The List, 1993
Firstly, let’s just fuck the room’s elephant in the ass and admit that there is really no deep logical point in this reissue. ‘Gold Against the Soul’ may have been released on June 21st, but that release came in 1993, and I don’t think there is a wider habit among the music industry for rereleasing albums on their 27th anniversary. This is a legitimate and gorgeously packaged celebration, yes, but the intentions of its release are simply financial- the band knows that they still have a pathetic, rabid and obsessive fanbase, who will jump at the chance to buy a lavishly packaged and expanded edition of one of the band’s less well regarded albums. Yes, including me. But let’s just stop and look at the optics here- here are the most viewed pages on the Necessary Evil blog this year:
(*fuck, I am so old. Like, properly, well-adjusted and responsible adults were born after this album was released. Your boss at work was born after ‘Gold Against the Soul’ was released! Your weird uncle Freddy’s girlfriend was born after this album was released, and she’s the oldest girlfriend he’s has since his 1998 divorce!)
This can mean only one thing: time to pander to all those pathetic Manics fans again!
I would also not have the ability nor the inclination to write this piece were I not already a pathetic, rabid and obsessive Manic Street Preachers fan myself. And despite the release being ceremonially all over the place, dates-wise, I was especially eager to share my thoughts on the re-release of the band’s much maligned second album. Despite the band releasing some absolute, incomprehensible nonsense in the nearly three decades since (so… old…), their 1993 attempt to follow a debut album that simply couldn’t really be artistically and situationally succeeded (and one they’d already guaranteed wouldn’t exist after promising they would split up following the predicted 16 million sales of their first album), still remains the band’s most baffling, most rejected and- following a debut that legitimately shocked and electrified the early 90s UK indie scene- perhaps their most disappointing album.
In polite speak, you’re required to describe ‘GATS’ as a ‘divisive’ album. Unfortunately, to describe something as ‘divisive’ simply means that nobody in their right mind likes it, and those who do like it are turd eared imbeciles whose opinion is really undeserving of consideration of any sort. Donald Trump is a ‘divisive’ President. Roman Reigns was a ‘divisive’ WWE champion. Administrating paracetamol rectally is a ‘divisive’ way of curing a migraine. Packing Bournemouth beach like suntanning sardines is a ‘divisive’ way of combating the spread of a virus. Calling something ‘divisive’ is shorthand for saying “I think you’re absolute fucking vazey ratbags for your cockamamie turleshit opinion, but I want to make sure I’m invited back onto Question Time again”.
Among Manics fans (who are, I think we’re all agree, generally the most intellectually and culturally dominant groups of our era), there are two accepted sides of the ‘divisive’ ‘GATS’ debate you’re permitted to fall into. One side is that you fucking hate it, for reasons I’ll soon explain. The other permitted view is that it’s admittedly far better than a lot of the flange they released post-Richey, but, yeah, still pretty fucking shit.
You want reasons? Oh, I got reasons, hunny-bunny, and I’m about to coat your pretty face with them!
The Manic Street Preachers were in… a bad place in the years immediately following their debut’s 1992 release. Like, for quite a few years after. Maybe until now. They had squeezed out every part of their identity, every facet of their dreams, and every iota of their beings into a 16 track debut album that they were so utterly (and rather adorably) convinced would be such a world conquering smash that their lives after its release would simply consist of debating situationist art stunts with close neighbour Duff McKagan in their West Hollywood apartment adjacent to Whisky A Go Go, with the odd rare appearances as talking heads on ‘I ❤️ 1991’ Channel 4 list shows. Sure, they might occasionally turn up on ‘Jools Annual Hootenany‘ and join Mr Holland in the jam segment, but these are the small(ish) prices you have to pay to be an accepted musical legend. Whatever, this was going to be it.
The debut album, ‘Generation Terrorists’, sold 250’000 copies. A not inconsiderable amount. But not 16 million. 12 months later, they would have to release a follow-up. Having poured their entire lives and influences, intentions and manifestos into one definitive, final and perfect artistic statement, they learned that the world remained unchanged and they had to summon the will and energy to do it all again. And in many, many ways, they dropped the ball badly.
