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Generation Terrorists 20 years on: a box ramble

30/11/2012

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“If you love Generation Terrorists, you will love it for its failures as well as for its moments of inextinguishable glory”. So says Simon Price right near the start of the introductiory essay on the liner notes of the new 20th anniversary re-release of Manic Street Preachers‘ debut album Generation Terrorists. He’s completely right and nutshells Generation Terrorists perfectly. It was an album made by a band with fierce amounts of burning passion and incredible bravado, believing they were the greatest thing to happen to music in a fashion that blurred whether they actually genuinely thought it was real or not. It was meant to be a rock album to end all rock albums, to be the largest selling album of the year that would lead them to worldwide fame which they would then intentionally throw away, demonstrated by the famous “we’ll sell 12 millions and then break up” one-liner. An 18-track monolith of an album where quantity overcame quality and where the lyric sheets were larger than most bands would care to imagine. Delivered by a bunch of rookies who only learned how to truly tap into the songwriting talent that would make them amazing later on when the recording sessions were already well underway. It’s an album that promises immensely and only fulfills some of what it said, but even the failures are performed with such passion that it’s enjoyable. Every single person, including the band, fully acknowledges that the disc is loaded with filler but not only does everyone have their own favourites (although “Repeat (Stars and Stripes)” is the first on everyone’s chopping block), but it’s an album where the filler is genuinely a part of the experience. Its successes are wonderful, its failures are entertaining and overall it’s an album that is incredibly hard to dislike. And even this early on, James Dean Bradfield was already an amazing songwriter capable of writing genuinely great songs, even in the format of somewhat cheesy mixture of punk and glam rock.

So, I love Generation Terrorists. It’s far from my favourite Manics album but it’s one that I find more time for each passing year, partly because of increased nostalgia and partly because the older I get the easier it gets to throw away one’s inhibitions and enjoy the ride. It’s a silly, overblown, over-the-top album and the lyrics are headachingly pretentious at times, but it’s also one of the best albums ever to simply rock out to. It’s the one album in the Manics catalogue that sounds fun and the deeper you dig into the band’s history to learn about the era, the more you start believing in the band’s message – that this utterly ridiculous album was something a lot of people genuinely started to believe in.

Thus I’m not surprised it’s the latest album to get the erratic Manics catalogue re-release treatment, following The Holy Bible (the critical favourite) and Everything Must Go (the commercial favourite). It’s the furthest away from any other album in the Manics catalogue, but it’s an important and integral part of the band’s history and, for better or worse, has gained somewhat of a reputation around itself. It’s also the one album that’s genuinely needed the actual remastering process: the sound of the album hasn’t exactly aged well and it has needed a little bit of extra oomph underneath its wings.  After the cut, I’m putting on my nerdy fanboy glasses and go through the new re-issue piece by piece.

Packaging: The standard 2CD+DVD combo comes in the same sort of stylish box that the previous Manics re-releases have come in, with extensive artwork based on the era and two booklets, one mimicking the original (though doing some creative restructructuring in terms of layout etc) and the other with the mandatory introductory essay and tons of artwork and photos. On the plus side, it’s tried and tested good (I really love these little boxes), it manages to encapsule the era pretty excellently, I’ve always liked the fact that they’ve included a booklet to imitate the original and, on a geekier note, it goes together with the past two re-releases. On the other hand, because it sticks to the formula it means there’s once again no liner notes beyond the introductory essay and song credits, so no song-by-song chattery from the band, no additional reading, etc. Which is always a bit disappointing (especially since the band did do a song-by-song chat but it didn’t even up on the DVD, but more on that disc later) but hardly unexpected as we are following a formula set by the past releases. Overall, it’s a very lovely box.

CD1 – the remaster: Generation Terrorists has never sounded this good. Hell, Generation Terrorists has never sounded good until now. The original’s somewhat flawed production is one of the things that both give it that special charm but which is also one of the album’s major conflict points. The re-release fixes all that. There’s actually a bit of volume now (but not enough to break into the loudness war territory) and the instruments have a punch and kick fitting for an ambitious rock album – it’s such a joy to listen to and really brings the best forth out of the songs. Due to the album’s length there’s barely any bonus material on the main disc itself, which is well enough – the lone inclusion is the band’s cover of “Suicide Is Painless (Theme from MASH)” which was released as a single near the end of the GT campaign and resulted in their first top ten hit. And to give the re-release some additional credit, it too sounds far better than it did before.

