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.

My Top Ten: Most Exciting Rock Songs

Purely as a little diversion, I’ve decided to compile ten of my personal favourite songs selected for their sheer cathartic thrill. They come from all kinds of eras and rock subgenres, and if you click the song titles you’ll be taken to a YouTube link that will allow you to hear the songs. Enjoy, and please comment!

Bad Religion – “What Can You Do
From Suffer (1988)
Always alarmingly tight and mercilessly heavy, Bad Religion just had to have a place on my list. My personal favourite from their acclaimed 1988 album Suffer is “What Can You Do”, which may appear late on the record but has enough energy to match any other song present. More hard rock and less punk than most of Bad Religion’s output, the song plays out lyrically as a tongue-in-cheek meditation (if “meditation” can sound this rollicking) on the apparent futility of existence, especially if that existence is in a rock band.

Led Zeppelin – “Rock and Roll
From Led Zeppelin IV (1971)
Personally, I’ve always thought that good use of the cymbals is key to a drummer’s success at making a rock record truly gripping. Long recognised as among the most exciting songs in rock, “Rock and Roll” is among my favourites from Led Zep’s finest album Led Zeppelin IV as well as a brilliant cymbals song. A homage to the formative early rock n’ roll songs of the 1950s, referencing several of them in the lyrics belted out by Robert Plant, this is a perfect demonstration of how gloriously muscular Zeppelin, and early ’70s rock in general could be.

Nine Inch Nails – “Not So Pretty Now
From NINJA Tour Sampler (2009)
My absolute favourite NIN track, “Not So Pretty Now” was originally meant to be on the project’s 2005 record With Teeth but it was canned; four years later, it appeared as a quick track to stick onto a free tour sampler to promote Trent Reznor’s tour with Jane’s Addiction and Street Sweeper Social Club. It’s a shame that it didn’t get a wider audience, as it’s ludicrously propulsive, featuring a wonderfully bitter vocal from Reznor. It’s so good, that I’ve written about it before, and I’m sure I’ll write about it again. Just ace.

Manic Street Preachers – “Suicide Is Painless (Theme From M.A.S.H.)
Charity single (1992)
The Manics have a fair number of awesomely exciting songs to their name, but after much deliberation I’ve plumped for one which is really exciting in only one brief section. That section, though, is such a glorious orgy of vulgar thrash-rock posturing that it just screams for inclusion. The fact that they made the theme from the classic TV show M.A.S.H. into this rock monster is simultaneously near-unbelievable and completely, totally Manicsian to the very core. Riotous.

Nirvana – “Tourette’s
From In Utero (1993)
Possibly at least partly intended as a joke (it is prefixed by a voice sample saying “moderate rock” and follows a track called “Radio Friendly Unit Shifter” after all), this song from Nirvana’s final studio album In Utero nevertheless comprises 95 of the most thrilling seconds ever committed to disc. Kurt Cobain wails incoherently as drums and guitar attempt to drown each other out, in what Meat Loaf would refer as “Everything Louder Than Everything Else” on Bat Out of Hell II which, fascinatingly, was released the day after In Utero.

Swimming – “Panthalassa
From The Fireflow Trade (2009)
If you’re writing a song about and titled after the global ocean which surrounded the supercontinent Pangaea 250 million years ago, what must it sound like? The answer, obviously, is massive. The wonderful Nottingham band Swimming realised this golden rule, observed by all bands that had written on the topic before… all none of them. Accordingly, “Panthalassa” is a song so thrillingly realised that its six-minute span flies by, wrapping the listener up in a nigh-on transcendent experience forged from the five elements: guitar, bass, drums, synth, voice.

Foo Fighters – “Wattershed
From Foo Fighters (1995)
Back when Foo Fighters was a one-man Nine Inch Nails-esque project run entirely by Dave Grohl, that project released a track on the self-titled debut album by the name of “Wattershed”. Totally stripped down in the mold of Grohl’s former band Nirvana, the track was a two-and-a-half minute raucous thrash, helmed by one of Grohl’s most enjoyably frantic vocal performances featuring a minimal number of recognisable phrases, one of which is “just another rock band!” Foo Fighters was one of those by the time of the next album, albeit still rather a good one.

The Beatles – “Helter Skelter
From The Beatles (1968)
A bit of an obvious one, this. Infamously the probable most heavy track The Beatles ever recorded, “Helter Skelter” won a dark reputation for itself when it became one of the inspirations for one Charlie Manson, who saw it as the omen of a forthcoming apocalyptic race war. As it turned out, “Helter Skelter” was an omen of something, which was the coming of heavy metal, spearheaded by bands like Blue Cheer and a little later, Black Sabbath. A successor to earlier gripping Beatles riff-based records records like “Paperback Writer” and “I Feel Fine”.