The first cracks seemed to appear when Nick Wire- bassist and co-lyricist- began often getting what would now be referred to as ‘tired and emotional’, but what might be more accurately described as ‘not knowing when to keep his stupid fucking mouth shut’. In December 1992 Nick Wire announced onstage that “In the season of goodwill, let’s hope that Michael Stipe goes the same way as Freddie Mercury“, which is, yuck, a pretty gross way to reference rumours of the REM frontman’s sexuality and health. Thankfully, on seeing the offence that the statement caused, Wire quickly released a statement apologising and explaining how something said in the heat of a moment while performing onstage can often sound worse taken out of context and…
In classic Nicky Wire fashion, he almost got around to some sort of debatable- if shaky- explanation, before just digging himself into a bigger, dumber and even more vile hole:
Place your hand on your heart. If we’d wished for the immediate death of Prince Edward, John Major or Margaret Thatcher, would you have been offended? Or would you have laughed? Probably: a Ben Elton laugh for the right-on liberals among us. So why is the death of a pop star more disturbing than the death of a Prime Minister? Because he’s a star in your own industry? As for Freddie Mercury, did anyone at Melody Maker or NME give a fuck about the man before he died? And AIDS itself is unmentionable, it’s got to be so hush-hush. But it’s not a homosexual disease: it’s a sexual disease. When 30,000 miners lost their jobs, they didn’t have any choice in the matter. With AIDS, you do have a choice: don’t be promiscuous, use a condom, don’t put a needle in your veins.An Absolute Tool, NME 1992
Comments like these coming from a band who once sported shirts emblazoned with ‘All Rock and Roll is Homosexual’ made many fans and press wonder how badly they were losing the plot politically, and even questioning whether their stances were even legitimate in the first place. The same issue of NME that contained their (lukewarm) review of ‘GATS’ also contained in its front pages the news that Nick Wire had claimed to have no sympathy with the travelling community over recent clashes with the police, calling them ‘parasites’ and even siding with the law enforcement, arguing that they should have treated the travelers more harshly (“I don’t think any normal person is particularly interested in New Age travelers, except for the fact that they probably hold them up when they go on holiday…”). To wash all that stank out of the mouth, ‘GATS’ really needed to be spectacular.
The early signs were not good. They had gained a degree of infamy as the band that dressed like the New Romantic kamikaze brigade and screamed through grins slogans about being messes of eyeliner and spray paint, DIY destruction on Chanel chic, would somehow cause the collapse of all the world’s ruling classes and incite the revolution. Their second album was trailed with photos of the band obviously not in the mood for having so much fun any more. Gone were the feather boas, tiaras and frilly pink blouses stenciled with ‘SCARS – DEAD – HATE – VOID – RIOT!!’, replaced with leathers and a blacker than black colour scheme. Richey began dressing like that insufferably pretentious, black cigarette smoking twat in your girlfriend’s art class who she insists are ‘just friends’ (but, come on, even you are frequently lost in those eyes). Sean grew his hair into long curtains, constantly wearing dark glasses that ensured barely a portion of his face had to visibly live through this embarrassment, and wearing a long trenchcoat that suggested the famously reticent and private drummer wanted to get way ahead of any ‘Silent Bob‘ jokes before ‘Clerks‘ was released the next year. James had been taken most with the ’90s US Alternative’ look, wearing tight white muscle shirts you imagined had 20 Newport rolled up in one sleeve, often wearing a leather paperboy cap above aviator shades and even for a period (you might want to be sitting down for this) dying his hair peroxide blonde like he was an ex boyband member desperate to show his coolness and that was honestly what he thought cool people looked like. And Nicky… well… Nicky Wire started to dress like an old woman, a practice he continues to this day, but Nicky’s always an outlier and can’t be used to prove any wider trends. It seemed like every splash of colour and excitement had been drained from the band as they now committed to monochrome solemness. This aesthetic spread to their general countenance, as a band who had always in the past cracked a wry smile at the camera in press and media photos- like they always knew the wider social injustices were a massive sick joke so they may as well have a bit of fun while they artistically fought them (Richey even had a sardonic glint in his eye and a cheeky smile threatening to play across his lips as he carved ‘4 REAL’ into his arm with a razor)- but now they seemed worn out and tired, wearing the general sense of morose of a band who, well, dressed like the New Romantic kamikaze brigade on their first album and were embarrassed at how little they’d changed the world.