CD2 – the demos: This surprised me. This really, really surprised me. I’m a huge Manics fan, sure, and I’m also the sort of guy who genuinely finds demos, alternative versions et al very interesting, especially from artists I really like. And the second disc still really surprised me with its quality and replay value. Part of it is directly related to the sound, in fact. One of GT’s more notorious sides is the replacement of Sean Moore’s drumming with Sean Moore’s drum machine programming after he and producer Steve Brown clashed with specifics of the drum production. To Moore’s programming credit, the drums on the album aren’t intrusively mechanic – their more synthetic nature only really pops out if you know about the matter and pay attention. The demos obviously feature live drums and feature the entire band playing in the same room and that added band dynamic makes these early versions stand out even when they’re not far removed from their later album versions. There’s a different feel to a lot of the songs even when inherently the same as the album cuts (there’s a fair amount of lyrical changes between the demos and the final versions but musical differences are few and far between) and it makes for a surprisingly good, replayable listen. The remastered touch aids there – they’re clearly demos but they’re not rough or dirty in sound, the lack of production does not mask the songs. There’s not much in the way of true revelations or songs that expose a whole new exciting side, admittedly – “Motown Junk” and “Motorcycle Emptiness” have a looser feel to them and the version of “Spectators of Suicide” here is probably the definitive version of the song – but as a whole it’s definitely far more enjoyable than your standard collection of demos. In addition, the collection has been bulked up with the demos of “Suicide Alley” and “New Art Riot” so the pre-GT releases get some sort of representation as well, the studio version of the Manics classic “Motown Junk” has been included at the end of the disc and the Heavenly recordings version of “You Love Us” has been used in place of a demo for the song which means that rather excellent version also gets the shiny new remaster treatment. All around, applauds for everyone involved for turning what looked like could be a bit of an anticlimax bonus disc compared to the 3rd CD a genuine treat.

CD3 – the b-sides/early demos: The third CD, sadly enough, does not come with the standard re-release box; instead, you had to be quick and order the now unavailable limited edition super boxset to reach it. Which is annoying enough, I would gladly have had this in the standard over the DVD. This is because the third CD contains what I believe is one of the most important parts of any re-release like this: the b-sides, the other side but just as important part of any band’s album eras, especially when we’re talking about the 1990’s UK where singles were worshipped and b-sides revered. Manics have always been an amazing b-sides band (the greatest, if you ask me),  and the Generation Terrorists era is filled with quality single flip-sides. The likes of “Democracy Coma”, “Sorrow 16”, “Never Want Again” and “We Her Majesty’s Prisoners” certainly weren’t left off the album proper because of a lack in quality. So good. The other half of the 3rd CD is dedicated to the earliest of early demos, recorded far before GT was even an idea close to becoming true. The sound is rougher than on the CD2 demos and most of the songs featured are GT tracks at their very earliest incarnations, often with alternate titles. Some of these have been circulating the fanbase since the early days and it feels somewhat heartwarming to finally give these an official light of day.  They’re not as relistenable as the CD2 demos but they’re a far larger historical treasure trove for the huge fans: “Go Buzz Baby Go” and “Behave Yourself Baby” in particular are extremely fascinating, being the two songs that “Motorcycle Emptiness” was eventually created from. There’s even a couple of never heard songs like “Poleaxed” and “Spent All Summer”, the latter especially which is… an intriguing part of the early Manics history.

DVD: The one disappointing part of the box, although I’m ready to admit that’s largely to do with my own apathy towards special edition DVDs. It’s done well, mind you. The documentary is a genuinely great watch even if it feels like a lot of interesting material was left on the cutting floor, the music videos are all there if you didn’t own them already on the Forever Delayed DVD (and they’re generally entertaining if cringy bunch – much like the Manics themselves at the time) and the TV performances/interviews are a fun look at the band at their early stage filled with bravado and sloganeering. The downsides are the largely pointless and thoroughly boring home video compilation where absolutely nothing ever happens and the token new Patrick Jones videos which continue his too-familiar style of “I am an ARTISTIC DIRECTOR and this video carries a STRONG MESSAGE so you must indulge in my AMAZING VISION *shoots amateur bollocks*” style of directing. It’s a fairly all-encompassing disc but it still feels a bit lacking, something that would make it feel as exciting as the other discs in the package. I would’ve quite liked to have had the song-by-song interviews that have been posted online recently included here as well, considering how much of a treasure trove of trivia they have been. But, like I said, take this with a pinch of salt – I’m not sure I’ve ever encountered a bonus DVD I’ve ever watched more than once.

The overall rating: Excellent. Genuinely excellent and far better than I imagined a Generation Terrorists re-issue would be. There are some omissions I would have loved to have seen (the US mixes of the few GT tracks that got re-recorded for the US release of the album and the 2003 version of Motorcycle Emptiness) and more liner notes would have always been wonderful,  but overall it’s a brilliant package for the fans. It’s releases like these that give me a positive attitude towards re-releases. My only hope? That the band continue to bring back their back catalogue this way, even if they go about it in a random order. The Manics rereleases, while not faultless, have been fantastic little boxes of history which manage to excellently nutshell just how different this band has been throughout the years and how each of their albums have a story to tell – their other albums deserve the same treatment, even if they weren’t commercial successes etc. At least bring forth the the This Is My Truth re-release, please.


You Love Us

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