the band had predicted: it sold only 250,000 copies. And three deacdes on, the band is still active, albeit minus one of the four founding members that created Generation Terrorists and the two albums that followed.
On February 1, 1995, guitarist and lyricist Richey Edwards disappeared from the Embassy Hotel in London, never to be seen again. In November 2008, he was officially declared presumed dead. In the wake of Edwards’ disappearance, the Manics continued as a trio: guitarist/vocalist James Dean Bradfield, bassist Nicky Wire and drummer Sean Moore. And they went on to become one of the most successful British rock groups of the modern era.
2010 saw the release of the Manic Street Preachers’ tenth studio album, Postcards From A Young Man. It features a guest appearance from Duff McKagan, bassist for Guns N’ Roses, a band that had a huge influence on Generation Terrorists. It was as if the Manics’ story has turned full circle.
In February 1992, when Generation Terrorists was released, it was the two lyricists, Nicky Wire and Richey Edwards, who acted as chief spokesmen for the band. At this time, the Manics’ outspokenness had made them the band people loved to hate.
“That’s fair enough,” Richey shrugged. “People do expect a lot from us and they can get a bit antagonistic. James puts up with most because he’s the singer. He ended up going bare-topped nearly every night on our last tour because there was so much spitting from the crowd.”
Richey freely admitted that as a guitar player he was pretty much useless.
“James was brought up on Led Zeppelin,” Richey said, “whereas the things that impressed me when I was young were early Clash, the Pistols and Hanoi Rocks. There was hardly any musicianship involved, it always seemed better just to jump up and down and try to look good. That’s what I always concentrated on, rather than actually learning to play!”
“James is the best guitarist,” Nicky explained, “so he does everything. Because we’ve known each other since we were five, we trust each other – there are no egos in the band. Richey takes the best picture and James does the best solos. We do all the artwork ourselves, and Richey needs just as much time to do that as James does to record the guitars.”
Richey claimed it was his lack of guitar-playing ability that led the Manics to cover the Guns N’ Roses song It’s So Easy for the b-side of the Generation Terrorists single, You Love Us.
“It’s So Easy is just an angry song that’s easy to play,” he smiled. “James took me into consideration.”
But there was no doubt that the Manics were united in their love for GN’R. During the recording of Generation Terrorists at Black Barn studios in Surrey, the band bribed engineer Matt Ollivier to drive them up to Tower Records in London’s Piccadilly to buy Use Your Illusion I & II on the day of release.
“We stayed up all night playing them,” Nicky recalled. “Estranged is the best track on the two albums. The guitar solos are so beautiful.”
Added Richey: “When we were teenagers we’d had almost a decade of boredom before Guns N’ Roses and Public Enemy started. There are really big drawbacks about both those bands – homophobia, anti-Semitism, misogyny, whatever – but we focused on their good points.”
"It’s strange that Axl Rose does dumbfuck things like Back Off Bitch,” said Nicky. “But the mistakes that these bands make don’t matter to us, because we always thought to ourselves that we were going to be the perfect band.”
Nicky was not joking when he said this. What Richey Edwards and Nicky Wire expressed – in this interview and in the lyrics on Generation Terrorists – was an intelligence and a cultural reach far beyond that of most rock bands.
“We could never understand bands like Poison and Warrant,” Richey groaned. “They’d sing about cruising down Sunset Strip on a Harley Davidson, cocaine parties, loads of women. We were just rotting away in a bedroom in Wales and it made no sense to us at all. Tigertailz come from near where we’re from, and they really wanted that LA lifestyle. We could never feel any kind of affinity with those aspirations. It just seemed really childish.”
It was typical of the Manics that they would invite Traci Lords, porn star and ex-girlfriend of Slash, to sing a duet with Bradfield on Little Baby Nothing, one of the key songs on Generation Terrorists. In her dull voice, the lyrics (‘My mind is dead, everybody loves me, wants a slice of me…’) became even more disturbing.
“We thought Traci would be a good idea for the song,” Richey explained. “We haven’t seen any of her films. We don’t want to. We’ve just read about her and how she nearly brought down the American porn industry because 30 of her 42 films were made when she was 15. She flew in to London to see us play, we met and talked after the show, and we did the song the next day.”
“Traci is just really sweet,” added Nicky. “The song is about that typical male attitude: a man can fuck a million girls and he’s a stud, but a woman is outcast as a slag.”
In 1992, with alternative rock in the ascendancy, the Manics felt a kinship not only with GN’ R but with the band that was the antithesis of Axl’s rock star excesses, Nirvana.
“With Nirvana breaking through, barriers have gone down,” said Richey. “It’s not so much down to your haircut as your songs. When we were teenagers we’d be playing the same records as all the hardcore metal fans, but because we looked different they all thought we’d be into Joy Division.”
Nicky: “We’re glad about that, though, because we want to compete on our own terms. We’re different to other rock bands.”
A case in point was the Generation Terrorists cover art. As Richey revealed, “The cover the record label suggested was obscene! They said: ‘We’ve got this great concept: the Royal Shakespeare Theatre stage with red velvet curtains opening to reveal a cruise missile with ‘Generation Terrorists’ written on the tip.’ I just went, ‘Fuck it, I’m going to have to do everything myself!’”
The resulting cover shot of Richey’s torso with crucifix and tattoo (altered from ‘Useless Generation’ to the album title) is the defining image of the Manics.
Generation Terrorists may not have sold 10 million copies, but it is one of rock’s classic debuts, and in 1992 it confirmed Manic Street Preachers as the most exciting rock band in Britain.
This feature originally appeared in Classic Rock 150, published in October 2010.