Talco – “La Crociata del Dittatore Bianco
From Tutti Assolti (2004)
So here’s something a bit different for you! Talco are an Italian ska-punk band from near Venice. They’ve given much of their music away free, including their debut full LP Tutti Assolti. Their sound is gloriously heavy but also fluent and listenable, and among the highlights of that album is the brilliant “La Crociata del Dittatore Bianco”. Crank this one up loud, don’t worry about not understanding the rapid-fire Italian lyrics, and instead enjoy the fantastic surge of that magnificent chorus. Look up Talco on the free music site Jamendo and you can get another great album by them, Combat Circus.

Black Sabbath – “Never Say Die
From Never Say Die (1978)
Black Sabbath were always heavy, but not neccesarily “exciting” as such, as their songs were often more crushingly slow and powerful rather than fast and propulsive. There were a few exceptions though, which cropped up as real gems even on deeply flawed albums like Never Say Die, the last album Ozzy was present on before being fired from the band in 1978. Actually lyrically uplifting, “Never Say Die” is a corker of a track which deserves to be remembered even if its unfortunate album-mates are forgotten. A hell of a ride.

The Grim Spectacle That Was “An Audience With Michael Bublé”

I’m forever promoting things on Wordcore. It’s what blogging is like, I guess – it’s a portfolio of interests, of the things that have caught your eye, and you’re more likely to devote your precious posts on things which appeal than anything else. Just occasionally though, it’s cathartic to let go and nail your colours to the mast without ambiguity. Tonight, I do this with reference to one Michael Bublé.

He is of course, not a phenomenon that has sprung up overnight. However, the Canadian singer has attracted my ire this evening in particular because of An Audience With Michael Bublé, broadcast tonight on ITV1. Now, I cannot claim to have actually watched this abomination, but merely to have been assaulted with some of it while out playing a bit of pool tonight. Basically the format went like this: in a lavish studio, Bublé trots out his nauseatingly cheesy songs, interspersed with choreographed “banter” with his audience of  celebrity sycophants. “I’m more popular than Jesus!” he joked, using the line which nigh-on destroyed John Lennon and The Beatles’ American reputation in 1966. That comment came in the middle of a little speech in which Bublé heaped lavish tongue-in-cheek praise on himself, visibly enjoying it. To paraphrase another highlight, “it’s my talent and handsomeness that I credit for my being so humble”.

A lot of people love the man’s music. This is, of course, fine: whilst I may personally think that the songs are a vapid imitation of the “romance” and “emotion” they supposedly represent, I’ll defend the subjectivity of it all to the death. What I really object to is the fact that Bublé’s rapper-esque self-aggrandizing is what the tiny amount of music broadcasting we have is getting used for. From what I could see, tonight’s show was designed not to please “an audience” but to inflate the persona and the image of Bublé himself, to an extent which (to my mind) is vastly out of proportion to his actual talents. But what ought we to have expected?

We live in an era when real earnestness and ability in music is being slowly strangled out of mainstream coverage. ITV are of course among the prime culprits, somehow supposedly carrying away the nation’s hearts with the “drama” that is the televisual car-crash of The X-Factor and its ilk, beholden to the music industry’s greediest and most cynical figures, lining up “next big things” like so many bottles of pop, to be sucked dry and discarded. Worse still, even the BBC, unquestionably the country’s best broadcaster of any kind, seeks to crush its own most innovative and challenging radio station, shielded by the nonsensical non-logic of “money saving”. It’s a sham, an act aptly described by Phil Jupitus as an “act of cultural vandalism”, which will further ghetto-ise the people who refuse to have their tastes thrust upon them by the money men. Am I alone out here on the fringes?

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”.

Three Quite Inspiring Videos

It’s late, I’m tired and I’ve rather a lot to do tomorrow (my dissertation has now crossed 6,100 words, incidentally). Because of all that, I’ve decided to use this very brief One a Day post to share a few really interesting videos. The first two are are to do with the election, and whilst they’re not as funny as the video I posted yesterday, they’re still really rather good. The first one is a short video made by The Independent which is about disparaties in voting power in the UK, the second is from the Voter Power Index and is on a similar subject, and the third is something really quite special which touches on a lot of political themes as well, and the issue of how much good a person can do in the world. I’ll put the videos below the cut, as they make things a bit messy – if you only watch one, watch the last. It’s one of the most important videos I’ve ever seen, frankly. More

Retrospective: The Beatles Part II (1965-67)

Here we are – Part II. This is the major transitional era of the band’s history and discography, turning them into an enormously successful and innovative pop band on Help! into a world-changing culturally-phenomenal rock band by the time of Magical Mystery Tour. Remember, after this there’s one more part to go which will take us up to Let it Be and then I’ll rank the albums in my order of personal preference. Oh and here’s Part I. Onwards! More

Retrospective: The Beatles Part I (1963-64)

Quick note: Nuggets will return

I’m a huge fan of The Beatles and whilst I’d wanted to leave a retrospective of their records until I’d done a few more retrospectives, I don’t think I can restrain myself, frankly. At the moment I’m reading Ian MacDonald’s brilliant book Revolution in the Head which walks you through every single one of the band’s songs, in the order in which they were originally recorded. MacDonald does a great job of not only framing the records within the socio-political context of the time in which they were made but he also gives a fantastic level of insight into how any given song fits in with the rest of what was going on in music at that time or shortly before – it’s a fascinating read and I’d thoroughly recommend it to anyone interested in the band. With work like MacDonald’s around, there’s not a lot that can be said about the greatest band in history that hasn’t already been said, often far more succintly and elegantly than I ever could.

