Manic Street Preachers, mental health, and me [September 20, 1992]
Plus: Prodigy, Suede, Orbital, and the Singles soundtrack
Greetings, Time Travellers! 👋 Welcome back to the week of September 20, 1992.
📰 In the news, The Sun run their famous front page about David Mellor in a Chelsea strip. 📽️UK Cinema-goers get to see Brendan Fraser in California Man. 📺 On TV in the States, NBC launches the romantic sitcom Mad About You.
🎶 UK Number One is still ‘Ebeneezer Goode’, but today let’s talk about…
This week’s Number 7: ‘Theme from M*A*S*H (Suicide Is Painless)’—Manic Street Preachers
CW: suicide, self-harm. You can click here to safely scroll past it, if you’d prefer.
“Did I listen to music because I was miserable? Or was I miserable because I listened to music?”
Sian Pattenden was reviewing that week, and it was an absolute slaughter, with ‘Ebeneezer Goode’ dismissed as “EuroDisney rave-up bobbins” and ABBA’s pop classic ‘Dancing Queen’ getting a miserly 3/5.
Manic Street Preachers had a new single out that week, which they had recorded as part of an NME project where indie bands performed vintage Number Ones. Pattenden had this to say about ‘Suicide Is Painless’:
I love the Manics, but I laughed. “Mrs Manics, your children need you” is such a brutal line, plus I couldn’t help imagining how utterly outraged my teenage self would have been if I had read this. The audacity of this woman to criticise my perfect and beautiful Welsh boys. And in Smash Hits! A Smash Hits with East 17 on the cover!
Most of all, I would have been outraged at the idea that “death, misery and yearning guitars” were something to shy away from. But that’s the essence of rock & roll! That’s art. Why bother listening to anything unless it ventures fearlessly into the abyss, unless it bleeds?
That’s how I talked about pop music when I was 16. Teenagers are intense.
The stupidest song ever written
‘Suicide Is Painless’ is a very silly song, and that’s actually intentional. Robert Altman commissioned the track for a scene in his movie M*A*S*H , giving his composer only one note: "it’s got to be the stupidest song ever written."
The composer, Johnny Mandel, tried his best to come up with something ridiculous and overwrought, but couldn’t connect with those adolescent emotions. Altman said to him, "All is not lost. I’ve got a 15-year-old kid who’s a total idiot."
And so, a teenage Michael Altman wrote some lyrics in a few minutes, with lines like “The sword of time will pierce our skin” set against a jazzy riff. It reached Number One in 1980 with some support from Noel Edmonds.
Fast-forward to 1992, and Manic Street Preachers are trying to pick something for their contribution to NME’s Number One project. They’re exhausted after a year promoting Generation Terrorists, and perhaps a little disappointed about how it sold. James and Sean suggest making life easy for themselves by playing something they already know, like ‘Geno’ or ‘School’s Out’. Nicky insists it must be ‘Suicide Is Painless’.
The band book themselves into a cheap Cardiff studio and effectively record the track live. That gives the song an edge, an exhausted energy. James’s vocals sound a fried in places; the whole band sound like they’re fresh out of fucks to give.
The jaunty silliness of the original is gone. Now, it sounds angry, nihilistic. The stupid words take on new meaning. It’s the way you tell ‘em.
Mrs Manics, your children need you
Smash Hits’ review is quite snarky, but I think the “your children need you” line hides a genuine concern. Is it responsible to release a pop song that almost sounds like a celebration of suicide?
In High Fidelity, Nick Hornby says:
“People worry about kids playing with guns, and teenagers watching violent videos; we are scared that some sort of culture of violence will take them over. Nobody worries about kids listening to thousands - literally thousands - of songs about broken hearts and rejection and pain and misery and loss.”
Many people find that downbeat music can actually improve their mood. A sad or angry song can feel like a kind of catharsis, a chance to let it all out. Or it can feel like sympathy, telling you that you’re not alone.
But if you have a tendency to ruminate on negative emotions, then downbeat music can create a kind of feedback loop. You listen to the music because you’re miserable, and the music then keeps you miserable. It can be hard to break out of that cycle.
So, songs aren’t dangerous in themselves. The real problem is the way you listen, which is down to your psychology, your environment, and the way that the music is presented to you.
Framing the Manics
The B-side of ‘Suicide Is Painless’ includes an 8-minute recording of an NME editorial meeting from 1992.
In this meeting, people like James Brown, Danny Baker and Andrew Collins are discussing an extraordinary event that happened the night before.
