Tom Ewing’s Top 100 Singles Of The 90s

You can tell when you’re in the Midlands because there’s metal on all the taxi radios. There are parts of the country where the 90s didn’t happen, they just passed in a slow iron-grey drag, and though I’ve never been there I imagine Blackwood in South Wales might have been like that too. It’s not poverty these places have in common, it’s the sulkily self-sufficient feeling of not mattering: the sing-song accents, the patches on the jackets, the dead industries, the endless guesthouses that used to be farmhouses, the metal on the radio – all one side of a timeless equation of which the other is metropolitan contempt. The Manics’ first and best shot at the rock anthem is the perfect soundtrack for that flat, ignored landscape. “Under neon loneliness / Motorcycle emptiness” – for all I know they might have wanted it to mean James Dean, but for me it sounds like an A1 service station.

In 1992 the Manics looked cheap but beautiful and that’s what “Motorcycle Emptiness” sounds like, sort of. Not in the Cinderella-meets-Clash sense of the band image, but more literally. The production is thin, especially on the drums, which anyway are far more baggy than bitchin’, and the under-resourced arrangement makes it painfully obvious how much the band are relying on James Dean Bradfield’s studied guitar licks and solos. They’ve certainly sounded less professional than this, but they’ve never sounded more callow, more touchingly like a schoolboy rock band. And yet this is a song which has moved me to the brink of tears. Why?

For one thing, no matter how imitative those licks and solos are, they’re also damned catchy. It seems laughable now but back then I suppose even the thought of a young British band trying to play arena rock, rather than dancing or droning their career away, was an odd one. The first thing I remember about the Manics, before I even heard the music, was their insistence on being a cross between Public Enemy and Guns’n’Roses. I don’t know how serious they were being, but it seemed then and seems now that with such a precise and perfect grasp of the pop concept they would have made superb critics or svengalis. You can’t hear much PE in “Motorcycle Emptiness” but you can hear plenty of the Gunners. Axl Rose’s great trick was to mix up his wastrel rocker appeal with melody and pathos, meaning you wanted to help him as much as you wanted to party with him, and the Manics learned a lot from that. Gold Against The Soul, which “Motorcycle Emptiness” anticipates (it sticks out like an un-sore thumb on its raucous parent album), is a half-classic of sensitive metal, Axl’s confused-nihilist persona internalised and fucked up to the point of collapse, while the riffs just keep on playing.

People sometimes sneer at rock music and call it ‘adolescent’, for all the world as if it shouldn’t be. “Motorcycle Emptiness” bristles with the heightened sensitivities and furious missions of the neurotic boy outsider, and though the themes are pretty familiar – cultural horror, everyday futility, existential loathing – the anthemic setting isn’t. Usually, though, songs like this hold out for some kind of route out, even if it’s only through rockin’ out: not here. In “Motorcycle Emptiness”, escape is illusory and resistance is useless: tramps like us, baby, we were born to ruin. And that’s the contradiction which makes this record so corny and so moving: it’s a song which goes out of its way to deny what its own music is promising. Or, of course, a song which promises with every note the thing it wants to deny.