The sound was markedly different as well, with high energy glam punk replaced with the low tuned guitars and carpet bomb volume drumming more associated with grunge, and the elongated guitar solos and crunching riffs more usually prevalent on songs by quasi-metal contemporary US bands such as Metallica and Pantera. They drafted in Dave Eringa to produce- whose only notable former production job was on Erasure’s ‘Abba-esque‘- as they believed he would stick closely to the sound the band had in their head for the songs they had already written (“We didn’t want to use a mainstream producer because they’ve got their own sound and vision of what a record should be like. So we just phoned Dave up and said ‘Look, come down, let’s see how this works out'”- Richey, 1993). And that sound was big. ‘GATS’ sounds like it’s already picturing itself conducting mass crowd participation at Wembley Stadium (the breakdown a the end of Roses in the Hospital is so designed for 80’000 pairs of hands to clap along to) and each crushing guitar solo designed to echo off arena walls. This was a rock album. This was a beefy album. And, especially considering how the band had so gleefully subverted gender stereotypes when they first arrived, this was a macho album. Grrrrr! Feel the pulse of that distorted bass! Oooof! That kick drum is just pummeling your insides, isn’t it? Waaaaaawuuuuu! Check out the length of my guitar solos!
The lyrics too, were coming from different places. Their general quality didn’t decrease (oh-ho-ho! Absolutely not! Get ready for a hot take, but the opposite is very much the case), but now they weren’t aiming for the ‘dumb flag scum‘ or ‘Barbie doll futility‘ external irritants like they previously were, now the songs emitted from and were often antagonised by internal angst. Alice in Chains were often mentioned by the band as a major influence, which was an immediate red flag for a fanbase largely made up of fey, articulate but incredibly sensitive outcasts. In 1993, a period later accepted by the band of them being the least sure of where they wanted the band to go, they really did want to be Alice in fucking Chains, and not necessarily just for the lyrical angst about personal struggles.
Yeah, ‘GATS’ is basically the sound of the Manic Street Preachers trying their best to sell out. OK, they were always trying to sell out- their original manifesto was all about making their near queer subversion of radical politics as populist as possible in order to take the system down from the inside (16 million sales, remember?)- but now they were pandering to a very specific audience and being more than a little cringe about it. The band were obviously a little put out by the response to their music in their native country being far more lukewarm than they’d hoped for and felt they deserved. ‘GATS’ is so obviously aimed at winning approval in the US that it may as well have come packaged inside a privately owned correctional facility. Its sound, its aesthetic, often even its lyrical content, all screamed “Oh please, ‘Headbangers Ball‘, take us all on one of your Road Trips!!”. Sit tight, because I’m about to say the most insulting and degrading thing that I’ve ever said about my boos The Manic Street Preachers, but the aesthetic, fashion and press photos , and grasping attempts to incorporate any sort of ‘Americana’ and stateside legitimacy call to mind nothing less than U2’s cringeworthy ‘Rattle and Hum’ rebrand.
At least such shameless pandering eventually paid off, as in America ‘GATS’ went onto sell…
I’m joking, of course. Literally nobody in America has ever bought a Manic Street Preachers album.
With all these spicy and often fetid tasting ugly ingredients swirling around in the overflowing and hot to touch bowl of context, ‘GATS’ was always going to be a difficult album to love in 1993. Many Manics fans felt betrayed by the band abandoning many of the facets of both their sound and look that had made them fall in love with them in the first place (glitter, feather boas, eyeliner and stenciled blouses would remain the only acceptable dress code at a Manics gig for the next twenty seven years– and. Fucking. Counting- despite the band themselves abandoning the look from this point forward*). Much like how, with the release of 1996’s ‘Load’, many Metallica fans felt disengaged and left behind when their macho rock heroes dared to return with short hair and wearing eyeliner, in 1993 Manics fans felt dismayed and disillusioned when the band started to look like, well, Metallica. Critics were unimpressed ( “superficially competent, of course, but scratch below the surface and you’ll find few signs of life, just a vaguely expressed, bemused and bored dissatisfaction”- Q Magazine), and in 1993 it seemed all too obvious that this weird band from the parts of Wales that even the Welsh don’t bother going to, that wanted to sound like a Marxist Dadaist Guns n’ Roses while selling as much albums as the actual Guns n’ Roses, had nothing more to say. Retrospect hasn’t been kind to it either. There have been very few calls to have the second album reappraised as a lost classic. Looking back, at best the album is looked upon as a disappointing segue between the amphetamine highs of the incredibly determined debut and the harrowing and dangerous fentanyl trips of the next album (1994’s ‘The Holy Bible’ being legitimately one of the most incredible rock albums of the period. Fuck it- of any period). But is that fair? Is ‘GATS’ really as gash as the court of public opinion has long decided it to be?
