21 years It wasnt supposed to be this way. Back when the Manics were starting out with their coke-spiked hair, eyeliner and rabid manifestos nobody expected them to do anything other than shine brightly and burn out in spectacular fashion. Even the band didnt envisage being around too long. Its a quote the band are probably sick to death of hearing but when they stated “The most important thing we can do is get massive and throw it all away. We only wanna make one album, one double album, 30 songs and that’ll be our statement, then we’ll split up, eyebrows were raised, and hearty laughs were barely contained.
The reality of course was that they didnt sell 16 million albums. Generation Terrorists, the double album they threatened to make (some way short of 30 songs) didnt go Number 1 worldwide. Most importantly they didnt split. Some 21 years later, it seems peculiar to be faced with a compilation of their singles. This is a band that appeared to be focussed on the art, the statement, and the impact of the album as a body of work. National Treasures therefore only tells part of the story. Sonically it sums up the Manics fairly concisely, but to really get under the skin of the band and delve deep into their history and psychology over the years, only the albums (and Simon Prices excellent biography Everything) will do. Sadly a singles collection isnt entirely representative of the band. The Holy Bible era is woefully misrepresented due to the singles gleaned from that particular album. Journal For Plague Lovers an album from which there were no singles, isnt accounted for at all which is a considerable shame.
Gripes aside National Treasures is still a magnificent collection that, due to its chronological nature, traces the Manics career from beginning to the present. Motown Junk, their first real single (Suicide Alley doesnt make the cut) opens up the collection with its fizzing guitars, Public Enemy sample and the line I laughed when Lennon got shot. Its easy to forget just how out of place the Manics were in 1990. They were in thrall to Guns ‘N Roses while most of the UK were concerned with Acid House and the Baggy ethic. Its a bold statement of intent, if a little lacking in impact thanks largely to the production. Similarly, many of the bands early singles seemed a little lightweight in light of their ferocious polemic, grand statements and love of The Clash and Public Enemy. The glam metal stylings of Motorcycle Emptiness, Little Baby Nothing, and Loves Sweet Exile all seemed pretty limp when compared to the verbal firepower of Nicky Wire and Richey Edwards, although all possessed evidence of the Manics capability of writing fine songs. Only the brilliantly confrontational You Love Us seemed to ripple with the same vigour that the Manics had in their interviews.
If anything, the singles from Gold Against The Soul seemed even softer. The songs might have been crammed with literary references and introspection, and their boiling anger represented in the raucous diatribe of Nostalgic Pushead but singles like La Tristessa Durera or Roses In The Hospital seemed written with airplay in mind. The Holy Bible represented a significant shift in aesthetics for the Manics. With Richeys state of mind deteriorating, much of the lyrical material from this period was troubling. Coupled with the bands music being pared down to an abrasive post-punk assault, they were finally delivering songs with the physical and emotional punch that their earlier diatribes had hinted at. Faster and Revol showcase the band at their most ferocious and unsettling, and possibly at their most vital. Richeys influence on the material is so overwhelming that these songs almost sound out of place alongside the rest of these singles. Its as if the band had to adapt to accommodate him.
With the disappearance of Richey, the Manics were on the brink of falling apart. What happened next set the Manics on an entirely different path. Returning with A Design For Life, a phenomenally powerful working class anthem powered by strings and lush production, they found themselves at the forefront of Britpop. The harsh invective of The Holy Bible had been cast aside and from here on in the band sought to couple pop songs with intelligent insightful lyrics. That they managed to get a song about the Spanish Civil War in the shape of If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next is nothing short of incredible. Somewhat bizarrely, they had made the shift from perennial outsiders to being part of the establishment that they sought to rail against despite all the turmoil that they had been through.
Many of the singles that followed bore no resemblance to anything that the Richey era Manics would have been capable of, or interested in. Your Love Alone Is Not Enough, a duet with Nina Persson of The Cardigans is an unadulterated pop classic, while The Love Of Richard Nixon dispensed with guitars altogether and dabbled in synthpop. Something the Manics of 1991 would no doubt have scoffed at, as did many of their long term fans.
The Manics ability to endure and adapt is writ large across these later singles. Indeed, many of them represent some of the bands best work. There By The Grace Of God is an under appreciated Manics classic, Autumnsong harks back to cheekily Motorcycle Emptiness while their cover of This Is The Day casts a warmly nostalgic eye over the bands history. These singles show that Manic Street Preachers have stayed true to one at least one of their ideals which is to write the best songs the possibly could.
Theyve suggested that they will be taking some time out from music for two to three years; whether this represents the end of the Manics as we know them remains to be seen. As it stands, the title of the collection is far from mere grandstanding. Its been a tumultuous career but its fair to say that the Manics have achieved National Treasure status.
Manic Street Preachers’ singles collection National Treasures is out on 31st October 2011 through Columbia.