‘This LP will be perfect for us,’ declared Richey Edwards. ‘With the confidence we have in this album we wouldn’t be happy unless is sold sixteen million.’ Of all the statements made by the Manic Street Preachers during their long and provocative career, none have haunted the band as much as this claim made prior to the release of their debut album Generation Terrorists in 1992. ‘Whether we still sell millions and millions of albums, or we fail abjectly, we’ll still have said everything we have to say in one double album,’ insisted bandmate Nicky Wire sometime later. ‘We don’t want to look beyond that, because we’d just be treating it as a career. If you throw it away when you’re the biggest band in the world then you’re bound to get respect.’
Released in February 1992, barely three weeks after their third Top 40 single was issued, their highly-anticipated full length debut was met with both praise and animosity from a media that they had spent two years antagonising. Notoriously falling short of the mark, over the following twelve months the record would sell just 350,000 copies and once again the group had opened themselves up to scrutiny. ‘I accept the criticism but you have to understand why we needed to be like that,’ Edwards insisted to Vox a few months later. ‘Coming up to London believing we were going to sell sixteen million records in six months is absolutely fucking insane. We could not be any other way, we had to exist beyond that sort of criticism.’
The failure of Generation Terrorists had forced the Manic Street Preachers to turn to damage control but in truth they had never wanted the world to take it easy on them. To give the public what they desired in a polished, easily-digestible package that would not provoke or offend is what the music industry demands, but products that are safe and without substance are soon forgotten and replaced with something equally dispensable. The Manics had sought to both enlighten and enrage in an attempt to wake up the world to its own hypocrisies and their epitaph was to have been their multi-million selling masterpiece. After leaving their mark on society they would have self-destructed in spectacular fashion, leaving behind a legacy that could not be shaken.
But as the dust settled and the backlash began they were forced to admit their defeat, swallowing their pride and return to the studio for a second attempt. ‘I remember when Nick and Richey said, ‘One album and then we’re gonna self-immolate on Top of the Pops.’ I was fine with that,’ recalled frontman James Dean Bradfield ”Everybody should kill themselves.’ I was fine with that. ‘One album and we’re splitting up.’ What? Fuck off, I wanna be in a band!’ While their attempt at creating an album that would define a generation had been far from successful, their continued self-belief and determination had been enough to convince their devoted fan base that a second album was not selling out and so announced a follow-up to Generation Terrorists in late in 1992.
From the moment that they stepped back into the studio to commence work on a series of demos, the Manic Street Preachers had no intention of recreating the sound they had perfected on their first release. While their debut had consisted of songs written over the course of three years, for their next effort they would compose new material, their first since breaking into the mainstream. ‘The next album is tentatively titled Gold Against the Soul,’ revealed Edwards, the band’s lyricist and rhythm guitarist. ‘The title is basically about a loss of innocence. You know, when you grow up you can buy a car, you can drink, you can smoke and it doesn’t enhance your pleasure in any way; you just end up more miserable. It’s got no value really. You just end up buying things that are of no importance.’
By the time that Suicide is Painless, their rendition of the theme song to the seventies war satire M*A*S*H, was released for charity in the summer of 1992, the band had reconvened at a remote studio to work on a series of demos that would lay the foundation for what was to become Gold Against the Soul. Shortly after Little Baby Nothing, the final offering from Generation Terrorists, made its way into the UK charts they had relocated to Impact Studios in Kent with twenty-one-year-old Dave Eringa, whose relationship with the Manics had begun almost two years earlier when he had assisted producer Robin Evans in the recording of their independent single Motown Junk. With a trusted collaborator overseeing the sessions, the four-piece began to craft material that from the outset was considerably darker than their debut.
The sessions would serve as a welcome distraction from the latest controversy that the Manics had caused in the press. During a show in London at the Kilburn National on 11 December 1992, barely a year after Queen’s iconic frontman Freddie Mercury had lost his battle to AIDS, Wire had declared in front of over two thousand spectators that R.E.M. vocalist Michael Stipe should suffer a similar fate. The outcry was immediate and they were forced to defend themselves yet again. ‘If Michael Stipe dies, he’ll become some kind of martyr. If someone dies in Somalia, they don’t,’ protested Wire. ‘But what’s he done to deserve this? Asked if there’s a Man on the Moon! Every album he makes becomes more and more important, just because he’s supposedly dying.’
