New Project: Manic Street Preachers – A Critical Discography

Ian MacDonald’s Revolution in the Head is probably one of the best books anyone has ever written on a musical subject. In it the late, great writer analyses every track The Beatles ever recorded in the studio, looking at the writing, recording, and many layers of context behind each of their 241 songs. When I got my copy, I followed MacDonald’s journey by reading along as I listened to the 200+ songs I had to hand in the order of their recording. The experience made the Beatles discography seem, if anything, more wonderful even as the book exposed the flaws and compromises – as well as the strengths and moments of true genius – behind the recordings.

Now, I’m no Ian MacDonald. But I am a huge Manic Street Preachers fan, and ever since I first read Revolution in the Head, I’ve felt that they are a band – perhaps the only band since the ’60s – to deserve the same kind of treatment. As with the Beatles, the Manics are a band who have attracted so much attention for their aesthetic, history and overall story that their actual music has been neglected; not just songs, but whole albums have collected dust while countless fly-by-night indie pretenders have column inches lavished upon them.

Without MacDonald’s huge experience and knowledge of musicology, my analysis cannot hope to be as deep and incisive as his. He also had the dubious advantage of being able to scour the recording archives to understand many intricate details of how the Fab Four actually put their songs to tape; that kind of information just isn’t available for the Manic Street Preachers. But with my new blog Manic Street Preachers: A Critical Discography, I’m working to do some degree of justice to the 259 songs they have recorded since 1988.

Right now I’m coming to the end of the tracklisting for Generation Terrorists, the Manics’ mammoth 18-song debut album released in 1992. For an explanation of the cataloguing system I’m using to make sense of the songs (heavily based on MacDonald’s) I’ve written a note on it; I’ll also be writing a special album essay to shed some light on the background behind each of the band’s ten full-length albums. I hope you’ll come along for the ride.

Finished at Last: “Revolution in the Head”

Pretty knackered from having been BBQ-ing and jobhunting today so this’ll be a quick one. Yesterday, I finally finished reading Ian MacDonald’s masterful book on the music of The Beatles, Revolution in the Head. I posted about the book on Wordcore way back, but it’s taken me all this time to get around to finishing it, listening to each of the band’s 241 songs while reading MacDonald’s entry on it. Doing all that was an enormously satisfying experience because it allows you to almost live the Beatles saga, listening to the songs in the order they were recorded, rather than released, tracing their musical development more accurately than you would be just listening to the records in release order. In so doing, you of course end up marveling (again) at the enormity of the band’s achievements; but at the same time, you have to marvel at MacDonald’s achievements. Revolution in the Head that the man was more than just a mere music writer – he was a scholar, a researcher, able to draw in a vast array of reference points to the songs, from politics, film, other musical developments, and obscure facets of ’60s counterculture. It’s just staggering, really.

I can’t recommend it enough, so if you’re in any way interested in The Beatles discography – for that is what the bo0k is about, not the band, but their discography – you owe it to yourself to get hold of it. In the meantime, I suggest you have a read of a couple of great articles about the book that the ever-fascinating PopMatters have published. The first is an insightful review of the book, the second is a sort of retrospective of it published last year as part of the site’s “salute to the Fab Four”.

The Beatles’ “Revolution in the Head” – Thoughts

One a day? Pah! Two a day is how I play it. Occasionally, anyway… my first proper post today is about something I’m really into at the moment and might have mentioned before – the late Ian MacDonald’s brilliant book Revolution in the Head. One of the key bits of Beatles scholarship, it looks at every single song the band ever recorded in chronological order. I got it as a Christmas present (people have really cottoned on to my love of the Beatles – for Christmas I got a Beatles calender, mug, badges and poster in addition to the book) and I’m loving it.

Obssessive as I am, I’ve taken to reading each of the entries whilst listening to the track talked about in them. Due to the often capsule nature of MacDonald’s thoughts, and the conciseness of Beatles songs (Fact for you – “Ticket to Ride”, recorded in February ’65, was the first song by them to break three minutes), means that I’ve been motoring through the book at quite a pace. MacDonald’s examinations of the songs are consistently fascinating, and I totally agree with all the positive reviews you see on the likes of Amazon. The best thing about his writing is that whilst a fan, he was not a raving fanboy, unwilling to criticise. If he feels a musical element in a song wasn’t as original as it’s cracked up to be, he explains how the Kinks, Animals or Stones had done it first; if he feels something is corny or misplaced he says so, even sacred cows like the otherwise wonderful electric piano solo in “In My Life”. In fact, the critical parts are often the best, and certainly the funniest, parts of the book. Take this example, about unreleased track “If You’ve Got Trouble”:

“…apparently designed to exploit Starr’s image as the amiable beringed twit of the group. If the lyric is preposterous, the tune does Ringo no favours either, requiring him to sing in triple time whilst driving a 4/4 rock-and-roll thrash. So dire that no further attempts were made on it after the first take, this track has no claim on posterity’s attention, other than its hint that the “comedy song” concept mooted a few months later had been in the air for some time.”

He’s razor sharp. Besides being as cutting as that, MacDonald also points out little things which you might have noticed before, but hadn’t thought about in any depth. One such example is George Martin’s hilariously dodgy sounding piano flourishes on Please Please Me track “Misery” which on further examination, just sound completely daft. On top of that, he also points out intriguing mistakes (such as instruments abruptly cutting out in some cases), helps you understand which songs were laboured over and which were rushed, and explains that sometimes, official song credits just can’t be believed, such as “I’m Looking Through You”, which may well not feature Harrison at all, even though the credits say he played lead guitar. Fascinating stuff for a Beatles fanatic like me, but probably also for anyone interested in rock or 60s music in general – MacDonald frequently refers to the many artists of the late 50s (“proto-rock heroes” as George Starostin memorably called them) that inspired The Beatles and were often covered by them, both live and on the early records.

At the same time as reading and listening through all this, I’ve been writing my third discography retrospective for this blog, which itself is about The Beatles, and whilst it hasn’t been my Bible, MacDonald’s book has certainly offered an interesting perspective, helping me see these songs for what they are, which was certainly his intention. I’ve just finished my section on Help! so it’s a way off finished, but in the meantime my retrospectives of Foo Fighters and The Clash are still around to whet your appetite and show you how it all works.

// Thought

"There's a flaming red horizon that screams our names..."

Jeff Buckley - "Eternal Life"

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