With handsome versions of both `the holy bible' and `everything must go' surfacing as tenth anniversary editions a few years back it was, of course, inevitable that The Manic Street preachers' legendary debut album must, at some point, receive the same treatment, the only question being over how lavish the eventual set might be and how damaging upon the pocket. The answers, perhaps remarkably, to those questions are *very* and *surprisingly inexpensive* respectively with the record receiving a multiple format release ranging from the standard one disc edition (one extra track, super-cheap, pointless if you already have it), the decent three disc edition (re-master, disc of demos, DVD documentary with a bunch of live performances and videos thrown in, well-priced) and the exhaustive five disc box set (the kitchen sink, reassuringly expensive), not to mention a double vinyl for audiophiles with taste. It is a dizzying array, but as we are huge Manics fans, this review will concentrate on the super-deluxe version (bearing in mind the first two discs and the DVD are repeated in the three disc set) which is currently on its third spin of the week (yes - we do mean all of it).
That the Manic Street Preachers got lumped in alongside indie bands such as Oasis, Blur and the fairly turgid Britpop movement was, perhaps, inevitable after `Everything must go' savaged the charts, but the band that launched themselves into the public eye with a daring double album in 1992 were anything but indie and/or Britpop. A furiously intelligent punk band playing blisteringly fast guitar rock infused with the attitude of Guns `n' roses and Motley Crue, Manic Street preachers were an establishment threatening, spray-paint coated blast of life-changing lyrics and soul-searching solos that instantly attracted a huge and terrifyingly loyal following. Not so much a band at the start as a way of life, the now-legendary manifesto that the band would release a double album, sell a million and headline Wembley before splitting up was so utterly arrogant that you couldn't help but watch to see if they made it. That they didn't is as much a matter of timing as anything else as `Generation Terrorists', unwieldy length aside, sounds remarkably like the work of a much more mature, experienced band, its glossy production sounding, even today, like a million dollars even as the music still swore and scratched as it tottered on its stacked heels. Few albums, especially debut albums, have so much attitude, confidence and power and whilst there are those who will argue its length, as Simon Price so calmly points out in his informative liner notes, no-one can agree on which songs could reasonably be cut, so perhaps it is the right length after all.
The main album, already insanely long, really couldn't have much more added to it so aside from the re-mastering job, disc one offers only `suicide is painless', a track readily available elsewhere but not an unwelcome addition nonetheless. The real treasures in these sets are to be found on the second and third discs which gather together demos for pretty much every track on the record proper, rarities and b sides. It is a fascinating portrait of a band finding their feet, but what surprises most of all is how much of `Generation Terrorists' was already ready to go. For sure lyrics changed over time (most notably on `love's sweet exile'), vocals were smoothed by production (listen to James straining on `Methadone Pretty' and `Nat West-Barclays-midlands-Lloyds') and the guitars were tamed, but the spit and spite were all in place, as were the key melodies, and the result of listening through the second disc is rather like hearing `Generation Terrorists' if it had been recorded on a shoe-string budget in America by Nirvana. It's always questionable as to how enjoyable demos can be, but that largely depends upon the quality, and the quality here is excellent despite being rough and ready (think early Pavement or Sebadoh albums and you have an idea of the lo-fi but utterly listenable quality of these recordings), and many of these tracks will be new even to long-time fans and avid bootleg hounds.
For those who buy the three disc set then that's where the story ends, but for those who bought the super-deluxe then another disc offers up further demos (nine more to be precise) as well as every b side from the period and a flexi-disc track. It's an astonishing array of extras, and one can only assume that the cupboard is well and truly bare after such a clean out, with the only negative point being that anyone who is enough of a fan to buy this set is liable to already have the b sides, although having them all in one place is a benefit.
And still there's more. Not content with the three CDs, the label have also included a 10" vinyl copy of the BBC Radio On Rock Show Live Session, a rarity of immense value which includes four blistering tracks from the BBC archives. There's also a DVD (this is included in the three disc set) which excels over even the excellent `holy bible' DVD with its 70 minute documentary discussing the genesis and impact of the album, restored super eight montage of the band in their heyday, home road movie, official promo videos (including two new films) and BBC archive performances offering all the visual Manics material you could ever want outside of a complete live show from the period. It is a generous package indeed, and one that will take even hardened fans some time to wade through (it took us a full day to get through the set in sufficient detail for this review and then another day and a half to play it twice more just to let it sink in how good it actually all is), with no stone left unturned in the archive raiding hunt for fan-pleasing goodies.
On top of the audio delights you do get a few trinkets, although the record label have sensibly avoided filling the box with unnecessary junk, and so inside the well-designed 10" clam shell box you find a full-sized 28 page book (featuring rare photos, liner notes and track details although, sadly, no lyrics), a replica tour lanyard (I've still never worked out why anyone thinks we need these), a 10" print of a Richie collage and the discs. It's not as generous as, say, the Miles Davis box set but at least it doesn't throw scarves and marbles at you.
The impact of `Generation Terrorists' can hardly be overstated. Within a year of its arrival the Manics had already moved on, working on what was to become the depressingly under-rated `gold against the soul', the music industry had shaken itself out of whatever insanity had possessed it in allowing a young band from Wales to march into a studio and record a double album as a starting point, and the lives of several thousand young Manics fans were changed forever as they found themselves and their lives strangely caught up in the band's powerful gravitational field. In the subsequent years the Manic Street Preachers have recorded better albums, more successful albums and toured over the whole world, but they have never quite recaptured the arrogance and power of the amazing ode to excess that launched them upon the world. Listening now you can hear the power that must have so captivated the record label as they struggled to make sense of a band who referenced Nietzsche, William Burroughs and the Sleez Sisters, and it is hard to imagine a better way to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of this loud, proud, life-altering record than with this thoughtful box set.