I came up with a working definition of coolness before, and I’d like to share it now: coolness is a measurement of the perceived gap between effort and efficacy. Now, both of those metrics are flawed. Perceived effort is a decision made by the observer and easily fucked with, while efficacy (usually results) is subjective unless you’re taking about Thomas Kinkade.
The Manics were never cool. It’s obvious that they tried, and tried hard, and they reached ‘very good’ often and ‘omginically great’ almost never. Compromise and imperfection are all over their songs, even the best ones. Lines that don’t rhyme, awkward extra syllables, drastic shifts in style that seem to be at least a nudge toward wanting a hit in America just once. Perfect they weren’t. The only one of the group who could pull off transcendence was Richey, and his bag was manic depresson of the cutting and Sylvia Plath sort – not an attitude for successful rock bands. The rest of the group trudged along a little awkwardly, like high schoolers looking for somewhere to fit in, trying a new style every few years. But they were talented high schoolers. They looked pretty good in each of their hats.
The greatest hit-izing is once again greatly imperfect. First of all, can we have some god damned rules about ‘greatest hits’ vs ‘best of’? They shouldn’t be fucking interchangeable. Greatest hits should include the highest selling singles. Best of is when you throw in whatever you like. And ‘The Complete Singles’ had better be the complete fucking singles. No sympathy for record companies. The track listing here is a junior jumble scramble, and a few of these songs sound pretty inferior placed next to much better ones. And the song distro is a bit odd – one song from ‘The Holy Bible’ and one from ‘Know Your Enemy’ but four from ‘This is Our Worst Album Play Me Yours’? Blasphemy!
They were nice enough to throw in a couple non-album singles along with the two new songs that were necessary to get hardcore fans to buy the album. “There By the Grace of God” is the big harbinger of the new artistic direction, an electro-led pop song, while “The Masses Against the Classes” is a classic Manics halfgoodness – a combination political rant and fuck you to critical fans that has one great quote, a neat chorus, overbearing production, a big hook that they use one too many times, and an unbelievably awful ending for no apparent reason that means you can only enjoy it in your home, not at parties. Hear it hit #1 in England, though! The only newbies are “Door to the River” a genuinely nice non-hit, and a fantastic rock cover of the Theme from M.A.S.H. (“Suicide is Painless”) – nice, scumbag Richey: force bandmates to cover “Suicide is Painless” then commit suicide. Ouch ouch ouch. Then there’s “Motown Junk”, a song from the hungry early days before they were even glam. Solid stuff snaking around the line “I laughed when Lennon got shot” and a pretty fitting ending to the first ten years of Manicdom.
Depression and socialism and grief. A wacky combination that I certainly get in bed with. Again, these are solid songs! Oh, and no god damned love songs! I’m not sure if that’s a thing, but it’s exact kind of promise one might expect a band like the Manics to break. Minus a point for making me listen to “From Despair to Where” (too whiny!) and “Tsunami” (too Enrique Iglesias!) again. I’d include “The Everlasting” (too long and orchestral!) but they chopped it down by a couple minutes and greatly improved things. “The Holy Bible” is a better album (than this greatest hits collection, oui), but this is a decent way to sniff around while getting a few songs you won’t find elsewhere, especially if you don’t feel like lying in bed moping.
There’s also an entire CD of remixes. An entire fucking CD of worthless 90s remixes of 90s rock songs. This two are Chemical Brothers versions, by which I mean there’s a big beat drum loop! These two make serious songs sound like muzak! This one sounds like a bad Stereolab song! This one has awful white-guy rapping! There’s literally not a song on here worth remembering – truly a nadir of nadirs for remixes in the 90s, a time when our desire to mess with technology exceeded the available technology. Well, that’s probably history in general including the present, but nobody ever wanted to hear this stuff. To the dustbin of (musical) history with you and I’ll just pretend that it never happened, that it wasn’t a testament to how uncool the Manics are even at their commercial peak. Minus one!