(*Yes, yes, apart from Nicky Wire occasionally. Were you not listening when I was taking about him always being the outlier?)
Like, not at all. Seriously, you guys, have a word with yourselves, yeah?
Firstly, I’mma hit you with some logic and straight facts. Ready? Good. Sleepflower. From Despair to Where. La Tristesse Durera (Scream to a Sigh). Life Becoming a Landslide. Roses in the Hospital. Were you counting? That’s five. Five of the greatest rock songs the early 90s bestowed upon us, five examples of slickly produced and exquisitely constructed songs that you’re unlikely to find bettered. To complain about the songs sounding commercially minded or mainstream focused is to kinda miss the point of the band in the first place, who always aimed to cloak their messages in Guns n’ Roses volumes of mainstream rock so that they could Trojan horse lyrics like “My idea of love comes from/A childhood glimpse of pornography/Though there is no true love/Just a finely tuned jealousy” into as many people’s consciousness as possible. People might have been turned off by The Manics not being exactly the band they wanted them to be (repeating the debut album ad infinitum, never changing their look, sound or general lyrical themes), but- God damnit– have you even heard these songs?? Appreciate. Motherfucking. Craft. Sleepflower is a pulsating and skittish perfect opening track that remains a live favourite to this day. The way those drums kick in at the start of From Despair to Where? Oh, I’m sorry, are you pants somehow not soiled with involuntary expressions of pleasure?? La Tristesse Durera was described as “The last great baggy single” by Select Magazine due to being tied to an incessant and irrepressible groove that has aged a hell of a lot better than 90% of the Stone Roses’ back catalogue. Also- another hot take here, so make sure you’re wearing those mittens- the tragic and yet darkly humorous tale of a once proud veteran being “Wheeled out once a year/A cenotaph souvenir”, and how despite all the ‘liberals’ ‘patronising his misery’, he still needs to sell his medals to pay a bill*, may actually be the band’s most perfectly aimed and most concisely communicated lyric at that point. And, shit, there ain’t many other rock bands writing songs about the sad isolation of old age named after the reported final words of Vincent van Gogh. Life Becoming a Landslide was their most achingly beautiful song when it came out, and remains one of their emotional highlights to this day. And, yes, we all know that Roses in the Hospital is a shameless rip-off of Bowie’s Sound and Vision, I wrote a whole freaking blog entry about it, God, get over yourself. You’ll notice that blog entry was about how it’s one of the greatest songs ever, yeah? So there’s five unarguable classics. The album is ten tracks long. Logically, how bad can it seriously be?
(*or, to quote James Dean Bradfield verbatim, he sold his me-del, it paid a BEE-YELL!)
A lot of people’s issues with ‘GATS’ seem to emanate from it somehow being an unexperimental and somewhat ‘safe’ record, reaching for acceptance by a US alternative culture that never really suited them. Firstly, reaching for a style and sound previously foreign to them and perhaps not fitting is experimenting- you can also ‘experiment’ in sounds that many people don’t like. Secondly, and a-freaking-gain, the Manics were very rarely an ‘experimental’ band musically- their uniqueness has always come instead from marrying agitprop and fiercely intelligent lyrics to tropes and influences from classic rock and often maligned ‘dumb’ stadium metal. ‘The Holy Bible’, parts of ‘Futurology‘ and arguably ‘Rewind the Film‘ are probably the only Manics albums that could be argued to be in any major way experimental sounding musically. In comparison, much of ‘GATS’ is actually amongst their most expansive and most daring work. Yeah, it doesn’t always work (OK: it often really doesn’t work) but audacious sonic choices like the distorted guitar screams underpinning the vocal on Yourself, the Nine Inch Nails madness(and, yes, shiteness) of Symphony of Tourette, the time signature switches narrated by a static bathed TV presenter imploring that it’s the “Cool groovy sound of decade” on Nostalgic Pusshead… Yes, not a lot of these attempts at introducing new facets to their sound work-in fact, Jesus, many of them really don’t- but a lot of ‘GATS’ consists of admirable attempts at widening the band’s sound, which should always be admired, especially when so many things slide into place just right. And, despite whatever issues you may decide to find in the record’s quality, and bizarrely given how unfocused and confused the band seemed to be regarding their direction at the time, I don’t think there’s another Manics album with ‘GATS’s definitive sense of purpose and unified feel. These ten tracks are a concise and focused album with a definitive style and purpose. No ‘GATS’ song would fit on any other Manics album, and any future Manics song would sound out of place on ‘GATS’. I mean, God damn, there was an obvious concept for this album.
