The Manic Street Preachers promised they would crash and burn after just one album. Unfortunately for us, they continue to make records with ever diminishing returns. Thus speaks someone who was an enormous fan of the band and, like any fan, continues to buy their product (for that is now what it has become) out of loyalty and love for what once was. I have had too many musical marriages which should have ended in divorce long ago. However, that debut album encapsulated all they would ever do – the railing aginst big banks, royalty and the US; paeans of love to themselves; and the genius of duetting with porn star Traci Lords on a song about abuse to women. Watching James, Sean and Nicky plod through a couple of new songs from a new album (inevitably heralded as a return to form) makes one yearn for the torn t shirts, the terrorist balaclava and a time when Nicky Wire really was wired.
However, The Manics are merely replicating what bands have done for decades, grimly clinging on to past glories because this is all they know, because the thought of becoming a taxi driver (although, let’s face it, James already looks like one) and have passengers comment on your previous incarnation are too dispiriting. For the most part, bands are only capable of writing one or two great albums. Radiohead released a great pop album in Pablo Honey, followed it with the stunning, bleak beauty of The Bends and then vomited up the mucous monstosity that was OK Computer, admittedly with a couple of pretty songs on it but also home to the progwank Paranoid Android – possibly the worst title ever for a song and one on which Muse seem to have based their whole career. Nowadays, the band takes periodic leaves of absence while Jonny faffs around with his film soundtracks and Thom prances around with my good friend Flea. And that is the other problem with bands who still exist but are long past their use by date: they are like the hydra so we not only have to put up with the band’s sub-standard offerings, we also have to endure various members’ solo projects. History is destined to repeat itself, we are told, and instead of Yes and ELP, we now have Radiohead and Blur, with Thom Yorke seriously contemplating his navel whilst Damon Albarn, that cheeky Mockney, becomes ever more Zelig like in his collaborations. And that is not a compliment.
The bands that are most fondly remembered are those who got out at the top of their game, although it was usually circumstance that forced this rather than the sort of deliberate plan The Manics talked but didn’t walk. Television released just two official and peerless albums before drugs and guitar rivalry saw the plug pulled and the picture go blank. Unfortunately, nearly 15 years later, service was resumed but by then the world wasn’t watching. The Sex Pistols released just one corruscating rock album before Lydon’s parting shot of, “Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated.” It’s just a pity he didn’t have the bollocks to put PIL out of its misery after the brilliantly conceived and executed Metal Box. There are those that so nearly got it right. The Clash should have cut the crap and ended on Combat Rock. Even after Eno left, Roxy Music continued to make strange and beguiling albums but they should have heeded the siren’s call and stayed put in their Country Life.
And then there are the few bands who were capable of more than a couple of good albums and left at the top of their creativity. No-one did it better than The Beatles. Watching them rehearse and record Let It Be fills you with wonder and astonishment that after nearly a decade of being the biggest band on the planet, they were still capable of pushing boundaries, lyrically and musically. In the same way that Lennon and McCartney’s relationship disintegrated, the fissure between Morrissey and Marr meant that The Smiths never had an opportunity to develop middle aged spread but left a legacy of four lean and poetic studio albums. Drugs and divorce led to the severing of The Cocteau Twins but each EP and album is a glass candle grenade.
These, though, are the exceptions to the rule. If you are in a band that has made a couple of acclaimed records and you suddenly find yourself impelled to record a song on which you collaborate with Flea, Robert Plant or African Burundi drummers, do us all a favour and become a taxi driver – you’re far more use driving me to St Pancras Station than being a pretentious twat so full of themselves I have to hear the story of how your latest song was written whilst listening to sand settle in the Sahara following a storm. Taxi!