by Caroline Sullivan
Since achieving cult fame in 1990, the Welsh quartet have preached nihilism juiced up with arty quotes from the Situationists and literary figures. The not-entirely-novel gist of their argument is that Hollywood and the media have turned us into mindless consumer-stooges.
They cadged their ideas from television (which, they boasted, they spent hours watching) and what books they could get their paws on in Blackwood, South Wales. They stored away quotes like packrats and wrote songs with grimly negative titles like Motorcycle Emptiness and Little Baby Nothing until they felt ready to announce themselves to the rock press.
When they did, their ready-to-serve soundbites made them starlets in short order. Offensive and opinionated, they were a pop editor's joy. They hated nearly every other group for reasons ranging from music to appearance, still lived with their parents, and one or two claimed to be virgins. They intended to make a 30-million-selling first album, then split up, which didn't stop Sony from signing them to a multi-album contract. Alas, their debut, Generation Terrorists, didn't sell one million, let alone 30, and the Manics are now on to their third record, The Holy Bible.
It's their most depressing yet, packed with feel-bad issues like anorexia and concentration camps and screeched out by James Dean Bradfield as if a werewolf were after him.
It came out in the summer, by which time it was known that guitarist Richey James had had a breakdown and was in hospital. However, it wasn't your ordinary too-much-rock-lifestyle sort of breakdown. James was being treated for alcoholism, anorexia and a compulsion to cut himself with razor blades (he once famously slashed '4 Real' into his arm in front of a journalist). The Holy Bible's morbidity was suddenly comprehensible.
Now deemed recovered, James still stood in the shadows near the back of the stage at this show. Thin and purged of his usual heavy makeup, he kept away from the microphone set up for him. In the past, his amplifier was customarily turned down - he's the first to admit that he is no guitarist - but he seemed to be audible here, and, for the record, was competent.
The gig began in typical Preacherean fashion, with a huge, acrid smoke bomb obscuring the entire stage. The Joey Ramone-like figure of bassist Nicky Wire became visible doing the first of several score of splay-legged leaps. Squalling guitars, whirling red lights and decomposing fishing nets hanging from the ceiling imparted an apocalyptic aura even before the group began one of their most dismal (but musically strongest) numbers, From Despair To Where.
Bradfield sounded not unlike Noddy Holder on She Is Suffering, and by La Tristesa Durera the whole band had acquired a Slade-esque shrillness. This chimed with the bully-boy aggression of the songs, which are actually more melodic live than on disc.
A brief pause while Bradfield did a solo version of Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head and it was back to the grandiose hollowness of Roses in the Hospital. Ten minutes later they swerved to a halt, trundled off and the house lights went on and the crowd left immediately. The sense was that it had been a ritual rather than a rock show, with the formerly central character of James now peripheral. Interesting.
[Originally published: The Guardian, 21 December 1994]