Before Manic Street Preachers singer James Dean Bradfield took the stage in East London on Tuesday night, he paused to stare at the sheaf of song lyrics on a nearby lectern. "It's like having a load of old, bad school reports in your head," he quipped.
The Manics frontman's performance at the trendy Rough Trade East record shop was for just 200-odd diehard fans; it marked the 20th anniversary of the band's double-disc debut, the politicking, glam-rock Generation Terrorists. (By contrast, the last time the Manics were in London was December 2011, when they played a few miles down the road at the 18,000-capacity O2 Arena.) The record remains one of the most ambitious and implausible introductions in British rock, an 18-track opus that mashed Guns N' Roses guitar histrionics with Socialist sloganeering worthy of the Clash, or the rhetoric of the leftist icon Antonio Gramsci through the filter of proto-punks the New York Dolls. The quartet (Bradfield, bassist Nicky Wire, guitarist Richey Edwards and drummer Sean Moore) became fixtures in Britain's weekly music press, promised to make an album that would sell 16 million copies and then nearly split up after the 1995 disappearance of Edwards (a case that remains unsolved).
At Rough Trade, Bradfield began the night with a screening of the new documentary Culture, Alienation, Boredom and Despair. It gathers the three remaining Manics and other insiders to retell the story of that debut album. It's a proudly nostalgic look at a different age and a remembrance of the band's early bravado – they sent long letters to selected journalists before they had even released a track – sideswiped by endearing naiveté, such as when they taped over the masters of their first single and had to re-record it from a third-generation cassette.
One of the film's most telling moments is Bradfield recalling "a change in the air" as the band recorded the album near London, as a song called "Smells Like Teen Spirit" fell into constant rotation on MTV. There are tales of a dismal U.S. tour followed by an unlikely redemption in Japan, where they met hysterical crowds that band describes as "the closest we'll get to Beatlemania."
The film's narrow focus – Richey's disappearance, the band's rise to playing stadiums and having Number One UK singles are all ignored – keeps the narrative tied firmly to the album. Last night, Bradfield's setlist stuck almost entirely to tracks from that debut. Admonishing his missing bandmate Wire, who was back home in Wales, he sets to work on the first of the night's nine tunes, "Methadone Pretty." On the record, the track and "Love Sweet Exile" were set to chugging riffs and soaring guitar parts; at Rough Trade, Bradfield strummed the underlying melodies while bellowing out the dense, accusatory lyrics that Edwards and Wire penned as university students two decades ago.
There were moments of communal humor, too. Bradfield announced that he would play the band's signature hit – the cinematic, ennui-heavy "Motorcycle Emptiness" – only if the crowd would sing the guitar parts, which they did with side-splitting results. For the fan favorite "Condemned to Rock & Roll," one woman roared the words back to an impressed Bradfield, who concentrated instead on trying to replicate the song's intricate guitar meltdown on an acoustic. He didn't need the help to channel his band's story of vaulting ambition and brash beginnings, but he certainly accepted it.