NME journalist Steve Lamacq had travelled to Norwich to see Manic Street Preachers, a band that he quite openly hated. Lamacq loathed them because he felt that they were pretentious posers—punk cosplayers, to use a modern term.
After a long discussion about authenticity with Lamacq, Manics guitarist Richey Edwards took a razorblade and carved the words “4 REAL” into his own arm, then posed for some photos.
Which left the NME team with a quandry: should they print those pictures?
Of course, it’s a fait accompli. They can’t not print the pictures. Rock writers have been pushing this narrative for decades—that great rock & roll must always seek to draw blood. As justification, they bring up other famous cutters, like Iggy Pop and Sid Vicious.
Listening back to their conversation now, I’m mostly struck by the lack of any sense of duty of care. First of all, Steve Lamacq is audibly traumatised by what’s just happened—the team should be looking after him. There’s also zero interest in Richey’s well-being (some participants take the piss out of him.)
Most strikingly, there’s no discussion of duty of care to the readers. NME’s readership was mostly teenagers, and nobody stopped to ask whether those pictures are appropriate for that audience.
Actually, that’s not wholly true—one unidentified women (I think it might be Karen Walter) who has this exchange with James Brown:
Karen: (interrupting) All you need is for one kid, one child to copy that and kill themselves and you're (make cutting her throat noise)
James: You wouldn't kill yourself cutting yourself on your forearm!
Later, Brown compares Richey to the Tiananmen Square protestors and claims they must print the pictures in the name of artistic expression, causing another writer to mutter, “Fucking artistic expression? Do me a fucking favour.”
They printed the pictures—but in black and white so you couldn’t see how red the blood was.
Wait, was that flag red?
The Netflix show 13 Reasons Why caused a storm of controversy in 2017 about its depiction of teen suicide, launching a conversation about the media’s safeguarding responsibilities. I’ve noticed that things that suicide depiction will, these days, often lead to an 18 cert.
In the 90s, our safeguarding was the Parental Advisory label. The Tipper Sticker warned parents if an album contained swearing, sex or violence, but it did not warn you if the record contained, as Nick Hornby puts it, “songs about broken hearts and rejection and pain and misery and loss.”
Such a sticker wouldn’t help anyway, because the problem was not the songs themselves. The problem was that kids were left to ruminate, without guidance or mental health support, searching song lyrics for answers that they should be getting from somewhere else.
(It also didn’t help that the rock press liked to sometimes frame mental illness as something beautiful, even desirable. It can give you the wrong idea about what you’re supposed to look for in these songs.)
During lockdown, I did some volunteering for a mental health charity. They gave me some safeguarding training so that I could identify the signs of someone in a mental health crisis—especially if they were a child—and arrange to get them urgent help.
When I read through the materials, I found myself snorting and saying, “ah come on you snowflakes, some of this stuff is just normal adolescent melodrama. Everyone did stuff like this now and then, it didn’t mean they were in crisis.”
Later, it all started to sink in a bit more. I thought about the past again and, very quietly, I said, “…oh.”
Manics Street Preachers are still my perfect, beautiful Welsh boys who have never done anything wrong, ever. But I sometimes do wonder if it’s healthy for kids to see so much blood.
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Elsewhere in the charts
Number 12 (New Entry): ‘Fire’/’Jericho’ — The Prodigy
More than a year after ‘Charly’ tore up the charts, The Prodigy finally got around to releasing an album. ‘Fire’ and ‘Jericho’ are both off The Prodigy Experience, which also includes ‘Everybody In The Place’ and ‘Out Of Space’.
Number 17 (New Entry): ‘Metal Mickey’ — Suede
‘Metal Mickey’ being Suede’s first Top 40 hit is a bit like Martin Scorsese winning his first Oscar for The Departed. You’re happy for them, but it should have happened earlier.
This is my way of saying that it’s insane that ‘The Drowners’ didn’t make Top 40. ‘The Drowners’ should have been Number One for six weeks. The Sun should have gone into a tizzy because ‘The Drowners’ was making kids bisexual. What might have been.
Number 32 (New Entry): ‘Possessed’ — Vegas
Dave Stewart and Terry Hall team up in the supergroup Vegas. They didn’t quite hit the heights that Electronic managed, but it’s still an interesting project.
Number 37 (New Entry): Radiccio EP — Orbital
The lead track on Radiccio is ‘Halcyon’, one of the first genuinely beautiful songs of the rave era. The remixed version on their second album (renamed “Halcyon + On + On”) is perhaps slightly better, but this one’s good too.