But like MacDonald, I’m going to focus determinedly on the music, and as little else as possible. As ever, this is going to be a deeply personal look at each of the albums, concluding with my feelings as to how they rank up against one another. Whilst most people’s favourite is often either Sgt. Pepper’s, Abbey Road or Revolver, everyone has their own feelings about the relative merits of the components of this astonishingly wide-ranging, ambitious and crucially – consistent discography… these will be my own thoughts. Similarly, everyone seems to have fascinating different views about which of the band’s songwriters was superior – personally, I have always predominantly been a McCartney man, being a big fan of his rarely-faltering optimism and especially some of his oldy-worldy genre pastiches, although that’s not to say that some of Lennon’s and Harrison’s stuff don’t get me going as well.

I’ve divided this retrospective into three parts, of which this is the first. It covers the first four UK studio albums (the 1963-64 “early” period) as listened to using the new 2009 masters. Part II will cover the 1965-67 “middle” period and part III will cover the “late” period from 1968-70. I’ll be looking at all twelve proper studio albums, plus Magical Mystery Tour and Yellow Submarine and at the end, as usual, I’ll rank the albums in my order of preference and recommendation.

Without further ado… More

Nuggets #3: A Bit More Out There

Nuggets returns! And actually on a Saturday as well – you are blessed. This time, as promised, there’s one or two free downloads which a bit more unusual than the stuff I’ve offered for your downloading pleasure so far. Without further ado:

Xera – Lliendes

This is a really odd one, but not the oddest! Xera are a (mostly) instrumental band who hail from Asturias, a region of northern Spain which consists of what was once the Kingdom of Asturias, which existed before Spain was unified. This region has a distinct culture including the Asturian bagpipes, which are featured prominently on this record. Allied to strings, piano, acoustic guitar and the like along with electronic beats and synths, this is an odd fusion of apparently disparate musical styles. It’s often grippingly exciting though, as on the title track and “Valdescabres”. A lot of free albums, uncommercial as they generally are, demonstrate the talents of a particular nation’s musical history, but it’s nice to hear something specific to a particular (and obscure) region, especially when spiced up with some modern influences. Really intriguing – the tracks often veer between serenity and a really chaotic sound, but this quiet/loud dynamic really works to the album’s credit. At times, the album reminds me quite a bit of film music, given its epic scope. However, it still stands on its own. If this record doesn’t turn you on to electro-acoustic Asturian folk-hop then I have no idea what will. Literally. You can get Lliendes at Jamendo here.

The Black Atlantic – Reverence For Fallen Trees

Like Fleet Foxes? Then The Black Atlantic should provide an ideal break from the weirdness for a while. Fronted by Geert van der Velde, former frontman of Shai Hulud, this Dutch band have quite a lot in common with everyone’s favourite American lush retro-folk-pop band – only they’re quieter and more subtle. And they give their music away for free! Expect to find soft acoustic playing, beautifully high pitched vocals at times, and yearning backing vocals. A haunting, folksy album, this is a relaxing, calming listen – and yet still gripping in its own, restrained way. “An Ocean and Peril” shows lyrically that not all is well in The Black Atlantic’s quiet pastoral world – “I hear its siren call of oblivion”, “I’m in this blighted place, and I’m haunted”.

The Black Atlantic work with one of those lovely little netlabels called – brilliantly – Beep! Beep! Back Up The Truck, which is an odd name for a label putting out a record as soft as this. As well as being an odd name for a record label at all, obviously. You can download this affecting little record here.

Brian Joseph Davis – Yesterduh

Yep, this the really weird one. Canadian Brian Joseph Davis produced a genuinely experimental piece of work with this record, a sort of mini-album which stemmed from a real musical/social experiment. Davis hired out a studio, dragged random people in, and made them sing The Beatles’ melancholic classic “Yesterday” along to an instrumental backing track while Davis recorded. If they couldn’t remember the words, or if they just didn’t know them, Davis encouraged them to just make some up on the spot. After paying everyone $5 for their time, Davis then set about mixing the recordings into several tracks to show what had happened, and it’s fascinating stuff. Besides combining the (mostly terrible) performances into a few horrific mangled-Beatles choirs, Davis gave a few particularly amusing/tragic singers solo spots. The results range from moving to funny to oddly sad and tragic – there’s something fascinating about the idea of this, although you won’t quite understand why unless you give it a try. I’m a huge Beatles fan myself so I’m always stunned by how some people couldn’t even approximate the song’s lyrics, but anyway! The tracks are available from Davis’ own website here.

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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