Manic Street Preachers: Condemned to Rock ‘n Roll

stylus Magazine's Seconds column examines those magic moments that arise when listening to a piece of music that strikes that special chord inside. That pounding drum intro; a clanging guitar built-up to an anthemic chorus; that strange glitchy noise you've never quite been able to figure out; that first kiss or heartbreak; a well-turned rhyme that reminds you of something in your own past so much, it seems like it was written for you—all of those little things that make people love music. Every music lover has a collection of these Seconds in his or her head; these are some of ours.

As debut albums go, Generation Terrorists is pretty impressive, if only for its size: 18 songs over four sides of vinyl. Sonically, after the tinny racket of the (chronically undervalued) New Art Riot EP, it’s a revelation. Gone is the trebly punk, replaced by the kind of guitar-laden anthemics that get stadiums bouncing in Ohio. With the exception of the botched Bomb Squad collaboration “Repeat (Stars and Stripes),” this is Rock music. The band said it would sell 16 million and top the American charts: it didn’t, but it wasn’t as if they weren’t trying.

One glance at the lyric sheet, though, and it’s clear that, despite the bombastic trappings, it’s all rather far from Def Leppard: “Gorgeous poverty of created needs,” “Prosperity – Mein Kampf for beginners.”

Yet neither is this Billy Bragg nor even Clash territory. Neither a call to party nor to social action, this heady mix of confused revolutionary rhetoric and teenage angst invariably collapses inward. For all the fervor, a sense of aching hopelessness pervades, most notably articulated by “Motorcycle Emptiness”’ numb soft rock. It is with the final track, “Condemned to Rock ‘n Roll,” though, that the inner tensions of their audacious marriage of form and content rip apart. After the preceding wearying onslaught of sound and fury comes catharsis. It takes a matter of seconds.

The first five or so minutes act like a compressed version of all that has preceded it—heavy rock, all growling guitars and inflexible rhythm, structured around fractured words. Music criticism oscillates around two contradictory poles when it comes to the treatment of words in pop songs; on one hand, you get volumes of academic writing which paint Bob Dylan as the “finest living user of the English language”; on the other, a desire to treat them as meaningless babble that just happens to sound good. As John Lennon said of Dylan: “It’s not what he says; it’s how he says it.”

The thing about the Manics is that the relationship between the “what” and the “how” is decisively fractured: All words: Nicky and Richey. All music: James and Sean. “Condemned to Rock ‘n Roll”’s words seem to concern themselves with alienation and boredom, eased not by love but only by “rock ‘n roll.” The imagery is desolate, but when James Dean Bradfield sings “Lips I kiss just another plague / Love can’t fix the hole in me / Condemned to Rock ‘n Roll,” it’s not the hopeless howl the words suggest—he sings it with the same raspy conviction as Jon Bon Jovi asking you to “take [his] hand / We’ll make it I swear.”

Around the 3:23 mark the vocals drop out and the song’s extended coda begins. For a few minutes the guitars and rhythm section surge forward, climbing up though the gears, cranking up the intensity. Then at the five-minute mark one last “verse.” Two lines:
Sterile like a line of piss, motherfucker
Review with avant-garde lips, motherfucker.
Or so says the lyric sheet. James, however, ad-libs: “Review with avant-garde lips, you’re just a motherfucker.”

An extra fuck you to those who love them “like a holocaust” or a celebration of the idealized teenage fuck-up? He sings “motherfucker” like “I love you.”

No time to think. The guitars vanish. Just drums. You’ve been here before. 5:23. A muted wail of feedback. The lone electric guitar re-enters…

Duh. Duh. Duh. Deh. Duh. “You. Really. Got. Me.” “God. Save. The. Queen.” “Pour. Some. Sugar On. Me.”

The clichés flash before your eyes. Mock heroic on some mountain top, mouth slightly open, frozen in ecstasy, our hero, the hero—he is archetype and individual, protagonist and audience—strikes the magic chords. Yet, like the short but exhilarating solo that follows, it’s extraneous. This is it. The backbeat and the riff. That’s Rock. That’s what fills a stadium, that’s what shifts 16 million copies, that’s what gets the fists pumping in Ohio. It doesn’t mean anything, it doesn’t refer to anything (though by 1992 it clearly alluded), it just is. You can bolt any old words to it and it’ll probably work. Following their verbose post mortem of Rock’s teenage dream with something so primal, so dumb and meaningless yet so joyous and thrilling, the album seems to tear itself apart. The last note starts to fade and then a voice; half sung, half spoken:
There’s nothing I wanna see
There’s nowhere I wanna go
And that’s it; the CD skips back to the beginning. After the previous euphoria, everything is left broken and desolate. It’s probably still James’ voice, but it’s not hard to imagine this is Richey speaking. Poor, doomed, Romantic Richey… Like those final chords at the end of “A Day in the Life,” it changes everything, it leaves you uneasy, subverting all that has gone before. It’s an admission of defeat.

Whilst Richey took “Condemned to Rock ‘n Roll’s” final bout of nihilism to a harrowing conclusion, its confused mixture of rhetoric and rock struck a chord with those who, in some vague way, recognized the desire behind the discontent. Popular music’s powers of self-transformation are at once overstated and underplayed. On one hand, we are continually told that a new band is destined to change our lives, but those fans, like the so called “cult of Richey,” whose identity is inspired in some sense by their favourite artists are regarded with derision.

The 90s is often regarded as an age defined by irony. Perhaps fallibility would be a better description—people too worried that they might be wrong to take a definite position. A couple of years later, as the Richey-era Manics entered their descent into tragedy, Pavement sang “Goodnight to the rock ‘n roll era,” well aware that it was the “dance faction” who now held the loose utopian dreams rock had once promised. Yet every few years some bunch takes the backbeat and the riff and, with a few well chosen ideas, makes the world look a little different for a few people. This is not the only thing popular music is good for, and to use it as a barometer for all music is a bit daft, but when popular music looks like simply another division of Bread and Circuses Inc, it’s records like “Condemned to Rock ‘n Roll” which, contrary to whatever Bono and the New Puritans think, makes the loopy idea that music alone can change lives seem thrillingly plausible.

By: Paul Scott
Published on: 2006-09-20
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