Retreating from the world, they relocated once more to Hook End Manor, a lavish mansion situated in Oxfordshire that had formerly been owned by David Gilmour of Pink Floyd. Boasting such distractions as a swimming pool and a snooker room, the studio would be far-removed from the surroundings that they had grown accustomed to. While Eringa had initially been hired to help with the recording of the demos, the Manics soon decided that he would be the ideal choice to produce the album. Yet with little experience and even younger than the band, their label refused but as they grew more insistent, Eringa was eventually hired and recording on Gold Against the Soul commenced.
I’m sure they had to fight for me
From the very beginning Eringa was aware that the band had fought tooth and nail on his behalf. ‘I’m sure they had to fight for me. Although they’d probably hate to admit it,’ he stated, while also confessing that he felt somewhat overwhelmed by the location. ‘It’s a phenomenal studio, so you never have to use an SSL mic amp, which I hate. It has a really big live room, there’s a store room for the drums and a dry room for the vocals and there’s two doors which open up onto a massive courtyard at the back.’
Entering Outside Studios, the recording facility based with the mansion, on 25 January 1993, the Manic Street Preachers had developed an arsenal of material that, as had become their trademark, consisted of music composed by Bradfield and drummer Sean Moore, accompanied by soul-bearing lyrics from Edwards and bassist Wire. While the songs featured on Generation Terrorists had been littered with angst and alienation, the material that they brought to Eringa touched upon such themes as depression and Tourette’s Syndrome, a condition that emerges during childhood that is characterised by involuntary sounds and movements. The disorder would also be referenced the same year by Nirvana on In Utero, the third and final album before frontman Kurt Cobain took his own life.
Perhaps the most harrowing of all the new songs that were presented to Eringa was La Tristesse Durera (Scream to a Sigh), the supposed final words of the tortured artist Vincent Van Gogh, who committed suicide in 1890 at the age of thirty-seven, destitute and in the eyes of many at the time, a failure. The quote was taken from a letter written by his brother Theo shortly after his death. ‘On 5 August, Theo wrote a letter to his sister Elisabeth,’ detailed biography Peter Tyson, ‘telling her about the last conversation he had had with him: ‘Vincent himself wanted to die. When I tried to convince him that we would cure him and that we hoped he would be spared further attacks he replied, ‘There is no end to sorrow.’ I thought then that I understood what he meant.’’
Roughly translated as ‘the sadness will last,’ La Tristesse Durera would explore the treatment of war veterans and how their medals are heralded like fashion accessories. ‘It’s always a beautiful image every year when the war veterans turn out at the Cenotaph and everyone pretends to care about them, but then they’re shuffled off again and forgotten,’ Edwards told Melody Maker. ‘I’m much more sympathetic towards older people than towards my generation. I think they have a lot more dignity and seem to be able to take care of their problems themselves. People of my generation seem to be so selfish. I’m no exception, because you can’t escape from the culture that surrounds you. A phrase like trade unionism and the idea of caring about the community you come from is now seen as laughable.’
One song that was developed during the sessions that was inevitably a cause of controversy was Patrick Bateman. Bret Easton Ellis was twenty-seven when American Psycho was first published, a biting satire of the narcissistic yuppie culture of the eighties. Bateman was an investment banker who had been seduced by the materialism of Wall Street capitalism and his greed and desire were manifested through the brutal rapes and murders of those he felt were beneath him. ‘Some people found the morals upsetting,’ explained Edwards on the novel that depicted the gruesome violence from the perspective of the serial killer, thus making the reader a participant in his unspeakable crimes. Ellis had claimed the character represented his own crazy side, while the central premise was a metaphor for his loneliness and disillusionment with the world that surrounds him.
The song would become a bone of contention between the band and their label due to the troublesome source material and controversial lyrics, once again from the minds of Edwards and Wire. ‘We’re going to release a new single in January called Patrick Bateman,’ declared Wire in an interview with Indiecator. ‘That’ll put things into perspective as it’s an eight-minute thrash song with some of the most vile lyrics ever written. So after gaining all this radio airplay and credibility we’ll probably throw it all away and become a teenage laughing stock again. It’s hard to be objective about our own lives, but I think we’re trying harder than any other band.’