People might not have agreed with the production choices, but, seriously, fuck these people, ‘GATS’ frequently sounds amazing– the bass vibrates your very soul, the kick drums punch bloody holes in your rib cage, the guitar solos echo off the walls of an imagined tomb. This was still the sound of four cocky kids from the Welsh valleys throwing the shapes of international rock stars despite not yet racking up a percentage point of the sales nor prestige that would legally permit this level of. They dressed up and aimed to sound like they were in Metallica or U2 because, despite selling roughly 326 records worldwide, they fucking knew they at least deserved to be twice as big as these piece of shit nonentities. This unashamed hubris and prideful chutzpah is the true meaning of Richey era Manic Street Preachers, not merely feather boas and combative nonsensical sloganeering.
Also, and this might be the most controversial thing I say, but didn’t the Manics actually look the hottest as a band around this period?? Seriously, look at the photos on this page, you’d fuck every last one of them raw, wouldn’t you??
I think people’s issues with ‘GATS’ arise not from reasons they can easily put their fingers on like the nonsense idea of them selling out or that the production sounded icky or that the clothes weren’t pink enough. I believe the main reason for people’s general distaste for this album is more subconscious and more difficult to vocalise. ‘GATS’ is just such a freaking sad album. The sense of melancholy doesn’t just emanate from the band losing the ability to smile in press photos, but from a record that you can just sense the band never foresaw themselves having to bother to make. The intended sound of the record was embittered rage at a world that dared not to take them as seriously as they merited, almost like an earlier rock version of Kanye West’s ‘Yeezus’, but instead it just sounds beaten, dejected and morose. The Manics were never going to be as big a rock band as they felt they deserved to be, and this was just another 45 minute ‘straight in at number 23’ collection of mid-level indie obscurity that’d be forgotten within a week. Deep down, the band knew that they wee merely an somewhat notable and unsuccessful British indie band. To the Manics, this was the absolutely worst things to be be in the world, and the sense of abject failure permeates every track and badly effects any sense of joy its possible to garner from the record.
Barely a year after ‘GATS’s release, The Manics would properly own that misery, that disappointment and that shame that they were trying to suppress with their scond album and turn it into their greatest artistic achievement. With the b-sides collected on this deluxe issue (from… possibly… their greatest period of b-sides…??)- such as the almost funky Donkeys, the almost ridiculous Patrick Bateman and the almost perfect Comfort Comes– actually help paint an obvious path to the next year’s exploration of sonic and emotional darkness. But while ‘GATS’ is clearly the weakest of the four piece Manics three albums, it still deserves to be considered an almost courageous attempt to do something with their sound and to not simply pander top an already formidable cult fanbase. They discovered, in David Eringa, a producer who they trusted with translating the sounds in their heads to record that he went on to produce many of their future albums. They band evolved their look into the more ‘institutionalised casual + whatever the fuck Nicky wants to wear’ style that they would pretty much adopt for the rest of their career. Most importantly, they grew confident enough in their lyric writing to use more inward tales to debate on wider social events, something that would also become a trademark and that Richey would take to the next fucking level on the next album. ‘GATS’ is actually an extremely important and influential step on the Manics’ artistic evolution, not just a cack handed attempt to court the American market. And- I feel I need to state this once again- it contains five of the greatest rock songs you’re likely to hear.
All from a band who clearly did not want to be doing this silly shit by this point.