It’s based on a sample from Opus III’s ‘It’s A Fine Day’ and stars Kirsty Hawkshaw herself in the role of Phil Hartnoll’s mum. We told the fun backstory behind ‘It’s A Fine Day’ a few months back:
Number 47 (New Entry): ‘36D’ — The Beautiful South
Let’s look outside the boundaries of the Top 40 for a second to note one of pop’s great cock-ups.
We’ve talked before about Paul Heaton’s genius as a lyricist but he went a bit too far in this song about how Page 3 girls should stop being such bimbos. It’s gross and has the same energy as this meme:
Radio wouldn’t play the song because it mentioned boobs, so it flopped as a single (despite having quite a catchy melody). Even worse, this was the final straw for Brianna Corrigan, who quite the band and later said:
“I had serious reservations about singing that song. It was basically attacking Page Three girls as women in the sex trade, but I felt it was a misplaced attack. The industry itself should have been targeted, along with the people who run it…I felt it would have been hypocritical of me to sing those songs. It wasn't part of my whole vision of being a modern woman."
It’s a shame that a great partnership ended over such a stupid song.
Album of the Week
Singles: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack — Various artists
On the night of March 19, 1990, a group of people gathered in a house in Seattle to mourn.
The house belonged to Kelly Curtis, manager of the local band Mother Love Bone. The mourners were remembering Andrew Wood, the larger-than-life lead singer of MLB who seemed destined for the big time, but died of a heroin overdose.
Among this crowd was Cameron Crowe, who had just directed his first feature, Say Anything. Crowe had moved to Seattle in 1986 and befriended Wood’s former roommate, Chris Cornell, who introduced him to the city’s underground rock scene.
Later, Cornell would say: “I wanted to write something that captured the feeling in that room. Not Andy’s story, but the story of how people instinctively need to be together.”
Singles was shot in the spring of 91 and featured what were—at that time—a bunch of unknown local bands. One of the first scenes shows Kyra Sedgwick’s character hanging out at a club dancing to Pearl Jam, who are playing ‘State of Love and Trust’:
Later in the movie, Alice In Chains are in the background while the leads have a meet-cute. They play two numbers, one of which is their tribute to the former Mother Love Bone singer, ‘Would?’
The extraordinary thing about the Singles OST is that it was assembled before grunge broke. There was no way of knowing in early 1991 that Soundgarden (represented here by ‘Birth Ritual’) would make it big, or Screaming Trees (‘Lost You There’) or Mudhoney (‘Overblown’) or Smashing Pumpkins (‘Drown’).
In fact, the soundtrack hedges a little by including some more established rock artists. Jimi Hendrix (‘May This Be Love’) is the biggest name, and there are some smashing original tracks from Paul Westerberg of The Replacements, including the film’s main love theme, ‘Dyslexic Heart’:
But ultimately this whole record is a tribute to Andrew Wood, the guy they all assumed would become a star. It’s right that he dominates the soundtrack with the epic ‘Chloe Dancer/Crown Of Thorns’, which is grunge’s answer to ‘November Rain’:
(The minor piano chords at the start of this song strike a mood that I can only describe as “third act of a Cameron Crowe movie”. I don’t know if this is a coincidence.)
Singles —both the movie and the soundtrack—is perhaps a little haunted by one band who are not there. Depending on who you believe, Nirvana either weren’t asked to be in Singles, or were asked and refused because it felt too mainstream. But Nirvana still had a huge part to play in the Singles story.
When Crowe presented the film to Warner Brothers, they hated it. Nobody, they said, wanted to watch a bunch of losers hang out in coffee shops, and what the hell is Pearl Jam?
Then Nevermind went bananas, and suddenly WB couldn’t wait to get the movie out. However, they had one caveat: they wanted to rename it Come As You Are. Crowe stood his ground. Later, he said: “Finally, I think their kids were telling them, ‘You have Pearl Jam in a movie and you’re not putting it out?!’”
Singles eventually appeared in September 1992, which gave the impression that it was an attempt to cash in on grunge, but that’s not true. It is a project that began life in that Seattle house, among that group of local musicians, on the night that Andrew Wood died, long before ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’.
A few years later, Crowe was approached about doing a Singles spin-off TV show. He said no, but the producers on that project carried on anyway, relocating it to New York and giving it a new name: Friends.
Boy George sings the theme to a movie that everyone was talking about: The Crying Game.
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