While the Manics may have won with their demand to hire the unproven Eringa, the label had no intention of allowing the band to release a song such as Patrick Bateman as a single and so insisted on another track to be presented as the album’s first offering. On day two of the sessions the basic rhythm section would be recorded for a song called From Despair to Where, with Bradfield performing the vocals the following week. ‘I kick everyone out of the studio, cover up the windows with blankets and light candles,’ recalled Eringa. ‘Not because James is a hippy, because he’s quite obviously not, but it helps with the atmosphere. You’ve got to get on the same level as the singer to help him get the best performance out of himself.’
If there was one song that best represented the growing emotional instability within Edwards and his struggles with his own existence it was Life Becoming a Landslide, a tender ballad that mourned the death of innocence at the moment that a child grows into an adult. With Eringa attaching no less than twenty-five microphones to Moore’s drum kit, the percussion-heavy track would be chosen as the fourth single from Gold Against the Soul, issued as an EP in February 1994. As Bradfield crooned, ‘My idea of love comes from a childhood glimpse of pornography,’ this passage would encapsulate Edwards’ frustration with love, masculinity and the corruption of the adult world.
‘It comes from the idea that the first thing a baby does is shriek at the horror of it all. And as when you get to adolescence, the rewards of being older don’t really give you any satisfaction, whether it’s getting a car or a fuck or a CD player,’ explained Edwards. ‘It’s also about the fact that, if you go into newsagents and see pornography on the shelves at an early age, it becomes very difficult to reconcile that with the idea of love that you’re presented with later. I think we’re romantic people in some ways, but when it comes to relationships it’s not a question of, ‘Can you trust another human being?’, so much as a question of trusting yourself. The animalistic nature of man seems to mean that you’re bound to find other people physically attractive.’
According to an article published in Kerrang! prior to the album’s release, Symphony of Tourette was inspired by Wire’s tendency for shocking the media with his outspoken beliefs, particularly in the wake of his outburst towards Stipe the previous December. One common tic associated with the disorder is the involuntary shouting of abusive comments, often resulting in a barrage of curse words. Edwards had claimed that Tourette’s Syndrome allowed its sufferers the freedom to express their opinions without fear of judgement or punishment, something that the rest of society secretly envied. As Edwards and Wire had described within the lyrics of the song, ‘I swear what this world wants to hear, trapped in what we know as truth syndrome.’
It’s a tirade against everything we hate
One of the final songs recorded at Outside Studios with Eringa would be Nostalgic Pushead, with the rhythm section captured on tape over the course of a week, commencing on 1 March, before Bradfield recorded the vocals for both this track and Sleepflower from 12 March, concluding four days later. Reunited with the same guitar amp that Bradfield had used on Motown Junk, released three years earlier, both songs were recorded during exhaustive eighteen-hour sessions. ‘That’s a really nasty one,’ revealed Wire on the nature of Nostalgic Pushead. ‘It’s a tirade against everything we hate, not just record business bullshit but society as a whole, from New Age hippies to journalists; all we’ve come to despise, including ourselves!’
As the release date for Gold Against the Soul drew near, advance reviews for the album proved to be far from rewarding, with many critics feeling that the rebellious nature of Generation Terrorists had been replaced with corporate complacency. As 11 June 1993 came and went, the industry that the Manic Street Preachers had worked tirelessly to provoke now seemed disinterested with what they had to say. ‘I think that everyone’s second albums are difficult,’ admitted Edwards to Metal Hammer. ‘To stay on top of things we needed to make a really good record and I think we have done. There’s always the fact that we might be seen as not very exciting anymore, yesterday’s men. But you know, we’ve made a much better record and people can judge us on whatever terms they see fit because we’re not that precious about it.’
Despite their claims that Gold Against the Soul was a worthy successor to Generation Terrorists, the Manic Street Preachers would soon turn back on their sophomore album. When The Holy Bible, their nihilistic masterpiece, was released the following year, the Manics had finally proved their worth to a cynical music industry. But for decades to come Gold Against the Soul would remain their unwanted child, the black sheep of their back catalogue. ‘It’s a strange and curious record. It’s not our greatest record, but it’s worth further investigation,’ Wire confessed to NME twenty-seven years later. ‘It’s kind of misunderstood and unloved by us. Sean and I aren’t the greatest fans of it, but our fans have a peculiar attachment to it.’